Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year!!

Whether 2011 was good, okay, or bad, here's hoping the next 12 months are great for all of you!

Friday, December 30, 2011

Review: "The Artist"

It wasn't long ago that Martin Scorcese's Hugo, which worked in a bit of film history landed in theaters. Now, just weeks later, Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist has arrived, taking place roughly three decades later in time. Hugo uses modern technology (including 3D) to pay tribute to cinema's earliest films, while The Artist uses mostly old technology and technique. Surprisingly, the old fashioned film winds up as the superior film, and by quite some margin (remember, however, that I'm part of the small contingent who thought Hugo was a mess...).

And when I say that The Artist is old-fashioned, I really mean it. Though I'll assume that it was edited on digital (when was the last time a film was cut by hand...?), Hazanavicius hasn't just made a movie about the silent era, he's made a movie that belongs in that era, and I mean that as a compliment. Even the opening credits are done exactly in the style of the late 20s and early 30s. The director's latest, which picked up the Best Actor prize for its leading man back at Cannes, centers on George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a silent film superstar whose career is threatened by the dawn of sound.

The best thing about The Arist is that it keeps everything simple. The story is simple (it's basically Singin' in the Rain with a few big changes), the conflict is simple, and the emotions are simple. While this could have been the film's Achilles heel, Hazanavicius and company turn it into its greatest strength. The Artist is a sincere silent film, yet because it has been made just over 80 years since the start of the sound era, it has the ability to work as a standalone film and a tribute to those films. Dujardin perfectly captures Valentin's transition from a man on top of the world to a man faced with obsolescence practically over night. That he looks so much like a movie idol from the silent era only adds to the portrayal's effectiveness. Though he and co-star Berenice Bejo (also a delight to watch) speak many of their lines, only a few are transcribed on title cards, and Hazanavicius is wise in keeping the cards to a minimum. The actors' faces speak the emotions, even if we can't quite lip read everything they say.

But surely, this whole thing can't be silent, can it? Well, not exactly. There are a handful of sound effects in an excellent dream/nightmare sequence, and just a hint of spoken dialogue (where it comes in, I won't say). The only other sound, though, is Ludovic Bource's almost non-stop score. So despite bit parts played by John Goodman, James Cromwell, and Missi Pyle, the other true star of the film is Mr. Bource, whose music instills the whole film with a liveliness it may have completed lacked were the film 100% silent. The music is big, rich, and grand, and it always feels appropriate. In the two brief moments where the score vanishes, you instantly long for its return, and Hazanavicius knows exactly when to bring it back in. Guillaume Schiffman's rich, black and white cinematography is also aces, perfectly capturing the look and feel of old films without feeling creaky or stuffy.

So even though the story feels like it's about to wind down before introducing one last piece of drama, it's hard to go too hard on the film because Hazanavicius has pulled the whole thing off with such skill. Despite its simplicity, The Artist doesn't dumb itself down. The humor may be straightforward, but it feels authentic. Hazanavicius also handles the story's transition from light comedy to melodrama to the point where it feels seamless, rather than two films awkwardly stitched together, which easily could have been the case. Coupled with the score, and Dujardin and Bejo's performances, this result is one of the most delightful films of the year, as well as one of the best, capped off by a fantastic finale that ranks as one of the year's best scenes. So even though it may be silent, The Artist still manages to speak volumes.

Grade: A-

Review: "Weekend"

Two people meet. They talk, frivolously at first, as if the encounter could dissolve in a matter of minutes under the right circumstances. But something happens. There's a spark between them, and it pulls them both in deeper and deeper, through the good and the bad, all through their words and reactions. This is a set-up that has been used in any number of films, from Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise and Before Sunset to this year's Certified Copy.

These are films that, despite their narrative simplicity, perhaps even narrative non-existence, draw us in time and time again. They allow two people, often with just enough similarities and difference to create an engaging push-pull (without verging into Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? territory) dynamic that can be humorous, charming, unsettling, and powerful. But in keeping with the necessity of opposites, all of these films have always centered on male/female pairings. It would seem to be a requirement: it is, after all the biggest dividing line among our species. Surely it would be necessary for such a film to succeed. Enter Andrew Haigh's Weekend, the latest entry in the two-people-talking sub-genre, centered on two British men.

One night at a local gay club, Russell (Tom Cullen) hooks up with Glen (Chris New). The following morning, as the two are getting dressed, Russell goes through on a promise he made the night before: to participate in Glen's audio art project on sex (specifically, gay sex). And even in this first interaction, which merely involves Glen holding a recorder for Russell to speak to, Weekend makes its mark. Russell and Glen have barely been established as characters (especially the latter, who doesn't speak until the morning-after scene), yet Haigh and his actors manage to create a sense of chemistry with incredible immediacy, and it all feels completely natural. And as the pair's interactions - which, in a break from tradition, involve several quick periods of separation - move from the clinical distance of the interview to themselves and their lives, the richness of Weekend only deepens.

Perhaps its greatest asset is that it refuses to box Russell and Glen into types. Yes, the former believes in the possibility of relationships while the latter is hesitant about the idea, but the two have enough about them that's similar to avoid feeling like we're dealing with cartoonish opposites. Haigh has created two very full characters, and he allows them to act like characters. As such, the film's weakest moments come when the pair address social issues directly, instead of ruminating on their more centralized, specific perspectives. It's in those moments that Weekend feels like it might become a "gay movie" instead of just, well, a movie. Cullen and New's performances, thankfully, transcend these little bumps along the way. Reception has tilted in favor of Cullen (the film is oriented around his character), but I'm going to have to cast my vote for New. The actor possesses a quiet fire in him that clashes with Cullen's more mellow, downcast looks, which sometimes (and by "sometimes" I mean once or twice...) come across as unintentionally dopey rather than withdrawn or shy.

The only major issue I have to take with Weekend is that it actually picks one of the two men to fixate on. Russell is the first and last person we see in the film, and despite Glen's near-equal screen time, this aspect leaves him feeling more like a passerby in Russell's life, when the two ought to be equals under the narrative. It's this that perhaps makes Weekend fail to completely instill the level of heartbreak it's aiming for. Glen is an equal for so much of the film, but when the ending comes back around to being all about Russell, he starts to feel more like a device. It makes it feel like Russell is the only one who's truly changed by the encounter, and that he had less to give Glen than Glen had to give him, even though both affect each other equally.

Still, it's hard not to be impressed by the vast majority of Haigh's sophomore effort (regarding full length films; his first three films were shorts). Whatever my qualms with the film's resolution (though the very last scene is lovely), this is an impressive effort from an obviously talented writer/director. Despite the small budget, Haigh makes impressive use of the surroundings, working with DP Urzsula Pontikos to create oddly compelling imagery out of mundane architecture and landscapes. Haigh's sense of pacing is also quite refined, never allowing the story to ramble or drag. Ultimately, though, Weekend's success rests on the shoulders of the screenplay and the actors, and they carry it all as if it were light as air. In a year when frustrating sequels landed at the multiplex week after week, Weekend actually creates a set-up where one longs to see more of the main characters together. Like Jesse and Celine in Sunrise/Sunset, this is one pair that's more than earned a second chance at their relationship, as well as a second film.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Review: "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol"

Attention, Pirates of the Caribbean (and others), let Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol serve as an example that it is actually possible for an action/adventure franchise to improve with age. After two ho-hum adventures in the 90s, the Tom Cruise-led spy series went into hibernation, only to re-emerge in 2006 in the surprisingly rousing Mission Impossible 3, directed by J.J. Abrams. Now, almost six years later, the series has another entry, this time under the direction of Pixar alum Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille), and though it lacks the fine-tuned kineticism of Abrams' film, it still stands as an improvement over the first two films in the MI canon.

