Monday, December 31, 2012

Oslo, August 31st (2012)


Oslo, August 31st is Joachim Trier's second feature film and a huge step forward both in story and filmmaking.  Trier's first film, Reprise (2006), was also set in Oslo and while charming at parts, is absent the depth and stark reality of our new protagonist's life.  

Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) is muddling through a long tenure in rehab.  He is not a picky addict; cocaine, ecstasy, alcohol, and above all, heroin, frequently found their way into his system.  Early in the morning, after 10 long rehab months, Anders purposefully walks down to a lake, fills his pockets with rocks (reminiscent of Virginia Woolf's suicide choice), and shuffles boldly under the water only to resurface a few seconds later sans rocks.  Today is the day of Anders's long wait to briefly re-enter society.  He earns a day pass from the facility and ventures back into Oslo for the sole purpose of a job interview but has wider plans including reunions with old friends and more worrisome, old tempters.  

At 34, Anders is far past the age where recreational drug use was experimental.  There are subtle hints and reminders that Anders was also a low-level dealer and funneled a significant amount of money away from his parents to fund his habit.  Anders first picks his way to the home of his old friend Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner).  Thomas now represents everything Anders is not and Anders makes no mistake in noticing it.  Thomas has a home, a wife, two children, and a cushy job in obscure academia.  Anders has absolutely nothing except a crushing mountain of debt, an estranged girlfriend, and wary acquaintances who at one time were probably his friends.

In one stark scene, Thomas points out how empty his life is.  While outsiders may be jealous of him on the outside looking in, his life is actually hollow and draining.  He and his wife no longer have sex, they do not go out anymore choosing instead to play video games, and he is woefully behind in his academic duties.  This is a sly reference to Trier's previous film, Reprise, where a character in a juicy monologue opines how females will eventually sap a man's soul of all invigorating motivation.  There will be no new reading, no new music, and no new ideas because the female by his side will stifle all creativity.  Yes, this is a ridiculously obtuse argument, and the character spouting it ends up contradicting himself in the most blatant of ways, a lavish wedding.  Anders is living proof that even with women in his life at all, he is certainly not reading, writing, or engaging in any culturally-minded activities.  The drugs have seen to that.  

Other than heroin, which is ever-present at the forefront of Anders's mind, suicidal thoughts are right behind it.  It is only through his life choices and actions that Anders ends up where he is now.  Nobody else is at fault and Anders is well aware of this as he meanders around Oslo observing all of the people and their stations in life.  They have friends, family, relationships, jobs, and purposes; Anders has absolutely nothing.  Anders Danielsen Lie played Philip, a main character in Reprise, who lapsed into psychosis over his OCD obsession with his girlfriend.  Anders could easily be Philip five years later after a severe downward spiral into drugs and mayhem.  

It is a guessing games as to whether or not Anders is revisiting his old life to say goodbye one last time or is just testing himself to see if he could tentatively reintroduce himself to his past as his new present and sober self.  Choices are made, friends are re-visited, and a sense of inevitability surrounds Anders.  Danielsen Lie is very good as Anders, quite stoic, matter-of-fact, and lugging around so much baggage about what might have been had he not succumbed to his demons he is nailed to the floor.  Anders used to be a decent writer before it all unravelled but cannot imagine sitting down to compose an original thought now, too much has happened.

The film is aptly named because it takes place in 24 hours, from sunrise to sunrise.  Effective camera work shows off Oslo's notable sights and worse, Anders's memories.  Joachim Trier is Danish, but he is setting himself up to be one of Oslo's greatest cheerleaders since he has spent two films now firmly rooted to its location.  Anders meets a girl at a party and they engage in what could be a promising beginning, a fresh start.  However, Anders has had one too many fresh starts and he knows it.  He is the only author of his life and only he knows its ending.  

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Django Unchained (2012)


Quentin Tarantino loves revenge as a central theme in his films.  It took two Kill Bill movies to complete Uma Thurman's revenge on her traitorous gang and Inglourious Basterds delightfully reveled in historical fiction as a Jewish woman exacts her revenge on the entire Third Reich leadership in where else, a movie theater.  How could Tarantino possibly top that finish?  How about a freed slave exacting his revenge on white men in the antebellum south?  That is a pretty juicy idea to play around with.

As in most Tarantino films, Django Unchained contains no believable characters, just caricatures who latch on to a few characteristics and sprint towards the extremes with them.  The man who 'unchains' Django is Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz).  A former dentist turned bounty hunter, he is the most polite, progressive, and German killer on the south side of the Mason-Dixon line.  The wanted dead or alive portion on his bounties never actually result in the bounty being roped up and delivered breathing to the local marshal's office.  Instead, they are creatively duped and then riddled with bullet holes before being lashed on to a waiting horse acting as hearse.  Unlike most shoot-em-up westerns though, the victims do not just get shot and fall to the ground.  First, their blood spurts and splashes with noticeable velocity escaping through new holes in their flesh.  The Nazi scalps which Lt. Aldo Raine was collecting in Inglourious Basterds was just a preamble to Dr. Schultz's carnage.

Django (Jamie Foxx) is a semi-literate slave with a whole bunch of other skills which would be quite odd for an 1850s field slave to have.  He rides a horse with ease, is an expert sharpshooter, and can latch on to a con man's role with the practiced agility of a pro.  Dr. Shultz and Django do not just dive into situations with guns blazing to kill their quarry, they employ the art of the short con.  To infiltrate Big Daddy's (Don Johnson) plantation to kill the Brittle Brothers, Dr. Schultz poses as a businessman, his usual character, and Django is his valet dressed up looking like a pimp from Black Dynamite.  Remember, these are caricatures, not characters which is what makes Tarantino's film so much fun to watch.  

There is no broader purpose which Django is following though.  He is on a mission to meet his own needs, not to free slaves or further the abolitionist cause as a black John Brown.  Django and his wife, Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington), were sold at a slave auction to different bidders so now Django must find and rescue her.  Yes, her name is Broomhilda von Shaft.  Unfortunately for the both of them, a sadistic, cruel, and in-depth phrenology aficionado, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), bought Broomhilda and spirited her away to his vast plantation, Candieland.  Yes, Candieland.  Candieland is also home to the most eccentric, odd, and downright laughable character in all of Tarantino's films (including Rose McGowan with her machine-gun leg in Planet Terror), the head house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).  

Tarantino wrote Stephen and Jackson plays Stephen as a complete cartoon character.  He is so over the top that Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx, and Christoph Waltz all disappear from view when he enters the room even through they are all standing right there.  He is the type of character best situated as the sidekick.  If he had his own movie to carry, the audience would vomit from sheer exhaustion watching him scam, scream, and scurry around the screen.  Jackson's portrayal of Stephen could easily be cited as best or worst supporting actor of the year; this reviewer could be persuaded either way.  Regardless, once you have seen Stephen in Django Unchained, you will never forget him.

Dr. Schultz and Django now plan and perform a long con to get inside Calvin Candie's circle to try and free Broomhilda.  This is where Tarantino takes his time to shock the audience with slavery's barbarity and outright horror.  Up to now, the scenes of slaves were dubious, but almost comic.  Dr. Schultz hands a shotgun to a slave and lets him decide whether or not to kill his owner, Django takes a whip to one of his former whippers, and there is a funny aside about how the Klan's choice of white headgear is extremely hard to see out of of when they go on the attack.  Calvin Candie is being set up as a truly evil plantation owner though.  His hobby is mandingo fighting where he uses his stronger male slaves as gladiators who fight each other to the death in hand-to-hand combat.  One of these fights is filmed to its conclusion for the audience to struggle through.  Later, Calvin orders vicious attack dogs to tear apart a runaway slave which has more stomach-churning screen time than you would think.  A mom and dad brought their toddler to the screening I was in and I hope the little guy was asleep for that part.  I do not envy the nightmares he would take away from the multiple scenes of carnage and gore which serve to remind the audience just how much these human beings were considered to be property.

