Sunday, September 18, 2011

Review: "Drive"

When Nicholas Winding Refn took the Best Director prize at Cannes back in May, his victory was considered something of a surprise. Amid a sea of names like Von Trier, Malick, and Almodovar, the Finnish director had come out on top, not only with the prize, but with one of the festival's best reviewed films. That title seems to have been well earned, because, despite its mundane premise, Drive is a stellar piece of filmmaking.

Ryan Gosling stars as Driver, a Hollywood stuntman who moonlights as a getaway driver, until one particular job goes awry and things get complicated. On paper, it seems like a silly spin-off of the Fast and Furious franchise, which is already silly enough (albeit enjoyably so). But it's execution that matters, not the ideas on paper, and there's where Drive, thanks almost entirely to Mr. Refn, delivers in spades. Like Joe Wright's Hanna, Drive is something of an art-house action film, one that favors style over substance. And, like Wright's film, Refn's actually makes style over substance work in the best way possible.

Rather than fill the movie with endless car chases and noise, Drive's action scenes arise out of the plot (as opposed to the reverse, which is so common nowadays). They're well executed and stylish, but not so overly choreographed or over-the-top as to feel ludicrous. Refn, whose last film was the brutal and unsettling Bronson (2008) has toned down his flashier, fourth-wall-breaking impulses, yet the film is still immensely stylish. The script, by Hossein Amini (and adapted from James Sallis' novel), is light on dialogue, and truly acts as a skeleton. In different hands, the whole affair could have come off as empty, stiff, and bland. Refn and his cast, however, make sure that's not the case whatsoever.

Among the movie's many assets is Gosling as the nameless driver. The role, like the script, is little more than a skeleton, but the actor fills it out surprisingly well. At the offset, it's easy to be tricked into thinking that the performance is a lazy one. Quite the contrary; Gosling's portrayal is not necessarily complex or overly emotional, but his presence gives a strange sense of life to the role. In some scenes his eyes are almost hypnotic to watch (well, aside from the obvious reason), and one of his reaction shots after a moment of violence is excellent. We can connect with him, even though know almost nothing about him. Think of him as a nice version of No Country for Old Men's Anton Chigurh. Other roles are filled out nicely as well. Carey Mulligan and Oscar Isaac give nice turns as the driver's neighbors, the latter of whom has just been released from prison. Less successful are Ron Perlman and Mad Men's Christina Hendricks, although this is pretty much attributable to their limited screen time. In a movie with so little dialogue for certain roles, every second counts, and Perlman and Hendricks make it count, but there's not quite enough there for them to chew on. Albert Brooks, who has earned some whispers of Oscar buzz for his work, is effectively despicable as the film's eventual villain, but the real star of the supporting cast is Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston, using his own limited time to create a surprisingly likable and sympathetic character.

The real star, however, is none of the people in front of the camera, but rather the man running the show; Mr. Refn himself. The characters may not have much in the way of depth, but Refn still allows us to spend plenty of time with them before the slide into violence. And once it hits its violent stride, Drive really takes off and makes its mark, mixing elements of crime dramas and 80s neo-noir. Like Bronson, some of Drive's images are graphically violent, but Refn refrains from shoving them in our faces. We'll get a quick glimpse or two, and then it's over, the editing and sound design taking over along with our imaginations. The violence also rises naturally out of the story, rather than for the sake of an overblown set piece.

Bolstered by excellent (albeit sometimes on-the-nose) soundtrack choices, and an atmospheric score from Cliff Martinez, Refn and DP Newton Thomas Sigel's images come vividly to life. The film make have the slightly washed out look of digital, but Refn and co. have made sure to fill the frame with enough color (including some hot-pink opening credits) to give the film a distinguishable look. Refn also knows how to use slow-motion effectively, to the point where the images captivate, rather than bore or become indulgent (are you listening, Zack Snyder?).

