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Monthly Archives: January 2012

Ides of March – George Clooney gives the directors chair another try, his fourth attempt, and puts out a better than average political piece about the corruption of ideals and the folly of unobserved pride in ambitious people.  Ryan Gosling plays a top campaign aid to a Presidential nominee (Clooney) who looks by all appearances to be a quality politician with a worthy, progressive agenda for the nation.  But as happens, Gosling makes one bad, ego driven decision and his entire future as a campaign organizer, as well as the campaign itself, begins to unravel.  Things compound when he discovers an ugly secret lurking beneath his supposedly honest and true President to be.  Top shelf co-stars like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Evan Rachel Wood and Marisa Tomei all pop in to churn out excellent work in parts which feel tailor made for each.  Ides doesn’t quite stay the course as it should though.

Clooney’s desire to use the film as a spring board for a liberal agenda is pretty transparent.  Not that I disagree with much of what he’s saying, there’s simply no subtlety to his purpose.  Also something else to take to task is the eventually contrived direction of the plot itself.  Clooney’s story evolves to become less about astute political observation and more about the semi-convoluted plot coiling around itself.  It doesn’t choke on its own machinations but I couldn’t help but feel a more resonant, realistic story was just off to the side of the one I was watching.

 

The Artist – A mildly endearing cinematic throw back, The Artist does what few movies have done for decades, go silent.  Director Michael Hazanavicius avoids any kind of revisionist gimmicks or retro winking by aiming straight down the line and making an old fashioned silent movie.  Essentially another retelling of the Star is Born plot, Artist stars french actor Jean Dujardin as George Valentine, a silent movie star who tap dances down the road of career oblivion when he rejects the onslaught of talking motion pictures.  Shortly before winding up at the bottom of the barrel he gives a career boost to newcomer Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) who quickly shoots to stardom by embracing the talkie format he loathes.  The two have unsaid feelings for the other which pass in glances but their career trajectories are in stark contrast to one another.  He resents her success and she pities his failure.

The Artist is stylishly made and shot with a beautiful black and white palette but perhaps embraces the facile traditions of its silent ancestors a little too wholeheartedly.  The movie’s simplistic story has its charms but it never feels vital or necessary.  You should know how the story ends long before you arrive at the conclusion.  Revisiting the form of the silent movie is an admirable idea, but maybe some revisionist gimmicks wouldn’t have been such a bad idea.  As it is it’s a nice movie with some pleasant performances and a story that sets out to please and does.  Although those championing it as the best picture of the year have gotten far too much out of its modest gains.

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Ten Word or Less Review: A hot rod romance on the road to Hell.

As independently minded as movies come, Bellflower feels like the melding of a quirky Kevin Smith romcom from years past and a semi-deranged sexual exploit adventure crawling out of David Lynch’s subterranean imagination.  And to really seal the deal it’s all bolted together like a home made hot rod by Mad Max originator George Miller.  I can’t recall many films both as touchingly romantic and savagely barbaric as Bellflower.  It’s an experience destined to divide audiences right down the middle for years to come.  And something tells me gender will play a great part of that line and which side you’re on.

Written, directed and starring unknown commodity Evan Glodell, Bellflower starts as a sublime and adoringly amateurish romance of the young and carefree.  Glodell plays Woodrow, a harmless dude who spends his days paling around with semi-eccentric goofball best friend Adrian (Tyler Dawson).  The two spend their days dreaming of ruling a Mad Max world, driving around in a hell raising hot rod they plan to build as soon as they finish their homemade flame thrower.  It sounds juvenile, sitting around fantasizing about being Lord Humongous, but the two goofs would make a charming post apocalyptic pair.  A night out drinking introduces Woodrow to Milly (Jessie Wiseman), an adorable, gutsy, cupie doll of a girl who kicks his butt at a cricket eating contest.  By the next day they’re on a prolonged date to Texas, having a grand adventure full of surprise and falling in love.  The first half if Bellflower is simple in scope but highly stylized and very involving.  It may borderline on the amateurish on occasion but it’s a wholly convincing, winning experience. Unitl.