Opening an indeterminate amount of time after the Abrams film, Ghost Protocol finds Cruise's Ethan Hunt in a Serbian prison, while team mates Benji and Jane (Simon Pegg, returning, and Paula Patton, new) have just been struck by failure and tragedy in Budapest. After reconnecting, the group finds themselves blamed for an attack in Russia, resulting in the shut down of their organization, leaving the team with limited connections. At the same time, they must find a way to stop a nefarious terrorist (but really, is there any other kind?) from acquiring the launch codes to all of Russia's nuclear missiles.

When it comes to plot, Ghost Protocol is easily at its weakest. The opening of the story proper involves Hunt's team breaking him out of prison, and the feeling of the whole sequence lacks a sense of drive. By the time the narrative chessboard is properly sorted out and ready for play, it feels like too much time has been wasted on a plot that's not as complex as the runtime (2 hrs 15 min) would have you believe. All it does it tie back into a surprisingly important subplot that allows for the film's ending. On whole, it feels contrived, and not necessarily well-earned. Thankfully, the middle section of Bird's film is where everything actually comes together.

The Russian-set scenes are fun, and there's some decent humor drawn out of a clever device that Ethan and Benji use while infiltrating the Kremlin. But where the film finally hits its stride is in Dubai, with a massive string a set pieces and fight scenes staged in and around the Burj Dubai, aka the world's tallest building. When Hunt climbs out to scale the glass and steel exterior and the camera (on a crane) follows him out and hangs in the air, it's difficult not to tighten your grip on your armrests. And even when the Dubai scenes finally come to a climax set on the city streets during a sandstorm, the action still engages, despite the silliness of the set-up.

But Cruise isn't the only star. Pegg's Benji, previously used as Hunt's back up back at HQ, finally gets to play both sides of the field. Meanwhile, Paula Patton's Jane Carter adds some much-needed female punch to the proceedings, and emerges as one of the film's highlights. Last is Jeremy Renner as Brandt, an analyst with a (possibly) hidden agenda, who gradually gets his own moments to shine. If the film's conclusion is a little drawn-out, then, at least it's plenty of fun to watch. It may not match the previous film, but Ghost Protocol stands as proof that being an old franchise and being an outdated franchise aren't traits that have to walk hand in hand.

Grade: B-

The Netflix Files: December 19 - 25

Le Doulos (1962) dir. Jean-Pierre Melville:
One of the reknowned French director's best-loved noirs, this entry in the genre, Le Doulos features some stellar scenes amid a narrative that drifts just a hair too long. Despite an excellent, bleak ending, there are moments along the way where the narrative is in need of a little tightening later on. Still, it's hard to overlook Melville's gifts as a director and story teller. His cast is strong, and when scenes really need to connect (albeit in a very distant manner), Melville hits a home run. As Silien, Melville regular Jean-Paul Belmondo turns in a reliably solid performance, playing one of many two-faced characters throughout the story. As in most of his films, however, the true star remains the man behind the camera, for good reason.

Grade: B/B+

Misfits - Season 1 (2009) created by Howard Overman:
Consider Misfits the antithesis of NBC's short-lived Heroes. The NBC show introduced a large ensemble filled with startling powers and a narrative that involved the fate of the world. Misfits, on the other hand, is focused on a very small group, and though there are struggles, everything is relatively self-contained. After a group of teens sentenced to community service get caught in a freak lightning storm, they discover that they've been given various powers. Though Misfits is generally well-made (ignoring the horrible desaturated color correction that makes even plant life look grey), it does sometimes suffer from a sense of aimlessness. The devotion to the limited set of characters is nice, though it's honestly not as deep or insightful about youth culture as it would like to believe. Still, the actors are quite engaging to watch (except for fangirl favorite Robert Sheehan, whose character I just want to punch over and over again), especially Lauren Socha's feisty, profane Kelly. Now that season 1 is out of the way, however, it will be interesting to see if Misfits can try its hand at something more ambitious, without stretching itself too far.

Grade: B-

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas!

Happy holidays, and happy movie-going!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

One step forward, two steps backward: Trailers to ring in 2012

Even though we're still dealing with awards season craziness, it's never too soon to start looking past the acceptance speeches and trophies, and into what cinema holds in store for us in the new year. Over the past two weeks, three trailers have emerged for three very big potential blockbusters. One is a sequel, while the other two are prequels (more or less). And all three have one thing in common: insanely high expectations.

When your previous film develops rabid fanboys, becomes a massive box office success, and scores an actor an Oscar, all while being a super hero movie, the next installment is under scrutiny from day one. That's certainly been the case with Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises, the director's final contribution to Batman's cinematic legacy. Everything has been picked apart, and concerns have been raised regarding everything from casting to costume choices. With the release of the first full trailer, however, Nolan's latest is finally putting some (or at least, my) worries to rest. The trailer covers quite a lot thematically without spelling out the specific direction of the plot. It also gives us some nice looks at Tom Hardy as Bane, and Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle/Catwoman, who shakes off her rom-com personality to inject a surprising amount of menace. The actions scenes look intense, and the idea of Gotham actually falling into chaos (a fulfillment of the Arkham breakout in Batman Begins) looks like an interesting way to bring Nolan's trilogy full-circle. Oh, and the creepy chanting that plays over the last half of the footage? Perfection.

Trailer Grade: A-

Next we have Prometheus, Ridley Scott's long-gestating prequel-but-it-sort-of-isn't to Alien. Boasting a stellar ensemble, the film's entire look is fantastic, and I can't wait to see more footage. We need another well made, big budget sci-fi flick to counterbalance the likes of Transformers. That eerie, monolithic face statue, as well as that strange crescent structure are enough to get me hooked from a visual standpoint. Even more interesting will be to see the creation footage that Scott and crew were reportedly filming in Iceland. On a nerdier note, it will be interesting to see how the film plays off of its mythically based title. Given the film's tag line, it's probably meant to be a rather dark variation. Scott has been a bit of a slump that past few years, but here's hoping that a return to sci-fi will help him return to his best. Love that gradual reveal of the title too.

