Sunday, July 31, 2011

Review: "Cowboys and Aliens"


It's difficult to write about Cowboys and Aliens, the latest sci-fi action adventure from Jon Favreau (both Iron Man films), because there isn't really much worth writing about. Is it a horrible movie, or some sort of massive train wreck of cinema? Not at all. It's just that there's not much going on. The movie simply exists, failing to leave any sort of impression at all. The film opens with Jake Lonnergan (Daniel Craig) awakening in the desert, not knowing who he is or how he got to his present location. All he knows is that there's a strange metal device on his wrist that he can't seem to remove. After making his way to the nearby town of Absolution, he, along with the townspeople, come under attack by strange ships, ships that snatch people and take them away into the darkness.

From there, Lonnergan and the sheriff (Harrison Ford, making no impact whatsoever), along with the mysterious Ella (Olivia Wilde), lead the town in a quest to get their kidnapped friends and relatives back. The only thing Favreau's film has going for it are some decent production values, and slick special effects. Everything else is hollow, though I guess I should be "happy" that it isn't actively bad like, say, Transformers 3. However, I can only cut the film so much slack. Aside from Lonnergan, no one is interesting (and you can figure out Lonnergan's past without much thinking); they're all card board cut-outs, which is a shame considering some of the cast (who casts Sam Rockwell and then gives him nothing to do!?). To its credit, however, the film never bored me (although I suspect others will feel differently), and there are a few decent jump scares, even though they follow the exact same formula ("oh good, the thing that was following me is g-"BAM it's back!). And, I'll be honest, the seemingly loopy mix of the science fiction and western genres never felt awkward; Favreau does, at the very least, know how to ease you into his world. A shame, then, that his talents weren't put to use on a script that actually bothered to create a story (and characters) worth caring about.

*PS: To whom it may concern, Olivia Wilde's nude scene shows you nothing, so don't get too excited about it.

Grade: C


Saturday, July 23, 2011

Review: "Captain America"


Marvel Studios' lengthy build-up to next summer's The Avengers began in 2008, with the release of the first Iron Man. A surprise hit of sorts, it finally gave Marvel the confidence to go forward with establishing the other key heroes (and villains) to make The Avengers a reality on screen. However, ever since Tony Stark, the road has been a little bumpy. Immediately following Iron Man was The Incredible Hulk (also 2008), with Edward Norton (now replaced by Mark Ruffalo), which received rather dismissive reception and only did decent box office. Flash forward to 2011 (we'll skip over Iron Man 2), and the last pieces of the puzzle have fallen into place. In May, Kenneth Branagh gave us Thor with oddly unsatisfying results. That leaves only Captain America, and thankfully director Joe Johnston and crew have saved the (second) best for last.

After an opening designed to tie the film into The Avengers (but only vaguely, at first), we jump to Norway, where insane Nazi (and leader of science division Hydra) Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) storming through villages in search of a deus ex machina, er, important artifact of the Norse gods. We then jump to America, where scrawny Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is trying his hardest to gain entry into the US military. By chance, he's overheard by Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who thinks Rogers may be cut out for a different program, one designed to create "the next breed of super soldiers." Long story short: he gets in and becomes significantly taller and more muscular. From there, we follow Rogers' attempts to stop Schmidt as he goes rogue.

Yet for whatever silliness there is in the premise, director Joe Johnston executes the Captain's origin story in a surprisingly effective way. There's a sincerity to the characters and story that, however simple it may be, rings true. The good guys are good, and the bad guys are bad, but the film resists the urge to beat us over the head with overly patriotic nonsense. Instead, it focuses on giving the audience a good, Indiana Jones-esque adventure, which it delivers on, albeit with less memorable results. Depth isn't exactly something Johnston's film is striving for, but it does have some nice touches that keep it from being an all-out action bonanza. A sequence involving Rogers being used as a propaganda figure for the war effort adds a fun angle to the story. It may not explore anything about Rogers' feelings and motivations (which are all established before his transformation), but it's entertaining and presents him as an alternative to the other, cockier comic book heroes (Tony Stark, Thor, Hal Jordan).

So when the good Captain finally charges in against Red Skull, we as an audience have something resembling investment, as minimal as that investment may be. This is only helped by the clear establishment of the tone and world that Johnston and crew have created, that of a pulpy, Saturday morning cartoon/adventure serial. Whereas the slightly better-reviewed Thor struggled to fully involve me in its mythos, Captain America grounds you in its reality right from the start, and it aids the viewing experience tremendously. Even the romantic subplot is more effective here, though it's hardly given proper attention; Evans and Hayley Atwell have a simple, but believable chemistry with each other, one that makes you wish the film had been more invested with the relationship.

Because even though there are explosions galore, the action-packed final act of Captain America, though good fun, is a bit of a letdown. The staging of the fights is rather uninspired, and there's a rather heavy reliance on shots of characters driving vehicles amid rather obviously CG backdrops and surroundings. And even though Weaving completely sells the Red Skull character, he's undermined by the writing, which doesn't do nearly enough to make his character truly interesting or fearsome. The film's tone, while engaging and fun, also conflicts with things like the romantic subplot and character deaths; we aren't given nearly enough to care when the film wants us to care.

Disregarding Harry Potter, 2011 could easily go down as the summer of Marvel, even if the quality of the films (or box office performance) hasn't exactly been stellar. And even though it may not be the best superhero adventure of the summer (I'd still give that title to X-Men: First Class), it delivers on what it promises: a good, old fashioned adventure where a guy in red, white, and blue beats up some Nazis.

Grade: B-/C+

Friday, July 22, 2011

Trailer: "Drive"


One of the big surprises out of this year's Cannes Film Festival was Nicolas Winding-Refn's Drive, which not only earned strong reviews, but also a Best Director prize. Refn's work must really be something, because neither the reviews nor the trailer made the film sounds like something that would ever be up the alley of a Cannes jury. Regardless, this looks like a lean, tough, and stylish action thriller, with an incredible cast, and I get the feeling that this trailer hasn't even begun to show us the best parts of the movie. This looks like one fun way to transition between summer and fall.

**And even though this is a red-band trailer, it barely even qualifies.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Teaser Trailer: "The Amazing Spiderman" (2012)


Summer 2011 sure is taking a lot of time preparing us for summer 2012. Whether it's the teaser for Pixar's Brave, the build-up movies for The Avengers, or the just-released The Dark Knight Rises teaser, Hollywood can't wait for next summer. Joining that roster, after months of shooting and only a few publicity stills, is Marc Webb's The Amazing Spiderman, which recasts Andrew Garfield in the role of Peter Parker/Spiderman. Though it could be a nice, fresh start after the dismal Spiderman 3 (2007), the biggest obstacle Webb's film has is that it's taking us through the origin story AGAIN. I understand the desire to create a new universe and atmosphere, but couldn't it have been done without hitting the reset button? Still, the cast is intriguing (Emma Stone and Rhys Ifans basically ensure that I'll see this), and I'm curious about the last segment of the trailer, which takes us into first person mode. Even if Webb's Spiderman isn't quite 'amazing,' at least it looks like something different from the Raimi films.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Teaser Trailer: "The Dark Knight Rises" [Fixed/New link]


**Click HERE to find a different version of the teaser (the player can be odd when embedded, so it's easier to simply link to it). The TrailerAddict embed doesn't always want to work for some reason...