On their first date Millie casually hints at the damage she’ll eventually do to Woodrow and she’s not lying or exaggerating.   Halfway through Bellflower the story finishes with the honeymoon section and moves forward to an unspecified time down the road.  Perhaps no more than a few months, or even weeks after the two have hooked up.  Just enough for Woodrow to grow a scraggly beard.  For reasons we’re not made aware of we can see the shiny gloss of new love has faded and something is unraveling between Milly and Woodrow.  True to her word, Woodrow discovers Milly mid coitus with a friend and as his state of mind begins to fracture, so does the movie.  The lighthearted becomes grim, uplift is supplanted with savagery, romance becomes vengeance.  This affable story of young love turns more and more twisted at every beat. 

Glodell clearly has a very one sided perspective on romance.  His character is all sweetheart and good intention, a simple, slovenly charmer who loves flamethrowers.  The audience likes Milly just as much with her shitkicker pluck and feisty personality, but when the relationship sours, it’s all Milly’s fault.  We’re given very little motivation as to why she betrays Even, she just does it as if it’s compulsive on her part.  Her inevitable turn is hinted at to be sure, but some genuine shading and reason would’ve been more insightful.  As it is Milly simply turns rotten and drags Evan down with her.  The two characters complete their romantic implosion with savage acts against the other which strain credibility and threaten to set the movie aflame like one of the towering fireballs from Evan’s flamethrower.  Woodrow gets the apocalypse he’s so flippantly dreamed of and it’s nothing like he imagined.  He finally gets to be Lord Humongous, and it sucks.

Even if Glodell’s story turns you off he’s certainly a distinctive filmmaker with a eye for motion and vivid imagery.  Bellflower was made for a paltry $17,000 but has a shocking level of sophistication and innovative cinematography.  He’s also able to get credible performances from his semi-amateurish collection of actors and actresses.  Glodell and Wiseman had almost no professional acting experience before this.  There may be no Daniel Day Lewis on display but for a film which hinges so much on unknown actors, what he achieves is close to a miracle.

Bellflower starts as an expression of romantic love and ends on a bleak note of stark anti-romance.  It makes War of the Roses look like Love Story.  It’s characters wasted, demolished and destroyed their lives are summarily reduced to barbarism and hate.  It’s the kind of movie Sandra Bullock and Katherine Heigl would be forced to make should they lose a deal with the Devil and burn in Hell.  I can’t say something as simplistic as ‘I liked Bellflower‘, it’s more complicated than that.  It’s innovative and different and difficult to accept but it is what it is and has no qualms about being so.  If you find yourself drawn into it you may not be able to turn away, but it may burn your face off by the time its done.

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Ten Word or Less Review – Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, wanting you to love him.

The above statement is the crux of the late night host self effacing, warts and all documentary which catalogs the comedian’s 2010 comedy tour across America.  The camera was turned on shortly after Conan’s much ballyhooed departure from The Tonight Show so that the geezer sanctioned Jay Leno could resume hosting duties after reneging on his promise to retire and mercifully go away.  Riddled with anger, anxiety, and unchanneled energy, and barred from being on TV for six months, O’Brian launches a tour across America to satisfy his desire to entertain with joke and song, and perhaps more importantly, to vent his grievances to adoring fans.

O’Brien is very direct about how he feels about the entire NBC/Leno/Tonight Show debacle.  His hostility at those responsible and the loss of his coveted show are dealt with through barbs and pointed jokes and you can sense the very deep, palpable resentment behind each zing.  He’s a funny guy who’s lost the one thing he dreamed about for years and he’s pissed about it.  His tour starts off as perhaps a type of catharsis.  A creative outlet that he’s never been afforded on the confines of TV.  But as the it grinds on we’re left observing what the experience is doing to O’Brien.  It’s making him a better entertainer, but is he becoming worse as a person?