Trailer Grade: B+

Finally, we come to the most troubled of the three: Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The first of two films covering the novel (part two hits in 2013), the film has struggled to move ahead with production. Guillermo Del Toro was originally set to direct, before financial and legal issues delayed the start of shooting so much that he bailed. Jackson is back in the chair, which is reasurring that at least it will be the exact same vision as before. Let's just hope it doesn't end up feeling, stale, though. The footage is relatively simple, not showing anything epic, and focusing more on the characters and the lighter nature of the narrative. A lot of the footage still needs to be color-graded, but overall I'm very hopeful that the long-delayed return to Middle Earth will be worth it. The film is being shot on cutting-edge technology at the highest frame rate ever for a major motion picture. How this will affect the film, for better or for worse, remains to be seen, but at the very least it will help the film feel slightly different. Now if only we can get around to seeing some footage of Smaug...

Trailer Grade: B

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Review: "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"

When it was announced that Tomas Alfredson's vampire tale Let the Right One In (2008) would receive an English language remake, cinephiles were left scratching their heads. Alfredson's Swedish film was an outstanding entry in the vampire genre, one filled with memorable sequences and images, and a climax that left many shuddering in their seats. So even though Matt Reeves' remake (titled Let Me In) was generally well-received, the question still remained: how is the remake justified other than as a means to get money out of those audience members with a fear of subtitles? At the end of the day, there really wasn't. Mr. Reeves' film is not a bad; it's actually nicely done. The only problem is that it feels redundant, as though Alfredson's excellent take was being pushed aside after not even being given proper recognition. The question remains, then, is there ever a time when an English-language remake or re-adaptation is actually worth more than a few extra dollars? In the case of David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the answer is a resounding 'yes'.

The film, a re-adaptation of the first installment of Stieg Larrson's hugely successful crime trilogy, isn't based off of anything remarkable. Though the trilogy does paint an intriguing picture of a highly corrupt Sweden, it also suffered its share of flaws that kept it from rising above rather pedestrian levels. The one aspect the stories have always had going for them, the real draw, comes down to one character: bisexual punk-hacker Lisbeth Salander. Previously embodied by Noomi Rapace, the role is now brought to life by Rooney Mara, who made her mark last year in the opening scene of Fincher's The Social Network. The question, then, was whether she would be able to move from that bit part to a leading role, and she has. Her stoic, steely gazes never grow repetitive or lazy, even though there's not as much meaning behind them as the story (or the series' die hard fans) would like us to believe. Mara is prettier and more delicate in appearance than Rapace, but this only makes her more effective when she unleashes her rage. She is, like just about everything else in this version of the story, superior to the Swedish counterpart, even if the character remains little more than a very cool idea.

For, like Mara's performance, Dragon Tattoo's story and characters are not exactly filled with great depth. Remove Lisbeth from the equation, and you have the potential to end up with little more than CSI: Stockholm. Thankfully, with the script from Steven Zaillian and under David Fincher's direction, the story reaches what is likely its best iteration possible. After a very brief opening scene, the film plunges us into a three minute credits sequence set to Karen O and Trent Reznor's cover of "Immigrant Song," filled with constantly shifting, inky images. It's dark, grungy, and weird, and it gets the film off on the right foot, even if the film itself never quite reaches the same high. It's telling, then, that the film's best moment comes straight from Fincher's mind, and not the source material. That said, in returning to the serial killer/crime genre (previously: Se7en, Zodiac), Fincher's meticulous gifts have elevated Larrson's story and characters as much as he can, all while making the whole affair come across as infinitely more cinematic than any of the Swedish versions.

A good deal of this has to do with Fincher's outstanding team of collaborators. First and foremost is cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, who lights and colors the scenes in a way that makes the slightly washed-out nature of the digital photography still feel rich, as opposed to drained. Scoring duo Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (who picked up the Original Score Oscar for The Social Network) return as well. Originally stating that they would try a more traditional, orchestral score, it's clear that the pair changed their minds later. Their music, more than fitting for the style, is filled with strange and ominous electronic sounds that only make the film, even in its more mundane moments, feel absorbing. How well individual pieces will hold up on their own is questionable, but when it comes to working with the images, it's just about flawless work. There's also the editing duo of Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, who picked up the Best Editing Oscar for The Social Network, who help piece the film together beautifully, accentuating Fincher's more fluid pacing. These three elements come together beautifully in a near-wordless stretch where Lisbeth and Mikael, in different locations, finally realize who the hidden villain of the mystery is. So even though a great deal of the plot is burdened with exposition, scenes like this help restore a sense of story telling order.

One of the story's biggest hurdles is that it keeps Mara's Lisbeth and Daniel Craig's Mikael Blomqvist apart for such a long time. Here, however, the pair's time apart, though still a little too long, feels more purposeful and elegantly composed. Zaillian's script also makes the smart decision to show Lisbeth doing some research on an enemy of Blomqvist's before they even meet. It ties in nicely to how the script has changed the ending, and prevents the resolution of that subplot from feeling like a really cheap form of deus ex machina. Additionally, Zaillian's script makes changes to the two leading characters, both of which work for the better. Lisbeth, while still cold and reserved, has the occasional flash of vulnerability, which adds a shade or two of characterization missing from the Swedish film, even though it's nothing remarkable. More impressive is how Zaillian has handled Blomqvist. In both the books and the Swedish films, the character has stood out as a painfully obvious author-insert (Larrson himself was something of a crusading journalist/womanizer). This version of Blomqvist, despite sleeping with two women over the course of the story, still feels more fitting for the story. In making Mikael less of a ladies man while casting the much more charismatic Daniel Craig (although just about anyone would have been better than Mikael Nyqvist) in the role, the character finally achieves the right balance. Other roles, filled out by Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgaard, Geraldine James, and Joely Richardson, are all nicely handled, even when considering their relatively limited screen time.

The biggest problem, as stated before, is simply the source material. Zaillian's alteration to the ending allows for resolution and adds a different angle to Lisbeth and Mikael's relationship that can be explored for the sequels (Fincher will likely direct the second and third films back-to-back, at a still-undecided time). A pity, then, that he didn't have the courage to depart further from the source material still. Had Zaillian, under Fincher's guidance, taken the characters and overarching plot, but completely reworked the scene-by-scene story, we could have had a truly brilliant entry in the cinematic crime genre. What we're left with however, is still worthy of admiration. The cast is game, the direction beautiful, and the artistic and technical aspects flawless. And most importantly, the film, through its differences in narrative and in style, feels justified. I'm not going to deny that making an English-language version of the film was a cash grab. It absolutely was. Thankfully, this is one cash grab that, despite its limitations, rises above its origins to the point where it deserves to become the definitive version of this story through level after level of icy Scandinavian hell. In Fincher (and Mara, and Craig, etc...) We Trust.

Grade: B/B+

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Review: "Poetry"

For the past few years, South Korean cinema has made its mark with gritty crime stories and outlandish horror thrillers. For the most part, they’ve been quite the success stateside, at least critically if not commercially. This has, however, created an unfortunate stereotype around Korean films: that they must, in some form or another, feature grisly violence. But even though Chang-dong Lee’s Poetry involves a death as part of a subplot, it couldn’t be any further from the crime or horror trends that have swept up his contemporaries.

Though the film opens with a suicide, Lee’s film is not meant to accelerate one’s pulse. The death that begins the film plays but a small part in the limited, yet languid tale of self-discovery. Yang Mija (Jeong-hie Yun) is an elderly woman living in a small town with her grandson. Upon discovering that she has early signs of Alzheimer’s, she forgoes treatment, and enrolls herself in a poetry class, only to soon discover a rather unpleasant secret in her family.

