Friday, December 23, 2011

THE ARTIST Review


Writer and director Michel Havanavicius' "The Artist" was a risk, a bold one that immensely pays off. It's a tribute to black and white silent cinema while in itself being a black and white silent picture. And one starring two French actors, Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, unknown to American audiences. Most of all, the movie is largely a gimmick. But you can't help but get swept up in the way both thematically and technically the movie is a rousing achievement -- its devoted love to the era and its celebration of all things cinema.

Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, a prolific silent film actor in 1927. He has a dazzling smile with impeccable comic timing, control of his body language and dance moves perfect for silent picture performances. His time in the motion picture business is soon up, however, when the dawn of the talkie arrives. There are moments when people refer to George's refusal to talk, and it holds a double meaning in his stubbornness to let go and move forward. The times are changing and leaving him behind.

Meanwhile, a chance encounter between George and a young wannabe actress named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) is pivotal. She was in the right place at the right time and gets in line for a straight shot to fame. And while it was George who got her there -- penciling in a beauty mark on her upper lip the fans adore -- and begins falling for her, they part ways. Watching the way Peppy and George's story unfolds calls back to "Singin' in the Rain" (1952) about a silent actress whose voice wasn't fit for talkies.

Dujardin and Bejo are lovely to watch. Consider the ways I described George Valentin's perfect silent movie performance -- both leads do the same for their characters. It's an astonishing modern acting feat that will provide both of them worthy nominations come Oscar time. Imagine giving a wide range of emotion without uttering a word. Certainly you have to accentuate every gesture. In part to their performances, along with Hazanavicius' smart direction, the film feels like a replica of what came out of the era. It feels genuine, something carefully preserved and drawn out of a time capsule.

Just when you think "The Artist" is about to roll you over with its unrelenting charm, it takes a step back and brings insight into what used to make the movies so appealing, and what might have been lost over the years. The director and two leads are very French yet there are two supporting actors, John Goodman and James Cromwell, who are American. And yet wordless, they have a universality about them making them seamless together. And in the same vein, it's easy to forget you're watching a black and white silent movie and can just appreciate and enjoy it for what it is: a movie. It's a universal movie that audiences might be surprised to find themselves thoroughly applauding.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO Review


David Fincher's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" begins with an opening credit sequence that's a jolt to the senses. Karen O's menacing cover of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" plays to figures dripping in black, disturbing yet provocative images of evil, a psychedelic and haunting anthem for the film's start. This opening gives Fincher's adaptation of the first entry in Stieg Larsson's internationally bestselling "Millenium Trilogy" a signature mark from a master director -- the one detail the 2009 Swedish original from director Niels Arden Opev lacked.

Neither version is better than the other, but each one definitely has a different feel. Fincher has an artistic eye behind the camera, an apparent love for all things grunge and gritty. This marks the director's return to pulpy crime noir such as "Zodiac" and "Se7en" after the likes of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and "The Social Network." And it's a clearly welcome return as Fincher infuses the already established story with his own style and cinematic flourishes. The movie is better looking than the Swedish original thanks to cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth who also worked on "The Social Network." But it's more than that -- Fincher and his screenwriter Steven Zaillian don't try to copy the original or reinvent it, and they certainly don't ignore it. They take an already established framework and add nuances both visually and emotionally.

The biggest draw of this story is, of course, the ambisexual gothic super hacker Lisbeth Salander. She's played here by Rooney Mara, an actress who stands up to the challenge and exceeds expectation. For one, she has the look down. With short, choppy black hair, gaudy piercings, scar-like tattoos, a pale complexion accented by barely-there eyebrows and an expressionless glare, Mara nails it. She had some big shoes to fill following just a year behind Noomi Rapace, but she is perfectly comparable with subtle differences. Mara's Lisbeth is more a feral animal always looking out for predators. She can sink her teeth into something if necessary, but there's that added layer of fragility and vulnerability that Rapace's Lisbeth lacked. Mara manages to capture even more complexity and creates a Lisbeth Salander all her own.

Immediately following a defamatory article in Millenium magazine written by Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), he gets slammed for libel sending him into recluse. The timing couldn't be any better when he's contacted by a representative of Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), the eldest of the large Vanger family clan. Mikael treks out to the secluded, wintry island owned by the Vanger family to hear about the disappearance and suspected murder of Henrik's 16-year-old niece. It's an unsolved case that has haunted Henrik for 40 years, and he hires Mikael to find Harriet's killer under the guise of writing his memoir. Henrik figures Mikael could use the time off from Millenium.

The procedural of uncovering new information on the cold case is a convoluted labyrinth as one could imagine, but Zaillian's script does the best job it can keeping everything straight. There was an accident on the bridge the day of Harriet's disappearance, so no one was able to enter or leave the island. This leaves only members of the Vanger family as suspects to Harriet's murder; however, all the research, newspaper clippings and old photographs seem to be leading Mikael to no conclusions. Isolated in his own chilly cottage provided by Henrik and gradually meeting each member of the Vanger clan, the looming dread becomes ever more apparent that Mikael is residing among a murderer. Even Henrik despises his family as some of them had (or still have) Nazi sentiments. Among the Vangers is an ominously cordial Stellan Skarsgard as Martin, Harriet's brother.

Running parallel to this is the plight of Lisbeth Salander dealing with a new guardian (Yorick van Wageningen). He is cruel, abuses her and is smug about thinking he can get away with it. In a scene staged with brutally naked violation, we are roused to side with Lisbeth solidifying her role as an avenging angel to the men who hate women. The film flickers back and forth between Mikael and Lisbeth until finally they're brought together working on the Harriet case. She joins him as a research assistant, and though they start off weary of each other -- Lisbeth by nature and Mikael because she did the extensive background check on him -- they generate an eccentric, downbeat chemistry. Daniel Craig as the scrappy left-wing journalist stands above Michael Nyqvist from the original with his confident charisma and sexuality although he doesn't attempt the Swedish accent as Mara does.

The film runs at 158 minutes and doesn't drag for a second. Also essential to Fincher's style is the return of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross from "The Social Network" providing a musical score that seethes with white noise and creepy ambiance. There's always the question why did we need an English version of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" immediately after the original was such a success? The answer is simple. We wouldn't have received another dark, riveting and complex piece of entertainment from David Fincher. He gives audiences a fresh new take, not a mere rehash. And it's filmmaking that benefits from the written words of Stieg Larsson at its core. It's a tale that plays with our terror and fascination of the unknown. It's about awaiting what human horrors will be uncovered next, what depravity in humanity exists and what is hidden behind closed doors.

Monday, December 19, 2011

MY WEEK WITH MARILYN Review


While watching "My Week with Marilyn," you might find yourself feeling as if you're caught under a spell, a certain magnetism that you can't quite explain. Except that it can be explained. Like Marilyn Monroe herself, Michelle Williams is utterly hypnotic as the iconic screen goddess. The blond bombshell actress -- the woman everyone wanted to either be or be with in the mid-1950s -- had a personality that nobody could figure out, and the performance from Williams doesn't try to. Instead she emanates everything Monroe was about and what it must've felt like for anyone to be in her presence. There's the fact alone that being her was an act itself. In one instance she says, "All people ever see is Marilyn Monroe." Williams deserves an Oscar for embodying the actress effortlessly -- her effervescence, aloofness, mystery, grief and insecurity. She'll most certainly receive a Best Actress nomination.