This documentary affords the audience a chance to see O’Brien’s personality at its best and worst.  He’s a demanding perfectionist of himself and the those who work for him but his attitude towards underlings sometimes lapses into abusive and insulting.  He’s not completely unaware of this.  A belittling run of jokes at the expense of 30 Rock co-star Jack McBrayer feels particularly harsh, nasty and unprovoked.  McBrayar stands there and takes it, a look of ‘What the Hell did I do?’ all over his face.  Also casting a strange reflection on the man is his relationship with his audience.  O’Brien is an entertainer with an acute compulsive need to solicit approval from fans enthralled by his antics, even if it means physical exhaustion on his part and eventual resentment of the very fans he so desperately wants to love him.  As his tour winds down O’Brien looks aged, worn and weary, yet he still habitually throws himself at those who love him, only to become grated by further face time.

Can’t Stop is an engrossing documentary for O’Brien fans but works on a larger level as well.  It affords us a look at the type of personality/celebrity which craves attention an adoration on a massive scale.  O’Brien looks to have taken great strides to remain a grounded and approachable person, but the effects of celebrity are as vivid as the joksters nefarious, flaming red hair.  He’s a man who whole heartily wants our love and devotion at all cost, even if it possibly means driving himself to the brink of burnout in the process.  A few weeks after his grueling tour ended, Conan announced his return to TV where he beams at his audience brightly five nights a week.  Now approaching 20 years on TV I hope Conan knows when to stop.

Contagion – Steven Soderbergh tries to paint realistic picture of what would happen should an unknown virus start to work itself into the world population.  It appears that many celebrities would become sick and die in the event.  A massive all-star cast is brought together to work through an admirable but unspectacular exercise in disease cinema.  Since the film is more occupied with the details of society quickly crumbling away we don’t spend enough time with any one character to develop much repore with any one the numerous thespians on hand.  Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburn, Kate Winslet, Gweneth Paltrow, Jude Law and many more all show up because their director friend is making a notable flick.  Damon and Fishburn are as close to leads as the film gets, Damon playing an immune man whose wife , Gweneth Paltrow, was the first victim and Fishburn playing an embattled head of the CDC.  Something tells me this may have worked a little better as one of Soderbergh’s low budget, no star efforts.  Contagion is passable and okay in most ways but it’s dramatically passive and ultimately feels a touch pointless.  But if you’ve ever wanted to see Paltrow get her skull sawed off in and autopsy and have her face half peeled off, this is your chance.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark – Little, nasty monsters live in the basement of a gothic mansion and want to eat your child.  That’s pretty much the gist of this spooker from first time director Troy Nixey and over-talented writers Guillermo Del Toro and Matthew Robbins.  Nixey has a suspenseful style which is easy to appreciate and having Del Toro on as a producer and writer would seem like a great advantage, but the screenplay is the problem here.  Dark is hamstrung by cliched characters who behave in the stupid ways that people in films like this typically do.  Guy Pierce is stuck playing the skeptical parent whose daughter keeps telling him monsters are trying to get her while all the time he frets about architecture.  Katie Holmes is here trying to have a career.  She’s actually one of the few bright spots of the movie.  11 year old Bailee Madison doesn’t make for a very precocious lead either.  Having a sullen, downbeat kid who pops pills for anxiety disorders was a poor decision.  Del Toro is an incredibly imaginative filmmaker so seeing him churn out and approve of such rudimentary storytelling is kind of shocking.  Fans of horror flicks will get just enough mileage out of it, others not so much.

