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.

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.

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.

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.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Matter of Life and Death

In the middle of an air raid, a British RAF pilot (David Niven) makes a brief and undeniable connection with an American radio operator (Kim Hunter) before evacuating his plane without  a parachute, an action that should have claimed his life had his heavenly handler been on point. Now while embarking on a love affair with the operator, the pilot is informed that he will have to argue the case for his life before an ethereal court and seek a representative who can best testify on his behalf. "A Matter of Life and Death" (released as "Stairway to Heaven" in the U.S.) is an incredible work from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and serves as a summation for their numerous WWII films.  A young Niven delivers a remarkable performance as the quintessential Brit and Hunter is his match playing his sweet soulmate. Roger Livesey has a great supporting role as a doctor helping Niven with his visions as does Raymond Massey who plays the prosecuting attorney, an English hating American revolutionary. Filmed where heaven is seen in tints and earth is shown in ebullient complexion, a counter to the color scheme presented in "The Wizard of Oz", "A Matter of Life and Death" ranks among The Archers most visually fantastic, imaginative, and touching features.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Anna Karenina

Set in tsarist Russia, Tolstoy's tragic heroine's (Keira Knightley) love affair with a dashing count (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is seen as played out largely upon a stage, which is coupled with the seldom filmed courtship of her sister-in-law (Alicia Vikander) to a meager landowner (Domhnall Gleeson). Joe Wright's adaptation of the often filmed classic is somewhat of a disappointment, considering what he did with the literary treatments of "Pride and Prejudice" and "Atonement", both of which feature Knightley. Here, with famed screen and playwright Tom Stoppard, he makes the dastardly decision of treating the sprawling work as a stage play, and severely limits not only the story, but his own visual talents. That being said, there are many sumptuous passages and Knightley delivers a fine performance. However, you are never quite sure what draws her to the count, who is unremarkably played by Taylor-Johnson). Jude Law does a much better job of investing subtle traces of humanity in a mostly cold bureaucrat, allowing you to see what Anna must have when they first married. Also, the Gleeson storyline adds little but length to the film, and it becomes evident why it had been omitted in so many other adaptations. 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Margaret

4/8/12 A cheeky and intelligent teenager (Anna Paquin), living in a high rise flat with her stage actress mother (J. Smith-Cameron) and attending an esteemed private school with Manhattan's elite, feels guilty for the death of a woman (Allison Janney) hit by a bus she was flagging down. Having had a spiritual connections with the stranger in her dying moments and in trying to fit the tragedy in with her ideal world view, the teen reverses her initial story told to the police and attempts to hold the bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) pays for his transgression, a crusade that she doesn't care who it affects. "Margaret", based on a poem entitled "Spring and Fall" by Gerlad Manley Hopkins, is ambitious, literate, and incredibly well realized filmmaking from playwright Kenneth Lonergan who wonderfully captures New York City shortly after 9/11 and captures and explores many of the attitudes in that time frame. In addition to the main storyline featuring a nicely tweaked performance from Paquin, Lonergan juggles a different and sweet storyline featuring J. Smith-Cameron as Paquin's mom who embarks on a romance with an exceedingly charming Jean Reno. Matt Damon, Ruffalo, Matthew Broderick, and Lonergan himself also have excellent and often humorous supporting roles. "Margaret" strives to achieve a series of lofty goals, and carries them off with style, wit, and gusto.

11/25/12 I watched the extended version (which totals over three hours) of this excellent and troubled film (it spent over six years in post-production) and found it just as fine, if not superior to the theatrical version. It contains many new humorous and well approached scenes, in addition to more protracted shots of the city coupled with operatic overtones and muted eavesdropping on its anonymous inhabitants, all of which abets the the films. Once more, I appreciated the work of Paquin, Smith-Cameron, and the many fine supporting players.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Catch-22

