Thursday, June 30, 2011

Trailer: "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" [music found!]

One of the much buzzed about, but little-exposed films of the year is Tomas Alfredson's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, an adaptation of the John Le Carre novel of the same name. Boasting a dynamite all-male cast, promotional material has been scant until this trailer. Judging by the Youtube video's title, it looks like another trailer will hit soon for US audiences. That seems like a shame, though, seeing as this 80 second look already has me saying YES to everything. I love the aesthetic of Cold War Era thrillers, where suspense is built more on character interactions (and globe-trotting) that shoot outs or chases. There's also the director, Mr. Alfredson, whose last film was the excellent Let the Right One In (the Swedish original). Then there's that outstanding cast of talented actors. Barring that this is some surprise fiasco, Alfredson and co. can count me as sold on this one.

**Also: Special credit should go to the people who put this trailer together. The clips are well chosen, and let us in on the story without taking us through big sections of the plot. The editing and music are pretty fabulous as well, building a nice little knot of tension in a short amount of time. Bravo.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Trailer(s): "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol" & "War Horse"

Two major December releases gave us first looks today, with both promising very different outings at the movies. The first is the fourth installment in a major action franchise, the second a prestige book/play adaptation from one of Hollywood's biggest names.

While there's nothing here to make me rush to the theater on opening day, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't at least somewhat intrigued by this film. Whether it's new additions like Jeremy Renner and Paula Patton, or the fact that this is the live-action debut of Brad Bird (The Incredibles), it looks like a solid, big thrills action movie. The split-second clips of what looked like a green-brown dust cloud were a little too CGI'd, but overall, the feeling is that this is a welcome return to that time when action movies relied more on stunts than green screens.

Having just scooped up the Tony for Best Play, War Horse is clearly a hot item at the moment, so who better to take it to the screen than Steven Spielberg. Now, while the movie may not be able to replicate the play's (apparently) fantastic staging, Spielberg and co. seem to have compensated by making the whole thing absolutely gorgeous. That shot of the soldiers mounting their horses in the wheat field? The girl's reflection in the horse's eye? Magnificent. If any movie were to stand a chance at giving The Tree of Life a run for best cinematography, this is it. However, one question remains: what about the story? From what I've been able to gather, the source material isn't the most inspired text, and becomes excessively sentimental and cliched at times. Given Spielberg's somewhat sentimental tendencies, the coupling could prove problematic. At the same time, one must consider that sometimes iffy books/plays end up translating better to the big screen than their acclaimed counterparts.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Trailer #2: "Immortals"

After a disappointing first trailer, Legendary Pictures has released a second full look at their upcoming stylized Greek mythology epic Immortals. Unfortunately, little has improved. To be fair, the scenes here do seem to have more visual variety, and that one bit of slow-down-speed-up action was admittedly well done. But my problem comes down to one simple factor: the color scheme. As I said after the first trailer, director Tarsem is at the very least a genius of visual design, and his imagination always includes a wide array of colors. Here, almost everything is trying to adhere to the 300 look: shades of beige, brown, and gold. The effect actually robs the film of any visual wow-factor. That Sistine Chapel-esque fight scene would look so much better if the color scheme actually made room for brighter colors, instead of smothering everything in the glow of the above-mentioned trio. Gold is a powerful, magnificent color, yet here it feels overused to the point of being mundane. Even other colors, like red, somehow seem to lack their usual fire. I'm not even going to touch on the acting, which seems either competent or bombastic. Unless the film turns out to be a surprisingly decent action/adventure flick, the most I can hope for is that it gives Tarsem some clout in Hollywood, allowing him to pursue more projects in the vein of The Fall.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Trailer: "A Dangerous Method"

Once tipped to open Cannes (it will now open Venice), A Dangerous Method is the latest film from director David Cronenberg (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises). Known for his rather dark, gritty, and intense depictions of physical and emotional violence, the director's latest seems a bit mild in least on the surface. The trailer is certainly cut to give the sense that this is a baity period piece with slightly darker subject material (but not too dark, lest it be off-putting to AMPAS' eldest voters). I'm a little put off by the amount of white/beige in the shots, it somehow looks like the post-production team is trying to use white to cover up for budget limitations, but overall this has the potential to be a fascinating look at two of history's most fascinating minds.