As a story, the whole thing moves at a pace that borders on glacial. Lee is clearly striving to let the story unfold at a pace that suits its protagonist. Yet even though this leads to any number of spots where you may wander off, the piece as a whole does build to a quietly satisfying conclusion. At the same time, I wish he had kept the pacing the same but simply made the film about 30 minutes shorter; the same emotional goal could have easily been reached. I don’t mean to sound like a stereotypical member of the instant gratification generation, and I love many long films. But those films seem to earn it. With Poetry, the pacing, which was obviously meant to be reserved and contemplative, risks dipping into boredom. Lee never allows this to happen, but Poetry does, especially in its first half, teeter dangerously on the border between methodical and dull.

What holds it all together, though, is Ms. Yun, who gives a lovely, understated, and graceful performance as a woman trying to find herself in a world that is starting to leave her behind. This isn’t a terribly flashy piece of acting, but Yun is always interesting to watch, never letting her character’s out-of-touch nature become cloying or irritating. Mija is not a cartoon of an old woman; she is a fully developed human being who demands our attention, even though her goal – to break through her creative struggle and write a poem – may seem trivial. The screenplay lets this element develop so naturally that by the time it comes to a close, it’s hard not to be touched, albeit from a distance.

The key subplot, which involves Mija’s grandson, is the element that doesn’t quite gel, at least when it comes down to specifics. Given the severity of what is going on in the background, the reactions from just about everyone involved don’t seem strong enough. A different, less inflammatory secret (or at least one from further back in time) would have suited the movie’s aims better. What we’re left with never feels as though it reaches a proper resolution physically (though it does thematically).

But even though the film have its problems along the way, it is ultimately a journey worth taking. Yun’s delicate and beautiful performance is worth it, even though the film around her isn’t quite as well-executed. One can only hope that Mr. Lee and Ms. Yun will soon reunite on another project, one where director and actress are on the same level. The result, I imagine, would be cinematic poetry.

Grade: B/B-

Review: "Young Adult"

Over the course of his first three films, Jason Reitman explored three very different protagonists. First there was the charming big tobacco lobbyist in Thank You For Smoking, then the whip-smart pregnant teen in Juno, and finally the loner traveling corporate man in Up in the Air. Whatever their considerable differences, they at least shared one common trait, albeit in varying degrees: likeability. Sure, Eckhart's role in Smoking may be that of a man who sells poison, but by the story's end, he was a sympathetic character. This likeability, however, is where Reitman makes his biggest departure in his fourth film, Young Adult, which might feature the year's stand-out unlikeable protagonist (unless you're an avid hater of Margaret Thatcher and are still seething over the trailer for The Iron Lady).

Reuniting with Juno scribe Diablo Cody, Reitman's latest finds him returning to a female subject to scrutinize. She's Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), a ghost writer for a series of Gossip Girl-esque young adult novels that is about to reach its end. Upon receiving an email that her old flame Buddy (Patrick Wilson) and his wife have just had their first child, Mavis returns to her tiny hometown with the delusional hope that she can win Buddy back because they're "meant to be together."

As with Up in the Air, Reitman uses the opening sequence to (almost wordlessly) establish Mavis within the confines of her Minneapolis apartment. She drinks, has Diet Coke for breakfast, and is accustomed to one night stands. But something's different here, and not exactly in a good way. The opening act of Young Adult is missing a sharpness, both in writing and in editing that made Up in the Air demand our attention so immediately. Though Cody's screenplay is generally devoid of the hipster-y quotability of Juno, the flip side of this is that it often feels like a first draft. The result is that the first chunk of the story often feels burdened with weird moments filled with nothing but dead air. This may be an attempt to show how empty and aimless Mavis' life is, but the execution left me feeling more like it was simply a usually on-point director missing his mark.

That the film gets off to such a rocky start is a shame, because Theron is clearly giving the role her all, even when the script feels like giving her only the thinnest of "nasty bitch" material to work with. The constant looks of emptiness and disgust Theron throws around should provide a constant jolt of dark humor, but more often then not they feel like wasted opportunities, because the character is a bitch simply because, well, she just is, okay???. But unlike, say, Shame, which never explored the source of Brandon's addiction, Young Adult never gives Mavis enough of an arc to make the time spent with the character feel fully earned. One could argue that she has something of a realization about how rotten she is, but it's not enough to make a solid case that she really changes, or will change. And if Mavis' stagnation is supposed to somehow be the point, Cody seems unconcerned with sharpening the point of the whole piece.

But even though the point may not quite be there, there's at least some material that's totally worth it. The film isn't exactly the dark comedy it's billed as (though it's dark), but a few moments do earn a decent, wicked laugh. As the story (which clocks in at a clean 90 minutes) moves through its acts, the dead air starts to fade away, and the character interactions feel better distilled, devoid of unintentional awkwardness or narrative flab. Largely, this is due to Theron's work as Mavis, which is so committed that you wish Cody and Reitman had taken a few months to really punch up the script so that the journey would be one that people recommend despite the protagonist's unlikeability. Instead, Young Adult leaves us with a decent enough film with a strong performance at its core. The work from other cast members, like Patton Oswalt, Wilson, and Collette Wolfe, is engaging, but not enough to really make a mark. The film is All About Mavis, but the problem is that Cody hasn't given the role quite enough meat, and the film suffers because of it, even though portions feel right on target. Young Adult is clearly meant to be an uncomfortable, darkly funny film, but at the end of the day it's neither uncomfortable nor darkly funny enough to really justify the journey it takes us on.

Grade: B-

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Netflix Files: December 12-17

Downton Abbey - Season 1 (2010) created by Julian Fellowes:Though he won an Oscar for his screenplay for Gosford Park (2001), writer Julian Fellowes clearly wasn't done exploring the upstairs/downstairs dynamic he brought so vividly to life almost 10 years ago. Opening in 1912 with the sinking of the Titanic, Downton Abbey focuses on the Crawley family and their staff. The tragedy at sea has left the family (and therefore, the property of Downton) without a male heir. The search for a husband for eldest daughter Mary (Michelle Dockery), however, is but one of any number of juicy plots, some sustained, others wrapped up in individual episodes. And even though the overwhelming majority of the action takes place inside Downton, the writing and pacing are swift, constantly bringing characters in and out of focus, so as to never become dependent on any specific plot thread to the point of detriment. Performances all around are excellent, though the most fun comes from watching Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton take understated swipes at each other. It's all good fun, some of it verging on overwrought, but at the end of the day, it's an engaging look at the struggles of two very different levels of wealth and power in a time when those two factors meant just about everything.