But how far can thin characters and style carry a film? If Drive and Hanna are any indications, then the answer is pretty damn far. Refn has made a film that uses its own understated sense of cool to lend the bone-dry script a sense of purpose. Drive has no deeper meaning, nor does it have a point to make; it's simply a story told well (and with more than a little panache). In a way, the style (some of which is its own restraint) almost is the substance, as nonsensical as that may seem. Rather that puff itself up into something bloated and over-the-top, Drive settles for the quiet, understated route, to become not only one of the best action films of the year, but one of the best, and certainly coolest, films of the year, period.

Grade: B+/A-

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Netflix Files: September 5-11

Bronson (2008/9) dir. Nicholas Winding Refn:
Though it doesn't lack for style, I'm not really sure whether Bronson is fascinating, or merely dressed up exploitation. Starring Tom Hardy as the U.K.'s most notorious criminal, Refn's film, much like A Clockwork Orange, does not have a likable protagonist. Bronson is deranged, for reasons never really explained. Instead, we're treated to scenes of Bronson's years in and out of prison, framed with the character talking directly to the camera, and to an audience as he stands on a stage in white make-up. Refn certainly has a panache that elevates the execution above the ordinary; it's theatrical, but still grounded in gritty details. Unfortunately, Refn and Brock Norman Brock's (yes, that's really his name) screenplay is much too thin to completely sustain viewer interest, even though the film is only 1 hr 25 minutes. And as for Tom Hardy, as much as the story provides ample opportunity as an acting showcase, there's little that the actor brings to the role other than dedication. With such superficial direction and writing, Hardy can't overcome the film's shortcomings. He's certainly dynamic, and he burrows into the character's physicality quite effectively, but at the end of the day it's not enough to pick up the slack. Bronson isn't a failure, but it is a missed opportunity, devoid of entertainment value and/or character study.

Grade: The Movie: C+/Tom Hardy: B-/Style: A

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Review: "Contagion"

A disease pandemic means zombies. That's what the Hollywood of the past decade or so can't seem to get over. Not that there haven't been some good films to come out of the trend (28 Days Later...), but all in all, the disease-equals-zombies movie has been done enough to last us for a while. A movie strictly about disease, however? That's the sort of thing that hasn't been done in a while, so leave it to chameleonic director Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Ocean's 11, Che) to give us a more grounded take on a viral menace.

Opening on Day 2 of the epidemic, Contagion follows a mysterious viral outbreak whose first victim is Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow). As the virus begins to spread, the film travels across the globe, following everyone from health officials (Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle, Marion Cotillard), to the possibly infected (Matt Damon), and even a conspiracy theorist/blogger (Jude Law). Some try to find the virus' source, others try to contain its expansion, and some simply try to keep their lives from falling apart.

And, as rendered by Soderbergh and his team, the story is one that keeps its feet firmly on the ground. There are scenes of frustration and panic, even rioting, but Scott Z. Burns' script never gives in to hysteria or melodrama. Contagion isn't concerned with scenes of people becoming violently ill, or gross-out moments (save for maybe one). Instead, it keeps its focus on telling a grounded story about an increasingly aggressive disease. Soderbergh and Burns received cooperation from the CDC, and they've obviously taken the organization's advice seriously; the film feels uncomfortably plausible. Acting as his own cinematographer, Soderbergh captures the surfaces where the virus spreads (or makes contact) with a precision that is uncomfortable, and may very well have you rushing to douse your hands in Purell when the movie is over.

As the film progresses, though, it also starts to run out of steam. The first hour or so, when the disease is still an unknown (and still spreading rapidly) is stronger, but even it has its share of flaws. Though Stephen Mirrione deserves credit for his tight (but not hyper active) editing, he's left trying to cover too many bases. The story of the investigation of the disease, as well as Damon's arc, probably would have been enough to sustain the narrative. Unfortunately, there are two story threads that aren't quite up to snuff.

