Sunday, December 30, 2012

ZERO DARK THIRTY Review


Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal are dynamite collaborators. Proving themselves with "The Hurt Locker," now they've taken on the daunting challenge of re-creating the decade-long hunt and elimination of Osama bin Laden. It's movie journalism in every sense of the phrase, a ripped-from-the-headlines thriller that wears controversy on its sleeve. It gives no moral compass; that's up for us to decide. The challenge with the film, even in its sweeping accomplishment of craft, is that it has to straddle the line of two territories: fact-based procedural and enthralling cinema. Entertainment is not how I would describe "Zero Dark Thirty."

It's brazen, challenging and nerve-wrenching. It's a dangerous film in its impact and obligation with the weight of history on its shoulders. Cinematic moments like this only come once in a while. "United 93" is another example. There's no doubt Bigelow and Boal deserve accolades for bringing a pivotal moment in the War on Terror to screen with such potency, but you also can't help but shake the feeling of it being still too soon. But it's the excitement of now, how current and how daring -- but also, how frightening. Imagine this film a few more years down the line; however, imagine the lessened shock of impact.

At an undisclosed CIA "black site," an enforcer named Dan (Jason Clarke) tells his interrogation subject, Ammar (Reda Kateb), "If you lie to me, I hurt you." Dan then waterboards his subject with a stoic-looking Maya (Jessica Chastain) standing watch nearby. She cringes at the torture but doesn't stop because she knows it's necessary. Necessary? That's the disturbing power of the film with its display of America's post-9/11 "enhanced interrogation tactics." Without saying it point blank, it still says it: the tactics worked. Cut to a TV where Obama in an interview says America doesn't tolerate torture. Yet they get a critical name out of it, the name of bin Laden's personal courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti.

From this information, Maya gets her lead. She's steadfast in her hunt even in a work environment full of hostility and doubt against her. Chastain astounds in the role as a woman doing her job brilliantly and against all odds. She's strung-out, exhausted, aggravated and beaten-down. Yet even as her friends and co-workers are dying around her, she never gives in. Even when her boss (Kyle Chandler) tells her to stop chasing after an elusive ghost and to start going after tangible targets that will get him more immediate results for his superiors, she stands her ground. For her, finding bin Laden is a personal conquest. "I believe I was spared so I can finish the job," she says. The film is an intense character study on the real-life Maya, and it's what elevates the proceedings beyond its dense fact-based procedural.

The film is nearly three hours in length and, much like "The Hurt Locker," has a consistent building of anticipation-driven tension strung throughout its sequences. One particular moment is when Maya has located who she believes is bin Laden's courier and sends a team of agents (led by Edgar Ramirez) into the packed streets of Peshawar, Pakistan to track down his cell phone signal. The scene is a pulse-pounding exercise in suspense and really shows Bigelow's capabilities if she were to be handed mainstream action. But she and Boal are after something much grander with this picture. Their previous outing, however, was a better movie because in its fictionalization of the war in Iraq, they had something to say. Here, the action is too literal; because it's an exact re-telling, they must stick close to facts.

The big revelation of course arrives when Maya discovers that iconic three-tiered concrete complex in which she believes bin Laden resides. Next comes the harrowing convincing in D.C. that they can actually find their high priority target there. "I'm the motherfucker that found this place, sir," Chastain's Maya tells an excellent James Gandolfini. Maya is always "the girl" in the room, but everybody else in the room begins to realize she's the one calling the shots and knows exactly what she's doing with every action, every reaction.

Once the decision comes to send a team of Navy SEALs (led by Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt) to the complex to finally kill bin Laden, the film comes to an anti-climax. Again, the action becomes wholly too literal. The infiltration is a step-by-step re-enactment, a strictly business demeanor of eliminating bin Laden through the haze of green-tinted night-vision goggles. I was expecting something more figurative, metaphorical -- a finish that would have something larger to say about the decade-long hunt. We do, however, get a close-up of Maya's reaction to the successful mission, the relief and final satisfaction on her face. What we don't read from her is the question of whether it was all worth it, what it all means for the future of the War on Terror. But maybe we simply don't know that yet. Today's America hasn't come far enough to know the answer to that question.

Friday, December 28, 2012

LES MISERABLES Review


Eyes ablaze with pain and torment, Anne Hathaway delivers the moment of the year as the fallen ill mother-turned-prostitute Fantine in her solo musical number "I Dreamed a Dream." Her eyes puffy and red with tears streaming down her face, the camera doesn't shy away from a tight close-up during her entire song not backing away from the agony and sorrow she puts on display.

It's not just her song, though, as all of Tom Hooper's "Les Miserables" is full of musical numbers equal in emotional potency to match Hathaway's Oscar-demanding powerhouse. Samantha Barks is devastating as Eponine, the sad, lonesome girl raised on the streets with her "Own My Own." Fantine's blond princess of a daughter, Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), croons like a songbird to her lover, Marius (Eddie Redmayne), and adoptive father Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) who's gone through life running from his criminal past. There's no better show tune front man than Jackman because in such a commanding role, he nails it. He is the forward momentum holding the narrative strings of "Les Miserables" together. Every soaring note or growl of anger from him is alive with vivacity.

Russell Crowe plays the man in pursuit, Javert, who grows tiresome chasing Valjean but never falters. His "Stars" is Crowe's best display of his unconventional vocal performance, much like Amanda Seyfried's fluttering vibrato as Cosette. And one mustn't forget Eddie Redmayne's Marius who absolutely earns his star-making role with his heartbreaking "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" as he laments for his fallen comrades. Oscar should take note. And rousing all these distinct voices together in a glorious finish to the film's first act is "One Day More," a symphony of vocal collaboration over the orchestra.

Playing in humor and mischief is the ideally cast Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter with their rendition of "Master of the House." Plastered in make-up and funny costumes, they look like they just walked over from the set of "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," which, by the way, "Les Miserables" is the triumphant musical Hollywood has been waiting for since then.

The film is, of course, based off the 1980s musical smash hit which is based off Victor Hugo's massive 1862 novel about Paris students staging a government uprising in 1832. It's a lot of narrative, and not a very clean one at that. Too many main players, a lot of convolution. So, it's the music that must shine, and shine it does with Tom Hooper's impeccable direction. At just over 2-and-a-half hours, the movie actually moves along quite briskly cramming in an abundance of plot. The bold decision to have his actors sing live on set is also a testament to Hooper's direction with a bold decision that well pays off. In such a style, you witness as emotion overcomes the actors' faces and voices in every musical number. It's sacrificing a perfect sound for something more raw.

Interspersing between close up shots of powerful singing are shots we've come to know from Hooper and "The King's Speech" cinematographer Danny Cohen. Full of high canted angles and large backdrops against tiny figures, it's those tall shots or close-ups, nothing in between. It gives "Les Miserables" a theatricality of both intimacy and grandeur, the perfect combination for treating such a musical. The adaptation isn't perfect (how could it be?), but it's full of astounding performances with actors pouring out their souls in song. Do you hear the people sing? You should.

WRECK-IT RALPH Review


Disney's "Wreck-It Ralph" is the Pixar movie that Pixar didn't release this year. Rich with unbridled originality, much like what we're used to expecting from the studio who has been disappointing most recently with "Cars 2" and "Brave," the arcade video game world in which Disney's latest CGI outing takes place is a whole new universe to get lost in. The imagination behind the film's opening sequences is astounding and awe-inspiring.

We first meet Ralph (John C. Reilly) inside his game, Fix It Felix Jr., where Felix (Jack McBrayer) climbs a building fixing the spots where Ralph is destroying walls and windows. Felix saves the citizens of the apartment building earning a gold medal, and Ralph gets thrown off the roof into a mud puddle. Every single game. And Ralph is tired of being the bad guy, as he tells his video game villain support group featuring the likes of the Pac-Man ghost and Bowser. Beyond Ralph's own game, there is a whole inner network of games via wires and cords, a game central station where characters can journey between the different video games placed around the arcade. While also packed with real world game references which are fun nods to video game fans (Metal Gear Solid and Sonic are among those making an appearance), the majority of Ralph's adventure takes place in two fictional games: a Halo-style first-person shooter called Hero's Duty and a hybrid of Candy Land and Mario Kart called Sugar Rush.

The level of detail in each game world is specific and matches each game's style. The pixelated world of Fix It Felix Jr. has characters move as if they're 16-bit characters even in full-fledged CGI animation, which is compared to the more realistic, high-definition world of Hero's Duty and the bubbly colors and textures of Sugar Rush. A catchy, electronic score matches the atmosphere making this video game universe a complete package, reminiscent of the deep sea world of "Finding Nemo" or the space station of "WALL-E." Again, more comparisons to a Pixar standard of quality.

Ralph is on a quest to earn himself a medal to prove to the apartment citizens in the Fix It Felix Jr. game that bad guys can earn hero medals, too. He first sneaks into Hero's Duty, but then accidentally ejects himself into Sugar Rush where he meets an energy ball of a little girl named Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) who's dream is to be one of the racers on the roster of her game. She shares a dilemma with Ralph, however, because she's a glitch in the game and is cast as an outsider, unwanted and alone. King Candy (Alan Tudyk) is after her because he doesn't want her to be in Sugar Rush's race roster as a glitch. And while Ralph is trying to help Vanellope, Felix and a character from Hero's Duty, rough-and-tumble Calhoun (Jane Lynch), are out searching to return Ralph to his game before it's forced out of order.

