Thursday, April 28, 2011

On the Horizon: May-July

Even with the release of Fast Five this weekend, the summer movie season doesn't officially kick off until next weekend with the first week of May. However, it's understandable as to why Hollywood would want to gets things started a week early. An unusually large number of buzzed about/heavily publicized big-budget studio fare is coming our way over the next three months, in addition to a handful of smaller films to act as counterweights. In addition to sequels and superheroes, we also get auteur offerings from the likes of Allen and Malick, along with small films from indie hopefuls. So, here's a glimpse at 15 reasons to stay out of the summer sun

15. Green Lantern, dir. Martin Campbell [June 17 - Wide]
As far as superheroes go, I've always been surprised that it took so long for the Green Lantern to make it to the big screen. While not quite as prominent as Batman or Spiderman, he's certainly a prominent and beloved character with a complicated universe that has the potential for many, many sequels. Regardless, the wait is almost over, and despite so initial bad buzz, it looks halfway decent. I'm still not sold on Blake Lively as the love interest (how flat are her line readings in the trailer?), but Reynolds seems convincing, and the action should have plenty of diversity, given the endless possibilities of the Green Lantern's weapon. What's truly worrying, though, are the effects. The Green Lantern suit is completely CGI, and parts of it fail to look completely seamless in the footage released so far. Post-production work has become such a hassle that Warner Bros. has given the film an extra $9 million to get it all done on time.

14. Cowboys and Aliens, dir. Jon Favreau [July 29 - Wide]
No, that's not a joke, or the name of the latest MST3K spoof. Jon Favreau's (Iron Man) latest, is a legitimate action/adventure, where the Old West meets outer space. Despite the giggle-inducing title, it does look like fun (plus, you'll get to see Olivia Wilde naked, albeit with PG-13 restrictions). The cast is solid (Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde), the effects look slick, and the action looks intense. The only thing that could hold it back is tone. Will it be too serious, too silly, or an awkward mix of both?

13. Transformers: Dark of the Moon, dir. Michael Bay [July 1 - Wide]
Damn you, Michael Bay, for once again making me want to see your latest explosion orgy. After that heinous sequel two years ago, I thought I was done with this franchise. And then, with the release of the first theatrical trailer, I'm intrigued all over again. And honestly, it does look like an improvement. The action sequences look less frenetically edited (that clip of Bumblebee dodging, climbing, and catching Sam was only one shot; not a single cut), and the robot design slightly less busy (which often made them hard to distinguish as well as hard to look at). One thing I will say, though (and never thought I would), is that I miss Megan Fox. Her replacement, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, has one expression, and it's completely blank. To counterbalance, however, we have Frances McDormand as a bitchy government agent, which is oddly inspired. I never thought I'd live to see Marge Gunderson talking to Optimus Prime. First Turturro, and now McDormand? Apparently Mr. Bay has decided that the best way to fill his ensembles is with members of the Coen brothers' roster.

12. Captain America, dir. Joe Johnston [July 22 - Wide]
It's about time the good Captain got a second shot at the silver screen. His previous endeavor was in 1990, and it didn't exactly go well. Considerably more enticing is the latest entry in the build up to 2012's The Avengers movie, starring Chris Evans as the most patriotic superhero, well, ever. The set up, with its ahead-of-its-time science, pulpy style, and Nazi villains has something of an Indiana Jones feel to it in the best way possible. The production values look gorgeous, and the cast is filled with talent, including the underrated Hugo Weaving as arch-nemesis Red Skull. The only question mark is director Joe Johnston, whose last film, The Wolfman, wasn't exactly a big success.

11. Submarine, dir. Richard Ayoade [June 3 - Limited]
And now it's time for something completely different. Having already earned good reviews in Europe, Richard Ayoade's adaptation of Joe Dunthorne's coming-of-age novel finally hits US markets this summer, and it looks like a nice break from all of the superheroes and explosions. The main plot, a young teen's quest to lose his virginity, has been done before, but Dunthorne's acclaimed source material seems to have transfered nicely to the screen, with a nice mix of humor and drama. The young actors seem engaging, and the adult cast (Sally Hawkins and Paddy Considine) is only another reason to give this British indie a look.

10. Another Earth, dir. Mike Cahill [July 20 - Limited]
If you're looking for a mix of independent cinema and sci-fi, look no further than this Sundance entry. Like Moon or the upcoming Melancholia, Another Earth's goal is to take sci-fi elements (in this case, the discovery of a duplicate earth), and use them for something other than disaster sequences or alien invasions. Reviews have been decent, though not spectacular, but the premise is certainly intriguing. Some of the imagery is really striking, and despite the indie roots, it feels convincing.

09. The Beaver, dir. Jodie Foster [May 20 - Wide]
As easy as it is to make fun of/despise Mel Gibson, it's hard for me to deny that I'm really interested in his latest cinematic outing. Walter (Gibson), divorced and down on his luck, turns his life around when he begins to treat himself with a puppet, with whom he has conversations about his life. The premise always seemed iffy, and potentially laughable, but the trailer has me mostly convinced. The film seems to have a balance of humor and drama, which should keep it from becoming nothing more than a concept movie (imagine the same thing, but strictly as a comedy and starring Jim Carrey...not a pretty sight). Reviews out of Sundance were mostly positive, though some have questioned Foster's handling of the script's tonal shifts. Still, it's hard for me to deny that Gibson's performance looks engaging and riveting, perhaps even enough to forget all of his recent scandals.

08. Midnight in Paris, dir. Woody Allen [May 20 - Limited]
For our annual dose of Allen, the prolific director has returned to Paris with this Cannes opener. Despite the enticing cast (Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Michael Sheen, Kathy Bates), the trailer was lacking, and made the film seem goofy without actually being funny. So why is it up at number 8? Because it's Woody Allen, and even though he's been extremely hit/miss lately, when he's on form, he's spectacular. There's even been some very limited/low-key whispers that the trailer misrepresents the film, and that it's actually one of his best efforts in recent years (maybe those scantly-teased midnight sequences are really something...). And, to be fair, the trailer isn't a complete disappointment; Michael Sheen's role (a pompous pseudo-intellectual) looks like a blast, and as usual, the ensemble is terrific (at least on paper).

07. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, dir. Rob Marshall [May 20 - Wide]
I was never completely thrilled at the prospect of a fourth 'Pirates' film, but I can't deny that I do want it to be good. Keira and Orlando may be gone, but Penelope Cruz and Ian McShane are in, which gives me hope. And of course there's Depp and Geoffrey Rush, back in action and chewing the scenery up in the best sense of the term. I'm not terribly excited about the likely doomed romance subplot between a young sailor (Sam Claflin) and a mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), but hopefully it will only be a minor distraction. And even though Rob Marshall's had a rough few years, this lighter fare could potentially pay off in spades for him. There's also been hints that, if the 3D trailer was any indication, this is one of the best uses of post-conversion 3D work to date.

06. X-Men: First Class, dir. Matthew Vaughn [June 3 - Wide]
Though Captain America will take us back to the 1940s, you'll have a chance to enter the 1960s one month earlier in Matthew Vaughn's (Kick Ass) prequel. The story isn't the most enticing, as we know that a good number of the major characters will survive. The real draw here is the cast, even if it is Jackman-free. Led by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, the film is rounded out with the likes of Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne, Kevin Bacon, and January Jones. The story could also prove more interesting than other superhero flicks, because it has more to focus on than simple The (Lone) Hero's Journey. Watching McAvoy and Fassbender go from friends to archenemies should be great fun. There's always the chance that this will be a disaster, but it's hard to believe it will be anything other than an improvement over Wolverine.

05. Crazy, Stupid, Love, dirs. Glenn Ficarra & John Requa [July 29 - Wide]
Mainstream romantic comedies are in a dire state right now, which is why I'm hoping that Crazy, Stupid, Love will prove to be an exception. Story-wise, there's nothing noteworthy; man with broken marriage gets his groove back from hot ladies man. The draw here, like the previous entry, is the cast. Steve Carrell and Ryan Gosling are our male leads, with Julianne Moore and Emma Stone as their respective interests, along with Marissa Tomei as a woman the newly single Carrell falls for. And it's not just the cast that's impressive; the trailer feels legitimately funny (hopefully it's not a case of the best bits all being used up in the promos), especially Moore's killer delivery on that Twilight joke. And best of all, Katherine Heigl and Jennifer Aniston are nowhere in sight.

04. Thor, dir. Kenneth Branagh [May 6 - Wide]
Look for the god of thunder to take the box office by storm upon its debut. The latest superhero adaptation from Marvel Studios, and one of the first major summer blockbuster hopefuls, is following in the footsteps of Iron Man, in that it's earning surprisingly strong reviews (currently sitting at 94% on RottenTomatoes). Not that the film wasn't going to make solid money anyway, but such strong early press can only help. Apparently unknown leading man Chris Hemsworth gives a star-making performance, while Kat Dennings steals the show as the film's comic relief. In essence, it's the ideal summer movie: big, loud, and flashy, but also engaging and with the right amount of humor to keep it from becoming laughably self-serious.

03. Super 8, dir. JJ Abrams [June 10 - Wide]

The teases began just shy of a year ago. A truck slid onto train tracks, a train derailed, and a tightly locked steel door burst open before the screen cut to black. Since then, we've been given significantly more information, although master of mystery Abrams has yet to give us even the tiniest glimpse of whatever 'it' is. Instead of looking like a run of the mill monster tale, though, Abrams' latest has a magical quality to it, suggesting a darker and grittier E.T. for the 2010s. The use of young kids (including Elle Fanning), who happen to be aspiring movie makers, as protagonists only heightens the sense of adventure and wonder that Abrams is clearly striving for. Consider me sold.

2. The Tree of Life, dir. Terrence Malick [May 27 - Limited]

In a career spanning almost 40 years, The Tree of Life marks Terrence Malick's fifth feature film. And, by the looks of it, it promises to be his biggest and grandest. A fan of evocative imagery, narration, and simplistic narratives, Malick's style can be a turn off for many. I'll admit, I don't really care for Days of Heaven or The New World (as gorgeous as they are). Still, I love Badlands and The Thin Red Line, and I can't deny that Malick is a visionary, even if I don't always agree with his stylistic choices. The Tree of Life, as vague as the title seems (in regards to the trailer, at least) conjures up images of the mysterious and mythical, and considering the tremendous amounts of buzz about the film (those loose 2001 comparisons are a huge draw, to say the least. Also, dinosaurs...), I have a hard time finding a reason not to go. The whole thing just looks so epic and haunting, simple and complicated, and I can't wait to see how Malick's latest work of visual poetry turns out. The only reason this isn't number one on my list is because of...

1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2, dir. David Yates [July 15 - Wide]
If ever a film earned the right to call itself "the motion picture event of a generation," this is it. It's been an incredible ride, regardless of whatever bumps there were along the way. As much as I hate to officially bid the series good-bye, I also can't wait for the end, and to see the book's action-packed second half (the Gringotts dragon!) come to life. Whereas 'Part 1' was full of character development and slow in pace (at times too slow), 'Part 2' looks like a massive, gorgeous adrenaline rush. It's the culmination of 10 years of film making, and I can't place this anywhere else but at number 1.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The end is near, Mr. Potter

I'm really beyond words at this point. This looks absolutely stellar, and July 15th can't get here soon enough. Done.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Trailer for Tarsem Singh's "Immortals" (or should we just call it '300 Pt. 2'?)

Director Tarsem Singh is no stranger to making stunningly beautiful films on a small budget. Hell, he financed The Fall entirely on his own dime. So surely, if given a $100 million budget and a Greek mythology epic, he'd go all out, free to make his vision with infinitely more freedom, yes? Actually, the opposite appears to be true, and I'm not sure if blame should fall on Singh, or the film's producers.