Also, there is wanton use of the n-word all over the place.  Every single character must utter it at least 20 times, black and white.  The natural tendency would be to tune it out after awhile and for it to be relegated to white noise because it is used so much, but its usage is quite noticeable throughout as I suppose it was back in the 1850s.  The overuse of the n-word has been a criticism levied at Tarantino before, remember his surprising use of it in Pulp Fiction.  He is most likely the only white director who incorporates it so readily in his films, but it has its place in Django Unchained, if at times too much of a place.  

Tarantino films garner certain expectations from the audience.  There will be blood, gore, foul language, witty dialogue, and an homage to earlier films in the genre.  Kill Bill Vol. 1 was in some ways a thank you letter to early martial arts movies, Kill Bill Vol. 2 was a western, both films in the Grindhouse double-feature drew on well, grindhouse films.  Django Unchained is mostly a 1960s spaghetti western.  Franco Nero, the original Django, has a cameo and and Tarantino incorporates a couple Ennio Morricone scores.  If you are a Tarantino fan, you will love Django, if you are not, perhaps you will enjoy another fine Christoph Waltz performance or enjoy an unchained slave take it to the white man. 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)


J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings trilogy in a more late-teenaged, adult tone compared to The Hobbit which leans towards the children's story end of the spectrum.  When the chief antagonist is a fire-breathing dragon who covets gold and fine gemstones, you are more than likely treading Harry Potter or Narnia waters than swimming in an ocean of truly depraved villains.  The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and its expected sequels will naturally and quite rightly be compared to their decade-old predecessors in terms of filmmaking but also in story.

If Peter Jackson had only adapted the novel into one feature film, then he would probably escape the majority of the criticism about the story; he would be limited to the central plot points concerning Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the 13 dwarves, and their fight to reclaim their mountain home from an invading flying reptile.  However, Jackson carries the trilogy bug in his blood.  He chopped up The Hobbit into three films and rather than adapt the original source material, he created original sequences and included characters only read about in other Tolkien stories, but not in The Hobbit.

As in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Hobbit begins in The Shire and in the exact same house.  Jackson's Bilbo creation is much more of a homebody than Frodo.  He enjoys his routine, his quiet solitude, and venturing out to fight a dragon with a clique of dwarves is not on his well-structured and comfortable agenda.  Gandalf (Ian McKellen), one of Middle Earth's meddling wizards, shows up on Bilbo's doorstep with 13 dwarves in tow.  They want Bilbo to sign a contract to join their gang as a burglar, not for his lock picking and thievery skills, but because he is tiny and overlooked by towering trolls and orcs who are slow, plodding, and quite unobservant of wee folk.  Hobbits are perceptibly shorter and frailer than dwarves.

A challenge which must have taken Jackson and his multiple screenwriters considerable time to figure out is telling all 13 dwarves apart.  If the audience continues to play catch up trying to remember who is who it will taken them right out of the movie and be a source of some frustration.  Each dwarf has his one characteristic to distinguish him from his brethren.  There is Dwarf King Thorin (Richard Armitage) who is taller than the rest, has long, black hair and walks around with a regal air about him.  Balin (Ken Stott) is the oldest with a long, white beard, and there is the fat one, the archer, the one with a tattoo on his head, etc…  I could recognize most of the dwarves by the end, but certainly could not match names to all of them.  It is not integral to the story to achieve name and facial recognition for each dwarf; Jackson at least recognized the conundrum and attempts to address the issue throughout the film.   

As Bilbo is compared and contrasted with Frodo, the dwarf committee can and should be sized up with the Lord of the Rings fellowship which, to its credit, was not limited to just dwarves; the fellowship included humans and elves too.  With only one hobbit this time, there is less humor concerning food and break times and without humans and elves there are certain battle capabilities and side issues which are omitted.  One character who does show up again, not part of the fellowship but quite familiar, is Gollum (Andy Serkis).  Gollum is an extremely irritating and grating character.  Listening to him talk, add on the letters -ses to every other word, and peering at his enormous blue eyes bulging out of a sinewy frame was unpleasant for the first trilogy and it feels even more unpleasant now.  Gollum has his role to play with the ring and his more than unhealthy obsession, but that alone does not make him a fan favorite; he is more an entity to endure than enjoy. 

Gollum is not the only familiar character to pop his head up either.  Saruman (Christopher Lee) the wizard returns to play the contrarian, Elrond (Hugo Weaving) the elf is the same wooden figure, Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) remains a character who seems to have the potential to solve everyone's problems with an eyelash flutter but is once again shoved in the background, and a new wizard turns up, Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy).  Radagast lives in the woods and prefers the company of animals to humans.  His sole purpose is to set up the next film installment by calling Gandalf's attention to weird things happening in the woods.  Saruman turns up his nose at Radagast because of his animal preference which is strange; Saruman does not appear to take much pleasure in the company of others either.

There is an option to watch The Hobbit in HFR - high frame rate.  Instead of the regular 24 frames per second (fps) which audiences are accustomed to, Jackson released a version in 48fps which looks much more fluid and smooth to the eye.  While it is much better to watch the 3D version in 48fps, your eyes are not used to watching movies this way.  It is definitely smooth, but it looks cheap.  Nothing about The Hobbit was made on the cheap, but the 48fps makes the New Zealand setting look and feel like a sound stage - or a daytime soap opera.  The 3D effects are much more effective this way; however, in the entire two hour and fifty minute run time, I never got used to the 48fps.  I noticed it the whole time and it took me right out of the movie experience.  I was mindful I was sitting in a theater watching a movie instead of enjoying the feeling of losing myself in the movie.  Those movie-goers who see a lot of movies in the theater should see it in HFR because it is so rare.  Those of you who venture to the cineplex just every now and then, steer clear and make your way to the 24fps showing.  

It is not because The Hobbit was filmed years after the first Rings trilogy which makes it feel like its little brother; it is because of the story.  The characters and themes are less mature; the dwarves in fact are one-dimensional.  Also, it is not its fault, but the wonder and unfamiliarity of Middle Earth is gone for the audience.  We know what the mountains and the fields look like, what bloodthirsty orcs look like, and what the music sounds like.  The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is an example of the law of diminishing returns; it is good to see Middle Earth again and watch a gang of dwarves trek through inhospitable territory, but we've seen it before. 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Hitchcock (2012)


Alfred Hitchcock's career spanned most of the 20th century.  A biopic covering his beginning, middle, and end would be far too expansive; too much breadth, no depth.  Focusing on the creation, making of, and reception of his most famous film, Psycho, is a logical focal point to study the man; however, Hitchcock has the feeling of a stepping stone towards what will eventually be the definitive work concerning one of the most famous and influential directors of all time.  This particular movie does not achieve that status.

By 1960, Hollywood and its major motion picture studies considered Alfred (Anthony Hopkins) old.  Sure, he was still worth considerable box office gold, but new auteurs were on the horizon ready to claim his mantle as the master of suspense and intrigue.  Fresh off another success with North by Northwest, the studio wants another picture just like it.  They even offer him a shot at the first James Bond film.  Hitchcock was not one to repeat and plagiarize his past work though; he was on the hunt for fresh, new, and most importantly, interesting material.  Most movie studios had already passed on a screen adaptation for the book Psycho which was based on a real Wisconsin man, the mass murderer Ed Gein.  

Paramount Pictures was understandably unenthused about the idea.  Why would Alfred Hitchcock stoop so low as to film a low brow, cheap horror story?  Alfred achieved enough clout by this time though to not necessarily dictate terms to the studio, but to at least force their hands when he wanted to.  Financing the picture himself, he mortgaged his wealth and bet it all on the hunch that he could for once and for all, scare the living hell out of American audiences.  Hitchcock is only 50% about the making of Psycho though.  Alfred's relationship with his wife, Alma (Helen Mirren), and their idiosyncratic peccadilloes absorb the other half of the film.