Most of the adventure takes place in Sugar Rush and can start to feel repetitive, but then -- after a quick montage driven by a Rihanna song -- the story smacks us with a huge emotional wallop that really hits the movie home making it quite moving, heartfelt and, well, sweet. This was Disney's year in animation with both "Wreck-It Ralph" and "Frankenweenie," which, while less successful at the box office, was the other animated critical hit next to "Paranorman." And John Lasseter (who's otherwise been mostly a Pixar loyalist) as executive producer only further proved the studio's faith in the wonderful original piece. Your move, Pixar.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

THIS IS 40 Review


Judd Apatow needs to learn to not be afraid of the editing room. Like his "Funny People," his latest personal project is a loose, meandering, messy and bit of an amorphous blob of a comedy. But it's also searing in its honest look at married life, dealing with parents, raising kids, getting older and maintaining a companionship that lasts. And if it takes his sloppy, imperfect style -- rolling, spontaneous, free-flowing improvisational riffs and scenes that sometimes are directionless -- to present us these truths he seeks, then so be it. It's worth it, and "This Is 40" is worth it. No other tighter Hollywood comedies today could squeeze so much out of its characters and show audiences what it's really like and take the risk of swapping out laughs for realness.

I was uncomfortable at first with how much a comedy was making me squirm. There are a lot of fights, a lot of arguments, and I thought to myself, "Well, this isn't very funny." But that's what makes Apatow brave as a filmmaker. He started back with 2007's "Knocked Up" re-envisioning what a comedy could do. He created his own sub-genre of comedy that was mimicked for years; that is until "Bridesmaids" set another new standard. And with this sort-of sequel to "Knocked Up," Apatow has done it again. He's given us a comedy that makes us look at the harsher realities of married life, of hitting that over-the-hill. It's not always pretty, that's for sure, with a lot of the gross-out comedy actually coming from droll everyday moments like having Pete (Paul Rudd) thrusting his legs in the air and wanting Debbie (Leslie Mann) to check for hemorrhoids.

Pete and Debbie we supporting characters, and we saw their marriage was less than perfect. Now, at the center, their marriage is dead in the water. They attempt to explain and negotiate to each other in therapy terms as their counseling has taught them, but they still sound like they want to kill each other. Pete's form of escape is hiding away in the bathroom sitting on the toilet to play Scrabble on his tablet. Debbie becomes obsessed with trying to make changes to the family dynamic: more healthy eating, and less Internet for the kids (played by Apatow and Mann's real life daughters, Maude and Iris get plenty of fun material to play with -- best is the older daughter's obsession with finding out how "Lost" ends).

While trying to be the best parents they can, Pete and Debbie have parent troubles of their own. Pete's dad, Larry (Albert Brooks), is too present in his life always asking for money to help support his younger wife and blonde triplet boys he can't tell apart. Brooks is a comedic cannon and scene-stealer in the fatherly role. Debbie's dad, Oliver (John Lithgow), is on the other end of the spectrum -- not present at all to the point of meeting his granddaughters for the first time. All of their drama comes to a head at a birthday bash where Apatow's loose narrative really packs its punch.

Aside from that, however, the crux of Pete and Debbie's issues stem from their financial problems. But they also live in the likes of Brentwood, Calif. which means they're actually still pretty well-off. It's hard to pity them when you're listening about Debbie's thrift store not breaking even as her hot employee played by Megan Fox might be stealing, or watching as Pete's record label flounders because he's signing has-been groups like Graham Parker (who plays a version of himself in the movie). Aside from the welcomed addition of "Girls" players Lena Dunham and Chris O'Dowd as employees of Pete's, this side of the movie -- which unfortunately takes up a large portion -- just feels like the grumbling of rich people problems.

The laughs are mostly hit-or-miss from all the movie's improvising, but one moment where Pete and Debbie get tangled in the politics of their daughters' school is an absolute knock-out from Melissa McCarthy. She plays a disgruntled mother, Catherine, who has an outrageous, mean-spirited, curse-filled tirade to why Pete and Debbie are horrible people; that is, however, after Debbie just got done unnecessarily yelling at Catherine's son in a moment of parental protection and vulnerability that perfectly captures Mann's character. She's the acting stand-out as a woman, wife and mother who's aggravating, kind, brash, sexy and insecure all in one, and she makes her Debbie breathable, living and oh so true.

Friday, December 21, 2012

HITCHCOCK Review


"Hitchcock" could be re-titled "Mrs. Hitchcock" as a lot of the movie's emphasis and intrigue comes from the famed director's loving, dedicated but ultimately frustrated and fed-up wife, Alma Reville. She helps her husband on almost every picture he makes and yet gets pushed to the side when it's time for his limelight. So, while basing its premise on the inception and creation of the high watermark of his career, "Psycho," the drama comes from the troubled side of the Hitchcock marriage and creative collaboration.

Helen Mirren stuns as Alma, especially in a bold moment of confrontation to her obsessive and unwittingly neglectful husband. She's married to a man who becomes possessed by his films, especially his blonde bombshell leading ladies he wishes to turn into stars. For "Psycho," he turns to Janet Leigh (a charming and radiant Scarlett Johansson) who, in the shooting of the pivotal shower scene, sees Hitchcock's dark recesses come to light as he jabs a knife toward her to elicit real terror in her reaction. The other lead is Vera Miles (Jessica Biel), an actress Hitchcock wanted as his muse, but she chose the life of a housewife over him reaping her with fame and fortune.

The ensemble cast comes into play when Hitchcock places the idea of "Psycho" as his next picture to his agent (Michael Stuhlbarg), personal assistant (Toni Collette), the Paramount studio head (Richard Portnow) who is hesitant to finance him and the ratings board (Kurtwood Smith) who threatens to not release the film in theaters due to its content. It's a fun, colorful cast that introduces a level of soapy drama through fellow Hitchcock collaborator and writer Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston) who is slyly trying to take not only the limelight away from the director -- but also maybe even his wife.

The movie gets a little wrongheaded when it tries a tongue-and-cheek tone to mirror a classic Hitchcock style of suspense complete with moody and tension-building music. And yet these dashes of faux horror suspense are created out of marital dispute and inadvertently flatten the level of drama created by the actors. Ultimately, Anthony Hopkins' portrayal of the director comes off as too campy, cheeky and more of a caricature than a real man -- which isn't so much the fault in his acting but the wonky screenplay. This most notably comes through when the actor breaks the third wall addressing the audience as Hitchcock. It could've been a deeper film about the heartbreak, sacrifice and ultimate triumph of manifesting "Psycho," but instead it's only entertaining, surface-level fare.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY Review


Let's first address the technology Peter Jackson decided to put forth with the first entry in his highly-anticipated "Lord of the Rings" sequel, "The Hobbit," originally two films but now three. The 48 frames per second, or 48 fps, or high frame rate, or HFR, or however you want to go about defining it, the fact is this: it's neither eye-gougingly awful or a feast for the eyes, which then brings up my very first question: why all the controversy surrounding it? I will say, though, in the film's first minutes, there are noticeable speed ups, and interactions between actors have a weird soap opera effect. Action sequences either look fake or like something out of a video game. But once you get settled in with the new technology, and the bizarre quirks become less glaring, it might actually begin to grow on you in its bold clarity and ultra high definition look. (It did for me.) I recommend going all the way and trying your luck with 48 fps; it is, after all, how the filmmaker intended it to be seen by audiences, and it's never been done before.

The first chapter in this new trilogy, "An Unexpected Journey" starts at a slog. We begin with Old Bilbo recounting his journey, yet again, to Frodo (Elijah Wood), and for one fleeting moment you may think you're watching "Fellowship of the Ring" again. But no, this is only exposition to set up the tale, followed by more exposition to set up the plight of the dwarves lead by Dwarf Lord Thorin (Richard Armitage). And then further down the line, there's more exposition. Recall the multiple endings of "The Return of the King," but just think of "The Hobbit" as having multiple beginnings...and about just two endings. It's long, very long, but only in the tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien adaptations; that is, only what Jackson as a filmmaker knows to bring us. It gives this return to Middle-earth a welcoming, comforting and familial feeling.

And who can shy away a smile from the return of Ian McKellen's Gandalf the Grey? He embarks a now much younger Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, who fits the role like a glove) on this thirteen-dwarf adventure to help re-claim their lost kingdom of Erebor. The early portion of this journey feels much lighter, more frivolous than any portion of any "Lord of the Rings" film, which has a dampening effect. It makes this seemingly harrowing adventure too fun, not treacherous and dire. It isn't until Gandalf makes waves at the Elvan palace where the glimmering Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett reside that the importance of the quest really makes it's mark; in that this group's actions alone set in motion the whole One Ring to Rule Them All ruckus of the successors.

After this visit, the film is alight with glorious action set pieces full of trolls, orcs and goblins -- and it all pops and glistens behind your 3D glasses and at an upped frame rate. Also aiding the film to the finish line is the inspired interaction between Bilbo and fan-favorite Gollum, played once again by the remarkable physical actor Andy Serkis covered in motion-capture and CGI. While "The Hobbit" by no means holds the grandiose themes and heavy emotional power of Jackson's Oscar-loaded Middle-earth masterpiece, whoever said it had to? What's amazing enough is that with thirteen dwarves, you actually begin to feel for them, and you might even get a lump in your throat by the film's final minutes (three hours later).

