Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Midnight in Paris

There are two sides to Woody Allen’s coin.  Anyone familiar with Woody Allen is unavoidably cognizant of a few common traits: his films take place in New York, star a character who is (or acts just like) Woody Allen, involve farcical and possible fantastical elements, and will usually end on a positive note. 

That’s the Woody Allen most of us recognize, but what about the films that stray so beautifully from that formula?  Little-seen, but masterful dramas like Interiors, Stardust Memories, Another Woman, Husbands and Wives, and Match Point?  For my money, Allen’s dramas are almost always on point, whereas his contemporary comedies are, more often than not, grossly lacking.  Which is why I report, with great pleasure, that Midnight in Paris is a well deserved, pitch perfect romantic comedy.

I mentioned fantasy earlier, and this is true, although you may not realize it.  Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, Sleeper, Stardust Memories, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Alice, and Deconstructing Harry are just a few Allen movies that rely heavily on fantasy to help propel the story.  Allen always roots his fantasy content in reality, thereby stripping the characters of any form of boring, prolonged denial.  And when he pulls it off, as he does whimsically in Midnight in Paris, the result is utterly delightful.

So when a self-proclaimed “Hollywood sellout” screenwriter drunkenly stumbles into a party and is soon sharing cocktails with the likes of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, don’t expect his denial to last too long.  He’s going to enjoy this moment, and so should we.

Gil (a fantastic Owen Wilson, no, that is not a typo) is tired of being a sellout.  He’s tired of the success he’s earned by rewriting Hollywood blockbusters.  He wants to write, really write.  Novels, poems, whatever, as long as it’s meaningful prose.  His fiancé, Inez (a perfectly bitchy Rachel McAdams) does what she can to thwart Gil’s literally romantic efforts, but her labors soon bear fruitless.

One night, while vacationing with Inez and her parents in Paris, Gil, having had a little too much to drink, stumbles around the streets of Paris before being picked up by a few immaculately dressed party goers in a fancy old car.  Gil is taken to a party, and soon chatting with the likes of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, and plenty more.  This is Gil’s lifelong wish, you see.  He can’t remember the last time his 21st century surroundings inspired him.  He’s always wondered what it would be like to live during The Golden Age.  And now he knows.

Gil does this for days on end, seamlessly wondering into 1920’s Paris and soaking up the scenery before he is magically transported back to 2010.  During his midnight trysts, he meets a slew of colorful characters, and even wins the affection of Picasso’s mistress (Marion Cotillard, seriously, can this woman do no wrong?).  Whether you recognize the names of the people Gil runs into or not, it’s utterly wasteful to spoil them here.  (But let me say that the actor playing Salvador Dali deserves an Oscar nomination for his brief but spot-on performance.)

A lot could go wrong in Midnight in Paris, namely, the casting of Owen Wilson, who still has a bad taste in his mouth from the complete waste of shit that was How Do You Know.  But to say Wilson nails it is an understatement.  He’s got Allen’s shifty enunciations and nervous vernacular down perfectly.  Rachel McAdams plays lovingly against-type, sinking her teeth into Woody Allen’s malevolence in a way that could make Judy Davis jealous.  While Michael Sheen, Kathy Bates, Kurt Fuller, and Tom Hiddleston all bring the proper amount of charm required of their respective roles.

Midnight in Paris is a great kind of film.  The type of movie in which a master returns to form and delivers well beyond what is expected.  Woody Allen has mostly kept his films out of New York for the past decade, and that’s fine.  As long as he churns out films as worthy as Midnight in Paris, we’ll all reap the benefits. A-

For more on Woody Allen, click here.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Hangover Part II

A group of friends travel to an exotic city for a bachelor party.  They drink, are drugged and wake up in a ransacked hotel room with one of the guys missing and not the slightest clue of how or why.  They spend the next day and a half retracing their steps, getting themselves into all sorts of farcical messes.  At some point a naked Asian dude pops out of an obscure location.  At some point some money is made in hopes of finding their missing friend.  At some point pictures from their forgotten night are shown to the audience, too much hilarity.

That’s the plot of The Hangover, and given the fact that it remains the highest grossing R-rated comedy of all time, I’m sure you already knew that. What you may not already know, and I sincerely hope you don’t, is that that is also the exact same plot for The Hangover Part II.  And therein lies the problem.

Why the hell would you want to see the same movie again?  No no, I’m sorry, let me clarify: why the hell would you want to see the EXACT same movie again?  At the risk of bogging myself down with superfluous exaggerations, I can confidently assert that The Hangover Part II will offer you nothing new, and perhaps worse, it only offers you precisely what you’ve seen before.  I quite simply do not see the fun in that, especially if you’re forking out ten plus dollars a head.

Instead of Vegas, the guys are in Bangkok.  Instead of a missing groom, it’s a missing brother of the bride.  Instead of a missing tooth, it’s a Mike Tyson tattoo. Instead of a baby, it’s a monkey.  Instead of a Mike Tyson cameo, it’s a… Mike Tyson cameo.  Instead of hilarious pictures during the closing credits, it’s “Really? Haven’t we seen this all before?” pictures during the closing credits.

I make it a point to never reveal conclusive plot elements from a film.  I am in no way interested in ruining a movie for you, regardless of how good (or bad) it is.  I give just enough, then let you decide for yourself if a movie is worth seeing. So, forgive me, but I’m pissed off.  I’m pissed that the artistic medium I have loved for as long as I can remember is domestically turning into a complete waste of time.  I pissed that Hollywood runs like such a business, that they are literally making the same films over and over, just because they know those films will generate a handsome profit.