The first is Law's, which tracks a conspiracy blogger who simultaneously believes that the CDC is in bed with pharmaceutical companies, while trying to sell his own homeopathic treatment. Even though Elliot Gould has an amusing line about why blogging isn't real journalism, the film's use of Law's character feels too easy and too broad. The more I think about Law's scenes, the less I like them. With the clinical distance that Soderbergh is keeping from his subjects, this particular character is only more difficult to remain interested in as time goes on. But then there's Marion Cotillard's story line, which isn't so much useless as it is short-changed. With the strand already kept seemingly on the back burner, the film simply abandons Cotillard's character at two rather crucial points. There was probably an interesting angle to be mined from the arc, but little to nothing is made of it.

These two strands are part of Contagion's Achilles Heel. In trying to be an anti-disaster movie, and avoid sensationalism, Soderbergh and Burns have perhaps gone too far in the other direction. While I respect the film's attempts to ground itself in procedure and science, I can't help but feel that too much time is spent on characters spouting information, which robs them of the chance to, well, act. The script's fixation on the science of the story drains too much life from the characters for any of them to be worth connecting with, save maybe for Damon, Fishburne, and Winslet. Considering that the film is already jumping between and among characters, the problem only gets worse as it goes on, rendering the film's emotional angle void. So even though there is much to respect within Contagion, which ends on an interestingly simple (albeit unsettling) note, from its grounded story telling to its fine technical aspects (kudos to Cliff Martinez's sinister, pulsating score), the overt lack of emotion renders a potentially groundbreaking thriller little more than an antiseptic piece of low-key thriller entertainment.

Grade: B-

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Netflix Files: August 29-September 4

The Thing (1982) dir. John Carpenter:
Horror isn't necessarily my favorite genre, if only because of the past decade's flood of 'torture porn' films. That said, when the genre is done right, I'm all for being scared witless, and that's exactly what John Carpenter with The Thing. Though actually a remake, Carpenter's version is often considered the definitive telling of the story, and after seeing the film, it's easy to see why. Carpenter's direction is wickedly atmospheric, creating a quiet sense of unease right from the beginning. He doesn't rely too much on jump scares or intrusive music (though Ennio Morricone's contributions are excellent), with the result being that even scenes that end without anything bad happening still feel tense. If there's one major gripe to be had, it's that the characters aren't necessarily that well developed. Not that this was meant to be an actor's piece, but they're all pretty interchangeable, and when someone dies, we're left strictly with a feeling of horror and panic, with little to no connection to the individual. Still, Carpenter and co. deserve credit for showing the monster in such graphic detail, while still earning genuine scares.

Grade: B+/A-

Europa Europa (1990) dir. Agnieszka Holland:
It's not every day that a horror remake ends up being superior to a World War II film, but that's what happened this week. Though it has a compelling, true story as its source, and even won the Golden Globe for Foreign Language Film, Europa Europa doesn't appear to have aged terribly well. Though the story covers an awful lot of territory, it doesn't handle the pacing of events well (the unfortunately overwrought score, by the otherwise excellent Zbigniew Preisner, doesn't help matters). The protagonist, Saloman, is constantly introduced to characters, only to have the film rip them away through death or some other means. This may have been done to emphasize the impermanence caused by war, but Holland's execution leaves a lot to be desired. The story does settle down at around the 1 hour mark, and there's a particularly chilling scene set in a shower, but by then it's too late. Even with roughly another hour left, Holland's film can't make up for the absolute hollowness of the first half, and it carries over with hugely detrimental results.

Grade: C

Venice Review Round-Up: "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"

Ever since its brilliant first trailer, Tomas Alfredson's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, an adaptation of John Le Carre's spy novel, has been at the top of my most anticipated list for the rest of the year. In addition to Alfredson himself, whose last film was the excellent Let the Right One In (2008), the film boasts an incredible ensemble led by Gary Oldman. The vibe given off by the promotional materials is filled with a quiet sense of dread, menace, and paranoia, which fits perfectly with the story's Cold War setting. So, needless to say, I was both excited and nervous about the film's world premiere at Venice. Thankfully, Alfredson's film, his first English-language feature, is getting off to an excellent start, one that positions the film as one of the top contenders for The Golden Lion:

The London Evening Standard - Derek Malcolm (4/5 stars): " effective celebration of Le Carre's artful story-telling, acted by one and all with with a quiet panache that strikes home."