This project had a whole lot going against it, and I think that's the reason critics have been so harsh in its reception. What became most unexpected for me was how good it really turned out to be and, my, how gratifying. It's a fine addition to a beloved franchise I don't mind donating another six hours to with two more likely three-hour-long installments down the road. Bring on "The Desolation of Smaug," I say.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

70th Annual Golden Globe Award Nominations


Every year the Hollywood Foreign Press Association decides to surprise us for no reason with their nominations, and this morning's announcement for the 70th installment of the Golden Globe Awards was no exception. This time it's all about that movie that everyone except the HFPA had forgotten: "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen," which snuck into the nominees for Best Comedy or Musical. With that came nominations for "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" -- which also had a great showing with SAG yesterday -- "Moonrise Kingdom" and then front-runners "Les Miserables" and "Silver Linings Playbook" who will duke it out for the top prize.

What I find most alarming is that even the Critics' Choice had a better representation of this year's comedies. "Magic Mike," "This Is 40," "Pitch Perfect," "Ted" and "21 Jump Street" all got left off completely. Especially surprising is the absence of acting nominations for Leslie Mann or Paul Rudd for "This Is 40," or Matthew McConaughey who otherwise has been part of the conversation for "Magic Mike." Instead, we get both Emily Blunt and Ewan McGregor nominated for "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen," the independent selection over more conventional and, frankly, more well-received comedies. What's the thinking there?

"Lincoln" led the pack again with a total seven nominations trailed by "Argo" and "Django Unchained" each with five. Those three nabbed Best Drama nominations alongside "Life of Pi" and "Zero Dark Thirty" leaving "The Master" in the dust. Acting categories made up for it, however, as Amy Adams, Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman were all nominated for the film, while all but Hoffman were skipped for SAG nominations yesterday.

"Beasts of the Southern Wild" was nowhere to be found, but that's not surprising considering the HFPA prefers to include bigger stars, and "Beasts" is full of unknowns.

With "Les Miserables" and "Silver Linings Playbook" both filling up Comedy and Musical slots, that left for some interesting inclusions in the Drama acting categories. With Bradley Cooper for "Silver Linings Playbook" shifted aside, Richard Gere got his due for "Arbitrage" which almost went the whole season without recognition.

Same goes for the displacement of Jennifer Lawrence for "Silver Linings," which left room for the re-emergence of Rachel Weisz for "The Deep Blue Sea" after her NYFCC win. Naomi Watts for "The Impossible" and Helen Mirren for "Hitchcock" are gaining more traction for their spots in the Best Actress field for the Oscars, as well, pushing out both Emmuanelle Riva for "Amour" and Quvenzhane Wallis for "Beasts."

And apparently no awards season is complete without Meryl Streep, so way to go HFPA for remembering "Hope Springs," and nominating the veteran actress in the category of Best Actress for Comedy or Musical. Judi Dench got a nod, as well, not for "Skyfall" but instead "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" along with Maggie Smith for not "Best Exotic" but "Quartet."

The Best Supporting categories, which don't get the benefit of a Drama and Comedy or Musical divide, were both crowded. And guess who decided to show up again for Best Supporting Actress? Nicole Kidman for her raucous performance in "The Paperboy," which after SAG yesterday and now this, might, dare I say, have some traction toward an Oscar nomination? Lord help us, hopefully not.

Best Supporting Actor held some "Django" love with both Leonardo DiCaprio and Christoph Waltz scoring nods. Sorely missing, however, was Robert De Niro for "Silver Linings Playbook."

What can we take away from this year's HFPA selections? Only that the Critics' Choice are more and more becoming the better Oscar precursor.

Check out the full list of nominations, and tune in to watch what everyone really wants to watch during the 70th Annual Golden Globe Awards: Tina Fey and Amy Poehler hosting. It all happens on Sunday, January 13 at 8 p.m. on NBC.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

19th Annual SAG Award Nominations


David O. Russell's "Silver Linings Playbook" made an impressive appearance this morning with four SAG award nominations during the announcement for the 19th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards. Both of its leads, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, as well as a supporting nod for Robert De Niro and a Best Ensemble nomination made up the four total. Tying at four was Spielberg's "Lincoln" with nominations in the same categories for Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones and the cast.

Along with "Silver Linings" for Best Ensemble, the nominated films were "Lincoln," "Les Miserables," "Argo" and "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" which gives the latter film a slight edge toward a possible (but still long shot) Best Picture nomination. The obvious snub here is for "Zero Dark Thirty" which has otherwise been getting plenty of accolades.

The Best Actor nominations here pretty much affirm what we'll see for the category at the Oscars. That is, the usual suspects with John Hawkes for "The Sessions" and Hugh Jackman for "Les Miserables" getting in over the likes of previous contendor Joaquin Phoenix for "The Master."

Best Actress got a bit of a shake-up with Helen Mirren for "Hitchcock" and Naomi Watts for "The Impossible" re-emerging over two major snubs for Quvenzhane Wallis for "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and Emmuanelle Riva for "Amour." Somehow I can't see this overlook happening come Oscar nomination morning.

And it looks like we may have our very first Bond villain make its way to an Oscar nomination in the Best Supporting Actor category. Then again, never before has a Bond villain been played by the entirely capable Javier Bardem. The actor received another nod for his turn in "Skyfall," extending his reach to Oscar potential. This, however, meant that Matthew McConaughey for "Magic Mike" got edged out.

Sneaking their way into Best Supporting Actress were Maggie Smith for "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," which is a fine inclusion to the category, but then also Nicole Kidman for her raunchy, twisted turn in "The Paperboy." That's a tiny miracle for the film, and there must've been a big campaign behind her. This meant not including the possible contendor of Ann Dowd for "Compliance," but more notably a pretty big snub for Amy Adams in "The Master."

The biggest thing we can walk away with here is that "Zero Dark Thirty" suddenly just hit a wall with only one nomination for its lead, Jessica Chastain. This, however, could all get rectified come Globe nominations tomorrow morning.

Check out the full list of nominations, and be sure to tune in to the 19th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards on Sunday, January 27 at 8 p.m. on TNT and TBS.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

18th Annual Critics' Choice Movie Award Nominations


After a slew of critics groups naming their best of the year earlier last week (AFI, Boston, New York, Los Angeles), it announced the late arrival of Kathryn Bigelow's every-other-award-contendor-killer, her true life military drama "Zero Dark Thirty." It is in full steam ahead as the late front-runner for Best Picture after "Argo" seemed impossible to top earlier in the fall.

Now with the arrival of this morning's 18th Annual Critics' Choice Movie Awards from the Broadcast Film Critics Association, it's a nice reminder that a reputable comedy category is on its way with the Globes. With "Bernie," "Silver Linings Playbook," "Ted," "This Is 40" and "21 Jump Street" all nominated for Best Picture from the BFCA, it's a robust category and will make the Golden Globe nominations more interesting; however, they have the pesky inclusion of musical which "Les Miserables" can easily dominate.

Also a breath of fresh air is the association's inclusion of a separate action movie category where the likes of "The Dark Knight Rises," "Looper" and, most importantly, "Skyfall" can get some recognition.  The three all received nods for Best Action Movie next to superhero big-show "The Avengers." This also allowed Daniel Craig a nomination for Best Actor in an Action Movie next to co-star Judi Dench for a double-nomination in both Best Actress in an Action Movie and in the major category of Best Supporting Actress, which is a welcomed surprise along with Javier Bardem in the major Best Supporting Actor category. This is likely the most awards love "Skyfall" will receive this year.

Back to the main grind, "Lincoln" led the pack with a whopping 13 nominations, which beat out previous record-holder of "Black Swan" with 12 nominations. Yet the BFCA passed the love all around with several nominations for each major contendor. Joining "Lincoln" with a Best Picture nomination were "Argo," "Beasts of the Southern Wild," "Django Unchained," "Les Miserables," "Life of Pi," "The Master," "Moonrise Kingdom," "Silver Linings Playbook" and "Zero Dark Thirty." There are eight locked with "Django" and "Moonrise" slots up for grabs with the potential of "The Sessions" or "Amour" sneaking in.

Narrowing down the ten, Best Director nominations went to six: Ben Affleck for "Argo," Kathryn Bigelow for "Zero Dark Thirty," Tom Hooper for "Les Miserables," Ang Lee for "Life of Pi," David O. Russell for "Silver Linings Playbook" and Steven Spielberg for "Lincoln."

Joining front-runner Daniel Day-Lewis for "Lincoln" in the Best Actor category were Bradley Cooper for "Silver Linings Playbook," Denzel Washington for "Flight," John Hawkes for "The Sessions," Hugh Jackman for "Les Miserables" and Joaquin Phoenix for "The Master." Since this is six total, it'll likely be between Hawkes and Phoenix for the fifth spot at the Oscars.

The Best Actress category included Jessica Chastain for "Zero Dark Thirty," Marion Cotillard for "Rust and Bone," Jennifer Lawrence for "Silver Linings Playbook," Emmanuelle Riva for "Amour," Quvenzhane Wallis for "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and Naomi Watts for "The Impossible." Take out Watts, and you're looking at the Best Actress nominees at the Oscars.

Even "The Hunger Games" nabbed some love in the form of Lawrence getting another acting nomination for Best Actress in an Action Movie. Lawrence got double-nominated for "Silver Linings" in both Best Actress and Actress in a Comedy for three acting nods total.

Best Supporting Actor is a little more interesting, especially with Javier Bardem for "Skyfall" sneaking in alongside Matthew McConaughey for "Magic Mike," Tommy Lee Jones for "Lincoln," Alan Arkin for "Argo," Robert De Niro for "Silver Linings Playbook" and Philip Seymour Hoffman for "The Master." While it's still pretty fluid who might get in (Leonardo DiCaprio for "Django" is decidedly missing), Tommy Lee Jones is the front-runner here.