But most of all, I’m pissed at the storytellers. The Hangover cost $35 million to produce.  A grand budget for the scope of the film, but at least it was entertaining.  The Hangover Part II cost $80 million to make.  But why?  Does it take an extra $45 million to produce such recycled garbage?  What kind of movie could director Todd Phillips have made with that kind of money, if he wasn’t limited by the commerciality of Hollywood? 

I don’t know, and, to be honest, I’m starting to not care.  And that’s what scares me.  With each passing year, my subtle apathy toward the poor state of American cinema is slowly brewing into a faint resentment.  The Hangover Part II is the worst kind of film.  Second-hand compost with not a shred of originality, and in no way worthy of your time.  F

Monday, May 23, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

When Werner Herzog eventually dies – which I imagine he hopes will come at the expense of something related to art, and maybe even captured on film – I sincerely hope there is a stipulation in his will mandating that his body be examined by eager scientists.

Through his remarkably eccentric career, he’s traveled to an evacuated Guadeloupe in hopes of filming a volcano that is set to erupt at any moment; he’s hypnotized his entire cast while shooting a film; dragged a ship over a mountain; threatened to kill the star of his movie; been shot at by the star of his movie; been shot in the abdomen during a television interview; spent time on Antarctica; eaten his own shoe; and directed a damn fine Nicolas Cage film.  In short, the man has done it all, and, thankfully for us, he shows no sign of ceasing his obsession with testing himself.

His latest self-imposed challenge was butting up against the French ministry in hopes of getting access to the Chauvet caves of Sothern France.  When three men discovered the caves in 1994, they had no idea that the plentiful drawings that wallpapered the interior of the caves were more than 33,000 years old, by far the oldest known graphic creations in history.  But, for several bureaucratic reasons, the caves have only been open to a slew of scientists, far from public view. Until now.

Once Herzog got access, which was limited to say the least, he went for broke and shot the majority of his footage using 3D cameras.  The resulting film is, I can safely assert, the very first live action film worth paying 3D-priced tickets to.  (For the record, it’s difficult for me to declare Avatar as mostly live action.)

I know what you’re thinking: how can 3D possibly enhance a flat surface?  My answer: I have no idea.  But believe me, it does.  Herzog’s camera slowly swoops in and around assorted stalagmites to uncover works of art that will leave you speechless.  Painted on the walls is everything from handprints to various animals.  Some of the animals’ features are outlined with fuzzy lines, giving off the sense of movement, “much like still photos that make up an animated film,” Herzog says in his soothing narration.

The shots inside the cave are nothing short of miraculous, a sensation that is only enhanced by the 3D technology.  Most 3D films currently littering theatres are converted after the fact, which is a technical way of saying that you paid an extra $4 for absolutely nothing.  And the legitimate 3D films spend a bulk of their running time reminding you that the movie is in 3D, usually by having assorted objects thrown at the screen.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is different.  Not all of the film is in 3D, a point Herzog discloses early in the film, but the scenes that are in 3D use the technology to help fuel the atmosphere of the story.  There are no cheap parlor tricks; no ridiculous gimmicks.  It’s the real deal; and it makes a movie about cave paintings, which could understandably sound drab to some audience members, imperative viewing for any cinema enthusiast.
Herzog, right, with a subject from Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Werner Herzog is upfront with his proclamations.  He has no problem blending truth with fabrication, declaring that his documentaries contain fiction and his narrative films contain fact.  Little Dieter Needs to Fly and Rescue Dawn, for example, tell the same story about the same man.  One is a documentary; the other is a narrative film.  Both have truths, both have inaccuracies, Herzog has said.

My point is, Werner Herzog does not make conventional films for conventional audiences.  To see a film like Cave of Forgotten Dreams, or Encounters at the End of the World, or Grizzly Man, or, hell, Bad Lieutenant, is to expose yourself to the warped mind of a man who may very well be clinically mad. Regardless of the legitimacy of Herzog’s sanity, his films are something more than just “films”.  They are documents of genuine human emotion.  And, in the case of Cave of Forgotten Dreams, they deserve to be put into a sealed time capsule, available for people to examine thousands of years from now.  A

the Directors: Paul Thomas Anderson

Like fellow classmates Quentin Tarantino, Spike Jonze, David O. Russell, and Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson was born from the school of ‘70s American cinema.  Their teachers include Mr. Scorsese, Mr. De Palma, Mr. Coppola, and, most notably for Anderson, Mr. Altman.

Having released five films in 15 years, Anderson may not be the most prolific filmmaker around, but that matters little, considering the breadth of influence he’s brought to the medium.

He can be flashy (the opening shot of Boogie Nights, the TV studio shot in Magnolia), heartfelt (“Will you help me?” from Boogie Nights; “You need to be nicer to me.” from Magnolia), hilarious (Adam Sandler in a Hawaiian phone booth in Punch-Drunk Love; Adam Sandler in a restaurant bathroom in P-D L), horrifying (Daniel Day-Lewis + bowling pin); and all together masterful.