Grade: B+/A-

Review: "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows"

When I reviewed Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes (2009), I made a remark that his set-up of the character followed a path eerily similar to that of Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins (2005). Both films took a classic character and reinvented them, while squaring them off with a relatively mundane antagonist. Both films also concluded with a set-up for a sequel that would introduce the hero's most famous villain. For Batman, it was the Joker, as embodied by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (2008); for Holmes, it's Prof. Moriarty. Both characters represent the ultimate challenges for their respective protagonists. They are, essentially, their doubles; the corrupted versions of the heroes had they fallen into a path of darkness. The big difference, at least on screen, is that where Mr. Nolan's sequel was a grander, richer, darker film, Mr. Ritchie's follow-up gives us more of the Holmes that audiences loved two years ago, only with diminished results.

Opening some vague amount of time after the '09 film, A Game of Shadows quickly plunges us into a world uncomfortably close to war. A series of assassinations and bombings have put mainland Europe on edge. For Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.), however, it can all be traced to Prof. Moriarty (Mad Men's Jared Harris), even though he doesn't have the concrete evidence to prove it. At the same time, Holmes must deal with the potential loss of his closest ally, Dr. Watson (Jude Law), who is about to get married. Things change, however, when Holmes and Moriarty start to clash, and the pair must find a way to prevent the Professor from setting the entire continent ablaze with war.

Yet whatever fun there was in Ritchie's take on the classic Conan Doyle character in the first go-round suddenly seems depleted here. The opening sequences, which reintroduce Rachel McAdams' Irene Adler, fail to stick, even though they directly involve Moriarty himself. Rather than advance the world he established last time, Ritchie appears to have become lazy here, and the flow of scenes often feels like it's missing a certain extra oomph. Even the fight scenes, which start off with Holmes playing through possible scenarios in his head before progressing to the real action, don't inspire the same level of fun they did just two years ago. While the portions that take place in Holmes' mind remain effective (and they lead to a fun twist on the concept at the conclusion), the actual fights feel sloppily staged and edited. When showing the nuts and bolts of how things work in drastic close-ups and slow motion, whether it's a fight scene or the firing of a machine gun, A Game of Shadows has some spark to it. But when it gets around to the more mundane parts of its action, the staging and choreography seem to vanish and become replaced with rapid-fire cuts.

This would be a smaller complaint were there not so many other unfortunate issues. The biggest problem the film has, a crucial flaw for an adventure of its nature, is the characters. At the outset, Holmes almost doesn't feel like himself; it's as if Downey Jr. decided to dispense with his previous interpretation and try his hand at a less wacky/drunk Jack Sparrow. The odd choice vanishes after the first 20 minutes or so, but it's puzzling nonetheless. Once it's gone, though, Downey Jr. becomes the Holmes that was so popular (and earned him a surprise victory at the Golden Globes) last time. Law's Watson remains the same, making a nice bro-mantic foil for Downey Jr., though never feeling quite as integral to the plot as he should. Noomi Rapace (the original Lisbeth Salander) is also here, but not given nearly enough to do, despite her connection to the story. Jared Harris, on the other hand, has enough to do, and makes for an effective Moriarty. The problem with the character, however, lies in the script. He and Holmes meet face-to-face as enemies quite early on. It's a technique that could have resulted in a devilishly clever battle of wits, but the film sidelines Harris too often. Worse, Moriarty's big scheme, evil though it may be, isn't executed on screen in a manner that makes it feel worthy of the character's reputation.

That's not to say that this is a completely joyless exercise, however. Though the humor doesn't work nearly as well as it did in the previous film, Downey Jr. and Law's chemistry remains firmly intact. And as over-stylized as some of the action sequences may be in their use of slow-motion, their slick assembly is a fun distraction from the otherwise middle of the road execution. A Game of Shadows does have a saving grace though, and it comes in where it counts: the ending. The film's entire last act, set in a Swiss castle perched on a waterfall, is an absolute blast, resulting in a face-off both physical and mental that is allowed to run its course, rather than be cut short for the sake of finding an ending. It's really a shame that everything that came before couldn't have been more effective, because by the time the film rolled around to its conclusion, I was ready to forgive it for its missteps. Unfortunately, as fun as the final act is, it can't undo the flaws that came before it, even though I'll bet that Mr. Ritchie really wishes that it could.

Grade: C+

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Delayed Reactions to the 2011 Golden Globe Nominees

Whatever fame (or infamy) the Golden Globes may possess, there's no doubt that they can be one of the key indicators of how awards season will swing. And in a year where few nominations feel certain, this year's Globe roster is finally helping the race take shape, all while throwing in a few wild cards.

For the full list of nominees, click HERE.

As far as the Best Picture categories go, the HFPA hasn't been to shocking. Long-expected favorites like The Descendants (Drama) and The Artist (Musical/Comedy) are here, in addition to Spielberg's War Horse, which just about screams "Oscar-bait" at the top of its lungs. The inclusion of The Ides of March feels pretty lazy here, as there were certainly stronger and less traditional dramas. And as for Hugo, well, I'll just hold my tongue. The surprise here, though, is that Spielberg's film almost feels like an afterthought. There isn't even a Director nomination for Spielberg. Over in Musical/Comedy, we have another fairly expected lineup, though it's nice to see 50/50 get some recognition along with obvious choices like The Artist and Bridesmaids, though I'll admit that I'm a little surprised that they didn't toss nominations to Young Adult or Crazy, Stupid, Love.

In Best Actor we have another fairly expected lineup, although I'm super-excited that the otherwise ignored Shame managed to score a nod for Michael Fassbender's excellent work, though I suspect this category will come down to Clooney vs. Pitt. As for Musical/Comedy, the choices are very nice, although this is hands-down going to Dujardin.
For Best Actress, Drama will likely come down to either Meryl Streep or Viola Davis. Things could swing in Davis' favor, however, considering that there seems to be a lack of passion around the other aspects of The Iron Lady, whereas The Help has been a huge success. Still-trying-for-an-Oscar Glenn Close or surprising almost-a-sure-thing contender Tilda Swinton could surprise here, but it's highly doubtful. And as for Rooney Mara, she should be thanking her lucky stars that she's here. As well-received as Fincher's take on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has been received thus far, it's the sort of film that, like his other serial killer films (Se7en, Zodiac), will make little to no impact on the awards race (barring some tech nods). As far as comedy goes, it really comes down to three of the 5. Most likely is Michelle Williams, as the HFPA will likely go gaga over the fact that Williams played (mostly successfully) an icon. The only other threats here are Charlize Theron's super-unlikeable character from Young Adult, or Bridesmaids' leading lady Kristen Wiig. Foster and Winslet (Carnage), like Mara in Drama, should simply be thankful for the nominations.

Where the Globes will really prove to be telling, however, is in the Supporting categories, which aren't separated by Musical/Comedy and Drama. For Supporting Actor, there are three possibilities, none of whom come off as a clear front-runner. Yes, Albert Brooks made it in for Drive while everything else about the film was snubbed, but even with his other critics awards, something about this performance doesn't feel like a major threat. There's also Christopher Plummer's lovely turn in Beginners, a performance that has the unrewarded veteran factor on its side. Lastly, there's Kenneth Branagh, who, like Michelle Williams, could score for his lively portrayal of an acting icon.