The Telegraph - David Gritten (5/5 stars): "[Alfredson] captures scenes with silky fluidity...finding a visual equivalent to the story's hunt for complex solutions." " makes your heart pound, gets your pulses racing, and sends your brain cells into overdrive."

Variety - Leslie Felperin (N/A): "An inventive, meaty distillation of Le Carre's 1974 incisive examination of Cold War ethics, rich in both contempo resonance and elegiac melancholy."

Thompson on Hollywood - Matt Mueller (N/A): "...contains a clutch of nail-biting sequences and features a razor-sharp turn from Gary Oldman..." "...settles for being a very good as opposed to a superb spy thriller."

The Guardian - Xan Brooks (4/5 stars): "Oldman gives a deliciously delicate, shaded performance..." "If there is any flaw to the film, it is that the whistle is blown too soon..." "...[the film] is more about the journey than the destination; more fascinated with detail than the denouement."

Time Out London - Dave Calhoun (4/5 stars): "...Alfredson ('Let the Right One In') blows a fresh air of continental style into Le Carre's story without harming the 1970s British period feel of his source material." "The new a marvel of wise and respectful adaptation."

The Hollywood Reporter - Deborah Young (N/A): " visually absorbing, felicitous shot after shot, that its emotional coldness is noticed only at the end..."

IndieWire - Oliver Lyttelton (A): "...incredibly rich and perfectly constructed..."

Venice Verdict: A slick, well-acted, and intellectually stimulating Cold War thriller, as well as a successful adaptation of Le Carre's labyrinthine novel.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Review: "The Debt"

Originally set for release in 2010, John Madden's The Debt, an English language version of Israeli film Ha-Hov, has had its release date moved more than once. Such delays are usually not a good sign, especially when the move is from fall to the end of August, usually considered a dumping ground for projects that studios want to die quietly. However, Madden's film actually belongs in the company of The Road and this spring's The Adjustment Bureau, in that it's a very solid film with generally effective direction and performances.

Opening in the late 60s, before quickly jumping to 1997, The Debt traces lives of three Mossad agents tasked with tracking down Dieter Vogel, who earned the nickname the Surgeon of Birkenau during World War II for his sadistic experiments on prisoners. In the years since the mission, Rachel (Helen Mirren/Jessica Chastain), Stephan (Tom Wilkinson/Marton Csokas), and David (Ciaran Hinds/Sam Worthington) have become heroes; Rachel's daughter has even written a book detailing the lives of the trio over the course of the mission. Unbeknownst to everyone but the three, however, is a secret that may or may not be coming back to haunt the three agents.

Before I continue, I'll confess that it doesn't really take much work to figure out the most basic details of the agents' secret. Thankfully, Madden and co. play the script, adapted by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, and Peter Straughan, straight to the point where the film's effectiveness does not hinge on the twist. Instead, The Debt is more concerned with creating the right atmosphere, which it certainly does. From the shabby looking interiors in the main flashback, to the muted colors in nearly every frame, Madden and DP Ben Davis more than convincingly capture the bleak look and feel of East Berlin. There may be a certain slickness to the story telling and editing, but the film is still appropriately gritty and free of sensationalism. Even when we're shown a key scene twice, almost shot-for-shot, there's still a sense of foreboding tension. It also manages to jump between time periods without resorting to cheap amounts of summary about the past. What could have been an overly-talky, exposition-filled story is instead a very well-paced Cold War thriller that breezes through its 114 minute run time with few dips in energy.