Alma was with Alfred since the beginning of his career.  She was an accomplished writer in her own right, was Alfred's sounding board for his ideas, and was the first person he looked to for approval and opinions concerning his work.  She also had to put up with an extremely stubborn husband who did not physically take care of himself very well, drank too much, ate horribly, and had a wandering eye for his leading ladies.  According to this film, Alfred was in no shape to fully engage in adulterous liaisons, but that did not stop his frequent fantasies about Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson), Vera Miles (Jessica Biel), and while not addressed in this movie, Tippi Hedren later on.  Alma tolerated these daydreams in stride but now in 1960, she notices she is also advancing in age.  Alfred has stopped looking at her.  One person who does look at her though is her friend and fellow writer, Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston).

Hitchcock sets up parallel instances where both Alfred and Alma tests themselves in the realm of faithfulness and fidelity, in thoughts and in actions.  While these relationship dynamics lend weight and extra dimensions to Alfred and the movie, they are certainly not as interesting to the audience as the trials and tribulations of getting Psycho to mass audiences.  The iron-fisted and backward censors were not about to let Psycho be the first film to feature a toilet on screen, let alone a flushing toilet.  Why on Earth should an American audience be exposed to a ghastly toilet?  Also, even Hitchcock's clever camera angles and tricky editing jump cuts were too close to letting the audience imagine Janet Leigh's breasts in the shower scene.  The screenplay would have been better served if the fight between Alfred and the censors was fleshed out a bit more.

A warning to those who see Hitchcock without having seen Psycho before.  It will serve your understanding and enjoyment much more if you take the time to watch Psycho first.  In fact, if you have not seen the majority of Hitchcock's most famous films (Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho), do not even bother going to this film.  I cannot imagine you will get very much out of it at all.  For those of us who have seen most of Hitchcock's work, watching Psycho become a movie is quite enjoyable.  Watching Anthony Hopkins parody Alfred is another matter.

The make-up is effective, it is hard to see Anthony Hopkins under all of those layers, but you can certainly hear him.  Alfred Hitchcock had a very distinct accent and way of pronouncing his words.  Hopkins just sounds like Anthony Hopkins trying to sound like Alfred Hitchcock.  This role is so large and momentous that it should automatically garner numerous award nominations, but notice Anthony Hopkins has received none of them.  This is not the fault of the movie, it's just that playing Alfred Hitchcock is immensely challenging and Hopkins does not pull it off very well.  He looks the part but is nowhere close to sounding the part.  

The best thing about Hitchcock coming along now is that it will hopefully remind audiences just how controversial, progressive, and down right shocking Psycho was.  The screeching violins hurting your ears as a you watch a very long, sharp knife plunge over and over again into the heroine's naked flesh in what is supposed to be a safe place, the shower, is an iconic image that all film-goers should be aware of.  This biopic, though, is only for those fans who want to learn a bit more about the genius behind the camera, not for those with only passing interest. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Bernie (2012)


A man is on trial for first degree murder in small town Texas.  The prosecutor in the case actually petitions to have the case moved to another jurisdiction because the local townspeople are too sympathetic to the guy who pulled the trigger.  A situation like this does not come along too often; in fact, this may be the one and only time.  Texas is famous for dispensing justice and folk who don't take too kindly to lawbreakers, especially men who shoot an old lady in the back four times at close range.  

This is the crime Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) commits.  In Marjorie Nugent's (Shirley MacLaine) garage in Carthage, Texas, Bernie in a fit of rage picks up a handy rifle and pulls the trigger four times murdering Ms. Nugent.  So why on Earth are the townspeople sympathetic to Bernie and in many cases, on his side.  Well, it appears Bernie is the nicest and most genuine person in the entire town.  As an assistant funeral director, Bernie consoles the grieving, is an expert at funeral preparation and sales, and a master at readying the recently deceased for display.  He leads hymns with his excellent singing voice, brings small gifts to crying widows, and is by far the town's best liked guy.

In his spare time, Bernie directs and stars in town plays, gives pep talks to the little league team, and always has a kind word to say to absolutely everybody.  Marjorie Nugent, on the other hand, is completely despised by the entire town.  After her husband passed away, she took over running the town bank and actually took pleasure in denying loans to customers.  She hurled racial slurs at her gardner, hit the mailman with a broom, and was sued by her own extended family for access to a trust fund.  Only Bernie was able to penetrate her evil shell.  Bernie and Marjorie travelled to exotic places together, always in first class, went out to eat together, and over time, Marjorie became very jealous and controlling of Bernie's person.

There is only conjecture on just how far their relationship ever went.  This film provides us with no definitive clues on any hint of sexuality between the two, but after awhile, Bernie (the nicest guy in the world) finally ran out of nice.  Murders are extremely rare in Carthage, Texas.  The local district attorney, Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey), eagerly steps in front of the news cameras to paint Bernie as a conniving, thieving, back-shooting scoundrel who preyed on older women.  The problem, though, is that the townspeople know better and this is exactly why Bernie is such a surprisingly effective and enjoyable film.  

The townspeople are interviewed as if in a documentary and each of them is a colorful character with fascinating information to explain to the camera about Bernie, Marjorie, and East Texas lifestyle.  They each have specific examples of how Bernie helped them out during tough times and about their calamitous run-ins with Marjorie.  Pointing the camera directly at the actual Carthage townspeople was a stroke of genius by writer/director Richard Linklater.  He has written brilliant scripts before (Before Sunrise) and Bernie continues this streak.  The script is based on a 1998 magazine article by Skip Hollandsworth who luckily stumbled upon a mesmerizing case study.  

Also, casting Jack Black as Bernie is probably the best casting idea of any film this year.  Linklater worked with Black before in The School of Rock (2003) and Black here has all the room in the world to play around with and display his musical chops.  His song and dance routine of 76 Trombones right after he kills Marjorie is a particular highlight.  Rarely will an audience have as much fun watching a film about a middle of nowhere town and a somewhat regular crime.  Even though Bernie was released earlier this year, it is picking up well-deserved nominations for Jack Black's definitive and memorable performance.  Bernie is a small film and didn't last very long in the few theaters it was shown in; however, you should really take the time and effort to watch it; you'll be glad you did. 

Anna Karenina (2012)


Joe Wright should win the award for most courageous director of the year.  The majority of Anna Karenina is filmed in a theater with all of the sets built on and around a main stage including a skating rink, a grassy field, a snowy train station, and even a horse race.  It is not claustrophobic, but it can get a bit dizzy.  The camera frequently spins around in a circle to clear off the previous set and introduce a new locale.

Considering that the source material is a very long and deep work of 19th century Russian literature, the film's pace is throttled full speed ahead.  It is not quite frenetic, but it is noticeably fast in order to condense a considerable amount of story into a little over two hours.  Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge! (2001) immediately jumps to mind.  It does not sprint as fast as Moulin Rouge! did in its first half hour, but it is not lapped by it either.  Also, the atmosphere (in the first half of the film) is deliberately light and comic.  The choreographed movement approaches farce at times which is most unexpected considering the main themes of Anna Karenina are adultery, hypocrisy, lust, and love.

Anna (Keira Knightley) and her senior statesman husband Aleksei Karenin (Jude Law) live extremely comfortable lives in the upper crust of St. Petersburg society.  In overt foreshadowing of events to come, Anna takes off for Moscow to repair her brother, Count Oblonsky's, (Matthew Macfadyen) marriage to Dolly (Kelly Macdonald) due to his frequent infidelities.  She urges Dolly to forgive and forget; why rock the boat?  If she does not forgive Oblonsky, then there will surely be a divorce, scandal, the loss of position, and what could truly be worse than that?  Well, Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is about to show Anna just how low she is willing to travel all in the name of true, romantic love.