The film follows the backstage proceedings of filming "The Prince and the Showgirl" (1957) in Pinewood Studios, London. Starring alongside Marilyn Monroe in the picture is Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) who also served as director. One might think working with such a world-renowned celebrity would be a dream and the highest honor, but Olivier clashes with her almost immediately. He is all about proficiency and the technicality of filmmaking and has no patience for Marilyn. There's always a delay whether she's not feeling well, she's sick, hungover or too tired. She's never on time, and when she does arrive she trips over her lines and doesn't believe in the character she's playing. But when she finally gets it right, her screen presence sings.

Everyone working on the film fully knows Monroe is difficult, but only Olivier has the nerve and audacity to blow up about it to her face. Branagh gives an important performance here as a man who's a genius in the film industry but is hardly in love with it. And when forced to put up with Marilyn's behavior, this immovable object that everyone adores and loves -- he can't bear it. Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker) is Marilyn's personal acting coach she brings along who coddles her, boosts her self-esteem and counteracts Olivier's direction. There's also Dame Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench) who understands the director's frustration but also knows how to delicately handle Marilyn's sensitivity.

The biggest focus, however, is on the relationship between Marilyn and the impressionable 23-year-old Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) who was the gofer on the project. The movie is based on his memoirs and gives the film a fascinating perspective. Colin landed in between the Olivier and Monroe camps taking note of everyone and letting the backstage pass experience soak in. This unique position also sparked Marilyn's interest in him to hear what everyone thought of her.

The film captures Marilyn's absolute allure, the light she radiated and what it must've been like for Colin when she kissed him and said she loved him -- even if she didn't mean it. Everyone warns Colin to not get himself involved, but instead of dating the nice wardrobe girl (Emma Watson's first role since playing Hermoine in the "Harry Potter" series), he becomes enraptured by Marilyn. Redmayne captures a naive awe that makes us feel what he must've felt in the era. The power of the film, and of course Williams' performance at its center, is the way it makes you believe this luminous woman's ability to have such a profound impact on people's lives.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

YOUNG ADULT Review


The re-teaming of screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman proves "Juno" was no fluke. Their collaboration with "Young Adult" is inspired, a scalding black comedy about the queen bitch in high school and everyone's worst nightmare -- except now she's 37 and returning to her hometown. The movie is cynical and goes down like a sour shot, but it's the year's most unexpected surprise by breaking every rule in conventional Hollywood storytelling.

Mavis Gary is played by Charlize Theron in a ferocious and raw performance. She is a protagonist that is completely unlikable and unsympathetic. She is unpleasant, cruel, condescending, delusional and fueled by a keen sense of self-destruction. Yet what's so remarkable is the way Theron ever so casually makes us -- with the help of Cody's fearless writing -- feel for Mavis.

She is relatively successful having moved out of her Midwest town now living in an apartment in Minneapolis. She writes young adult novels for a popular series but really is just a ghostwriter -- and the series is no longer selling. Her apartment is a pigpen, she spends every night slamming back bourbon, every morning chugging liters of Diet Coke to cure hangovers and is destined to be single forever. And while she moved away and feels superior to anyone back home, she still puts more thought into them than she lets on. Then she receives a mass email from her high school sweetheart, Buddy (Patrick Wilson), who recently had a baby with his wife. Mavis immediately becomes obsessed with the idea of going home and stealing Buddy back.

When Mavis first gets into town, she has a run-in with Matt (Patton Oswalt), a chubby geek from high school whose life was ruined from being the target of a hate crime. The media paid attention to it until they found out he wasn't actually gay, just mistaken for being gay. Patton Oswalt's Matt is pivotal to the movie's success. He is the cushion for all of Mavis' impossibly reckless behavior and provides a perspective we can agree with. Well knowing the hilarity and absurdity of Mavis' pitch black predicament with Buddy, he also sees she is just as miserable as him even if she fails to realize it. We recognize a sadness that she doesn't know is there. She can think the only reason she's hanging out with Matt is because he's the only one in town, but in fact they share a connection.

"Young Adult" plays out in a series of incidents that will have you crawling in your skin. Patrick Wilson has a tough job as Buddy playing a really nice, well-meaning guy who's desperately trying to not to offend or embarrass Mavis. It is, in some ways, a better movie than "Juno." It's more complicated and a whole lot harsher placing Diablo Cody not just as pop-savvy but a screenwriter of importance. In Mavis we're watching a humiliating train wreck, but one that is treated with honesty. In such we can't help but derive a bit of truth out of it, and more than a few laughs.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

69th Annual Golden Globe Award Nominations


Unlike last year when the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) included completely out-there nominees in the Best Comedy or Musical categories -- hello, "The Tourist" -- the films included this year are legitimate award contenders, which really makes things interesting.

Leading the nominees for the 69th Annual Golden Globe Awards were "The Artist" with six, "The Descendants" with five, and tied at four were "The Ides of March," "Midnight in Paris," "The Help" and "Moneyball."

The nominees for Best Picture Drama were "The Descendants," "The Help," "Hugo," "The Ides of March," "Moneyball" and "War Horse." The surprise here is the inclusion of George Clooney's "Ides of March" which otherwise hasn't been getting any awards attention. It'll be curious to see whether the acknowledgement from the HFPA here can bolster its chances at the Oscars. Probably not considering the snub for "Drive," which has great award presence elsewhere.

Notice the absence of "The Artist" above because it got included instead within the Best Picture Comedy or Musical category along with "Midnight in Paris," "50/50," "My Week with Marilyn" and "Bridesmaids."

The one I don't understand here is "My Week with Marilyn" because -- although I haven't seen it yet -- I'm willing to bet there's about as much humor in that as there is in "The Descendants," which was included in Drama. In any case, including movies here that have potential in other categories, too, edged out other worthy comedy or musicals such as "Crazy, Stupid, Love." and "The Muppets."

The split between Best Picture Drama and Best Picture Comedy or Musical has divided up big contenders that will otherwise be competing in the same category at the Oscars. Now "The Artist" has been completely removed from the equation against other films -- which is nice, giving others a chance such as "The Descendants" -- but it doesn't help in predicting what will take the top prize with the Academy.

Best Director is also a telling category. The HFPA really has faith in "The Ides of March" opting to include George Clooney in the list. Joining him were Woody Allen for "Midnight in Paris," Martin Scorsese for "Hugo," Alexander Payne for "The Descendants" and Michel Hazanavicius for "The Artist." No Steven Spielberg for "War Horse."

David Fincher's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" got completely left out aside from a Best Actress nomination for Rooney Mara and another for Best Score. Even more curious was the complete absence of Stephen Daldry's "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close." Does it have something to do with having such a late entry? Also absent is Gary Oldman and "Tailor Tinker Soldier Spy," which will most likely get redeemed through BAFTA awards.

Joining Rooney Mara for Best Actress Drama were nominations for Glenn Close for "Albert Nobbs," Viola Davis for "The Help," Meryl Streep for "The Iron Lady" and Tilda Swinton for "We Need to Talk About Kevin." Where's Michelle Williams, you ask? She's included within the Best Actress Comedy or Musical category along with the film in which she starred. Joining her were two nominees from "Carnage," Jodie Foster and Kate Winslet, and Kristen Wiig for "Bridesmaids." It's interesting that the HFPA went for Wiig over Melissa McCarthy who has the most Oscar pull.