Judi Dench surprised with her aforementioned Best Supporting Actress nomination for her work in "Skyfall," and joining her in the category was Helen Hunt for "The Sessions," Anne Hathaway for "Les Miserables," Amy Adams for "The Master," Sally Field for "Lincoln" and Ann Dowd for "Compliance." Again, take out Dench, and you're likely looking at this field for the Oscars.

The biggest question is whether the acting categories are locked down and prepped to snub "Skyfall" or if the mentions here will translate into Oscar love later on.

Check out the full list of nominations, and tune in to find out the winners of the 18th Annual Critics' Choice Movie Awards on Thursday, Jan. 10 at 8 p.m. on the CW.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

PROMISED LAND Review


It confounds me that "Promised Land" is widely held as an awards contendor this year. It makes sense considering this is director Gus Van Sant's first time reuniting with Matt Damon as writer since 1997's Oscar-winning "Good Will Hunting." What doesn't make sense, however, is the final result that turns out from this second-time collaboration. This time Damon is aided by co-writer John Krasinski (the two star in the film together), and it works as a gentle, well-acted drama about small town life and a big environmental decision; ultimately, however, the film undermines its own dramatic potential instead to make way for preachy political sentiment and in-your-face agenda.

Damon plays Steve Butler, a corporate salesman for a large drilling company called Global who's sent to a rural farming community to convince the locals that drilling for natural gas is the best solution to solving their economic woes. The deals struck with selling their land to drilling would give them more money than they could imagine -- but of course, there are plenty of strings attached. Called fracking (I'll spare you the Googling), the process to retrieve natural gas from beneath the ground inadvertently pollutes the land above killing all crops and livestock. It's shrugged off as a potential, but not inevitable, hazard.

Arriving in town with his amiable co-worker, Sue (Frances McDormand), she and Steve seem like nice enough people. They're certainly not villains, and they're only doing the job they're told to do. It's a compelling contradiction put into play early on that's further complicated by the arrival of a grassroots environmentalist guy named Dustin Noble (John Krasinski) who's really looking out for the citizens, and who very well might be right about the dangers of fracking, but comes across as the bad guy to both Steve and Sue's efforts. Once this character base is set up, however, the film has nowhere else to go.

The story finds side routes to go including a wobbly love interest for Steve in the form of local bar-goer, middle-aged single woman Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt). They spend one drunken night together, a little interest evolves, and that's about it. Likewise, Sue finds friendship in a shop owner (Titus Welliver). Will these two out-of-towners find enough to like in this farming town to realize what they're selling and halt their dirty business? Don't let me spoil it.

There's a bit of comedic fun between Sue and Steve's half-hearted efforts to get the town on their side while Dustin runs circles around them almost effortlessly. The real stand-out, though, is Hal Hobrook as a grisled old school teacher who serves as the first opposition against Steve and the most convincing. This is followed shortly by Scoot McNairy's (last seen in "Argo") one-man representation of middle America. When almost validating itself as an ode to humbling, homegrown mentality, "Promised Land" introduces a late morality twist that doesn't so much work as character development but rather a cheap screenplay device. Once Steve watches as everything he believed in crumbles before him, Van Sant's film affirms itself as an overly opinionated and lazy Oscar hopeful.

SMASHED Review


Mary Elizabeth Winstead is the clear standout in writer and director James Ponsoldt's "Smashed," which follows Winstead's character, Kate, as she acknowledges her alcoholism and leads a new life to sobriety. It's a very small, intimate film not even running a full 90 minutes, and in this design Ponsoldt and his co-writer Susan Burke (whose experiences inspired the story) know exactly their goal: to present a truthful portrayal of how alcohol addiction can affect a person's life in ways they may not imagine. It appears to be a very personal project and may have you wondering "what's the point?" but then looking at the actress' performance at its center, and you'll have found your answer.

Kate is married to a scruffy, loving husband Charlie, played by the "Breaking Bad" double-Emmy winner Aaron Paul in his first dramatic role outside of the AMC drama. On the surface their marriage seems healthy because they're happy together, but as the film slowly peels away the layers of their wedlock, you realize they're only happy together when they're both drunk. They drink a lot -- out with friends, at the bar and then to a dangerous level back in their home. Two incidences push Kate to think her drinking has become a problem. After drunk-driving a stranger home who offers her a hit of a crack pipe, Kate wakes up the next morning unaware of where she is or how she got there. Another morning at her elementary school job, she throws up from a hangover and after being asked by a student if she's pregnant, she instinctively responds "yes" to hide her shame and without realizing the repercussions.

A fellow teacher at the school, Dave (Nick Offerman) recognizes Kate's struggle as he was once an alcoholic himself. He offers to take her to AA where she meets a warm-hearted sponsor, Jenny (Octavia Spencer in her first serious role since her Oscar win for "The Help"). Meanwhile back at the school, Kate has to deal with her lying as the principal (Megan Mullally) is congratulating her pregnancy. The film boasts an understated ensemble cast that's actually not as utilized as maybe it could've been -- but again, this allows Winstead to shine even more.

The scenes of Winstead drinking herself to oblivion are equal parts heartbreaking and terrifying, especially when she interacts with Charlie who simply doesn't want to believe in not only her alcohol dependence but also his own. Even when they both visit Kate's estranged mother (Mary Kay Place), she receives no support because her mother, too, has a drinking problem she can't admit. The power in Ponsoldt's tale of recovery comes from the unexpected results of getting sober. The reality is that it's not just about becoming dry and putting down the bottle -- it's about realizing the other effects it will have on your job, your relationships, your marriage.

"Smashed" is worth your time if only for Winstead's performance and Aaron Paul's supporting turn, and the way they interact together as an alcohol-soaked couple. As one of the two movies out this year about alcoholism (the other being "Flight"), it's a serious movie about drinking but also one that doesn't lose hope.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

LIFE OF PI Review


Ang Lee's "Life of Pi" is the best use of 3D in any film since the inception of the technology's use, even superior to "Avatar." It's the prime example of how to expand the possibilities of the medium. In every meticulous detail, the film is transcendent and awash in magical realism. Adapted from the worldwide bestseller by Yann Martel, the novel was likely regarded by its readers (I am not one of them) as an impossible translation to the big screen. Yet much in the way you have to believe the extraordinary story of a boy stranded on a boat with a Bengal tiger, you have to believe in Ang Lee as a director. Every so often, the right person for the right project comes along, and the result is unbridled imagination and confidence. This is something special, a one-of-a-kind experience that sinks into your soul. It's also one of the very best films of the year.

It all begins and ends with the power of storytelling. As an adult, Piscine Patel (Irrfan Khan) recalls his life journey to an author (Rafe Spall) who wants to write about it. We first learn of the origin of Pi's full name, which is French for swimming pool, but of course his schoolmates refer to him as "pee." Pi outsmarts them, however, reinventing his name around the mathematical constant beginning with 3.14. Pi grew up surrounded by his family's zoo in Pondichery, India, and Lee -- with the help of cinematographer Claudio Miranda -- shows us Pi's childhood full of clever whimsy.

As a young boy, Pi (Ayush Tandon) learns a valuable lesson about the dangers of animals from his father. It's a crucial moment between Pi and the zoo's tiger, named Richard Parker, when the boy learns of life's harsh realities for the first time. Fast forward to his family's zoo going broke forcing them to sell and move to Canada. Now older, Pi (Suraj Sharma) experiences a tragic shipwreck during their trip abroad, and his family is never seen again. He's left stranded on a life boat with a zebra, hyena and an orangutan in a microcosm of a food chain. And then emerges Richard Parker as both a blessing and curse.

The bulk of the film takes place out on sea as we watch the evolving relationship between Pi and Richard Parker. The CGI, motion-capture technology used to bring the ferociousness of the Bengal tiger to life is astonishing. The movement, sounds, actions and most importantly feelings of Richard Parker are fully realized and make a living, breathing creature out of thin air. Pi learns to co-exist with the animal on their tiny, mobile island across a vast expanse of blue sea, which refers back to the movie's ingenius use of 3D as a storytelling element. Picture this: a tiny white speck of a boat in the open water reflecting back the sky, creating a complete sense of infinity and isolation. There's no question Lee's film is a visual masterpiece.

"Life of Pi" is very much a rumination on religion and faith as the young Pi takes on Christianity, Hinduism and Islam all at once and, later in life, wonders what God's plan for him was all along during his sea voyage. And the story seems almost mystical, especially once a meerkat-covered island comes into play, and it begs the question of how much can you believe? But in the end, it's a poignant and moving film about seeing what life deals out to you and learning that sometimes you have to be ready to let go.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

LINCOLN Review


There's a point in watching Daniel Day-Lewis as our 16th president of the United States where you realize you're not just watching an actor portrayal. You are watching a man disappearing behind a historical figure, an icon of American history. You stop seeing Daniel Day-Lewis. You see Abraham Lincoln. Never again will an on-screen representation of him be so close, so real and so accurate. And it all starts with that voice. The voice Day-Lewis decided to inhabit the president with is nothing short of brilliant. The legend and lore of Lincoln brings to mind a deep, booming voice. History tells us otherwise, and the master method actor brings this richly to life. Before this film, Lincoln was a figure, a representation, an idea. Now, there's a man to go with it.

Instead of the painterly, picturesque puffery of last year's "War Horse," Steven Spielberg directs "Lincoln" with refined understatement. He allows the densely packed script from Tony Kushner ("Angels in America," "Munich") speak for itself, which was expertly crafted from Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals." Full of monologues, heated debates and strategic discussions, the movie documents the final months of Lincoln's presidency leading up to the passing of the thirteenth amendment and his tragic assassination at Ford's Theatre. The beauty in the collaboration is that it works like a time machine transporting audiences effortlessly to the 19th century, a time when the Civil War raged on and worry surrounded Lincoln's re-election.