The generally fine ensemble is but another plus. Characters are not rendered with as much depth as the script suggests (young Rachel's moments of fragility, young David's unexplained distance from others), but the actors are more than convincing with what they're given. Mirren, as always, is reliable as the tough and conflicted Rachel of the film's present, while Wilkinson and Hinds do what they can with what amounts to barely any screen time. But if the older versions of the agents aren't given as much time to make an impression, thankfully their younger selves do. Chastain, in yet another completely different role, is both graceful and tough as Rachel, while Sam Worthington gives a surprisingly solid turn as David. Csokas is good as well, although his role feels the least conflicted of the three, so he's given less to work with. The real star of the film, though, is none other than its villain, played by Jesper Christensen. As Vogel, he makes a compelling shift from deranged hostage to sly manipulator. The way he tries to wear down his captors is supremely unnerving to watch, even if he too is somewhat lacking in depth. So even though the character might at times verge on being a dark cartoon, Christensen makes it convincing to watch. The writing may never effectively bring out Rachel's occasional breakdowns, but when Chastain and Christensen interact, the film at least shows us how intimidating certain people can be, even when they're completely helpless.

It's these interactions that make me wish that The Debt had given its characters more room to become fully rounded. The material here could be nicely expanded into a longer film, or maybe even a three or four part miniseries, quite comfortably. Watching Vogel mess with the agents is one of the film's highlights, but it could have allowed for some truly masterful filmmaking and acting had it been given more room to play out. Instead, the film reduces itself to being more of a fun and gritty, albeit inconsequential, potboiler. There are issues of truth and justice raised, but the film only introduces them in key moments, never delving deeper. When Wilkinson and Mirren have an argument regarding what ought to be done, it feels much too quick considering what's at stake. And despite its generally strong execution, there are a handful of scenes that get overheated, with jarring cuts and unnecessary amounts of noise. I suppose this was Madden's way of showing the stifling nature of the agents' lives once they become trapped inside their own headquarters, but when put up against the film's less bombastic scenes designed to do the same thing, it feels out of place.

All in all, though, it's hard to deny that The Debt is ultimately a success. It tackles its subject matter appropriately, if a bit on the shallow side, and has a cast full of solid performances, even if not everyone is used to their best ability (Ciaran Hinds in particular). And, by not letting the story exist solely to build up to a twist, the film feels more watchable. There's no big surprise that would make the The Debt less compelling on a second viewing, and the story goes to a rather effective, unhurried ending once the twist is revealed. So even though it may not be the potential awards contender that some were once predicting it to be, The Debt is a nicely executed, mature thriller, even if it isn't necessarily must-see filmmaking.

Grade: B/B-

Venice Review Round-Up: "Shame"

I have a confession to make: I'm really not a fan of Irish director Steve McQueen's acclaimed debut Hunger. Though parts of it are extremely well-made and compelling, the lopsided nature of the narrative, which centers on IRA member Bobby Sands' famous hunger strike, bothered me in ways that I wasn't expecting. Even so, and perhaps this is a weakness of mine, when I consider the amount of acclaim Hunger received, I feel inclined to give McQueen another chance with his second feature, Shame. Early word, as you'll see below, is getting off to a fantastic start, so maybe this time around I can actually get on board the McQueen bandwagon.

Variety - Justin Chang (N/A): "...more approachable but equally uncompromising drama..." "Even when he says nothing, which is most of the time, Fassbender transfixes."

The Guardian - Xan Brooks (4/5 stars): "Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan give dynamite performances..." "This is fluid, rigorous, serious cinema; the best kind of adult movie."

IndieWire - Oliver Lyttelton (A-): "...McQueen, like almost no other filmmaker, is confident enough to frame up and let the actors work, and it's the source of the film's most memorable moments..."
InContention - Guy Lodge (3.5/4 stars): "...[McQueen] has a consistently rewarding understanding of the narrative powers of composition..."

Time Out London - Dave Calhoun (4/5 stars): "...McQueen has immersed himself in a wholly different world and made a film that is similarly distinctive and exploratory and grasps you from beginning to end."