Karenin is 20 years Anna's senior but he has an impeccable character, deep honor, is a good father and husband, and is regarded as saintly by his peers.  He is about to become the patron saint of cuckolds quite soon.  Vronsky embodies most of the characteristics which Karenin lacks.  He is a womanizer, has loose morals, and emerges as a fop, a dandy, a mere boy compared to Anna.  He is a gnat buzzing around her perfectly coiffed hair yet for reasons neither we nor Anna understands, she cannot take her eyes off of him.  Vronsky is expected to propose to Dolly's younger sister Kitty (Alicia Vikander) but all of those emotions vaporize in an instant when Vronsky lays eyes on Anna.

It is the chemistry and emotion between Anna and Vronsky where Anna Karenina falls flat and makes you yearn for Moulin Rouge!'s much more powerful love triangle.  The audience feels the passion between Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman, the penniless writer and the courtesan who are repeatedly torn apart by the evil duke.  Never once will the audience here understand the decisions Anna makes regarding Vronsky.  He is a blatant cad and nuisance threatening the very essence of Anna's social status and ultimately health as he successfully tears her away from her husband who views the whole affair a slight against the almighty himself.

Joe Wright also chose to cast British and Scottish actors and have them use their native accents.  None of the leads are Russian and there are no Russian accents.  I wonder if native Russians will feel that one of their sacred texts has been transformed into British soap opera.  The light and festive atmosphere in the first half of the film works quite well.  The pace keeps the audience interested and on their toes to try and keep up with the incessant scene changes and time jumps.  The second half naturally slows down as the drama and tension mount and then the final half hour takes a direct nose dive off a cliff.  Anna discovers the hypocrisy of Russian society which excludes her yet she does not function very well outside of it.  She becomes paranoid and loses all of the grace and charisma her character displayed early on which garnered our sympathy for her.  Yes, the film dutifully follows the novel's story line, but that does not automatically maker Anna's character arc a joy to sit through.

The most important part of all of the pieces which must come together to successfully transform one of the most popular and beloved novels of all time to the big screen is the screenplay and the choices the writer makes.  Tom Stoppard obviously could not include everything, but he surely gave it his best effort.  He almost forces Joe Wright's hand to move the film along so fast because he chose to keep so much of the original story into this one.  Yes, Anna Karenina is one of the most courageous films of the year if not the bravest over all, but it is not one of the best.

The idea to stage most of the action on a stage itself is intriguing and works.  Joe Wright most likely has Lars von Trier to thank for that; there are more than enough similarities to Dogville (2003) to make that connection.  The Baz Luhrmann influence is also evident.  Russian literature can easily become dry and monotonous but Stoppard and Wright have done their best to blow the dust off an old story and drag it forward into 2012.  Unfortunately, the casting of Vronsky and the way his character comes across does not work and dramatically drives a stake into what could have been an exceptional adaptation.  A worthy effort, but it falls behind at the finish line.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Sessions (2012)

Ben Lewin’s screenplay is based on a 1990 magazine article by Mark O’Brien titled, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate”.  Mark contracted polio as a six year old and while he still has feelings and bodily sensations, his muscles do not move and he spends the vast majority of his life in an iron lung.  Attentive caregivers wheeling him from place to place on a gurney and a very active mind help Mark graduate from college and even make a living as a poet and journalist.  However, there is nothing deeper than that, no romantic relationships, no deep emotions, and obviously no sex.

Even though he is immobile, Mark (John Hawkes) still has the body, urges, and curiosity of a man.  In 1988, Mark is now 38 years old and a virgin.  While interviewing folks for an article about the disabled and sexuality, Mark discovers that all sorts of people with disabilities still have sex lives; maybe he can try it out for himself.  Enter Cheryl (Helen Hunt) the sex surrogate.  The what?  The sex surrogate, not the prostitute.   Cheryl will only see her clients a maximum of six times and lays down a couple of other rules during session one which technically put her on another plane than a prostitute, but not necessarily that far off from one either.  Luckily, Mark lives in Berkeley where one could probably locate a sex surrogate more easily than in say, North Dakota. 
A further twist is Mark is a devout Catholic.  Before he engages in these six sessions with Cheryl where the goal is actual sexual penetration, he wants the blessing of the church.  Father Brendan (William H. Macy) is probably the most liberal priest is the history of priests.  He has long, wavy hair, sports a bandana when he is out and about, brings a six pack to the party, and is probably the only priest who ever truly fit in with the Berkeley atmosphere.  Mark becomes a sort of vessel for Father Brendan as well because both men are technically celibate.  Mark desires to explore the uncharted waters of sexual contact and Father Brendan is more than willing to pay his undivided attention while Mark describes the delicate details of copulation. 
John Hawkes as Mark O’Brien is as far removed from his characters in Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy Mae Marlene as he could get.  He is not physically and emotionally menacing as he was in those films and has his work cut out for him since he can only use his face muscles and witty words to communicate with those around him.  At 49, Helen Hunt is probably the bravest actress in Hollywood to accept the role of Cheryl.  She spends a considerable amount of time undressing and in the altogether.  There is nothing particularly erotic about it though.  There is no accompanying musical score to set the mood or darker lighting to clue the audience in that they should find these scenes sexy.  In fact, this is some of the unsexiest nudity you will ever see.  It is certainly not because Helen Hunt is unattractive, far from it, the woman obviously spends a considerable amount of time in the gym.  It is because the sessions between Mark and Cheryl are not specifically about the physical act.  They are more about trust, emotions, and being comfortable in your own skin – even if that skin is attached to limbs which cannot move.
There are some unintentional similarities with Hunt’s character here and with her character, Carol, from As Good as It Gets (1997).  Both women become attached to men who have a very specific disability which obstructs their relationship with her.  Here, Mark is immobile and requires constant attention from a caregiver but he is emotionally connects with Cheryl and maintains a much needed sense of humor about the whole thing.  Jack Nicholson’s character, Melvin Udall, has a severe case of OCD and a demeanor which automatically repels those of the opposite sex but through a series of moments which establish trust, emotions, and being comfortable in your own skin, end up breaking through certain barriers.
The Sessions was a hit with audiences on the festival circuit and is garnering multiple award nominations for both Hawkes and Hunt.  While there is enough dramatic impact to connect the audience with the characters, the film feels a bit too light to truly make an impact.  The scenes between Father Brendan and Mark are amusing as the priest tries to navigate some very frank sexual discussions but the meat of the film is the one-on-one time between Mark and Cheryl.  Those are the takeaways the audience will remember long after awards season has come and gone. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2