Longtime Spielberg cinematographer Janusz Kaminski shoots "Lincoln" full of dark interiors and light spilling in through windows and curtains. Only a few shots are outside, and the only piece of battlefield action is in the film's first fleeting moments. For the majority of its two-and-a-half-hour running time, the film is a lesson in history -- and I mean that in the best way possible. It's smart, and you feel smart watching it. It can drag and does take a bit to get settled in with its vast cast of characters and familiar faces, but once we first enter that House of Representatives, the rewards for your attention and perseverance are immense.

The supporting crew is a laundry list of names and faces audiences will recognize. The main players are Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln's eldest son, Robert; David Straithairn as Secretary of State William H. Seward, Lincoln's right-hand man; Tommy Lee Jones as the hot-tempered radical liberal Thaddeus Stevens, a fervent advocate of black rights; and Sally Field as Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd. But that's only the beginning. James Spader, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Lee Pace, Jared Harris and  Michael Stuhlbarg among many other actors play strong supporting roles to give this moment in history real drama and life.

Casting Sally Field as the impassioned Mary Todd was inspired, as the veteran actress shows us the 16th president's wife as both indignant toward and admirable of her husband. Likewise, Tommy Lee Jones brings a weathered yet tough energy to Thaddeus Stevens whose private secret reveals his personal connection to Lincoln's cause. Both of these seasoned performances will be nominated alongside Day-Lewis.

All of this, all of "Lincoln," it all circles back to Day-Lewis. The scenes of him speaking to his Cabinet are captivating. He plays Lincoln with a quicksilver spirit that is ideal to the president's lore and how well-loved and appreciated he was by his party members. He has all the patience in the world, idling by and telling long stories -- but he also has his moments where he doesn't see what he knows needs to be done getting done. And when he slams that fist of his down on the table and asserts his power, you'll get chills. If nothing else, Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" could likely restore your faith in American politics.

Monday, November 19, 2012

ANNA KARENINA Review


There's something woefully wrong with "Anna Karenina," and I refer to both the title character who's a distressful mess of a woman, but I also refer to the movie in which she stars. I've heard of style over substance, and I've heard that's what Joe Wright's latest feature falls victim to. But it's much more than that; it's style over no substance. There's no holding this exercise in decadence together other than the decadence on display in itself. This is the third time Wright has used Keira Knightley as his muse ("Pride & Prejudice," "Atonement"), and as much as I wanted another collaboration between this directorial master and the actress to strike gold, this is not the case. She plays dress-up in beautiful gowns playing to the part, the ill-fated Anna Karenina, but there's nothing beyond the beauty she emanates.

All the world's a stage, and she is but a player in the drama. Wright boldly directs his latest period drama (after the welcomed departure of last year's "Hanna") as a stage play within a movie. The action opens upon a stage, the camera moving into the set with all the backstage fixings and characters walking briskly past operating ropes and pulleys. The camera work simultaneously pulls us into 19th century Imperial Russia and keeps us once-removed from the action. The aesthetic is a fun diversion to start, but ultimately begins to deconstruct. Scenes still take place outside and look painterly but don't include the stage. When characters appear within the stage and in the audience area with all the seats removed as opposed to when entire scenes are detached from this stage, it all become random and inconsequential.

There are several moments where backdrop characters freeze to become an astonishing tableau upon the stage. This works to especially great effect when Anna engages in a dance of seduction with the younger count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). But again, it more announces the panache of Wright as a director but fails to engage us further in Anna's plight. As the 900-page Leo Tolstoy novel from which this is adapted -- and has been adapted plenty of times before -- tells us, Anna takes a trip to visit relatives and gets enraptured by Vronsky. She's an upper-class wife married to minster Karenin (Jude Law), but the only passion left for their marriage is displaced in a love for their young son. To fall so desperately in love with another man is despicable in the eyes of high society St. Petersberg and Moscow, and yet Anna feels she can flaunt such adultery without the world watching.

Coming from the perspective of a modern day audience, of course we sympathize with Anna. Why shouldn't she able to love who she wants? But at the same time, Anna is so unruly with her desire that she turns to downright recklessness. Her husband learns of the affair, and he offers forgiveness as long as she keep it secret; that way society won't punish her. She refuses, and society sees her punishment in full. When our sympathies begin to shift, that's when "Anna Karenina" really starts to fail. Silly, Anna, passion is temporary.

Whether it's the acting or a stiff screenplay from Tom Stoppard ("Shakespeare in Love"), something about the film is bloodless, lifeless and worst of all -- passionless. When Anna feels so powerfully about her affair with Vronsky, we should feel that level of emotion. Meanwhile, there's a third important character in play. A landowner named Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) who hopes to marry Kitty (Alicia Vikander), but she has a crush on Vronsky before he's otherwise occupied. Levin and Kitty end up happily-ever-after while Anna, well, you know. Is this version of "Anna Karenina" a tale about following undying love, or a morality tale about responsibility and duty? The confusion is crippling to the film and slams Wright's latest as a glorious miscalculation.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK Review


Every awards season needs its surefire crowd-pleaser, and David O. Russell's "Silver Linings Playbook" is it.  This screwy and hugely compassionate comedy is also a genre-defying collision of football, ballroom dancing, family drama, mental illness and romantic intrigue. The movie follows Pat Solatano Jr. (Bradley Cooper), a troubled man struggling with his bipolar disorder. He was committed to a psych ward after catching another man with his wife, Nicky, and consequently nearly beating him to death. Now having been released and picked up by his loving, dedicated mother, Dolores (Jacki Weaver of "Animal Kingdom"), Pat's on a life mission to get his wife back. The number of times he mentions her name is a sickness in itself, and it comes with a peculiarly positive outlook on life with the motto "excelsior." Much like he did with his last outing "The Fighter," Russell excels in bringing to life colorful idiosyncrasies; here it's the hectic, buzzing nature of Pat's Philly family to which he's brought home.

Robert De Niro plays Pat Sr., a father who doesn't fully realize the apple hasn't fallen too far from the tree. He's an obsessive-compulsive Philadelphia Eagles fan who turns his football fanaticism into an entire family affair. He lost his job and was banned from the stadium for fighting, so he conducts risky business as a bookie leaving him glued to the TV exhibiting irrational and superstitious behaviors to ensure his team wins. Meanwhile he's frustrated that he doesn't know how to help his own son. This is De Niro's juiciest role in a very long time, and he looks more engaged than ever. Perhaps because it's not just another "Fockers" sequel, and thank goodness because it reminds us why he's one of this generation's great veteran actors.

The movie is a little wobbly to start establishing Pat's personal predicament, but it really gets its footing once Jennifer Lawrence's widowed Tiffany is introduced. They meet at a dinner party hosted by Tiffany's controlling sister, Veronica (Julia Stiles), and her stifled husband, Ronnie (John Ortiz). The minute Pat and Tiffany lock eyes, there is a connection, a chemistry. Tiffany even bluntly asks to have sex, but that's not what she means. She's only turning to her typical habit when it comes to interacting with men. They feed off each other's unfiltered, manic energy, and their scenes together are something to behold. Lawrence appears transformed since we were first introduced to her in 2010's "Winter's Bone." At only 22, she really is the girl on fire, straddling both the "Hunger Games" franchise and an incredibly unhinged performance like this.

Cooper is a comparable match to Lawrence, an actor with a prolific career who tops it off here. The off-kilter sway, momentum and fidgety air he brings to Pat is revelatory and unlike anything we've seen from him before. Behind those bright blue eyes is a vulnerability, a conflicting mess of impulses and emotions; lucky for him, it's something Tiffany shares. They both flirt with disaster, but at least now they can do it together.

Having both written and directed it from the 2008 novel by Matthew Quick, Russell brings the work of a true auteur to "Silver Linings Playbook" with a love for his characters, a very unique rhythm and a quirky sense of controlled chaos. The zany family he sets into play builds and gets more convoluted, especially with the additions of Pat's buddy from the psych ward, played by Chris Tucker who we arguably haven't seen since "Rush Hour," and Anupam Kher as Pat's shrink.

The film's loose storytelling takes Pat and Tiffany to a dance competition -- and without giving too much away, their dance is a sporadic treat, a schizophrenic blast of motion that perfectly mirrors what goes on inside these characters' heads. The scene recalls to mind the beauty pageant at the end of "Little Miss Sunshine," a misshapen family unit coming together. While one of the lessons of "Silver Linings" may just be to find your own silver lining in life, the real silver lining may be that no matter who you are, everybody's just a little bit crazy.

Friday, November 16, 2012

SKYFALL Review


Forgetting "Quantum of Solace" ever existed, the latest James Bond reinvention arrives as a full-bodied piece of rousing entertainment that's even better than Martin Campbell's original reboot of the franchise with 2006's "Casino Royale." First off, Daniel Craig (reprising his Bond role for a third time) looks more confident and assured than ever. Less bulky, more lean, looking haggard but still handsome and with a newly added sly sense of humor, the actor portrays 007 as less brooding and more finessed. Director Sam Mendes, whose most recent outing was the small indie comedy "Away We Go," has worked with Craig on "Road to Perdition" and proves the perfect man for the job. And coupled with a talented trio of writers -- Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan -- "Skyfall" excites from the start hitting the ground running with a breathless opening action sequence.