In Supporting Actress, the HFPA's winner will provide more of an indicator. The Artist's Berenice Bejo could finally gain some traction, or one of the ladies from The Help (Chastain, Spencer) could take the lead. Chastain does have the one-hell-of-a-debut-year factor on her side, and with her work in The Help standing as her most noticeably emotional, it could become the means by which awards bodies reward her for an outstanding year all around. There is room for potential spoilers Janet McTeer (who's been stealing co-star Glenn Close's buzz) or The Descendants' Shailene Woodley, although her lack of experience could go against her.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

2011 SAG Nominees

I've more or less avoided commenting on the 2011-12 Awards Season so far, due to a number of factors. However, with this morning's unveiling of the Screen Actors Guild nominees and tomorrow's Golden Globe nominee announcement, I figured it was time to put in my 2 cents on the state of the race so far.

For a full list of the SAG nominees, click HERE.


Starting with Best Ensemble (the closest thing SAG has to a Best Picture award, even though it really isn't, and shouldn't be voted on as such), we've got a mix of the predictable and the surprising. For all of the awards love that I'm expecting The Artist to receive over the next few months, it never seemed like an ensemble piece. Dujardin and Bejo (both nominated) seemed like the only major players in the modern-day silent film. Clearly, SAG thought differently. Other mentions, however, like The Descendants, Midnight in Paris, and The Help seem rather obvious. And then (thankfully) there's Bridesmaids, which could prove to be the awards season party-crasher in a year where (FINALLY) nothing/no one seems like a "lock" to win. Remember last year when almost every critics group gave Best Actress to Natalie Portman? Yeah, not happening this year. We finally have a really interesting awards race, and Bridesmaids' pitch-perfect female ensemble is just icing on the cake. By the time the stardust has cleared and the champagne has stopped flowing at the end of February, I'm sure that more tradtional, "Oscar bait" films (War Horse) will have made there mark, but if ever there was a year for things to get crazy, this is it.

Next we go to Male Actor in a Leading Role and Female Actor in a Leading Role. Though response to J. Edgar has been pretty muted, I guess I shouldn't be that surprised that DiCaprio made it in here. SAG does love to reward actors in Eastwood films (part of me thought they might toss a nod to Judi Dench, who was, admittedly, the best thing about J. Edgar). At the same time, you'd think that a branch full of actors might have noticed the "we did it in one take!" nature of DiCaprio's performance (it shows). Then there's Demian Bichir for A Better Life, and I have to confess, I have no idea where this came from. If there was going to be a "surprise" here, I thought it would be Shame's Michael Fassbender or even Take Shelter's Michael Shannon (both wrongfully snubbed). "But where the hell are Fassbender and Shannon!?" - George Clooney, demanding answers.

Other than DiCaprio and Bichir, though, the male lineup is filled out by our three presumed front-runners: Dujardin, George Clooney (The Descendants), and Brad Pitt (Moneyball). I haven't been able to see The Artist, but between Clooney and Pitt, I hope this one goes to the former. As much as I like Pitt as an actor, he keeps getting recognized for his weaker performances (though Moneyball is a much better performance than Benjamin Button). And as for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy's Gary Oldman, well, better luck next time. "We're not so very different, you and I. We're both searching for a GODDAMN OSCAR!!!"

Much more interesting, however, is how the leading ladies are shaping up. It's an unusually contentious year, with veterans (Streep, Close) and newcomers (Elizabeth Olsen, snubbed) fighting it out for five spots. Michelle Williams, who has picked up two critics awards thus far, is starting to become more of a threat than I thought she would be. Then there's Tilda Swinton, who finally seems to be on her way to a second Oscar nomination. "Wait...I actually got in? Wha..."

The film may have barely any exposure (as of now, it's not scheduled to open anywhere in the US outside of New York and L.A., which seems ridiculous), but that doesn't have an bearing on awards bodies. With back-to-back snubs (09's Julia and 10's I am Love), Swinton's passionate fan base has finally expanded, and the build-up could be enough to push her through to second Oscar nomination (about time). Then there's the above-mentioned Olsen, along with Charlize Theron, who still stand as potential threats.

As far as the supporting categories go, the women seem to be taking shape, while the men seems as all-over-the-place as ever. Berenice Bejo, previously thought to be gone, has finally come back. More predictable are The Help's Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain (at which point I'll assume that this is the performance she'll be primarily rewarded for in the future). "White people, man. White people..." - Octavia Spencer.

Melissa McCarthy from Bridesmaids is a nice surprise, and it's good to see that the handful of critics awards she's picked up haven't been for nothing. All the same, it's too bad that co-star Kristen Wiig has been so thoroughly ignored. Hopefully the Globes will change that tomorrow morning. Finally, there's Janet McTeer from Albert Nobbs, who's been earning some of the film's strongest reviews. On the other hand, this looks like the end of the road for Coriolanus' Vanessa Redgrave.

As for the men, the category has some mild front-runners, but the other slots have always seemed like question marks. Beginners' Christopher Plummer could very well take this, although SAG might fall in love with Branagh's interpretation of Laurence Olivier. Nick Nolte (Warrior) was once brought up as a possibility, but the film's failure at the box office seemed to be the end of him until now. As far as Jonah Hill and Armie Hammer are concerned, though, they probably ought to be happy that they made it in here at all.


I won't cover this as extensively, but there's a few things that need to be said. I've come to expect Community being snubbed, but where on earth is Parks and Recreation in the comedy categories? "This is LITERALLY the most disappointing snub of the year."

That cast should be filling out any number of slots, especially Amy Poehler, Rob Lowe, Nick Offerman, and Adam Scott. Jumping over to drama, an even bigger issue: how on earth did SAG pass up Showtime's outstanding Homeland, far and away the best new show of the year? At the very least, you'd think they could throw Claire Danes and Damian Lewis nominations (the former of whom was absolutely incredible in the season's penultimate episode). Unless the show was (for whatever reason) ineligible, this borders on inexcusable, especially considering the fact that Dexter managed to make it in. Yes, season 6 is a step up from whatever the hell season 5 was, but there's a limit. Claire Danes after seeing that Dexter made it in over Homeland.

Another bone to pick with SAG, though, comes down to the structure of the awards: why on earth do the TV awards not have separate categories for lead and supporting roles? There are so many good performances on TV right now, and the current roster of categories leaves the categories prone to defaulting to lead performances (except in the comedy categories). Oh well, at the very least Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones are nominated, although Aaron Paul and Peter Dinklage have fallen victim to the limited acting categories. At least they didn't do something crazy like nominating Colin Hanks for Dexter. Yeesh. "Yo, Claire: u mad?" - Jessica Lange.

One nice surprise, however, is the inclusion of American Horror Story's Jessica Lange in drama. The role is clearly supporting, and the show is batshit-insane and messy as hell, but Lange is one of the most consistently compelling (and deliciously campy) aspects of that glorious train wreck (season 1, and Connie Britton is already about to give birth to the antichrist...seriously).

The SAG awards air on January 29th; here's hoping that the guild members at least make some inspired choices from their relatively uninspired choices.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Netflix Files: December 5-11

White Teeth (2002) dir. Julian Jarrold:
Adapted from Zadie Smith's wonderful novel of the same name, Jarrold's 4-episode miniseries is certainly engaging, if not quite as successful as its source material in getting the point(s) across. White Teeth's main concern is the question of what it means to be British in an era of multiculturalism, and features characters who are white, black, Bengali, Christian, Muslim, etc etc. But even though the casting is generally spot-on, the screenplay fails to find a means to transmit Smith's omniscient narration and exposition to the screen, leaving the story feeling less insightful than it really is. One complaint that often arises when novels are adapted is that the adaptation is too short, and leaves too much out. The same is true here, even though each episode is roughly 50 minutes. In dividing the story among the four main male protagonists, supporting characters and subplots don't feel as fleshed out as they should in order to achieve real impact. That said, it's at least well-assembled and well-acted (Geraldine James as the intrusive Joyce Malfen - Chalfen in the novel - in particular), and Jarrold directs the whole affair nicely and with strong soundtrack choices (the "Flight of the Bumblebee" scene is perfection), although it's a far cry from what he achieved last year with the Red Riding Trilogy. My only worry about this miniseries, though, is that anyone who sees it without reading Smith's novel may not think there's much more to the story or characters, when there truly is.

Grade: B-

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Review: "Shame"

Steve McQueen really loves to make Michael Fassbender stare. Whether it's at a person, an object, or simply off into the distance, both of the director's collaborations with Fassbender have featured quite a bit of soulful/mournful staring. The difference in their second go-round together, though, is that this time the staring actually feels as though it has some characterization to it. Rather than hit a sophomore slump, McQueen and Fassbender have made a vast improvement in Shame, the director's examination of loneliness and sex addiction.

First thing's first, a confession: I'm part of that small group of film enthusiasts who wasn't won over by McQueen's debut, 2008's Hunger. Though it had moments of power, I was ultimately left cold by the director's attempts to use famed IRA hunger-striker Bobby Sands as a symbol of eternal dedication to a cause. As such, I was hesitant to endure another McQueen-Fassbender collaboration, even though I was momentarily impressed by what the director pulled off in that film. This time, though, by focusing on an issue as faced by a fictional person (and free from any danger of political bias, accidental or otherwise) McQueen has really hit it out of the park.

Shame revolves around Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a handsome (though I suppose that's a given considering the actor playing him), mid-30s man in Manhattan with a compulsive, all-consuming addiction to sex. His routine, however, is interrupted by the arrival of his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). In the film's opening stretch, McQueen intercuts Brandon walking around his apartment naked with his attempted "flirtation" with an attractive woman on the subway. Though it initially feels slightly hollow, it does visually convey Brandon's state of mind regarding sex: it's not a matter of romance, it's about purely about the physical act. Without spoiling anything, the way Brandon's staring at the woman comes full circle functions as an obvious, albeit powerful statement regarding the character's transformation over the course of the film.

As Brandon, Fassbender caps off a stellar year that has finally given him attention he's deserved for a while now. He's made his mark in roles ranging from Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre, to a young Magneto in X-Men: First Class. In Brandon, however, the actor is able to end the year with a performance which goes beyond everything he showed before, which is no small feat. As in Hunger, this is a performance that doesn't rely much on dialogue, and more on physicality and facial cues. However, unlike Hunger, Shame actually gives the actor something to work with, sparse as the script may be. Instead of simply staring off into space, it feels like there's some meaning to Fassbender's long, silent looks, even if we're not entirely sure what they mean. There's no clear answer as to where Brandon's addiction comes from; the closest answer comes from a line from Sissy, "We're not bad people, Brandon. We just come from a bad place." That's it. And yet, under McQueen's guidance, that answer doesn't matter. What's important isn't the baggage that led Brandon to his condition, but rather how he deals with it. What could have become dull and repetitive becomes magnetic in Fassbender's understated, yet powerful presence.

Every bit his equal, despite her significantly small screen time, is Mulligan. Going as far away from her role in An Education (which scored the actress an Oscar nomination) as possible, Mulligan leaves quite the impression whenever she appears, particularly in her drawn-out rendition of "New York, New York." Where Brandon is sullen and introspective, Sissy is a live wire, and seeing Mulligan take charge of the role so fearlessly is impressive as hell. If anything, I wanted more interaction between the siblings, because it felt like there was so much territory in that facet alone that McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan could have covered. That the script keeps itself so thoroughly focused on Brandon almost becomes a problem, because Sissy sometimes comes close to being underdeveloped to the point of being little more than a plot device. Thankfully, the power that McQueen is able to wring out of Brandon's story makes up for it, but this small issue is one that, if fixed, would only have made the film stronger.

As far as flaws go, there's not much else to go at. Though Shame's opening made me worried that the film would feel hollow, the performances and McQueen's direction manage to dig deeper than one would expect, and the climactic moments hit home. Some dialogue feels on-the-nose, as if McQueen and Morgan wanted to spell out Brandon and Sissy's issues rather than giving it a context. And though the film is edited and paced impeccably for the most part, one of the most important scenes goes on too long by about half a minute. It doesn't ruin the moment or drain it of its power, but after so many successfully executed long takes, it's surprising that a moment involving faster-paced cuts ends up feeling overly long.

On the artistic and technical front, however, the film is quite outstanding. In addition to the almost flawless editing, the film benefits from cold, crisp visuals, long takes (that rarely, if ever, leave one's mind wandering), and a combination of smart sound track choices and a limited score from Harry Escott. Though the movie may earn (just barely) it's NC-17 rating, it's anything but trashy or exploitative. The only shame greater than Brandon's would be to miss the movie (y'know, assuming you're old enough).

Grade: A-

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Review: "My Week with Marilyn"

When the first images of Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe surfaced, eyebrows were inevitably raised. Despite her considerable talents, Williams has been known for dour roles that require none of the bubbly magnetism that Monroe was so famous for. Therefore, it's arguable that whether or not My Week with Marilyn is mild success or a small failure, because it's certainly not going to be remembered for much in a few years time.

Taken from two (reportedly) factual accounts, Simon Curtis' film revolves around Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), a recent college grad who longs to work in the film business. He manages to find a job on The Sleeping Prince (which would eventually become The Prince and the Showgirl), starring Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) and the titular Monroe. As Olivier and Monroe's acting styles clash on set, Colin starts to develop a bond with Monroe.

It's certainly a story rife with potential for quite a bit of nostalgic fun. And, thankfully, we've been spared the Greatest Hits type of treatment that sank Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar. Unfortunately, since the story ultimately centers on Colin, Marilyn sometimes feels kept at a distance. It's probably the biggest obstacle the movie has to overcome, and it's what keeps the whole thing from being anything more than a light dramedy. Instead of delving deep into Monroe's difficulty with handling Olivier's drastically different style, and her intense self-consciousness and need for approval, we only get the vaguest hints. The deepest sentiments the film can offer are when Marilyn tells Colin (her face wet with tears), "People don't see me; all they see is Marilyn Monroe." Depth isn't exactly the name of the game here.