Why is the Twilight series exponentially more popular than the more intriguing Interview with the Vampire?  Anne Rice’s Louis and Lestat witness history, carry around significant emotional baggage, and speak dialogue worthy of a screenwriter.  The Twilight Saga vampires are wooden caricatures, repeat the 12th grade over and over again, and carry on some of the most stunted and underwhelming conversations ever filmed.  Teenage vampires must be more accessible to today’s occult audience than older vampires stuck in their 20s for the rest of their lives.
Breaking Dawn - Part 2 begins immediately where Part 1 ended.  Bella (Kristen Stewart) wakes up from one of the most intense birthing scenes ever recorded a ruby red-lipped, red-eyed, pale vampire.  She sees minute details football fields in front of her, sprints faster than a car, jumps to the tree tops, and lusts after warm blooded creatures, both human and animal.  For her first kill, instead of taking out a poor, innocent doe she was tracking, Bella sinks her fangs into what is most likely an endangered mountain lion who was about to feast on the deer.    
The spawn of the previously mentioned birth is the unfortunately named Renesmee (Mackenzie Foy).  CGI effects make her look more like Gollum than the half-human, half-vampire she is.  She’s got nothing on Kirsten Dunst’s Claudia in the vampire department.  She is also saddled with Jacob the werewolf protector (Taylor Lautner) who puts off an extremely disturbing vibe that in the future he is going to become much more than Renesmee’s bodyguard.  In an awkward and forced anger scene, Bella kicks the crap out of Jacob for his ‘imprinting’ on her infant daughter as an amused Edward (Robert Pattinson) looks on.  At least Jacob as a werewolf looks somewhat believable. 
The special effects showing vampires running through the woods are noticeably off.  When Bella and Edward are shown in close-up admiring one another while sprinting, they blatantly do not fit in with the passing background.  It takes the audience right out of the movie experience.  Another incongruent element is the advanced rate of Renesmee’s development.  She grows six inches every month or so which confuses Bella’s poor father Charlie (Billy Burke).  Charlie is written as the dumbest human being alive.  Jacob needlessly disrobes in front of him to show him he is a werewolf and Bella tells him she is fine but cannot tell him anything else about herself, even why she looks different.  They tell Charlie Resmenee is his adopted niece even though she looks exactly like her mother.  Poor Charlie.  These Twilight films never give him a chance to be more than a bumbling fool.
So will there finally be a pay-off?  Twilight audiences have gone through five films now just waiting for something to happen.  Through a misunderstanding involving Irina (Maggie Grace), a vampire cousin, the ancient vampire leaders known as the Volturi learn Edward and Bella had a child which runs afoul of one of the top three vampire rules.  Aro (Michael Sheen) and Jane (Dakota Fanning) lead a robed and hooded clan to go and meet the Pacific Northwest clan on the snowy field of battle.  Michael Sheen purposefully overacts; however, this works since anyone who is as old as he seems to be probably has a few cobwebs in the attic.  At least he makes up for monosyllabic Jane who only gets to mumble the word ‘pain’ every now and again.
The Maggie Grace curse strikes again!  No matter the material, if the casting director chooses Maggie Grace, your film is going to be the worse for it.  She was the worst character on Lost, the weak link in the Taken series, and helped torpedo an already horrible film from earlier this year, Lockout.  Of course she is involved in a Three’s Company misunderstanding leading to a cascade of unnecessary stand-offs, world travel, and overall nuisance.  At least she was the catalyst for the most interesting part of the film, the gathering and introduction of other vampires of the world.  It seems globalization has affected blood-suckers as well.  There is the British guy, the Irish family, the Transylvanians with corresponding atrocious accents, the Arab, and even a pair of Amazon warriors. 
The pay-off is two armies on opposing sides of a large and open field in the dead of winter.  Vampires are lucky they do not get cold because those scantily clad Amazon warriors would be in trouble.  There is a mountain of internet chatter about a twist ending and I will not reveal what happens on this field, but it works.  There are those who are angry and call it a cheap trick, but instead, it is a cleverly written piece which tries, but not does make up for the lazy misunderstanding which brought them all together in the first place. 
The Twilight series is now over and while Breaking Dawn - Part 2 was not a good movie, it was far better than its three predecessors and matches the first installment which was not that bad either.  If you are a teenager, you already saw this movie.  If you are 20 or above, save yourself the two hours and go back and watch Interview with the Vampire again.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)


Pat (Bradley Cooper) does not handle stress in a manner acceptable to society.  When he unexpectedly comes home from work and discovers his wife in the shower with a co-worker, he beats the guy almost to death.  His plea agreement with the courts sends him to a mental institution where they determine him to have an undiagnosed bi-polar disorder.  Pat accepts the diagnosis; it explains aspects of his personality and better yet, he can use it as an excuse to convince his wife to come back to him, or at the very least drop the restraining order.  Pat experienced a few delusions in the past but now that his mom has signed him out of the institution, his most persistent delusion may be the idea that his version of self-betterment will make his wife want come home.

His parents (Robert De Niro and Jackie Weaver) are lower class native Philadelphians whose lives revolve around the weekly Sunday football game and the idea of opening a philly cheesesteak restaurant.  They are getting on in years and the last thing their small and stifling household needs is their adult son holed up in the attic, refusing to take his meds, and throwing A Farewell to Arms out of the window because he disagrees with the ending.  Pat and Pat Sr. are not very close and there is a sense that Pat Sr. was not the most supportive and nurturing father in Pat's younger years.  He is banned from the football stadium because he is considered too violent to be in the stands and that is a really telling sign considering the average Eagle fan.  The only way he knows how to talk to his son now are through Philadelphia Eagle football metaphors, which as a fledgling bookie, means more to him than just supporting the home team, it is his financial means to the cheesesteak restaurant ends.    

Watch the preview and you will think Silver Linings Playbook is a witty comedy morphing into romance.  Hidden just below the surface though is a film circling around a mostly normal guy whose stressors trigger real mental trauma.  It doesn't help that his friends are also eyeing him in a new light.  His best friend, Ronnie (John Ortiz), is glad to have Pat back but his wife, Veronica (Julia Stiles), is far more skeptical.  Plus, Veronica's sister, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), is also sliding back on forth on the mental wellness scale.  She is a very young widow now that her cop husband recently died.  Tiffany discovers a sort of kindred spirit in Pat.  They are both considered broken by those around them.  Also, people who are treated as or indeed feel crazy find more comfort amongst others like them instead of with those folks labelled normal and functioning.

Pat is oblivious to these easily gleaned insights though.  He is solely focused on his wife and their marriage which he has placed on an extremely lofty and unrealistic pedestal.  In his eyes, he is the normal one and Tiffany is the one who is clearly nuts and who makes him uncomfortable with her accurate questions about what is going on in his head.  Tiffany made some poor choices following her husband's death; however, she is much more self aware than wayward Pat.   

David O. Russell wrote and directed Silver Linings Playbook and is his first film since his success with The Fighter (2010).  The obvious similarities between the two films are their northeast location, lower class atmosphere, and some family drama although The Fighter wins hands down on who is the most dysfunctional.  Pat is less like Micky Ward and falls more on the Dicky Eklund side of the aisle.  His anger is real and finding ways to control it during tense situations is not coming easy to him.  Pat noticeably feels better around Tiffany though.  He considers her annoying and intrusive but also understanding and as someone he can actually count on which seems like a rare commodity now that he is marked as a guy just out of the 'hospital'.  The most likable parts of the film are when Pat and Tiffany are together talking through their respective problems.  

There are also some surprise supporting actors not seen very often on the big screen anymore who pop up.  Chris Tucker plays Danny, Pat's friend from the hospital, and Julia Stiles is a welcome presence even though her character is not supposed to be too pleasant.  Why are Chris Tucker sightings so few and far between?  His work in The Fifth Element and Friday still brings smiles to those of us who have fond memories of those movies.  Also, Jackie Weaver as Pat's mom completely overshadows poor Robert De Niro who seems to be in the same role he played in Everybody's Fine (2009).  Jackie Weaver earned an Oscar nomination for her role in Animal Kingdom (2010) and she has lost none of the intensity required to be the matriarch of a complicated family.   

Silver Linings Playbook won multiple festival awards, mostly from the People's Choice category and even at the prestigious Toronto festival.  These nominations will probably not hold up though to the more serious year end awards.  The screenplay is creative and the performances are memorable; however, it lacks a certain depth and realism which Pat's disorder will sooner or later require.  It swims for too long in the shallower end of the comedy pool when it should take a turn for deeper and more dramatic waters.  In the end, Silver Linings Playbook is mostly enjoyable and it gives us a chance to see Chris Tucker again.  

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Lincoln (2012)


In 2012, Abraham Lincoln is on currency, in hundreds of dusty books, and sitting in a chair in his own memorial at one end of the National Mall.  His image is stale; he is not a man, but an unknowable symbol.  Steven Spielberg, however, fashions the legend into a flesh and blood human being.  This Abraham (Daniel Day-Lewis) tells jokes, argues with his wife, and walks with a hunch in his shoulders as if an imaginary weight bears down on them.  Lincoln is no longer just 25% of Mt. Rushmore, he is the most fascinating, sympathetic, and memorable character you will see on a movie screen this year.