The elaborate chase takes us to the first of the film's exotic locations: Istanbul. Bond and a fellow agent, Eve (Naomie Harris), are in a pursuit that takes Bond on top of a moving train with Eve watching closely. Monitoring remotely from MI6 in London is the severe-looking M (Judi Dench); as Bond gets into a wrestling match with the enemy in pursuit, Eve announces she can take a shot to take the enemy down. It's a risky shot, but a shot nonetheless. M makes a judgement call ("Take the shot!") that sends Bond plummeting to the rushing water below.

Brilliantly choreographed action like the above is sprinkled throughout the duration of "Skyfall" taking us to Shanghai and a mysterious island that houses the film's best Bond villain in years. Played effortlessly by Javier Bardem, Silva is all the more terrifying in his theatricality with flamboyant dress, cat-like eyes and bleach blonde hair. A playful and perversely sexual exchange between Silva and Bond is inspired. No stranger to sinister roles having embodied Anton Chigurh in "No Country for Old Men," Bardem plays Silva as the face of cyber terrorism. He's a computer whiz who can spark chaos with one key stroke and the newest threat to MI6 even if only M and her agents realize it yet.

There's a Bond girl (Berenice Marlohe), but just barely. Perhaps it's because Eve's real name is Miss Moneypenny -- hint, hint. Instead, the emphasis is on the complicated relationship between Bond and M, a storyline thread that takes them to Bond's origin: an old Scottish mansion fittingly named Skyfall and inhabited by a man named Kincade (Albert Finney) who raised the young James. This brand new Bond comes just in time for the series' 50th anniversary, and it both invigorates the modern and commemorates the past. M is past her years, and there's a new boss in position, Mallory (Ralph Fiennes). When Bond is debriefed on a mission from a much younger Q (Ben Whishaw), the only gadgetry he receives is a palm-recognizing pistol and radio transmitter. And yet when the original Aston Martin from "Goldfinger" is unveiled, it's a blast of pure nostalgia for fans.

Adele's gorgeous theme reverberates throughout "Skyfall" with the classic Bond theme trumpeting in later on, and the whole thrill ride is accented with a touch of artfulness from Roger Deakins whose keen cinematography deserves awards consideration. And speaking of awards, if never in its 22-film history has a Bond film been nominated for an Oscar, the 23rd entry in the prolific franchise is a better time than ever.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

FLIGHT Review


Robert Zemeckis hasn't directed a live-action movie since "Cast Away," so how perfect that 12 years later he's at the helm of "Flight" whose centerpiece is a harrowing 20-minute airplane crash sequence. Nothing tops the FedEx flight disaster in the 2000 Tom Hanks vehicle, but this certainly comes close in its heart-pounding detail and claustrophobic point-of-view placing us right in the cockpit. After escaping stormy weather and turbulence, the plane suffers a mechanical failure sending it into an irreversible nose dive. The fear evoked in the lead flight attendant (Tamara Tunie) and young co-pilot (Brian Geraghty) is a contrast to the calm, level-headed demeanor of pilot Whip Whitacker (Denzel Washington) who rolls the aircraft upside-down to maintain its altitude in a gut-instinct decision.

Hours prior to this very flight, we see Whip hungover in a hotel room. Beer and liquor bottles scatter the room, and he fights on the phone with his ex-wife while a naked woman dresses beside the bed. To jolt himself back to life from his grogginess, he sniffs two lines of cocaine and throws on his dark aviator sunglasses to portray a man completely in control. It's a facade, though, as Whip is a man who's completely lost control, and playing this tortured soul gives Denzel Washington his most hypnotic and powerful dramatic performance in years. And Zemeckis, who recently turned his efforts exclusively toward stop-motion animation ("Beowulf," "The Polar Express"), hasn't lost the ability to draw performances from great actors.

Whip glides the plane with 102 passengers on board into a crash-landing in a vacant field holding nothing but a small church. Only six die in the crash, and to those who don't know Whip personally, he's hailed as a hero. No other pilot could've landed the plane the way he did, and crash simulators following the event prove this. The fact remains, however, that Whip was intoxicated. An investigation from a federal organization goes underway with Whip under close scrutiny. The film, against expectation, is smart in not devolving into mere procedural. Instead, it continues as a brooding and intense character study with phenomenal supporting turns to accompany.

Retreating to seclusion at his grandfather's farm, Whip dumps all remaining alcohol in his possession. He realizes the plane crash was his wake-up call; his opportunity to turn his life around. When his union representative (Bruce Greenwood) and lawyer (Don Cheadle) turn up, however, with the bad news of Whip's toxicology report, whether Whip can stay above the influence of his past behavior or continue his downward spiral comes into question. During his stay in the hospital, Whip meets a drug-addicted woman named Nicole (Kelly Reilly); just when you think it'll be him who saves her, she attends AA on her own, and her disappointment in Whip trumps her ability to help him.

And if John Goodman is to be nominated this year, it should be for his role here (over "Argo") as Whip's drug guru, Harling Mays, who channels the Dude from "The Big Lebowski." He arrives at a crucial moment when Whip is held overnight in a hotel room before the morning of his hearing. In only two scenes, he steals the show injecting the movie with dark humor. Likewise, Melissa Leo commands the screen during another pivotal single scene. A bold claim can be made for ensemble of the year here.

"Flight" is about a man battling his inner demons, and the screenplay from "Real Steel" scribe John Gatins doesn't tell us how to view, or judge, Whip. The film nears perfection, but then backs off at the last minute. It gives Whip the easy option, the nicely wrapped epilogue. Such tumultuous proceedings should've been left more open-ended, not so easily solvable; give Denzel Washington's acting more credit. His impending Oscar nomination proves it.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

CLOUD ATLAS Review


"Cloud Atlas" is inherently polarizing in its very nature. Either you get swept up in its soaring, outlandish vision, or you don't. It's a film easy to dismiss but equally as easy to get caught up in its undeniable power and ambition. From Andy and Lana Wachowski (who arguably haven't made a decent movie since "The Matrix" and maybe "The Matrix Reloaded") and Tom Tykwer, behind the one-hit wonder "Run Lola Run," these three set out to make the epic, visionary mind-bender of the year. And to their credit, they've done exactly that.

The movie is based on the seemingly impossible to adapt 2004 novel from David Mitchell, which tells six different stories spanning between the mid-19th century and well beyond the year 2144. The movie adaptation casts the same group of actors playing different characters within each story. The main players are Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw and Jim Broadbent who all, in some cases, are not even recognizable in the role they play. Supporting them are Hugh Grant and Susan Surandon. Sometimes the actors are the centerpiece of their story, other times they're a background figure. Each story opens with a larger exposition to give some context, each serving as their own single vignette. Once introduced, however, they weave together cutting back and forth between each other with a very specific rhythm.

The success in the storytelling comes from the way the six stories, and the main roles within, work together as they spill over and ripple through the narratives. I can't imagine the road map the Wachowskis and Tykwer must've created to pull this off. Now, I could go into detail about the premise of each timeline, but it would be an effort in vain. The point is the complex tapestry of feelings that is ultimately created, how particular themes so clearly resonates freely into the next frame. The filmmakers definitely touch on something political -- big oil destroying a nation -- but I won't get into that here. Themes of freedom, justice, liberation, truth, love, loss, good and evil all perfectly sync up in the thematic telling of each story, and it has a wondrous effect. We're never set on a character for long, but in the way certain roles represent others in a different timeline, similar emotions carry over. An escape, a romantic interest, a painful death -- there's always a link. Repeated passages, phrases and one similarly-shaped birth mark command repeated viewings to follow what I can only assume are endless correlations between the six stories.

If this all seems very general, that's because it is. "Cloud Atlas" works at its best when looking at the bigger picture. It's in the details where the movie starts to fall apart. The portrayals are caricature, cartoonish even, but there's no lack in color and texture. For example, the 2144 storyline takes place in Seoul, Korea and forces actors to wear makeup making them appear more Asian. (Except for stoic and stunning Korean actress Doona Bae.) It's a weird effect, especially Jim Sturgess' use of an accent. The other future storyline has Tom Hanks and Halle Berry speaking in a strange, broken language that's nearly laughable -- not to mention almost impossible to understand. But again, those are the nit-picky details. When watching "Cloud Atlas," an overall feeling emerges, a grandiose idea of the recurring moralities of human nature, no matter when or where, or what lifetime -- history repeats itself. I urge you to see it. It's certainly not for everyone, but it also very well might be just for you.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4


The fourth installment in the spook-fest found footage series is the point at which it's officially something for fans only. At this point in the "Paranormal Activity" universe, there's too much backstory and not enough scares for newbies to be interested. The second and third installments were repetitive, yes, but still offered up true scares and jump-at-you moments. Now scares are produced from jump-cuts to loud sounds (doors shutting, backpacks dropping). There's no more looming dread and nothing left to catch us off guard. To be forever helmed by "Catfish" creators Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, "Paranormal Activity 4" announces the franchise's transformation into strict merchandise.

Credit is due, though, to the new gimmicks and creativity in found footage techniques. This is the first entry to feel current and contemporary, especially after the third's prequel pre-dating it to the 80s. Instead of a video camera mounted on an oscillating fan, there are MacBooks, iPhones, Skype and even the Xbox Kinect used to innovative effect. We follow Alex (Kathryn Newton) as she discovers weird happenings surrounding her young neighbor, Robbie (Brady Allen), who's invited to stay with Alex's family when his mother falls ill. There's less build of suspense, especially with less reliance on the night-time footage which previous installments have banked on. Although the return of statuesque, stalking Katie -- of which all this supernatural activity surrounds -- is a blast.

My showing of the movie brought co-directors Joost and Schulman for a quick Q&A session. The guys noted that, as the ending teased with nibbles of plot development and a laughably goofy final shot, the fifth title is already well in the works. And after being asked when they think they're going to stop making sequels, they responded, "When are you going to stop coming?" Touché, gentlemen.