It should be noted that the producers also worked on Zack Snyder's 300, which might be part of the problem. Immortals has been generating buzz for its scale and imagery ever since it debuted a trailer at WonderCon a few weeks ago. And, despite all of Tarsem's visual talents, there's something off here; not a single image or sequence left an impression. It all feels too busy, and yes, too much like a 300 rip-off, only on a bigger scale (with some Clash of the Titans thrown in). Say what you will about 300, I know plenty despise it, but when that trailer first hit, I was captivated by its style and imagery. The same goes for Singh's The Fall, easily one of the most beautiful films of the past 20 years. Unfortunately, the mix of the two that is Immortals feels visually limp by comparison. Save for a few flashes of red, the color pallette is nothing but shades of gold and brown. Take a minute to compare that to The Fall, and you'll see why Tarsem's latest feels so underwhelming:

Monday, April 25, 2011

"Water for Elephants" - REVIEW

What is it that makes the circus so appealing? The clowns? The high-wire acts? The colorful costumes and slapstick humor? Probably all of them, to varying degrees. Variety is the key to a circus' success. And, when successful, the circus can be a captivating experience, even in the age of streaming films online; the connection that circus performers have with their live audiences is difficult to replicate, let alone capture. I say all of this because the following film, Water for Elephants, which has a great deal to do with the circus, mostly left me wishing that I was at one instead of in the movie theater.

This isn't to say that Francis Lawrence's film, an adaptation of Sara Gruen's acclaimed best-seller, is a bad one. It's simply a middling effort, one that fails to become truly involving or capture the magic. On the day of his final exam at Cornell, Jacob Jankowski, son of two Polish immigrants, learns that his parents have been killed in a car accident. He soon discovers that their home was mortgaged for his education, leaving him without a place to stay. Distraught and confused, he packs up some belongings and begins wandering along a train track, where he jumps aboard a late-night train. The train, as it turns out, houses the Benzini Brothers circus, run by August (Christoph Waltz) and headlined by star performer - and August's wife - Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). With his skills from veterinary school, Jacob slowly but surely becomes accepted into the circus by everyone from the crewmen to August.

Of course, at this point we know what's coming: the inevitable love affair/demonization of the 'other man.' Granted, Water for Elephants earns points for at least giving some context to August's dark nature, but as the film chugs ahead, it can't help but feel a bit too tidy and shallow. The film wants to look more at its characters lives and the dire situation of circuses in the Depression Era, but it all feels a bit thin. The standouts of the film are in the artistic and technical departments, with strong costume work really bringing the era alive. If only if the same amount of skill and passion had gone into the performances and writing. As characters, the one we best understand eventually becomes our domineering antagonist. Meanwhile, Pattison and Witherspoon's lovers have only middling chemistry. In the story department, there are vague hints of subplots that would better flesh out the hardships of the time period, which seem to have been either left on the cutting room floor, or left out from the script altogether. From what I can gather from friends who have read the source material, the film is a severely watered down version of the novel, to rather startling detriment. There are moments of uncertainty, but nothing that isn't resolved in an unsurprising way.

Weakest of all is how the story begins to lurch forward towards its conclusion in the last act. To his credit, Lawrence keeps the transitions between these lurches stable enough so that they aren't awkward or amateurish. Still, the final half hour leaves a lot to be desired, and concludes with an annoying neat and tidy ending. To be fair, the film is sporadically involving, and it's never offensively bad in any regard. It's just all too safe, tepid, and uninspired to be anything worthy of mention. The poster for Water for Elephants proclaims that "Life is the Most Spectacular Show on Earth." I entirely agree, because this film is anything but.

Grade: C+

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

"Bridesmaids" - REVIEW

With only a handful of exceptions, Saturday Night Live stars don't have the best track record of transitioning from sketch comedy to headlining feature films. For every Will Ferrell, there's half a dozen Julia Sweeneys floundering around in increasingly awful comedic vehicles. However, thanks to the magic hand of producer Judd Apatow, and some hard work of her own, current star Kristen Wiig may be on her way to becoming the next exception to the rule.

Wiig, who co-wrote the film with Annie Mumolo, stars as Annie, a down-on-her-luck woman whose best friend (Maya Rudolph) has picked her as the maid of honor for her upcoming wedding. As Annie tries to do her best to pull off the bachelorette party, as well as sort out her less-than-ideal love life, she has to deal with the bizarre group of bridesmaids.

Plot-wise, there's really nothing surprising to be found in Bridesmaids, and save for a few specifics, there isn't much in the limited plot that you won't see coming. Wiig and Mumolo's script is more interested in the character interactions and the jokes, and for the most part the approach works. While not a brilliant work of comedy, the film produces consistent laughs thanks to a sense of humor that perfectly matches Wiig's mix of goofiness and understated weirdness. Wiig makes a delightful leading lady, and keeps Annie (and the rest of the characters) from becoming a one-note role designed specifically for jokes. Even moments that feel like they could be an SNL sketch - a scene where Annie and Rose Byrne's Helen try to catch the attention of a traffic cop - don't become major distractions because, simply put, they're funny.

Backing up Wiig is a stellar ensemble of female comedic talent. Stand-outs go to Byrne, better known for her beauty (and TV's Damages) than for comedy, as a bitchy rival friend, and Melissa McCarthy as a brusque soon-to-be-relative of the bride. The bride herself, Ms. Rudolph, is given slightly less to do, and unfortunately has the 'straight' role of the bunch. Rounding out the party are Wendi McLendon-Covey (Reno 911!) and Ellie Kemper (The Office), as a stressed out mother of three, and an idealistic newlywed, respectively. Unfortunately, not everyone is given quite as much to do. As the film progresses, it's really Byrne and McCarthy who take center stage in supporting, while Covey and Kemper all but vanish after a certain point, which seems like a waste of talent.