Topping The Dark Knight isn't going to be an easy feat, but that hasn't stopped Christopher Nolan from aiming big. Even with the minimal footage (I'm surprised there's any; the first teaser for The Dark Knight was merely a logo with voice over), this teaser gives off a feeling of something big. Nolan has said that The Dark Knight Rises will bring his Batman trilogy full circle, though he hasn't clarified whether that's in a narrative or thematic sense (both?). Either way, this trailer, which contains a brief glimpse of Tom Hardy as Bane, is certainly exciting. That said, however, I get the feeling that, based on the shots of Gary Oldman in the hospital bed, we're headed for even darker territory than The Dark Knight, which is no small feat, especially in a big budget blockbuster.

Review: "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2"

The end is here. 8 movies, and (currently) $7 billion at the box office later, the Harry Potter franchise has come to a close. It's been quite the ride, for both the film makers and audiences. Four directors, two screen writers, and one massive, dynamite British cast have brought J.K. Rowling's magical world to life for the past decade. There have been ups and downs in quality, though overall, it's impressive the way that Warner Brothers has handled the material. And for the finale, they've clearly gone all out, to marvelous effect. The Deathly Hallows Part 2, barring the opening act, is one big climax, and its ends the epic saga with a beautiful mix of heart and thrills.
Picking up with the last few seconds of Part 1, the film then takes us to Hogwarts, now under the headmaster-ship of Prof. Snape (Alan Rickman). Dementors hover in the sky, and Snape himself is introduced in an ominous high shot, framed in a coffin-shaped window, as students march in closely watched groups down below. The first words of Part 1 were "These are dark times, indeed," and it continues to hold true for Part 2. Elsewhere, Harry, Ron, and Hermione are desperately trying to finish their quest, to destroy the remaining Horcruxes, the pieces of Voldemort's fragmented soul that are the key to his destruction.
If any of what I'm saying is confusing, then either you're in dire need of a refresher on Potter-lore, or this film simply isn't meant for you. Now, more than ever, the series has become highly devoted to the fans. Splitting Rowling's final book into two films seemed like a cash-grab at first, but it's also an opportunity to be more faithful to the text, and keep more characters and events in. Being slavishly faithful to source material can often prove to be a film's downfall, yet here, perhaps with a touch of magic, director David Yates and crew have made it all gel together, even if there are still a few pieces of rushed exposition along the way. In my review of Part 1, I said that it would have been for the best if The Deathly Hallows had simply been one very long movie. However, as a fan, and as someone who grew up with the series at the perfect time (I was the same age as Harry at the release of The Sorcerer's Stone in 2001), AND as a film enthusiast/cinephile/reviewer/etc, Part 2 justifies itself quite nicely. It may not feel entirely complete as a film, but considering how much has been building up to this finale, there's a real weight to everything happening on screen.
So when Yates, who has sometimes been criticized for handling the stories (he's directed every installment since Order of the Phoenix) with perhaps too much efficiency, reaches the final battle at Hogwarts, he (and all involved in the massive production) delivers like his life depended on it. Impressively staged, the Battle of Hogwarts is notable for its absence of typical summer-movie bombast. Hogwarts' beautiful Gothic campus is brought nearly to ruin, yet there's a lack of exploitation and indulgence in how it's handled. Even with buildings crumbling, trolls and stone soldiers fighting, and spells flying, the film never grinds to a halt just to show you spectacle. Characters are the center here, and the film never forgets that. The effect can be almost underwhelming at first, but as it moves on, it proves to be a wise decision, and helps the tremendous struggle and sorrow of all of the fighting ring true. The special effects, the series' best, are stunning in their own right, but they feel truly magnificent because they are always part of the story, always in the presence of flesh-and-blood characters.

And it's these characters that have always made the Potter saga worth sticking with. However, whereas Part 1 was more intimately focused on Harry, Ron, and Hermione, Part 2 finds itself on another trio: Harry, Snape, and Lord Voldemort. Whatever his faults, Daniel Radcliffe has finally come of age in the title role, delivering career-best work as his character is taken through the exhausting final stages of his epic journey. Playing off of him with palpable malice is Ralph Fiennes as infinitely evil Voldemort. By playing up the Dark Lord's feelings of desperation as each Horcrux is destroyed, Fiennes is given more to work with, giving his character one more dimension in his final bow. But the movie, for all of its acclaimed British talent, ultimately belongs to Rickman, as the ambiguously-allied Snape. Rickman's work throughout the series has been impeccable, a pitch-perfect embodiment of the character who could be used for menace and dark comedy in equal measure. And, like Fiennes, he too is given an extra angle to his role this time around, in an extended flashback sequence that ranks among the series' best acted scenes. Other roles are all filled out nicely, though some get precious little time (Emma Thompson and Jim Broadbent). Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall, however, does get several small moments to shine, a welcome return for a character seemingly sidelined for the past few films, and Kelly Macdonald shines in a brief role as the daughter of Rowena Ravenclaw (the founder of one of Hogwarts' four houses).
In terms of production, the Potter films have always been lush, but here Warner Brothers seems to have spared no expense, and every cent of the budget is up on screen, to glorious effect. I didn't think it was possible, but the series looks even richer, thanks to outstanding work by production designer Stuart Craig, and gorgeous cinematography from Eduardo Serra. And Alexandre Desplat, tasked with scoring duties once again, brings some of the best musical contributions to the series', all while throwing in perfectly placed nods to John Williams' iconic original themes. Creating the world and atmosphere has always been an important part of telling Rowling's stories, and Part 2 has made sure that the series goes out with a stunningly rendered 'bang'.
So then, does it really matter that Part 2 technically isn't a complete film? Does this lessen its artistic and cinematic merit? Surprisingly, no. By taking the enormous amount of "stuff" that happens in Rowling's novel and giving it breathing room, the story emerges richer than ever. It may lack a proper beginning, but Part 2 certainly has an ending, one that is rich with character and heart, despite being heavily infused with sorrow and loss. In sparing nothing, and by going big, The Deathly Hallows Part 2 reaches emotional highs that I doubt it would have reached were it confined to one film. This is the end of both 10 years of books, and 10 years of film making. This is the end of a story that made a generation (and their parents) fall in love with an incredible world, both on page and on screen. And so, as far as endings go, it's only fitting that a massive story be filmed in a massive way, even if it does mean more money for the studio behind it all. Being faithful to source material doesn't have to result in stiff, sluggish cinema. When handled with true craftsmanship and care, it can rise far, far, above, and become something magical.

