Friday, February 15, 2013

Skyfall - Guest Review

Mendes, Craig, Bardem, and Deakins

By David S. Muhlfelder

Full disclosure: I have been a James Bond fanatic since age nine when my grandfather, in an effort to defuse a fight between my mother and older brother, took us all to see “From Russia With Love.” To this day, FRWL remains the gold standard for all Bond films in my (And may other original fans’) opinion. It was the second Bond film, and it followed closely on the heels of “Dr. No.”

The series had begun with very little fanfare. “Dr. No” was made for $800,000, a modest sum even in 1962 dollars. In major markets like LA and New York it opened as the second feature on double bills. Exhibitors avoided it like the plague. One was quoted as saying “Nobody wants to see a movie about some limey detective.” I’m amazed that with instincts like that this guy didn’t wind running a studio. It turned out people did want to see it, and the film turned a nice profit. By the time FRWL opened less than a year later, exhibitors were clamoring to book it into their theatres. With the release of “Goldfinger” the following year, Bond mania was in full flower.

Unless you were there, it’s kind of difficult to fathom. It was somewhat akin to Beatlemania in the way that all things James Bond suddenly dominated pop culture c. 1964. “Goldfinger” was the first movie blockbuster. Theatres ran it twenty-four hours a day to accommodate the crowds. It recouped its $3.5 million budget in less than two weeks. This was unheard of at the time. Movies had always made their money back over time through multiple releases. “Goldfinger” was a game changer. “Thunderball,” released in 1965, remained until last month the most financially successful Bond film of all time, adjusting for inflation. “Skyfall” ended that forty-eight year reign as the biggest Bond movie of them all. It has so far earned $1.1 billion at the worldwide box office, and it’s still playing in China. It is the seventh highest grossing film of all time. It deserves to be. 

Until the arrival of Daniel Craig in the role, I was a Connery purist. I’m glad people liked Roger Moore. It kept the franchise going, but for me the movies became like generic action/adventure with a brand name attached. Dalton was too one note. Brosnan was okay. Then came “Casino Royale.” It was something of a reboot, and it was based on Ian Fleming’s first novel, which had not been sold to the producers with his other novels. Craig and “Skyfall” pick up where Casino Royale left off in this rebirth, the disappointing “Quantum Of Solace notwithstanding.

“Skyfall” is the best Bond movie since “Goldfinger.” As much as I love “Thunderball,” it’s the first movie in the series that shows signs of buckling under the weight of its own success. Connery looked older than his thirty-five years, and even though his health was part of the storyline the sequence at the Shrublands health clinic was overlong. One of the brilliant things about “Skyfall” is how it turns the biggest knock on the Bond franchise, whether we even need human intelligence in the age of predator drones, and turns it into the underlying theme of a story that feels at once fresh and familiar. Without giving too much away, the plot centers on a cyber-terrorist with a grudge against MI6. That is a thoroughly twenty-first century conceit. Yet “Skyfall” is an unapologetically old fashioned piece of moviemaking. It’s a travelogue in the best Bond tradition. Cinematographer Roger W. Deakins luxuriates in the locales. From the heat of Istanbul to the chill of London to the humidity of Singapore and Macau to the fog shrouded Scottish Highlands, you don’t just see where you are you feel it. This is a very visceral Bond, with a steady, but not hectic, pace. 

Gone was the kinetic and frenetic Bourne style editing of Quantum. “Skyfall” marks the return of “Casino Royale” editor Stuart Baird. This is the guy who gave us “Superman: The Movie,” “Lethal Weapon” and “Die Hard II” among others. He does an especially good job on the long teaser sequence that features a motorcycle chase across the rooftops of Istanbul’s bazaar, and a fight atop a train. 

Craig’s character goes much deeper than it ever has. In “Casino Royale” we learn that Bond was an orphan. In “Skyfall,” we get to see him deal with that unresolved childhood trauma. This is an emotionally fragile Bond, which is a great character trait for a man who is essentially a government assassin. Connery gave us a ruthless and cruel Bond with a wicked sense of humor. With Craig, you get that too, but you see the toll it takes. It feels like a story Fleming, himself, could have written. Fleming alternately described Bond as morose and saturnine. Craig gives you that, but without the heavy handedness we got from Timothy Dalton. 

There are basically two Bond formulas. The FRWL formula is spy vs. spy, with the consequences contained within the world of espionage. The “Goldfinger” formula is the super villain with the bigger than life scheme that threatens the world. “Skyfall” hews toward the FRWL formula, but with hints of the “Goldfinger” model structurally. Like that film, “Skyfall” starts small as a simple quest for a computer drive, but soon morphs into a much more complex story about loyalty and duty.

One unique twist is that this is M’s story. For the first time, we get to see Bond confront the ambivalence that underpins his relationship with his boss. It’s pure Ian Fleming. Judy Dench is excellent as M. Javier Bardem is a sort of unwanted stepchild as Silva, her once favorite operative. He equals his fine performance in “No Country For Old Men.” And Albert Finney makes a late appearance as Bond’s surrogate father figure. It all leads to the expected explosive climax, but with plenty of emotional weight behind it. And it’s all orchestrated perfectly by director Sam Mendes. 