Hard choices must be made to tell Abraham Lincoln's story.  Do you start with his birth and childhood?  Do you cover his early legal and congressional career?  Which part of his presidency do you focus on and if you include the assassination, will that be most of the story or just the end?  Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner, who bases his screenplay on Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, decide to focus not just on Lincoln's presidency, but on a very specific time just after his re-election in January 1865.  The Civil War is entering its fourth year and hundreds of thousands are dead on bloody battlefields, yet there is a sense in the air that the war's conclusion is near.  It is anyone's guess how it will end, but that does not stop them from discussing what will come after during Reconstruction.  Some argue for the Union to take revenge against the south instead of leniency, some argue for a negotiated peace instead of an official surrender, and some argue for slavery's return instead of full abolition.

Lincoln knows full well that at the war's end,  the courts may declare his Emancipation Proclamation illegal.  The only way to ensure slavery's demise is to pass an amendment to the Constitution, specifically the 13th Amendment.  To do that, the House of Representatives must vote in favor of it with a two-thirds majority.  In 1865, there is no shortage of Congressmen who remain pro-slavery and dead set against the equalling of the races which they see as naturally separated by God.  Convincing men to change their votes to abolish slavery and argue that which they believe emanates from a higher power is wrong seems an impossible task, and it is this task Lincoln, his Cabinet, and his cronies must accomplish if they hope to succeed.  

Anyone paying attention in high school knows about the 13th Amendment and knows what will happen in the end.  Therefore, it is a true credit to Spielberg, Kushner, and the cast that the process of its life in Congress is fraught with tension, suspense, and real emotions tied to it.  Secretary of State Seward (David Strathairn) marshals the men who will do the arm twisting.  The arm twisters, including Mr. Bilbo (James Spader) and Mr. Latham (John Hawkes) are greasy insiders promising patronage jobs and many other enticements to the fence-sitters.  The fence-sitters are being pulled and pushed by their Congressional leaders including Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) and Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook).  Observing their debates from the balcony is Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) who feels some shame from her earlier bouts of grief and depression over her deceased son Willie, yet remains determined to keep her oldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), from enlisting.  

Behind all of this vast political machinery, corruption, debating, and harsh words stands a weary man quick to tell a witty story to make his point and lead a torn country towards his vision of a united future.  Lincoln is a masterpiece of filmmaking and is an unforgettable film to watch in a theater.  It will be nominated for an array of Oscars with wins most likely for Day-Lewis and Spielberg.  Daniel Day-Lewis may be the most gifted actor currently working when his chooses to take on a role, which only happens every other year or so.  Everybody still remembers Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood and Bill 'The Butcher' Cutting from Gangs of New York.  He raises his voice by what sounds like an entire octave to speak in what the historians say was Lincoln's higher-pitched tone.  He looks down at the table or the ground when in conversation but when required, he will command the room's attention when he knows he must bind people together to do the right thing.     

Crafting a biopic around a man as iconic as Abraham Lincoln requires a firm hand and concrete decision-making.  If you include too much material from too many episodes in his life, the movie will feel stretched, light, and make much less of an impact on the audience because of its lack of depth in any particular area.  By focusing Lincoln on a very specific and limited timeframe, shaping the central conflict over one of the most transformative constitutional amendments, and employing actors who all give superior performances based on a stellar script, Spielberg has made what will most likely be the best film of the year and one which all should take the time and go see. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Skyfall (2012)


After so many chases, fights, close calls, and just plain years, James Bond is starting to feel and look his age.  He is still the best in the game when it comes to spy tradecraft and creativity to get the job done, but physically, the younger generation has an edge on him.  Skyfall is the 23rd Bond film and the screenwriters finally get around to letting Bond advance a little bit in time.  The gadgets are throwback technology, the vehicles are vintage, the past is lurking around the corner, but the threat is quite new and fits with the times we live in.

Cyberterrorism is high on every government's threat matrix and some of the most feared criminals in the world wreak their havoc over a laptop instead of building a bomb.  Bond (Daniel Craig) does not seem too keen on embracing fighting through wireless communications, he prefers chasing assassins using planes, trains, and automobiles.  Skyfall begins with the familiar trumpet/trombone blast and unlike other openings, it does not use suspense or speak spy moves to ease the audience into the movie.  Right off the bat, Bond is careening through Istanbul streets, dodging pedestrians and bullets, stealing a motorcycle, jumping off a bridge, and engaging in hand-to-hand combat on top of a moving train.  His field support Eve (Naomie Harris) has her rifle trained on Bond and the bad guy with no clear shot.  M (Judi Dench), who is well aware of the high stakes of this game, orders the shot and there is James Bond shot in the chest, falling off a train into a river, and over a waterfall.  

You may have seen a version of this before in You Only Live Twice, but here it is not all part of the plan.  Bond was not planning on getting shot.  There is no easy bounce back either.  His weary and weathered body cannot shrug off the battering he subjects himself to.  Perhaps it is time for Bond to hang it up and retire.  M also feels the pressure to hand over the MI6 reigns to the youngbloods.  Her new boss, Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), looks to ease her out and sees nothing but an irrelevant dinosaur when observing Bond.  M and Bond are also at a loss in facing the world's new and most effective cyberterrorist.  A shadowy mastermind steals a hard drive with all of MI6's double agents inside terrorist organizations, blows up a huge chuck of MI6 headquarters, and always seems at least three steps ahead of Britain's elite.  

This type of villain is not in Bond's wheelhouse.  The only support the new, and extremely young, Q (Ben Whishaw) can provide is a sleek looking Walther PPK and an old school radio/location beacon.  The stage is set for Bond's old school ways versus the new generation's weapons of choice, cyberspace.  The audience gets exotic locales in Shanghai and Macau, but also the crowded streets of London and the claustrophobic London tube during rush hour.  The puppet master, Silva (Javier Bardem), is on the same wavelength as the Goldeneye villain but far more sophisticated, brilliant, and lethal.  It is even more creepy that his is blonde.  Unlike previous villains, he is not aiming towards world domination, a huge payoff, and has nothing to do with outer space.  His motivation is simply revenge which may be the most dangerous motivation of them all.

Instead of appearing intermittently throughout the film to coach Bond, M gets way more screen time here than usual.  She must defend MI6 in public Parliament hearings, worry that her best agent has passed over the invisible line separating youth from middle age, and protect her sacrosanct organization from being the play toy of wily politicians.  Skyfall provides Judi Dench with her chance to be the leading figure we knew she could be.  It is also the 50th anniversary of the first Bond film and director Sam Mendes has a bit of fun with that.  Remember the Aston Martin DB5 and the old school theme music on a solo guitar?  You may hear sections of the audience cheer when those elements pop up in homage.  Mendes is an excellent choice to helm an important and transitional Bond film such as this.  His Road to Perdition and Jarhead were both primed to be action thrillers; however, they were muted with deeper philosophical issues.  Instead of the protagonist just looking for the next stooge to shoot, they had the bigger picture in mind.  

This version of James Bond is a shade more of a deep thinker than his predecessors.  The early Sean Connery films through most of the Pierce Brosnan era, Bond's backstory and most certain arthritic future were never mentioned because that is not the type of Bond they were.  They were 100% in the present and looking for both the bad guy and the next pretty girl.  Skyfall is just as strong as Casino Royale and thankfully relegates the sub-par Quantum of Solace to the forgettable category along with some of Brosnan's recent efforts including Tomorrow Never Dies and Die Another DayCasino Royale remains the best of Daniel Craig's Bond films, but Skyfall more than holds its own.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)


So soon after one Spiderman series wrapped up in 2007 does Columbia Pictures unleash another version of the cash-cow series.  New director, new actors, and even new characteristics about the hero himself are incorporated to make the audience feel The Amazing Spider-man is more than just a re-make.  Comparisons with the 2002 starter film, Spider-man, are inevitable and in the end downgrade this updated 2012 iteration.

Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is a very unlucky kid.  First, his parents abruptly up and leave him in the middle of the night and pass him off to his Uncle Ben and Aunt May (Martin Sheen, Sally Field).  Second, Peter goes to Midtown Science High School which you imagine is going to be a cutting edge, Silicon Valley prep school but is rather an extremely hostile environment complete with its own psychopath bully named Flash (Chris Zylka).  His classmate, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), does not even know Peter's name although he sits next to her in class and most likely has for years.  Peter's senior year of high school is the appropriate beginning for Spiderman's origin, but the requirement to create such a horrible and cliche atmosphere is not necessary.  Nowadays, if a student named Flash kicked the crap out of Peter Parker he would be arrested and brought up on charges instead of hustled off to the basketball court.  Besides, Peter Parker is noticeably tall, in excellent physical shape, and good looking.  This guy should have no problem maneuvering his high school hallways.

While piecing together his father's past, Peter winds up at Oscorp talking to Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans).  Dr. Connors is the world's leading expert on the idea of synthesizing animal DNA into human DNA to promote limb regeneration.  He is missing his right arm and while I have no doubt everyone who does not have a right arm wishes they had one very much, Dr. Connors has a very serious case of loss and abandonment over the missing appendage.  As in the 2002 version, a spider bites Peter which is the catalyst for a traumatic form of late teenage puberty but the transformation is a bit different this time.  Super strength, speed, and agility are part of the package again but now the webbing is not just shot out of Peter's wrist; he manufactures it from a machine created through the standard 'get to know your knew body' montage.  Oh yeah, it helps a lot that Peter is also a scientific and electronics genius.  Uncle Ben must find him quite handy to have around the townhouse.

Poor Uncle Ben.  If there is a new Spiderman, then this inevitably leads to Uncle Ben's demise.  This time though, instead of happenstance and an indirect situation which leaves Peter thinking he is responsible for Uncle Ben's death, 2012 Peter Parker straight up makes four or five horrible decisions and is absolutely to blame for Uncle Ben's murder.  Andrew Garfield's Spiderman is far less mature and carries around more childish emotions than Tobey Maguire's Spiderman.  He can be cruel to his guardians when he wants to be, something Tobey never would have done.  He can also get hurt.  After battling criminals and the like all night, Peter Parker's body shows it.  He limps, has bruises all over his body, and gashes on his face.  This Spiderman is not impervious to pain, he feels the punch.

Most of the punches later in the film come from The Lizard.  The foreshadowing early in the film is so blatant that anyone who is familiar with Spiderman villains from the comics knows which bad guy will show up.  This Godzilla creature has long, sharp claws, can regenerate its tail and arms if they are chopped off, and has a goal to turn the entire city of Manhattan into lizards as well.  He may kill people, but he is equal opportunity about it.  Spiderman, learning about the concept of responsibility from the loss of Uncle Ben, must confront The Lizard but also must dodge the Chief of Police, Captain Stacy (Denis Leary), who also happens to be Gwen's father.  This is a lot for poor Peter to juggle.  

The Amazing Spider-man was made too soon after the previous series.  Spider-man 3 was released in 2007.  I suppose this is an eon in Hollywood time but I have no doubt the rest of us clearly still remember Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, and James Franco.  Marc Webb is an odd pick to helm this project because his previous work are some music videos and one of the best films from the past few years, (500) Days of Summer.  This catalogue of work would not normally put him in line to create the next big action hero series.  He made some good choices concerning Peter's emotional volatility, his relationship with Gwen, and the idea that Peter really gets the sand pounded out of him, but the parts do not make a satisfying whole.  The mechanical webs are limiting, the soaring through the air between skyscrapers is mundane, and Peter Parker's altruistic personality is gone and replaced with a sharper edge.  Skip The Amazing Spider-man.  If you really want to see some web-slinging action though, go back and watch Spider-man 2, the best one of all of four of these things.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Cloud Atlas (2012)


Cloud Atlas is a challenge.  It does not arrive as 99% of its film peers do, with a beginning, middle, and an end.  Six different stories spanning over 500 years of time are woven together and make your mind work overtime not only keeping them apart, which is its job while you watch the film, but afterwards, trying to connect larger and deeper themes to them.  Is Cloud Atlas the most visionary and grand movie of the year or is a pretentious bomb which falls apart under the weight of its ill-formed ideas?

I am inclined to say more towards the grand vision end of the spectrum.  Recommending people see it is a given; however, it should come with a warning attached.  It will not make immediate sense to you when the credits start rolling.  File Cloud Atlas next to 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Tree of Life.  Some movie-goers classify these as ground-breaking cinema masterpieces which should be studied for decades to come; others believe they are a gobbled mess.  Cloud Atlas has more specific plot lines than either 2001 or Tree of Life though.

Describing the plot of the separate stories of Cloud Atlas is missing the point.  They are separate vignettes, yet they are tied together in a larger sense by ideas of freedom and perhaps karma.  The same actors appear in each story but as different individuals with different personalities, and even as the opposite gender.  Tom Hanks and Halle Berry are the two main protagonists in a few of the stories but Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, James D'Arcy, Hugh Grant, and Susan Sarandon pop up quite regularly.

What is perhaps the main theme of Cloud Atlas is freedom.  In 1849, a British lawyer (Sturgess) tangentially involved in the slave trade makes a choice which alters not only the rest of his life but transforms a slave into a free man.  This has ripple effects throughout the next 500 years.  In 1936, a young and edgy composer (Ben Whishaw) reads the lawyer's journal and gets ideas about a different type of freedom, the mind's freedom to think and create wondrous music.  In 1973, the energy crisis is spawning a transformation from oil to nuclear power; however, an intrepid reporter (Berry) has stumbled upon an evil plan by an industry magnate.  In 2012, an old publisher (Broadbent) mistakenly winds up in an old folks home and must plan his escape with other folks mostly tucked away there by their children waiting for them to die.

The 2012 story does not work very well.  Compared to its five counterparts, it is small-minded, silly, and distinctly feels out of place.  In 2144, the city of Neo Seoul has a new type of cloned-human whose main catechism to follow is 'Honor Thy Consumer'.  Society is based around the human power to shop and the government is now known as Unanimity; thinking for yourself is now entirely out of fashion.  Finally, in 2346 after an event known as 'The Fall', men live in a hunter/gatherer type society on a large island sometimes visited by extremely technologically advanced outsiders who are looking for something.

Cloud Atlas has three separate writer/directors: Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings.  All of them have past work which today is considered visionary; Tykwer with Run Lola Run and the Wachowskis with the Matrix trilogy.  They directed separate sections of Cloud Atlas which may account for the different atmosphere and tones employed in the filmmaking, but the pairing works.  Telling a story which incorporates both laser gun shootouts in 2144 and the whipping of a slave in 1849 probably should have more than one director.  The screenplay is based on a 2004 novel by David Mitchell which most likely tells a tighter and more easily digestible tale than the screen version.

Walking out of the theater after the show is over is an intriguing moment.  Complete strangers will start up a conversation about what they just witnessed.  I had a guy tell me, "You rarely see something like this."  Very true sir; Cloud Atlas is very rare indeed.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Other Dream Team (2012)


At the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the Soviet Union basketball team beat the U.S. squad for the gold medal and more importantly, bragging rights.  In what is assumed to be a U.S. dominated sport in which an American team had only failed to get the gold once before, they not only lost, but tragically, they lost to communist Soviets.  The Other Dream Team is not about the redemption of bruised American egos or of the games as a geopolitical extension of communism vs. capitalism, it is about the true composition of that 1988 Soviet team.