That cast certainly doesn't hurt either. Fassbender and Mortensen have both built up impressive resumes of powerful work, and seeing the two play off of each other could prove to be one of the acting highlights of the year. Yet as much as Fassbender and Mortensen have been touted as early awards contenders (the former in lead, the latter in supporting), it's Knightley who really steals the trailer. Granted, the role is engineered to be the most outwardly expressive, but this seems like a nice change of pace for Knightley, despite the film's status as a prestige period piece. Maybe it's finally time for a follow-up nomination to go with her Pride and Prejudice nomination...

Monday, June 20, 2011

Almodovar teases more "Skin," but still no plot (yay!)

Before I dive into the main subject of this post, a quick word: I'm currently taking part in a study-abroad program in the beautiful city of Prague. It's going to be rather hectic for the next 4 weeks, so posting will be diminished, to say the least. That said, I may pop in to throw around a few quick words regarding the films that I get to see at the 46th Karlovy Vary Film Festival...which brings us to this:

While I'm not as taken with this teaser, I love how little Almodovar reveals about the plot. He merely lets the timing of the edits and the music work together to create an atmosphere that seems both dark and camp (tones he's more than accustomed to working wonders with). The car/motorcycle bit actually had me thinking about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. This is one Cannes film whose plot I've shielded myself from (as best I can in the age of the Internet), and I'm going to try and keep it that way.

And hopefully that won't be too long, seeing as I'll be at the above-mentioned Karlovy Vary FF on the film's first showing (Saturday July 2). Nothing's certain yet (other than that I'm attending), but if I get in, I'll be thrilled, and I'll make sure to at least give some brief thoughts, seeing as this is one of my most anticipated for the rest of the year. Until my next post (hopefully not so distant future), a temporary farewell...

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Review: "The Tree of Life"

In a career spanning nearly 40 years, The Tree of Life only marks Terrence Malick's fifth directorial effort. Known for his strange shooting style and insanely meticulous editing, the director is nothing if not a perfectionist of sorts. And even though he only now has five films to his name (he is currently filming his sixth, which remains untitled), it is difficult to imagine where the divisive auteur will venture next, seeing as his latest seems to tackle, well, just about everything.

Describing the plot of The Tree of Life almost feels unnecessary. I've read review after review that describe the film's plotting as "elliptical," yet this description seems to go a step too far. This is not an easy film, nor is it one that provides easy answers, but labeling the whole thing as ambiguous and obscure is extreme. The great bulk of it, concerning a family in a small Texas town in the 50s, despite having very little dialogue, is certainly not impenetrable or obtuse. Some scenes carry with them (appropriately) a child-like sense of naivete, while others quietly carry the weight of suffering and loss. Because, above all else, The Tree of Life is a film of sight and sound, often in glorious combinations.
To say that it encompasses everything is not an overstatement. After an opening where Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) learns that her middle son has died, and some jumps to the present involving her oldest son Jack (Sean Penn), we see the beginning. Literally. For some 20 or 30 minutes, Malick plunges us into gorgeously rendered visions of the cosmos, and of earth's earliest, primordial moments. We see space clouds shine in shades of gold, brown, and red. We see the staggering size of Saturn and Jupiter loom over the screen, set to the glorious sounds of Zbigniew Preisner's "Lacrimosa." We see cells dividing and merging, and blood flowing through veins. In every sense, this is a film that shows us the intimate and the epic, with everything from domestic drama to some soulful, curious dinosaurs.
Throughout all of this, the one unifying element is the sheer beauty of it all. Mr. Malick may be influenced by Christianity (the O'Briens are obviously Christian, and the film opens with a quote from the Book of Job), but this is not a religious film. It is a spiritual film, one that seeks to evoke the glory that life holds, without shying away from its moments of sadness and failure. We witness gentle, playful moments with the O'Brien children as toddlers, which gradually become more serious and nuanced as the children begin to experience the darker side of life. Some of it is direct (the oppressive nature of Brad Pitt's Mr. O'Brien), some of it indirect (a young boy who drowns at a swimming pool). All of it, whether simplistic or strange, somehow rings true through Malick's direction, which creates a spiritual experience out of life's most plain rites, rituals, and routines.
And yet all of it is captured with such quiet elegance, thanks to the astoundingly beautiful work by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. The frequent use of handheld camera work bequeaths even the most mundane of scenes with a sense of vitality, even the more abstract scenes involving Mr. Penn's lost wanderings through Houston skyscrapers. And Mr. Malick's impulses, namely subjective shots of nature, have never felt more appropriate or refined in their usage as they have here. When this technique was used in The New World (2005), a film I was not a fan of, I often thought to myself that Malick should have just made a nature documentary. Here, the establishment of the subjective shots, whether they be for the humans or the dinosaurs, carries more purpose, and further illuminates the wonders of life and creation that Malick is trying to capture. The heavy use of voice over, often rambling and tiresome in The New World (and flat-out irritating in Days of Heaven) is now focused and filled with surer purpose than ever before.