Warrior – How the Hell a movie set around the world of MMA could be this good is beyond me.  Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton play long separated brothers who find themselves falling back into the world of mixed martial arts fighting.   Hardy’s a sullen, pained vet of the Iraq war looking to take care of the family of a fallen comrade.  Edgerton is a physics teacher falling behind on an upside down mortgage, on top of which he’s been suspended from his job for moonlighting as a fighter.  Both actors turn in top tier work and if that weren’t enough, they’re almost overshadowed by a career best performance from Nick Nolte as their recovering alcoholic father.  Nolte has flirted with degrading self parody for a long time but if anyone doubted he still had the heart or ability to captivate a viewer, wash those thoughts away.  His is Oscar worthy work.  This movie is a real achievement, about regret and forgiveness, not just lugheads beating the piss out of each other.

Beginners – With a quiet, humerous and contemplative style Beginners stands out as one of 2011’s finest accomplishments.  It tells the story of Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a 38 year old artist emotionally incapable of maintaining a long term relationship.  Oliver’s reluctance to see a relationship through stems from the complicated marriage of his mother and father (Christopher Plummer).  In three paralleling storylines we see a very endearing relationship possibility arise for Oliver soon after his father has died, we watch as he deals with his fathers’ coming out of the closet several years earlier and we see his atypical goings on with his idiosyncratic mother at the age of 10.  All three of these stories serve each other in deft fashion and with a sublime sense of humor.  Every so often a subtitled dog provides the kind of insight and small laughs Oliver needs.

We gradually come to understand why Oliver fears commitment, how parents who are dysfunctional with themselves can seep their issues into the lives of their children and how it’s never too late to find happiness in ones life.  Veteran actor Christopher Plummer turns in one of the most cheerful and effervescent performances of his career.  Ewan McGregor, in a part which could’ve easily become redundantly glum, gives a lot of understanding and empathy to his distant and lonely young man.  Beginners is an emotionally honest film, never schmaltzy or false, and easy to consider as one of the best efforts of the year.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – Who? What? When? Why?  Unless you go into Tinker with an unrelenting, steel trap of a mind, or maybe you’ve already read the book, you’re likely going to be a little lost, a tad befuddled and possibly bewildered.  I’m no slouch when it comes to following difficult narratives but I felt like a blind man with no cane lead into a garden maze and given no more than a good luck pat on the head to get me going.  Tinker has crucial characters we never meet in person, minimal insight into several characters who are deemed important and an unforgiving flash forward, flash back structure which easily confuses the who’s and when’s of what we’re watching.  On one occasion I found myself wondering why I was watching the unfolding story of a character I thought to be clearly dead and gone from the picture.  In the end there is simply the oppressive sensation that a long, detailed and complicated story is being crammed in to a 2 hour plus run time.  A second viewing could perhaps shed some light on things and maybe make Tinker a winner for this viewer, there are a lot of excellent performances to admire, but confusion or no, performance or no, the most consistent feeling I had about it was ‘Why should I care about any of this?’  I couldn’t answer that question.

 

Point Blank – The style and momentum of a Bourne movie gets applied to this brisk kidnapping flick which moves like a well built rocket for 80+ minutes and then explodes before overstaying its welcome.  An mysterious criminal gets chased down by two dangerous pursuers until he’s hit by a motorcycle and sent to the ER unconscious.  The male nurse on duty has a very pregnant wife kidnapped by the criminals’ partner in crime and is forced to get the guy out of the hospital while he’s under police watch.  The cops involved are heinous a-holes, far more corrupt and deadly than the criminals he’s caught up with.  Things spiral out of control for the poor boob and his wife as a conspiracy unwinds and all kinds of mayhem reign down.  It’s fierce, intense and brisk and the screenplay keeps things on target, never wondering off or reaching too far.  Action fans will have a good time with this one.  It is French and it is subtitled.  Get over that and see it.

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Ten Word or Less Review: Not exactly Schindler’s List.  But better than Amistad.