Grade: B+

Thursday, July 14, 2011

2011 Emmy Nominations


I haven't really talked about TV in months on this blog, which is strange considering the ridiculous amount of shows I follow. I didn't even make predictions for TV's big night, the Emmy Awards, and completely forgot that the nominations were announced this morning. As is usual with the Emmys in recent years, there's quite a bit here that I like, but also plenty of disappointments and missed opportunities.

**For a full list of nominees, go HERE.

Outstanding Comedy Series:
Glee
Parks and Recreation
The Office
30 Rock
Modern Family
The Big Bang Theory

All I really care about here is that Parks and Recreation has finally broken into the Emmy race. After an iffy debut season, the show has rapidly gained steam, and season 3 was easily its best to date. If the show can pull an upset win on September 18th, I'd be thrilled.

Outstanding Drama Series:
Boardwalk Empire
Dexter
Friday Night Lights
Game of Thrones
The Good Wife
Mad Men

Another solid line up, although if any of these deserve to be replaced, and it pains me to say it, it's Dexter. Season 5 simply wasn't up to par, especially coming off of the incredible 4th season. FX's Justified deserved one of the six slots instead, especially since there wasn't an eligible season of Breaking Bad (the soon-to-start 4th season is eligible for next year, however). The nomination for Game of Thrones is a nice surprise as well. The show may lack the more intimate, high-intensity acting of Breaking Bad or Mad Men, but as compelling narratives go, it was one of the best. And speaking of Mad Men, I'm starting to wonder: can the show take the Drama trophy for the fourth consecutive year, or will Emmy voters go for something different to shake things up a little?

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series:
Alec Baldwin - 30 Rock
Steve Carrell - The Office
Johnny Galecki - The Big Bang Theory
Matt LeBlanc - Episodes
Louis C.K. - Louis
Jim Parsons - The Big Bang Theory

All I can think while reading this is "why doesn't Rob Lowe have one of these slots?" This is, LITERALLY, one of the worst snubs of the year. As evidence, I present the following:


Outstanding Actor in a Drama Series:
Steve Buscemi - Boardwalk Empire
Kyle Chandler - Friday Night Lights
Michael C. Hall - Dexter
Jon Hamm - Mad Men
Hugh Laurie - House M.D.
Timothy Olyphant - Justified

Along with the usual suspects (minus Bryan Cranston), I'm thrilled to see that both Buscemi and Olyphant have scored nominations this year for their strong work (now if only Justified can break into Best Drama at some point...). That said, with Cranston out of the way, I'm hoping that Jon Hamm can finally claim an Emmy this year, for what was perhaps his best work yet on Mad Men.

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series:
Edie Falco - Nurse Jackie
Tina Fey - 30 Rock
Laura Linney - The Big C
Melissa McCarthy - Mike and Molly
Martha Plimpton - Raising Hope
Amy Poehler - Parks and Recreation

Now this is a strong line up, one that is, surprisingly, made up of mostly new entries (the only returning nominees are Falco and Fey). Linney's role has the most drama to it, which gives her an edge over the other comedic roles (save for Falco, who some say isn't even in a comedy...). Still, I'm glad that Amy Poehler finally earned a nomination for playing Leslie Knope, and that Martha Plimpton was recognized for her work on the surprisingly hilarious Raising Hope.

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series:
Kathy Bates - Harry's Law
Connie Britton - Friday Night Lights
Mireille Enos - The Killing
Mariska Hargitay - Law and Order: SVU
Julianna Margulies - The Good Wife
Elisabeth Moss - Mad Men

While Mireille Enos is an interesting surprise, Emmy voters, I'm begging you, please finally reward Elisabeth Moss. Like Hamm, she had possibly her best year yet, and considering that she's one of the show's most interesting characters, that's really saying something.

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series:
Ty Burrell - Modern Family
Chris Colfer - Glee
Jon Cryer - Two and a Half Men
Jesse Tyler Ferguson - Modern Family
Ed O'Neil - Modern Family
Eric Stonestreet - Modern Family

It's really nice that Ed O'Neil was actually able to join the other men of Modern Family this year; he's just as deserving as the rest of that excellent ensemble. Less deserving is Jon Cryer, who is here in a slot that should be filled by either Nick Offerman or Adam Scott from Parks and Recreation. Not that it matters, since I have a hard time seeing anyone but Chris Colfer taking the award home this year.

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series:
Andre Braugher - Men of a Certain Age
Josh Charles - The Good Wife
Alan Cumming - The Good Wife
Peter Dinklage - Game of Thrones
Walton Goggins - Justified
John Slattery - Mad Men

Now here's a category where it's pretty much up in the air. Of the repeat nominees, none were considered front-runners, which could leave this race wide open for an excellent newcomer like Dinklage or the slithery Goggins to walk away with the trophy. Somewhat mystifying, though, is how, with all of the Boardwalk Empire love, the Emmy voters passed over Michael Shannon's scary-as-hell turn as a hardline Christian/Prohibition-enforcing federal agent.

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series:
Julie Bowen - Modern Family
Jane Krakowski - 30 Rock
Jane Lynch - Glee
Sofia Vergara - Modern Family
Kristen Wiig - Saturday Night Live
Betty White - Hot in Cleveland

Though I fear that Lynch will win again even after season 2 wasted her character, I have hope that one of the Modern Family ladies will pull through. Bowen, in particular, was on fire this year, and would be a perfect change of pace for the category.

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series:
Christine Baranski - The Good Wife
Michelle Forbes - The Killing
Christina Hendricks - Mad Men
Kelly MacDonald - Boardwalk Empire
Margo Martindale - Justified
Archie Panjabi - The Good Wife

Another strong set; the women really hit it out of the park this year on TV. As nice as it would be to see Hendricks win (how her show hasn't won a single acting Emmy is beyond me), I think the two best here are MacDonald and Martindale. Martindale's chilling scene in the first few episodes of Justified alone was worthy of a nomination, and the rest of her work didn't disappoint.