But there is still a great deal of heart among all of the beauty, both mundane and otherworldly, to be found here. Mr. Malick may be more interested in using the O'Briens as a focal point for his gargantuan exploration of existence, but the family still comes through as actual characters. Young Jack (Hunter McCraken), carries much of the film, as his transformation from toddler to pre-teen encapsulates the loss of innocence, and understanding of growing up that is so key to this story. Whether the O'Brien boys are playing music, or silently, tearfully mourning the family's need to leave their home, Malick and his actors capture it all through facial cues. Even in the film's finale, perhaps the most difficult portion to make sense of, it's hard to ignore that we're experiencing something of beauty and magnitude, even if we're not entirely sure what it all means.
This is not a film to be explained (though you can certainly give it a shot), but rather one to be experienced. Its length and pacing are occasionally trying, but for a story with so little dialogue, it accomplishes so much more than any number of more verbose films. It's also not a film for everyone, and I'll confess that I was nervous that I would feel the same towards Tree as I did toward The New World. But any way you slice it, Malick's latest remains a massive achievement. Whether you think that it's completely self-conscious, pretentious, and insufferable, or a luminous meditation on the nature of life itself is up for grabs, but you can't know unless you actually see it. The Tree of Life is, more than any film which I've ever described as such, one that deserves to be seen, thought over, and discussed, even if you come to the conclusion that it's all a load of spiritual and philosophical hogwash.

Grade: A-

Review: "Super 8"

As far as big budget studio tent poles go, Hollywood as been on something of a roll this year. Of the major summer releases, only two (Pirates of the Caribbean 4 and The Hangover II) have earned mostly negative reviews. Yet even though other big movies like Thor and X-Men: First Class have been warmly welcomed, nothing from the big summer roster has deserved its positive reception more than JJ Abrams' Super 8.

Executive produced by Steven Spielberg, Abrams' story wears its influences proudly on its sleeve. All in all, it's something of a mish-mash of The Goonies, ET, and the Abrams-produced Cloverfield. However, in spite of the blatant references and thematic homages, Super 8 manages to stand on its own two legs. To say that a film evokes the 80s is a statement that one could easily take for a sarcastic insult, but in terms of youth-oriented adventure tales, that statement is one of the highest praise, and it most certainly applies to this film. It's rare to find hopeful blockbusters that fit so comfortable inside the PG-13 rating, but this is one such film. At its core, it is both a monster movie and coming-of-age story. We see a group of kids, led by Joe (Joel Courtney) and Charles (Riley Griffiths), something of a pre-adolescent, zombie-loving Orson Welles. There's also Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), as a tough wrong-side-of-the-tracks girl who Charles enlists to help him make his latest monster movie. Along with a small handful of others, these kids are bound by a secret. While trying to shoot a scene for their movie (which Ms. Fanning nails as both an actress and as a character trying to be an actress), they witness a stunning train crash, and believe that someone or something escaped in the aftermath.

And for the first half of its 1 hr 50 min running time, Abrams lets events unfold with note-perfect pacing. With crisp pacing, a nice use of humor, and genuinely effective thrills, Super 8 covers the different angles (monster movie, adventure, pre-teen romance) with great skill and efficiency. Even when it becomes obvious that a scene is about to turn into an attack by the mysterious escapee, the jolts the movie produces are wonderfully well-earned, and devoid of obnoxious music trying to create tension. Super 8 doesn't need a score for its thrilling moments, because Abrams' "monster" remains unseen and unexplained for so much of the film. The attack sequences earn most of their suspense merely from the sheer amount of what the audience doesn't know.

And even though these attacks, at first, happen to characters we don't know or care about, the ensemble of young actors do a fine job of creating a sympathetic and enjoyable group of characters to follow. Mr. Courtney, Mr. Griffiths, and Ms. Fanning in particular do wonderful work in their roles, and scene with Courtney and Fanning together produces possibly the only genuine moment of heart that any summer blockbuster has offered up so far. These are not necessarily full-fleshed out characters, but even the simple touches that Abrams and his actors lend the roles feels so much more authentic than what your typical action/adventure flick is able to muster up.