The nominees for Best Actor Drama were Michael Fassbender for "Shame," George Clooney for "The Descendants," Leonardo DiCaprio for "J. Edgar," Brad Pitt for "Moneyball," and surprisingly enough, the HFPA went for Ryan Gosling in "The Ides of March" over his performance in "Drive." Swap out Gosling and throw in Jean Dujardin, and this could be our Best Actor Oscar race.

Dujardin instead appears in the category of Best Actor Comedy or Musical once again making it hard to decipher how he'll stand up to his competition at the Oscars. With him were Brendan Gleeson for "The Guard," Joseph Gordon Levitt for "50/50," Owen Wilson for "Midnight in Paris," and -- thank goodness! -- Ryan Gosling for "Crazy, Stupid, Love." Well deserved.

Albert Brooks marks the only "Drive" recognition with his nomination for Best Supporting Actor alongside Kenneth Branagh for "My Week with Marilyn," Viggo Mortensen for "A Dangerous Method," Christopher Plummer for "Beginners" and Jonah Hill for "Moneyball." Hill could have the potential at this point to make it to Oscar, but I have a feeling it's going to be another Mila Kunis for "Black Swan" and will get left off at the end.

Best Supporting Actress nominees included Berenice Bejo for "The Artist," Jessica Chastain for "The Help," Janet McTeer for "Albert Nobbs," Octavia Spencer for "The Help" and Shailene Woodley for "The Descendants." This very well could mirror the Best Supporting Actress race at the Oscars unless McCarthy can edge out McTeer.

And, finally, the HFPA decided to nominate "Cars 2" among the Best Animated Feature nominees. Why, exactly?

Check out the full list of nominations, and tune in to watch the 69th Annual Golden Globe Awards on Sunday, January 15 at 8 p.m. on NBC!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

BEGINNERS Review


From writer/director Mike Mills ("Thumbsucker"), "Beginners" brings us possibly the most honest screen romance you'll see this year. Ewan McGregor plays Oliver, a struggling artist, and Mélanie Laurent plays Anna, a French actress living out of a hotel room. Together they are a wonderful thing creating effortless chemistry out of damaged and completely humane characters. Their first meeting at a Halloween party is charming and understated as Anna has laryngitis and can't talk. Throughout the evening she communicates with Oscar by writing on a notepad. Their growing relationship works on the same quirkiness but, much like the movie itself, with an added layer of introspective contemplation asking the question what makes people truly happy.

One of the great pleasures of "Beginners" is the way it is simply watching people find their way to happiness, and you end up wanting them to succeed -- and they do. The screenplay skips back and forth through time like a swift, playful dance. Oscar just found out two life-changing things about his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer). He is terminally ill with cancer and has been gay his entire life including his 44-year-long marriage with Oscar's mother. "I don't want to just be theoretically gay," Hal tells his son. "I want to do something about it." And he does. All the while Oscar is caring for his father, he's getting involved in the gay community and dating a younger man. The film divides its time between this and after Hal passes away four months later when Oscar is seeing Anna. There are also further flashbacks showing Oscar's relationship with his overly eccentric mother who's crying out for attention while her husband is absent from their lives. This non-chronology reveals wholesomely rounded characters conveyed with sympathy and feeling.

Christopher Plummer's performance is getting award acknowledgement, and it's no wonder. As a late blooming gay man, Plummer allows his character to radiate his newly discovered open sexuality. You watch his performance knowing absolutely that Hal is gay but without being able to specifically place how exactly you can tell. It's a testament to the ability of the actor. And both Laurent and McGregor have nuanced performances to match as a couple afraid of their own commitment.

You know a writer/director has complete control over the tone and mood of his film and knows exactly at every step what he wants it to be when he can, without a hitch, include a talking dog and make it fit in seamlessly. The dog, Arthur, used to be Hal's and now under the ownership of Oscar he can never be left alone. Whenever Oscar leaves the house, Arthur whimpers and howls, so Oscar is forced to bring him wherever he goes -- a constant reminder of his father.

The soul of the movie lies in the downright poetic voiceovers from Oscar which contain choice videos and images. He describes what things were like in certain years. The year Oscar's mother was born, the year his father discovered he was gay, and 2003, when he and Anna are dating. Here's a sweet and intelligent movie with a tough heart, and the title "Beginners" works gorgeously. In order to have a new beginning, you have to let other beginnings in your life have their definitive close. Only then can you move on.

18th Annual SAG Award Nominations


The announcement of the 18th Annual Screen Actor Guild Award nominations this morning threw a wrench into things. First and foremost were the snubs for Shailene Woodley for Best Supporting Actress and Albert Brooks for Best Supporting Actor. I'm pressed to say that the the SAGs have it wrong here, and the Academy will not overlook either of them.

The overall lack of love for "Drive" outside of Brooks was a bit surprising considering its prevalence elsewhere.  Also notable was the absolute love for "Bridesmaids" as Melissa McCarthy keeps gathering nominations for Best Supporting Actress, and the movie received a Best Ensemble nomination -- the SAG equivalent of a Best Picture nomination.

Among "Bridesmaids" for Best Ensemble were "The Artist," "Midnight in Paris," "The Descendants" and "The Help." This one will probably end up going to "The Artist" as both Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo received nominations in their respective categories. However, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer made it into their respective categories for "The Help" not to mention Jessica Chastain, as well. It could be a tighter race between the two.

One big surprise came in the Best Actor category which included Demian Bichir for "A Better Life" which baffles me because that film was included in last year's Oscars, which I thought meant the film would not be in contention for any awards this year.

Best Supporting Actor contained some surprises including Jonah Hill for "Moneyball" and Armie Hammer for "J. Edgar." This is also the first time "Albert Nobbs" has received acknowledgement with Glenn Close receiving her Best Actress nod along with Janet McTeer for Best Supporting Actress.

Check out the full list of nominations, and tune in to the 18th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards on Sunday, January 29 at 8 p.m. on TNT and TBS.


Tuesday, December 13, 2011

17th Annual Critics' Choice Movie Award Nominations


It looks like we have arrived at our award front-runners. With the announcement of the 17th Annual Critics' Choice Movie Award nominations, it appears "Hugo" and "The Artist" will be continually gaining momentum as further nominations come along. They led the pack of nominees with 11 each.

These nominations could resemble the Best Picture nominees at this year's Oscars granted if there are still 10 slots. The slots could be dwindled down to as little as five, and if that happens it'll be interesting to guess which films make the cut. The films the Broadcast Film Critics Assocation included for Best Picture were "The Artist," "The Descendants," "Drive," "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," "The Help," "Hugo," "Midnight in Paris," "Moneyball," "The Tree of Life" and "War Horse."

In my opinion this looks about right -- if ten are to be included. Stephen Daldry's "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" hasn't been getting any acknowledgement until now. David Fincher's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," however, got left off aside from Best Score and Best Editing.

Daldry also received a Best Director nod alongside Michel Hazanavicius for "The Artist," Nicolas Winding Refn for "Drive," Martin Scorsese for "Hugo" and Steven Spielberg for "War Horse."

In terms of the acting categories, we're beginning to see some usual suspects show up.

George Clooney for "The Descendants" and Jean Dujardin for "The Artist" are now locks for Best Actor nominees. Joining them were Leonardo DiCaprio for "J. Edgar" who actually hasn't been getting as much attention, Michael Fassbender for "Shame," Ryan Gosling for "Drive" and Brad Pitt's performance in "Moneyball" won out over "The Tree of Life."