As far as men are concerned, there are only two worth mentioning, played by Jon Hamm and Chris O'Dowd, each rather simplistic in spite of the talented actors in the roles. This is very much a woman-oriented film, and despite hitting plenty of familiar notes, Bridesmaids avoids becoming tired or tedious thanks to the strength of its triumphant female cast. There may be a wedding involved, but this is no Katherine-Heigl-romantic comedy (and that's for the best, isn't it?). The women are diverse, strong, independent, and most importantly, funny, and the film knows how to use each of them, even if they aren't all used enough. And in spite of the plot's lack of true suspense, Wiig deserves credit for deviating from the Apatow norm of going through a bunch of irreverent, silly, crude, and/or gross-out jokes before taking a sharp left turn into 'meaningful' territory. The softer side of the film is predictable, but also feels authentic and well-earned, even if everything does get tied up too neatly at the end. Bridesmaids may be a female-oriented comedy, but its humor, even in its weak moments, is universally appealing.

Grade: B

**Bridesmaids opens in US theaters on May 13th.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

"Certified Copy" - REVIEW

I sincerely hope that multi-national productions can be submitted for the Best Foreign Language film Oscar, because even though the year is young, competition is already fierce thanks to the French-Italian-Belgian co-production that is Certified Copy. The film, which includes dialogue in French, Italian, and English, picked up strong reviews at last year's Cannes Film Festival, in addition to a Best Actress prize for Juliette Binoche. Finally seeing the film, almost a year since its Cannes bow, I'm glad to say that both sets of accolades were richly deserved.

Opening in Tuscany, the film begins with writer James Miller (opera singer William Shimell) at a signing for his latest book, which argues that copies of original artwork are every bit as valuable as the original. Soon after, he stumbles into a dimly lit collection of artwork owned by Elle (Juliette Binoche). Tired of being stuck in hotels and conference rooms, James suggests they get some fresh air, and Elle decides to drive the pair to the nearby town of Lucignano. While there, a woman mistakenly refers to James as Elle's husband, and Elle never corrects her.

And once this happens, and the level of casual mystery enters Abbass Kiarostami's film, the film picks up considerably. Its opening moments can feel lagging and even tedious, if anything because it feels like a cousin of Before Sunrise/Before Sunset, only without the youth, vitality, or inherent charm. Kiarostami's film is considerably less romantic and much more melancholic, and this can be off-putting initially. However, the more time the pair spend together, the more quietly engaging the film becomes. Its pace never quickens, yet thanks to the sharp contrast in its characters, the material and subject matter, which could have easily become wildly pretentious, becomes something special, even if it can be a bitter experience.

As James and Elle continue their conversations, some meandering, some pointed, what starts out as a conversation on art evolves into a conversation on life, specifically the relationships between men and women, and their perceptions of the world. However, none of this would be worth it, though, without a compelling 'couple' at the center. This is where Certified Copy starts to get interesting, for better and for worse. To be clear, I have no complaints about Binoche, who is absolutely radiant throughout. Like the film, she grows more and more complex as the film progresses. She mixes emotional outbursts with restrained moments of sadness and anger under pressure, and masterfully executes a handful of crying scenes by barely crying at all. Her ability to emote so fluidly, in three languages no less, is impressive and rewarding to behold. Unfortunately, her acting partner is not quite as consistent. Despite a compelling, sonorous deep voice, Shimell can come off as either stiff or overly dramatic. The opera star's tendency to sprinkle his dialogue with pauses can sometimes come off as detrimental to the film's more free-flowing, casual style. It works in scenes with more heightened drama, specifically a fight at an otherwise empty Italian eatery. Yet compared to his co-star, it's hard not to feel ever-so-slightly let down by the realization that Binoche's primary acting counterpart can't always match her. The film also has a tendency to linger too long on shots, namely the almost agonizingly long opening credits.

Even so, it's hard not to be impressed with the way Kiarostami weaves his simultaneously simple and complicated story of a man and a woman testing the limits of their relationship over the course of a day. It can be meandering, and in spots a little unsatisfying, but it's hard to deny the overall strength of the director's latest. It may lack the feel good romanticization of similar films, but makes up for it with astute writing and a good deal of superb acting. It's not a perfect film, one that teeters between being 'very good' and 'great,' but at its best, it is unquestionably a work of art, regardless of how many copies of it exist.

Grade: B+

Saturday, April 16, 2011

"Scream 4" - REVIEW

It began 15 years ago with a phone call and a simple question: what's your favorite scary movie? For the following 10 minutes, we watched two events happen. The first was Drew Barrymore being terrorized and then brutally stabbed to death. The second was the birth of a new form of self-aware horror, courtesy of Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson, and it was called Scream.

Jump forward 15 years, and after two sequels (one good, one not so good), Craven's franchise, like a movie monster back for one last jump-scare, is back in theaters, for better or for worse. Admittedly, I've never been a huge devotee of the series, although I remember really enjoying the first, and laughing at (rather than with) the third. Yet of all the horror franchises at risk for being run into the ground as part of a cash grab, Scream always seemed like the one that actually deserved to return to theaters, but never did. Of course, after so many years and changes in horror (namely the rise of torture-porn like SAW) and technology, there were doubts as to whether Scream 4 could keep up. Thankfully it has, and despite its fair share of problems, the fourth film in the meta-slasher series is a hugely enjoyable experience (seeing it with a sizable audience is highly recommended).

After a pitch perfect and absolutely hysterical opening (further details would only take away from the surprise(s)), we begin to catch up with the old (surviving) characters, along with a handful of new ones. Sidney Prescott (Neve Campell), now a successful author, has returned to Woodsboro on the 15th anniversary of the killings that took place in the first film, as part of a publicity stunt by her agent (Community and Mad Men's Alison Brie). Meanwhile, Dewey (David Arquette) has become head sheriff and has married Gale (Courtney Cox), who's having a bad case of writer's block. When two local girls are found murdered, and citizens receive calls using the infamous Ghost Face voice, the entire town goes on alert.

As far as basic plots go, there's nothing too surprising about the set up. What makes the film such a wild ride is the series' marked self-awareness, which comes from a variety of characters, especially a pair of movie geeks from Woodsboro HS (Rory Culkin and Eric Knudsen). So as Sidney and others are attacked by the new incarnation of the Ghost Face Killer, the film is a mix of genuine scares, and huge laughs, sometimes simultaneously. It's this combination that makes scenes that should otherwise be completely predictable (via editing and intrusive music) actually have some 'oomph' when they hit.

It's a good thing too, because despite its effective scares and laughs, Scream 4 is all over the place when it comes to characters. Sidney, the real survivor of the past three films, sometimes feels like an afterthought. Williamson's script feels like it's trying too much to balance the old characters with new ones, regardless of whether they get killed off or not. There are plenty of fun, heavy meta (excuse the awful pun) moments with the young cast, especially thanks to Hayden Panettiere's butch haircut (and the rest of her, as well), but the end result borders on being overstuffed. The film's middle, while never boring, also loses some steam, with comedic elements draining certain kills of intensity. The film also never fully utilizes the potential of technology. Yes, a character live-blogs some videos, and at one point the killer tries to film his own kill, but aside from quick mentions, Facebook and Twitter are never used; you'd think a film like this would lap up such opportunities.

However, despite its ups and downs, the thing that saves the film (though I'm sure many will disagree) is its ending. Along with its opening, the finale is the best part, because it so knowingly flies off the rails into complete lunacy, repeatedly one-upping itself with a big fat wink. For all of its little faults, Scream 4 is a return to what made the original film such an enjoyable landmark in mainstream horror. Were the Ghost Face Killer to call me and ask me for my favorite scary movie, I wouldn't give this as the answer. However, if the question was "what scary movie entertains you the most," Scream 4 would easily be near the top of my list.

Grade: B-

Thursday, April 14, 2011

2011 Cannes Film Festival Line Up

After much speculation of who would and wouldn't make it in, the Cannes Film Festival has finally unveiled its official roster of films, both in and out of competition. Here's the full list, courtesy of Empire Online:

Opening film:

Woody Allen - Midnight in Paris

Main competition:

Pedro Almodóvar - La Piel que Habito
Bertrand Bonello - L'Apollonide: Souvenirs de la Maison Close
Alain Cavalier - Pater
Joseph Cedar - Hearat Shulayim
Nuri Bilge Ceylan - Bir Zamanlar Anadolu'da
Jean-Pierre et Luc Dardenne - Le Gamin au Vélo
Aki Kaurismäki - Le Havre
Naomi Kawase - Hanezu No Tsuki
Julia Leigh - Sleeping Beauty
Maïwenn Le Besco - Polisse
Terrence Malick - The Tree of Life
Radu Mihaileanu - La Source des Femmes (The Source)
Takashi Miike - Ichemei (Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai)
Nanni Moretti - Habemus Papam
Lynne Ramsay - We Need to Talk About Kevin
Markus Schleinzer - Michael
Paolo Sorrentino - This Must be the Place
Lars Von Trier - Melancholia
Nicolas Winding Refn - Drive

Un certain regard

Opening film:

Gus Van Sant - Restless

Bakur Bakuradze - The Hunter
Andreas Dresen - Halt auf Freier Strecke
Bruno Dumont - Hors Satan
Sean Durkin - Martha Marcy May Marlene
Robert Guédiguian - Les Neiges du Kilimandjaro
Oliver Hermanus - Skoonheid
Sangsoo Hong - The Day He Arrives
Cristián Jiménez - Bonsái
Eric Khoo - Tatsumi
Ki-duk Kim - Arirang
Nadine Labaki - Et Maintenant On Va Ou?
Catalin Mitulescu - Loverboy
Hong-jin Na - Yellow Sea
Gerardo Naranjo - Miss Bala
Juliana Rojas, Marco Dutra - Trabalhar Cansa
Pierre Schoeller - L'exercice de L'etat
Ivan Sen - Toomelah
Joachim Trier - Oslo, August 31

Out of competition:

Xavier Durringer - La Conquête
Jodie Foster - The Beaver
Michel Hazanavicius - The Artist
Rob Marshall - Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Midnight screenings

Peter Ho-Sun Chan - Wu Xia
Everardo Gout - Dias de Gracia

Special screenings:

Frederikke Aspöck - Labrador
Rithy Panh - Le Maître des Forges de L'enfer
Michael Radford - Michel Petrucciani
Christian Rouaud - Tous au Larzac

Even though several major titles (Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method) weren't selected (likely due to incompletion), this year's festival has more than enough big-name talent coming its way. The opening night selection, Midnight in Paris, the latest from Woody Allen, is filled with big names (Rachel McAdams, Owen Wilson, Marion Cotillard, Michael Sheen), and that's just the beginning of the 11 day festival.
There's also The Tree of Life, which is surprisingly in competition, despite having a London premiere before its Cannes bow (Cannes generally requires in competition entries to have their world premiere at the festival). Of all of the titles from the festival that I'm anticipating, this is easily at the top of my must-see list, and I can't wait to see the reactions. Malick's films are generally well-liked, but they certainly have their detractors; I'm dying to hear how fierce the debates are, both about the film's meaning and its overall quality.

Also on my radar are The Skin That I Inhabit and Melancholia, from Pedro Almodovar (Volver) and Lars von Trier (Dancer in the Dark) respectively. Almodovar has temporarily taken a break from working with muse Penelope Cruz, in favor of reuniting with Antonio Banderas.
The film has been described as the director's first foray into the thriller and horror genres, and with Almodovar's dramatic flair and vibrant color palette, I'm dying to see what he comes up with. The same goes for Melancholia, which appears to be an anti-disaster disaster movie.
Opening with the destruction of the earth, the film them goes back in time to focus on how earth's impending doom affects two sisters (Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg). It's been described as von Trier's most mainstream film to date, though I'm sure there's some bit of insanity that hasn't been shown or hinted at in the trailer.

On the less flashy side of things is Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk About Kevin, a drama about a woman (Tilda Swinton) who tries to reconnect with her (ex?) husband (John C. Reilly) after their son goes on a Columbine-like killing rampage. I haven't seen any of Ramsay's previous work, but I'll see anything led by Swinton, even if the subject matter does sound almost unbearably grim.
Swinton's past two performances, in Julia and I am Love, garnered significant praise, but failed to gain any awards season traction. However, if the film is picked up for release this year and receives decent enough reviews, Swinton might not have to go 3 for 3. Who knows, she might even end up being a contender for the actress prize at Cannes. There's also Joachim Trier's Oslo, August 31, the director's second full-length film after the excellent Reprise (2008). IMDb has no plot synopsis (or full cast list) at the time, but I look forward to seeing what this promising writer/director has come up with for his next film.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

All the Geek's Men: 2011 Superhero Trailer Showdown

There's already been plenty written about the number of super hero movies arriving in theaters this year (one down - Green Hornet- and four to go at least). Obviously 2011 is going to be the year of Marvel and DC. And with no prominent sequels (well, not technically), all four of the major comic book movies on the horizon are all origin stories of sorts. So, with the summer movie season right around the corner, let's take a quick look at the four major super hero flicks coming our way over the next few months, and see why they look good, bad, just plain silly, or all of the above.

Thor (May 6) - dir. Kenneth Branagh:
No, you didn't read that wrong; Kenneth "Shakespeare addict" Branagh is in the director's chair for the film adaptation of Thor. Based loosely (very, very loosely) on characters from Norse mythology, Branagh's film follows the titular Thor (Chris Hemsworth) as he is cast out of his world (Asgard) and into ours. And judging by the trailer, a great deal of when-worlds-collide mayhem ensues.

Why: Hemsworth may be a relative unknown, but he's surrounded by a impressive roster of cast mates, including Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgaard, Anthony Hopkins, Michelle Monaghan, and current good-God-she's-everywhere star Natalie Portman. Additionally, the effects and production values looks pretty solid, and the film seems to have a sense of humor, mostly courtesy of Dennings' quirky assistant.

Why Not: It seems to want to cram in an awful lot. The fight scenes in Thor's world look more interesting than those in our world, but they look like they might be the sort of thing that gets condensed into an opening montage or flashback. The second (and much better) trailer, makes the film look more epic, but some of the effects look a little lazy/unfinished (although that was in February). Also, with so much to cover (in terms of characters, story threads, and locations), one has to wonder if the film can do justice to everything it's trying to take on in its first installment (even with a 130 min run time).

Trailer Grade (1): B-/C+
Trailer Grade (2): B

X-Men: First Class (June 3) - dir. Matthew Vaughn:
After the, er, less-than-stellar film that was Wolverine, the X-Men franchise is jumping back to the 60s to tell the story of how Prof. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) came to create his school for mutants, in turn making his best friend Eric/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) become his archenemy.

Why: Despite its big budget trappings, the cast is decidedly more indie/art house, with names like McAvoy, Fassbender, Rose Byrne, and Jennifer Lawrence. Even more encouraging is the presence of Matthew Vaughn, who was able to make dynamic and effective action sequences on a very small budget in Kick Ass.

Why Not: This is one of those sequels/prequels that makes me wonder if it really needs to exist. We know which characters (among the majors) will live, which could potentially kill any drive or tension in the story. There's also so many characters with special powers, and the film could have trouble giving each a moment to shine.

Trailer Grade: B/B-

Green Lantern (June 17) - dir. Martin Campbell:
The other green guy hitting theaters this year is the Green Lantern, a super hero who was always interesting (to me, at least) because he was part of a guild of heroes with the same powers. Usually heroes are stand alone or part of a group of diverse heroes (The Justice League, The Avengers, etc...). The hero here is Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds), a test pilot who becomes part of the order of the Green Lanterns (probably not the official name) after a member crash-lands on earth and bequeaths his ring of power to him.

Why: Unfortunately, there aren't too many reasons why for this one. The main draw is simply the character himself, and a handful of decent look VFX action shots. The 100% motion capture suit/VFX suit gets points for originality and detail. That is except for...

Why Not: The face mask. Of all of the parts of Jordan's suit, the face mask looks too separate from Reynolds' face, and it hasn't improved from the first trailer to the Wonder Con footage. Also, Reynolds' main romantic interest, Blake Lively, manages to give a bad impression in her single line of dialogue ("This test,'s imPORtant!"). The overall effect looks only marginally better than the two Fantastic Four films.

Trailer Grade: C

Captain America (July 22) - dir. Joe Johnston:
You probably don't remember the Captain America movie from the 1990s, and there's a very good reason for that. In addition to looking extraordinarily cheap, it's also insanely awful. Suffice it to say that surpassing Hollywood's first attempt at this classic hero isn't going to be a Herculean task, not that Joe Johnston and crew shouldn't be trying.

Why: Of all of the superhero flicks coming out this summer, this is the one that - from its trailer - most thoroughly seems to immerse itself in its own world. Johnston's vision of the WW2-set origin tale has a touch of pulp adventure story to it, and it totally works. The production values have are somewhat cartoon-y, but also very lush and convincing. And even though Chris Evans may be the star, it's the supporting cast that's the real draw, namely Hugo Weaving as the Captain's archenemy, Red Skull.

Why Not: Joe Johnston's last film, The Wolfman, was also a lush looking period film, but that wasn't enough to make up for the director's (and writer's) failings. Also, in such a cynical time, will a hero who screams "AMERICA #1 ALL THE WAY!!!!" even from his costume even work, or will it just come off as laughably over-patriotic?

Trailer Grade: B/B+

Monday, April 11, 2011

"Hanna" - REVIEW

When Kick Ass opened last April to mixed reviews (and controversy), one thing seemed to be generally agreed upon: audiences loved Chloe Moretz's Hit Girl, and many likely clamored for a spin-off. Now, just under a year later, Joe Wright and Saoirse Ronan have given us something close to that dream, albeit with a completely different tone and approach, in Hanna.

Wright's latest film, only his fourth, marks a major departure from previous work (the wonderful Pride and Prejudice and Atonement). However, unlike his last foray into the present (the terribly dull The Soloist), Wright's latest shows the director in a return to form, successfully blending a mix of genres. The end result is something of an art house action thriller that is eerie, beautiful, and at times very, very strange.

Raised in the wilderness by her father Eric (Eric Bana), Hanna (Ronan) has been trained from birth to take care of herself. As the opening act progresses, we begin to understand that Hanna is clearly being trained...for something. She memorizes a fake identity and backstory for herself, all in preparation for her mission, which involves her deliberate capture. Enter Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), a CIA operative who has been waiting for Eric to re-emerge from hiding for years.

As we follow Hanna (and Eric for brief moments) as she journeys across Morocco, Spain, and Germany, her story, and the film as a whole, become stranger and stranger, mostly to the film's benefit. The script takes its time with developments, never rushing for the sake of getting Hanna from point A to B. When Hanna meets up with a British family on a road trip (headed by Olivia Williams and Jason Flemying), the film becomes quite funny, despite the looming threats of Marissa and her henchman Isaacs (Tom Hollander). In the scenes with the family, Hanna really allows its protagonist to develop further than merely as a fish out of water (which Wright executes with great skill in a scene in a Moroccan hotel). It's the first time when we get to see that Hanna is more than a super-skilled killing machine; she's actually a teenage girl, albeit a highly unusual one.

Making both of these facets of the character wholly believable is young Ms. Ronan, showing a maturity that seems eerily beyond her years. Like her co-star, Ms. Blanchett, Ronan is an inherently commanding presence. She flips the switch between killer and real girl so effortlessly, all the more impressive because the character isn't the most talkative person. Other roles are decently played, though no one is really given enough to make a mark. That is, except for Blanchett, slathering a thick Texas drawl on her lines, to hugely entertaining effect. Blanchett has a tendency to play more sympathetic characters in film, so it's a bit of a joy to see the actress cut loose in such a cold, menacing role. Wright works wonders with the performance as well, using a close up of Blanchett's wide-open eye to deliver a spectacular little jump near the film's end.

This of course brings us to the film's third biggest star, Mr. Wright himself. The film's screenplay, courtesy of David Farr and Seth Lochhead, certainly has its shortcomings. In spots it's too vague, and I'm sure the more I think about the film, the more little plot holes will pop up (they deserve credit though, for not feeling the need to over-explain everything). And that's why Wright deserves so much credit for making this film work. The director's visual flair remains fully intact despite the modern setting, and scenes across all locations are richly shot and decorated. The director even gets to throw in his most notable trick, a tracking shot, to superb effect in a slow-building pursuit that explodes into a fist fight. Action scenes as a whole are effective as well, because they're used strictly to further the plot, and are supported by characters who are actually in danger (please take notice, Zack Snyder). Aiding him in his vision is a pulsating score from The Chemical Brothers, which, despite being played too loud at times, adds immeasurably to the flow and ambience of scenes. In some spots, the style becomes a little too much and draws too much attention to itself. But on the whole, the elements mesh to constantly engaging effect.

Whatever its issues, and there are issues, Hanna is most certainly a case where a director (and his cast) elevate flawed material into something better than it was strictly on paper. In Wright's hands, what could have been a scatter-shot attempt at an artsy thriller becomes wholly compelling, even if it is somewhat on the shallow side. At its best, it's as cool and compelling as its protagonist's icy blue stare, and that's no small accomplishment.

Grade: B

Friday, April 8, 2011

Trailer for "Melancholia" (Lars von Trier's end of the world drama)

After promising no more happy endings in his films (because Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, and Antichrist were all so uplifting), Lars von Trier's latest film takes us to the end of time...literally. Melancholia, which originally was set to star Penelope Cruz, if you can't quite tell from the trailer, begins with a planet colliding with Earth, before it jumps back and looks at the relationship of two sisters (Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kristen Dunst). Sci-fi elements aside, this looks surprisingly normal for von Trier, especially when compared to the psycho-freak outs of Antichrist or the stripped-down-to-nothing approach of Dogville. The performances of the lead actresses certainly look impressive, though, and maybe by returning to more of his dogme 95 roots, von Trier will be able to give art house audiences something less, well, insane. That would be a nice change of pace.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Three from the weekend: "Win Win," "Source Code," and "Of Gods and Men"

Win Win - dir. Thomas McCarthy: Writer/director Thomas McCarthy, in only three films, clearly has one thing on his mind: strangers being brought together by chance. His first two features, the excellent The Station Agent (2003) and the so-so The Visitor (2008), have explored this through less conventional setups. With his third film, however, McCarthy inches towards more mainstream territory, without ever falling prey to conventions. Win Win may be advertised as some indie love child of Juno and The Blind Side, but sports (here, wrestling) aren't really what the film is about.

As McCarthy and his cast (led by Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, and Alex Shaffer) explore the impact that a troubled teen (Shaffer) has on a family who takes him in, character remains front and center. Yes, there are wrestling matches, but the film never defaults to the typical arc of following the protagonists as they head towards some sort of championship. The sport is used to help us understand the characters as they express themselves through it, whether they be athletes, coaches, or spectators. For Mike (Giamatti), it's about finally having something in his life go right, and for Kyle, it's about finding a moment in his hectic life where he can be in control.

The results, for the most part, are quietly impressive. The entire cast is in top form, especially Giamatti, who plays off of Shaffer with a chemistry that anchors the film beautifully. Special mention should also go to Amy Ryan as Mike's tough but supportive wife, and Melanie Lynskey as Kyle's troubled mother. And despite taking a while to get to the central plot, McCarthy allows events to unfold naturally, always holding your attention without rushing things for the sake of getting to big moments. The film may have a slightly more conventional feel to it, yet it never feels predictable while watching it, because McCarthy so effectively draws you into his story with nice characterization, and occasional moments of humor.