Unfortunately, Super 8 is a film that starts stronger than it ends. Where the first hour is a perfect balance of character, mystery, humor, and thrills, the second hour starts to rush things along. The more we see of the monster (eventually leading up to plenty of shots that show it in its entirety), the less fearsome it becomes. So even though the second half may boast the film's best sequence (involving an attack on a bus), the big reveal just leaves us with a rather generic creature, with a back story that's quite ordinary. And the closer the film draws to its ending, the more events happen with a degree of convenience towards the plot. I was more than willing to forgive the fact that Alice's car (technically her father's) is left virtually unscathed after the film's stunning train crash. That was merely a blip amid a sequence of events with near perfect pacing and editing. Less acceptable was the snap decision of Joe's father (Kyle Chandler) to suddenly go rogue in a quest for the truth, or the speed with which Joe and his friends are able to obtain help from a local stoner. There is, on a less objectionable note, also a too-fast-for-its-own-good cut that rushes several characters from point A to point B just so that the film can jump straight to its final shot. For a film that starts off with such swift, and yet perfectly balanced pacing, this sudden jump to the nearly dialogue-free ending came as a rather unpleasant shock.

In the grand scheme of the film, however, these issues do not detract from the film to the point of rendering it a mixed bag. This is wonderful entertainment with just the right amount of heart, without ever resorting to schmaltz. It also resists the temptation to create an increasingly bombastic finale. Yes, one sequence does involve the discharge of some serious fire power, but Abrams captures it with such simplicity, never resorting to the Michael Bay tactic of shoving the destruction in your face. It keeps the mayhem confined as to how it directly affects our characters, whether they live, die, or suffer injuries. So even though its ending may be too simple for its own good, Super 8 is a remarkable rarity among summer blockbusters. For whatever cliches and shortcuts the script may have, it remains a work with genuine thrills, a lively (but never obtrusive) sense of humor and playfulness, and an understanding of the fact that emotions and explosions can exist side-by-side.

Grade: B

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Netflix Files: May 30-June 5

Half Nelson (2006) dir. Ryan Fleck: Ryan Gosling earned his first Oscar nomination for this low-key drug drama, and it's easy to see why. As Dan Dunne, a middle school history teacher struggling with addiction, Gosling does tremendous work, even if he occasionally crosses from brilliant over to bug-eyed. He's backed up by lovely work from Shareeka Epps as Drey, a student who befriends Dan, and a script that treats its subject matter with smarts. Writers Fleck and Anna Boder avoid the typical ups and downs of addiction drama, focusing more on how the characters interact, instead of dragging drug use to the front to beat us over the head with. Other story threads, like Drey's relationship with her mother and imprisoned brother, aren't quite rounded out so well, but the film's understated portrayal of its central duo through their personal struggles is hugely successful.

Grade: B+

Stalker (1979) dir. Andrei Tarkovsky: Solaris, Andrei Tarkovsky's other major (and widely revered) work, earned comparisons to Kubrick's 2001. Yet despite the fact that the films share settings in outer space, I'd venture that Stalker left me with similar feelings to Kubrick's masterpiece. Set in Russia, a three men (one of them a guide) venture into a mysterious area known as The Zone in order to find a room where people's dreams come true. After a frenzied opening chase/shoot-out, the film settles down and becomes increasingly mysterious, and increasingly mesmerizing. Things as simple as a walk down a tunnel become hypnotic to watch, because even though barely anything actually happens (other than walking) in Stalker, the level of mystery that the script develops is unlike anything I've ever seen. It presents explanations and "answers" that are often more confusing than the situation in question. This does mean that the film can be rather frustrating, but it's the sort of film that makes you want to find out answers, even if some things are simply meant to be left to interpretation.

Grade: A-

The Piano Teacher (2002) dir. Michael Haneke: Like a less obvious Lars von Trier, Michael Hanake often seems to enjoy exposing twisted situations, often with equally twisted results. The Piano Teacher is no exception. Isabelle Huppert stars as Erika, a strict piano teacher who starts an affair with a young student to explore her sexual fantasies, fantasies built up from years of sexual repression. Haneke's film doesn't shy away from showing us a few icky details. Still he refrains from making these moments take up the entire film. Roughly the first half (maybe more) goes by, and the affair hasn't even started. Haneke's dedication to building up this character before heavily deconstructing her only makes the film that much more unsettling. Of course, it would be inappropriate to continue on without discussing Huppert's phenomenal work as Erika. By turns icy, distant, and vulnerable, this is not a character we're supposed to like, and yet Huppert makes her every move fascinating to watch. So even though the film ends on a bit of a vague note, one that seems to lack the analytical focus of everything that came before, The Piano Teacher is still a provocative and disturbing look at one woman's path towards self-destruction.