Monday, October 15, 2012

ARGO Review


Ben Affleck's "Argo" is a blend of incredible true story and Hollywood movie magic. This is illustrated perfectly in the movie's opening explanation of the backstory behind the 1979 Iran Revolution. It's a combination of real world footage and classic storyboard drawings, which sets up two things. It not only mirrors the film's true story of creating a fake movie to rescue six American hostages from Iran, but also emphasizes the style in which Affleck tells this true story. There is close attention to facts with just the right amount of flourish and embellishment. It's smart Hollywood, and it's smart filmmaking. After only two directorial features before this (2007's "Gone Baby Gone" and 2010's "The Town"), Affleck's third feature feels like the work of a real veteran, and it's the one that'll give him his due come Oscar night.

A group of about fifty Americans were taken hostage at the Embassy in Iran, but six of them got away and were secretly housed by the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). It's been too long keeping them there, and the CIA needs a plan to get them out. Tony Mendez is a professional CIA "extractor" who's the best at getting people out of these situations. Out of the possibilities the CIA hatches up, it ends up being Mendez's seemingly outlandish plan that becomes the most plausible. At the height of sci-fi movie popularity after the huge success of "Star Wars," the idea of filmmakers doing location scouting in an exotic, foreign land is apparently believable.

Ah, the power of Hollywood. Also the absurdity, and poking fun at the industry is where a lot of the film's humor comes from, which is an unexpected addition considering the life-or-death scenarios of Iran it addresses at the same time. The script from Chris Terrio is a triumph in this complex tonal balance as well as its tight, focused precision in executing the rescue of the American hostages. Most thrillers create tension from car chases and fire fights, but here breathless excitement is manufactured through exquisite timing and careful plotting. It's a race to the airport between Mendez with his fake film crew and the Iranian revolutionaries uncovering the identities of the missing hostages -- and it's white-knuckle, nail-biting suspense.

The setup of the rescue mission had to be fabricated down to the details of a real script, producers and even press coverage. Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), a hardened and snarky film producer, and John Chambers (John Goodman), an accomplished makeup artist, jump on-board and make sure the project -- which, needless to say, never gets made -- is the real deal. This leads to a script reading at the Beverly Hilton with the "real" film crew in a scene that beautifully intercuts with the "fake" film crew preparing their nerves for the inevitable escape. It's an affecting moment and brings to light the real world implications, how this moment in history foreshadowed the political landscape we live in today.

Affleck's high-class popcorn pleaser shares a love for the transcending power of movies while reminding us why we go to the movies. There's a scene where Iran airport security is shown storyboards for the fake "Argo," and they're enchanted. Performances across the board are great: Cranston easily breaks free of any "Breaking Bad" restraints while Goodman and Arkin prove a comic pairing. Affleck as Mendez is nicely understated, and we learn that he's a father, as well. "Argo" paints Mendez as an American hero, just like, yes, something straight out of a movie.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

THE PAPERBOY Review


Coming off the success of his Oscar-winning "Precious," writer-director Lee Daniels decided to get down and dirty for his next picture. This weird, reverse sexploitation, faux 70s-styled comedy-thriller, period piece, detective drama is exactly the schizophrenic jumble of words I just described. If "The Paperboy" has one thing going for it, it's that it's nearly impossible to properly describe. And it, most certainly, will be unlike anything you've seen recently. One could also say, however, that the movie is quite literally a hot mess.

I mentioned reverse sexploitation. Notice the way Lee Daniels doesn't shy away from letting the camera lovingly caress Zac Efron who for the most part is unclothed. Efron plays the peculiarly aloof Jack who becomes smitten with the lover, named Charlotte (Nicole Kidman), of a convicted man, Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack). With campy cinematography full of jerky camera zooms, jumpy editing and smoldering lighting that blares the frame, this throwback style would ordinarily admire the female figure. And Kidman plays up for it, too, savoring her carnal energy in every lip bite and suppressed, suggestive moan -- but no. Though she's the focal point for Jack's desires, the camera always points to him. It's daring, and there's no denying the passion. These A-list actors give their all and lay themselves bare (most notably Matthew McConaughey in a scene of raw defeat and vulnerability), but the B-movie aesthetic and D-movie tone lay all efforts to waste.

Wild-haired and crazy-eyed, John Cusack plays Hillary with perverted conviction. Charged for the murder of a local officer in deep south Florida, circa 1969, the dripping humidity and clinging sweat is almost palpable. In the way he captured grimy naturalism in "Precious," there's no knock against Daniels for creating heaps of atmosphere here. A Miami Times reporter, Ward Jansen (McConaughey), comes to town to investigate the crime along with his black partner, Yardley (David Oyelowo). The case is narrated by Macy Gray playing Jack's family maid, Anita, to create a twisted version of "The Help." Mix that with a dash of Craig Brewer's artful trash "Black Snake Moan," and you get "The Paperboy." It loses all hope for artistic integrity, however, once the plot takes a dive bomb in its final act, which sends characters into a swampy conclusion that defies all logic.

It's lurid, sexually charged yet flaccid, disturbing and, worst of all, really dull considering its pulpy premise. Kudos to Daniels, however, by making the movie which will always (and only) be remembered for it getting booed at this year's Cannes and a scene where Nicole Kidman urinates on Zac Efron's face. Intrigued? Go see it, I dare you.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

PITCH PERFECT Review


It's too easy to call Jason Moore's "Pitch Perfect" a hyper-blend of "Mean Girls," "Bring It On" and "Glee" -- although it very much is a hyper-blend of those three and then some. But, like I said, that's too easy. What this surprise smash hit out of left field really is is a high-energy, impossible-to-hate tale of collegiate a cappella that is heartfelt, hilarious and just weird enough to have a strange fascination with projectile vomiting. Witness the movie's pre-credits opening scene, and tell me I'm wrong.

The always reliable Anna Kendrick plays Beca, an attractive yet introverted girl entering her first year of college at Barden University. She's less than enthused about going to school and would rather jump ship to Los Angeles to begin her career as a DJ. Her father (John Benjamin Hickey), however, is a professor at the university and isn't about to fund that before she gives school a try. This also means she has to find a way to get involved. Lucky for Beca, the campus' all-girls singing group, the Bellas, is looking to regroup after a disastrous loss last year at the finals. Chloe (Brittany Snow) and Aubrey (Anna Camp), the figureheads of the Bellas, are tired of staying in the shadow of the rivalry all-male singing group led by the insidiously brash Bumper (Adam DeVine). And as a perfect cameo by Christopher Mintz-Plasse reminds us, this is not high school glee -- hint, hint.

The movie owes its peppy attitude to a wealth of young talent across the screen and its writer, Kay Cannon whose credits include 22 episodes of "30 Rock" and some "New Girl," and you can see that irreverent humor peeking through in every line. Take, for example, the punchy one-liners from the competition commentators (John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks). Headlining the young cast is Rebel Wilson, the vivid Aussie who made a claim for herself as the weirdo in "Bridesmaids" and has taken off since then. She plays the self-proclaimed Fat Amy who gives herself that name so skinny girls don't have to behind her back. If anything, "Pitch Perfect" provides Wilson the role that'll make her a star. The casting across the board is admirable with a playful chemistry between the rivaling a cappella groups. This comes to a head during a "West Side Story" style showdown where song improvisations are thrown back and forth in battle.

"Pitch Perfect" is fueled by the engine of its music, which is constant and flat-out great. In between bouts of musical numbers, catchy mash-ups and exciting hooks, a lot of the movie does model itself off teen comedy tropes and harkens back to the movies of John Hughes as did "Easy A." The movie plays into the whole a cappella craze that already excists and does so without ever taking itself too seriously painting the extra-curricular activity as equal parts nerdy, sexy and silly. And it wouldn't be complete without a love interest for Beca. He arrives in the form of Skylar Astin (best known for his stage role in "Spring Awakening" and most recently appeared in an episode of HBO's "Girls"), playing the relentlessly charming Jesse who Beca for some reason has a hard time being wooed by. For us, however, Astin is an absolute delight.

Friday, October 5, 2012

LOOPER Review


Rian Johnson's "Looper" has the distinct feeling of being a classic even as you're watching it. It's set in a dystopian future -- two, in fact -- one that is 32 years in the future and another 30 years beyond that. In the way it unfolds two parallel universes recalls Christopher Nolan's labyrinthine "Inception," and the vividly detailed portrayal of a dysmal future brings to mind the gritty detail evoked by Alfonso Cuaron's "Children of Men." And in its characters, themes and brooding tale of justice and morality through a sci-fi neo-noir landscape, it's hard to not call it a new version of "The Matrix" and "Blade Runner" for this generation. Best of all is that in capturing the essence of each of these films, Johnson's "Looper" triumphs in being something wholly original and breathtaking that would be a shame if it didn't get remembered for awards season.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, a man who was hired as a looper for the mob. He lives in the year 2044 when time travel hasn't been invented yet. Thirty years later, however, it will be, and it's only used by an illegal crime syndicate. They kidnap, throw a hood over their victim and send them back in time to be assassinated and disposed of. In this fully-realized universe, loopers carry a weapon called a blunderbuss which looks like a streamlined shotgun. Loopers have their blunderbuss while the Gat Men carry a long-barreled revolver called a gat which they cherish. The Gat Men are mafia-types who skulk around in trench coats and are led by a haggard crime boss named Abe (Jeff Daniels).

In the future, drug use has simplified to using eye drops to get a fix, and some citizens have been affected with the power of telekinesis, referred to as TK. Those who have the power, however, only twirl coins in the air and use it as a pick-up line. The exception is a man called the Rainmaker who in the future, year 2074, is apparently using his power toward evil. He's doing what's called "closing the loop," which is when the older version of a looper is sent back in time to be executed by none other than himself. A friend of Joe's, a reckless man named Seth (Paul Dano), realizes he's about to close his loop and lets his future self go, a selfish act that Abe cannot let stand.

As if foreshadowing Joe's own predicament to come, he comes face-to-face with a thirty-year-older version of himself, played by Bruce Willis. It's interesting to note how Gordon-Levitt doesn't look like himself -- thanks to subtle makeup work, his face is ever so slightly transformed to resemble Willis'. The younger actor deadpans, smirks and scowls just like his veteran counterpart, too. And playing the older Joe gives Willis his best performance in years. There's a scene where the seemingly impossible happens. Joe sits at a rural diner sitting across from himself, thirty years in the future. Having a conversation with yourself opens a door of endless possibilities, and Johnson is smart to only focus on what's immediately important to the characters' dire situation. He leaves all else the scene implies for us to decipher and question on our own.

Also artful and intelligent is the way Johnson's screenplay employs the use of time travel. It isn't so much the forefront of action but instead a backdrop to create unexpected thematic intricacies. The ingenuity of Johnson's writing really shines when young Joe finds himself on a desolate farm. It's a stirring contrast between the grime of the city where either the mob or destitute vagrants reside. On this farm Joe meets Sara (Emily Blunt), a tough single mother who doesn't shy away fending off late night intruders with a shotgun. Her son, Cid (Pierce Gagnon), becomes an extremely important element to the well-being of both young and old Joe alike.

In sci-fi action blockbusters, women characters are generally used for sexual intrigue and eye candy. In the case of both farm girl Sara and old Joe's loving wife (Summer Qing) with whom he spends a new life in China, "Looper" has elements of a rather profound love story, something that may come as an added surprise. That again speaks to Rian Johnson's finesse as a filmmaker. In 2005, he debuted with "Brick" giving us a high school noir narrated by a newly re-branded Joseph Gordon Levitt. After an underwhelming second feature, "The Brothers Bloom," Johnson is back announcing himself firmly as a new commanding presence in the industry worth recognizing.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER Review


Keeping "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" from being just another coming-of-age tale is the breadth of tough issues this sweet surprise of an adaptation touches on along with top-notch performances from a trio of young actors. This is Stephen Chbosky's second feature having written the screenplay for 2005's "Rent," and now he's adapted for the screen and directed his own best-selling young adult novel, which focuses on a group of Pittsburgh misfit teenagers navigating high school circa 1991. Chbosky's handling can be a little uneven at times, but whatever he may lack in finessed skill he more than makes up for it in sheer passion and intimacy, which makes "Perks" so honest and endearing about the struggles and joys of adolescence.

We're introduced to Charlie (Logan Lerman) just as he's about to enter his freshman year of high school. The poor kid is constantly trapped in his own mind with recurring thoughts about his best friend who committed suicide and a traumatic experience with his late Aunt Helen (Melanie Lynskey). On his first day and the days to follow, Charlie sits alone at lunch where residual friends from middle school won't even acknowledge him. His sister, too, is too preoccupied with her pony-tailed boyfriend to help him find friends. He's in over his head with waves of teenage angst crashing all around him. The first friend he does make is Mr. Anderson (a wonderfully understated Paul Rudd), his advanced English teacher who watches Charlie's growth potential with a watchful eye and kindly lends him his favorite classic books.

Mr. Anderson tells Charlie that he should speak up and participate in class. This in-class lesson translates to Charlie's predicament in the real world, as well; that is, in order for him to be happy, he must no longer be a passive observer but participate in his own life experiences. Otherwise he gets wrapped up in his own doom and gloom.

Enter Patrick (Ezra Miller), a sardonic senior who makes a name for himself by openly mocking the teacher in shop class. He also serves as Charlie's gateway into real friendship. Mustering up the courage to sit next to him at a football game, Charlie also meets Patrick's best friend and half-sister, Sam (Emma Watson). They let him into their group because of a commonality they perhaps don't even realize exists yet. Each of them have some pain and anger pent up. Patrick's frustration stems from dating a closeted football jock, and Sam is tired of falling for guys who don't treat her right.

Though she appeared in last year's British drama "My Week with Marilyn," this marks Emma Watson's first foray into American filmmaking -- and her first use of an American accent. She nails the role of the beautiful and down-to-earth Sam whose demons lurk just beneath her porcelain skin. As good as she is, it's a testament to Ezra Miller's talent that even up against a post-Hermoine Watson he manages to become the real scene stealer. The theatrical fun-loving nature of Patrick is a thin veil covering his inner battle of not being able to openly express his sexuality the way he wants to, and Miller's performance captures this. Even more astonishing is the young actor's range considering he's otherwise known for playing the deeply disturbed son of Tilda Swinton in "We Need to Talk About Kevin."

"The Perks of Being a Wallflower" is both painful and uplifting about Charlie's freshman year experience which translates to not only universal themes about attending high school but about life relationships in general. This wider scope comes from not watering down the material to pander to a specific teenaged viewership, even in spite of a PG-13 rating. It's also a movie that knows and understands the unique bond friends have when it comes to the special hangout spot or that perfect song that comes on the radio at just the right moment. For this outcast trio, it's what they simply refer to as the "tunnel song." In this iconic scene, Charlie feels infinite, which is empowering for him because his new friends are only ephemeral, moving on with their lives going away to college. Charlie's freshman year was but a fleeting moment where he, for once in his life, felt like he belonged.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

THE MASTER Review


Instead of the belching fire, raging fury of blood and thunder and a climax ending with the phrase "I'm finished" in Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood," here's the latest from the acclaimed writer-director, "The Master," which is no less intense but a more quiet, intimate and ultimately maddening picture. A lot of the hype surrounding this film suggests it will be a true-to-life tale of the founding of Scientology and an exposé on L. Ron Hubbard. Those looking for something along those lines, turn back now. Hubbard's rise is merely the foundation upon which Anderson has constructed a towering, twisted metaphor for American life, power and history, much in the way he used Upton Sinclair's "Oil!" as the jumping point for 2008's "Blood." Unlike that film, however, this is a more cerebral, speculative and confounding experience with a narrative trajectory that gets further deconstructed as it moves forward.

We open at the conclusion of World War II. Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) served in the Navy, and after some post-war psychoanalysis is certifiably a mess. When shown Rorschach ink blotches, he only sees genitalia and mumbles answers about his mother's presence in a psych ward somewhere. And while he finds work as a portrait photographer in a department store and later as a worker in a cabbage field, his only real ability and interest is making potent yet dangerous cocktails out of paint thinner, dark room materials and household cleaners. This drifter walks along a pier one night and like a twinkling alluring light in the distance, there is a party boat docked with an amiable crowd aboard, and Freddie doesn't think twice about sneaking inside. He awakes the next morning after drunkenly passing out to meet Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a resolute man of clear thought and diction. Dodd sees an interest in Freddie and speaks to him as a father figure. "You will be my protege and my guinea pig," Dodd tells him.

So begins the fascinating and complex character study of contrast on Lancaster Dodd and Freddie the drifter. Their dynamic is introduced in Dodd's first "processing" session with Freddie, a sort of mental time travel, a hypnosis and search for past trauma that could trace back even millions -- or trillions -- of years. This "process" is the basis of Dodd's pseudo-religious, therapeutic cult known as the Cause. From here, Freddie's relationship with Dodd goes from pining son to devout follower to bitter cynic all with psycho-sexual undercurrents that are hard to read and uneasy to digest.

The performances that craft these characters from Hoffman and Phoenix are nothing short of brilliant. Phoenix gives Freddie a feral, hunched over demeanor with a crazed manic energy that, after Phoenix's public breakdown and bizarre quasi-documentary "I'm Still Here," feels only fitting for the actor and gives him career-best work. A scene in which a locked-up and hand-cuffed Freddie kicks and shatters a jail cell toilet right off the wall marks a shocking ferocity, a lucid contrast to Hoffman's Dodd who only shows flashes of his inner rage against doubters of the Cause. This includes his own son, Val (Jesse Plemons), who's convinced his father is making his religion up as he goes along. The opposite of this is Dodd's wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), who's pregnant and displays a motherly, wholesome feminine quality to perfectly accent Dodd's Cause. What the public doesn't see is a headstrong woman clawing at perfection. Even the masters have their masters, and Adams -- in a performance which will be recognized come award time -- shows Peggy's terrifying will in a private moment with her husband.

What's impossible to ignore about "The Master" is Paul Thomas Anderson's absolute command of the cinematic form. It's enough to keep any movie connoisseur completely enthralled with impeccable direction, mesmerizing and gorgeous 65mm (projected 70mm in select theaters) cinematography from Mihai Malaimare, Jr. (a Frances Ford Coppola favorite), which marks the first time cinematographer Roger Elswit hasn't worked on an Anderson film, and another unnerving and mind-bending score from Jonny Greenwood. It's all very much what we've come to expect from a masterful filmmaker, but then something happens that we don't expect.

As the film's narrative begins delving into dream states and Freddie's memories, the third act begins to strangely misshapen. A curious lack of development without a truly dramatic turn is what keeps Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film from reaching the greatness of his previous work. While perhaps eliciting a tinge of disappointment, this is in no way a misstep for the writer-director. I admire its contentious themes and lauded aesthetic elements, but an absence of riveting storytelling kept me from falling in love.