Anderson’s next project – about a WWII vet who creates a new belief system  – is set to begin filming in mid June.  The long-delayed film, which many suspect will act as a metaphor for the birth of Scientology, will star Anderson regular Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin I-Guess-He’s-Acting-Again Phoenix.  Porn, life, love, oil, religion – who cares, it’s PTA.  I’ll be there, and so should you.  Here’s why.

Hard Eight [aka Sydney] (1997)
Many don’t know that a mere eight months before Boogie Nights hit theatres, Anderson’s first feature, Hard Eight (which he prefers to refer to as Sydney), was released domestically.  Despite its edgy script, fluid photography, pulsating music, and the presence of Samuel L. Jackson (fresh off Pulp Fiction) and Gwyneth Paltrow (fresh off Se7en), Hard Eight was a commercial disaster.

Ask Anderson why the movie only grossed $222,000 and he’ll rattle off more reasons than can fit in a DVD commentary.  In short, Anderson clawed and battled the studio every step of the way throughout production.  This is unfortunate, because the movie – about an aging hustler who takes a down-and-outer under his wing – could have been better than it is.  However, Anderson’s trouble with the studio did result in a major plus: from here on out, Anderson refused to make a picture unless he had final cut.  And, considering his age at the time (he was 25 when he made Hard Eight) that is rarer than all hell.

For die hard Anderson fans, Hard Eight is a must.  It amusingly displays the promise of what is to come.  Everyone else can probably just skip straight to Boogie Nights. B+

Favorite scene: I love when a movie tells us how to pull something off, never excluding the slightest details.  Hard Eight does this masterfully when Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) shows John (John C. Reilly) how to recycle a small amount of money through the casino cashier until it appears as if he’s spent thousands of dollars.  

Boogie Nights (1997)
Sharing the coveted title of the most entertaining movie of the ‘90s, (with the likes of Goodfellas and Pulp Fiction) Boogie Nights begins with a bravado opening sequence (introducing all of the main characters in one extended tracking shot) and spends its remaining 150 minutes high off cocaine-fueled adrenaline.  

Set in Los Angeles during the porno industry boom in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Boogie Nights chronicles the highs and lows of a local production company and its wildly popular star, Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg, delivering one of the best performances of the decade).  The film isn’t concerned with plot, as it doesn’t contain a shred of it.  Instead, we follow around Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds, never better) and company as they sunbathe by the pool, snort cocaine ceaselessly, engage in casual sex, and occasionally shoot films.

Boogie Nights breaks all the rules.  It steals from other films (Goodfellas, I Am Cuba and Nashville are direct lifts), never lets its music conclude (whether it’s the disco-inspired soundtrack or Michael Penn’s score, or both), introduces main characters in the third act (“Todd…Parker!”), never lets its camera sit idle (thanks to the ever-impressive, Robert Elswit), and so on.

It’s a breathtaking film; one that never gets old.  In fact, its impact continues to grow and grow and grow and grow and grow and grow.  A

Favorite scene: If I was an actor reading this script, I’d be terrified of the confrontation between young Eddie and his mother.  On paper, the dialogue sounds dime-store corny (“You’re stupid!” “I’m not stupid! Please don’t be mean to me!”, etc.)  But thanks to Wahlberg and Joanna Gleason, the scene plays out like a horrific portrait of adolescent hell. But the kicker, it must be said, is the dolly shot of Lawrence Hudd, who plays Wahlberg’s reserved father.  The camera quickly cuts to the parent’s bedroom and tracks left, revealing Hudd sitting motionless on the edge of his bed, listening to his wife berate his son in the next room.

Hudd says nothing, but his face says everything.  It’s an incredibly chilling moment that, given the content of the rest of the film, should feel out of place.  Thanks to those involved, it remains absolutely vital.

Magnolia (1999)
Coming off the critical acclaim of Boogie Nights, Anderson sought to push the envelope further with his next feature.  In Magnolia, the envelope isn’t so much pushed as ripped wide open, the result of which should in no way work as a cohesive, three hour film.  But it does, magically, and then some.

Taking place over the course of a single day in Los Angeles, Magnolia deserves to be ranked among the very best ensemble films ever made.  Any one of its many stories could sustain a feature film, but the gift of Magnolia is that Anderson includes only what is absolutely necessary to further, and enhance, the character’s motivations.

From its exhilarating, urban legend-inspired prologue, to its Book of Exodus denouement, Magnolia is a genuine masterpiece. I can think of no contemporary film that better encapsulates the themes of love, loss, regret, cruelty and forgiveness. If this film is unseen by you, I cannot think of one reason why it should stay that way.  A+ 

Favorite scene: Movie moments don’t get much better than the simultaneous breakdowns of Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), Linda Partridge (Julianne Moore), Quiz Kid Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), and Frank Mackey (Tom Cruise).  But to be fair, that takes up, what… 20 minutes?

So instead, I’ll choose something more succinct.  I’m obsessed with great character introductions in films.  Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, Harry Lime in The Third Man, The Joker in The Dark Knight, and the like.  So what better way to introduce Magnolia’s best character than to the operatic sound of Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra?

With the light cues synching perfectly with Strauss, a silhouette soon appears to uproarious, male-driven fanfare. Soon, a voice speaks: “Respect…the cock.”  The crowd loses it.  We can’t help but smile.

People love to rag on Tom Cruise.  And I get it.  Yeah, the dude is kind of a douche and he stars in some shit films.  But those haters surely haven’t seen Magnolia.  For if they have, they would know that Cruise’s incarnation of Frank T.J. Mackey grants him a lifetime career pass.

Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
Motivated by the need for a complete 180 from Magnolia’s style, and the fact that he loves Adam Sandler comedies, Anderson crafted a simple story about a simple guy with simple dreams.  

Barry Egan just wants to be liked.  He wants respect from his seven overbearing sisters, a successful business, and, just maybe, the love of a woman. 

After a turn of purely Andersonian events, Barry finds himself wanted by an Utahan thug, falling for the girl of his dreams, and scheming to legally rip off a food company.  

Punch-Drunk Love is odd.  Quite odd, actually.  Jon Brion’s music is a never ending romp of delight and mania.  Elswit’s overexposed camera displays European-cool tones yet is strangely raw.  Anderson’s script is random yet harmonious.  And Sandler’s performance is puzzlingly brilliant.  The lasting result, like most of Anderson’s work, boasts a love it or hate it mentality. 

There are sequences of Punch-Drunk Love that rank among the best of Anderson’s career.  It’s a meditative, breezy character study that has all the right things going for it, as long as you’re willing to meet it halfwayA-

Favorite scene: One of the best dialogue exchanges from the last decade goes a little something like this:

“I said ‘Calm down and shut the fuck up’ what’s the problem?”

“The problem is, if you give me a chance to explain, one of your employees, that girl I was just speaking with, has been threatening me, and four blonde gentlemen just… attacked me, and smashed my car, and hurt my girl—"

“All right, go fuck yourself, that shit has nothin’ to do with me, all right?  I run a legitimate business here."

“Listen to me… WHAT’S YOUR NAME, SIR? ANSWER ME!”

“What’s your name, asshole?!”

“I’m Barry Egan!”

“How do I know? You could be anybody.”

“You’re a bad person, you have no right taking people’s confidence in your service. You understand me, sir?  You’re sick—"

“No no no.  SHUT UP! SHUT THE FUCK UP! SHUT UP WILL YOU—SHUT UP SHUT UP. SHUT SHUT SHUT SHUT SHUT UP…..SHUT UP!......NOW…..ARE YOU THREATENING, DICK?!"

“You go FUCK YOURSELF!”

(groans audibly) “FUCK! Did you just say go fuck myself?”

“…yes, I did.”

“THAT WASN’T GOOD, YOU’RE DEAD!”

There Will Be Blood (2007)
There Will Be Blood ruined contemporary American cinema.  Its pace is deliberately tedious, yet utterly seamless.  Its acting is flawless, from the lead actors to the extras in the background.  Its music, by Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood (with some help from Brahms), is forebodingly game-changing.  Elswit’s cinematography redefines how to light a scene and maneuver a camera... in short, There Will Be Blood is cinematic perfection, something that hasn’t been achieved in this country since its release.

Daniel Plainview, as incarnated mercilessly by Daniel Day-Lewis, is a man of few passions and desires.  He wants only one thing: to become filthy rich.  Human feelings, acts of murder, broken legs, religious fanaticism, deaf children; these things need not deter him. And for two and half hours, we, the viewer, are fortunate enough to watch Plainview do everything in his power to achieve his dream.
  
If you were to break up every scene individually, and examine them as a collection of short films, you’d have more than dozen masterful sequences at your disposal.  The fun (and beauty, and conviction) of There Will Be Blood is that, by placing all those scenes together, you’re left with a feature film of impenetrable importance.  

No amount I write here will adequately describe how accomplished this film is.  In my original review, I feared that many audience members would either completely ignore the film, or let it be lost on them.  Given its modest box office draw ($40.2 million) and not-at-all justified number of Oscar wins (two; Day-Lewis and Elswit), my fears were relatively accurate.  But I also made a bold prediction in my initial write-up.  I said that decades from now, people would look back and consider There Will Be Blood an incontestable masterpiece.


Initially ignored then regarded as a classic, echoing the impact of Orson Welles’ first feature.  That’s a prediction I stand by today. A+

Favorite scene: Bowling alley.  Eating steak off the floor like a dog.  Drainage.  Milkshakes.  False prophets.  Third revelations.  Blowing pin.  Heavy breathing.  “...Mr. Daniel?”

“…I’m finished.”

Not hardly, Mr. Plainview.  Not hardly.     

Monday, May 16, 2011

Bridesmaids

Bridesmaids, one of the best, most hilarious comedies in years, tells the story of a down-on-her-luck, middle aged beauty who, despite recently being named maid of honor to her best friend’s wedding, can’t get over the fact that she doesn’t have what others do. And, if your philosophy concerning romantic comedies at all aligns with mine, then I know what you’re thinking: We’ve seen it all before. But believe you me, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

As mentioned, Annie (Kristen Wiig) is seriously down and out, which can mostly be attributed to her lazy self pity. Since her bakery business went under, she works a dead-end job behind a jewelry counter. Since she doesn’t want to put the time in to find a proper man, she answers late-night calls to her douche bag man toy (Jon Hamm). And on and on. But once her best friend (Maya Rudolph) announces her engagement, Annie puts her problems aside to deliver the perfect pre-wedding festivities with a newly-assembled collection on bridesmaids.