Viola Davis for "The Help," Michelle Williams for "My Week with Marilyn" and Meryl Streep for "The Iron Lady" could be considered locks for the Best Actress category as they're both nominated here and have been getting much acknowledgement within critic circles. With them are Elizabeth Olsen for "Martha Marcy May Marlene," Tilda Swinton for "We Need to Talk About Kevin" and Charlize Theron for "Young Adult."

Albert Brooks is full steam ahead as the front-runner and likely winner for Best Supporting Actor for his maniacal turn in "Drive." Nominated with him are Christopher Plummer for "Beginners," another nomination lock, Kenneth Branagh for "My Week with Marilyn," Nick Nolte for "The Warrior," Patton Oswalt for "Young Adult" and, yes, it has happened -- Andy Serkis for "Rise of the Planet of the Apes." It'll be interesting to see if the pull for his nomination will be enough to carry him to the Academy.

In the category of Best Supporting Actress, Shailene Woodley is a lock for "The Descendants" in future nominations along with Octavia Spencer for "The Help" and Berenice Bejo for "The Artist." With them here are nominations for Carey Mulligan in "Shame" and, as a pleasant surprise, Melissa McCarthy for "Bridesmaids."

Other notable nominations include a very worthy three Best Song nominations for "The Muppets." Among the Best Animated Feature nominees, "Rango" is the only one in 2D and -- much to my enjoyment -- is the likely candidate to win in the category. "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2" got mostly snubbed with nominations in only Best Visual Effects, Sound, Makeup and Art Direction.

It's also funny to note that "The Ides of March" got completely left out except for a completely out of left field Best Ensemble nomination.

Another question: how is "Drive" considered a nominee for Best Action Movie -- a worthy film, yes, but it already received a spot in the Best Picture nominees -- but "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2" is not?

Check out the full list of nominations, and tune in to the 17th Annual Critics' Choice Movie Awards on Thursday, January 12 at 8 p.m. on VH1.

Friday, December 9, 2011

HUGO Review


Martin Scorsese has given us the best-looking live action 3-D movie of this generation comparable to the prowess of James Cameron's "Avatar." Scorsese knows how to properly take advantage of the technology, and if nothing else his newest film -- the greatest departure from anything else he's made before -- demonstrates how to use 3-D to its utmost potential. The film is packed with bouts of visual trickery and flourishes that astound. In a most breathtaking opening sequence, we're shown the life of Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) who lives among the ticking clockwork and mechanisms within the walls of an elaborate 1930s Parisian train station. The swirling, intricate panoramic views and angles of the train station are just a taste of this magical world Scorsese constructs.

Hugo's life at the train station is made difficult by a cranky toy shop owner (Ben Kingsley) and the limping train station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) who's always chasing Hugo through crowds of travelers. Hugo is an orphan forced to live off thievery as he scurries around hiding himself in a maze of ladders and walkways winding all the clocks making sure they run exactly on time. Hugo bases his life around machinery and making sure things are fixed and working right. His labor of love is an old automaton found by his father (Jude Law), seen in flashbacks. If fixed properly, the automaton should be able to write a message -- one that Hugo is convinced his father left for him. He's a genius when it comes to finding all the right screws and gears for the project, but there's one puzzle piece left. It's a key hole in the shape of a heart, and Hugo's journey takes him to find that heart-shaped key to fit the lock.

Along the way Hugo meets a young girl his age, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), who has an appetite for adventure. Together they show each other their secret worlds. His, the inner-workings of the train station clock tower, and hers, the many books within the catacombs of a library she explores. As much as Isabelle craves adventure, Hugo discovers she has never been to the movie theater -- the era's best option for getting lost in a new world. Them sneaking in to see a movie begins the film's second half, which is an obvious and lavish celebration of the birth of film.

The cranky toy shop owner turns out to be George Méliès, a pioneer French filmmaker at the dawn of the 20th century. He also turns out to be Isabelle's godfather. Such knowledge leads Hugo on a path to more self-discovery than he could've imagined. Serendipitous links aplenty, even Hugo's father described the first movie he saw as a rocket poking the Man in the Moon in the eye -- a scene from none other than Méliès' "A Trip to the Moon" (1908). The wizardry and wonderment of the film's second act distracts from a threadbare thin plot, but it's easily forgiven. In the greatest sense, there's more to "Hugo." It's less about plot and more about getting that certain fuzzy feeling, a feeling Scorsese must love -- of sitting in a dark theater and getting caught up in a dream.

Rich film history is embedded in everything Scorsese makes, and here he dramatizes his personal connection with the medium. Paralleling his own character's passion, Scorsese is a master of artistic mechanisms rekindling our love for the marvels of movie technology both old and new. The director hasn't exactly made a movie for children. Even more impressive, he has made a ravishing movie for adults without coarse language, sex or violence earning a PG-rating full of childhood innocence without pandering. For audiences this is an enchanting and moving look into childhood longing and exploration, and for cinephiles this is something even more: an array of cinematic pleasures and a not-so-subtle plea for the preservation of cinema's past. And to think this message arrives to us in 3-D. If the technology has any future, here it is endorsed fully -- and expertly executed -- by Scorsese himself.

Monday, December 5, 2011

HUGO Named Best Film by NBR


The National Board of Review announced their winners for this year. And while they don't have too much bearing on the overall awards landscape, they still are worth taking a look at -- especially this year considering what got decided as Best Film.

Martin Scorsese's "Hugo" was named Best Film, and Scorsese received Best Director.

Looks like "Hugo" is more of a year-end awards contender than I had at first anticipated, which means I need to get myself to a theater quickly to see it for myself.

Other notable wins include all those for Alexander Payne's "The Descendants." It took home Best Screenplay as well as Best Actor for George Clooney and Best Supporting Actress for Shailene Woodley. I see a trend, and one that could very well make its way to Oscar.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Early Film Awards Weigh In


If we were to read the early signs, it would seem that "The Artist" will be the one to beat at this year's Oscars. I've yet to see the black and white silent film celebrating the era of silent cinema, but it's all the rage right now in terms of end-of-year award consideration.

The New York Film Critics Circle named "The Artist" Best Picture and awarded Michel Hazanavicius with Best Director. Likewise, the Independent Spirit Awards included "The Artist" among its list of Best Feature nominees alongside "The Descendants," "Drive," "Take Shelter," "Beginners" and "50/50."

Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain received love for their multiple roles this year. The NYFCC awarded Chastain Best Supporting Actress for "The Tree of Life," "The Help" and "Take Shelter." Likewise, Brad Pitt received Best Actor for both "The Tree of Life" and "Moneyball."

I also managed to forget about Albert Brooks of "Drive." He's not to be overlooked as he received a nomination for Best Supporting Male from the Spirit Awards as well as a Best Supporting Actor win from NYFCC.

This is just a small sample of what's to come this award season. We're bound to see a lot more in the coming weeks. Stay tuned!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

THE DESCENDANTS Review


It has been seven years since we've received a film from writer and director Alexander Payne. The last was 2004's Best Picture nominee Sideways. His new film, "The Descendants," is exactly what we've come to expect from Payne as a filmmaker and a guaranteed Best Picture contender at this year's Oscars. It is a miracle how effortlessly Payne captures the messiness of life. He is a master at digging deep and bringing out rich meaning and emotion out of situations that also make you laugh. In all of his films he performs a carefully choreographed balancing act between wit and poignancy, sharp comedy and shattering drama -- this one is no different and could even be considered Payne's best yet.