Trailer: "Contagion"



Virus movies, though certainly nothing new, are usually connected to another genre: zombie films. But what if a movie decided to take a grittier, realistic approach, where the virus itself, and not the threat of mutations or zombies, was the real villain? That would give you Contagion courtesy of Traffic and Ocean's 11 director Steven Soderbergh. Despite the long wait for a trailer, not to mention the recent bump to an earlier release date (Sept. 9), I'm still excited for this film. Soderbergh has made some great films, and his ensemble here is all-around fantastic. But what's really intriguing here is a simple editing choice, one that lets us know that Gwyneth Paltrow's character dies. Honestly, when was the last time a trailer for a big budget studio film killed off one of the biggest names in the cast? It's the sort of decision that sends a very clear, and very unsettling message: no one is safe. That test screening audiences are reportedly calling the film "nausea-inducing" in its graphic (and supposedly realistic) depictions of a deadly virus only makes me more excited to see what Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns have in store for us.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Trailer: "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows"



I'm a little late on posting the first trailer for Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, thanks to the time difference. Robert Downey Jr.'s second franchise at the moment has finally given us a first look (the film arrives in December), and it looks like more of the same, in a good way. And even though former casting candidate Daniel Day Lewis is no longer involved (as the film's villain, no less), I'm still excited to see Guy Ritchie's follow-up to his 2009 action-mystery because of two words: Noomi Rapace. The former girl with the dragon tattoo is officially stepping out into Hollywood, and I love that her role, as the gypsy Sim, is going to be a major one. It must be pretty nice being the first person seen and heard in a big budget film with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law.

On the other hand, what's disappointing is how little fuss is made over Jared Harris as the film's villain. Dr. Moriarty is the Sherlock Holmes villain, essentially the Joker or Lex Luthor of Arthur Conan Doyle's universe, yet the trailer presents as being just as minor as Mark Strong's Lord Blackwood from the first film. As far as the rest goes, the chemistry between Downey Jr. and Law looks unchanged (I mean that as a compliment), though it worries me that the "get what's in your hand out of my face" joke is back. Too many recurring jokes/set-ups could stymie whatever growth Holmes and Watson's relationship goes through this time around. Then again, the jokes in the first film generally worked, and there's always Hans Zimmer's score (which got a well deserved Oscar nomination last time) to liven things up. Let's just hope that Guy Ritchie and crew don't give us too much of the same, though; we don't need another Hangover: Part II sequel this year.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Review: "Melancholia"


Lars von Trier, ever a controversy magnet, attracted quite a bit of attention for his remarks about understanding Hitler at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. This controversy, which ended with the Danish director being ejected from the festival, almost overshadowed his latest film, which managed to pick up a Best Actress prize for star Kirsten Dunst. Yet for all of the attention given to Mr. Von Trier's uncomfortable press conference, and to his previous film Antichrist, the craziness, surprisingly, ends there. Von Trier's latest effort, Melancholia, is actually devoid of the usual emotional (or physical) torture the director is known for inflicting upon audiences.

After a gorgeous prologue filled with slow-motion images, culminating in the earth colliding with a larger planet, the film settles into the story proper. Split into two chapters, the first focuses on Justine (Dunst), on the day of her wedding. As the the wedding reception drags on into the night, Justine begins to act increasingly inconsistent, much to the frustration of those around her, namely her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland). But enough about that, let's talk about the end of the world. Sorry, was that an awkward transition? Well, prepare yourself, because the film's movement between chapters isn't much better. At the end of the day, Melancholia is something of an art house disaster movie, only with little emphasis on the disaster. As is turns out, a planet (bluntly named Melancholia), is due to pass by earth. Claire is worried that the planet with collide, even though John tells her not to worry.

And if it sounds like the two halves of the movie don't seem to match up on paper, they don't fare any better on screen. Chapter One honestly feels like it needs to go off and become its own complete, separate story, and it drags when compared to the more anxiety-ridden Chapter Two. Although maybe it's for the best that Chapter One is only half of a film, because I don't think I'd want to sit through an entire feature's worth of it. Littered with interesting angles to explore, the film instead chooses to introduce boring subplots and inane scenes that go nowhere (if you can find something of worth in the scene where Justine urinates on a golf course, please let me know...). Instead of exploring the relationship between Justine and her bile-spewing, marriage-hating mother (Charlotte Rampling), or really examining why Justine starts to become so bizarre, we have to endure a subplot involving Jack (Stellan Skarsgaard), Justine's new boss. To be brief, it's stupid. And as beautiful as the film often is, technical aspects sometimes falter. The constant use of handheld camera work fails to add to the overall effect. And if you're a stickler when it comes to the 180 degree rule, you'll have a heart attack when you see how von Trier shoots and edits the conversations together.

Thankfully, Melancholia ends with its stronger half. As the film's perspective orients itself around Claire, and the story actually focuses on the titular planet, the film becomes less frustrating, and more engaging. In large part, this is due to von Trier's significantly better writing for the role of Claire. Justine is meant to be all-over-the-place, but unfortunately the script's treatment of her is equally scatter-shot. It's not just that Claire is a showier part that requires more obvious emoting. Quite simply, Gainsbourg blows her co-star clear out of the water. Claire's conflict may be a simple one, but in the hands of Ms. Gainsbourg, it comes to life with consistency and conviction. Faring much better in her second go-round with von Trier, it's Gainsbourg, not Dunst, whose performance deserves to be talked about (and possibly awarded).

And by finally focusing on the end of the world scenario von Trier is obviously eager to get to, Melancholia finally develops a sense of purpose. Whereas Chapter One has Justine urinating on a golf course and some shots of space that look like rejects from The Tree of Life, Chapter Two shows us how the small group of characters react to the oncoming planet. There's fear, doubt, confusion, and anger, all amid a simple-yet-intriguing sci-fi premise. And, barring some awfully strange and strangely awful dialogue (the child actor has terrible lines), it all fits together rather well. Melancholia may be as ignorant of science and physics as a Michael Bay blockbuster, but at least here, there's something of substance to distract you and aid in the suspension of disbelief. A scene where Jack tries to calm down Claire as she has trouble breathing winds up being full of understated suspense and intensity, even though it only lasts a short while. And even when we know how the story is going to end, how it has to end, the fact that von Trier has given us a limited range of characters to spend time with, rather than covering a huge ensemble, makes the sense of impending doom that much more earned. In, say, 2012, when we see Los Angeles fall to ruin, countless lives are lost amid overblown spectacle. Melancholia contains no explosions (barring the impact of the planetary collision), yet works on a much higher level as an end of the world story.

To a point, that is. Whatever the strengths of Chapter Two, there are still residual flaws that creep in from Chapter One. Justine may become a supporting character, but the messiness of the writing hangs over the role (and Dunst's performance) for the film's entire run. What von Trier has in mind for her never feels as focused and concrete as it should. Is her mental state somehow tied to the planet? Where does her hatred of life on earth come from? Were her role designed with greater purpose, these questions would intrigue, but as it stands, they perplex and annoy, to the point that you'll likely give up on figuring them out because you won't care, no matter how many times the lovely prelude from Wagner's Tristan & Isolde is used as soundtrack. For as many strengths as Melancholia has, it is also weighed down by errors in writing, whether in stiff dialogue or clumsy handling of themes and symbolism. So while Melancholia may stand above other end of the world flicks for its dedication to its characters, too often that dedication is inconsistent or shallow, rendering von Trier's latest equal parts compelling and tedious.