Grade: B

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Review: "X-Men: First Class"

Forget what they've been telling you. Turns out it's not the third time that's the charm, but the fifth. At least, that appears to be the current trend in past-their-welcome Hollywood franchises. It's already happened once this year with Fast Five (the series' only film to earn mostly positive reviews), and now it's happening again with X-Men: First Class, a prequel/origin-story/reboot of the mutant superhero franchise.

After two generally liked films, the X-Men franchise quickly took a nose dive with X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) and X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009). And even though there still appear to be plans for a (hopefully much better) Wolverine sequel, FOX apparently felt that it couldn't hurt to cash in on the prequel/origin trend a little further, taking us all the way back to the 40s and 60s. After an opening eerily reminiscent of 2000's X-Men, involving a young Erik/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) in a German concentration camp, we begin a fairly lengthy bit of globe trotting. In one story thread, we see Magneto become something of a Nazi hunter, while in a second, we see a young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) recruited by a CIA agent (Rose Byrne) to examine the sinister Hellfire Club. Originally thought to be a Communist infiltration of America, it's actually run by Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), a mutant himself, who is determined to use the Cold War to bring about the annihilation of non-mutants.

And despite a certain lack of surprises (we already know which major characters must live), Matthew Vaughn does manage to inject some style, and in turn new life, into the franchise. The 60s interior designs are richly filled out, in settings ranging from Charles' mansion, to Shaw's nuclear submarine. There's also some surprisingly good cast work. McAvoy and Fassbender are standouts among the ensemble, as two men with gradually differing opinions on what it means to be a mutant living among humans. Fassbender ultimately wins out, if only because the script eventually surrenders McAvoy's role and makes him little more than an emotional support for Fassbender's. Yet the two do have a great chemistry, and it's a shame that the film doesn't give us more of their relationship in its attempt to cover so many characters and set-up points. The way the film deals with Magneto's struggle to harness his powers produces some truly effective moments, but it's hard not to feel that there could have been a much grander, more emotional pay-off if said struggle wasn't stuck on the the end of a training montage.

And it's that montage, which comes right before the film's Cuban-set finale, where we can see some of the film's problems start to surface. First Class has a great initial stretch, up until Magneto and Charles finally meet, and a thrillingly put together final half hour. These bookends to the story effectively jump across locations and characters, establishing conflicts and executing fight scenes with a nice sense of clarity. Everything in-between, however, is not quite so consistent. Despite a golden 5 (10?) second cameo, the round-up and training of the young mutants is where everything gets a bit choppy. Not surprisingly, character struggles aren't exactly the most three dimensional. They exist for a little, and then YAY they're solved. Only those issues connecting Charles, Magneto, and Mystique have any real staying power, and despite some nifty powers among the ensemble, I wish they had taken more time to focus on this trio. For every good character interaction, there's something a little cheesy or clichéd. These usually aren't big issues, but they put some dents in the film's armor.

And as good as some smaller cast members are (Nicolas Hoult as Hank McCoy/Beast), others are, well, not. Case in point: January Jones as Emma Frost. As beautiful as she looks, the actress seems totally out of her league here, once again enforcing the notion that her work as Betty Draper on Mad Men is the only good performance she'll ever give. Less of a distraction, though perhaps a tad puzzling, is Rose Byrne as Moira McTaggart. In Byrne's case, the fault may lie more with the writing. Either way, though, for someone who is supposed to be tough and supportive of the X-Men, she has one too many scenes where her character is simply wide-eyed and astounded. It makes her look weak, and even stupid, despite her status as a CIA Agent. That said, at least she gets some chances to act, whereas many in the ensemble are just there. Azazel (Jason Flemying), a red-skinned mutant with a tail and the ability to teleport is more of a cool effect than a character. He still fares better than another henchman of Shaw's, who can create tornadoes, yet never gets a single line.