Adapted from the 2009 novel by Kaui Hart Hemming and co-written by Payne, the movie takes place in Hawaii not just for the hell of it. The setting of Hawaii plays a major role, and an opening voiceover from Matt King (George Clooney) describes the misconceptions of living in such a tropical and exotic locale. It's not a 24-hour vacation, and people living there aren't immune to life's challenges. It's no paradise, and the Hawaii we see is the real thing thanks to cinematographer Phedon Papamichael. "Fuck paradise," Matt says. Just as Payne used the specifics and peculiarities of Nebraska in "About Schdmidt" or California wine country in "Sideways," he allows Hawaii to play into the film's themes on family ties.

Matt has a wife and two daughters. His thrill-seeking wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), suffered a boating accident and lies in an irreversible coma. This forces Matt, the self-proclaimed back-up parent or understudy, to step up and care for the girls. The younger one, 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller), is angry and confused. Alex (Shailene Woodley of TV's "The Secret Life of the American Teenager"), her 17-year-old sister, had trouble with drugs in her past and just seems plain angry. Matt doesn't know what to do with either of them, but he starts by bringing Alex back home from her boarding school which resides on another island. As Matt says, his own family resembles the archipelago of Hawaii. Like the islands, they are in loose proximity but remain separate and alone ever so gradually drifting away from one another.

It's ironic because Matt's family tree stretches all the way back the earliest white settlers in Hawaii. As a descendant of this land-owning family and the sole trustee, he must personally decide whether or not to open up a vast tract of gorgeous forest land on Kauai to tourist or condo development. The rest of his bloodline has devolved into a group of men in floral shirts and sandals, his cousins who support or hate him in whatever decision he makes in how to develop the land -- or to sell it at all. And though this subplot is the biggest news to the locals, for Matt it's a mere distraction from tending to his family.

Matt's personal predicament plays out as equal parts unpredictable, moving and humorous. This is especially true once his oldest daughter Alex lays a bomb of a revelation on him. She caught her mom cheating. So, not only does Matt have to face his wife's impending death, but now her past infidelity. Sometimes there is no reasoning to the way we react to a circumstance, especially in the midst of a crisis or tragedy. How we deal with guilt, regret, anger, jealousy, remorse, sadness -- it's all unstable. So Matt's impulsive trip to stalk his wife's lover feels just right. There are moments of absurdity that still feel genuine in the context. For example, Matt lets Alex keep her idiot pseudo-boyfriend (Nick Krause) around for the ride; the youngest, Scottie, spurts obscenities regularly; and upon discovering the news about his wife, Matt slips on loafers and does an awkward brisk shuffle over the neighbor's house to find out more.

As we follow Matt's emotional, legal and family issues, we eventually find out they're all linked. Payne handles this with great finesse, and it doesn't feel at all forced. He could've allowed for an onslaught of melodrama because the plot and subplots do have that potential, but instead he takes the smarter route -- the route he always takes in his filmmaking and that is of low-key observation. Every moment in the movie feels utterly true to life. That includes Matt's confrontation with his wife's lover, Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard). Just when you think you have the scene trajectory figured out, Payne manages to surprise with unexpected eloquence.

It appears George Clooney just keeps getting better. Here is another career-topping performance. He is out of his comfort zone from his usual self-composed cool demeanor such as in "Up in the Air." As Matt King, he is flustered, overwhelmed and uncertain. Clooney has never been better, and he roots himself into this character and gives an unabashedly raw performance. Payne is gifted in drawing a keen essence out of each actor's performance including Robert Forster as Elizabeth's permanently enraged father and Judy Greer as Brian Speer's wife who has a scene of bottled up force. The most notable performance stands right up there with Clooney in terms of award consideration, and that's from young actress Shailene Woodley. She is biting, smart and tough giving off the air of teenage angst while also sincerely caring for her father.

"The Descendants" closes rather poetically with a scene of solace, and it could've ended there. But Payne decides to add one more, a quiet coda that sums up the mood. The closing shot brilliantly encapsulates the condition of many families today. Here's a film that not only acknowledges but celebrates the flaws in humanity because we've all got them. Might as well embrace it.

Friday, November 25, 2011

THE MUPPETS Review


Whether you've been familiar with the Muppets for 40 years or just heard about them yesterday, it won't matter either way. If you want to laugh, be absolutely delighted and have the most carefree and cheerful fun you've had at the movies in recent memory, "The Muppets" is for you. Their last big-screen presence was 1999's "Muppets in Space," and it hardly feels relevant now to mention that considering this shining reunion of the international superstar puppet characters. The one question for Disney could be, well, why now? Why now after more than a decade would you bring back the Muppets for a reunion? Maybe it's a sign of the times. Maybe it's the perfect thing we all needed but never realized. I would say that is exactly right.

The movie opens outwardly acknowledging that the Muppets are no longer cool, and they haven't been part of what's cool in pop culture for a long time. It's in this wicked self-awareness where the film gains its modest warmth and cheeky attitude. With its nerdy out-of-it humor that is referential and self-deprecating combined with other moments that are quite hip and knowing, the Muppets strike a new chord -- one that will please fans both old and new. Consider for a moment a curse-free chicken version of Cee Lo Green's "F*** You." It's there, and it charms right in sync with the rest of the movie's bright and funny musical numbers.

So, the Muppets have been disbanded with their movies and TV shows all in the past. There's still a fan out there who misses them dearly, though, and his name is Walter. He is a little guy who happens to very, very closely resemble what some may consider a Muppet. But is he a Muppet? He sure has felt rather displaced as a person. His brother is a human, and his name is Gary (Jason Segel of "How I Met Your Mother"). As brothers they have been lifelong pals, and it poses a bit of a problem for Gary's girlfriend, Mary (Amy Adams in full-on whimsical "Enchanted" mode), who sometimes feel as if she can't get any alone time. Gary plans a trip to Hollywood with Mary for their anniversary and invites Walter along because one of the stops is to the old Muppets Studio.

They arrive at the studio, however, only to discover that it's been long abandoned and even tours are hardly running. Walter then stumbles across some devastating news. A cruel millionaire, Tex Richman (Chris Cooper having a blast as the meanie), wants to buy the Muppets Studio to tear it down and drill for oil. Walter, Gary and Mary decide they must do something to save the studio and the Muppet name. First comes finding Kermit the Frog who agrees to putting on one last show to raise money. Pulling the rest of the Muppets out of retirement proves no easy feat. The group cleverly travels "by map" as a red line crossing the Atlantic with their car emerging from the ocean on the shoreline of Cannes. France was a key destination because over the years Miss Piggy became the head editor at Vogue in Paris.

Goofy and sincere Muppet fan Jason Segel not only stars but also co-wrote the script directed by James Bobin ("Da Ali G Show," "Flight of the Conchords"). Segel's love for the Muppets is easy to see because nothing about bringing back this franchise feels opportunistic -- it's all from the heart. It's a colorful revitalization of the old troupe that is a labor of love, and such hope and wish-fulfillment oozes from the screen and creeps inside as you watch. You'll crack a smile from the opening scene, and it won't go away.