Grade: B-/C+

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Month in Review: June 2011

Apparently I subconsciously decided to make June "Difficult Movie Month," because in my choices, whether on DVD/online or in the theater, the best results came from films that weren't exactly easy going down. Whether it was my second venture into the filmography of Andrei Tarkovsky, or checking out another confounding piece from the Michael Haneke factory of uncomfortable scenarios, June proved equal parts tough and rewarding in terms of movie-going. The best of the best?

Best Film (Theaters): The Tree of LifeNot only the best film of June, but also the best theatrical release I've seen in 2011 thus far. As I've said before, I'm no die-hard fan of Terrence Malick, but this time he really got to me, even if I didn't realize immediately. Gorgeous images aside (and they are gorgeous), Tree manages to tackle the grandness of the universe through the mind of one man's mind and memories. It works as a vision of creation, as an intimate look of family life, and most importantly as a coming-of-age story shaded with loss. Yes, it can be ponderous at times, but I think that comes from Malick's refusal to give out easy answers, despite the occasional piece of overly blunt voice over. I think Mick LaSalle summed up Malick's cosmic intimate epic best (I'm paraphrasing) by calling it a bag of diamonds with a few rocks mixed in.


Best Film (Rental/DVD): StalkerLaSalle's description also fits perfectly with Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker, a film that is by turns mesmerizing and tedious (and sometimes both simultaneously). For a story that centers primarily on shots of men walking through grass, Tarkovsky and crew are able to create a surprisingly intense, hypnotic journey without relying on flashy visuals or sets. This is the sort of challenging, layered cinema that deserves to be re-visited multiple times.


Best Director: Terrence Malick - The Tree of LifeWhatever quibbles I've had with Malick in the past, his latest film was one instance when everything fit together. From the beautiful work from the cast, to the brilliant music choices, and the better-handled subjective nature shots, Tree is an example of Malick's tendencies at their best.


Best Male Performance: Ryan Gosling - Half NelsonThough he gets oddly bug-eyed for a brief moment, Gosling's breakthrough performance (which earned him an Oscar nomination) is a quiet tour-de-force. Every angle of Dan Dunn comes together fluidly in Gosling's portrayal. The result is a character who can be good, bad, smart, self-destructive, careless, and caring, all without feeling scatter shot. Quite the opposite; it's a thoroughly compelling piece of acting, and easily ranks among the best of 2006.


Best Female Performance: Isabelle Huppert - The Piano TeacherAnd speaking of compelling performances, I'd be daft to not use that term to describe Isabelle Huppert's work in Michael Haneke's 2002 film. As Erika, the sexually repressed piano teacher who tries to start a relationship with a student, Huppert turns in a knockout performance, one that capitalizes on her ability to mix deeply buried passions with a steely exterior. Simply incredible work.


Best Ensemble Cast: Midnight in ParisIt may border on overstuffed, but Woody Allen's latest charmer certainly shines in the casting department. Owen Wilson makes for a nice change of pace in the Allen-stand-in role, and his interactions with the supporting cast are a complete delight. Whether he's falling in love with Marion Cotillard's Adriana, conversing with Corey Stoll's Hemingway, or having a bizarre (and hilarious) encounter with Adrien Brody's Salvador Dali, Owen and the cast are one of the best things about one of Allen's best efforts in recent memory.


Best Screenplay: Tyrannosaur by Paddy ConsidineThough it has all of the ingredients necessary to devolve into misery porn, Paddy Considine's debut as a writer/director benefits from his generally strong script. While not a hugely eventful story, Considine keeps the plot moving with a tight focus on his central trio of characters. The end result, while not without its flaws, is a grounded and powerful look at the lives of two strangers crossing at a time of personal distress for both parties.


Best Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki - The Tree of LifeIf there was ever a time when I really had no choice, it was in this category. Even the harshest detractors of Malick's latest will have trouble denying the staggering beauty in Lubezki's images. Whether he's turning shots of volcanoes and empty landscapes into pre-historic vistas, or capturing the family life of the O'Briens, Lubezki's work here is a towering achievement, one that has a strong chance of remaining unmatched come year's end.

Review: "Green Lantern"


Green just hasn't been working for superheroes this year. After the middling response (and box-office) of The Green Hornet back in January, 2011 geared up for its second masked man in green, the significantly more popular Green Lantern. Unfortunately, Martin Campell's film, starring Ryan Reynolds as the titular hero, falls short of being heroic, even though it's not quite the disaster that some reviews have made it out to be.

Now, I'm no expert on comic books, but from what research I've done on the Green Lantern, the comic essentially has several different storylines, each one focusing on a different human being chosen to join the intergalactic Green Lantern Corps. Which one is considered the best? The most popular? The best fit for the big screen? I have no idea. All I know is that Warner Brothers chose to go with one of the more prominent story threads, centered around American test pilot Hal Jordan (Reynolds). Opening with some efficient narration courtesy of Tomar-Re (Geoffrey Rush), we learn about the Lantern Corps, and how they protect the universe by harnessing the green power of will. Consequently, the Corps' greatest threat was an entity known as Parallax, which fed on the yellow energy of fear. As the story proper begins, we see that Abin Sur (Temuera 'Jango Fett' Morrison), the Lantern who first imprisoned Parallax, attacked by the entity, as it has broken out of its celestial prison thanks to an all too convenient accident. They really couldn't have locked him/her/it up in something more surefire and secure?

Despite this, the opening is surprisingly fun, and does a decent job of making us comfortable with the reality being established. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that Green Lantern does a better job of immersing its audience in its world and mythology than the significantly better-received Thor. When Hal is taken to Oa, the home planet of the Lantern Corps, the movie reaches its high points. The design is vibrant but not cheesy, the special effects (which were torn apart after the release of the first trailer) are shiny, but convincing enough, and the look feels coherent. Space is also where we're introduced to a subplot involving Sinestro (Mark Strong), a high-ranking Lantern who, out of desperation, suggests that the Lantern Corps could try to harness Fear to use against Parallax. The movie has all of the right ingredients for a fun and compelling space opera, one that could easily fill out a fun little trilogy of connected stories.

Unfortunately, the earth-bound sections of the movie are here to send this hugely expensive enterprise grinding to a halt. Initially, they aren't a problem. The establishment of Hal as something of a wild card fighter pilot (albeit a supremely talented one) is handled decently, almost like a lightweight Tony Stark. And Mr. Reynolds, who is primarily known for mid-level comedies, actually does a solid job with the role. If only that pesky script wasn't there mucking everything up. As the story progresses, events become increasingly jumpy, and Hal's sudden decision to give up on the chance to be a Lantern is done too quickly and without any sense of dramatic heft. The film also takes the conflict of Will vs. Fear to rather silly extremes, essentially reducing the meaning of these two forces to a conflict of those who Do, and those who Think. Turns out that those pesky thinkers are the bad guys, and they're represented by Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard), who's as wimpy (and eventually ugly) as Hal is handsome and ripped. I'm glad that Warner Bros is here to teach us such a valuable lesson. Remember kids, if you think too hard, you end up being a simpering scientist who fails to get the girl and grows a creepy pedophile 'stache.