There is no better compliment to pay a comedy than that of lost time. To explain: when you see a comedy in the theatre – a good comedy, that is – you may be fortunate enough to come across a scene that is so hysterical, that the audience’s laughter completely drowns out the film’s dialogue. To say that I lost time in Bridesmaids is a gross understatement. For example, I couldn’t for the life of me tell you what was said during the scene in which the gals attempt to pick a bridesmaid dress for the wedding. Five minutes, completely lost through gasps of breath and streaming tears of laughter.

Taking full, but not overly crude, liberties with its R rating, Wiig and writing partner Annie Mumolo have drafted a script that makes for the best comedy in recent memory, not to mention the best Judd Apatow-produced feature since, well… possibly ever. But there’s something else here, too.

Bridesmaids manages to do something that nearly all other romantic comedies ignore: make its characters human. Usually, the new love interest of the main character would be played by someone like, say, Jon Hamm. A perfect-looking man tailored specifically to sweep our hurting dame off her feet. But really, how often does a lady nab the “perfect” guy? Instead, Bridesmaids casts actors that actually look like, and share faults with, normal people. The groom is slightly overweight, the roommates are oddly shaped, the men have receding hairlines, the women have imperfect skin; it all accumulates to a glorious breath of fresh air. Finally, a comedy that actually casts people who look, and act, like people we know.

Wiig has stolen scenes in a number of films including Knocked Up, Adventureland, and Extract, and basically owned Saturday Night Life since she debuted in 2005. And although she’s mostly been on the sidelines of feature films, her acting and writing in Bridesmaids should finally catapult her to the A list status she so deserves. She’s the funniest woman in the business (sorry, Ms. Fey), and it’s time to seriously let her freak flag fly.

Now, while I love Kristen Wiig (and believe me, I love Kristen Wiig), the real showstopper in Bridesmaids is Melissa McCarthy, who plays the groom’s overweight, tell-it-like-it-is sister.
It is no exaggeration to say that every line out of McCarthy’s mouth is better than the one before. In a cast of very talented individuals, McCarthy (whom I’ve only seen in seldom minor roles, but I’m told is great on CBS’ Mike & Molly) manages to steal every single one of her scenes, to the point that it should warrant her an Academy Award nomination.

Take, for example, a scene late in the film, in which Wiig and McCarthy sit on a couch and contemplate all of life’s troubles. At the start of the scene, McCarthy spins into a hilarious bit of physical comedy, before delivering a slew of perfectly-timed lines. But then something strange happens. Subtly, McCarthy smoothly slips into a monologue that is so tender and earnestly heartfelt, it’s enough to make the toughest viewer misty eyed. The scene immediately shifts from being insanely funny to genuinely emotional. I’ve never experienced that during a movie before. A

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Conspirator

The Conspirator, Robert Redford’s new, never dull film, tells the story of the confusing, revenge-seeking aftermath following the assassination of President Lincoln.  Or, more specifically, the trail of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), who ran a boarding house once occupied by tenants later involved in the plot to kill the President.  And because Mary’s son, John, who was said to be John Wilkes Booth’s right hand man, is nowhere to be found, officials want justice in the form of a hanging Mary.  The innocence of Mary doesn’t initially concern her young attorney (James McAvoy).  He’s more focused on making sure Mary receives a fair trial, when the powers that be demand anything but.

Don’t worry, the verbose, historical plot is executed in a way that hardly appears verbose and overbearingly historical.  Basically, the film isn’t muddled with obscure historical references and the characters don’t spit out more old English dialogue than is absolutely necessary.  It’s an easy film to take, and one, I suspect, people who aren’t great fans of historical dramas (guilty) will enjoy.

Much can be credited to this, including Mr. Redford, whose swift pace, warm photography, and careful casting allows The Conspirator to rank among his best films as a director.

At the heart of The Conspirator is a breezy, well-informed screenplay by James D. Solomon.  Solomon’s script is the rarest of things, moving along unsuspectingly without lending itself to cheap tricks and dime store twists.  As Mary Surratt’s court proceedings progress, the political corruption of not letting her stand a fair trial becomes absurd.  And soon, without us even realizing, we aren’t concerned with whether Mary is guilty or not, but rather, if the verdict she faces will be true justice.

Gus Van Sant often speaks of the importance of casting every role, no matter how small.  Whether they are Will Hunting or the dude at the back of the bar with one line, every casting decision needs to be deliberate and precise. 

I bring this up because that is exactly what Redford has done here.  Every speaking part in The Conspirator is done with such conviction by the perfect actor, that it is impossible to point out a weak link.  The call sheet of bit players reads like a dream list of character actors.  Shea Whigham, David Andrews, Stephen Root, and Jim True-Frost are all effective in their brief roles.  Supporting roles are cast invaluably to Colm Meaney, Danny Huston, Tom Wilkinson, Kevin Kline and Evan Rachel Wood.  While James McAvoy and Robin Wright perfectly fall into the lead characters.
Wright deserves specific praise.  In what quickly turns into the first truly great acting performance of the year, Robin Wright does wonders with Mary Surratt.  She keeps her moving, both physically and emotionally.  Her subtle facial and neck ticks seamlessly display her hidden guilt.  But guilt from what?  Did she know her son was plotting the assassination of the President?  Did she know he was plotting his kidnapping?  Did she know anything?  Those questions, I suspect, were the basis for Wright’s exercise in breaking down her character.  Whatever method Wright lent to her role, it worked, flawlessly. 