"The Muppets" is also bursting to the seams with cameos from big celebrities. The energy from everyone involved is joyous, positive and constantly sending out good vibes. The Muppets present a return to simplicity -- simpler, less cynical times when song and dance could bring people together, when all you needed was a hearty dose of "Mahnamahna" or for Kermit to break out the heartwarming "Rainbow Connection." And you feel it; you can feel the energy and the sense of collaboration on something feel-good and meaningful, something inspirational and more important than you might ever imagine from a gang of puppet characters. This is one of the best movies of the year.

MELANCHOLIA Review


A woman screams embracing her child while collapsing onto the putting green of a golf course. Electricity gets absorbed out of the end of a telephone pole -- and another woman's fingers. That same woman wears an extravagant wedding dress running from vines of entanglement grasping her legs. She's then on her back floating down a clear river holding a bouquet of white flowers. Two planets, one Earth and another ominous blue mass, circle by each other and collide. These haunting portraits at the end of the world open as a prologue to Lars von Trier's "Melancholia," a cruel yet beautiful look at the end of the world.

The Danish director's latest film is the solution to the violent and revolting "Antichrist." It works as a counterpart to that -- dealing with depictions of depression and fear -- but also as a nice counterpart to Malick's "The Tree of Life" in its grandiose themes contemplating the nature of the universe. Von Trier's signature style is in full swing with the repeated use of music from Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" encapsulating on the filmmaker's classical techniques. Though, he still remains frustrating, eccentric, provocative and highly demanding of his viewers with unconventional narrative and painful moments to endure. What makes "Melancholia" worth enduring -- yes, enduring because a von Trier film couldn't be labeled as entertaining -- is his symphony of emotions that climbs to a resounding crescendo of aesthetic prowess blending hard-edged realism and breathtaking romanticism.

The film is split into two parts which focus on each female lead, Kirsten Dunst (who deservedly won Best Actress at this year's Cannes Film Festival for her powerful work) and Charlotte Gainsbourg. They play sisters in the film, Justine and Claire respectively. The first part is titled "Justine" after Dunst's character who celebrates her marriage at a swanky and luxurious wedding reception. The reception is held at a wildly expensive estate which sits at the water's edge complete with horse stables and an 18-hole golf course. It's owned by Claire's pompous husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland) who feels entitled to remind Justine the price of her party. Said party serves as von Trier's canvas to present the worst in human behavior.

The long evening unravels in a hectic string of brash acting out, embarrassing encounters and, finally, Justine giving up on the idea of marriage before it has even begun. Much to the worried bewilderment of the groom (Alexander Skarsgard), the evening turns into everyone's worst nightmare, the most horrific wedding party you could ever imagine having the misfortune of attending. Justine completely shuts down due to a history of crippling depression that rids her life of any future happiness. Von Trier emphasizes the triviality of the exchanges made in the night's progression -- for example, Justine leaves her new husband's bed to have rough sex in a sand trap -- because  meanwhile, the earth is about to end. The wedding guests, however, seem completely unaware, and it makes their actions all the more absurd.

This impending doom is merely referenced in the film's first part because it is then later focused on during the second part titled "Claire." Claire's practicality and responsibility outshines Justine's flighty and reckless self-indulgence in part one, but come time in the second part to face the catastrophe, Justine's bleak fatalism proves a more meaningful response than Claire's instinctive anxiousness.

The film's title "Melancholia" refers to the planet hurdling toward Earth. It also, not coincidentally, is the name of a mental condition from Freud described as, "a profoundly painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world and a loss of the capacity to love." It could be labeled as exactly what Justine suffers from, most exemplified in the film's second half. This metaphorical link between a cosmic, cataclysmic end to life and a state of deep depression is audacious but nonetheless astonishing. And whether the film is about the actual end of the world or more so life, death and coping with mental illness, von Trier manages a lasting impression you won't soon forget.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

J. EDGAR Review


"J. Edgar" (2011)

"J. Edgar" should've been one of the best films of the year. There's no reason for it not to be, but here it is -- an epic missed opportunity that turns what could've been a riveting drama about one of America's most controversial figures into a long, ponderous mess of a movie. All the elements were there and ready for something great, too. It's directed by Clint Eastwood ("Million Dollar Baby," "Changeling") from a screenplay by Dustin Lance Black ("Milk") with Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role as J. Edgar Hoover.

Clint Eastwood is a master of mood, and here is no exception. The issue, however, is how noncommittal he is on the subject. When ambitiously tackling such a man of history -- one who was powerful and hated but never understood -- you have to pull out the stops. Eastwood doesn't. He puts all the pieces in place but never engages them fully. We're left with something stolid and stagnant, not a juicy biopic as we might have expected. It's still respectable and sophisticated entertainment because Eastwood is incapable of making something not watchable. But the disappointment cannot be ignored, the feeling that whatever opinion you may draw about J. Edgar, neither side is with any conviction here.

And while Eastwood's direction and Dustin Lance Black's script falter, the acting stands tall. Leonardo DiCaprio disappears within the exterior of a conflicted and unruly man. Hoover ruled the Federal Bureau of Investigation like a mad bulldog from 1935 until his death in 1972. Nobody dared cross him even though he schemed and blackmailed without shame -- this includes a cruel, anonymous letter to Martin Luther King, Jr. After seemingly playing the same character in both "Shutter Island" and "Inception" last year, it's richly satisfying to watch DiCaprio successfully transform himself, an acting feat that could no doubt earn him a Best Actor nomination or even win.

Armie Hammer of "The Social Network" plays Hoover's FBI associate director and life-long companion, Clyde Tolson. It's remarkable to note that Hammer, a relative newcomer since his breakout last year, holds his ground next to DiCaprio and -- in some instances -- even outshines him. Both actors, however, are hampered by layers of distracting prosthetic aging makeup.

Tolson is Edgar's dark secret, and a majority of Black's screenplay is purposely speculative about their relationship. And while an important aspect of the man's life, Black takes the easy way out. Sure Hoover was terrible and did some terrible things -- but he was gay. And while he bases most of the film around Hoover's repressed homosexuality, he also uses it as reasoning for his hidden evils and paranoia about commies and radicals. His sexuality is not the only reason -- that's too simple, and even with DiCaprio's performance this tactic threatens to make Hoover one-dimensional, which he's certainly not. 

Scenes between Hoover and Tolson are nuanced and the film's best. In a most wrenching scene, Hoover's mother Annie (played with stern severity by Judi Dench) calculates what's going on between her son and Tolson. "I'd rather have a dead son than a daffodil," she says. The effectiveness of these moments, though, point to the film's greater downfall. Every gay man of that generation was repressed and struggling with something profound -- that's no mystery. So let's focus on what made Hoover different than the rest of those men.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 3 Review


"Paranormal Activity 3" (2011)

It still works. Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, the directors of last year's controversial pseudo-documentary "Catfish," take the reins of the third installment in the highly popular found-footage horror franchise. And as much as the series has definitely set its own formula by now, "Paranormal Activity 3" does not feel derivative and still gives viewers something to be terrified about. It's clear Schulman and Joost have a sense of humor because this installment gives us new scare tactics that play with audience expectation.