And as the film moves along, sometimes swiftly, sometimes moderately, and the actors are dragged through the mess that is the screenplay, the disappointment starts to sink in. This is not soul-crushing, embarrassing cinema (though there are some very strange and silly lines of dialogue). Rather, it's just unimaginative and too lightweight for its own good. I'm not even going to bother with the odd little contradictions in the plot, because they don't feel worth the discussion. What's worse is that a superhero whose power holds the vastness of the imagination at its core, has been adapted for the silver screen with such basic results. Even worse is that Rush's character actually has a line telling Hal that his powers are only limited by his imagination. Unfortunately for the movie, imagination is one key component that's sorely lacking. This is made that much more annoying to endure simply because there are elements Green Lantern that either work or have lots of potential. Unfortunately, for all of the money thrown at this project (and, to be fair, every cent of the budget is on screen), this latern produces only a faint glow, when it could have shone so brightly among a sea of lackluster super hero franchise hopefuls.

Grade: C/C-

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Review: "I Saw the Devil"

If there are two genres that, at least in American cinema, have a tendency to lend themselves to unadulterated sleaze, it's the revenge thriller, and so-called "torture-porn" horror flicks. The former often devolves into grimy exploitation films that seem to glorify the way a wronged man or woman exacts revenge. The latter simply indulges, to the point of excess, in ludicrously overwrought means of death and torture, all for the sake of shock value. Thankfully, all is not lost for either of these genres, as evidenced by Korean cinema, which has made quite the mark in the past decade with films like Oldboy and Lady Vengeance. These are films that combine graphic violence and revenge-oriented plots, all without sacrificing originality, style, or story. The latest example of this trend, and the subject of this review, is Jee-woon Kim's I Saw the Devil, a film that entirely earns its jumps, scares, and squirms.

Like any film with horror elements (and a serial killer as a villain), Devil's prologue involves a kill sequence. We're introduced to Joo-yeon (San-ha Oh), the daughter of a retired police chief, who's engaged to young police officer Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee). Stopped on a snowy roadside with car troubles, she calls and waits for a towtruck, until a stranger comes along and repeatedly offers to help her. And even though everything about Kim's style seems to scream "slasher flick," the director's command of the visual language, combined with Mogae Lee's moody cinematography, elevates this standard opening trope into something with some actual punch.

As the story progresses, we see the intertwining paths of Kim and the serial killer Kyung-chul (Oldboy's Min-sik Choi), as Kim's quest for revenge takes an increasingly brutal turn. Rather than simply kill Kyung, Kim decides to play a far nastier game, and the film doesn't shy away from the details (I'll spare you any descriptions). His is a quest for revenge designed to make Kyung feel as weak and vulnerable as possible, something which proves disturbingly difficult. For all of the pain that Kyung goes through, he still remains a thoroughly unnerving presence. And, as embodied by Mr. Choi, the role comes to life with startling conviction and creepiness. Kim may be the protagonist (though don't mistake him for a hero), but it's Kyung who winds up being the more compelling entity. There's no exploration into his past, no attempt to unearth a reason behind his homicidal tendencies. He's simply a twisted and scary individual, and frankly, the way the story is executed and the character inhabited by Mr. Choi, that's more than enough to be effective.

And as blunt as the theme of the film may be, Jee-woon Kim's direction keeps the story flowing with an engaging pace, filled with plenty of moments of tension and horror (and yes, a few plot holes or stretches of plausibility). Because there's a compelling story, one filled with a highly intriguing (and disturbing) character dynamic, at the core, the scenes of violence feel justified. You might flinch or cover your eyes at times (I certainly did), but the editing never lingers too long. The film never resorts to shoving blood and gore in your face in excess in the hopes that you'll be freaked out. Granted, sometimes the film makes a spectacle out of certain scenes (there's a stunning 360 degree shot involving a confrontation in a speeding car), but never in a manner that feels ridiculous. The almost hypnotic way in which scenes unfold, barring those featuring the somewhat awkward score, helps ensure that all of the violent scenes feel earned, whether they're meant to move the plot forward, or simply illustrate Kyung's madness. Oh, and amid all of this, the film even manages flashes of dark humor, which is an achievement in its own right considering the subject matter.

Yet while small issues with the plot may not pose problems when compared to the film's overall impact, there are a few additional problems. A handful of cops are seemingly introduced as characters early on, only to be dropped and used as frame-fillers for the rest of the film. In a larger role is Ho-jin Jeon, as the current police chief, whose performance consists of being baffled and looking dopey; he's essentially mugging his way through the whole performance, and it borders on being a bad comic relief role, without the comedy. Then there's that damn score, which, while not used frequently, has a tendency to either fit awkwardly with the images, or just outright clash. Thinking back on the film, it's easy to imagine all of the intense scenes without a score, and being just as effective (did no one learn anything from No Country for Old Men?). And as compelling as the story is, the film sets itself up to something resembling an interesting conclusion, before gearing back up again for another 20 or 30 minutes. At the end of the day, it's a good thing that it kept on going, because the real ending is infinitely more jarring and effective than where the film was headed. Still, it's a shame that there's such a weird fake out, as if the screenplay was winding down and then the writer got a second wind, yet forgot to smooth out the transition between acts.

All in all, though, these problems come off as minor in the grand scheme of things. I Saw the Devil really is a compelling slice of Korean cinema, filled with strong directing, acting, editing, and cinematography. It is graphic and twisted, but benefits from a strong narrative that helps make sense of all of the unpleasantness. And by putting such violence in a compelling context, the film rises above so many similar graphic revenge tales, and emerges as one of the best crime tales in recent years.

Grade: B+

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Review: "Transformers: Dark of the Moon"

Well ladies and gentlemen, he did it. He suckered me in. He got me, hook, line, and sinker. The 'he' I'm referring to here, for those who don't know, is Mr. Fast-Cuts Explosion Esq. himself, Michael Bay, and the film is Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Although I guess, after giving it a moment of thought, it's not that surprising as to why. The first Transformers (2007), though initially irritating, has grown on me a little, though it's still not something I'd rush to pop into the DVD player when I wanted something fun. Despite plenty of drawn-out, annoying crap, the first film actually works the best in terms of being empty, enjoyable summer entertainment. The same cannot be said, however, of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009). While I don't hate that movie with the same passion as some (I believe I gave it a "C-"), it's not exactly good. And in spots, it's also unbearable (the world is looking at you, Julie White). And after ROTF, I was convinced that I was done with this silly, bloated, Bay-tastic franchise. And then the trailers for Dark of the Moon came out, and I have to confess: it looked kind of cool (giant robots AND Frances McDormand? What could possibly go wrong?), if only for the promise of the supposedly spectacular final showdown set in Chicago.