The Hollywood Reporter
- Todd McCarthy (N/A): "Driven by a brilliant, ferocious performance by Michael Fassbender, Shame is a real walk on the wild side..." "...may ultimately prove too psychologically pat in confronting its subject's problem, but its dramatic and stylistic prowess provides a cinematic jolt that is bracing to experience."

Venice Verdict: A powerful follow-up to Hunger, Shame shows director Steve McQueen embracing somewhat familiar territory with a bold, striking vision, with strong performances from Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Venice Review Round-Up: "Contagion"

Hollywood loves a good disaster movie. And, thankfully for studios, they come in many variations. Earthquakes, tidal waves, burning skyscrapers, monsters, or simply the end of the world itself. And, when it comes to movies about diseases, Hollywood isn't usually known for being anymore realistic. Whether it's The Crazies or British imports like 28 Days Later (which is, to be fair, excellent), if it starts with a disease, it means one thing: zombies. So, leave it up to Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Ocean's 11) to try something different with the sub-genre. For a while now, there's been buzz that Soderbergh's Contagion was unnervingly graphic and realistic in its treatment of a disease, and early word at Venice, in addition to praising the film, is only reinforcing those early notions.

The Telegraph - David Gritten (N/A): "...a cut above most Hollywood thrillers..." (most of the review was spent on vague plot details, so a big 'booooo' to Mr. Gritten.

The Hollywood Reporter - Todd McCarthy (N/A): "Director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns create unease and simmering tension without going over the top into souped-up suspense or gross-out moments..."

The Guardian - Jason Solomons (3/5 stars): "I was shuffling nervously in my seat, edging away from the sniffling man next to me." "...well assembled and propulsive, though like the virus, it loses momentum."

IndieWire - Oliver Lyttelton (A-): "Soderbergh creates a kind of tapestry of illness and panic, and the structure works like a charm..."

Variety - Peter DeBruge (N/A): "Still, without fully rounded characters, it's hard to care who lives or dies..."

Time Out London - Dave Calhoun (3/5 stars): "It's a sober and engrossing dramatic thriller..."

Venice Verdict: Though it may not be entirely personable, Contagion is a major success for Steven Soderberg, and an unusually realistic and unsettling ensemble thriller.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Venice Review Round-Up: "A Dangerous Method"

Another day, another major player making its debut in Venice. The next big one, and a big Oscar hopeful, is David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, which centers on the relationship between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). It's been buzzed about for quite some time, with many thinking/hoping that the film could prove to be Cronenberg's big break into the Oscars. Like many high-profile premieres, however, Method isn't making quite the splash that fans of the director and his cast (which includes Keira Knightley) had predicted.

The Telegraph - David Gritten (3/5 stars): "Much of this frankly uncinematic, and Cronenberg has compensated with sumptuous locations..." "But it's Knightley that one remembers, for a full-on portrayal that is gusty and potentially divisive in equal parts."

The Guardian - Xan Brooks (2/5 stars): "What the spanking [scene] can't do, unfortunately, is knock some life into this heartfelt, well-acted but curiously underwhelming slab of Masterpiece Theatre."

IndieWire - Oliver Lyttelton (B): "Still, if the take off and landing are a bit bumpy, most of A Dangerous Method is fearsomely smart..." "But if anything keeps it from quite hitting the heights that it could, it's Hampton's script."

London Evening Standard - Derek Malcolm (4/5 stars): "...[Knightley] more than holds her own from the moment she arrives on the scene..." "It is a dark, troubling tale...with a calm appreciation of the passions that lay behind the trio's different views of treatment..."

The Hollywood Reporter - Todd McCarthy (N/A): "Precise, lucid, and thrillingly disciplined...brought to vivid life by the outstanding lead performances of Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen, and Michael Fassbender."

Variety - Justin Chang (N/A): "...the film's most problematic element is Knightley, whose brave but unskilled depiction of hysteria at times leaves itself open to laughs."