Trying to recapture the form that made him one of the worlds most renowned and successful directors, Steven Spielberg’s award baiting feature of the 2011 holiday season is War Horse, an old fashioned, lovingly photographed epic about a very special equine and his adventures during the first World War.  War Horse has Spielberg’s trademark sentimentality, lush visuals and a story that pulls at the heart strings, many times with a very firm tug.  Whether or not you fall for the story of a horse named Joey and his perilous war time adventure will largely depend on how cynical and jaded you’re feeling.  If the idea of Steven plunging into your chest fist first and massaging the cockels of your heart as he’s well versed at doing sounds appealing, then War Horse should work like gangbusters for you.  If you’ve developed a prickled callous to the Spielbergian touch, then it may push a lot of the wrong buttons.

Joey is a strong willed horse with a racers build, unwisely overpaid for by a ragingly proud, and little drunk, English farmer who needs a strong, sturdy animal for field plowing.  Joey is immediately taken to by the farmer’s son Albert, a dewy eyed lad who carefully conditions him and turns him into a farm horse despite the overwhelming doubts of the entire town.  As the family struggles continue to mount, war breaks out and Joey is sold to the English army to cover the family rent.  Heart felt goodbyes are had, promises for reunion are made, tears are jerked.  From there Joey goes on a journey in which he crosses the path of numerous people, impressing them with his physical ability as well as his strong personality.  Joey becomes a prized possession for all he encounters, but his encounters with everyone are brief as War Horse establishes an episodic style of storytelling.  The war at hand keeps Joey moving from one person to the next, hopeful to return to young Albert from which he was forcibly taken away.

War Horse will not likely be remembered as a definitive Spielberg classic, but nor is it the overtly grating Velveeta fest some harsher film critics have boldly stated.  War Horse is an enjoyable button pusher of respectable caliber and top tier execution.  The primary drawback to the venture is the uneven flow of the story.  Joey runs through scenarios with numerous characters, some of which are more effective than others.  His run in with two alarmingly young German soldiers feels like an unique angle to pursue, but it’s over before it’s started.  Opposite of this is a prolonged stay at a French farm with a precocious girl and her grandfather that forms little more than a cloying dramatic vacuum.  This good, not so good narrative keeps War Horse from firmly commanding the attention of the audience for the duration.  Also true to the Spielberg form, there’s a hearty amount of dramatic circumstance at play and some heavy melodrama lathered on in more than one place.

But all these hiccups can’t derail War Horse as a whole.  The movie is so expertly mounted and given an amazing sheen by Spielberg and his crew that it’s hard not to fall under its spell at least a little.  Despite the overbearing presentation in spots there’s also a great deal of artistic innovation and even restraint in places.  There is hard hitting violence on occasion but Spielberg isn’t out to recreate every nauseating detail of trench warfare.  Some may call foul for not launching head first into a full blown depiction of WWI, ala Saving Private Ryan, but Spielberg clearly doesn’t intend to tell that kind of nervy, gut punching story.  And for a movie which basically stars a horse, played by one main horse and 13 substitutes, Spielberg gets a solid performance out of his equine leading man (men).  The human cast behind the four legged lead are all fine as well.  Emily Watson, Peter Mullan, David Thewlis, Tom Middleton and Benedict Cumberbatch all carry their own limited roles out well against the charming carrot eater.  Newcomer Jeremy Irvine, as Albert, plays his role much too earnestly, but I expect that’s exactly what Spielberg wanted.  He’s the kind of young, heart on the sleave, emotionally obvious teenager that would’ve made John Ford a happy story teller.

Steven Spielberg is still a very good filmmaker but he’s still working out some rust.  Tin Tin was a rollicking, outlandindish adventure movie but absent of soul.  War Horse has soul, too much soul in fact, but suffers from uneven dramatics under its saddle.  His sensibilities as a top notch story teller are clearly still there, he simply hasn’t unified them behind one engrossing narrative.  With his long gestating movie on Abraham Lincoln coming later this year, maybe he will have found his creative center and deliver on the promise War Horse and Tin Tin imply is still simmering beneath the surface.