But even if the script is too lightweight to make the most out of its subject matter, at the very least Williams deserves credit for not coming off like a bad Saturday Night Live impersonation. She's doing the best she can with the material she's given, though unfortunately she's left playing Marilyn the starlet more often than Marilyn the imperfect human being. Thankfully, Williams is able to capture some of Monroe's magic when performing her scenes for the movie within the movie. It's a shame, though, that Curtis' execution makes The Prince and the Showgirl look like something that belongs at the dawn of the sound era, rather than the mid-50s. Kenneth Branagh also has quite a bit of fun as Laurence Olivier. It's all a bit surface-y, although the actor does hit home runs in the handful of scenes that require more than flash.

Unfortunately, the same can't be said of Mr. Redmayne, though none of it is his fault. A talented actor in his own right (I, for one, can't wait to see him as Marius in Tom Hooper's Les Miserables this time next year), the role is such a bland audience-insert that there's little to be done. He's used as our guide into the world of show business, and to tear away the curtain between the magic of Hollywood and the behind-the-scenes conflict, but the film would have been better off not giving him as much attention as it does. This really should have been Marilyn's story, and by sticking so close to Clark's POV, the film feels like little more than a fancy-looking dessert that's lacking in flavor. It all goes down smooth enough, but once you're done you realize that it could have and should have been so much more.

Grade: B-/C+

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Review: "Moneyball"

For all of the baseball talk in Bennett Miller's Moneyball, which follows Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) as he tries to rewrite the rules of scouting, there is something universal about its protagonist's quest. Yes, this is a movie revolving around baseball, but don't confuse this for another The Blind Side or Remember the Titans. At its core, Moneyball is about a man's obsession with finding self-validation in a game he can no longer play. So even though there's a hardly a scene where baseball isn't involved (I counted...2...3?), Miller and co. have fashioned a steady, engaging film that benefits from a charismatic performance from its golden leading man.

The script, co-written by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, gets things off to a slow start as it lays the groundwork. Billy Beane is determined to forgo the traditional method of scouting to build up his team, despite widespread antagonism from the rest of his coaching staff. After a chance encounter with analyst Peter Brand (Jonah Hill, pre-weight loss) at an opposing team's office, he discovers that the young man has a radical idea about how building teams should work. After moving Brand over to Oakland, Beane begins to, against considerable opposition, use Brand's method to try and make the team a success.

Once it gets past its opening stretch, filled with more dry baseball statistical talk than anything resembling character development, Miller's film starts to really gain its momentum. The more the film juxtaposes the team's journey with flashes of Billy's history in baseball, the richer it all becomes. Moneyball is not a sappy, inspirational sports story, but it does have any number sincere, rousing moments. Though there are title cards that occaisionally track the A's wins, the focus remains on the behind the scenes action, rather than needlessly protracted scenes of the team playing baseball to fill time. Whenever the film shows the A's in action, there's something to be found for Billy and Peter, whether it's a challenge, a success, or a failure.

And even though the sport of baseball may be a team effort, Moneyball comes down to the efforts of one man (at least, on screen): Mr. Pitt. Though not up there with say, his work in The Assassination of Jesse James..., Moneyball provides Pitt with an opportunity to turn in a more traditional 'star' performance, and it's a task he handles with aplomb. Barring a few quick, charming scenes with Beane's daughter Casey (Kerris Dorsey), just about everything here revolves around his involvement with the team. It's a connection, though, that comes through and connects, which is a good thing because really no one else here, even Hill's Brand, registers much as a character.

If anything, that's the one thing keeping the film from true greatness, for all of its strong moments. Sports tend to ignite a passion in people, and even though there are scenes of elation in Moneyball, the film is so thoroughly centered on Beane that one can only get so connected to images of the team celebrating. Beane's devotion to baseball and the A's is apparent, yet when the final title cards roll across the screen, they feel more perfunctory than moving. The schmaltz has been left behind, thankfully, but at the same time, the film seems to have missed its chance to be more human, and therefore make a greater impact.

Grade: B

The Month in Review: November 2011

Best Film (Theaters): Martha Marcy May Marlene
Known to my friends as, "the one with all of the M names," Sean Durkin's debut unfolds with much more grace than its title tumbles off of the tongues of those unfamiliar with it. Jumping between past and presence with incredible ease, the film is quietly arresting from its opening sequence. Though it may be as deep of an examination as it seems to think it is, this is still an expertly crafted pyschological thriller, and one hell of a debut. Led by Elizabeth Olsen's excellent performance, you may have a hard time remembering the title, but you'll have a hard time shaking either her work, or the film around her.

Best Film (DVD/Streaming): Army of Shadows
Jean Pierre-Melville's classic, delayed from release in the US until 2006, hasn't lost anything over the decades since its first unveiling. Masterfully told, this tale of French Resistance fighters in WWII confronts the brutal reality of the struggle with a refreshing honesty and maturity. The whole thing may end up being a bit of a downward spiral, but Melville never manipulates, and lets the events fully earn their intended reactions.

Best Director: Jean-Pierre Melville - Army of Shadows
Turning to his own experiences in WWII proved to be a goldmine for Jean-Pierre Melville, as it resulted in one hell of a movie. Melville has a way of capturing his performers' littlest ticks amid the drearily epic story, which is quite the accomplishment. Army of Shadows may focus more on the logistics of operations than overblown violence, but what flashes there are provide a compelling (and in several instances, horrifying) look at the life of the men and women of the resistance.

Best Male Performance: Paul Newman - Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Though he doesn't do much initially other than lay about sullenly on a sofa, the unravelling that Newman's Brick goes through is haunting to watch. Though the film is filled with big personalities, the more Brick gets dragged into the mess of it all, the better Newman becomes. It all comes down to the final confrontation with Burl Ives' Big Daddy in the basement, which elevates Newman's work to the status of legendary. It's almost painful to watch, yet it's simultaneously impossible to look away. One of the greatest performances, by one of cinema's best actors.

Best Female Performance: Elizabeth Taylor - Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Though she plays one half of one of cinema's most dysfunctional couples, Taylor by herself is such a force to be reckoned with it's a miracle the other actors were left standing by the story's end. Taylor digs deeper than ever with Martha, and the results are ferocious, compelling, and intense as hell. Watching her slip from sly flirtations with Nick (George Segal) to savage bile-spewing with George (Richard Burton) so seamlessly is a marvel to behold. And, just when it doesn't look like Taylor can take the performance further, she nails her character's shattering climactic scenes. The film itself may be hard to watch, but Taylor's performance is too good to miss, as it's one for the ages.

Best Screenplay: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Richard Brooks and James Poe (adapted from Tennessee Williams' play)
Building an entire film on nothing but characters talking in different rooms can be quite the challenge, which is just one more reason why Brooks and Poe's adaptation of Williams' play is such a triumph. The dialogue, as much as there is, navigates an emotional minefield with such skill that there's hardly a moment that feels less than compelling.

Best Ensemble: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Newman, Taylor, and Ives. Those three names along make Cat on a Hot Tin Roof a force to be reckoned, in addition to strong work from Jack Carson, Judith Anderson, and Madeleine Sherwood. Watching the myriad of relationships between and among the characters play out is quite the show, and the almost non-stop fireworks is one of the most impressive acting displays ever captured on film.