So, how does Dark of the Moon fare in trying to restore a passable reputation to the franchise? Meh. Yes, 'meh,' is actually the best response I can give here, as I'll explain. What the latest Transformers may lack in (completely) ridiculous plotting and insufferable stereotypes (from the robots, no less...), it makes up for with stuff. Yes, stuff. Running just shy of two and a half hours, the conclusion of Bay's trilogy, goes out nearly on a whimper in comparison to the finales of the first two films, despite a promising (albeit silly) start. The film opens with a flashback, detailing more of the war between the Autobots and Decepticons, and how they first came to our planet. As it turns out, an escape ship crash-landed on our moon, setting in motion the space race to find out what the hell landed out on the big rock in the sky.

Now, historical silliness aside, the opening is actually the one interesting part of the movie, and creates a fun enough scenario to set things up (even though it pretty much contradicts ROTF's origin story, wherein the first space robots touched down on earth thousands of years ago). Cut to the present day, and we return to "hero" Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), who's having trouble finding a job, despite having saved the world twice (his words, not mine). That is, after we're introduced to his new girlfriend Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) with a ridiculous ass-hugging shot as she walks up some stairs. Maybe Mr. Bay and Zack Snyder should collaborate on a film entirely devoted to cheap shots of women in skimpy clothing, with extra doses of racism and slow-motion. I smell a franchise!

But I digress. As it turns out, Dark of the Moon, for all of its standard Bay-isms, actually held my attention pretty well. Whatever the faults of Mr. Bay's style, including his insistence on shots that never last longer than 5 seconds, he can hold your attention with his pacing, where so many other bloated CGI spectacles fail and become very boring very fast. That is, to a point. After the film's first hour (maybe not even that), the film just sort of jumps from scene to scene all so that it can reach its big finale. It's not horrible or incompetent, but considering how little the writers have done to build up the characters (while constantly introducing huge new supporting casts), there's not much to care about. However, to jump back to Zack Snyder, at least here there are actual stakes, seeing as this is taking place in "reality," and not some inane and contrived fantasy within a fantasy. And, to the film's credit, the special effects are excellent, and there's a pretty intense sequence involving our human heroes sliding around a skyscraper that's leaning on its side. Other portions of the finale are less interesting. More impressive than any of the fighting, which is merely flashy and loud, is how convincingly Bay and co. managed to make Chicago look like a war zone (although, to be fair, the Autobots and Decepticons are easier to distinguish this time around). Also, Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) is supposed to be the badass incarnate among the Autobots, so why on earth does the film let him get stopped for 20 minutes by some dangling cables? Was that the best obstruction they could think of in a war-torn metropolis?

As far as performances go...well, let's keep the descriptions short. LaBeouf has dropped the "Nonononononononononono's!" from his vocabulary, although this doesn't stop him from shrieking repeatedly on several occasions. Ms. Huntington-Whiteley, replacing Megan Fox, is merely eye candy, neither bad nor good, and I don't quite understand the reviews that claim she makes Megan Fox look like Judi Dench in comparison. Girls, relax, you're both equally vacant and useless. John Turturro returns as the paranoid Seymour, finally with less embarrassing results (what happened to you, Barton Fink?), and Frances McDormand is almost fun as a hard-nosed government agent (I'll admit, the line about the different purses kind of made me laugh). John Malkovich shows up for a brief period of time and, well, you know, does his usual thing. Tyrese and Josh Duhamel are back. Oh, and Ken Jeong is in there for five minutes to do his part in further reducing Asian Americans to obnoxious caricatures in American cinema, by doing the same thing he always does: acting insufferable and shrill. Congratulations.

Dark of the Moon, though perhaps a step up from ROTF, fails because it doesn't take a big enough step in the right direction. For whatever flash the effects and stunt work may provide, there's simply not enough to care about, either in this film by itself, or in the total effort of the trilogy. Bay's latest is not awful, worst-of-the-year cinema, but it isn't particularly good or enjoyable either, even if it does scale down some of the mistakes from the previous entry. But before I end this review, I should bring up one thing: you'll notice that after I talked about the film's set-up, that I didn't go any further into describing the flow of events in the plot. See the film, and you'll understand why; there's simply not much to talk about.

Grade: C

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

2011, 6 Months In: The Favorites

It's hard to believe, but half of 2011 is already gone. In a few months, we'll be hit with festivals from both Venice and Toronto, and then it's back to awards season madness. However, since that's still some ways off, I'd rather focus on the present: the halfway (well, probably a little past, but close enough) point of the year in movies. How 2011 will stack up against recent years remains to be seen, but it's certainly been a diverse year so far. Here's a look at my favorites (across the categories), written up as though today was the last day of the year:

The Half-Way Favorites:

Best Picture:
13 Assassins
Bridesmaids
Certified Copy
The Double Hour
Hanna
Jane Eyre
Midnight in Paris
Rango
The Tree of Life
Tyrannosaur

Winner: The Tree of Life


Best Director:
Giuseppe Capotondi - The Double Hour
Abbass Kiarostami - Certified Copy
Terrence Malick - The Tree of Life
Gore Verbinski - Rango
Joe Wright - Hanna

Winner: Terrence Malick - The Tree of Life


Best Actor:
Johnny Depp - Rango
Paul Giamatti - Win Win
Mel Gibson - The Beaver
Peter Mullan - Tyrannosaur
William Shimmell - Certified Copy

Winner: Peter Mullan - Tyrannosaur


Best Actress:
Juliette Binoche - Certified Copy
Olivia Colman - Tyrannosaur
Kseniya Rappoport - The Double Hour
Saoirse Ronan - Hanna
Mia Wasikowska - Jane Eyre
Kristen Wiig - Bridesmaids

Winner: Juliette Binoche - Certified Copy


Best Supporting Actor:
Michael Fassbender - Jane Eyre
Hunter McCracken - The Tree of Life
Brad Pitt - The Tree of Life
Christoph Waltz - Water for Elephants
Anton Yelchin - The Beaver

Winner: Brad Pitt - The Tree of Life


Best Supporting Actress:
Cate Blanchett - Hanna
Rose Byrne - Bridesmaids
Jessica Chastain - The Tree of Life
Melanie Lynskey - Win Win
Melissa McCarthy - Bridesmaids

Winner [TIE]: Cate Blanchett - Hanna/Jessica Chastain - The Tree of Life


Best Original Screenplay:
Bridesmaids
Certified Copy
The Double Hour
Midnight in Paris
Tyrannosaur