Degenerate movies are a dime a dozen and I’m savvy enough to skip most of them but curiosity gets the best of me on occasion.  The collage above represents the worst 8 movies of the year.  Melancholia doesn’t appear because I didn’t finish it.  Transformers 3 probably belongs on here but oh well.  Notable stinkers I didn’t see but may eventually: Conan the Barbarian, Breaking Dawn, The Hangover II, Dylan Dog, Pirates 4, Cowboys & Aliens, Season of the Witch, who knows what else.

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Ten Word or Less Review: CGIndiana Jones.

After Indiana Jones and the Debacle of the Crystal Skull, as well as a couple of prolonged bouts of inaction, the world has been left to wonder if Steven Spielberg has anything left up his creative sleeve.  Is there another Jaws or E.T. in his future or just more time passing mediocrity?  Coming into the holiday season the bearded one had not one, but two new features released within days of each other.  On one hand is the award baiting War Horse which this viewer still hasn’t seen, but will.  In the other hand is the Indiana Jones-esque, CGI escapade The Adventures of Tin Tin, the first in what is supposed to be a new series of adventures for a very old character.

Tin Tin (Jamie Bell), a character little known in the U.S., is an intrepid reporter always looking for a story and finding high adventure with his trusty white terrier Snowy, a dog smarter than most people.  Out at the flea market one morning Tin Tin purchases an opulent model ship, The Unicorn, and no sooner has he bought it than trouble comes tapping on his shoulder.  A shady character by the name of Rackham (Daniel Craig) makes to steal the model ship and before Tin Tin, or the audience, is up to speed we’re on a treasure hunt.  Tin Tin buddies up with a drunkard ship captain by the name of Haddock (Andy Serkis), and the cast is complete for the kind of swift adventure Spielberg can knock about for good times when his wits are about him.

Tin Tin is Spielberg’s first 3D, all CGI feature and he shows a real love of the freedom and visual creativity the medium allows.  Tin Tin is alive at every second, swooshing around characters and action, providing an unending steam of insane hijinxs only motion capture CGI can create.  Spielberg’s team of visual artists have created a gorgeous template of rich textured landscapes, though they just barely avoid the pox of CGI character soullessness which handicaps too many creations of this type.  Tin Tins’ characters look very detailed and well rendered, but don’t quite emote so much as grimace a lot.  There’s a lushness to the cinematography which is impossible not to appreciate and Spielberg builds up dizzying action sequences by the gross that put his younger, sloppy contemporaries to shame.  A prolonged, unending chase through a Middle Eastern market that last one entire shot defines the term showstopper.  But….

As well executed and exhilarating as Tin Tin is in places, that’s all it ever is.  Tin Tin is a torrent of plot and narrative charging ahead at full speed at all times, stopping to breathe be damned.  Indiana Jones cleaned up, discussed what happened and kissed the girl, Tin Tin has no time.  And no girl either, just that precocious dog.  The movie plows ahead like a raging, CGI locomotive, the idea of tapping on the break even slightly a sacrilegious thought.  If Tin Tin let itself breathe just a little, and made its boy reporter a bit less forcefully earnest, the entire movie would elevate greatly.

Fast paced, 3D features seem like something Spielberg is ideally suited for, but his first run through with the tools and the talent needed to make a feature like this one is a mixed blessing.  He shows without doubt that he still has what it takes to exhilarate an audience.  Where Crystal Clunker was off kilter, cumbersome and poorly thought out, Tin Tin is crisply designed and breathless.  But while Skull ruined just about everything it touched, it had the benefit of allowing the audience to spend time with a character it cared about, even if the adventure he was on was retarded.  The Adventures of Tin Tin is a fine piece of adventure filmmaking, but someone should point out to Sir Steve that our hero needs to be more than a plucky protagonist who runs around with only a vague idea of what he’s after.  When your hero is constantly out charmed by his dog you’ve got a problem.