By the time Bond walks in to M’s new office at the end, the very same office that Sean Connery first walked into fifty years ago in “Dr. No,” the series had come full circle. And I was once again that nine year old boy at the movies with my grandfather. And as for the question of whether or not we need human intelligence, the answer is clearly yes. As long as that human is James Bond.


Friday, February 8, 2013


Call me Hitch, Hold the Cock

Hitchcock. Find me a person who doesn't recognize that name. Many probably haven't seen a single film from arguably the most renowned director of all time, but they sure do recognize that name. Known the world over as the "master of suspense," Hitchcock directed over fifty films in a span of nearly as many years. While he never won an Oscar for Best Director, many of his films, from Rebecca to Vertigo (which now tops the critics' Sight and Sound Poll 2012) to The Birds are now considered classic films in the pantheon of history.

Given such an auspicious subject matter, it is a shame that Hitchcock, directed by Sacha Gervasi, is so devoid of the master's characteristic suspense, so decidedly opaque. When I first saw a picture of Anthony Hopkins in make-up as the titular filmmaker, I was filled with glee. One of the best British actors portraying one of the best British directors with some impeccable make-up in a film about the making of his Psycho. It's hard not to be excited about that. Imagine my disappointment about fifteen minutes into Hitchcock, realizing that I was watching a film that could clearly not live up to expectations.

Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh
I remember first seeing Psycho. Probably about five years ago now. Of course, by that time, everybody knew the ending. No surprise there. But it also strikes me as a very dated film; a film for which, I think to truly appreciate, you had to be there in 1960. No doubt, I can appreciate it on many levels; innovative editing, bold story-telling, and its status as the spark of the slasher film. Conversely, segments feel silly and dated; the infamous reveal itself was greeted by numerous guffaws throughout my film class. I suspect more wanted to laugh, but held it in because, you know, you can't laugh at a classic film in film class (after all, what kind of person would you be for exercising your own criticism of a movie?).

The story opens shortly after the release of North by Northwest in 1959, to much acclaim after the commercial failure of Vertigo the previous year. Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins), never much taking a break from work, now searches for his next project. And he finds it, in Robert Bloch's horror novel - Psycho. Urged to consider other films, Hitchcock is undeterred; Psycho must be his next film. At his side is his wife, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), whose influence and involvement in Hitch's films is greater than most people likely realize.

The first act is the most successful. It regards Hitchcock's looming self-doubt in the face of suggestions that it might be time to retire, meshed with his immovable determination and frank honesty. He is not a particularly humble man, but neither is he a secure one. Many of the film's later developments revolve around his suspicion and distrust of Alma, which is perhaps related to his deep-seeded insecurities surrounding women. It is well-known that the director was incredibly controlling of his female actresses. Hitchcock attempts to study his obsession with women (particularly blondes), but the film is so imbued with a sense of self-importance and grandiosity that it fails to see the forest through the trees.

Perhaps the largest detriment, the most obvious hindrance to an emotional connection between Hitchcock and the audience, is the performance of Hopkins. Sir Anthony Hopkins - the Brit who's played a psychopathic cannibal, an American president, John Quincy Adams, to name a mere few of his better performances. With his embodiment of Hitchcock, Hopkins delivers one of the most monotone, invariable, occasionally grating performances in recent memory. Yes, the real Alfred Hitchcock was a man of few mannerisms, wearing a seemingly perpetual frown, but anybody who's seen interviews of the man will recognize a peculiar lack of humanity in Hopkins' manifestation. Contrariwise, Mirren's incarnation of Alma Reville is profoundly affecting. As a devoted, loving woman, she is, while hiding it with uncanny ability, deeply wounded. You can sense that she understands Hitchcock's love for her may never match his love for film. Mirren boils the character down to a quintessence of love, admiration, dedication, neglect, and longing. She is unveiled as both the film and the man's greatest assest.

At the times of its release, Psycho may well have been the most transgressive motion picture to see the inside of the theatre. The film accurately and keenly depicts that. It is, however, unfortunate that a film so clearly committed to exploring the dark side of the director is emphatically tame. Even more distressing, when you consider it, is that Hitchcock's own film, Vertigo, is more telling of his nature than a film deliberately devised to probe such trenches. This is not a expressly bad film. It just isn't a very good one. Especially when you consider what the subject deserves.


Thursday, February 7, 2013

Celeste and Jesse Forever

Forever is Composed of Nows

For those who don't know, Lee Toland Krieger whose second feature (much more accessible than his first) was The Vicious Kind, starring Adam Scott and Britney Snow, featuring an incredible performance from Scott, and an all around great story. For his follow-up, Krieger has taken another key member of the Parks & Recreation cast in Rashida Jones (who co-wrote the screenplay). With these two films, Krieger has proven himself a director capable of pulling exacting and realistic performances from his actors, while both entertaining and telling a relatable, humanistic story.

Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) are best friends. They've been best friends since high school at least. They're also married, though separated. In the case of this film, "separated" has its own meaning. Separated in the sense that they have intentions for divorce. In every other way, though, they seem attached at the hip. This seems not only bizarre to their friends, but downright uncomfortable in a dinner scene. Celeste and Jesse brush it off.

Celeste is a hard-working, career-driven woman in Los Angeles. Jesse is almost the complete opposite, aside from also living in Los Angeles (in fact, he lives in the guest house behind Celeste). Jesse is an artist, or so he claims, but he doesn't seem to do much to further his art. Celeste doesn't seem to have much of a problem with this, though she does remind him from time to time about finding a job. Why did they split up in the first place? It doesn't seem like it was because of Jesse's lack of a job or drive. Did they simply decide they were better off as friends and not as husband and wife? Perhaps. The film refuses to provide us with an answer, which would be fine, though it also fails to regard the difficulty of maintaining friendship - particularly such a close friendship - after a relationship. Maybe Celeste and Jesse are two people who are innately able to push their past relationship aside, and remain best friends. I don't honestly know.

The film's greatest achievement is with its second and third act developments, which give both Jones and Samberg ample room to prove their acting ability. Jones, who I guess has starred in other films, but I haven't seen them. I've seen her in plenty of supporting roles, and of course on the hilarious television show Parks & Recreation, where unfortunately she is, half the time, relegated to the status of reaction shot receptacle. With this film, she turns in the best performance I've ever seen from her; she is delicate and fragile, yet strong and hard-working. She seems complacent with her own situation, until Samberg changes his, which ironically is what she (thought she) wanted. I've never much liked Andy Samberg as an actor. He doesn't have the appeal of inherently charming actors, nor have I seen much in the way of true ability from him. But here, he's given a character with depth, a character who is human and relatable. He plays the part very well, though Jones steals the show.

The story treads familiar ground. The idea itself is fresh; the story, at times, paint by numbers. But, not unlike many other films, the acting keeps this afloat, along with a second half that elevates the material somewhat. Truly, it is Celeste's torrent of emotion that is most intriguing. At first independent and self-satisfied, her feelings and beliefs for what she wants from life are put to a great test. It is how she handles this test that provides the greatest dramatic fodder of the film.

In the end, this is a superbly acted, well-directed, fairly well-written film. It is entertaining because we like to see real people with real problems. It is less than perfect because what we expect is often delivered. Nevertheless, despite such an issue, this is a film I recommend; not only to see Jones step out of her type-cast and give a more vulnerable, raw performance, but also because we can empathize. Forever is a long time, they say. If you're happy, though, it won't seem so long.


Saturday, January 26, 2013

Seven Psychopaths

Guns, Dogs, and White Rabbits

I am curious what Martin McDonagh's fascination with white bunnies is. I've seen three of his films; his fantastic Oscar-nominated In Bruges, his Oscar-winning short Six Shooter, and now Seven Psychopaths. Two of them contain white rabbits in a more than arbitrary way, and both depict the rabbits in scenes of occurring or impending violence. Anyway, I digress and simply note it as a curious visual.

In Bruges was a hilarious blend of shocking violence and dark humor; the performances, particularly those from Brenden Gleeson and Colin Farrell (who won a Golden Globe for his work) were simply splendid. Farrell returns here, as probably what I would characterize as the main character, if I had to pick one. Seven Psychopaths demonstrates the same violent black comedy as its predecessor, along with an impeccable ability on behalf of McDonagh to write plots and subplots that weave, intertwine, and hurtle toward a climax we never know how it'll resolve, and yet once it does, we realize there was no other way. Of any working filmmaker, McDonagh has one of the most gifted, innate abilities to tell a story that involves a myriad of unique, diverse characters, all of whom are related, and end the story with an unpredictable, but inexorable logic that both abides and transcends conventional three-act story-telling.

The plot. Seven Psychopaths unsurprisingly tells the story of seven psychopaths, although that may not be as clear cut as it seems. Let's just say that the trailer and title don't exactly tell the truth. I'll leave it to you to watch the movie and decipher what that means. Among these psychopaths, all with extraordinarily different personalities, are Marty (Colin Farrell), an alcoholic screenwriter; Billy (Sam Rockwell), a dog kidnapper; Hans (Christopher Walken), Billy's partner in dog-napping; and Charlie (Woody Harrelson), a man who has his dog stolen by Billy. Billy is best friends with Marty, and desperately wants to help him write his next film, titled "Seven Psychopaths." He comes up with stories and characters, which may not be entirely fictitious, in an effort to help Marty. His partner-in-crime is Hans, a pacifist, who returns the dogs to their owners after Billy has dog-napped them; often receiving the hefty reward from the owner that beloved Beverly Hills dogs are worth, which he splits with Billy.

One day, however, Billy steals the wrong dog, a Shih Tzu belonging to Hans. Hans - a hilariously emotional but still viciously violent man who will stop at nothing to get his cherished Shih Tzu back. That is all the further the trailers describe the plot and all the further I shall describe it.

McDonagh has a knack for creating fascinating characters involved in a labyrinthian plot full of twists and turns, full of character motivations, many hidden that eventually reveal themselves to drive the plot in a different direction toward an explosive and logical climax, much like the third act of In Bruges. Where In Bruges had about five truly dynamic and unique characters to play with, here McDonagh must understand and evoke the motivations of at least ten different characters. And boy, does he play with them to fascinating, often highly unpredictable, levels. Therein lay the greatest joy of this film; it is so wildly funny, darkly violent, and its characters exhibit such complexity in their motives, yet it resolves with such determined practicality and gumption.

The performances, like his former film, are immensely entertaining. Sam Rockwell, as perhaps the most complex and fascinating character in the film, steals every scene he's in, which is many. The way he drives the plot toward its beautiful climax, even with its meta-reference near the mid-point, is still unforeseeable and yet intriguingly watchable. Walken, as likely the next most complex character, is calm, confident, and comical, moving with the wisdom of Gandhi yet still speaking with the hilarity Walken has become so adept at conjuring. Harrelson, who has always been a fine actor, but in recent years has turned in some spectacular performances (The Messenger, Rampart), is both equally dangerous and vulnerable; hilarious and deadly serious; trustworthy and unbelievable. And Farrell, as the lead, carries the film in fine form, surrounded by a brilliant cast. He projects the same malaise and anxiety he did in In Bruges, while still being a convincing alcoholic on the brink of falling apart.

Seven Psychopaths is one of the best films of 2012. Had the Oscar nominations been left to me, this would have received three: Picture, Original Screenplay, and Supporting Actor (Rockwell). In Bruges was somewhat of a pleasantly unexpected surprise when it received a Best Original Screenplay nomination in its year. McDonagh clearly has favor in the Academy; having one once for his short and receiving a nomination for his freshman feature. Unfortunately, I think his films are too divisive with their brutality and dark humor to gain mainstream appeal. Nonetheless, this is a perfect example of a sophomore success. I eagerly await McDonagh's next film.


Monday, January 21, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

A Hunch That Paid Off

Kathryn Bigelow has risen in recent years to the status of master-filmmaker, particularly after her Oscar-winning masterpiece The Hurt Locker. She's been in the film game for much longer, but recently she's gained the sort of notoriety typically only reserved for A-list directors, where we eagerly await their next project with great anticipation. Rightfully so. The Hurt Locker was a perfect film in every way, shape, and form; from the life-filled, shaky camera work, to the brilliant editing, to the pitch-perfect and humanistic performances shrouded in danger and stress, to the writing and directing that builds tension to near-unbearable levels before letting go.

That was a film about a man on a mission; a man with a clear, straight-forward, undeterred goal. With Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow re-teams with Hurt Locker writer Mark Boal to deliver another war picture centering around a protagonist that is similar in her determination; she wants something, and no one will  stop her from going after it. Even when her superiors doubt her determination, she is undeterred. Unlike most of Bigelow's films, which center around male action figures, Zero Dark Thirty takes on a procedural story with a female protagonist who enters the story as an outsider, both in experience and gender, and slowly builds her grit, determination, and attracts the admiration of her fellow co-workers.

Two critically acclaimed films this year have taken on the telling of a story with a massive disadvantage; Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln. The disadvantage being that we know the result of their primary plot. In Lincoln, we know that the Thirteenth Amendment will be passed. In this film, we know that Osama bin Laden will be found and killed. In most films, it is the uncertainty of the journey's success that keeps us on the edge of our seats. In these films, it is the elements of procedure that enthrall us; and even with the dramatic irony of Zero Dark Thirty, wherein we know the end result that the characters don't, the final half-hour, involving the raid of bin Laden's complex, is as exciting and edge-of-your-seat as any piece of cinema this year. It is realistic in its execution and technical qualities (the complex is naturally almost completely dark, we see most of the action through night vision), visceral in its intensity and danger, and suspenseful in its race against time.

The acting here is restrained and effective. Chastain, as our protagonist, is a woman who has never done anything else for the CIA other than searching for bin Laden. She was recruited out of high school, and this has been her life ever sense. She is as smart and confident as anybody in the film; at one point, a Marine says he believes in their mission because of her confidence. She is may be dismayed by false leads or hiccups, but she never lets them destroy her. She remains willful, and eventually it pays off.

The climax is as satisfying as any other this year. One of the greatest successes is that when Chastain, standing over the body of bin Laden, realizes that her decade-long work has paid off in success, the audience, like Chastain, feel not joy, or excitement, or pleasure, but simply relief. How could she feel anything else? That much work, leading to such a payoff, wouldn't end with a dance of rejoice. It would end with a gratitude of relief. To make the audience feel the same is one of the film's greatest successes, and not a minor one.

This is certainly a fine film. A better than "good" film. It is not, however, superior or even on-par with Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, and for two primary reasons. The Hurt Locker embellishes (to great success) in scene after scene of gut-wrenching tension. There are moments of that at here at work, and when they come they explode with excellence, but they are much fewer and further between. More importantly, however, is that Zero Dark Thirty doesn't take as much time to regard its characters. Aside from Chastain, most of the other characters are hollow in comparison; some of them come and go without much adieu, as if their presence was arbitrary. Even Chastain lacks the character development and three-dimensional traits of The Hurt Locker's Renner; not to mention the other supporting characters in that film, who greatly outweigh the supporting team of Zero in their complexities.

All in all, this is a superbly directed, amazingly and subtlety acted film that brings to life the realities of the decade-long hunt for bin Laden. The craftsmanship is stellar. And the finale is one of the best moments for cinema of 2012. It is, however, weakened in comparison to Bigelow's prior film. But on its own terms, it is still an amazing piece of procedural drama with brief moments of explosive action.


Monday, January 7, 2013

The Impossible

A Force of Nature inside a Force of Cinema

Clint Eastwood's 2010 Hereafter opened with a scene depicting the devastating 2004 tsunami that struck Asia, killing hundreds of thousands of people throughout over a dozen countries. Juan Bayona's The Impossible recreates that same event, with much better special effects, but rather than using it as a segway into another story, focuses only on that event, as well as (primarily) the aftermath. Rather than taking on the truly impossible task of telling the story of the many survivors, The Impossible hones in on a single family, using them as a microcosm of the entire event. Can we imagine that their struggles resemble that of so many of the others? Most certainly. Except some people weren't as lucky to have survived.

I cannot imagine anything more terrifying than watching a wall of water, moving with unstoppable force, bear down upon you, destroying everything in its path and sweeping you up in a mire of chaos, debris, and of course, lots of water. Most of the first act of The Impossible depicts this, in a completely believable portrait. Based, however loosely, on the true story of a western family vacationing in Thailand, the film shows their struggles as these two parents and three children are swept away from their beach-side hotel by the ocean. They are separated; the mother and eldest son carried to one location, the father and remaining two sons in another. The father is Henry (Ewan McGregor). The mother is Marie (Naomi Watts). The eldest son is Lucas (Tom Holland, who quickly earns his place among the great breakout performances of 2012). After the tsunami strikes, we see Marie and Lucas being carried away by the water. They desperately try to cling to each other as they move swiftly through the water, along with cars, trees, and pretty much anything else that was in the path of this storm.

Marie is injured badly in the tsunami, but she bravely clings to life as she and Lucas make their way to drier land among other survivors. Eventually, they find themselves in a hospital, as Marie desperately needs medical attention. It is here where the 12 year-old Lucas shows his strength of character. When they hear a young boy yelling for help, Marie wants to find him. Lucas urges her that they get up into a nearby tree before another wave strikes; they can't help everyone. Ultimately, they do help the little boy, which later results in one of the film's more touching scenes.

The scenes after the tsunami depict the harrowing truth of disastrous acts of God, both the good and the bad. Hundreds of thousands are dead, even more are injured. Part of the beauty of this film is the way in which (most) everybody comes together to help each other. Not many people have cell phones, and if they do, they want to preserve their battery. When Henry, who is searching for his wife and son, sits with a group of survivors, one of them offers him his phone to call back home. This man, who has lost hope in finding his own family, accompanies Henry as he searches hospitals and groups of survivors for the rest of his family. When Lucas and Marie are in the hospital, Lucas sets out to help survivors reconnect with their separated loved ones. It seems a futile effort in all this chaos, but Lucas is undeterred; brave and strong-willed, he shows a resourcefulness and strength that few adults possess. He also exhibits a sense of reality that Marie buries under denial; it is true that they cannot help everyone, but she cares not - "what if that boy was you?" she asks him. "What if it was Thomas?" Lucas immediately and directly tells her that Thomas, Simon, and his father are dead. His mind isn't plagued by that idea; his attention is on getting his mother and himself to safety, he can mourn their deaths later. It almost seems as though Lucas was born for a situation such as this. Of course, however, his father and brothers are not dead, but it is an honest reality to assume that they are.

The acting on display is phenomenal. Ewan McGregor as the determined father shows a vulnerability that we haven't often seen from him. Naomi Watts once again proves why she is one of the finest working actresses in the business. And Tom Holland turns in, alongside Quevenzhane Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild), one of the greatest child performances of the year. Like Wallis in that film, he is strong-willed and immovable in character.

Director Juan Bayona and screenwriter Sergio Sanchez, who previously collaborated on the wonderful The Orphanage, flex their story-telling muscles with great success once again. What could have been a droll, manipulative melodrama becomes something much greater in their hands; it successfully realizes its vision by not undermining the lives of the thousands of unseen victims in pursuit of a touching story about love, life, and hope. Not for a second do we forget that so many families had it much worse than this one. The film's most touching moments are never overplayed; they never embellish in emotion, but simply allow it to exist. The result is one of the most heartfelt films of 2012.


Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Paperboy

Hard Evidence

Lee Daniels' The Paperboy is cinematic trash of the lowest order; a film so horrible and unrepentant in its search and subjection of suffering that here, over 24 hours after seeing it, I am still trying to get the taste out of my mouth. Beyond that, this film is hard evidence that Precious may well have been an incredible fluke. No filmmaker working in the confines of proper taste and art could create and release a film such as this. It is a baffling exercise in exploitation trash, and off the top of my head, the worst film I have ever seen to have competed for the Palme d'Or at Cannes. More baffling still is the 16-minute standing ovation it received at its premiere; had I been among that audience, not only would I have been sitting, but I would have been wondering who these people are around me that will applaud this film for any amount of time, no less sixteen minutes.

I was and am still defensive of the quality of 2009's superbly written and acted Precious, for which Lee Daniels received an Oscar nomination for Best Director. With Precious, Daniels was working from a screenplay by Geoffrey Fletcher; perhaps therein lay one of the overarching issues with The Paperboy - Daniels wrote this script. I can only call this poorly directed because I cannot imagine a good director entertaining the idea of releasing this upon the world. Nonetheless, its direction does have some cinematic polish that hearkens back to films of the late 60s, particularly in its cinematography (the story itself is set in 1969).

The story, narrated by a black maid (Macy Gray), recalls the events surrounding the murder of a small-town Sheriff in the summer of 69, and the man charged with his murder now sitting on death row, Hillary van Wetter (John Cusack). The main character, though I can hardly call him interesting or even very active, is Jack Jansen (Zac Efron) who spends most of his time in his underwear. If he isn't already in his underwear at the beginning of the scene, there will probably be a reason for him to exit the scene with less clothing.

One day, Jack's older brother, a reporter, Ward (Matthew McConaughey) comes to town with his friend, also a reporter (the film is defiantly inexact as to who works with or for whom, and what their respective stations are), Yardley (David Oyelowo). Yardley is a black man who has now entered the regressive backwoods of Florida in the late 60s, where racism is still surely afoot. Ward and Yardley are intent on proving Hillary's innocence, though it is entirely unclear why they buy into that idea in the first place. Along for the ride, I suppose with the intent to be some sort of help to the two reporters, is Charlotte (Nicole Kidman), one of those oh-so-common women who fall in love with prisoners. She has been corresponding with Hillary, and is convinced of his innocence; I won't say why, but damn does she have a good reason (#sarcasm). Charlotte draws the attention of Jack, partially because she is beautiful, partially because she's older and his mother is gone, blah blah blah.

The story carries on, never quite as we expect, which normally I would applaud, but not when it decides to turn left and we know the only reasonable choice was to go right. There are two scenes, earlier on in the film, that have received much attention; one, a meeting between Charlotte and Hillary where neither can touch each other yet still manage to achieve orgasm, and two, a scene of such epically narrative bewilderment in which Charlotte urinates on Jack after he's stung by a jellyfish. I won't even repeat the dialogue in that scene, which is acted with comedic zeal but portrayed as dramatic sincerity.

If there exists one saving grace for this film, it is a commonplace adjective applicable to most any Lee Daniels film: it is well-acted. However, unlike Precious, these performances have no backbone; they are treading water in a sea of misguided themes and a beguiling story. Matthew McConaughey can add this to his resume of impeccable performances in 2012, but I won't blame him if he doesn't want to. Perhaps the most fascinating turn is with Nicole Kidman, who sheds her decades-long glamour type-cast to embody a character as melodramatic, trashy, and sexily charged as the film itself. So far she has earned SAG and Golden Globe nominations for her work; I can't say it is undeserved. But I do wonder why any of these actors read this script and signed on. Roger Ebert once said that, generally as a rule, John Cusack doesn't appear in bad films. At the time, I honestly couldn't think of a horrible film I had seen him in.

I certainly can now.


Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Les Miserables

A Love Story Wrapped in an Epic

Tom Hooper is a highly talented director, though I have only seen The King's Speech and now Les Miserables. Before than, it seems like, aside from The Damned United, that he mainly did television work. I thought The King's Speech to be a very well-written, impeccably acted and directed film, though it was not one of my favorites of the year, and I thought its Best Picture and Director Oscar wins over The Social Network were two of the greatest Academy Award injustices since Titanic. In The King's Speech, I immediately recognized a fresh and distinct directorial style, particularly as far as the cinematography is concerned. Often, characters are placed to the left or the right of the frame, rather than typically balanced in the center; he had an intriguing use of negative space in the frame; and many shots were distorted through a variety of techniques, such as varying the focal length of the lens. Some of that is on display in Les Miserables, particularly some shots in the film's third act, which definitely had a "Tom Hooper" stamp on them.

Hooper is also masterful at bringing time periods to life; he fills his frames with set and costume designs that are unmistakable to their era. In The King's Speech, it was 1940s Britain. In Les Miserables, it's 1800s France. The technical craftsmanship on display in both films is impeccable. Gorgeous cinematography, phenomenal sound mixing and editing, impeccable make-up, costume, and set design, and in the case of Les Miserables, quality visual effects.

I knew next to nothing about the story of Les Miserables. I'd never seen a performance of it; never read it; never knew anything about its plot. So all of this is new to me. I don't tend to like musicals on film... unless they're critically lauded, or hold some sort of intrinsic value to me, I don't generally see them. I much prefer the spectacle of a stage musical; they always astonish me with their choreography and professionalism. On the stage, you know you're watching maybe an hour of unbroken action. There are no "takes." Or rather, there is only one. Mistakes can't be made and erased like they can with film. There are no cuts. The action exists, and is never less or more than what you see. On the other hand, film obviously carries a weight of capabilities that doesn't extend to the possibilities of the stage, precisely because you can cut, or do multiple takes, or special effects, or... the list goes on and on. And with Hooper's Les Miserables, there is much here that could not have been done on the stage, making a good case for its non-superfluous existence. For example, as much as I love von Trier's Dogville, I wish it had been done on the stage, as its nothing more than a filmed stageplay.

Les Miserables begins with a scene of intense scope; hundreds of men are pulling a gigantic ship into dock. Not only does this establish the epic nature of the story, it reminds us of the hard-times and back breaking labor of older times. I began to think of the Egyptians moving those gigantic pieces of stone to build their pyramids. It is a scene that immediately sparks a contrast of time relation. Anyway, one of these men is Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), ragged, thin, and unkempt. He's been serving a nineteen year sentence and at the end of this scene he is released on parole by Javert (Russell Crowe), who becomes one of the film's primary antagonists throughout its decades-long story. Through a series of happenings, Jean meets Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who is fired from her job at Jean's factory; a job she desperately needs to send money to the caretakers of her daughter. That is all the more I will say, as the plot is one of its primary pleasures, though admittedly I found the acting and technical craftsmanship to be far more interesting than the story.

Of the acting. Hugh Jackman as the protagonist and most prominent character is quite good. It may well be his best performance to date. If he earns an Oscar nomination for his work, I won't complain, though I can think of five better performances off the top of my head. Russell Crowe, whom I heard was the film's worst element, isn't nearly as good as he's been by any stretch of the imagination (The Insider, Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, come on!), but he isn't horrible. And his character is one of the most fascinating in the film. The true highlight of performances, however, goes to Anne Hathaway, who turns in the best performance from a supporting actress I've seen of 2012. In what is probably the film's greatest moment, Hathaway sings "I Dreamed a Dream" in a long unbroken medium close-up that is both heartbreaking and beautiful at the same time, and one of the most perfect moments of acting all year. After Rachel Getting Married, I believed Hathaway was an actress of exceptional talent; now I am undeterred in that sentiment.

The next best moment of the film involves a small child, revolutionaries, a barricade, soldiers, and "The Second Attack" which is at once devastatingly sad and invigoratingly inspirational. Along with Hathaway's Oscar moment, these were the two best scenes of the entire film.

All of this sounds resoundingly positive, and it is. Les Miserables is an exceptionally well-made, acted and directed film. Why is it not one of my favorites of the year? First, I don't think the material is as fitting to my tastes as some other films. As with anyone, there are subject matters that are inherently interesting to me, and if executed properly, result in a more substantially resonant experience than others. Les Mis is not that type of film, similar to The King's Speech. Thus, part of it comes down to mere personal taste. Beyond that, I felt this could've been about thirty minutes shorter; some scenes condescended and more economical. As it is, there were times when I (fairly sarcastically) thought that the title - which as I understand it, translates to "The Miserable" - might be referring to me, rather than the characters. That's sarcastic overstatement, however; I was never miserable. Just bored, at times. Compare it to Django Unchained, a film ten minutes lengthier: I never wanted that film to end. With Les Mis, I was welcomely anticipating its closure.

All in all, this is a good film. A terrifically acted, gorgeously shot, brilliantly directed piece of musical cinema. The script could have used some trimming to bring this down to a less tedious running time. If the topic appeals to you, or you already have knowledge of the story and like it, or you like musical films in general, you'll probably like this much more than me, and I liked it. I saw it almost 24 hours ago, and it has grown on me since. All good films do.


Sunday, December 30, 2012

This is 40

This is 40...Minutes too Long

I have loved all of Judd Apatow's directorial efforts. The first I saw was his first, 40 Year Old Virgin, which I didn't see in theatres, but thought was very funny. Then, in theatres, I saw Knocked Up and subsequently, Funny People. I've followed all of his films in chronological order, and have seen all of them except 40 Year Old Virgin in theatres. And I've found all of them delightfully funny and highly enjoyable. My favorite? Funny People, as I found it to be his most mature film to date, loved the Adam Sandler performance, and loved the more dramedy element as opposed to his previous straight-comedy.

Now comes the "sort of sequel" to Knocked Up; This is 40. Essentially, it regards the characters of Debbie (Leslie Mann, who was miraculous in Funny People) and Peter (Paul Rudd), who were supporting characters in Knocked Up. There are a few cross-over appearances from both films, namely Jason Segel, but they play smaller, supporting roles. This is more of its own film, diving into the dynamic of Pete and Debbie, both of whom had an established rocky relationship in Knocked Up.

I am a huge fan of both Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann, both have turned in some excellent comedic performances. As far as This is 40 goes, they're quite good here too. I can't really pin-point any real problems with their performances; my issues lay with the material they're given.

Judd Apatow is a clearly talented director and writer. He showed that particularly in Knocked Up and Funny People (which I believe to be highly underrated). With This is 40, he attempts to shoot for the same formula that made Funny People a success (for me), which is a synthesis of drama and comedy. Particularly, here he wants to delve into the problems of marriage (especially once a couple has been married for over a decade, and starts to get bored of each other), having kids, and even the problems with their own parents. It's a movie about parenthood and relationships; wisely, a young teenage romance is inserted to provide a juxtaposition (and some very funny scenes) to the marriage of Pete and Debbie. There's also the inevitable arguments and disagreements that arise when your daughter starts liking a boy for the first time.

In many ways, This is 40, is a success; it is often quite funny, has many great performances - I can't really find a problem with any of them. What I do find a problem with is their purpose. What is the purpose of the (very attractive) young woman (Megan Fox) accused of stealing money from the store? It results in some funny scenes, and some eye candy for men, but what does it mean, thematically? I ask because, like The Master, this is a very thematic film (though in a highly different way). It doesn't have any kind of overriding narrative or plot; it is simply about a time in this couple's life. Compare it to Knocked Up: that was a film about a time - that was a story about two people with a crucial catalyst to the plot: he knocked her up. This is 40 doesn't center around any such element other than Pete's birthday party, which isn't a huge driving force.

At many times, I was asking myself: why am I watching this scene? What is its purpose? If this were cut out of the film, would I miss a single thing? By the end of the film, many times, the answer would have been "no, wouldn't have missed one plot point."

