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


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


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.


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.