For all of its little faults, however, Vaughn and co. do deserve credit for restoring quality to a franchise that had taken a serious tumble. In putting more emphasis on exploring (some of) the characters, he's able to inject some scenes with a sense of purpose. When Magneto lifts a submarine clear out of the water, it's more than just a special effect. It's a moment of triumph for the character, one that is built upon his ability to master the trauma of his past. Scenes like this show First Class at its best, and what the series is capable of when some real effort and talent is behind the material. So while this latest installment may be far from perfect, and certainly not the best super hero film, it's a solid (re) kickstart to the franchise, even if it doesn't quite reach its full potential.

Grade: B-

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Review: "13 Assassins"

For no worthwhile reason, Houston's (currently only) indie/art house theater was showing Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins once a day, at 11:59 PM. Why? No earthly idea. I understand this sort of time slot for cult films or midnight premieres, but for regular showtimes? Thankfully, all was not lost, as I learned from a friend that the film was currently available OnDemand (I sing your praises, Lords of Comcast), and I was able to see Miike's film at a reasonable hour, which is good, because I would have hated to have fallen asleep during such an entertaining film.

Set in Shogun-era Japan, the film opens just as the country is entering an era of peace. Almost. The problem is that one of the high-ranking shoguns has been succeeded by the sadistic Lord Naritsugu. And as far as major villains go, Miike has fashioned a truly despicable one. I won't reveal details, but to say that Lord N is cruel and de-sensitized regarding violence is a tremendous understatement. Deciding that this cannot continue, a group of older samurai gradually build up a team of samurai from nearby towns, and begin their plan to attack Naritsugu's traveling forces.

This is not a complicated tale, nor a terribly long one (2 hrs) when compared to classics like Seven Samurai (which is, itself, not terribly complicated). It is, however, a well-executed and exciting story, propelled by Miike's swift direction. Of the 13 (one of whom is not a samurai), most aren't really given much in terms of development. The majority of the film is the gathering of the men, and then the move to get ahead of Naritsugu before staging their assault. Yes, one older samurai has a scene where he sits before his family's grave and promises to see them in heaven soon, but it's not exactly hard-hitting stuff. If anything, we get to know Naritsugu better than the heroes, and at best he's something of a one-note psychopath.

This is rather remarkable, though, because of how Miike manages to generate some semblance of emotion during the film's stunning climax, a battle of 13 vs. 200 that lasts at least 30 minutes. As we see the 13 gradually worn down, it's hard not to feel a sense of sadness and exhaustion equal to that of the men. We may not know much about them, but with the line between good and evil so bluntly drawn, and with the villain as despicable as he is, the sadness comes from the broader view: we're watching evil win, despite valiant efforts by the forces of good against overwhelming odds. It may not equate to brilliant writing, but its low-key effectiveness in this regard is a testament to Miike's ability to generate emotion out of thin characters without obnoxious and manipulative techniques.

The director also deserves credit for his ability to create such exciting action without crossing the uncomfortable line to where violence and death are trivialized. Nor does he overdo attempts at "realism" by making the film as gory as possible. Like the film's simple costumes and sets, the violence rings true. It's engaging, but not choreographed or stylized to death (that said, the way Miike turns a small village into a total death trap is devilishly clever). That he shoots action scenes with a general sense of clarity amid the chaos (as in, actually pulling the camera back far enough so we can see what the hell is happening) is yet another plus. This is not a film of great depth, or of stoic philosophical musings in the age of the samurai. It is an action movie, one worth watching for the elegant simplicity of the film making, the understanding of violence and its consequences, and its ability to generate a reaction despite a script that doesn't place character development anywhere near its list of top priorities. And while 13 Assassins may not rank among the samurai classics of decades past, it certainly blows most modern Hollywood explosion-fiestas out of the water.

Grade: B

Review: "Midnight in Paris"

When one has made as many films as Woody Allen has (40), it's easy to feel that the work is becoming repetitive. As one of the most prolific auteurs ever, Allen has had his shares of triumphs and failures. And yet he's always pressed ahead, never taking too long between films. Starting in the mid-2000s, Allen hit something of a turnaround, leaving his beloved New York to write love letters to the great metropolises of Europe. It hasn't been without setbacks (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger), but Europe seems to suit Allen well, as evidenced by works like Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and now, Midnight in Paris.

First, a moment of honesty. When I first saw the trailer, I actually feared for the worst. All I got was that a man takes walks around Paris at midnight and "finds himself," and that everything else seemed rather, well, stupid. When Allen is on fire, he's fantastic, but when he's not, he can be horribly tedious, and I feared for the worst with this film. But the secret to Midnight in Paris that makes it work turns about to be those midnight sequences, which the trailer couldn't have done more to misrepresent.