During WWII on the island of Pianosa located in the Mediterranean, Capt. Yossarian (Alan Arkin) finds his discharge request on the basis of insanity denied on the illogical Army maxim that a person recognizing his own insanity cannot in fact be declared. Yossarian now bears witness witness to the mad of war that envelops him as he deals with self serving superiors, the prospect of flying interminable missions, and witnessing the death of his contemporaries. "Catch-22" is a surprisingly sturdy adaptation of Joseph Heller's monumental 1962 which is probably unfilmable but must have seemed prime for a generation engulfed in the Vietnam War. It was director Mike Nichols and writer Buck Henry's (who also appears in the film as Lt.Col. Korn) followup to "The Graduate",  and they make tolerable changes and offer about as good of an adaptation as can be expected, although much of Heller's dialogue is sadly omitted. I found Arkin to be wrong for Yossarian, as he contains hardly any of the disbelief or exasperation which distinguished that character as a hallmark of American literature. The greatest strength of the film can be found in the casting of the supporting roles of the eccentric servicemen, with Orson Welles, Martin Balsam, and Bob Newhart standing out as the most memorable.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Ghosts of Ole Miss

In September of 1962, as the federal government was integrating the University of Mississippi and a band of U.S. Marshals were ushering James Meredith in as its first black student, the worst the state had to offer was on display as residents rioted and clashed in protest with the officers--a pathetic swan song and desperate last battle, if you will, of the Civil War. A group of Ole Miss football players determined to show a positive side of their state (bear with me, I'm merely reiterating the thesis of the film) and offered up the only undefeated season in school history. "Ghosts of Ole Miss" is a horribly written historical sports documentary featuring histrionic narration which draws absurd comparisons and conclusions and butchers what should have been an interesting story totally divesting it of any meaning whatsoever. The film is redeemed by interviews from members of that undefeated squad and with Meredith himself.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Life of Pi

A reporter (Rafe Spall) learns of a fantastical story and meets with Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) to hear his version of events. Born in a zoo in French India and named after a Paris pool ("piscine") beloved by his champion swimmer uncle, young Pi (Ayush Tandon) found himself fascinated with and began adopting the ways of several religions ("I was a Catholic Hindu meaning I got to feel guilty before thousands of gods"). As a teen (now played by Suraj Sharma) when his father is forced to sell the zoo and travel to Canada by cargo ship with its inhabitants in tow, a devastating storm sweeps away his family and leaves him marooned on a lifeboat with a full grown Bengal tiger.  "Life of Pi" is a wondrous and moving film from master filmmaker Ang Lee, who applies his deeply felt and sensitive abilities to a novel (written by Yann Martel) thought unfilmable by many and a 3D process deemed largely unpalatable. The result is a sumptuous feast, a visual wonder whose human story has moved me in a way that very few had done before.

side note: I read that Richard Parker, the tiger in the picture was almost entirely the result of computer generated imagery. While this conceit should have probably been obvious to me, it speaks to my feelings of the CGI process in that when it's done badly I don't want to see it, and when it's done splendidly I don't care to know how.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Silver Linings Playbook

A bipolar ex-high school teacher (Bradley Cooper), still in the heightened stages of mania, is released to his parent's custody (Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver) from a state mental hospital, where he determines to win back his estranged wife, whose marital infidelity was the stimulus for his latest psychotic episode. While his parents encourage him to get on his feet and partake in the Philadelphia Eagles games they so avidly enjoy, a young and likewise damage widow (Jennifer Lawrence) enters into his orbit and fosters his mental rehabilitation. From the novel written by Matthew Quick, David O. Russell's "Silver Linings Playbook" is a delightful and offbeat romantic comedy that elevates itself above the usual dreck and finds truth through humor in the familial elements of its story. One of the refreshing joys of the movie is witnessing a superb performance from an actor I haven't really admired, and Bradley Cooper asserts himself admirably here. Another is seeing an icon of the screen in De Niro, lately lost in a sea of unworthy movies, resurface in what will be seen as one of the finest turns of his career. I also appreciated the work of Weaver, Shea Whigham as Cooper's older brother, and Chris Tucker who pops up from time to time as an escaped patient from the mental ward. It's only in Jennifer Lawrence, who is too young for the role and seems to be trying way too hard, that the film falters. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Dust Bowl