Yet for all of the successes of Win Win, there are a few minor losses. Bobby Cannavale's loud-mouthed best friend, though played well by the actor, feels a bit forced for the sake of a constant source of comic relief. And despite his skill as a director and writer, McCarthy does occasionally have awkward shifts from quieter dialogue to surprisingly intense line readings. And while never particularly advertised as a comedy, some attempts at humor don't quite stick. But overall, these are relatively minor complaints next to the film's strengths, of which there are many. McCarthy has crafted a strong follow-up to his previous features, and while it's not a masterpiece, one can't help but feel that it won't be long before the director finally creates one.

Grade: B

Source Code - dir. Duncan Jones:
When Duncan Jones' debut feature, Moon (2009), hit indie theaters, it was clear that a new talent was emerging. With his second feature, Jones certainly takes a more mainstream approach, yet thankfully manages to avoid the much-dreaded sophomore slump.

After an arresting opening set to vaguely Hitchcockian music (courtesy of Chris Bacon) that ends with a train exploding outside of Chicago, we (along with protagonist Jake Gyllenhaal) are thrown into a dingy room filled with monitors. Gyllenhaal's Colter Stevens has been recruited (using that word loosely here) into a special program than enables counter-terrorism forces to relive 8 minutes in time to gather evidence (without altering the past, only aiding the present).

In a strange way, everything that's right and wrong with Source Code becomes apparent fairly quickly. It's nicely shot (so much blue, much blue), and is engaging despite its inherently repetitive structure. Yet as the film goes on, one can't help but feel that Ben Ripley's script is the odd fusion of two very different drafts, one more centered on thrills, and the other more on character study via sci-fi surroundings. This is appropriate, of course, considering the nature of Jones' Moon, a film that used a sci-fi setting for backdrop instead of dazzling visuals and explosions. But with that film, Jones' (and the film's) goal was clear.

With Source Code, the awkward mix leaves the thrills feeling rather lightweight and inconsequential, while the human side of the story, ripe with potential, doesn't feel as though its been done true justice. Ripley clearly means for there to be a connection between Colter and now-dead passenger Christina (Michelle Monaghan), but since their time(s) spent together are so limited, and the larger real-time flow of events feels so small, it's difficult to buy that Colter would really feel a desire to try and save her. He certainly has other, stronger motivations to do so, but the overall effect doesn't feel fully formed.

On the other side of things, the film remains watchable and enjoyable thanks to nice work from its thoroughly engaging cast. Gyllenhaal makes a compelling leading man, and his chemistry with Monaghan and Vera Farmiga's government agent work, even when their dialogue can verge on tedious (wouldn't it actually save time to fully explain the situation so that Colter would stop demanding answers?).

But overall, it's hard not to view Source Code without feeling mildly disappointed. The script seems fully prepared to explore avenues in Colter's character that would have made for a great performance piece. However, by slanting the script slightly in favor of its more mainstream elements, the film feels diluted, and becomes more of a minor pleasure, than a significant follow up from a promisingly talented director.

Grade: B-

Of Gods and Men - dir. Xavier Beauvois:
The saying that a movie "isn't for everyone" has always struck me as silly. Regardless of whatever unanimous praise (from critics, audiences, or both) a film receives, there's really no such thing as a film without detractors. What the phrase should be saved for is films like Of Gods and Men, which will most certainly divide audiences. Some will find it beautiful, others completely boring, and some, like me, will land somewhere in the middle of it all.

Based on a true incident, Beauvois' film, which took the Grand Prize (2nd place) at Cannes in 2010, centers on a group of Trappist monks stationed with an impoverished village in Algeria. When Muslim extremists begin to take over the town and threaten outsiders, the monks must decide whether to flee to safety in their native France, or remain with their community.

Faith is always a tricky matter on screen, and if there's one thing Beauvois and his co-writers deserve credit for, it's the maturity and grace with which they tell the story. Granted, the monks are generally presented as good, and the extremists as bad, but neither side ever becomes one-note or cartoon-ish. Aiding the film along the way are a handful of fine performances led by Lambert Wilson and Michael Lonsdale as two of the monastery's leadership figures.

Where things get tricky, however, are in Beauvois' pacing and approach. The film is, thankfully, free of manipulative moments, and most of its scenes have a quiet (vvvvvvery quiet), every-day-life quality to their content. We see the monks go about their own rituals, interact with the townspeople, and give medicine to the sick. But this is what takes up most of the film, save for a few moments of jarring aggression and violence on the part of the extremists. And considering the film runs 2 hours, one can't help but feel that Beauvois could have kept his pacing intact, yet simply made the whole thing shorter. It certainly doesn't need its run time to make impact. When Beauvois and co. want to hit you, they do, namely a scene involving "Swan Lake" that easily packs the biggest emotional punch of the year so far. So at the end of the day, Beauvois' film, despite its shortcomings and dry stretches, is ultimately an effective and powerful film about faith and heroism, that's simply in need of a little trimming.

Grade: B

Monday, April 4, 2011

Poster revealed for the 64th Cannes Film Festival

While last year's Juliette Binoche-ified poster was playful, this year's is a little bit retro and completely elegant. Showcasing Faye Dunaway (from a little seen film of hers from the 70's), and clean, simple numbers, I think this is one of my favorites from the recent string of Cannes posters. The festival is sure to be interesting this year, with big titles like The Tree of Life. Other possible contenders (please please please) include David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method (so that's where you've been, Keira Knightley), Pedro Almodovar's The Skin I Inhabit, and the Tilda Swinton drama We Need to Talk About Kevin. And, as will be the case for many of the entries at the festival (thankfully, none of the four listed), it will mark that long countdown between hearing about an intriguing film, and that film's actual release state side.