After a picturesque opening montage of the city of light (one that could have used some trimming), we're introduced to American writer Gil (Owen Wilson) and his fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams). Gil is, to put it lightly, in love with Paris. Inez? Not so much. He's a romantic who loves the idea of Paris in the 1920s, she's convinced that he's suffering from what the pedantic Paul (Michael Sheen) calls "Golden Age syndrome." One night, trying to get a break from Paul's pseudo-intellectualism and Inez's condescending right-wing parents, Gil gets lost wandering around the city, and finds himself (literally) transported to the Paris of his dreams.

And it's here, in those midnight sequences that the trailer(s) refused to spoil, that the magic kicks in. Gil begins fraternizing with everyone from the Fitzgeralds (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill) to Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody), and even receives writing advice from Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates). These encounters, whether one-hit wonders or repeated, are charming, surprising, and at times hilarious. While there he also encounters the (fictional) Adriana (Marion Cotillard), part-time lover of Picasso and Hemingway. What initially starts as a charming relationship soon evolves into a microcosm of the film's central idea: that people always long for an idealized version of the past. For Gil, a man of the 2000s, it's the 1920s, but for Adriana, it's the Paris of the Belle Epoch. So even though Midnight in Paris is a love letter to Paris, it has the smarts to not go overboard in its idealizing of the past, reminding us that we can still enjoy the works of the past in the present.

However, like the Paris of Gil's fantasies, Allen's latest does have its share of problems, even if they often get buried under film's infectious charm. As fun and surprising as the historical cameos are, there are times when Allen's film falls prey to name-dropping for the sake of name-dropping, with plenty of luminary figures not even getting more than a few seconds of screen time. Meanwhile, in the present, Michael Sheen's Paul, though used to great effect, vanishes after a certain point, often-mentioned but suddenly never heard from again. Allen also throws in a rather pointless scene involving missing jewelry, one that comes dangerously close to evoking his writing at its worst: drawn-out, tedious, and not even remotely amusing. And as a work of story-telling, Midnight actually feels like a half step down from Vicky Cristina Barcelona, despite lacking that film's irritating omniscient narrator.

Thankfully, Allen has assembled an ensemble that makes even the film's weakest moments go down smoothly. The bigger cameos, like Hiddleston and Pill, or Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway, are true delights. Brody's Dali, however, is perhaps the best, in a one-scene role wherein he proposes to Gil that he paint him like rhino with a melting mouth. As the film's lone fictional blast from the past, Marion Cotillard brings a lovely presence to Adriana, even if the role feels almost too basic. Her chemistry with Wilson really works, and it's almost a shame that Allen wraps up their arc so quickly, instead of really exploring their gradually diverging views on the past. Back in the present, Rachel McAdams is saddled with a rather one-note role, which she handles adequately. More entertaining are her parents (Kurt Fuller and In the Loop's Mimi Kennedy), wealthy Tea Party-supporters who begin to grow suspicious of Gil's recurring midnight strolls. The show, however, belongs to Wilson. A California-ized version of the Woody Allen persona, Wilson's odd charm meshes perfectly with Gil's (and thereby Allen's) sensibilities, showing us that New York isn't the only city home to sensitive neurotic writers.

Midnight in Paris may not rank among Allen's finest, and it may have its share of flaws, but there's certainly a lot to love. The cast is game, the script is light and funny, and at a clean 90 minutes, it's the sort of small fantasy that you wish would go on for another 20 or 30 minutes. Allen's conclusion, that we can still enjoy the past in our own present, isn't executed with much depth or emotional resonance, yet it still works as a frothy love letter to one of the world's great cities thanks to its wit and irresistible charm. For a director now 40 films in, Midnight in Paris is proof that age has yet to rob Allen of his capacity to create thoroughly delightful cinema, regardless of whether or not you find it somewhat minor.

Grade: B

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Month(s) in Review: April+May 2011

It's been a while (January) since I've been able to/remembered to do this series, but since May is the 1 year anniversary, I figured it's about time to give these posts a second life. Unfortunately, February and March will be left out, but I will expand this entry to cover April as well. As usual, the rule is one award per film:

Best Film (Theaters): The Double Hour (my review)
A tricky littler thriller, Giuseppe Capotondi's debut feature, while not for everyone, packs one hell of a punch thanks to some knockout twists. The drama may tend towards being lightweight, but solid performances, strong direction, and fantastic cinematography lift this Italian answer to Tell No One up enough that it becomes a memorable mix of love, grief, and deception.