The Conspirator is a damn fine film, the best I’ve seen so far this year.  My only fear is that, given it’s less than modest box office gross, The Conspirator will soon fade from the minds of voting members of the Academy, just as quickly as it is fading from our theatres.  A-

Thor

I often say that a film - usually a blockbuster film - is “exactly what you think it’s going to be,” or “good for what it is.”  And let’s be honest, those are just polite euphemisms for what those films really are, which is throwaway popcorn garbage.  And Thor, the latest addition to what will eventually lead to every fanboy’s wetdream à la The Avengers, is a perfect case in point.

Well, for the most part.  Fair is fair so let’s be fair.

Thor is directed by Kenneth Branagh, a real pro best know directorially for his adaptations of Henry V and Hamlet (his Frankenstein with De Niro was pretty badass, too).  Branagh has said in interviews that he’s been a longtime fan of Thor, the comic, and jumped at the chance to helm Thor, the flick.  Fair enough.

I mention this because Thor, at least in its Earth-set scenes, makes every effort to be humorous, which Branagh never has a problem accomplishing, given his often-dense source material.  Sometimes the Thor gimmicks work (mostly from the mouth of the great Clark Gregg, reprising his S.H.I.E.L.D. commander role from the Iron Man films) and other times the humor falls flat.

Now, what else can I positively say without stretching?  Aussie Chris Hemsworth appears to be having a blast as Thor, which is fun for the audience.  But the rest of the cast, including talents such as Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgård, Idris Elba and Anthony Hopkins, are all phoning their roles in. 

And that’s a problem, because for a movie that relies so heavily on its uniquely incomprehensible vernacular, acting kind of, you know, matters.

If you’re unfamiliar with the comics, as I am, Thor is set in two worlds.  On his home planet (or “realm,” as he calls it) Thor is a mighty warrior and soon-to-be king.  But after getting greedy with bloodlust, his angry poppa (Hopkins) banishes Thor to Earth, stripping him of his powers. On Earth, Thor runs into a few scientists (Portman and Skarsgård) who are studying electromagnetic something or others, and explains to them how he desperately needs to get back home.  You see, Thor’s younger brother is being all sneaky and trying to gain the throne and… oh, seriously, who gives a shit?

In short, Thor does well when it’s on Earth, but its home realm scenes (which occupy nearly half the film) are so stale and boring, I wondered to myself if a person can actually become dumber from watching a movie.

Thor is the latest lead-in to Joss Whedon’s The Avengers due exactly a year from now.  Given the cast, which so far includes Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man), Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye), Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow), Mark Ruffalo (The Hulk), and Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury), I’m actually excited to see it.  But am I the only one who wants to skip the Thor and Captain America foreplay and just jump right into the main showdown?  D

Monday, May 9, 2011

2011 Summer Movie Preview

I realized a month or so ago that I have virtually no interest in seeing most of the blockbuster films that millions will flock to over these next few months.  I will, of course, see them anyway, but rather than giving you plot details about Transformers 3 (noise, special effects, screaming, bad acting, noise, special effects…), here’s a brief summation of a few indie flicks that deserve to be sought out this summer.  And, admittedly, a few pricey ones that will be worthwhile, too.  Click a film’s title to be linked to its respective trailer.

(Oh, and at the bottom of the post, you can find a Summer Movie calendar of all major film releases, because, in the words of Frank T.J. Mackey, that’s just the kind of prick I am.)

Bridesmaids – May 13
Because Kristen Wiig is the funniest person working in television right now, and what better way to flex her film star status than with a movie she wrote herself?

Midnight in Paris – May 20 
Because it’s directed by Woody Allen, who, confessedly, has been hit or miss for the past few decades.  Allen releases a new film every year, and I’m there for every one of them, Owen Wilson be damned.

The Tree of Life – May 27 
Because it’s uhh… The Tree of Life.  Duh.  I’ve followed Terrence Malick to the Dakota Badlands, a heavenly Texas wheat field, a monstrous hill in Guadalcanal, and to a new world.  The fact that I have no earthly idea what The Tree of Life is about (nor do I want to) matters none.  I’d follow Malick to hell, for I know he’d make it interesting.

Beginners – June 3 
Because the trailer looks endearing.  Christopher Plummer looks hilarious.  Ewan McGregor looks heartfelt.  And that chick from Inglourious Basterds looks, well, how she looks.

Film Socialisme – June 3 
Because what’s it all about?  Who the hell knows.  But as long as Jean-Luc Godard keeps making films, I’m going to keep seeing them.

Super 8 – June 10
Because it’s a blockbuster that I don’t know anything about, thanks much in part to its convincingly ambiguous trailer.

The Trip – June 10 
Because I haven’t laughed that hard at a trailer in a while.  And because I’m willing to give Michael Winterbottom a chance after his disastrous The Killer Inside Me.

A Better Life – June 24 
Because the trailer looks horribly corny and didactic.  Because it looks like it’ll contain plot twists coming a mile away.  Because it’s directed by the dude who directed New Moon (sigh).  But, also, because… what if?  What if the Mexican dude from Weeds actually nails it?  What if it all works? 

Because I’m fascinated with journalism, yes.  But also because it shows that The New York Times isn’t safe.  And if they aren’t safe, then you can beat your ass no other paper is.

One Day – July 8 
Because it’s directed by Lone Scherfig, who did wonders with An Education.  Yes, it stars Anne Hathaway.  Yes, she as a British accent.  Yes, the accent sounds awful in the trailer.  We’ll see.

Project Nim – July 8
Because it’s the latest documentary from James Marsh, who took my breath away with Man on Wire.   Project Nim tells the story of a chimp who was raised by humans, to see if he could effectively communicate with humans once he reached adulthood.  I’ve heard that the film is “comic, revealing, and profoundly upsetting.” Enough for me.

Tabloid – July 15
Because it’s a documentary about former Miss Wyoming and the Case of the Manacles Mormon.  Oh, and it’s directed by Errol Morris, who is incapable of making a film that is anything less than compelling.

Another Earth – July 22 
Because if it pulls off such a high concept – that there is an alternative Earth and people, for the proper fee, can travel there and live in an alternative reality – it could be as great as Children of Men, and the like.

Because the R-rated romantic comedy is so rare, it deserves to be given a chance.  Also, Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis will make a great pair

Because Steve Carrell seems to be toning it down, while Ryan Gosling seems to be toning it up.  Also… Emma Stone. And Julianne Moore.  And Marisa Tomei.

Higher Ground – Aug. 12
Because it stars, and is directed by, Vera Farmiga, who I’d watch in anything.  While the plot – about one woman’s struggle with her faith – sounds bland, Farmiga is a brilliant actress, and I’m curious what she can do behind the camera.

Our Idiot Brother – Aug. 26
Because it’s Paul Rudd doing… Paul Rudd.  Which can either work well, or fall flat.  But with Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel and Emily Mortimer playing his sisters, I’m game.


2011 Summer Movie Calendar
Titles link you to trailers.  Dates subject to change.

May 13

May 20

May 26

May 27

June 3

June 10

June 17

June 24

July 1

July 8

July 15
Tabloid

July 22

July 29

Aug. 5

Aug. 12
Higher Ground

Aug. 19
Spy Kids 4: All the Time in the World

Aug. 26

The Beaver

A very peculiar thing happened to me about halfway through The Beaver.  As I sat in the theatre, staring intently at the movie screen, I suddenly snapped out of a trance I didn't even know I was in.  I took a moment to figure out what the hell had happened.  And then it hit me.  At some point during the first 45 minutes of the film, I had taken a serious interest in the movie and its characters.  Simply put: I was, beyond all reasonable doubt, enjoying myself.

I preface this with certain air of skepticism because, well… take your pick.  It’s a film that stars Mel Gibson, who, at this point, will probably be forever remembered more for his actions off screen than on.  It’s called… The Beaver, which most anyone could have a field day with given its common association with the female reproductive organ.  It has one of the most unintentionally hysterical trailers of recent memory, and… you get it.  Basically, The Beaver had nothing going for it.  But I’m here to tell you (again, behind all reasonable doubt) that The Beaver is not only worthwhile, but pretty damn engrossing too.

If you haven’t been privy to the film’s trailer, or read a basic plot description, then bear with me, as I know how ridiculous it sounds.  Walter Black, the CEO of a slumming toy company, is depressed.  He pops pills, shrinks his head on couches, sleeps incessantly, barely speaks, and so on.  The dude is down and out, with not a clue why.  After two years of this, two major things happen: Walter’s unwaveringly patient wife kicks him out, and he discovers a puppet beaver in a dumpster.  Soon enough, he’s a new man, full of life with a toy beaver on his right hand.  He moves back home, regains control of his company, hits the morning show circuit, and so on.  But there’s just one minor setback: Walter can only communicate through the beaver, using an infectiously catchy cockney accent.  He refers to himself in the third person, takes it in the shower, and even kisses his wife with it.  Yeah, it’s weird, but it’s working, so… roll with it?

And that’s just the thing, if you as an audience member can roll with the premise of the beaver as well as most of the characters in the film do, then you should be good.  Me?  I decided to cut Mr. Gibson some slack and judge his performance based solely on his performance.  The result is, in no uncertain terms, rather astounding.  Gibson does wonders as Walter.  You can credit Gibson's faults as a man for allowing him to so perfectly encapsulate the paralytic nature of depression on screen, and so be it.  Who cares?  We’re here for the performance, and damn if Gibson doesn’t deliver a surefire one.

Helping him achieve this, exponentially, is his director, co star, and perhaps most importantly, real life friend, Jodie Foster.  As Walter’s wife, Foster arguably has the most challenging role in the film.  She has to play off Walter’s wavering philosophies, and do it in a way that’s believable.  Foster is the audience’s compass; if she failed, the film would have failed. 

Her role as a director, it must be said, is nowhere near as flashy as her acting.  Her camera work is sturdy, her music is helpful, her editing is precise.  Basically… it’s pretty standard stuff.

Don’t get me wrong, The Beaver is by no means perfect.  There are uninteresting subplots (the film spends a little too much time with Walter’s teenage son), and the script veers slightly off course toward the end, but it still makes for an enjoyable experience.  For example, there is a scene late in the third act, which I won’t reveal, that runs entirely too long and turns unintentionally satirical.  But, because of Gibson’s performance, the faults in the script are easily overlooked.

Walter Black is the perfect role for Mel Gibson right now. Should this end up being Gibson’s final starring role, well, then, it’s a hell of a swan song to close the curtain on.  B+

Friday, May 6, 2011

Nine Worthy, non-Animated, G-rated Films

A few weeks ago, as I found myself once again mesmerized by Werner Herzog’s contemporary masterpiece, Encounters at the End of the World, a random thought popped into my head:  What would a film like this be rated?  I soon discovered that Herzog’s documentary about human life on Antarctica is rated G, which, despite some brief interview dialogue about murder, isn’t too much of a surprise.

But it got me to thinking: what other great, non-animated, non-family oriented films are rated G?  The following list is not meant to provoke shock reactions (although, yes, it is inconceivable that David Lynch has made a G-rated film, and a great one at that) but rather to entice interest.

Note: While the MPAA rating system was officially created in 1968, the rating system as we know it today wasn’t fully established until 1990.  Point being, even if some of the titles below were released before 1968, the MPAA has since officially rated them G.

The Longest Day (1962)
The G-rated war film isn’t as rare as you’d think.  Tora! Tora! Tora!, The Green Berets and many more are all considered, by the MPAA anyway, to be fun for the whole family.  This D-Day epic, starring pretty much every famous white actor of the 40s and 50s, may not be the most realistic war film ever made (Saving Private Ryan this is not) but it carries enough star power to last through its laborious running time. 

A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
The ingenious mockumentary starring The Beatles in the height of Beatlemania, is a real breeze.  From its opening chase scene to its plentiful musical performances, there isn’t a single cause why people of all ages can’t enjoy this flick.  There’s a reason Roger Ebert said, “After more than three decades, [A Hard Day’s Night] has not aged and is not dated; it stands outside its time, its genre and even rock. It is one of the great life-affirming landmarks of the movies.”

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
The best film of Stanley Kubrick’s career (and of the 60s in general), is a G-rated, mind boggling masterpiece.  For a film whose most violent scene is an ape beating another ape to death, it’s not very surprising that 2001 is rated G.  No matter.  Kubrick’s methodic, slow-paced, transformative film is a cerebral movie-watching experience if there ever was one, not to mention the most influential inclusion to the science fiction genre.  If you’ve never been privy to Kubrick’s groovy ride, then loosen up, sit down, and, as the tagline suggest, enjoy “The Ultimate Trip.”

True Grit (1969)
Apparently a film with a foul-mouthed, misogynistic, alcoholic main character is suitable for everyone.  But a movie containing a scene in which a teenage girl gets whipped repeatedly by a grown man?  Not to mention the copious amount of shootings and on-screen deaths?  It’s funny, the same MPAA that labeled the original True Grit as fun for the whole family, is the same organization that won’t let the soon to be King of England drop four consecutive F-bombs.  I suppose if The Duke were to be said King, everything would’ve been hunky, PG-13 friendly, dory.

Brian's Song (1971)
While it initially premiered as a Movie of the Week on ABC, the MPAA cited Brian’s Song – often dubbed as the film most likely to make grown men cry – with a G rating for its subsequent video release.  And while the film version of Brian Piccolo’s friendship with Gale Sayers, and Piccolo’s subsequent fight with terminal cancer, may come off as a little corny, it’s definitely enough to get the water works flowing.  Hell, even the line “I love Brian Piccolo,” made Turtle and Johnny Drama shed a few.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
Sure, this zany classic is a perfectly fitting G-rated movie.  But, seriously, am I the only one who was scared shitless by the tunnel scene as a kid?   The shrieking music, the speeding boat, the trippy lights, Gene Wilder’s exacerbated face; it’s as if everyone on set dropped a couple hits of acid before the director yelled action.  Come to think of it, the entire film plays out like one extended acid trip.  Regardless, I enjoy the ride, everytime.

The Straight Story (1999)
You wouldn’t think that the same warped brain behind Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr. could actually pull off a delightful G-rated flick.  But alas, David Lynch never ceases to amaze.  The Straight Story, Lynch’s most endearing film since his flawless Elephant Man, is a simple, true tale about an elderly fellow who traveled across the country on his lawnmower to reunite with his estranged brother.  The film is indeed simple (hence the title) but no less great.  Richard Farnsworth, in his final screen role, delivers a career-best performance, while cinematographer Freddie Francis and musician Angelo Badalamenti lend their exceptional skills to what turns out to be rather brilliant slice of Lynchian life.

The Winslow Boy (1999)
Just as shocking as David Lynch’s addition to the G rating is David Mamet, the contemporary master of profane and demeaning dialogue. Because, let’s be honest, no one says “fuck” like a Mamet character.  And watching The Winslow Boy, you can just picture Mamet sitting behind the camera, wearing a sly grin on his face, silently mocking the MPAA with his heartfelt, profanity-free film.  But, it must be said, while I thoroughly enjoyed The Winslow Boy as an exercise, it ain’t no fuckin’ Glengarry Glen Ross.

Encounters at the End of the World (2008)
Werner Herzog seems completely immune to most of the trivial aspects of life.  This notion rings exponentially true in the making of his films.  Documentary or narrative?  Fact or fiction? It matters not.  Life is all he’s concerned with.  He doesn’t fancy himself with large crews and detailed sets; he simply gets an idea, and goes with it.  In this case, Herzog traveled to Antarctica with only his cameraman to document the daily lives of people who inhabit the nearly isolated continent.  What he captures, incidentally, forms the film that Herzog was born to make.  Most of the people he comes across are nearly as eccentric as him, lending itself to some fascinating stories, not to mention breathtaking backdrops. This would be the perfect film to play silently at a dinner party on that brand new HDTV you bought.  Undeniably glorious.