The best of these clever devices is a camera mounted atop the base of a rotating fan. It pans at a deliberate and painfully slow pace between the kitchen and living room giving us a lot of anticipation to chew on before we see the other end of that camera's range. It's a dastardly trick. Along with this camera, there are only two others mounted in bedrooms unlike the second installment which had a whole security system of cameras to watch. The movie is a prequel to the events of the first taking place in September 1988, which explains the lack in technology. This aspect, though, is about the only thing that's period piece material. The high-vaulted ceilings and overall look of the home make it look incidentally quite modern, and the babysitter's outfit is a bit obvious.

But decade accuracy isn't the point here. The story follows Katie (Chloe Csengery) -- of the first film -- as a young girl living with her sister Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) and her parents, Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith) and Julie (Lauren Bittner). The setting of a prequel is meant to show how Katie initially had an encounter with the evil forces that drove her to the activity of the original movie. Consequently, a lot of the action focuses around Katie and her sister. These girls, however, aren't your typical creepy young girls in horror movies. They're ordinary, everyday young girls. Except when Katie wants to play a scary game of "Bloody Mary," saying it three times could actually bring horrific results. And Kristi's imaginary friend "Toby," who she talks to with intimidated obedience, is the one making noises at night.

"Paranormal Activity 3" causes a larger sense of unsettling dread than even the first two installments. It might be because the looming presence in the house feels more personal and malicious -- and from Kristi it even gets a name. The second movie enlisted jump-out scares to utmost effect. And while this outing still toys with that, it even more effectively finesses pure suspense in moments where nothing even happens. Take the last 15 minutes, for example, which had me literally shaking with anxiety.

These films are, if nothing else, a lesson in restraint when it comes to eliciting scares. Sure there's no restraint when it comes to the number of sequels they're going to keep churning out -- "Paranormal Activity 4" is inevitably on its way -- but I would much rather see eager audiences sitting down to spooky ghost stories than the glib and vile "Saw" splatter-fest which previously dominated Halloween movie season.

My review of Paranormal Activity
My review of Paranormal Activity 2

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

THE IDES OF MARCH Review


"The Ides of March" (2011)

The fourth feature directed by George Clooney (following "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," "Good Night, and Good Luck" and "Leatherheads"), "The Ides of March" provides us with knowledge a lot of us may already know: the current climate of American politics leaves no room for idealism and dignity. It's a harsh and cynical look at the modern presidential campaign landscape, but it's also less about the candidates and more about the campaign managers working for them. There is scheming, backstabbing and lapses in loyalty aplenty, and it's all a riveting inside look at the men behind the faces we end up voting for.

The movie stars Ryan Gosling playing another rather introverted character. It's a much different character than "Drive," but his focus and intensity remains the same. Just when we think we have him figured out, he surprises us with a twist of action. He plays Stephen Meyers, a press secretary for Pennsylvania Gov. Mike Morris (George Clooney) during a presidential primary in Ohio, which acts as a pressure cooker for the proceedings. Perfectly cast, Clooney plays Mike Morris as an idealistic fictional Obama in 2008 candidate who is articulate and promising with a new kind of politics. Stephen works under Paul Zara (Phillip Seymour Hoffman in top form), a seasoned campaign manager for Morris. On the other side of the playing field is Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the campaign manager for the opponent Pullman. All of these men, save for Stephen, are hardened realists who know exactly how to play their pieces on the board. Young professionals such as Stephen have yet learned how to check their values at the door.

The screenplay (adapted from Beau Willimon's play "Farragut North") co-written by Clooney, Willimon and Grant Heslov paired with Clooney's understated direction brings conversations and exchanges to the utmost importance. The title suggests a grand sweeping Shakespearian theme, but Clooney's goals are actually much simpler and straightforward and, in such, create an even greater impact. What Clooney strives to present may not be wholly profound, but it is pulpy and provocative. I don't think the screenplay sticks in the knife as deeply as Clooney hopes, but he still assembles an astonishingly powerful cast to navigate murky waters where the lines of political and emotional agenda get skewed.

A New York Times reporter played by Marisa Tomei represents manipulative media involvement in the campaign looking for the best scoop. A key conversation between her, Stephen and Paul early on shows where true loyalty lies along with the real perception of any campaign -- it always divulges into disappointment no matter who takes the title. At one point Stephen receives a call from Tom Duffy with a job offer to change sides. Motives here become unclear. Does Duffy actually want Stephen, or does the offer simply work as a ploy? Stephen is just opportunistic and looking out for his best interest revealing a surprising but subtle amorality. The real focus of the plot doesn't arrive, however, until a scandal surfaces around a luscious intern named Molly (Evan Rachel Wood). Stephen is handsome and suave, so he charms Molly into bed but in the process learns some unnerving information.

From here the film is tight, smart and swiftly paced showing us everything we've already come to know about how campaigns are really run in this country. It plays as if the pressure cooker finally goes over, and scenes flow with boiling urgency. The revelations keep us riveted but what keeps us engaged and interested is the toxic and malevolent atmosphere that Clooney expertly upholds. It's down and dirty stuff with men in pressed suits, and it's all the more disturbing considering the setting. "The Ides of March" works like a wrenching punch to the gut in the acceptance that sometimes politics is just about keeping a job.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Most Anticipated Movies of Fall 2011

10. My Week with Marilyn

What gets me so excited about this one is Michelle Williams playing the titular role of Marilyn Monroe. This performance will hopefully get her the recognition she has so long deserved, especially since she was overlooked for "Blue Valentine."

9. J. Edgar

Another heavy lead performance Oscar movie with Leonardo DiCaprio at its head. From the looks of the trailer, this latest outing from director Clint Eastwood is going to soar with critics as a rich biopic with a talented supporting cast. This is also no doubt DiCaprio's Best Actor vehicle, but I'd like to think it has more going for it than just that.

8. Paranormal Activity 3

I loved "Paranormal Activity" and although obviously lacking in originality, its sequel had even more effective scares. And so I can't help but get excited for the third installment from the directors of "Catfish." They basically promoted that viral pseudo-documentary as a horror flick, so just imagine them actually tackling one. That Bloody Mary part in the trailer alone had me peeking through my fingers.

7. The Rum Diary

I don't generally like Johnny Depp, but I sure did like him in this year's "Rango" -- even though he was voicing an animated lizard. And speaking of "Rango" with its undertones of Hunter S. Thompson, this latest starring Johnny Depp is actually an adaptation of a Thompson novel. The trailer is misleading at first, but then divulges what the film is really about: that substance-induced blurring between fantasy and reality. I'm intrigued.

6. Melancholia

Although I despised almost everything about Lars von Trier's "Antichrist," the director still has me roped in and anticipating his next feature. It seems much more subdued and contemplative than his last one, and Kirsten Dunst earned herself a Best Actress award at this year's Cannes. It's been getting underwhelming reviews, but with all that slow-motion and hoopla about the end of the world, I'm hooked.

5. War Horse

The teaser for Steven Spielberg's "War Horse" couldn't be any more of an announcement to the world that, hey, he's back in the game and going for an Oscar! But can you blame him? The movie looks magnificent. A sweeping historical piece as directed by the one and only Spielberg trumpeted by a resounding score from John Williams, and it's all just in time for Christmas.

4. Young Adult

After director Jason Reitman's "Up in the Air," he's now reunited with screenwriter Diablo Cody ("Juno") for his next feature. It stars Charlize Theron, and the first image of her from the film has been released along with a poster -- but not much else. I'm anxious for a trailer to see if the tone is going to match up with the overly quirky "Juno," or if it'll be a little more down-to-earth. Here's to hoping for the latter.

3. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

There has been almost nothing released about this adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's best-selling novel. All we know is that it's directed by Stephen Daldry ("The Reader") with a screenplay by Eric Roth ("The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"), and Tom Hanks is in it. I read the novel and fell in love with it, but it's also something that seems impossible to adapt for the screen. But don't they all? The film is also in talks of being the front-runner at this year's Oscars. Only time will tell.

2. The Descendants

Another Alexander Payne film, and his first in seven years? Well, count me in. Starring George Clooney, this film appears to be another Payne-ian look at human relationships à la "Sideways" and "About Schmidt." It received mixed critical reception from the festival at which it premiered -- some even called it Payne's worst effort -- but my hopes remain high.

1. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

David Fincher's remake of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" is easily my most anticipated movie of the fall. Ever since Rooney Mara's transformation into gothic bisexual hacker Lisbeth Salander graced the cover of magazines, I knew this adaptation of the Swedish novel would absolutely nail it. And then came the first teaser trailer with a rocking track from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the tagline, "The feel bad movie of Christmas" to hype up the anticipation. Not to mention that revealing initial poster with Rooney Mara and co-star Daniel Craig, and now the official trailer which perhaps runs a little long but still proves that Fincher definitely has a handle on the ideal tone for what this movie is all about. Gritty, grisly stuff.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

DRIVE Review


"Drive" (2011)

He is a driver and only a driver. He has no name to the men he works for and not even to us. He's the guy behind the wheel who will be there if you tell him when and where. He's the getaway driver and a man defined by what he does. We're introduced to this driver -- with his steely blue eyes and gloved hands gripping the steering wheel -- during a job. He's cool and collected even during a vehicular game of cat-and-mouse with the authorities. It's a sequence wrought with tension and suspense and one of the most expertly handled car chases I've seen. Eyes fixated on the road and not ever on the faces of the criminals he carts around, the driver doesn't commit the act; he only gets those doing so from point A to point B. "I drive," he says.

Albert Brooks, who's not at all funny here, plays a nasty man of business named Bernie in "Drive" from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn ("Bronson," "Valhalla Rising"). His character is a producer for the type of B-movies that the driver does car stunts for, which is the driver's day job when he's not a driver for hire by night. Bernie describes the movies he used to produce in the 80s as action thrillers lauded by critics. Some critics even called them European. But he thought his movies were shit. As a self-knowing nod, he could be describing the very movie he's in -- minus the part about being shit.

The modern soundtrack recalls 80s synth with titles presented in a retro pink cursive font like something out of "Miami Vice." A sleek, subdued and sophisticated European sentiment permeates the mood. It's an action thriller for the art house crowd but in no way pretentious. "Drive" provides the perfect elements of a genre flick in high fashion emphasizing the master of craft. While putting the pedal to the metal, there's respect for acting and writing. It plays on commercialism while becoming an exact rebuttal to convention.

As the driver Ryan Gosling sustains an impenetrable and indiscernible calm that's unnerving. He has the severe cool of a young George Clooney, and here he seems to be channeling him in "Michael Clayton" form. He's wordless and expresses a wide expanse of inner-thought through a shift in the brow or a twinge of the mouth. A master of nuance, Gosling gives us a brilliant work of existentialism through moments of idling silence before this mysterious wheel man slams on the accelerator. He's a man who's been around cars most his life mentored by a fatherly figure, a mechanic named Shannon (Bryan Cranston of "Breaking Bad"). The driver lives in an apartment complex and becomes close with his neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan). She has a young son, Benecio (Kaden Leos), and a husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), who's in jail. The driver and Irene grow fond of each other, but Standard returns home within the week. Once there he's not jealous of the driver but instead finds opportunity. He's in trouble -- the kind of trouble the driver can deal with.

Filling in the blanks of back story are characters' expressions and subtleties. The film doesn't wear its emotions on its sleeve but they do run deep. The script by Hossein Amini is minimal in dialogue, so reading between the lines is essential and it works. The driver's loyalty to Irene's family is obvious as he accepts a job with little to no benefit to himself. It's a heist that goes horribly wrong with bloodshed aplenty namely from Christina Hendricks of "Mad Men" who plays a sexy accomplice. With the smooth purr of seduction "Drive" offers filmgoers, it is a gradual and moody escalation with hyper-violent and ultra-stylized eruptions that fuels this beast's engine. It's a simple parable of fast cars and dangerous deeds involving men not defined by what they say but, instead, by their actions -- no matter the blood stains left in their wake.

Monday, September 5, 2011

THE FUTURE Review


"The Future" (2011)

Miranda July's "The Future" opens with a dopey couple planning to adopt a sick cat; it then eloquently evolves into a meditation on loneliness and mortality. The cat in question, named Paw-Paw, is precious and has a broken leg. We see only his little paws, one in a cast, during occasional monologues from the cat -- yes, the cat -- which is voiced by writer, director and star Miranda July. Much like her striking debut, "Me and You and Everyone We Know" (2005), July crafts a unique and bold cinematic vision. She's no doubt polarizing in her construction of wonderment; that is, whether people are willing to open up to such free-flowing form and deadpan whimsy. But in taking the time to settle in, you'll experience one of the most original voices in American film today.

After learning that Paw-Paw can't come home with them for another month, Sophie (Miranda July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater) begin to panic. Sophie is a dancer but teaches dance for young kids while Jason wanted to be a world leader of some sort, but he supplies over-the-phone technical support instead. They've been spending their four years together loafing around a haphazardly furnished apartment going nowhere and getting used to each other's eccentricities. They figure since they're already in their mid-30s and the cat living up to five years in their care would take them into their 40s, they only have one month until their lives theoretically end. Time for drastic change. As a bohemian hipster couple, they are frustrating in their drift of a lifestyle. And as much as you want to shake them back into reality, the movie does it for us as we watch them lead themselves to their own undoing.

Jason decides on a whim to volunteer for an environmental organization going door-to-door selling trees. Meanwhile Sophie quits teaching dance and comes up with the concept of uploading 30 dances to Youtube over 30 days to receive Internet exposure. Does either of them follow through with their plan? No. Instead Sophie has an affair with a man named Marshall (David Warshofsky) while Jason starts to hang out with an old man named Joe (Joe Putterlik). The purpose of these side distractions is unclear. Perhaps just for the sake of Sophie being able to have an affair, and perhaps just for the sake of Jason meeting someone even more eccentric than him. The couple's relationship is at a crossroads, but it's hard to say if they even notice. They're too busy in their state of malaise waiting for something to happen, much like Paw-Paw anxiously waiting at the adoption center for a comfortable place to die. There lies July's profound knack for conveying difficult emotion -- here, the hope and pain of just waiting.

I would even go as far as to call it enchanting, especially in the way July blends the fantastical and supernatural with the everyday. There's a talking moon, a yellow security T-shirt that moves on its own and a young girl who likes to be buried in dirt. With all the cuteness there's a strange and unsettling mood that lingers giving hints to July's unnerving outlook on the cycle of life. It's all there in the title, "The Future," whether that refers to what someone plans on doing down the line or a more dauntingly abstract thought about the end of time itself. Jason even attempts to literally freeze time to avoid what's coming next revealing that, try as you might to ignore it, the world keeps spinning and life will go on with or without you.