Four of the starting five players for the Soviet Union were not ethnically Russian, they were Lithuanian.  This is much more than the difference between being from New York rather than Minnesota or from being a dyed in the wool Confederate son rather than a northern Yankee.  Prior to World War II, Lithuania was an independent country.  As the southernmost Baltic state, Lithuania had the unfortunate luck of being sandwiched between global empires bent on totalitarian domination.  Throughout history, the Baltic states were just been a stepping stone on the way to greater battles.

Lithuanians are not Russians though; they have an entirely separate language, culture, and identity.  Lithuanians also love basketball.  In the 1930s, Lithuania even hosted the European basketball championships and won the tournament twice.  However, after the end of World War II and Lithuania’s subsequent envelopment behind the Iron Curtain, the best basketball players played for the Soviet team under the Soviet flag.  Yes, the Soviet Union won the gold in 1988, but to every Lithuanian out there, they know who was really on that court.

The Other Dream Team profiles the star players on that team, and if you are a basketball fan, you will recognize a few of those names including future NBA players Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis.  Growing up in Lithuania, these boys experienced the same hardships as they would have growing up in Russia:  10 year wait limits to buy a worthless car, food shortages, omnipresent suspicion, and no hope of ever seeing the West, let alone playing basketball there.  They played on local club teams and whenever the Army-trained Moscow team came to town, regular life would stop as all Lithuanians would gather round the TV or radio to cheer on the local boys over the Russians who represented what everyone realized was a fading empire.

In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell.  In 1991, Lithuania proclaimed its independence right in front of a brigade of Soviet tanks and menacing troops.  There is news footage and first-hand testimony about fathers and brothers who did not come home after the first independence protests because they were killed by Russian soldiers.  Suddenly and very unexpectedly, the Russians were gone and Lithuania was a country.  They could democratically elect their own leaders, start their own businesses, and certainly not least, march under their own flag at the opening ceremony of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

Every American who remembers the 1992 Olympics thinks of the Dream Team.  Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson are just three names of the elite talent the U.S. sent to Spain to mop up the competition and restore America’s rightful spot at the top of the basketball pyramid.  They were global superstars, 11 superior basketball phenomenons…and Christian Laettner.  A footnote at the bottom of the Dream Team’s media goliath was the Lithuanian team who could not even afford uniforms.  However, because of an amusing turn of events, The Other Dream Team makes such an unlikely documentary because of the Grateful Dead…as in the band.

The Grateful Dead were big basketball fans and learned about the struggling Lithuanian team’s predicament.  Therefore, in the mail one day arrives boxes of tie-dye t-shirts and shorts with the colors of Lithuania’s flag and a skeleton basketball player on the front.  These items became the most sought after souvenirs at the Barcelona games.  If you were turned off by the megalomania and spectacle of the real Dream Team, Lithuania was the suddenly the team to root for.

The Other Dream Team appeals to basketball fans and will be enjoyed by them the most.  If you are only a passing fan of the sport but are interested in how international relations impacted the athletes or Lithuania’s niche part in the Cold War, you will also enjoy the film.  All others may want to steer clear as the subject matter is not up your alley.  The Other Dream Team is not as hard-hitting as Hoop Dreams, but perhaps that is because of its more uplifting atmosphere.  First time feature documentary writer and director Marius A. Markevicius brings forth an overshadowed, hard-knock group of basketball players from an out of the way country and has the audience truly wishing them victory, even over the likes of Michael Jordan.  This fact alone supports the global reach of the story and everyone’s desire to see the underdog succeed.                

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Seven Psychopaths (2012)


Seven Psychopaths may be the best movie title of the year.  Martin McDonagh certainly has a way of coming up with apt and memorable titles for the audience to carry around with them, he is also responsible for In Bruges (2008).  One could easily argue that Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson were also psychopaths in In Bruges, but Two Psychopaths doesn't work nearly as well when you can cram a full seven in there instead.  Also, if Christopher Walken is one of the psychopaths, then you're most likely doing the right thing.

Two mid-level gangsters are hanging out griping about the gangster business, specifically about whether or not either of them has ever shot anybody through the eyeball.  This is exactly the same conversation the two gangsters in In Bruges could easily have had.  Seven Psychopaths looks like it might might as well be In Bruges 2: Los Angeles.  However, these two gangsters immediately stop their conversation when a hooded assassin somewhat casually walks up behind them, shoots them in the head, and leaves a jack of diamonds on each body - enter the Jack O'Diamonds killer.  This was a good move by McDonagh.  He sets the audience up with two guys spouting Pulp Fiction dialogue and abruptly offs them to let the audience know they better be careful, Seven Psychopaths is odd, unpredictable, and may take a 180 degree turn when they least expect it.  It also means there is a fresh film here and not just an In Bruges knock-off.

There is a film within a film in Seven Psychopaths also named Seven Psychopaths.  Marty (Farrell) is a struggling screenwriter who thinks a bit of alcohol will take the edge off and let the ideas flow…like wine.  The problem is the glass of wine turns into a margarita and then into a bottle of bourbon.  This is no way to reliably develop characters on the page.  Billy (Sam Rockwell) is Marty's actor friend and wants to motivate him but as any good friend does, he reminds Marty that since he is an Irish writer, there is no fighting alcoholism, it is in his blood.  Billy tells Marty some good stories which he should put in his screenplay about the Jack O'Diamonds killer and a guy called the Quaker killer.  Each time one of these stories is told, Seven Psychopaths breaks away from reality and shows us sort of a short story which is narrated by either Billy or Marty.  The real seven psychopaths are not the characters in Martin McDonagh's film, but in Marty's screenplay.  

Billy is only a part-time actor though.  To make money, he works with Hans (Walken) to kidnap dogs, wait for the reward poster to be put up by worried owners, and then heads off to collect the dough.  Naturally, they kidnap the wrong guy's dog.  Charlie (Woody Harrelson) loves his Shih Tzu Bonny.  When Bonny turns up missing, Charlie and his goons start killing people.  It's not all bad news though, these violent segways are really helping out Marty's screenplay even though the body count is starting to rise.  Both Billy and Hans start contributing ideas for the screenplay about character backstories, motivations, and even possible dream sequences and endings.  Running and hiding from a vengeful gangster can be nerve-wracking, but fleshing out an effective screenplay is a good hobby to take your mind off of your troubles for awhile.    

The first half of Seven Psychopaths is one of the best films of the year; unfortunately, the second half torpedoes what was shaping up to be a surprising success.  The psychopath vignettes are original, creative, and the best part of the movie.  An oddball named Zachariah (Tom Waits) pops up to contribute one you will not soon forget.  Halfway though, with the real characters on the run from Charlie, the story is way too reminiscent of Scream.  In the Scream series, the characters knew what was coming next because they were very knowledgeable of the horror genre.  They described the types of characters who would not make it to the end and even in what order they would start to fall.  Seven Psychopaths turns self aware and veers directly into similar territory, but with the action genre.  Billy points out the best spot to have a final showdown, which characters will get shot and why, and he gets quite angry if Marty or Hans does something to interfere with how this is all working out in his head.

If you have not seen In Bruges, go see that instead of Seven Psychopaths.  If you have seen In Bruges and loved it (since everybody loves it), go see Seven Psychopaths and enjoy the first half.  Be aware of the downhill slide it is going to take but don't let it spoil the rest of what really could have been a great action/gangster/buddy film.  Instead, take note of just how good Christopher Walken is here.  He looks like a psychopath already with his spiked, Eraserhead kind of hair, stares into the camera like a psychopath, and is probably the best actor in Hollywood at playing a psychopath.  Hannibal Lector would take one look at Christopher Walken and say, "Wow, this guys is nuts."