Monday, May 30, 2011

The Netflix Files: May 20-29

It's been way too long since I've added another entry to either the "what I watched this week" or "best of the month" series. However, with summer in full swing, I figured I ought to get both of these running again while I have free time. First thing's first: what I watched this week is now going under the name The Netflix Files. Now that that's out of the way, it's time to play catch up:

Solaris (1972) dir. Andrei Tarkovsky:
Often considered something of a Russian answer to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Tarkovsky's adaptation of Stainslaw Lem's sci-fi novel deserves to stand on its own. It may be set largely in space, and feature mysterious and difficult concepts, but it couldn't be any different from Kubrick's masterpiece. Solaris uses its sci-fi trappings and setting to explore memory, grief, and loss, often offering answers as challenging as the questions it poses. It can be a difficult watch based on length alone, and it probably demands a second (and third, and fourth, and fifth, etc...) viewing, but even on a first watch, it's hard to not be impressed. There are times when the pacing can grow tiresome; a lengthy sequence involving showing a car driving on the highway goes on and on without any purpose or direction. It's magnetic to watch at first, but it doesn't take long before it falls victim to too-much-of-a-good-thing syndrome. Still, I'd be hard-pressed not to label Solaris, my first venture in Tarkovsky's filmography, something of a masterpiece in its own right, as difficult as it can be.

Grade: A-

Hour of the Wolf (1968) dir. Ingmar Bergman:
Bergman, for me, is one of those beloved auteurs who oscillates between hypnotically brilliant and frustratingly obtuse, sometimes within a single film. Hour of the Wolf is one of those entries in his canon that is both. The closest that Bergman ever ventured into horror territory, it's a consistently interesting film, one that uses small details to slowly create a sense that all is not well on the island where Johan and Alma live (Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann). As things become more overtly disturbing and surreal, the layering of symbolism throws some bumps in the road, obscuring the point(s). Von Sydow and Ullmann give committed performances as a couple facing a potentially malevolent group of wealthy neighbors, played by an ensemble of actors committed to creating a perfectly unsettling atmosphere. Like Solaris, it probably deserves a second viewing, but unlike Tarkovsky's film, Hour of the Wolf's initial impression is equally memorable, but not nearly as satisfying.

Grade: B

Orlando (1992) dir. Sally Potter:
Gender roles is the name of the game with Sally Potter's adaptation of Virginia Woolf's time traveling short story. Considered a break-out performance for Tilda Swinton, Orlando traces the 400 year life of Orlando, a young nobleman in Queen Elizabeth's (Quentin Crisp) court. Playing Orlando as both a man and a woman, Swinton's work is both mesmerizing and more vulnerable than the ice queen roles she's known for. Aiding the film, spectacularly I might add, are the art direction and costume design, which gorgeously capture four centuries worth of clothes and castles. It's a visually ravishing journey across time, filled with lush colors and intricate designs courtesy of Oscar favorite Sandy Powell. The beautiful music only adds to this quietly mesmerizing journey. Dialogue is occasionally stiff, but Swinton's compelling work and the immaculate design help lend this odd little gem some heft, creating an impressionistic look at one person experiencing both genders.

Grade: B/B+

La Ceremonie (1996) dir. Claude Chabrol:
Considered to be Chabrol's finest work from the 90s, this domestic drama-turned thriller is the sort that slowly lures you in, only to throw you for a loop with a chilling climax. Led by stellar work from Sandrine Bonnaire and Isabelle Hupert, this tale of a soft-spoken maid and her relationship with a coarse mail woman is consistently interesting. It throws details out slowly, keeping the viewer on edge. We get the sense that something more has to happen than these two women befriending each other, but it's quite hard to tell where it will go. When the film arrives at its ending, you'll likely feel the temperature drop. Chabrol's execution is so matter-of-fact, and La Ceremonie achieves its impact because of it. Coupled with a strangely poetic ending, this domestic thriller is one you won't soon forget.

Grade: A-

David Fincher's Dragon Tattoo (fixed)

I initially wanted to hold off on commenting on the leaked red-band trailer for David Fincher's re-adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but since I can't seem to stop watching it, I might as well go ahead. First, for those who haven't seen, here's the camcorder-video, taken from somewhere in Europe (where the trailer is already showing in theaters). **The red-band trailer has since been removed from Youtube by Sony. Here is the (non HD) green-band trailer:

Now, with any US re-do of a major foreign film, there's sort of an unwritten rule among movie lovers. We're supposed to decry, or at least be highly skeptical of, Hollywood's shameless need to rip-off foreign work, all so that American audiences don't have to *gasp* read subtitles (!!!). However, this is one remake where I'm inclined to throw skepticism to the wind, and fully embrace the new version. Why? Because it's not entirely a remake. It's more of a re-adaptation, meaning that the film makers, including screenwriter Steven Zaillian, went back to Stieg Larsson's book, rather than the Swedish film. And according to an interview several months ago, Zaillian made the bold choice to alter the source material, which is refreshing in an age when so many literary adaptations try to be slavishly faithful to the text.

And with Larsson's books, that's a good thing. The Millennium Trilogy has certainly become a major literary phenomenon, but I've never been entirely sold on the hype (and so begins the umpteenth iteration of my rant on these books). Lisbeth Salander, originally played by Noomi Rapace, is the main draw in the trilogy. A bi-sexual punk/hacker with a dark (daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaark) past, she's a wonderful idea as far as characters go. That said, in Larsson's books, she comes across as a great idea of a character who isn't fully utilized. This is, in part, due to the fact that she competes for narrative importance with Stieg Larsson, er, I mean, Mikael Blomqvist, a crusading investigative journalist. I was never that drawn to Larsson's painfully obvious author insert (or, Gary-Stu), and his portrayal in the films by the unbearably bland Mikael Nyqvist certainly didn't help matters. As far as stories go, the trilogy has plenty of interesting moments, but was somewhat undone by Larsson's drawn out plots. The second novel, "The Girl Who Played with Fire," despite being my favorite, begins with an overlong introduction set in the Caribbean that has nothing to do with the rest of the intricate plot. This section was wisely cut for time on screen, one of the few things that was good about The Girl Who Played with Fire, which was something of a train wreck over all. To sum it up, Lisbeth Salander is a great idea who deserves to be the star of a better series of books...

..or maybe just better movies. This trailer may not have any dialogue, but it speaks volumes about why I'm so excited for Fincher's take on the story, and why I think it will blow the Swedish version out of the water. The images, many filled with Fincher's signature of blue and green tints, are intense and gritty, and Rooney Mara looks appropriately eerie/otherworldly as Lisbeth. We'll have to wait until December to debate whether she's better than Rapace, but she certainly seems capable of filling the role. More immediately impressive is Daniel Craig as Blomqvist. Not only does he seem less bland in the role, but he could potentially make Blomqvist a more interesting character. Zaillian's script reportedly makes Blomqvist less of a womanizer, which should help the character feel like less of a blatant stand-in for Larsson. Also along for the ride, behind-the-scenes, are Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who wrote the excellent (and Oscar winning) score for Fincher's The Social Network. You can get a small taste of Reznor in the trailer; the cover of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" is performed by Karen O and Nine Inch Nails, and adds a great, grungy vibe to the gritty visuals and icy locales. Sony is clearly having fun with the film's tough-as-nails image, labeling it the "feel bad movie of Christmas," and that only makes me more excited. All hail King Fincher.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Review: "Incendies"

A few weeks ago, in my review of The Double Hour, I made several comments about the delicate nature of plot twists, and how they can make or break a film. Despite my reservations about the big twist in Giuseppe Capotondi's film, insofar as to how it would be received by audiences, I came to think of myself as a fan. I bring this up because the film I'm about to discuss, the Canadian Oscar nominee Incendies, also incorporates several significant twists, but with uneven results.

Jumping between the present day and the Lebananon-set wars of the 70s, Incendies opens with brother and sister Simon and Jeanne Marwan receiving letters as part of their mother Nawal's (Lubna Azabal) will. The letters reveal a mission of sorts. They are to track down a father who they thought was dead, and a brother whose existence they've been ignorant of until now. Simon (Maxim Gaudette) has no desire to retrace his mother's past, leaving Jeanne (Melissa Poulin) to piece together a painful history by herself. As she begins her search in Lebanon, we see Nawal's devastating story unfold.

The film's title, when translated to English, roughly equates to 'scorched,' which is appropriate on several levels. But as a family drama/mystery, Incendies is very much a slow-burning story. Pacing is elegant and methodical, though never sluggish, and jumps between and among time periods and locations are handled efficiently, with bright red labels dividing the film based on characters or locations. As adapted from Wadji Mouawad's play by director Denis Villeneuve, the film sets its sights on communicating the lives of many by examining the lives of a few, and in this, it's a success. The wars in Lebanon, between right-wing Christian nationalists and Muslim refugees, destroyed many lives, and left scars on countless others. Villeneuve's mix of wide shots amid the scenes of searching, violence, and horror helps establish that the atrocities faced along the way were not limited to just a few. This is a stark film, one that is about excruciating pain, yet avoids countless opportunities to descend into overwrought, manipulative misery-porn.

As a commentary on the horrors of ethnic and religious violence, Incendies' somewhat exhausting story certainly leaves a harsh impact. However, the film's initial momentum, so elegant in its dispensation of information, starts to wear off. Throughout the first hour, maybe more, the images carry the movie, revealing horrible events both to us, and to the modern segment of the story. As it progresses, however, Incendies falls into the trap of telling instead of showing. Suddenly, we're given the present, the past, and characters in the present yapping about what happened in the past. The reintroduction of Simon later in the film only throws things further off balance. For a film that repeatedly references mathematics and equations, Incendies increasingly loses precision, made worse by how effective it is for the first half.

Upsetting the equation even further are two twists, doled out in relatively close proximity to each other. The first is acceptable. It acts as a perfectly horrid revelation that helps shed light on why Nawal kept the secret until her death. That Villeneuve feels the need to relay it to one character via mathematical dialogue is slightly less satisfying, and results in a gasp of shock that borders on funny. Unfortunately, a second arrives, and it's intimately linked to the first. In conjunction with each other, they threaten to send the film flying into soap opera territory. Villeneuve and his actors handle these twists well (aside from the aforementioned gasp), thankfully, and lend a sense of gritty naturalism to moments that should feel grossly out of place. Yet they still don't quite fit into the overall flow. The story is more than compelling enough as is, yet it begins to feel less like a natural progression of events, and more like a series of events built solely to culminate in horrific (not to mention Oedipal) shocks.

This leaves Incendies in a tricky place. It certainly has its merits, from the bare photography to the generally restrained performances. Azabal's work as the emotionally scarred Nawal is the most effective, seeing as this is more or less her story. We only see Jeanne and Simon develop as it relates to discovering their mother's past, and that development feels, at best, rather hollow. A third character (who I can't reveal) is also a potential goldmine for emotional exploration, but is reduced to little more than a bringer of trauma and a plot point. Like a busboy trying to balance too many plates, the increasing scope of the script begins to overwhelm the movie to the point where it becomes an unwieldy burden. And though the film's methodical pacing isn't an issue on its own, the overall running time left me ready for a denouement at several points before the final fade to black. As a work that wants to examine the broader consequences of religious and ethnic (and even gender) violence with a mix of the intimate and epic, Incendies certainly does scorch some images into your mind. The problem is simply that it doesn't know when to quit the deluge of misery in its quest to become some sort of modern Greek tragedy.

Grade: B-

Friday, May 27, 2011

Review: "The Hangover Part II"

It opens with an exasperated phone call. An exhausted and grimy-looking man named Phil (Bradley Cooper), contacts the bride of his friend Doug (Justin Bartha), to let her know that things have gone horribly wrong. The many who have seen 2009's The Hangover know this as the opening scene. The many who have yet to see the sequel likely don't know that I've also just described the opening of Part II.

For better or for worse, Todd Phillips' sequel to his '09 blockbuster could almost pass as a remake, considering how similar it is. Just as Baz Lurhmann relocated Romeo and Juliet to California, Phillips has relocated The Hangover to Bangkok, only with the same actors, and only 2 years later. The result is not necessarily a cash-grab. It has funny moments amidst the carbon-copy set-up and structure. It just makes you wonder why they bothered to essentially make the same movie over again, only with minor differences and set in an even seedier locale.

Not that there aren't some minor changes in the details. This time Stu (Ed Helms) is the one getting married, and the missing person isn't Doug, but the 16-year-old brother of the bride-to-be (Mason Lee). Come to think of it, Mr. Bartha's presence in the movie feels almost unnecessary, as he's not among those suffering from a disastrous hangover. The character who was once the object of a frenzied search has been relegated to the role played by his wife, receiving calls and asking "what happened?" Meanwhile, the original wolf pack of Phil, Stu, and Alan (Zach Galifianakis) goes through roughly the same routine as last time. They wake up disoriented, in a trashed room (although the inherently crappier room lessens the effect of any damage the characters caused). Instead of a missing tooth, Stu now has a tattoo which he doesn't remember getting, Alan's head is shaved, there's a vest-wearing monkey hanging around, and there's a finger in a bowl of melted ice. Phil just looks worn out, which I'm assuming is part of Cooper's secret contract wherein it states that he must always look attractive on screen.

As the trio traverse Bangkok and begin piecing another wild and crazy night back together, the film's reliance on formula rears its ugly head. It doesn't sink the film, but it robs it of the pseudo-mystery fun of the first. We now know to expect insane, outrageous happenings. So while some of the surprises may top the original in shock-value, the overall impact is muted. Still, the character interactions do produce some funny moments. Galifianakis' oddball antics generally prove to be a highlight, while Helms' freak-outs are perfectly pitched moments of exasperated hysteria ("All I wanted was a bachelor brunch!!!"). There's also Ken Jeong, reprising his role as the gangster Chow, earning solid laughs throughout. Cooper is generally there to be pissed off, rarely given anything actually funny to say or do. As far as "straight men" characters go, there's little that's interesting to him, especially considering what a sleazy jerk he can be. It's the sort of role that I suppose formula demands, but here in particular, it feels noticeable that most of what Cooper says is usually vulgar, without inspiring many laughs (not so for his co-stars).

General reaction to The Hangover Part II has been negative, and in some ways it's easy to see why. Phillips and co. have essentially remade the first movie, only without having to establish as many characters. Taken on its own, Part II probably seems much funnier. Under the shadow of the original, however, it's all a little too familiar, even though it's often amusing and occasionally hilarious. The decision to repeat the formula of the first film does not wreck this sequel. It merely renders its goal - to be a shock and awe campaign of what-just-happened comedy - somewhat diluted.

Grade: C+

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Trailer: "Take Shelter"

While it may not have picked up any awards from Robert DeNiro's journey, Jeff Nichols' film Take Shelter has quietly been picking up steam. The film was actually picked as the critics' favorite from the festival, which is saying something considering the heavy hitters at the festival (both in and out of competition). After seeing the trailer, it's easy to see why. This looks like an understated, yet eerie psychological thriller. Michael Shannon has been on the rise ever since Revolutionary Road (2008), and this could be a big breakout moment for him, at least on the indie circuit. And then there's Jessica Chastain, who will has at least 5, maybe 6 films hitting theaters this year (including the Cannes jury's favorite, The Tree of Life). Then there's Kathy Baker, always a welcome presence, who doesn't do nearly enough work these days. So that's: good cast, interesting premise, intriguing/eerie trailer, good early reviews. The only thing missing is a distributor to get the film into theaters this year.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

So, about those Cannes predictions...

Unlike last year, I seem to have completely misread the Cannes jury in just about every major category. The winners:

Palme D'Or: The Tree of Life Obviously those rumors about Tree not having many supporters on the jury was way off. Despite receiving some boos at its premiere, and being equally loved (maybe even less so) as Melancholia and We Need to Talk About Kevin, DeNiro and company gave Malick his second Palme (the first was for Days of Heaven).

Grand Prix [TIE]: The Kid with a Bike & Once Upon a Time in Anatolia I had a feeling the Dardennes wouldn't leave empty-handed. Anatolia is a bit more of a surprise, however, since I didn't get the sense that reaction was as positive.

Grand Jury Prize: Polisse An out of left-field choice, for sure. I heard almost nothing that suggested it could be a contender. From critics that is. Clearly the jury felt differently.

Best Director: Nicholas Winding Refn - Drive Now here's the real outside choice. Descriptions made Drive sound like an anti-Cannes type of film, but apparently Refn's direction, which has earned praise, was just what the jury wanted.

Best Actor: Jean Dujardin - The Artist

Best Actress: Kirsten Dunst - Melancholia

Best Screenplay: Footnote

Camera D'Or (first film): Marnya Vroda - Cross-Country

Review: "Everything Must Go"

It happens every so often, with varying degrees of success: the much-talked about funny-man goes dramatic movie. Yet for Will Ferrell, so often seen on screen as an obnoxious, socially obtuse buffoon, this is territory that has been visited before (06's Stranger Than Fiction). And, after seeing Everything Must Go, adapted from a Raymond Carver short story, one wonders why Ferrell doesn't try roles like this more often, because he's actually quite capable with them.

Everything Must Go opens with a rather typical set-up: a guy has an inordinately bad day. Here, that guy is Nick Halsey (Ferrell), who loses his job, his wife, and his house all in one fell swoop. He's now forced to live on his lawn, where his wife has left all of his belongings strewn about while she goes to live in some unknown location. Though he initially struggles with his new "home," Nick gradually befriends a local boy named Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace) and his new, pregnant neighbor (Rebecca Hall), both of whom help Nick dig out of his rut.

Dan Rush's adaptation of Carver's story is, appropriately, small. Small in scale, small in emotion, etc. Initially, this can be off-putting, with the opening 20-30 minutes coming off as too low-key to the point of being emotionally tone deaf. It's enough to leave one thinking that all Ferrell will be required to do is wear a vaguely sad mask for 100 minutes. Thankfully, the film finds its way out of this uneasy territory as its three main characters finally begin to interact with greater meaning and purpose. It's a movie of little moments, devoid of melodrama even when the story introduces a twist that could have potentially gone in that direction. The result is a movie that is gentle, but not saccharine, one that allows its emotions to play out naturally. When the film arrives at its two scenes of emotional outburst, they feel earned, and don't stick out from the rest of the story.

For Ferrell, it's the type of film that is stripped down enough to give the actor breathing room. Gone are the typically oafish tendencies of his mainstream roles. Nick is a real character, one worth sympathizing with, despite his share of faults. The screenplay might not necessarily go as deep into said faults as it could, but Ferrell is able to make the character's mix of confusion, desperation, and disappointment feel genuine. Young Mr. Wallace does a nice job as well, and his understated chemistry with Ferrell works, and helps provide the handful of laughs scattered throughout. In a slightly more peripheral role is Rebecca Hall, always a lovely presence. Hers is a role mostly relegated to ordinary conversation, yet when the time comes for her to bring her own conflicts out into the open, she handles them with a beautiful mix of strength and vulnerability. Characters further removed from Ferrell, like Laura Dern's former high school love interest, or Michael Pena's officer/AA sponsor are less successfully drawn (Dern is practically a glorified cameo), however.

But the film ultimately belongs to Ferrell, which is most certainly a good thing. He not only anchors this lightweight dramedy, but also turns in one of the best performances of his career. Like the film around him, his work initially feels modest, perhaps too modest. Yet as it develops over time, a small gem emerges. It's not a major work, but it deserves recognition for delivering a nice mix of drama and comedy, rendered on such an intimate scale.

Grade: B-

2011 Cannes Film Festival Predictions

The 64th Cannes Film Festival comes to a close today, and with it comes the Jury's picks for the best of the bunch. Festival juries are, in many ways, more interesting than other bodies like The Academy, in that 1) they're much, much smaller, and 2) they have to discuss among themselves, and come to a conclusion on their choices. And, if what I've read is correct, the jury will be upholding the tradition of limiting any particular film to 1 award, which rules out any sweeps. Festivals, in general, are more prone to allowing ties (like last year's Best Actor awards), which throws an interesting twist into the mix. Below are my guesses at who/what the Robert DeNiro-led jury will pick:

Palme D'Or: Le Havre One of the best received films in competition was this immigrant tale from Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki. It's been hailed for both its gentle humor and understated, moving drama. Critics also note that the film, while still retaining Kaurismaki's trademarks as a director, is one of his most accessible films, "and a veritable pleasure to experience" (The Film Stage). Big films like The Tree of Life (although apparently jury member Olivier Assayas was the lone fan) still have a shot, despite less unanimous praise. The twice-rewarded Dardennes brothers (for The Kid with a Bike) do too, as do small films like the hugely popular silent film The Artist. The jury could throw everyone for a loop and select The Skin I Live In, by Palme-less Almodovar, or even Von Trier's Melancholia, although that's hiiiiiiiighly unlikely. Le Havre remains the favorite, but unlike last year with Uncle Boonmee, there's more room for upsets.