Venice Verdict: It has a cool head, a compelling story, and features a trio of solid performances, but A Dangerous Method may be too cold and distant to consistently connect with audiences.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

On the Horizon: September & October

Having forgotten to conjure up a list of must-sees for the first month of the Aug-Oct period, I figured that I could at least pick up the slack by devoting some coverage to September and October. Turns out that the next two months have more than enough in store for several worthwhile trips to the theater.

The Rum Diary dir. Bruce Robinson [October 28th - Wide]
Though it's hard not to hear the words 'rum' and 'Johnny Depp' and not think of Jack Sparrow,The Rum Diary couldn't be any further from Pirates of the Caribbean, location aside. Adapted from Hunter S. Thompson's novel, Bruce Robinson's film follows Paul Kemp (Depp), a writer struggling to find himself while writing for a second-rate newspaper in the Caribbean. The film feels like it's been pushed back over and over (much like John Madden's The Debt), but it seems like 2011 is the year we'll finally get to see this project hit theaters. In addition to boasting a great cast (Depp, Amber Heard, Giovanni Ribisi), the source material promises that, at the very least, it won't be a boring. Let's just hope those delays aren't the bad sign they could easily be interpreted as.

Martha Marcy May Marlene dir. Sean Durkin [October 21st - Limited]
With its fondness for the 13th letter of the alphabet, expect this one to leave theater-goers mixing up the title in any number of combinations. That silliness aside, Sean Durkin's debut, which earned raves at Sundance, has been gaining buzz for months now. In addition to indie sensation John Hawkes (Winter's Bone), the film has earned raves for leading lady Elizabeth Olsen (as in, sister of Mary Kate and Ashley) in the role of a young woman trying to reconnect with her family after breaking away from an abusive cult religion. To say that the footage out there is intriguing is an understatement, and Durkin looks like he could be headed for debut of the year status with this indie breakout.

50/50 dir. Jonathan Levine [September 30th - Wide]
Cancer sin't exactly a word that inspires fits of laughter, but that's exactly what Jonathan Levine is aiming for with 50/50. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Adam, a 27 year old who tries to beat his cancer diagnosis along with his friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) and therapist (Anna Kendrick). The film has earned surprisingly strong early word of mouth, with heaps of praise being thrown at Levitt and Angelica Huston (as Adam's mother). The subject matter's slightly comedic twist might be uncomfortable for some, but if early reviews are any indication, Levine and co. have managed to navigate the plot with enough sensitivity in order to earn both laughs and tears.

Moneyball dir. Bennett Miller [September 23rd - Wide]
Despite an incredibly dry first trailer, and those snarky commenters labeling the film "Brad Pitt's The Blind Side," Moneyball actually has quite a bit going for it. In addition to the strong cast (Pitt, Jonah Hill, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright), the script was written by Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List) and a little writer named Aaron Sorkin. Then there's Bennett Miller in the director's chair, whose last film was the acclaimed Capote (2005). So even though the baseball-oriented subject matter might not be a draw for many, this one's got credentials in spades, and could be one of the surprise hits of the fall.

Restless dir. Gus van Sant [September 16th - Limited]
I can't decide if I find the whimsical details of Restless intriguingly quirky, or annoying and desperate. The latest from Gus van Sant follows the romance between a terminally ill girl (Mia Wasikowska) and a boy (Henry Hopper) who is visited by the ghost of a Japanese kamikazi pilot. Also, he likes to attend funerals for fun. It would be a lot easier for me to write this one off were it not for the people involved, especially considering some of the less-than-kind reviews it received at Cannes. But van Sant is always worth a look, and Wasikowska has quickly become one of the most promising new talents, so I'm hoping that all of the ingredients here will come together to create something special.

Like Crazy dir. Drake Doremus [October 28th - Limited]
Another Sundance title that I've heard tons about for months, Like Crazy tells the story of a British student (Felicity Jones) who falls for an American (Anton Yelchin), only to be separated from him when her visa expires. Early reviews have generally been positive, calling Doremus' debut a complex and honest depiction of young love, like a college-aged (and less bleak) Blue Valentine. Jones and Yelchin (especially the former) have picked up strong reviews as well, further cementing their statuses as young talents to watch in the coming years.