Best Film (DVD): La Ceremonie
Ever the 'observer,' Claude Chabrol's hit 1996 domestic thriller throws you for a loop, in part because the director refuses to manipulate via heavy-handed foreshadowing or ominous music. The directness with which Chabrol and his excellent cast bring the story to life, from the banal early scenes, to the downright chilling finale, only further cements his status as one of the all-time masters of French cinema.

Best Direction: Andrei Tarkovsky - Solaris
As difficult as this sci-fi odyssey can be at first glimpse, Tarkovsky's guiding hand holds your attention, even as Solaris enters increasingly vague and unexplained territory. Tarkovsky is able to get good work out of his cast, while creating an quietly unnerving atmosphere amid an increasingly abstract plot. At three hours, Solaris isn't always an easy watch, but Tarkovsky compels you to pay attention, and to try and figure it all out for yourself, all while providing the details with an elegant sense of mystery.

Best Male Performance: Anton Yelchin - The Beaver (my review)
Mel Gibson may be the main talking point of Jodie Foster's latest outing as a director, but the show really belongs to Anton Yelchin as Gibson's estranged son. To be fair, the screenplay does give him a more complete (and gimmick-free) character to work with. However, all of that would be for naught if Yelchin wasn't able to convincing embody the role of a teenager desperate to be like anyone but his father.

Best Female Performance: Juliette Binoche - Certified Copy (my review)
No awards-giving body would be complete this year without at least some mention of Juliette Binoche. Originally released in 2010 (Binoche picked up the Best Actress award at Cannes last year), the film has finally made its way to American theaters (and Oscar eligibility) this year, and I'll be more than a little miffed if I don't hear her name thrown around at least once. This is truly first rate work. She's subtle, engaging, complex, and deeply human, and like the film around her, she becomes stronger with each new level of mystery added (or pulled away). Unless 2011 really decides to knock it out of the park in terms of leading ladies, the rest of the year has its work cut out for it to top Ms. Binoche's work here.

Best Ensemble Cast: Bridesmaids (my review)
Clearly out to reverse the outdated (and rather stupid) idea that women aren't funny, the cast of Bridesmaids delivers in spades. Whether it's the charming oddities of Kristen Wiig, the Mean-Girls-style bitchiness of Rose Byrne, or the gut-busting non-sequiturs courtesy of Melissa McCarthy, this is a film overflowing with female comedic talent. With the exception of one scene (which was, tellingly, suggested by a male producer), Bridesmaids presents genuinely laugh-out-loud scenarios that don't revolve around gross-out moments. Not only are these women funny, but they're actually *gasp* better at comedy than many of their male counterparts.

Best Screenplay: Guillaume Canet - Tell No One
The end of Tell No One, unfortunately, comes down to a rather massive expository monologue. It remains interesting, though, because of how much goodwill writer/director Guillaume Canet (aka Mr. Marion Cotillard) builds up over the majority of the film, by carefully parcelling out information instead of dropping blocks of dialogue on us. The story keeps moving as twists come together, some true, some red herrings, and it all happens with an understated sense of movement.

Best Cinematography: Alwin Kuchler - Hanna (my review)
Joe Wright's Hanna is an imperfect film, one that is elevated from a flawed script by strong performances, direction, and marvelous artistic and technical aspects. And one of the best (aside from The Chemical Brothers' pulsating score) is the cinematography, courtesy of Alwin Kuchler. In an age when so many movies seem auto-corrected with balances of orange and teal (read), Hanna actually has a range of color to it. Blues, whites, greys, reds, greens; they're all present in this gorgeously lit film. Kuchler captures all of the film's locations, from snowy forests to neon-lit bars, with tremendous artistry and skill, and gives this art-house thriller a real sense of visual style.

Special Mention: The Costumes and Art Direction of Orlando

Aside from Tilda Swinton's breakthrough performance, the other big draws to Sally Potter's 1992 gender-bender are the stunning sets and costumes. Potter's film richly captures four centuries of style, both in decoration and in clothes. It's one thing for a film to be pretty, but the design of Orlando helps emphasize the story's impressionistic journey through time, with remarkable use of color and detail. I'm not exaggerating when I say that the work here, by Sandy Powell (costumes) and the team of Ben van Os and Jan Roelfs (sets), is some of the most exquisitely beautiful ever put on the silver screen.