Grand Prix (Runner Up): The Artist If this raved-about silent film doesn't surprise us by taking the Palme, it could very well land in second place. Among the competition line-up's most popular films, its wild mix of old and new techniques could make it a slam-dunk with the jury. That is, unless they weren't as charmed by it as the critics. And as much as I should write it off completely, I'm going to go ahead and say that Melancholia has a shot here, too. Despite some mixed reviews, the reaction was actually quite positive, and in two recent critics groups rankings, it's emerged near the top both times. Tree of Life could sneak in here too, if those rumors were wrong or if the jury came to like it better upon reflection/discussion. The Dardennes brothers could strike here too, if the jury really loves them but doesn't feel like giving them their third Palme.

Grand Jury Prize (second runner up): The Tree of Life

Best Director (Prix du Mise en Scene): Jean and Luc Dardennes -
The Kid with a Bike To be honest, this prediction is a complete shot in the dark. I have nothing on which to base it, and looking over potential contenders gave me no inclination towards any particular name. This could just as easily go to Almodovar, Malick, or even Nuri Ceylan for Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Hell, even Von Trier could be given a left-field surprise win.

Best Actor: Michael Piccoli - We Have a Pope Despite the iffy reception for Nanni Morretti's latest, critics were quite kind to the lead performances, especially Piccoli's portrayal of a man struggling with his ascension to the papacy. Other major contenders could easily spoil this, however. If The Artist doesn't land the Palme or Grand Prix, Jean Dujardin could take this for his turn as a silent film star facing the threat of sound films. Brad Pitt is also in contention for his raved about turn in The Tree of Life; along with Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography, Pitt's work was one aspect of the film that garnered rave reactions across the board. Sean Penn could sneak in too for This Must Be the Place, about an ex-rocker struggling to reconnect with his family's past.

Best Actress: Tilda Swinton - We Need to Talk About Kevin Not everyone loved Lynne Ramsay's latest, but it did receive its fair share of raves, which only strengthen Swinton's chances. The film doesn't seem loved enough for the top two prizes, but it is loved by some, which would only help drive more support to Swinton's universally acclaimed performance as a conflicted mother. Other possibilities include Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg for Melancholia (Von Trier does have a way with his actresses), and even Emily Browning for Sleeping Beauty. Browning is certainly the least likely, seeing as she did receive some rather negative reviews, but Cannes is no stranger to picking controversial winners.

Best Screenplay (Prix du Scenario): Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Review: "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides"

It was hard not to feel nervous about the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film. With the completion of the original trilogy, a fourth installment seemed like too obvious of a cash-grab. And perhaps that's all On Stranger Tides deserves to be remembered for. Even so, I have to question the intensity of some of the criticisms leveled at the series' latest, now directed by Rob Marshall (taking over for Gore Verbinski). Is On Stranger Tides a good movie? Probably not. Is it a cash-grab? Absolutely. Does it deserve to be labeled a fountain of maggots? Perhaps that's going too far.

Taking place an indeterminate amount of years after At World's End, this latest (now standalone) adventure traces Jack Sparrow's (Johnny Depp) quest for the fabled Fountain of Youth. While roped into the quest somewhat against his will, Jack must contend with the ferocious Blackbeard (Ian McShane), his daughter Angelica (Penelope Cruz), the Spanish navy, and Captain Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush), who has since joined England's navy. There's also something in there regarding mermaids and their tears. Plot-wise, it's all over the place, hopping between mild character interaction, exposition, and action set-pieces, some of which are entertaining, others of which are just there. The Spaniards, in particular, are used to ill-effect. The film's climax, a jumble of swords and guns, halts when they arrive, do what they please, and then simply depart for the film to resume.

As Capt. Jack and everyone else make their way for the Fountain, there are a handful of minor laughs, and the occasionally amusing bit of stunt work. Special effects and stunts are, at the very least, the one area where On Stranger Tides is closest in spirit to The Curse of the Black Pearl, with a greater emphasis on more grounded locales, rather than massive amounts of computer generation (for both sets and foes). Gone are the fishy crew of Davy Jones, in are flesh-and-blood sailors and pirates. Mermaids are here too, probably the film's flashiest special effect, but they're handled with surprisingly little fuss. Amidst all of this, I couldn't help but miss original director Gore Verbinski. Whatever the flaws of Dead Man's Chest and At World's End, Verbinski does have a knack for creating memorable scenes, often with a fantastic sense of pop surrealism. Marshall's work here lacks any of that. He merely puts the script on screen, with nothing new. It's merely Verbinski, minus the style and giddy enthusiasm.

Yet for all of these changes that harken back to the original, too often the magic, much like the rum, is gone. The odd moment or two works, such as a sequence where Jack tries to seduce Angelica with a candle-lit dinner. But by now the Jack Sparrow character, the biggest reason to see any of these movies, has been taken as far as it can go. Depp still has fun with the role, but I couldn't help but get the feeling that even he is running out of quirks to give his iconic character. Rush, Cruz, and McShane are all perfectly fine in their roles as well, but again, there's just no need for any of this. On Stranger Tides, silly as it is, does allow you to get caught up in its world, but that's mostly based on any goodwill built up from the first three films. It isn't a franchise-killing train wreck, but it has nothing that makes it a must see, either for the casual movie-goer or a die-hard Pirates fan.

This is particularly troubling because, even as a cash-grab, On Stranger Tides didn't have to be so tepid. If the Fast and Furious franchise can suddenly earn positive reviews on its fifth go-round, why shouldn't a franchise with more memorable characters be able to do so on its fourth? On Stranger Tides should have been a true re-invigoration for the series, whether or not it spawns any sequels. Instead, it's merely a mildly amusing diversion that shows how far the series has fallen from the wholly delightful original.

Grade: C

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Cannes Review Round-up: "Drive"

One film that I wasn't necessarily interested in at this year's Cannes was Drive, from Bronson director Nicholas Winding Refn. Despite a cast full of names I like - Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Christina Henricks - there was nothing about the premise (a getaway driver gets a hit put out on him) that really drew me in. Even the initial casting of Hugh Jackman in the lead couldn't get me psyched for this one. However, in a little twist, Refn's latest has earned some of the festival's most consistently positive reactions. They aren't all raves, but considering Cannes' notoriously outspoken audiences, having this sort of reception up against heavy hitters like Malick and Almodovar is something to keep an eye out for:
Rope of Silicon - Brad Brevet: (A+) "Pure cinema, pure entertainment, pure adrenaline."

The Film Stage - Raffi Asdourian: (B) "...Drive is still able to maintain Refn's signature antics while rarely losing focus, even if the film's bigger themes and messages sometimes hit the occasional awkward speed bump."

indieWire - Eric Kohn: (B+) "...Refn churns out a hyperactive love letter to road rage with unapologetic glee. It's a blast." "...within the larger context of contemporary big screen spectacles, Drive easily cruises to the top of the pack."

The Playlist - James Rocchi: (A) "Drive works as a great demonstration of how, when there's true talent behind the camera, entertainment and art are not enemies, but allies."

InContention - Guy Lodge (Twitter): (A-) "I won't lie to you: I pretty much want to have sex with this movie. Hot, clipped, nasty, beautiful. Best thing in competition."

The Hollywood Reporter - Todd McCarthy: (N/A) "...Refn has fashioned an atomospheric and engaging glorified potboiler that nonetheless seems powered by a half-empty creative tank."

The Guardian - Xan Brooks: (4/5 Stars) "It's too self-consciously retro, too much a series of cool, blank surfaces, as opposed to a rounded, textured drama." "The most they can hope for is to go down in a blaze of glory. Drive does, with bells on."

Variety - Peter Debruge: (N/A) "...a sleek, retro styled B-movie that benefits immensely from the aloof, virtually nihilistic edge Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn (Bronson) brings to the party." "Gosling is chillingly stoic..." "...doesn't quite know how to handle the character vacuum at its core, but compensates by surrounding its protag with a colorful supporting ensemble."

Additional Comments: Critics seem split on whether to criticize or embrace the seeming hollowness of Gosling's nameless protagonist.

Cannes Verdict: It may seem out of place among more seemingly "highbrow" Cannes entries, but Drive, for its faults in character development and writing, is undeniably an energetic and stylish adrenaline rush.

Cannes Review Round-up: "The Skin I Live In" [+1 more]

When I hear the term "plastic surgery revenge film," my gut instinct is to think of some horrific torture-porn flick designed merely for gross-out moments and shock value. That is, unless you add "directed by Pedro Almodovar" to the description. In a departure from his normal blend of drama and campy humor, the director's latest takes us down a darker-than-usual road with The Skin I Live In, albeit with the auteur's style seemingly intact. Almodovar has gone to Cannes many times, but has yet to walk away with the top prize. Skin seems like it won't change that, but it sounds like it will prove to be another must-see entry in Almodovar's filmography:
The Guardian - Peter Bradshaw: (4/5 stars) "It it twisted and mad, and its choreography and self-possession are superb."

indieWire - Eric Kohn: (B-) "...Skin lacks the sensationalistic imagery one might expect from Almodovar. Cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine keeps the images loud and expressionistic, but there's not much to look at."

Digital Spy - Mayer Nissim: (4/5 stars) "Yes, it's absurd. Yes, it's very, very silly, but The Skin I Live In is also a hell of a lot of fun."

Screen Daily - Finnaula Halligan: (N/A) "At times The Skin I Live In feels like rejuvenation for the 61-year-old director. Despite the dark theme, it boasts his confident playfulness of old." "Antonio Banderas flourishes in this return to Spanish-language film-making."

Rope of Silicon - Brad Brever: (B) "There have always been layers to Almodovar's films, but I just wasn't ready for the darkly comic tone that shows itself in fits and spurts."

The Playlist - James Rocchi: (B-) "With The Skin I Live In, [Almodovar] clearly jolted and wrested himself out of any potential rut; the concern is now, rather, what to make of the new territory he, and we, are in."

The Hollywood Reporter - Kirk Honeycutt: (N/A) "The film's design, costumes, and music, especially Alberto Iglesias' music, present a lushly beautiful setting, which is nonetheless a prison and a house of horror." "There are well-timed laughs that lessen the melodrama and underscore that Almodovar remains ever a prankster."

Variety - Justin Chang: (N/A) "...despite its scalpel-like precision, pic falls short of its titular promise, never quite getting under the skin as it should." - Alex Billington: (9/10) "It was a wild and crazy experience, to be frank, but damn good." "Banderas is the best he's been in years, intense at times, sensual at others, a tour de force that brings a quality that this so great."

Additional Comments: Critics generally praise the performances and Almodovar's style. However, some feel that the film's tonal shifts aren't always clear enough. Artistic aspects get full marks, however, especially the cinematography and score.

Cannes Verdict: It's not Almodovar's next masterpiece, but The Skin I Live In is a lush and atmospheric pseudo-thriller that shows the director with a renewed energy.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Cannes Review Round-up: "Melancholia"

I wish could do more of these review round-ups, but with so many films debuting (and well, since I'm not there) keeping tabs on the reception of every film in (and out of) competition throws me all over the place. Still, there are those that I'm determined to keep up with, one of which debuted this morning. Melancholia comes from love-him-or-want-to-kill-him director Lars von Trier, and mixes basic sci-fi elements (a planet colliding with earth) with dysfunctional family drama. While guaranteed to be less out there than Antichrist, part of me still expected nothing short of outrage over something in von Trier's latest. Apparently that's not the case, for while some label Melancholia emotionally draining, nothing so far indicates anything hugely sensationalist about it, which only intrigues me more:
The Hollywood Reporter - Todd McCarthy: (N/A) "...this contemplation of the planet's demise predictably provides not an ounce of comfort or redemption, nor does it offer characters or ideas with which to meaningfully engage..."

indieWire - Eric Kohn: (A) "Melanholia is supremely operatic, enlivened by its cosmic sensibility, and yet amazingly rendered on an intimate scale."

The Telegraph - Sukhdev Sandhu: (5/5 stars) "It takes a baffling, almost bone-headed premise...and from it creates a mesmerizing, visually gorgeous and often-moving alloy of family drama, philosophical meditation, and anti-golfing tract."

Movie Line - Stephanie Zacharek: (N/A) "The actresses' performances intertwine beautifully, like twin climbing vines vying for the attention of the sun."

Rope of Silicon - Brad Brevet: (C+) "It's a melancholy, sad sack kind of feature and what I perceived to be von Trier's boredom with it hit me quite hard."

The Film Stage - Raffi Asdourian: (A) "...the end result of Melancholia [is] a powerful statement on the futility of our lives as we try to escape our own inevitable fate."

Digital Spy - Mayer Nissim: (5/5 stars) "It's visually stunning from beginning to end, with the opening and closing moments in particular being (quite literally) breathtaking." - Alex Billington: (7/10) "[Von Trier] starts with a big idea, then just lets it slowly trickle out for 130 minutes, ending at the moment everyone is expecting, but without having said much throughout."

Time Out London - Dave Calhoun: (2/5 stars) "Melancholia isn't a provocative or confrontational film, but it's too often a dull one."

Additional Comments: The film's opening and closing sequences are given unanimous praise for their spacey beauty and stylized destruction. The performances, however, are usually treated with mild compliments, some of which border on indifference. Consensus seems to be that none of von Trier's cast will be anywhere in the running for acting prizes at Cannes. Finally, the cinematography earns across-the-board raves.

Cannes Verdict: Though strikingly beautiful, von Trier's take on the end of the world sometimes fails to make much of an impact, despite many moments of visual and emotional power.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Review: "The Beaver"

If ever there was a star-vehicle that had the odds against it, it was The Beaver, Jodie Foster's first directorial effort in 16 years. The story, put simply, is that of family man Walter Black (Mel Gibson) who uses a hand puppet to help himself out of a downward spiral. It's the sort of material that raised eyebrows from the very beginning, and not in a good way. Initial on-set images showed Gibson in jogging gear running with a beaver puppet on one hand. Internet reactions were, to put it mildly, not kind. And perhaps that initial skepticism was somewhat deserved, because, like Black Swan, The Beaver is a film that could have been a laughable mess in the wrong hands. Thankfully, under Foster's guidance, Kyle Killen's script blossoms into a solid film filled with nice work from a talented cast.

Rather than take time chronicling Walter's journey to rock bottom, the film starts us off with him already there. It's not even 15 (maybe not even 10) minutes in before Walter discovers the puppet, and even less time before he brings his British (Australian?) alter-ego to life. Such a quick set-up left me wondering how long the film could keep up its momentum, even at a 90 minute run time. But Killen's script, as aided by Foster's clean direction, knows what it's doing, and the film never lags or becomes aimless. Despite the potentially weighty subject matter, The Beaver flows beautifully from scene to scene, and Foster handles the shifts between light comedy and drama expertly. Killen's treatment may not necessarily be the deepest exploration of depression/schizophrenia, but it still rings true, despite the seemingly outlandish conceit.

Adding to the film's success is the terrific cast. Gibson does strong work as a man trying to distance himself from the dark side of his personality. The performance never condescends, and Gibson's recent troubles, for better or for worse, help give the performance a truly lived-in feel a la Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. However, if there's one hindrance Gibson has to deal with, it's that he spends so much of the movie behind the puppet, which can make the performance seem too light. As Walter's wife, Jodie Foster delivers another solid performance, making her double duties as director and star seem effortless, and making this writer wish she would appear on screen more frequently. Winter's Bone star Jennifer Lawrence does a nice job as well, albeit with less to do, as a local girl who starts up a relationship with Gibson and Foster's son, played by Anton Yelchin (Star Trek).

I've saved Mr. Yelchin for last because he is, surprisingly, the film's acting highlight. Believe it or not, the script saves the most characterization and depth for Yelchin's role, a high school senior who has made his life's goal to divorce himself of any similarities he shares with his father. This is complimented by a subplot wherein his character writes essays for fellow students, doing his best to get inside their heads so he can write with their voices. The subplot may not be entirely resolved by the film's end, but it certainly rounds out the movie's, especially when the struggles of Foster's character sometimes feel shortchanged. Like Foster, Ms. Lawrence is also in a role that isn't used to its full potential, and a subplot involving her passion for graffiti art isn't fleshed out enough to matter as much as the film wants us to believe it does.

But whatever faults the screenplay may have, The Beaver, against all the odds, is a success. It doesn't sink into melodrama with its treatment of mental illness. Rather, it takes a lighter route while remaining respectful, which aids the overall effect. Bolstered by strong work from the cast, and Foster's level direction, The Beaver is a classic example of a potentially troublesome screenplay brought effortlessly to life with respect and care.

Grade: B

Cannes Review Round-up: "The Tree of Life"

Arguably the most anticipated title at this year's auteur-filled Cannes line-up, Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life finally received its official premiere. Ever since that stunning trailer was released in December, this has been at the top of my list not just for the summer, but for the whole year. I may not be a complete Malick fan (I love Badlands and The Thin Red Line, but feel pretty 'meh' towards Days of Heaven and The New World), but I certainly respect him as a film maker, and can't wait to see what The Tree of Life holds in store (only two more weeks!). However, Malick's last two films (Line and The New World) have seen the director immerse himself more in his signature style, provoking more divided reactions to his films. If Cannes is any indication, The Tree of Life continues, rather than reverses, this trend:

Rope of Silicon - Brad Brevet: (B) "Just as this film to 40 years took make, it may be another 40 years before I'm ever able to come to a final conclusion on what it entirely means to me."

The Hollywood Reporter - Todd McCarthy: (N/A) "But there are great, heady things here, both obvious and evanescent, more than enough to qualify this as an exceptional and major film." "Emmanuel Lubezki outdoes himself with cinematography of almost unimaginable crispness and luminosity."

Movie Line - Stephanie Zacharek: (N/A) "...strong visuals don't necessarily equal strong visual storytelling. If Malick could tell a story mostly with pictures - and faces - why would he need so many voice-overs?"

The Guardian - Peter Bradshaw: (5/5 stars) "This film is not for everyone, and I will admit I am agnostic about the final sequence..." "...this is visionary cinema on an unashamedly huge scale: cinema that's thinking big."

The Wrap - Sasha Stone: (N/A) "The Tree of Life is saturated with beauty, inside and out."

Indie Wire - Eric Kohn: (A-) "If Lubezki treats his job like a painter, Malick uses his magic to make the artwork come to life."

The Playlist - Kevin Jagernauth: (B) "...the director has once again created a cinematic experience that is uniquely his own, often powerful and mesmerizing, at times overreaching and overbearing, but never forgettable."

Film School Rejects - Simon Gallagher: (C) "Aiming for an experience is one thing, but presenting an intentionally obtuse, impenetrable thing like this is something else entirely."

The Telegraph - Sukhdev Sandhu: (2/4 stars) "Brad Pitt gives the strongest performance of his career, but The Tree of Life is by far the weakest film Terrence Malick has ever made." - Guy Lodge: (3/4 stars) "His most open-armed and structurally undisciplined film to date, it might yet prove his least rewarding."

Variety - Justin Chang: (N/A) "Few American filmmakers are as alive to the splendor of the natural world as Terrence Malick, but even by his standards, The Tree of Life represents something extraordinary."

Additional Comments: Some critics aren't entirely sold on the ending, and feel that it's a bit too literal considering what comes before. Brad Pitt receives almost unanimous praise for his performance, with solid mentions for Jessica Chastain and young actor Hunter McCracken. Even among mixed or negative reviews, critics feel that The Tree of Life is the sort of movie that needs to be seen, if only to determine which side of the debate you fall on.

Cannes Verdict: Undeniably beautiful and complex, and filled with brilliant filmmaking, The Tree of Life is likely to inspire highly divisive reactions, despite its status as a must-see.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Review: "Fast Five"

The Fast and Furious series, for all of its diversions in sequel nomenclature, deserves credit for its consistency. It is consistently loud, consistently dumb, consistently fast, and consistently unassuming. It's also, despite the series' considerable ups and downs, consistently fun. The series' fifth entry, Fast Five, has earned the only positive consensus in the F+F catalog, and in some ways, it's easy to see why the critical community has decided to embrace this film. It's a silly and barely memorable film, but it's also down to earth, in the sense that it never aspires to be an ounce more than what it is (unlike, say, Sucker Punch).

Opening with a brief catch-up, we see that Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) has been sent to prison, much to the dismay of Brian O'Connor (Paul Walker) and Mia Toretto (Jordana Brewster). In the film's opening action sequence, the pair intercept Dom's prison transport bus, sending the thing flipping down the desert road. A news report then tells us that only one prisoner was missing when police arrived on the scene, and that there were no injuries. Yes, you heard that right. Not even 'no fatalities,' no injuries. Barely 20 minutes later, Diesel and Walker survive a massive fall from a bridge into a river. So while there are no elves or dragons in Fast Five, director Justin Lin and screenwriter Chris Morgan quickly establish that this all takes place in fantasy-land.

From there, we get a relatively standard heist set-up, although this time OMG we're in RIO you guys! The movie never lets us forget either (at least two overhead shots of the Christ the Redeemer statue, pans along the coast/beaches, etc...). The bad guy sets off the good guys, who plan monetary revenge, all while forced to evade US law enforcement, led by agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson's ginormous biceps). Pic's middle mostly consists of piecing together the plan, trial and error tests runs, and scattered encounters with Hobbs and his ilk. There's a pregnancy subplot too, although I could've sworn that at some point Ms. Brewster can briefly be seen toasting with a beer bottle (root beer, perhaps?).

And yet for all that's ordinary (especially the barely-there performances), there's still an undeniable sense of fun about the whole thing. Is it dumb? Of course it is. But it's so sincere in its stupidity, and so completely without pretension in regards to its "emotional" moments that the movie never gets weighed down. And even though the film may hold off longer on vehicular chases (a chance for a race involving a blue Porsche is skipped for time), the movie delivers when it wants to. Lin and cinematographer Stephen Windon do a nice job of showing us what's actually going on in the action, whether on foot or in cars. The film's trio of editors keep things moving fast, but never over-cut to the point of making action scenes incomprehensible or jumbled. It's a nice change of pace from the wannabe-cinema-verite-shaky-handheld that pervades so many action scenes these days.

And even though there's nothing resembling actual character development, I suspect longtime fans of the series already have fond enough associations with the main characters. For the rest of us, there's a clear enough of a line between good and bad that it doesn't really matter how one-note these people are. They're buff and beautiful, so it goes without saying that we're supposed to root for them. Somehow, that feels OK here. Fast Five may be dumb, but as stated above, it's inoffensively dumb, and it's also a great deal of fun. In other words it's the epitome of the lowest tier of big-budget summer entertainment, and there's nothing wrong with any of that.

Grade: C+

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Cannes Review Round-Up Redux: "We Need to Talk About Kevin"

With the maintenance that took place on Blogger yesterday, I seem to have lost my most recent post (and also a comment posted on my CRR for Midnight in Paris). Blogger says that it plans to restore the removed posts, but seeing as I have yet to have mine returned, I'd rather just go and do the damn thing all over again as best I can.
One of the films I've been looking forward to the most from this year's Cannes line-up comes from Scottish director Lynne Ramsay, whose last feature film - Movern Callar - hit theaters back in 2002. She returns this year with We Need to Talk About Kevin, an adaptation of Lionel Shriver's acclaimed novel about a woman dealing with the aftermath when her son goes on a Columbine-style rampage. It's the sort of subject matter that doesn't promise easy viewing, or easy answers, as issues of parenting undoubtedly come into play (along with the ever-tricky nature vs. nurture debate). However, by shedding large chunks of the text in favor of her more impressionistic style, Ramsay's film was received as a most welcome return after nearly 10 years:

**A good number of these will be different reviews that those cited in the original post.

The Guardian - Peter Bradshaw: (4/5 stars) "...a skin-peelingly intimate character study and a brilliantly nihilist, feminist parable." "Producer-star Tilda Swinton brings her A-game to the role of Eva." - Andrew O'Hehir: (N/A) "Indeed, there are so many great things happening on almost every level of this movie, from Swinton's haunting, magnetic, and tremendously vulnerable the many unsettling individual moments."

The London Evening Standard - Derek Malcolm: (N/A) "Without Swinton, often seen in close-up, the film might have sunk without trace under the weight of its morbid subject matter."

Movie Line - Stephanie Zacharek: (N/A) "The filmmaking is extraordinary; it's the story that gets in the way." "Swinton is terrific - this is one of her less mannered performances."

Variety - Leslie Felperin: (N/A) "...Swinton delivers a concrete-hard central perf that's up there with her best work."

The Telegraph - Sukhdev Sandhu: (4/4 stars) "...with no resolution or redemption on offer, it's remarkable how easily Ramsay sustains our interest right to the very end."

Digital Spy - Simon Reynolds: (N/A) "This is a bleak and traumatic drama marked by a blistering performance from Swinton."

Rope of Silicon - Brad Brevet: (B+) "Haunting, sophisticated, and rippling with tension." "Once it begins, you're in Ramsay's hands, and it doesn't take more than a minute for her to gain a tight grip." - Guy Lodge: (4/4 stars) "If We Need to Talk About Kevin is to be labeled any one person's triumph, however, it must be Lynne Ramsay's."

Additional Comments: Critics praise the craft of the film, with standouts going to Seamus McGarvey's cinemtography and the sound design. Ezra Miller and the two other actors who play Kevin all earn praise, and are compared to non-supernatural Damiens. Some are unsure about some of the soundtrack choices and/or parts of Jonny Greenwood's score. John C. Reilly's limited role is given generally positive, but slight, notices.

Cannes Verdict: A harrowing and mature drama with an excellent performance from Tilda Swinton that marks a welcome return for Lynne Ramsay.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Cannes Review Round-Up: "Midnight in Paris"

Over France, the Cannes Film Festival is finally underway. And with the opening night selection screening complete, reviews are starting to pour in for Midnight in Paris, the latest from the uber-prolific Woody Allen. A few weeks ago I read one or two lines of buzz that hinted that the director's latest Paris-set effort was actually one of his best in the past decade. And if early remarks are any indication, those two sentences of hype were right:

Living in Cinema - Craig Kennedy: (4.5/5 stars) "Consistently amusing yet never straining for a big laugh, it feels effortless yet never lazy." Kennedy also praises the whole cast, especially Wilson, Sheen, and Cotillard.

Thompson on Hollywood - Anne Thompson: (N/A) "Midnight in Paris is Woody Allen's best movie since Deconstructing Harry in 1997." "[The film] has long term Oscar potential."

Hollywood Elsewhere - Jeffrey Wells: (N/A) "The advance buzz was correct: Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris is a goodie." "It is time well spent, and a time-trip worth taking."

Entertainment Weekly - Dave Karger: (N/A) "...I'd say the consensus will be that Midnight is easily his best film since Vicky Cristina." "The movie really belongs to Owen Wilson, who gives a droll and charming performance."

Rope of Silicon - Brad Brevet: (B+) "...inventive, imaginative, and charming." "...Sheen absolutely crushes the part." "As Adriana, Cotillard again brings a performance you can't help but be entranced by." "Midnight in Paris is a romantic comedy of the sort you wish Hollywood would aspire to."

Screen Daily - Mark Adams: (N/A) " amusing and elegantly constructed love letter to Paris, rich on romance, humour, and culture, and driven by a nicely pitched performance by Owen Wilson."

The Hollywood Reporter - Todd McCarthy: (N/A) "As beguiling as a stroll around Paris on a warm spring evening."

Guy Lodge (on Twitter): (B-/C+) "Sprightly and choux-sweet first half, gradually bogged down in skit-sized conceit and Woody's binary view of women."

Foundas on Film - Scott Foundas: (N/A) "...Allen has, I think, delivered one of his masterpieces - a movie about the romantic pull of yesteryear."

The Telegraph - Sukhdev Sandhu: (2/4 stars) "Some of its conceits are funny...[but] it devolves into a sweaty, over-crowded cocktail party."

The Guardian - Peter Bradshaw: (3/5 stars) "...a shallow examination of nostalgia with endearing performances by Owen Wilson and Marion Cotillard."

Cannes Verdict: A thoroughly charming and engaging romantic comedy led by strong work from Owen Wilson and a lively supporting cast.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Review: "Thor"

It's not an easy thing to convincingly portray one of Norse mythology's most important figures. In spite of this obstacle, relative newcomer Chris Hemsworth does an admirable and thoroughly convincing job as the Marvel-ized version of the haughty God of Thunder. It's a good thing too, because he's one of the few aspects of Thor, the latest set-up film for 2012's The Avengers, that comes close to godliness.

Opening with prologue that feels straight out of The Lord of the Rings, Kenneth Branagh's adaptation sets up the film's multiverse efficiently. Years ago, the terrifying Frost Giants threatened to plunge Earth into an eternal ice age, only to be stopped by Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and his army of gods (demi gods? super beings?). Now, in the present, Odin's son Thor (Hemsworth), in an act of foolhardy bravery slyly suggested by his trickster brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), has torn apart the centuries-old truce. When Odin learns of his son's actions, he strips Thor of his power (including the ability to wield his mighty hammer) and banishes him to Earth. It's here when he - quite literally - runs into a trio of scientists, played by Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgard, and Kat Dennings.

And it's here, in the Earth-bound section of the story, that everything that's best about Thor comes together, even if the end result feels a bit slight. Whereas the opening is filled with portentous shouting matches, the Earth scenes introduce a vital sense of humor that very clearly lets us know that Branagh and crew aren't taking the whole thing too seriously. Thor's fish-out-of-water angle is executed with surprisingly fun results, thanks in large part to Hemsworth's completely convincing portrayal of a god completely out of his element. Along with Tom Hiddleston as the scheming Loki, Hemsworth's work is what makes the film the lightweight fun that it is.

Other performances aren't quite so entertaining. Natalie Portman gives minimal effort as scientist Jane Foster, while Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings make for charming, yet inconsistent comic relief. A handful of minor characters from Thor's realm are played with nice effort, but feel like afterthoughts. Action sequences are iffy as well. While they aren't incomprehensibly edited, Branagh shoots them in close-up, resulting in fights that are loud, but somewhat hard to decipher, and rarely engaging. Credit should go, however, to the marvelous (albeit campy) costume and set design; Thor's home realm of Asgard is rich and fully realized. Yet unlike, say, the first Iron Man, Thor never reaches a point where it completely immerses you in its mythos. Despite a good-hearted nature, and some charming, earnest work from its cast, the whole effort feels minor, rather than godly.

Grade: C+/C

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Almodovar teases "The Skin I Live In"

Last seen in 2008 with Broken Embraces, Pedro Almodovar returns this year with The Skin I Live In, described as a plastic surgery horror/thriller revenge tale. The considerably darker tone is noticeable all over this, especially the visuals. The black and white of the main room showcased in this clip is certainly toned down. Still, it's stylish, and like any Almodovar film, the color red sneaks its way into any major set or scene. The film will reportedly play rather early in this year's Cannes Film Festival (which starts on the 11th), so expect to hear reviews within the next week or week and a half. For now, enjoy the incredibly brief, eerie, and enticing teaser.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Review: "La Doppia Ora (The Double Hour)"

Used in the right (or wrong) places, a twist can make or break a film. Those sudden shocks, those revelations that transform our perspective of what previously occurred, can take a brilliant film to new heights, temporarily elevate an adequate one, or wreck whatever goodwill was built up prior. Keeping twists a secret is also key. Ads for Neil Jordan's The Crying Game literally advised people, "Don't Let Anyone Tell You the Twist." It's all of this that makes the key twist in Giuseppe Capotondi's The Double Hour so fascinating, and so difficult, to discuss.

Originally released in 2009 in its homeland of Italy, Capotondi's debut received acclaim and scooped up awards for Best Italian Film, and Lead Actor/Actress at the 09 Venice Film Festival. Upon finally landing in the US, it's easy to see what most of the fuss was about. After an abrupt opening in which hotel cleaning woman Sonia (Kseniya Rappoport) receives a nasty jolt at work, we're thrown into a speed dating set up. There, the shy Sonia meets the introverted ex-cop Guido (Vincere's Filippo Timi). The two strike up a brief relationship, before chaos and tragedy strike.

Unfortunately, to go into greater detail would spoil the fun of Capotondi's sly little thriller. 'Sly,' to some, that is. If there's one twist worth talking about (without revealing), it's the big one, and it happens smack dab in the middle of the film's 1 hr. 45 min. run time. Why? Because it's so thoroughly disruptive and game-changing, that once the initial shock wears off, it will either keep you further hooked through the film's conclusion, or leave you shaking your head in disappointment. The film's main strength, and therefore its main failing, is how severely the twist is likely to divide viewers. Consider me a member of the twist fan club. While my initial reaction was a mix of shock and "uh oh, did the movie just fly off of the rails?" I've come to appreciate the risk Capotondi took by taking such a big leap. How the twist alters the previous hour or so is significant enough to make detractors see it as an invalidation. I see it as a risk that pays off, in that it brings to life the subtle oddities of the first hour's cinematic construction. The script's level of subtle and overt detailing is impressive. It gives us glimpses, and never defaults to pieces of exposition in anything bigger than bite-size form.

As for other twists, I can't say as much, good or bad. Its elegant construction and careful dispensation of information and twists are reminiscent of Guillaume Canet's Tell No One (2006/08). The film's first half hour almost convinced me that Capotondi was ripping off of Canet's work. And, like Tell No One, I suspect that not all of Capotondi's twists and turns completely hold up to scrutiny. Both are films that, especially in Capotondi's case, succeed because of their directors' abilities to fully immerse the audience and allow them to suspend their senses of disbelief. And whatever its twists may be, the script does deserve credit for balance of character and thrills, and Capotondi, in turn, deserves credit for bringing this facet to life so effectively. The intrigue and tension comes entirely from revelations relayed via dialogue, not from car chases, shoot outs, or hidden bombs. The closest thing the film has to a typical thriller scenario is actually the least engaging part of the story. Capotondi's film is able to transform into a very different sort of film at the halfway point, with surprisingly satisfying results despite an ending that hits too soon.

Lending the film an extra air of believability are the two leads. Now, despite the acclaim, I'm not quite sold on Rappoport and Timi's work here as award worthy. That said, they're certainly intriguing and well-played, Rappoport especially. But this is a film where characters come second to plot construction. The leads emote with conviction and restraint, but as written Sonia and Guido aren't quite as deep as Capotondi and the writers would like us to believe. Some have labeled the film as a film about loss and redemption disguised as a thriller; I'm tempted to say it's the reverse. Its lack of more traditional thrills, not to mention the back story that unfolds throughout, suggests a slightly lightweight drama about loss and redemption that gains its heft by adding a heavy dose of twisty narrative structure.

In the end, none of this is entirely a bad thing. Like Joe Wright's Hanna, or the aforementioned Tell No One, the eventual victory of style (and story) over substance actually works in the film's favor. It doesn't mean that there aren't flaws, and it doesn't mean that the film shouldn't have aspired higher. What it means is that style (namely some brief-but-killer first person and rack focus work) over substance doesn't have to be a bad thing. Sure, The Double Hour could have been a full-fledged meditation on coping with the past and present, but that would have robbed it of its ability to truly thrill, despite richer characterization and stronger performances. By melding the two, and leaning in favor of mystery/thriller elements, The Double Hour is able to posses an elegantly quiet and somber air, all while trapping viewers who succumb to its wiles in a dizzying story. In embracing the elements of both sides at this particular balance, Capotondi's debut entertains without feeling ludicrous or silly (as opposed to, say, Fast Five), even if parts of it may very well be those things deep down.

Grade: B/B+