Lured by a renewal of the Homestead Act in the early part of the 20th Century, a migration occurred toward the grasslands of the Great Plains, an area thought to be completely averse to agriculture. As the soil was plowed and masses of wheat crop were planted, though many plentiful years were seen, Mother Nature fought back and unleashed the greatest sustained natural catastrophe the United States has ever known. Over the course of a decade spanning the 1930s and coupled with the affects of the Great Depression, Plains inhabitants--most horridly those centered in the Oklahoma Panhandle--would suffered a barrage of incomparable dust storms and seemingly endless drought, leading to a kind of destitution unthinkable in today's America. Ken Burns' "The Dust Bowl" is both a heart rending remembrance as told by children of the era and a harrowing cautionary tale. Known primarily for his archival work and the pan and zoom "effect" which bears his name, this film serves as a reminder both of what a great filmmaker--capturing incredible present day shots of the land--and interviewer--eliciting profound and often agonizing stories from his subjects--Burns truly is.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Crossfire Hurricane

As they embark on the international tour celebrating their 50 years together as a group, the living members of The Rolling Stones--Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Ronnie Wood, Mick Taylor, Bill Wyman--reflect, through what can actually be remembered, on their spectacular rise to stardom and the controversial, often tumultuous events that followed which include several drug arrests and prosecutions, their nightmare at the Altamont Speedway, and the demise of bandmate Brian Jones. Declining to be photographed for the interview, the iconic group speaks over an incredible array of archival footage which showcases them at their best and their worst, and features what most people tuning into a Stones documentary want: a constant stream of their inimitable melodies. 

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Lincoln

As the bloody siege of Petersburg has finally begun to show signs of a weakening Confederacy and a new assault on Willmington deems the fall of Richmond imminent, Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis), having just gained reelection, sees the current lame duck session as a crucial juncture in American history--one where he can both end the debilitating Civil War and abolish slavery through the passage of the 13th Amendment. Along with stalwart abolitionist and U.S. Representative Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), Secretary of State and confidant William Seward (David Strathairn), and his frenzied yet adept wife Mary (Sally Field), and other members of his party, Lincoln schemes and deals as he braces the nation once more for cataclysmic change, in the final few months before his assassination. After years of production halts, Steven Spielberg finally brings his portrait of the 16th President to the big screen in typically masterful fashion. Working again with Tony Kushner ("Munich"), who scripted from Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Spielberg focuses on a very brief (though crucial) point of Lincoln's life and, in doing so, is able to offer an all-encompassing and uncompromising look at the life of our great secular saint, and even goes beyond that by offering a warm and humorous film that, among other things, details the inner workings of our Congress. In uncanny make-up, Day-Lewis is expectedly brilliant and commanding,  rivaling even the greatest Abe film performances of Henry Fonda or Raymond Massey. His ability to channel Lincoln, underplay his hand, and not go over the top is only a testament to his considerable talents. The supporting cast is incredible and too vast to list here, with my favorites being Jones delivering an Oscar caliber, prickly (what else?) performance, Jackie Earle Haley as pragmatic Confederate Veep Alexander Stephens, and James Spader in an outrageous and pleasantly unexpected turn as a reprobate lobbyist. For the last few months prior to seeing the film my thoughts were, why are Spielberg engaging in such a safe project, right within both of their wheelhouses? Instead I was blown away in ways I never expected, by a film with a film that strives for realism with incredible epic ambition that is by turns stimulating, deeply felt, and entertaining.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Norman Mailer: The American

Norman Mailer was an influential author and journalist known for his books The Naked and the Dead & The Executioner's Song, a famous profile of Marilyn Monroe, and cofounding The Village Voice. Yet, he also had an irascible, sometimes volatile personality, which resulted in an often tumultuous personal life, which is sadly what the filmmakers of this documentary chose to focus on, offering a tabloid view of what should have been an interesting life story. By the time the film concludes and the experts have espoused him as the greatest writer of the second half of the 20th Century, we don't feel we've been given that impression, or rather that these summations adequately sum up the film's theses.