Winner: The Double Hour


Best Adapted Screenplay:
Incendies
Jane Eyre
X-Men: First Class
--
--

Winner: Jane Eyre


Best Editing:
The Beaver
The Double Hour
Hanna
Midnight in Paris
Tyrannosaur

Winner: Hanna


Best Cinematography:
13 Assassins
The Double Hour
Hanna
Jane Eyre
The Tree of Life

Winner: The Tree of Life


Best Art Direction:
Hanna
Jane Eyre
Midnight in Paris
The Tree of Life
X-Men: First Class

Winner: The Tree of Life


Best Costume Design:

Hanna
Jane Eyre
Midnight in Paris
The Tree of Life
Water for Elephants

Winner: Water for Elephants


Best Animated Film: Rango [default]

Best Foreign Language Film:
13 Assassins [Japan]
Certified Copy [Belgium/France/Italy]
The Double Hour [Italy]
Incendies [Canada]
Of Gods and Men [France]

Winner: The Double Hour [Italy]


Best Original Score:
The Double Hour - Pasquale Catalano
Hanna - The Chemical Brothers
Jane Eyre - Dario Marianelli
Rango - Hans Zimmer
The Tree of Life - Alexandre Desplat

Winner: Hanna - The Chemical Brothers


Best Original Song: "Hanna's Theme" - Hanna [default]

Best Makeup:
13 Assassins
Hanna
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Super 8
X-Men: First Class

Winner: 13 Assassins


Best Visual Effects:
Fast Five
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Super 8
The Tree of Life
X-Men: First Class

Winner: The Tree of Life

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Karlovy Vary FF: Day 3 Impressions


My last day at KVIFF was unfortunately a short one, leaving me enough time to only see one. Despite some problems, however, it ended up being a nice surprise, and a good way to end my first festival experience:


Day 3 Impressions:

No Tengas Miedo
dir. Montxo Armendariz:
Child abuse isn't an easy subject to build a story around, yet Armendariz's film tackles it with great skill and taste. He refrains from overwrought sequences of graphic rape, instead choosing to focus on the victim's quiet, pained reactions. It's a decision that pays off in spades. The film is also bolstered by effective work from Lluis Homar (Broken Embraces), Belen Rueda (The Orphanage), and Michelle Jenner. It's a compelling and tightly structured film. Armendariz jumps into the abuse so quickly, that his film starts to run out of steam 2/3 of the way through. The last half hour loses focus, and becomes a patchwork of scenes, that leave the film rather aimless. It's as if Armendariz forgot that he had to bring the film to an end at some point, and had no idea how to do it.

Grade: B

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Karlovy Vary Film Festival: Day 2 Impressions


Unfortunately, due to being literally 5 people too far back in line, I was unable to attend the KVIFF showing of The Skin I Live In, one of my most anticipated of the year. I was, however, able to attend three films today, even though one of them I'd seen three weeks prior. Condensed thoughts on the viewings:

Day 2: Impressions

The Tree of Life dir. Terrence Malick: Apparently I got more out of my first viewing of Malick's cosmic opus the first time around than I realized, because this second watch did little to change my opinion. Not that I'm complaining, seeing as I gave the film an "A-" in my original review. The most extreme "change" that I felt may have been in the film's last 20 minutes, which somehow seemed less abstract/obstuse than before, even though I still can't give you an explanation as to what it meant to me. All this viewing did was confirm that this is one challenging, drop-dead gorgeous work of art, with only a handful of tiny stumbles.

Grade: A-

Hanezu dir. Naomi Kawase: The shortest film I saw today (at 90 minutes), Hanezu still managed to feel longer than Tree and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia combined. I honestly can't remember the last time I lost interest in a film so quickly. And despite the script's attempts to portray a couple's relationship in decay, Kawase ends up presenting a film where literally nothing of importance happens. It's one thing for a film to be bad. Bad films can still be interesting failures. Where Hanezu goes wrong is that it's both bad and excruciatingly boring and empty. And in the world of cinema, that's as close to a mortal sin as you can get.

Grade: D

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan: The latest film from Nuri Ceylan, which tied for 2nd Place at Cannes this year, almost feels like two films. The first, which lasts for an hour and a half (maybe a little more), is a slow-burning, quietly compelling, and occasionally mesmerizing crime procedural. Unfortunately, a second movie, lasting only a little over an hour, comes in and mucks up everything, barring a handful of well executed scenes. Like so many movies of its kind, Anatolia's pacing wouldn't be a problem, if it weren't for the film's overlong run time. As a 90 or 100 minute film, this could have been an interesting and compelling take on the crime genre. Instead, it veers off course and overburdens itself with story and character shifts.

Grade: B-

Friday, July 1, 2011

Karlovy Vary Film Festival: Day 1 Impressions

Greetings from the Czech Republic (I probably should have said that four or five posts ago), and more specifically, greetings from Karlovy Vary, home to the 46th Karlovy Vary Film Festival. While lacking the major publicity (at least Stateside) of Cannes or Venice, KVIFF is actually considered one of the premiere film festivals in Europe, and as luck would have it, I get to spend 3 (ish) days here.

Originally shared between Karlovy Vary and Moscow, the festival fell entirely to the care of the Czech Republic after the fall of communism in 1989. Since then, the small town has blossomed into a lovely resort/spa town of sorts. Of course, that's not the reason to go, at least not for July 1-9. With a truly impressive array of films, both in an out of competition (ie: most Cannes titles), KVIFF should prove to be a memorable experience, seeing as this is my first time at a legitimate film festival. Having finished my first day (and only being able to make one screenings; boo), I can only wish that I was staying longer, because I'm starting to develop kid-in-a-candy-shop syndrome.

Anyway, the point (thought I'd never get there, didn't you?) is that I'll be able to give reviews of something other than what's out in theaters or available on Netflix, which makes for a nice change of pace. I plan to wrap up each day with simple impressions, on which I will fully expand in the first few days of next week. So, without further delay, here's a quick glimpse at my one screening, which turned out to be a lovely surprise.

First Impressions: Day 1

Tyrannosaur dir. Paddy Considine: A sturdy kitchen sink style drama that is at times slightly amateurish and blunt, but none the less effective. Considine navigates the limited story (which is more a series of encounters) with a deft hand, despite the heavy subject matter on display (spousal abuse; fun!). What could have been slow, turgid misery porn is actually a nicely effective character piece. The main problem is that one of the film's main characters, played by Peter Mullan, is handled with an odd mix of distance. We see his rage, but even when we understand it, the effect is somehow muted. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the film's leading lady, Olivia Colman, who completely owns the role of a timid store owner stuck in an abusive marriage. We see both her timid desperation (enhanced by Colman's small, pixie-ish face), and those tiny flares of a desire for independence. It's marvelous work, the best I've seen this year since Juliette Binoche in Certified Copy (and that's saying a lot).

Grade: The movie: B/Olivia Colman: A

Tomorrow's schedule (fingers crossed): The Skin I Live In, Hanezu, and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia