Monday, December 31, 2012

Promised Land

A rising corporate executive (Matt Damon) and his travelling partner (Frances McDormand) travel from the big city to a rural Pennsylvania township to secure the drilling rights. After bribing the mayor and enticing the local citizenry with temporary relief from the current economic slump, an activist (John Krasinski) comes into the fray with a counter plan: to inform the people of the realities of fracking. "Promised Land" is an excellent environmental film, one that works both as drama and informative, which avoids the usual pitfalls of many of these movies, and is even self-aware. It was directed by Gus Van Sant, a competent veteran and one of the few filmmakers keeping alive the tradition of film, who works from a script by Krasinski and Damon, who draw from a David Eggers story, and both are engaging in their parts. McDormand again proves why she is one of our finest actresses and Rosemarie DeWitt also contributes fine work in a supporting role. The film does have a tendency to be preachy, as would be expected, but this element is mostly held in check, and a concerted effort to find balance on the subject is made. A late act of theatrical chicanery hurts the grounded intentions of the movie, but still works well within the bounds of drama. Whether you seek to be illuminated or entertained, "Promised Land" should suffice, but it also serves as a testament to filmmaking, in a time of big budget, digital extravaganzas.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Hyde Park on Hudson

Daisy (Laura Linney) was once accustomed to upper class flourishes but has now been reduced to more modest means, like so many others during the years of the Depression. Now, when her fifth cousin and leader of the free world Franklin Delano Roosevelt requests her company and soon her companionship, the prudent young woman is taken aback, but soon develops feelings for him. When King George VI (Samuiel West) and the Queen Mother (Olivia Colman) make their historic visit (the first of a British monarch to the United States) to FDR's upstate residence, Daisy is in tow as the household led by Eleanor (Olivia Williams) make the preparations. "Hyde Park on Hudson" is a disappointing filmization of a slight, almost unworthy, and a little disconcerting story, directed by Roger Mitchell and written by Richard Nelson who drew upon Margaret Suckley's diaries, which were found after her death in 1991. Bill Murray does what he can and would have faired better with a more worthy script. The film also gives Laura Linney nothing to do (aside from the now infamous handjob scene) and is an insult to her talents. Also the presence of a stammering King George and his wife Elizabeth only invite memories of the far superior "The King's Speech." To its credit, the film does feature some nice pastoral imagery and a laconic, mood setting soundtrack. Unfortunately, not only is the story meager and somewhat creepy, it is also fairly derogatory as well. It's alternate tile should have been "How I Became FDR's Whore and Learned to Love It."

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Waitress

A young (Kerri Russell) buries the misery inflicted by her cruel and controlling husband (Jeremy Sisto) in the delectable pies she bakes which play like gangbusters at the local southern diner where she waits tables. After becoming unwillingly pregnant, she begins an affair with her charming prenatal caregiver (Nathan Fillion) and aims to win a top paying pie making contest to make the dream of leaving her husband a reality. "Waitress" is as putrid as its plot description, probably even more so, and will probably play best to those enthralled by gas station dime novels and the regular Lifetime Channel fare. Written, directed, costarring, and dedicated to Adrienne Shelly, who was murdered in a bizarre NYC home invasion before the film's release, the movie seeks to be a southern, small town female bonding picture a la "Fried Green Tomatoes" and unfortunately isn't very successful, at least from my cynical, male perspective. Even Andy Griffith brings very little to the proceedings, playing a crotchety regular at the diner, in what was one of his final roles.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Les Misérables

Jean Valjean, the hero of Victor Hugo's expansive 1862 novel, goes from decrepit ex-con, to reformed small town business magnate, and back to fugitive from the law while caring for an ailing prostitute and her young daughter and dodging a dogged police inspector throughout revolutionary France (how's that for summing up a 1,463 page book in less than 50 words?) in this screen adaptation of the enduring Broadway musical. "Les Misérables" is a highly anticipated project, and when reviews began to pour in ranging from lukewarm to scathing, I began to prepare my "musicals are a highly subjective genre" review. Now I realize this is not a case of a bad movie, though it is that, but rather a poor stage-to-screen adaptation. There are so many things wrong with the film, but they begin with the music. Director Tom Hooper has been roundly commended for his decision to film his actor's singing live, rather than in a studio post-filming, but this decision does nothing to aid the film, which should be a primary concern, and voices and sound come off as flat, inaudible, and unimpressive. Hugh Jackman has never been any great shakes as an actor and despite his background in musical theater, his voice is all wrong for Valjean. Russell Crowe would have been ideally suited to the role of Javert, but since this is an almost exclusive singing outing, he comes off poorly with, again, a voice ill-suited to the role. Anne Hathaway, who has been generating awards buzz, is again way too much and may as well have been belting, "Please Give Me The Oscar" during her "I Dreamed a Dream" number. Hooper's intimate, close-up heavy mise-en-scene (which I thought would have played well) is disorienting and not conducive to the material. Also, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen turn up in recurring anachronistic roles which serve only as a reminder to "Sweeney Todd", a far superior musical rendering. I wanted to love this movie, I really did. I liked a filmed stage version I had watched prior and have listened to the original soundtrack, but this movie left me feeling disconnected from the characters and their interrelationships and, sadly, it instilled in me a moderate hatred for the material.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Gun Fight

Colin Goddard, survivor of the Virginia Tech massacre
In the wake of the Virgina Tech shootings of 2007, where 32 lives were claimed by a sole gunman, Oscar winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple ("Harlan County, USA")  opted to take an open-minded approach in her documentary on the gun control discussion, where she interviews (mostly) level-headed people on both sides of the issue, in addition to gunshot victims and trauma ward staff at a Philadelphia hospital, and finally one of the few survivors of the VT massacre. Kopple's documentary is admirably told without grandstanding (a la Michael Moore), narration, and with almost no intertitles to guide her film. She offers reasonable and seemingly obvious solutions (such as across-the-board background checks) which should appear acceptable to both sides, and also offers the reasons why these measures are continually thwarted. Although the film does lose momentum towards the end, its point remains abundantly clear: although the unthinkable horrors such as which occurred in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14th capture our national sympathies and place the gun control debate at the forefront of  political discussion, they remain only a pin drop of the gun violence which plagues our country every week.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Tom Sawyer

Mark Twain's indefatigably mischievous and timeless hero (played by a well cast Johnny Whitaker) receives musical treatment in this film where he tricks his fellow schoolmates into whitewashing Aunt Polly's (Celeste Holm) picket fence, romances Becky Thatcher (Jodie Foster), saves a kindly drunk (Warren Oates) from the gallows, and traverses the Mississippi and nearby Jackson Island with his good friend, and scourge of the community, Huck Finn (Jeff East). "Tom Sawyer" is a pretty good rendition of Twain's classic children's novel, which isn't faithful so much to the plotting as it is to the spirit of the story. The songs are unmemorable, but the child actors are well cast, and the adults are superb (esp. Oates and Holm) which is the key for these kinds of film. The result is a diverting film which will please Twain fans (though not purists) and which, if nothing else, captures the essence of his tale.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Miracle on 34th Street

When the Santa Claus slated to lead the annual Thanksgiving Day Parade reports for duty in a drunken stupor, a frantic Macy's executive (Maureen O'Hara) can't believe her luck when she stumbles upon an ideal replacement (Edmund Gwenn) who is so good that she offers him a seasonal gig in the department store. Soon though the hiring decision causes her personal and professional distress as Kris, who claims he is the real annual bestower of holiday cheer, disrupts her sales policy and spins his fantastical stories to her impressionable and sheltered young daughter (Natalie Wood). "Miracle on 34th Street" is a sweet, funny, surprisingly pointed, and occasionally very sharp Christmas tale directed by George Seaton and based on a story by Valerie Davies. The cast is very fine. I especially liked O'Hara as the tough but softhearted executive, John Payne as a benevolent attorney (though I was never able to figure out who he was in relation to O'Hara), Porter Hall as a shifty psychologist, Gene Lockhart as a bemused judge, and of course Gwenn, exemplary in his Oscar winning role. Natalie Wood is a little precocious and Thelma Ritter makes her very brief but highly impressionable debut. For those who haven't seen this film (I only saw it for the first time recently), I think it is natural to lump it together with all the other saccharine holiday offerings and avoid it entirely. Doing so, however, is a great miscalculation and a denial of one of the finest holiday films that plays just as well, if not better, for adults than children. 

Monday, December 24, 2012

Scrooge

The story is as well known as any ever told in any form: a despicable miser is visited by three ghosts, of past, present, and future, on Christmas Eve who compel him to completely reverse his disposition. For this 1951 outing, which alternately bears the title of Charles Dickens' 1843 novel, writer Noel Langley and director Brian Desmond Hurst opted for a darker, more inclusive though, oddly, a shorter film making the results seems rushed and doesn't carry the same emotion. Scenes that have been seldom been shown on screen, such as Scrooge at his sister's deathbed and his chambermaid divvying up his lot amongst friends following his demise, aren't nearly as engrossing as they should be. This version featuring Alastair Sim, who does make a very fine Scrooge, is generally considered the definitive film adaption of A Christmas Carol. Though it's an earnest and unique attempt, I would suggest the 1939 interpretation with Reginald Owen as the contrary penny-pincher.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Django Unchained

SPOILERS
A German born gun for hire (Christoph Waltz), posturing as a travelling dentist, happens upon a slave transport in a wooded southern nightscape just a few years before the Civil War.  Seeking a guide to the plantation residence of his latest targets, he contracts the services of Django (Jamie Foxx), after dispatching the hostile slavers and freeing their chattel. Together, following the completion of their primary task and acting out of sympathy towards his recent acquaintance's tumults (and animosity towards the institution of slavery in general), the bounty hunter spends a winter training his friend in the ways of his craft, and seeks to free his imprisoned wife (Kerry Washington), held by a genial yet malevolent plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio). "Django Unchained" is another postcard to film from Quentin Tarantino (perhaps a farewell to it), a tribute to Leone and the Spaghetti Western, and another rollicking, intelligent, revisionist splatterfest that will again leave you feeling bowled over and needing a few days to recover. It features four supreme performances: another great, finely tuned one from Waltz, an over-the-top, very fun performance from Leo, Samuel L. Jackson playing his treacherous, long serving house slave, and a very tricky, wonderfully acted, and somewhat thankless (due to the flash on display around him) role for Foxx. I wish Tarantino would have pulled the rug out, as it appeared he was going to do and which would have given a truer sense of the kinds of horrors endured under the system. Instead he opts for the more conventional kill everything in sight finale he's used so often before, which nonetheless achieves a showstopping effect that leaves a pit in your stomach which, as mentioned earlier, lingers for some time.

Meet Me in St. Louis

In the months leading up to the 1904 World's Fair, the members of the Smith family prepare for the momentous occasion while weathering the ebbs and flows of love, following a bombshell that their father will move them to the dirty and overcrowded city streets of New York and away from their beloved St. Louis home. "Meet Me in St. Louis" is a delightful musical directed by Vincente Minnelli and starring Judy Garland,  and is the set on which the two first met. The film is an episodic, unpretentious, and comfortable with not overreaching, while featuring some very fine musical numbers. Garland turns in a sweet performance, Mary Astor and Leon Ames deliver fine turns as her parents, and Margaret Sullivan all but steals the show as the precocious, death obsessed youngest sister.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Shop Around the Corner

A top salesman (James Stewart) can't stand the upstart new hire (Margaret Sullivan) at his quaint little gift store in Budapest and pines for the embrace of his penpal, just as she despises her arrogant new colleague, the complete opposite of the proper romantic she's in touch with. Of course they are corresponding with each other. "The Shop Around the Corner" is a delightful adaptation by the incomparable Ernst Lubitsch of Miklos Laszlo's play which has been tinkered many times (most recently as "You've Got Mail"), but is done to a masterful and sublimely funny degree here, despite the fact you know how the story is going to end. Stewart turns in an unexpectedly melancholic, slightly angry performance as the bitter clerk and Sullivan is in fine form as his feisty rival/love interest. Frank Morgan as the store owner and Felix Bressart as another clerk offer very funny supporting performances.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Holiday Affair

When a toy store clerk (Robert Mitchum) at a large department store decides to give a pass to a fetching comparison shopper (Janet Leigh) and not report her to his boss, he is swiftly relieved of his duties. Now unemployed and soon to be homeless, he insinuates himself into the lives of the woman and her young son, much to the chagrin of his fiance (Wendell Corey). "Holiday Affair" is a bizarre and almost frighteningly misguided yuletide knockoff of "Miracle on 34th Street", but instead of a harmless old man spreading Christmas cheer in the home of a young mother, we have a derelict Robert Mitchum trying to defile Janet Leigh! Mitchum was assigned to the film (quite humorously I might add) in an attempt by the studios to repair his tarnished image following his notorious arrest and jailing for marijuana possession. His no nonsense presence add gravitas somewhat, but his character is so creepy, and what's even more disturbing is the way the film views him in a positive manner. Add to that an agonizing and insufferable child actor and a syrupy screenplay and this becomes a holiday affair to forget.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Jack Reacher

In a parking garage overlooking the Pittsburgh Pirates playing field, a sniper methodically readies himself, notes five targets, seemingly random people enjoying their lunch break, and proceeds to pick them off one by one. A crack investigator (David Oyelowo) immediately nabs a suspect (Joseph Sikora) who, just before being beaten into a coma during a jail transport, requests the presence of Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise), a military policeman with every decoration imaginable, who is currently off the grid. Once arriving on his own accord, the mysterious M.P. teams up with the suspect's defense attorney (Rosamund Pike) and begins to unravel the very minute shreds of evidence in an otherwise perfect cover-up. Director Christopher McQuarrie's "Jack Reacher" plays like it was written by the smartest hillbilly in the hunting lodge, composed of an endless barrage of bro-offs, pissing contests, and needlessly complicated plotting consisting of harebrained government and corporate conspiracies. Tom Cruise is thoroughly unconvincing (I think he had more credibility as the would be Hitler assassin in the McQuarrie penned "Valkyrie") as the hero of Lee Childs' (actually a Brit) popular series and it's curious why, at the age of 50 and with the ability to write his own ticket, he would resign himself to a dime novel series like this (the 18th Jack Reacher book is due out next year). Also being scathed in this debacle is Pike, who seems very sweet and has been very good in other films, but comes off as insipid. Also Richard Jenkins and Robert Duvall, unfortunately, add almost nothing to the proceedings. I was grateful (actually, a little disheartened) for the presence of Werner Herzog playing the shadowy dead-eyed villain who had to bite off his fingers to avoid frostbite in a Siberian prison, and now exacts the same injustice on his victims. "Jack Reacher" is a cheap, shameful, and self-satisfied picture that is all set-up and no pay-off. It's like a version of "Jaws" where Brody hunts down the mayor and his corporate thugs, Quint and Hooper square off in a fight to the death, and we never see the shark.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Holiday Inn

The crooning half (Bing Crosby) of a popular, town song-and-dance becomes fed up when his partner/rival-in-love once (Fred Astaire) once again steals his girl (Virginia Dale). Deciding to finally act on his less than ambitious dreams, he purchases land on a rural Connecticut spread and opens a country resort that offers entertainment only on the calendar holidays throughout the year. Wouldn't you know it if his old pal doesn't come horning in on the action, and his latest star (Marjorie Reynolds)! "Holiday Inn" features some terrific Irving Berlin songs (including the annual hit "White Christmas" which later became a quasi sequel with Crosby and Danny Kaye) and dance numbers all draped upon a plot (from Berlin's story, which was nominated for an Oscar!) that would be generous to call threadbare, and is probably even magnanimous in calling it a plot. Crosby and Astaire, though again contributing enjoyable numbers, seem to be phoning it in and looking amused about the effortless paychecks they received for this less than light affair.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Black Hawk Down

In 1993, U.S. Special Forces were dispatched to Mogadishu, Somalia in what was supposed to be something of a cakewalk, their mission being to land in a crowded marketplace and extract a notorious warlord. However, due to overconfidence, misinformation, lack of preparation, pissing contests between Rangers and Delta Force units, and over anxiousness on the part of the White House, troop members wound up ends in a desperate firefight which claimed the lives of 19 soldiers. Adapted Mark Bowden's reporting and subsequent novel on the ordeal. Ridley Scott's "Black Hawk Down" is a gritty, realistic, and alarming story which had dire consequences on world politics but has gone almost forgotten today. Made with an expansive cast (Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Eric Bana, Tom Sizemore, Jeremy Piven, William Fitchner, to name a few), many of whom saw their careers launched by the film, Scott determines to focus singularly on the mission and the ensuing chaos, offering no extraneous detail. The result is an unrelenting and engrossing experience that like the events depicted (sadly) does not resonate for very long after it is over.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Best of 2012

So my mid-year expostulation becomes amended from "where are all the good movies?" to "why can't they be dispersed evenly throughout the year (and still why have there been so few)?" I did, ultimately, see many fine films this year and have not yet seen a few (i.e. "Zero Dark Thirty", "Amour", etc.) which are predominating end of the year lists but have yet to reach my area. This year, I've decided to present my picks in the same fashion of the National Board of Review, offering a Best Film of the Year in addition to ten more entries listed alphabetically. So without further adieu, here you have my favorite movies of 2012:

Best Film
Moonrise Kingdom
For his ode to first love, Wes Anderson accented what he does best and modulated the whimsical elements for which he is often assailed, resulting in a highly cinematic and completely disarming picture, which features an inimitable adult cast and an equally fine, unknown adolescent ensemble.


Top Films
The Central Park Five/The Dust Bowl
Ken Burns released two films this year, the latter in his usual style, and the former which he made with his daughter Sarah and her husband David McMahon and that bears little resemblance to any of his work. Both tell harrowing, consummately researched stories and focus largely on their human elements.

Cloud Atlas
Bizarre, incredibly ambitious, heartfelt, and entertaining The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer's adaptation of David Mitchell's sprawling novel went inexplicably through theaters without much fanfare.

Django Unchained
Tarantino returns with another exploitative, revisionist tale about a freed slave exacting vengeance on the Antebellum South. It's a wild and raucous ode to the spaghetti western, demonstrating again QT's vast knowledge of the cinema and features no less than four Oscar caliber performances from Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Samuel L. Jackson.

The Do-Deca Pentahlon/The Five-Year Engagement/Jeff, Who Lives at Home
I've decided to mesh together three films into this one entry, two made by the Duplass brothers, two starring Jason Segel, and one featuring them all. These are sweet and very funny films that rose above what is usually served as comedy by Hollywood.

The Life of Pi
Ang Lee, one of the most sensitive of all directors, offers this simple, thought to have been unfilmable adaptation of Yann Martel's book, which results in one of the best uses of the 3D format and one of the most moving films of recent memory.

Lincoln
Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis outdo themselves again, crafting a work that stands amongst their finest, and becomes something even more. On top of a superbly-acted, historically faithful film, etc. etc., it is also an unexpectedly humorous retelling of the passing of the 13th Amendment.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Where "The Hobbit" has many viewers squirming in their seats and lighting up their cellphones to check the time, this protracted crime thriller held my gaze, almost inexplicably, for its lengthy, hypnotic duration.

Prometheus
At 74, Ridley Scott revisited "Alien" territory and offered one of his finest films in a longevous career, which was also among the year's most divisive. It's clear what side I'm on.

Promised Land 
Gus Van Sant's tale of small town fracking is aware of the traps most eco-movies fall into, and crafts an informative, fair, and entertaining drama featuring fine performances from Matt Damon and John Krasinski (who both coauthored the screenplay) and the great Frances McDormand.

Silver Linings Playbook
David O Russell's followup to "The Fighter" tells of another dysfunctional family, this one about a manic depressive, not realizing the love of his life is right in front of his eyes, and his father who becomes aware that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

Homeland

(Spoilers Ahead. This whole show is a series of spoiler, so be forewarned)
Season 2
Following the botched attempt on the Vice President's life, Brody is now learning the ropes as a freshman U.S. Congressman while Carrie, teaching English as a second language and recovering from her stint in the booby hatch, is contracted by the CIA to lend her expertise to an expedition in Beirut. As Abu Nazir moves his pawns into place for his next terrorist attack, Carrie and Brody's stars align once more, placing their careers and lives into imminent danger. It becomes clear that the high-wire act done so well during the first season cannot be maintained, and while all the pieces don't quite come crashing down, preposterous plotting  has seized the day. Clare Danes character, where she was so effective before, has become nearly intolerable, going into hysterics several times an episode. Damian Lewis is doing what he can, and I think he should be commended for going through some of the things they put his character through with a straight face. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the show is how insipid Mandy Patinkin's Saul has become and the addition of Rupert Friend adds very little, if anything to the series. Most of these complaints can be chalked up to the writing. How could anyone seriously expect the show to maintain its momementum? And while the leads still maintain rooting interest, the second season plays its cards way too fast and serves them up in ways we can't possibly accept.
** 1/2
sidenote: As the "Homeland" season finale concludes the shows I watch for the year, I feel obliged to comment on the disappointment of nearly every series I've followed this year, especially one's in their sophomore season ("Homeland", "Games of Thrones", "Downton Abbey", "Sherlock"). In what has been termed as a "Golden Age of Television", these and other fan favorites such as "Boardwalk Empire" and "Breaking Bad" make it seem like a low karat era.

Season 1
A Marine (Damian Lewis) is rescued after eight years of being held captive in an Iraqi compound, and returns home to much fanfare and great difficulty adjusting to domestic life. Meanwhile an ambitious, volatile, and surreptitiously bipolar CIA agent (Clare Danes), having been informed several months prior by an al-Qaeda bomb maker that an American POW has been turned, suspects the heralded Marine of being the conduit of the next terrorist plot against the United States. "Homeland" is an ingeniously plotted tightrope act, which seems doomed to fail but never looses its footing once. Developed from the Israeli series "Prisoners of War" by Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, who take their unlikely story to an intense, sheerly believable level because they always prioritize the human elements. Ten years after his tremendous work on "Band of Brothers", Damian Lewis returns with another powerful performance in a uniquely American role. As the unorthodox agent running a one person operation, Clare Danes is excellent and has some heartbreaking, almost unbearable scenes later in the season. Mandy Patinkin also contributes tremendous, nuanced work as a veteran operative and mentor/counterbalance to Danes. The plot description for "Homeland" makes one think of something destined for a short-lived run on network television, but due to the intelligent and sensitive writing (I can't stress this enough) and its endearing, perfectly realized cast, the first season is something of a wonder.
****

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel

In writing Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell crafted one of the defining works of American literature. Her own spirit, that of an outspoken, indomitable southern belle, mirrored that of her own iconic heroine, and throughout her life, which was cut short by an auto accident at the age of 48, she made strides for women and black rights. "Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel" tells the fascinating story of a resolute, influential personage in an incredibly irritating fashion that gets its point across, but does so in a highly grating fashion.


Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Old Man and the Sea

Ernest Hemingway's late career ode to the indomitable spirit, detailing the tireless and ultimately fruitless efforts of an elderly fisherman's five day battle with a marlin was given full (and probably unnecessary) cinematic treatment by director John Sturges, which was made with the participation of the legendary author, who was reported as taking part in photo scouting sea expeditions. Spencer Tracy gives it his best go, but is woefully miscast as the elderly Cuban fisherman. Anthony Quinn donned the role of Santiago many years later in a TV movie which was reputedly a dog, but I wonder why he wasn't cast in this initial production. The movie is relentlessly faithful to the book, almost to a fault, but the major redemptive component is James Wong Howe's beautiful cinematography.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Jeff, Who Lives at Home

Still reeling from the death of his father, and living at home with his mother (Susan Sarandon), a 30 year old loafer (Jason Segel), who believes in cosmic coincidence and is currently mesmerized by the M. Night Shyamalan movie "Signs", encounters his more ambitious brother (Ed Helms) and then their mother during life changing moments of their lives, all during the course of a one-day odyssey of sorts through Baton Rouge. "Jeff, Who Lives At Home" is another low-key, poignant, perceptive, and very funny film from the brothers Duplass (Jay and Mark) who have taken their spearheaded and much maligned mumblecore movement and transformed it into something keen and meaningful. This is one of the first films for me where Segel has come into his own on screen, Helms is in fine form also, and Sarandon is great as usual. At a time (especially this calendar year) when audiences are assaulted by effects laden blockbusters or indies with unnatural characters bearing no resemblance to anyone in reality, it is refreshing to see such a simple, humorous film inhabited by real people.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Well into his later years, living in simple comfort on the Shire, Bilbo Baggins begins writing the tale of his epic journey when an old wizard recruited him to aid a gang of motley dwarves in reclaiming their once prestigious homestead, now completely obliterated by a treacherous and seemingly insurmountable dragon. Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit" shares many of the positive attributes of the Lord of the Rings series including great scenery, musical score, elements of comradery, the presence of Ian McKellen and Andy Serkis in their now iconic roles, and even adds to the mix a more quickly paced plot line and an ideally cast Martin Freeman as the young Bilbo Baggins. It does though contain the same propensity for overblown all-inclusiveness, with Jackson never knowing when to quit, and promises to be just as protracted as the initial series (we barely even get a glimpse of Smaug here). Furthermore, although we thankfully see very little of the intolerable title creatures, the dwarves are more than happy to take up their headache inducing mantle. But these quibbles could be chalked up to a matter of my own personal taste and will surely be embraced by fans of J.R.R. Tolkein's book and the prior film installments. What certainly (and sadly) damages the film is Jackson's decision to shoot at 48 frames per second which adds very little, if anything to the 3D process (which was sighted as the reason for filming at that rate) and gives the film an ugly gloss and moves with the fluidity of a video game. This is all the more disappointing when reflecting on the first movies and that seamless blend of live-action and CGI,  and how we've only made a few strides on another bombastic excursion.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

When it comes to the attention of the great wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) that his old dear friend Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) is in possession of the One Ring, he determines it must be destroyed in the cauldron whence it was formed before the evil being Sauron can attain it and wreak destruction. Charging Bilbo's nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) and his loyal friend Sam (Sean Astin) with this task, a fellowship consisting of two men (Viggo Mortensen, Sean Bean), two more hobbits (Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd), an elf (Orlando Bloom), and a dwarf (John Rhys-Davies) forms to guard the ring's passage, as the aforementioned embark on a battle to save Middle Earth.  I was going to treat these films as three separate entries but i wanted to spare myself the writing (and you the trouble of reading) what is already widely known of what is essentially one, expansive film anyway. Peter Jackson's magnum opus is an overblown adaptation of the beloved J.R.R. Tolkein fantasy trilogy, which was a sequel to his equally successful (and forthcoming as another Jackson adaptation) The Hobbit. These first installments continue to achieve endless amounts of acclaim, but I find them unnecessarily overlong and incredibly corny efforts to please the Tolkien fanboy minority. They are most notable for their spectacular visuals, which by no means deserve to be downplayed considering, in my opinion, that they buoy a nearly ten hour film. Of the three films ("The Fellowship of the Ring", "The Two Towers", "The Return of the King"), none is far superior to any other, although the first installment has the unenviable task of being the set-up film and the last's multiple endings conjured nightmares of my bladder exploding when I first viewed it during the theatrical release. Ian McKellen (you almost need an actor of his breadth to take some of this shit seriously), Viggo Mortensen, and Sean Bean are in fine form although the hobbits (with the exception of Holm) are completely insufferable, especially Astin who is in all out Rudy mode. I thought Andy Serkis' Gollum was phenomenal, and that Jackson and co. are to blame for not clearly explaining the CGI process to Academy voters in efforts to garner him an Oscar nod. Detours also detract from the overall effect (I was bored to tears every time an elf was on screen) and many segments are beyond mawkish to the point of laughability. Still, the virtuoso filmmaking, breathless photography, and seamless CGI make this trek worth enduring.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Wanderlust

After purchasing an upscale Manhattan loft, a couple (Paul Rudd, Jennifer Aniston) loses their means of financial security almost overnight. In desperation, they pack their belongings and leave for his obnoxious brother's house in Atlanta when, after a few days of abuse, they decide to return to a hippy commune they stopped at along their way south, and attempt to adopt the ways of free love. David Wain's "Wanderlust" has the same charm and offers the same mixed bag as some of his other films. Actually, I thought it was extraordinarily funny until the laughs gradually started to fade away. Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd are amiable enough (his mirror scene where he prepares for his first foray into casual sex is a riot) and Ken Marino (also the film's cowriter) and Michaela Watkins have very funny roles as Rudd's brother and sister-in-law. "Wanderlust" definitely has its ebbs and flow, but in a sea of humorless comedies, how can you really pan one that makes you chuckle so much, even if it is imperfect?

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Central Park Five

Kharey Wise, one of The Five
On the night of April 19, 1989, a young Manhattan banker went jogging through Central Park and happened upon Matias Reyes, a serial rapist wanted by authorities for a number of violent crimes, who proceeded to drag her into the woods and rape and beat her within an inch of her life. Meanwhile a gang of twenty or so black and Latino teenagers rampaged through the park, menacing a series of pedestrians and joggers. Of the boys nabbed by police, five (Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise, and Yusef Salaam) we interrogated, tried before a court and the vengeful public eye, and sentenced to lengthy prison terms for the sexual assault on the jogger--a crime that took thirteen years to be vindicated. "The Central Park Five" is a devastating documentary, achingly told through the eyes of the accused, and painstakingly presented by Sarah Burns, her husband David McMahon, and her famed historian/filmmaker father Ken. The film was developed from book she authored about the incident, which at the time was termed by many media outlets as "The Crime of the Century", and although it is a well-crafted, exacting presentation (qualities associated with her father's work) it blazes its own trail (I got the feeling that Mr. Burns assumed the role of a guide in the film's making). "The Central Park Five" presents the landmark case with clarity and depth, while telling a story of a beleaguered city, a brutish crime, a need for swift justice, and ultimately, an unfathomable loss of innocence.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Hunter

With rumors circulating regarding the sighting of the thought to have been extinct Tasmanian Tiger, a biotech firm enlists a  the services of a lonesome mercenary (Willem Dafoe) to set out for the Australian island state and extract DNA from the elusive creature. There he takes residence and forms a bond with a woman whose husband  has gone missing and left her alone with two small children, as the parameters of his mission become increasingly more dangerous. Watching "The Hunter", a formidable adaptation of Julia Leigh's novel, at home on my couch, I wondered how on earth something like thing could have been relegated to DVD/On Demand viewing, especially in a theater year that has been brimming with mediocrity. Willem Dafoe turns in an excellent performance in an supremely set and expertly photographed film, which contains high supsense blended with human story elements. Also, Sam Neill turns up, probably because he hasn't made a film about extinct animals lately (I just had to work that sentence in, pardon me). While watching "The Hunter", I was also reminded of "The Pledge" and "The American", two other superb films about outsiders alone on a mission in the vast wilderness.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Elmer Gantry

Elmer Gantry, a hard-drinking, boisterous, silver tongued travelling salesman (Burt Lancaster), discovers his true calling in preaching when he hears the sermon of Sister Sarah (Jean Simmons), another nomadic peddler cut from a much more pure cloth. After ingratiating himself into her circle, their revivals are greeted with massive turnouts and it appears that her ambition of building a church will be realized. However, the  acts of a vengeful prostitute (Shirley Jones) from Gantry's past threaten to tear town their dreams. Richard Brooks' "Elmer Gantry" is an adaptation of Upton Sinclair's 1927 scathing satirical novel, which must have been trimmed of much of its salaciousness, but is nonetheless a powerful indictment of cheap evangelicalism and the selling of religion to the people. It features a trio of indelible performances: Lancaster, one of the most deeply felt of all actors, in his powerful, uncompromising, Oscar winning tour-de-force; Simmons, almost angelic, who brings depth to what could have been a patronizing role, which went surprisingly unrecognized; Lastly, Shirley Jones who also walks a fine line in playing another conflicted character and also winning an Oscar for her services.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Hitchcock

Now in his 60th year of life and on the heels of the most complete success of his career in "North By Northwest", Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) embarks on a self-imposed uphill battle with an attempt to fight boredom in his latest project: a screen adaptation of a seedy dime store chiller based on the exploits of notorious Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein. With his utterly supportive and unfairly neglected wife Alma (Helen Mirren), Hitch begins to clear the many hurdles and assemble the pieces of "Psycho", what would become his heralded masterpiece. "Hitchcock" is an exciting and self-awared take on film's most well known director and the making of his best known work.  Although incredible, Sacha Gervasi's filming of Stephen Rebello's novel was made, I believe, not to be taken as gospel but as a clever and reverential way to pay homage to the Master of Suspense. Hopkins turns in a performance which is essentially imitation, but no less consummate and engaging. When beginning to write this sentence regarding Helen Mirren's work in the film, I decided to stop myself in an effort to avoid gushing once more over another peerless performance. As for the many supporting roles the ones that stood out for me were Michael Stuhlbarg playing Hitch's famed Hollywood agent Lew Wasserman, Danny Huston as a writing associate of Lady Hitchcock (in a plotline that doesn't really work), and surprisingly Scarlett Johansson who comes off surprisingly well and exceeds my considerably low expectations in playing Janet Leigh. After watching the lurid recent TV movie "The Girl", it was quite a pleasant surprise to see such a funny, tongue-in-cheek, beguiling though imperfect treatment of similar material.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Foreign Correspondent

A New York news outlet sends a capable, hard-nosed reporter (Joel McCrea) to cover the burgeoning war crisis at an international peace conference in Holland. There, after acquainting himself with the daughter (Laraine Day) of the peace party leader, he witnesses the murder of a Dutch mediator (Albert Bassermann) and follows the assassins in hot pursuit, a quest which will expand and lead to the uncovering of a secret spy organization whose subversive plans threaten the safety of the entire continent.  "Foreign Correspondent" is an exciting early WWII yarn, the second American film made by Alfred Hitchcock, which is most notable for a solid McCrea performance and two astounding set pieces: the climactic plane crash into the Atlantic Ocean and a masterfully devised windmill sequence which immediately follows the assassination.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Gimme Shelter

A radio DJ informs us there were four births and four deaths at the Altamont Speedway in San Francisco, the last of which was an alleged stabbing under investigation, during the closing concert of the Rolling Stones 1969 tour. We then see Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, and Ronnie Wood speechlessly regarding the footage of a Hell's Angels member, hired to do security, mortally attacking an unruly fan. The film then doubles back showing the band in New York booking the gig, setting up for the massive show (and making incredibly shortsighted decisions in the process), and performing in what many see as a nightmarish symbol to the end of the tumultuous 60s and the death of the pathetic counterculture. Brothers Albert and David Maysles' rock doc "Gimme Shelter" is a vivid, uncanny, and terrifying record which was the result of bad decisions, bad drugs, and a general air of bad feelings, all of which is captured along with powerful Stones' performances from throughout the tour.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Boardwalk Empire

Season 3 (2012)
As New Year's Eve 1922 is celebrated in Atlantic City, Nucky's (Steve Buscemi) decision to constrict his bootlegging practices offends a highly volatile (and easily offendable) gangster (Bobby Cannavale) who commandeers a nearby suburb and sets his sights on A.C. On other fronts, Margaret (Kelly Macdonald) enjoys her newly acquired duties at the local hospital, though her seeds of dissatisfaction will germinate through the course of an affair with her husband's subordinate (Charlie Cox). Gillian  (Gretchen Mol) continues to scheme and grieve following her loss, Van Alden (Michael Shannon) attempts to establish himself in an unfriendly Windy City, and Richard (Jack Huston) may have found a solace he could have never imagined since attaining his war injury. "Boardwalk Empire's" third go round features some of the most dazzling visuals and fancy camerawork the series has had to offer, but is the most slight in terms of plot. The aforementioned subplots, in addition to others, hold interest in their own right, but often feel like filler and as not contributing to the thrust of the plot. Newcomer Cannavale is excellent though, and his explosive presence offers many alternately humorous and terrifying moments to the series. Also a body ridden season finale is not nearly as satisfying as the pulse pounding episode that preceded it.
*** 1/2

Season 2 (2011)
With a coup underway to oust Nucky, both Jimmy and the targeted treaurer's brother Eli walk a treacherous path, dealing not only with devious gangsters but also a crippling strike by the African-American community at the heart of the summer season. On top of his legal problems, Nucky faces personal problems as a discontented Margaret, now grief ridden after her daughter has been stricken with polio, finds solace with the local parish priest and in overly generous offerings to the Lord. The second season of "Boardwalk Empire" is an almost unfathomable continuation of excellence, somehow maintaining the same cinematic level of greatness achieved in season one. Steve Buscemi turns in a wonderful, nuanced performance which is unlike any other gangster portrayal, at least that I've ever seen. Michael Pitt contributes affecting award worthy work as the cheerless and deceitful Jimmy and Kelly Macdonald is still incredible in the complex role of Margaret. In an impeccable supporting cast, Michael Shannon stands out as the dogged federal agent whose story takes more than a few unexpected turns and Shea Whigham as Buscemi's frustrated, overlooked brother. With its alternately beautiful, brutal, and affecting methods, "Boardwalk Empire" achieves an excellence in television that no other series, with the exception of "Mad Men", even remotely approaches.
****


Season 1 (2010)
Usually I keep television shows out of the blog, but I feel Boardwalk Empire is a series that approaches great film and, while watching, it feels like a solid 12 hour movie. This should come as no surprise since the show is brought to us by legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese. He directed the first episode, offering the blueprint for the subsequent episodes. He also produces and consults on other aspects of the show. Boardwalk was created by Sopranos veteran Terrence Winter and he brings along other members of that great show. Again, we have a show set in New Jersey, this time in Atlantic City and again we follow professional criminals who drink, screw, curse, lie, cheat, steal, swindle, and murder. We follow several story threads and the main character is AC treasurer Nucky Thompson played by a finely tuned Steve Buscemi. This is not another Tony Soprano, as Thompson has more of a soft spot. This doesn't mean that he isn't capable of carrying out heinous acts. We meet a young Irish widow (Kelly McDonald) who comes into his life and also Jimmy (Michael Pitt) and young enforcer he sees as his own son. The story mixes real characters with fictional ones and all are played by fine actors: Michael Stuhlbarg plays Arnold Rothstein, the New York gangster who becomes at odds with Nucky and his crew. His segments are a highlight of the show and wonderfully acted by Stuhlbarg. Michael Shannon plays an agent and religious zealot on the hunt for bootleggers. We also meet characters such as a hot headed Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, and Warren G. Harding. Boardwalk Empire is also a visual success and a screenwriting success. In an era when ignorance passes for good television, this show is like a breath of fresh air. I urge you seek it out on DVD or on reruns on HBO.
****

Monday, December 3, 2012

Holy Motors

A man for hire from a variety of professions, from performance artist to hitman, drives around the city of lights in a white limo which doubles as a dressing, changing faces while attending to an assortment of details. "Holy Motors" is a film which I expected to try try my patience, and did so from the very first frame, and never once relented during the course of its two hours of inanity. Strangeness for the sake of strangeness only results in pointlessness, and I was amazed that I made it through the duration of this nonsense, feeling the impulse to leave several times throughout. Many reviews have praised Denis Lavant's performance, who dons nine or so different personages throughout the film, but to what end does it service?  "Holy Motors" is a film which defies explanation, but more to the point, defies any logical justification for seeing it. I now await backlash from the hipster set criticizing me for not getting this avant-garde bullshit.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Age of Consent

An aging artist (James Mason), feeling uninspired in New York City, returns to his native country for inspiration, seeking solace on a gorgeous, supposedly deserted isle off The Great Barrier Reef. To his surprise, he meets a beautiful, teen aged island inhabitant (Helen Mirren) who quickly becomes his muse, which leads to cases of blackmail and extortion, initiated by an old chum (Jack MacGowran) and the girl's wicked, boozy grandmother (Neva Carr-Glynn). "Age of Consent" was the last film in the remarkable career of the innovative director Michael Powell, and was made after a period of ostracism following the release of his controversial, ahead of its time "Peeping Tom" in 1960. Based on an autobiographical book by the Australian artist Norman Lindsay, it features a late career performance from Mason and a very early one from Mirren (who is incredibly sexy in the picture), both of which are excellent, and the central relationship between the two is surprisingly sweet. This is also a great looking picture, containing many of Powell's expected flourishes and like most of his films, many which were made with Emeric Pressburger, it ends well. The only flaw are the supporting performances from MacGowran and Carr-Glynn which are highly obnoxious and counter the tone of the film.