Thursday, March 31, 2011

Opposite ends of the spectrum: "Jane Eyre" and "Sucker Punch"

After several failed attempts to make it to the theater (please stay in Boston one more week, Of Gods and Men, I'm on my way), I managed to sneak in two viewings, and they were different, to put it mildly. One was an adaptation of a classic novel, and the other quickly revealed itself to be the wet dream of a 13 year-old anime/video game love trapped in a man's (and director's) body.

**I've also fallen woefully behind on the 30 Day Movie Challenge. Expect a massive catch-up post by the end of the week.

Jane Eyre - dir. Cary Fukunaga:

A brief disclaimer: I haven't yet read Bronte's classic novel. However, whether or not Fukunaga's film (from Moira Buffini's script) is faithful or not, the director's second film is a moody success, if a bit on the minor side. Opening somewhere in the middle of the story, we meet Jane (Mia Wasikowska) straggling across an empty, rainy English landscape. And from these opening moments, Fukunaga establishes his "bold new vision" (quoth the trailer) of Bronte's classic, and it really works. The first shot of Jane is practically a silhouette, appropriate considering how much of the color is infused in the sets and costumes. Fukunaga's film is sparse and generally un-romanticized, yet feels complete and quietly captivating.

And even though it's obvious that some sections of the novel have been trimmed or cut altogether, there's a steady, constantly engaging feeling that arises from the unhurried pace. Key to all of this, of course, is Ms. Eyre herself. Having successfully launched herself into the American conscience in Tim Burton's Eyesore in Wonderland 3D, Ms. Wasikowska is actually able to show off her capabilities as a leading lady here, and she does so with understated skill. I can't speak to whether or not she lives up to previous cinematic Jane Eyres, but she's certainly a damn good one, and her ability to communicate so much in the nuances of her performance, rather than through histrionics, is one of the film's greatest strengths. Matching her is Michael Fassbender as the conflicted Rochester, with whom Ms. Wasikowska has surprising chemistry. A conversation after Jane saves Rochester from small fire in his room, shot almost entirely in shadows, achieves a spectacular level of intrigue and hinted romance that is darker and sexier than anything Megan Fox (or her interchangeable counterparts) has ever done on screen.

Fukunaga's film also benefits from a roster of smaller roles (Jamie Bell, Sally Hawkins, Judi Dench), striking cinematography, and a delicate and dark score from Dario Marianelli (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement). However, despite its strengths, there are a few unfortunate missteps that even someone who hasn't read the book will be able to see. While Fukunaga's choice to open in the middle of the story works, when he returns to that point in the story, he lingers for too long, repeating too much footage as if he wanted to reach a specified run time by any means necessary. And in trimming down Bronte's work, certain scenes and character developments come across as too quick. When Mrs. Fairfax (Dench) mentions that Jane has been working at Rochester's mansion for three months, the revelation comes as surprise, as there's nothing resembling a transition to give us a feel for the passage of time. Similar events populate the rest of the film, to minor detriment. Yet while it isn't a masterpiece, or the new definitive silver screen "Jane Eyre," Fukunaga's second film establishes him as a diverse and daring director, one whose strengths far outweigh his shortcomings.

Grade: B/B+

Sucker Punch - dir. Zack Snyder:
I said that the two films in the post were on opposite ends of the spectrum. However, now it's time to see how extreme their opposition is. Having won legions of fans and haters with his first two films (300 and Watchmen), Mr. Snyder's latest film (his first non-adaptation) will likely only increase the passion with which people love or hate his work. Co-writing and producing an entirely Snyder-riffic vision, Sucker Punch can best be described as a CGI-flooded, faux-feminist clusterfuck of epic proportions.

It opens with surprising strength, in a silent intro/set-up as we meet Baby Doll (Emily Browning). After her mother dies and leaves her everything in her will, Baby Doll faces the wrath of her evil stepfather, who tries to rape her younger sister. After unsuccessfully shooting him (and killing her sister), Baby Doll is put in an insane asylum, where the head doctor is paid off to give her a lobotomy. While there, she meets a group of other girls, also wrongfully locked up, and they set out to escape. Kind of.

In a truly pointless bit of plot design that only serves to muddle the plot, Snyder inserts a second level of reality, before jumping off to his fantastical action set pieces. Here, the asylum is a front for a dance hall, where the inmates are made to perform erotic dances for wealthy male patrons. However, when Baby Doll dances (which we never see, because that would be sexist...unlike all of those shots of Baby Doll's legs and panties...), she imagines herself in a series of battle scenes. Translation, she's imagining herself imagining other things. This alone is enough to make Sucker Punch structurally non-sensical, and things don't pick up from there. The action scenes have their moments, but since we know it's all imaginary, there's no weight to any of what happens. It's just stuff. Really flashy, pixelated stuff. Granted, small moments of violence work, but without anything in the story or character departments to act as support, Snyder's fantasy collapses in on itself.

As for the cast, there isn't really much to it acting wise, although Abbie Cornish and Jena Malone try their hardest (a movie entirely about the two of them would have been much stronger). Browning, the film's lead, however, is something of a blank, while Jamie Cheung and Vanessa Hudgens smile, look worried, or cry while Oscar Isaac goes horribly over-the-top as the villainous Blue and Carla Gugino prances around delivering every line with a campy Polish accent. Jon Hamm shows up for no more than 2 minutes tops, projecting cool but getting absolutely nothing to do. Jon Hamm is a valuable resource, Mr. Snyder, please don't waste him. But worst of all is simply Snyder's insistence that this is something "deep" and empowering for women. That description couldn't be further from the truth. What's really here is the ultimate cinematic wet dream for fans of anime and/or video games who will likely continue to have to pay to be in the presence of beautiful women throughout their lives.

Grade: C-/D+

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The 30 Day Movie Challenge: Days #5, 6, and 7

I've been falling behind and getting off schedule with the 30 Day Movie Challenge, and unfortunately it's likely to continue. So while I'd love to give all three of these films fuller write-ups, here's a condensed look at Days 5-7:

Day #5: Favorite Action Movie

Like many of these prompts, I had to do some thinking with this one. I came down to two veeeeery different films, one much more serious in nature than the other. Yet as much as I love Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, my pick goes to something on the lighter side: Gore Verbinski's Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003).

Johnny Depp and Jack Sparrow take up most of the time whenever people talk about this movie, and rightfully so. Depp's loopy spin on pirates is the key to the film's success. However, as much as Pirates succeeds thanks to its characters and wonderful sense of humor, it's equally successful as a legitimately enjoyable action-adventure piece. Black Pearl works best of the original Pirates trilogy because of 1) the variety of action and 2) the more even spread of action throughout the story. Dead Man's Chest (2006) and At World's End (2007) are filled with relatively little action until their bloated finales. Black Pearl, by contrast, has action and adventure perfectly spaced throughout its run time. From Jack Sparrow's opening zip-line maneuver and his first fight with Will Turner, to the ship battle in the middle, the action is diverse, well-staged, and engaging.

Sparrow's fight with Will Turner in particular is a blast to watch, as the two chase each other around turning gears, and eventually catapult themselves up to the beams of a warehouse's rafters. The Chaplin-esque nature of scenes like this heighten the film's sense of fun, and fights never become dull, soulless scenes of clashing metal and big explosions (I'm looking at you, Michael Bay). Bolstered by colorful characters, solid direction, a very funny script, and Hans Zimmer's classic score, Curse of the Black Pearl is a true delight of a movie that makes up for its lack of realism with engaging atmosphere and execution.

Day #6: Favorite Horror Movie

Horror has never really been a favorite genre of mine. I really hate movies that indulge in senseless blood and gore. Movies with scary, jump-worthy trailers usually become dull once seen in their full form (take the 2003 Texas Chainsaw Massacre, for example). And that's what makes today's entry so notable. When I first saw the trailer, I was only 11, and a certain jump moment scared the hell out of me, and I swore I'd never see the film. Years later, after discovering the film's strong connection with both audiences and critics, I decided to finally give it ago, and it's been my favorite horror movie (albeit from a limited selection) ever since: Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later...(2002)

Many are quick to claim that some of the specific's of Boyle's film aren't actually original (zombies that can sprint), or that Boyle's creatures aren't even zombies, because they're merely infected with a disease (the appropriately named Rage Virus). Whatever the gripes, however, it's hard to deny that Boyle and crew do a phenomenal job of taking the zombie genre and giving it a healthy dose of modernism.

Unlike certain movies that make you want to cover your eyes for long stretches, 28 Days actually held me wide-eyed with fear. Even when things get bloody, Boyle never goes out of his way, and violence isn't shoe-horned in just to kill people off. Instead, it becomes a tale of survival, with long zombie-free stretches of characters trying to survive or simply traveling.

It's this, above all else, that helps 28 Days achieve the terrifying heights that it does. Boyle actually calms down his frenetic style, and only brings it out when necessary, and the result is as arresting as it is scary. By taking a tired genre and injecting it with his own style, Boyle was able to make the zombie genre fresh, genuinely scary, all while making a legitimately strong film that can appeal to more than just the traditional zombie fan-base.

Day #7: Favorite Animated Film

I'm going to cut straight to point here: my pick isn't a Pixar film *gasp*. In fact, it predates Pixar's first release by two years (not exactly a large gap, but still...). The film in question is none other than Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).

Now, first we ought to clear something up. Tim Burton didn't actually direct Nightmare, Henry Sellick did. However, given Burton's obvious presence in creating the film's story, world, and characters, I like to consider this film an example where a producer was the true auteur, and not the director (usually the go to for that controversial label). Regardless of who deserves more credit, however, one of the things I love about Nightmare was how strange and subversive it is. Despite its PG rating and quirky animation, the Halloween world is filled with plenty of gruesome creatures, including, to quote Danny Elfman's lyrics, "the clown with the tear-away face." Doesn't exactly scream "TAKE THE KIDS!", does it?
Regardless, despite the simplicity of the story, Nightmare succeeds on just about every level. The animated, while slightly stiff-looking almost 20 years later, is still vibrant and even enchanting. As a work of design, it ranks of there with the greatest art direction of all time. Character design in particular is stunning, never feeling weird just for the sake of it. Driving it all along is constant Burton collaborator Danny Elfman's score and songs, and perfect mix of quirk, charm, and menace. Pixar may win all of the accolades, but Burton and Sellick's masterpiece deserves credit for sticking to a very bold, and very strange concept all the way through.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The 30 Day Movie Challenge: Days #3+4

One too many distractions yesterday left me without time to complete an entry for yesterday. So, to play a little catch up, here's days 3 and 4 of the challenge.

Day #3: Favorite Comedy

Now this was a tough one. I have nothing against comedies, but some of the ones that make me laugh the most do so at the expense of plot and character development. It's a real challenge to find a film that really makes me laugh yet also is admirable from other perspectives. And that's why my pick for my favorite comedy comes down to Armando Iannucci's In the Loop (2009).

Essentially doing to the Iraq War what Dr. Strangelove did to the Cold War, Iannucci's ensemble satire is something of a comedic masterwork for many reasons. First and foremost is its phenomenal script, written by four writers and adapted from the UK sitcom The Thick of It. In addition to the cutting satire, the script's combination of swearing, word play, awkward pauses, and pop culture references comes together to create a spectacularly funny film. Every time I've seen it (which is a lot), there's some new line I discover, usually because I was too busy laughing at something else on a previous viewing. A lesser film might throw as many attempted jokes and funny lines at you, but In the Loop is remarkable because the vast majority of them work (and there's certainly not a flat joke among the bunch).Delivering the hysterical script is one of the most finely tuned ensembles in recent memory, a considerable achievement considering the size of the cast. Everyone delivers their lines to perfection, although standout honors have to go to Peter Capaldi as perpetually angry Malcolm Tucker, and Mimi Kennedy as an anti-war government official. Capaldi in particular shines throughout his constant anger, and gets to deliver many of the film's greatest lines. It's a real tour-de-force, not something that can often be said of comedic performances, and a key scene in the United Nations meditation room actually gives the character the tiniest bit of vulnerability, only making Capaldi's work even more impressive.And like Capaldi's work, the film never once slows down or starts to lose its comedic staying power. Granted, the last 20 minutes or so become less reference-heavy (and almost thriller-lite in intensity), but this only helps the film's impact become even greater. It may be built mostly for rapid-fire laughs, but In the Loop works equally well as a goofy satire of behind-the-scenes political shenanigans. It's also the perfect modern companion piece to Kubrick's masterful Cold War satire, and I hope that Iannucci's less-seen film will one day be held in equal regard. It certainly deserves it.

Day #4: Favorite Drama

Continuing my love of films about the creative process comes my pick for favorite drama. And while this is a film that certainly has its funny moments, and is far from being truly heavy in nature, it's still a compelling work. That film is Milos Forman's Amadeus (1984).

It's often been criticized for playing with history, although I think the accusations are rubbish. Not that I think the accusations are false; I know that they have validity. But this is a movie, after all, not a documentary. And what Peter Shaffer's script (adapted from his own play) may lack in historical accuracy, it makes up for it with superbly executed story telling. At 2 hrs and 40 minutes, Amadeus remains lively and enjoyable the whole way through, time and time again. Like 8 1/2, part of its success comes from looking at something very personal (artistic creation) on a bigger, grander scale. As a production, it's gorgeous to look at, and regardless of what advances have been made in the 27 years since its release, its beauty remains undiminished. Mozart and Salieri's world comes richly to life, big and beautiful enough to match the large personalities and egos that populate it.Yet while Mozart's (obviously incredible) music gets the most play time, its his rival who runs away with the show. As the jealous Salieri, F. Murray Abraham gives one of the all-time great leading performances, and deservedly picked up Best Actor at the Oscars. He communicates Salieri's combination of admiration and bitter envy on many levels, my favorite of which comes when he sarcastically talks back to a crucifix/God for giving him the exact opposite of what he prayed for: "Grazie, Signore!" But the film also deserves credit for giving both men equal treatment. Mozart (Tom Hulce) is certainly fleshed out as well, and the way Salieri uses his relationship with his father to literally haunt him is one of the film's best subplots. We get to see both of these characters in their personal and private lives, which only serves to make the story even richer. Amadeus works because it works as the cinematic equivalent of one of Mozart's compositions: big, brash, and emotional, but also wildly artistic and beautifully composed.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

"Rango" - REVIEW

It may be (gorgeously) animated and feature a cast of anthropomorphic animals, but one thing is certain about Rango: this is not a kids movie. The latest film from Gore Verbinski (the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films) represents a major comeback for the director, who was rushed and saddled with messy scripts for Pirates 2 and 3. His latest, written by John Logan (The Aviator, Sweeney Todd) is a spectacular and spectacularly odd ode to the great westerns of Leone and Peckinpah that relishes their cliches with a knowing wink.

Our hero is Rango (Johnny Depp), although he doesn't officially have a name for at least the first 20 minutes of the film. A lizard stuck in a tank, he spends his time putting on plays with the assorted toys. And right from the get go, Verbinski and Logan let you know that they're not out to please the kiddie crowd. Filled with nervous, rapid dialogue that makes references all over the place, the opening scene is surprisingly existential (Rango repeatedly asks "who am I?" throughout the story). Once a bump in the road (actually an armadillo) sends Rango's tank out of the back of his owner's car, set to "Ave Maria," you know you're in good (albeit eccentric) hands.

From there, Rango gradually becomes acquainted with the desert animals in the town of Dirt, all while a Greek (er, Mexican) choir of birds in Mariachi garb sing of his impending doom. The town is pressed for water, which has been drying up, and is the key to the town's survival. Many of the story elements are nothing new to those who have seen an old western (the importance of water is used in many, especially Once Upon a Time in the West).

However, in creating an animal-centric world, Rango gets to truly shine. The dusty wooden structures are remarkably detailed. In fact, the visuals are possibly THE key to Rango's success, and that's not a bad thing. In addition to the stunning animation, the film boasts master cinematographer Roger Deakins as a "visual consultant" (as do How to Train Your Dragon and WALL-E), and his presence shows. Animated films may not have actual "cameras" or "lighting," but Rango packs all the visual wallop of a master class in lighting and shot composition. As a script, the film is certainly funny, although not always as funny as it thinks it is. The visual design, however, is so remarkable in how it weaves animals into standard scenes of Western film making, and sights such as the town populace riding at sunset on the backs of roadrunners left a huge, silly grin on my face.

Helping it along is the fabulous voice work from the cast, which along with Depp includes Isla Fisher, Ned Beatty, Abigail Breslin, and Bill Nighy. Not all characters are fully utilized (Breslin, and especially Ray Winstone), but the film's flashes of eccentric wit and visual flair manage to make up for it. Best of all is a massive chase sequence involving desert rodents on bats that rivals the flight sequences of How to Train Your Dragon for thrills; if only live-action chase and action sequences could be as well constructed, edited, and staged.

Yet after such a long ride of older teen and adult-oriented humor and style, Rango manages to mess up a little in the final stages of the plot. After such fantastic, pander-free storytelling, I was longing for an epic showdown at the finale. Unfortunately, what we get instead is something much more kid-friendly, as well as slightly protracted. The film's final moments salvage it, and it's constantly aided by Hans Zimmer's excellent, Morricone-infused score and of course the visuals. But after so much delightful (and never superfluous) weirdness, you'll likely yearn for something more, well, adult, considering how much Verbinski and co. managed to get away with (including 2 prostate jokes). It's likely to go over younger kids' heads completely. For those looking for a remarkable and unique (in spite of the cliches) take on the Western, however, it's a winner.

Grade: B/B+

"The Adjustment Bureau" - REVIEW

When The Adjustment Bureau's release date was pushed back not once, but twice, it brought to mind memories of The Wolfman (which coincidentally also starred Emily Blunt). Yet upon release, I have to wonder what all of the fuss was about. While it's no masterpiece, it's far from being a dog. It's actually a rather solid, entertaining, and even thought-provoking film about fate and free will.

Opening in the final stages of an election year, the film opens with Congressman David Norris (Matt Damon) running for Senator of New York. After a silly scandal basically destroys his chances of winning, he steps into a bathroom to prepare his speech, where he runs into Elise (Emily Blunt). The two strike up a conversation and click immediately, before Elise leaves. Three years pass, and the pair meet again on a bus. This, however, was not according to plan. An agent (Anthony Mackie), having fallen asleep, misses his orders to spill coffee on David's shirt (which would cause him to go home, change, and miss the bus with Elise on it). And as we can tell by the cryptic shifting book that the agent has, this isn't what someone/something wants.

It has all the makings of a dizzying conspiracy thriller, and I have no doubt that conspiracy nut jobs will go insane over the movie. But George Nolfi's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's short story takes a surprising turn. David and Elise aren't merely thrown together for the sake of having conflict. The characters (and the actors playing them) have real chemistry together. So while the presence of the titular Bureau is almost always felt (David alone knows that they're out there and can't tell anyone), the love story at the center never becomes a simple plot device. It's not perfectly executed, but it works because the film is able to balance it with the more thriller-ish aspects of the story. Still, there are a few bumps in the script. David's reaction to news of Elise after an 11-month gap sounds more like it's only been a few days since they've seen each other. The two never get to spend enough time together to make you believe that they're truly in love; it's more that they appear to have good chemistry and a strong initial attraction.

As for the thriller/supernatural side of the story, Nolfi and crew bring it to life with a minimum of special effects, which actually makes it all the more believable. There's lots of running through magic doors, and Thomas Newman's energetic score helps keep the (remarkably clutter-free) chases lively. The simplicity of it all actually works in the film's favor, even if certain rules seem to be there for the sake of aiding the plot's limitations (water hinders the agent's ability to track people...just because). And while the script does raise questions of free will, control, and chance, it doesn't always answer them completely. Were the film more one-sided and focused the agents at work, it might have allowed for more complete answers, but as it is, The Adjustment Bureau is generally more content to answer questions only pertaining to David and Elise, and how their being together will destroy both of their career paths.

But even though the film may not live entirely up to its ambitions, it's not entirely without success. With the exception of a few too-quick jumps in story, it flows well and the romance aspect never bogs down the "bigger" story, rather it enriches it. Despite the potential for earth-shattering revelations, the film stays grounded in its central story, and resists the urge to go all-out with effects. It's not out to be an entirely foreboding story, but is instead examining two sides (though not exactly evenly) of a weighty idea: total free will vs. necessary control. It's no philosophical masterpiece, but as a entertaining romantic thriller with some heart and some brains, it's a thoroughly engaging film, albeit a bit minor.

Grade: B-

The 30 Day Movie Challenge: Day #2

Day #2: Least Favorite Film

Unlike the first entry in this series, picking a "least favorite" film was surprisingly more difficult. The problem with bad movies is that some of them are so enjoyably awful. I consider The Room to be one of the worst films I've ever seen, not only for its supreme technical incompetence, but also for its horrendous directing/writing/acting/everything. That said, it's a movie that I will willing watch, because it's hysterically funny in its awfulness. The same goes for Showgirls, which is about 100 times more technically accomplished and structured, but so insanely dumb and ridiculous that it's a scream (and I refuse to believe that it's a misunderstood and brilliant satire; it's just bad). In making my choice for my least favorite, I had to pick a movie that I didn't just think was bad; it had to be un-enjoyably bad. Even to the point of making me angry. And that's exactly what this movie does: Clark Gregg's Choke (2008).I've only seen the film once, in theaters upon release, and there's a reason I've never gone back. I've certainly seen "worse" films, but none made me as angry as this one. Granted, there's a few funny spots here and there, and the cast tries, but overall? Garbage. The screenplay moves around haphazardly and does a hideous job of creating the main story: a sex addict pays for his mother's hospital bills by preying on the sympathies of people who save him from choking. It's a twisted set up for sure, but considering the source material was written by Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club), I remember being excited.

Unfortunately, Gregg's adaptation is a muddled, sleazy bore. The way the choking incidents are woven into the film is so unskilled, and that particular point of the story starts to feel like an afterthought. Worse are the scenes set in strip club, which made for two funny bits in the trailer, yet feel horribly out of place and even random in the context of the movie. And by the time it reaches its end, it's become so convinced that it's a sharp, subversive satire that the ending only becomes more infuriatingly juvenile. The worst film ever made? Probably not by a long shot, but it's easily the one that jumps to mind when I think of films that are absolutely worthless.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The 30 Day Movie Challenge: Day #1

Recently on Facebook, a "30 Day Movie Challenge" was created. It's not exactly a challenge (no trivia, no quizzes, etc...), but it simply gives a simple prompt regarding films to answer. I've decided to participate on Facebook, but figured that I could also blog the challenge and write something more in depth. After all, people are only willing to read so much in a status message, so why not use this blog to document my picks for each day's prompt? Without further delay, here's my (extended) answer to my pick for the first prompt:

Day 1: Favorite Film

They really didn't waste any time in jumping to the big one, did they? Well, for a while I used to go nuts over this question. I could never decide on just one, and preferred to answer that I had a handful of favorites that I didn't want to choose among. Granted, I still have said handful of favorites, although it changes from time to time depending on what amazing movies I discover on DVD and in theaters. However, for the past few years, one film has consistently stuck with me among my top favorites just a little more than the rest, and it's none other than Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 (1963).Considered Fellini's full blown move away from Italian Neorealism and into more abstract, dream-like films (he became hugely influenced by Carl Jung), the film tells the story of Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni), a creatively stunted film director pulled from all directions by the myriad women in his life. Among them are his wife (Anouk Aimee), his mistress (Sandra Milo), his star/muse (Claudia Cardinale), and the whore from his youth (Eddra Gale). Increasingly frustrated by his inability to finalize his ideas for his film as a shoot date approaches, he begins to retreat into dreams, fantasies, and memories, all while his life grows more chaotic.

I have something of a soft spot for movies about the creative process, but nothing really prepared me for what I was going to get when I first watched 8 1/2. From its phenomenal photography, surreal images, delightful score, and wonderful energy, I love it every time I see it, and I see something new each time. Picking a favorite scene is (almost) impossible for me. There's the eerie opening, in which Guido finds himself stuck in traffic where everyone is as still as a mannequin. Or there's Guido's visit with the cardinal, where he descends into the lower level of a spa with people being sorted as if they're entering a level of Dante's Inferno. And the way Fellini takes us through these scenes, real or fantastical (or both) is nothing short of a joy (even if the story has some bleak under tones) to watch each time. Fellini had a connection to the circus in his youth, and that colorful playfulness is on full display here as he jumps between fantasy and reality. The film's ending, which I'll touch on later, encompasses this sublimely, acting as a sort of grand curtain call for all of Fellini's players.

Yet as much as it's a marvel of direction and production, it also benefits from the remarkable work from its cast. Mastroianni, Fellini's favorite self-substitute, does fine work at a director coming apart at the seams. However, the standouts from the cast come from the ladies. As Guido's long-suffering wife Luisa, Anouk Aimee nails the complex emotions of a woman torn between the parts of her husband she loves and hates. Her reactions during the screen-test scene are the best bits of acting in the entire film, beautifully executed without ever feeling the need to be melodramatic. The other distinction among the cast goes to Eddra Gale as La Saraghina. Gale, an American opera singer, hardly speaks two words in the film, but her impact is hard to forget. As the local whore who lives on the beach, her "seduction" of young Guido and his friends is beguiling, sinister, and hilarious all at once, and it's still my favorite scene, viewing after viewing. Here's the scene (although it's bound to be lacking without the rest of the film around it):

In summary, I basically adore 8 1/2. It's my favorite of Fellini's work (although I'm still making my way through his filmography), because of how the elements of Fellini's Neorealist past and the art films of his future come together. And yet it's so much more than a creative turning point. It's one of the clearest examples of a film as the expression of an individual's vision, in addition to being technically flawless. It's the sort of film where every department is strong, from writing, to acting, to cinematography, to score. That it ends with a giant curtain call (as previously said) for the film's cast seems entirely appropriate. For 8 1/2, Fellini became a ring master, and while the contributions of his cast and crew were immense, they were all working in service of a master at the height of his artistic prowess. And as far as movies about making movies go, I have yet to find anything that entertains, delights, and enthralls me more.

Monday, March 7, 2011

On the Horizon: Notables for early 2011

Having been so busy (or just tired) the past two months or so, I've realized that I failed to make my quarterly Season Preview post for the first three months of the new year. And while January and February haven't exactly offered much (though I did see unintentional howler The Room Mate), March and beyond have plenty of new and "old" films to look forward to. And now that I've finally decompressed from Oscar Season, it's time to start looking forward in 2011, because there are a surprisingly large group of films that appear worthwhile. For the sake of this post, I'll only be covering March and April (with one exception), albeit excluding some films which have already opened (Rango and The Adjustment Bureau, which I do plan on seeing). Even though the first two months of 2011 have provided little of interest, March and April are filled to the brim with potential:

Of Gods and Men [February 25 - Limited]In addition to the haunting trailer, this real-life religious drama picked up the Grand Prix Award at Cannes. Reception has been strong, though some have faulted the film for being overly pious. Still, it looks very mature in its treatment of the story, and refreshingly hysteria-free in its presentation of religious conflict.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives [March 2 - NYC]Speaking of Cannes, here's the film that beat Of Gods and Men for the Palme D'Or last may. Apichatpong Weerasethakul's latest film is said to be a hypnotic and mesmerizing modern ghost story. Judging from the trailer (and previous footage), it's easy to understand why the Tim Burton-led Cannes jury picked this for the top prize.

Certified Copy [March 11 - NYC]Another Cannes favorite, this one from Abbass Kiarostami, has been noted mainly for its acclaimed performance from leading lady Juliette Binoche. It looks like a slightly more melancholic Before Sunrise/Before Sunset, though that's certainly not a bad thing. Oh, and the promotional posters are absolutely gorgeous.

Red Riding Hood [March 11 - Wide]Alright, onto something more mainstream. Despite my general hatred for all things Twilight, this film from Catherine Hardwicke (who directed the first TW film) does look interesting, and not just because of its cast (Amanda Seyfried, Gary Oldman, Julie Christie, some guys with faux hawks). In addition to some striking visuals (the red cape on the snow), this reinvention of the Red Riding Hood legend may have some real merit to it; the script was placed on the 2009 Blacklist, which highlights the best unproduced screenplays in a given year.

Battle: Los Angeles [March 11 - Wide]We need another alien invasion movie like we need another romantic comedy with Katherine Heigl, so credit my interest in Battle: LA to the film's strong marketing. The film's whole look boasts a more gritty, dirty look to it, and it looks like an intense, non-stop thrill ride. And unlike Skyline, which was made by two VFX artists who broke off of Battle: LA, this film won't be about a bunch of idiot 30 somethings arguing in an apartment for most of the run time.

Jane Eyre [March 11 - Limited]Probably the last thing anyone was expecting from Cary Fukunaga (director of border thriller Sin Nombre) was a take on Bronte's classic novel. Starring rising actress Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender, Fukunaga's film looks grim and Gothic, and could prove to be an invigorating look at a story that has been adapted countless times for the screen.

Win Win [March 18 - Limited]The latest from Thomas McCarthy (The Visitor and The Station Agent) tells the story of a high school wrestling coach who finds a surprise star athlete and takes him under his wing, only to have his mother come into the picture and threaten everything. I wasn't in love with The Visitor, but I adore The Station Agent, and the cast (Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Melanie Lynsky) is to die for. Early reviews have been extremely positive, which means this could be one of the first winners (no pun intended) of the year.

Paul [March 18 - Wide]Director Greg Mottola has been on a winning streak (Superbad and Adventureland), which makes me hopeful for this sci fi/road trip comedy. I like Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, and it will be interesting to see how the pair work with a different director (instead of usual collaborator Edgar Wright), and the ensemble is filled with talented and funny people. While there's sure to be a handful of gross-out jokes, Pegg and Frost generally forgo cheap gags in favor of funny word play, which gives me hope.

Sucker Punch [March 25 - Wide]If you've been waiting for the next green screen action orgy from Zack Snyder (300), fear not, because it's almost here. Based on the graphic novel of the same name, Snyder's latest venture into the land of over-saturated colors tells the story of "Baby Doll," (Emily "I was almost Lisbeth Salander" Browning), a young girl forced into a mental institution. There, she and the other girls free themselves through batshit insane fantasies that will likely feature bloodshed and eyeliner in equal amounts. It'll have as much substance as a stick of Trident, but it looks like fun...and there's a dragon, which helps considerably. P.S., Abbie Cornish, you're better than this.

Source Code [April 1 - Wide]The real draw here isn't the talented cast (Jake Gyllenhaal, Vera Farmiga, Michelle Monaghan), rather it's the director, Duncan Jones, whose debut was the excellent Moon. Strip away Jones, and what you're left with is a pseudo-high concept thriller that will either be surprisingly strong, or a rehash of similarly themed thrillers that are unique in concept, but unfortunately ordinary in execution.

Your Highness [April 8 - Wide]The likely of result of what would happen if you smoked pot while playing Dungeons and Dragons, and that's not a bad thing. The (R-rated) trailer looks absolutely loopy, with a fun cast, including Natalie Portman and James Franco running around medieval sets, slaying dragons, and getting high with...whatever that purple creature is.

Hanna [April 8 - Wide]You can't accuse Joe Wright of making the same movie twice. After classy period adaptations (Pride and Prejudice and Atonement) and a modern drama (The Soloist), Wright is back with this teenage assassin tale. Reuniting with Atonement star Saoirse Ronan, along with Eric Bana and Cate Blanchett, the film certainly looks gritty and intense (I never thought I'd see Ronan snap someone's neck). Of course, the whole teenage assassin angle is bound to cause some level of controversy, and the handling of the material could prove problematic (will it be cartoony? Graphic? Both?). But if Wright and co. pull it off, we could have something special on our hands.

Meek's Cutoff [April 8 - Limited]Kelly Reichardt's latest, which premiered to generally strong reviews at Toronto last year, is finally making its way to US theaters. The film centers on a group of travelers in the mid-1800s, who become stranded in the desert. Led by a strong cast (Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Zoe Kazan, and Paul Dano), this ensemble piece will likely be hit or miss, depending on how you take to Reichardt's preference for long silent stretches. Still, the trailer makes it look quietly intense, and some of the landscape shots are starkly beautiful.

Scream 4 [April 15 - Wide]It's been 10 years since Scream 3, but Wes Craven is finally back after a string of failures with a fourth installment of his meta-slasher series. In addition to old cast members (Neve Campell, Courtney Cox), 4 also boasts a host of new faces, all of whom will likely end of meeting grisly deaths. Frankly, I'll see any film if there's a chance that I'll get to see Anna Paquin bite it. Personally, I'm just looking forward to seeing how Allison Brie (NBC's Community and AMC's Mad Men) fits into it all. Guilty pleasure of the year? Signs point to YES.