To me, this feels like a mash-up of scenes derived from someone's real-life marriage and parenthood, without any overarching story or understanding to provide the audience with some semblance of meaning or purpose to be watching. I personally wouldn't want to sit and watch a movie solely comprised of clips from the life of a married couple with two children taken over the course of a week. That's what This is 40 felt like to me, except more dramatized and funnier. It's just not dramatized or funny enough and lacks the proper design.


Thursday, December 27, 2012

Best Films of 2012

Year In Review: Best of 2012

2012 was not a great year for films, but there were some great films released this year. The list below are my top 10 favorite films from this year with brief descriptions. They are listed in order of approximate preference. Ask me again tomorrow, and their placements may well change. Also should be noted, there are many films I still greatly anticipate but have not seen, like Zero Dark Thirty, Killing Them Softly and Life of Pi, which upon seeing, could alter this list slightly.

1. The Master - Upon first seeing Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film in September, I knew it would be the film for all other films to contend with, for me. And over three months later, I still have not seen a better film; this is the perfect synthesis of acting, directing, cinematography, editing, score, and just about everything that makes a great film great. Every shot is the shot of a true artist; carefully composed, balanced, and executed. The acting is phenomenal. And it is probably the most original film of the year. Some found it murky, incomprehensible, or boring. I found it enchanting.

2. Amour (Love) - The latest masterpiece from director Michael Haneke deservedly took home the Palme d'Or, the highest honor of the Cannes Film Festival. This French-language drama is beautifully directed and powerfully acted, with an Oscar worthy performance from Emmanuelle Riva. Along with Sarah Polley's Away From Her, this is one of the finest depictions of love, loss, and old age in a long while.

3. Beasts of the Southern Wild - This Sundance darling startled me with its beauty, imagination, and depth. Seen entirely through the eyes of a child, Quevenzhane Wallis in an Oscar caliber performance, it is a fantasy-drama set in an impoverished community known as "the bathtub," which exists disconnected from New Orleans, on the other side of the levee. Wallis, and her father (Dwight Henry), were both first-time actors, and they give performances as convincing as anybody else this year.

4. Django Unchained - Perhaps the the most outright entertaining film of the year, Tarantino's newest film is a bloody, uproarious, action-filled piece of cinema. At nearly three hours in length, it never feels it. Throw in some Award-worthy performances from Christoph Waltz and especially Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson, and you have a bloody good time at the theatre. Is it flawless? No. But it is a perfect example of why I love movies.

5. Flight - Containing the most terrifying plane crash sequence I've ever seen in a film, Flight ushers a welcomed return to live action cinema for Robert Zemeckis. What follows after the crash is a careful, dark, and at time very funny story about alcoholic pilot Whip Whitaker. In Whitaker, Denzel Washington is given one of his best roles ever, and hopefully will earn an Oscar nomination for his work.

6. Killer Joe - A story about one messed up, trailer-trash family that decides their mother isn't of much use, and so they bring in Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey, who's had a splendid year) to kill her. The screenplay, cinematography, direction, and performances are flawless. This film deservedly earned an NC-17 rating; I can't imagine anybody under 18 needing to see this film. But it is a great one, and shouldn't be missed, if you can stomach it.

7. Jack Reacher - Probably the most critically derided film on this list: I don't give a shit. This is the analog James Bond. Writer/Director Christopher McQuarrie (of Usual Suspects fame) adapts the film from one of Lee Childs' novels, and in so doing, reminds us what action films should be about: not explosions, car chases, and shoot-outs every other scene, but rather an establishment of character and a careful build of suspense so that when we get to those car chases, shoot-outs, whatever they may be, they carry an intensity unlike any other. Another film of pure entertainment.

8. Ruby Sparks - Paul Dano has had a great year, with not only this film, but also the very good Being Flynn, and For Ellen, which I have yet to see. This film is an impeccably written comedy about a writer in Los Angeles who literally writes a character into existence. This character being Ruby (Zoe Kazan, also the screenwriter of the film), who plays the character and her wide array of emotions with fascinating range. A highly enjoyable romantic comedy.

9. Compliance - This unsettling film based on nearly 70 real life incidents would be entirely unbelievable... if it didn't actually happen. It's a masterful exercise in how seemingly simple and benign actions can gradually escalate into monstrous happenings. With a fantastic supporting turn from Ann Dowd, this is one of the most fascinating, unsettling, well-directed films of the year, especially impressive because of its limited locations.

10. 21 Jump Street - Hands down the funniest film of the year, this is an excellent comedy with great performances from Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, and a magnificent screenplay that delights in turning genre cliches on their head. It may be formulaic and somewhat predictable, but it's a goddamn fun ride. It improves upon rewatch, when little nuances of performances reveal themselves, and cute bits of foreshadowing emerge. It also probably contains the best cameo of any film of the year.

Honorable Mentions, in alphabetical order: Argo, Cabin in the Woods, End of Watch, The Impossible, Lincoln, Looper, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Sessions, Seven Psychopaths, The Silver Linings Playbook.

Best Director:

Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master
David Ayers, End of Watch
William Friedkin, Killer Joe
Michael Haneke, Amour
Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained
Robert Zemeckis, Flight

Best Screenplay:

Lucy Alibar & Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master
Stephen Chbosky, Perks of Being a Wallflower
Michael Haneke, Amour
Tony Kushner, Lincoln
Martin McDonagh, Seven Psychopaths
Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained
Craig Zobel, Compliance