The Thing dir. Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. [October 14th - Wide]
It may technically be a prequel to the 1982 John Carpenter film, but that hasn't stopped the studio from keeping the title (or the plot, for that matter) from being almost identical. Starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) and Joel Edgerton (Animal Kingdom), this prequel traces the first meeting between an Antarctic research team, and a crashed alien spacecraft (along with its hostile passenger). Early buzz has been positive, claiming that even though the film is uncomfortably close to the Carpenter version, it holds its own in terms of story and scares.

The Ides of March dir. George Clooney [October 7th - Wide]
George Clooney is back in the director's chair, and his latest looks more like Good Night and Good Luck than Leatherheads, which is definitely for the best. Based on Beau Willimon's play (reportedly based on Howard Dean's campaign), the film follows campaign staffer Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) as he gets a crash course in dirty politics. Boasting a terrific cast which includes Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Marissa Tomei, and Clooney himself, Ides' real draw is Mr. Gosling. A talented actor with a good knack for picking scripts, he's seemed reluctant to fully embrace his star potential until now, which can (hopefully) only mean good things from here on out.

Drive dir. Nicholas Winding Refn [September 16th - Wide]
And speaking of Ryan Gosling, here's yet another star vehicle of his coming out this year, one with solid pre-release buzz firmly in place. Though the story could have easily been another run of the mill project featuring the likes of Jason Statham, Drive has picked up strong reviews, flat out raves even, and managed to win the Best Director prize at Cannes back in May. That's no small feat for a graphically violent crime thriller.

Contagion dir. Steven Soderberg [September 9th - Wide]
This virus thriller from Steven Soderberg may have a star-studded ensemble, but don't expect the big names to get special treatment when it comes to the story. Much like TV shows The Sopranos or Game of Thrones, Contagion's trailer, which boldly lets us know that Gwyneth Paltrow's character dies, very clearly sets up a world where no one is safe. There isn't much early buzz on the project, but what can be found makes one thing clear: Soderberg and co. are striving for a level of realism so graphic that it's left some test screening audiences feeling nauseous. The only worrisome thing about the film is that it was bumped from an October release. It's not as bad of a sign as constant delays, but considering the shift gave the film less time for promote itself, it could be a sign that Warner Bros. doesn't want to spend too much marketing the finished product. Still, Soderberg is a pretty reliable director (not to mention an efficient one), and he's done great work with large casts before (Traffic).

The Skin I Live In dir. Pedro Almodovar [October 14th - Limited]
I can't remember the last time that a film's sheer weirdness has enticed me so much. Without giving away an ounce of concrete plot, the images and trailers for Almodovar's latest have me hooked, and I'm thrilled that the film will be hitting American screens this early. Starring Antonio Banderas, all I've learned (or cared to learn) about Skin is that it's a plastic surgery revenge thriller. That description could easily be a schlock torture porn film from the director of SAW, but this is Almodovar, one of our best living directors. The material itself may be darker than his past few films (although he's always included dark story elements), but the footage is classic Almodovar, with touches of noir, melodrama, camp, and vibrant colors (the man sure knows how to use red). Consider me sold.

Take Shelter dir. Jeff Nichols [September 30th - Limited]
This second feature from Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories), has been earning strong reviews, and after re-visiting the trailer, it's easy to see why. The film follows Curtis (Michael Shannon) as he tries to figure out if his dreams about cataclysmic storms are visions, or the onset of schizophrenia. The majority of the trailer has an eerie calm to it, before teasing us with quick glimpses of craziness at the end. All of it, however, is compelling, whether it's as a character study, a pyschological drama, or a thriller. Throw in Shea Whigham (Boardwalk Empire), Jessica Chastain, and Kathy Baker, and you have what very well could be the definitive indie break out film of the year, which is saying a lot.

Venice Review Round-Up: "Carnage"

Though it is among my most anticipated for the rest of year, I'm still on the fence about Roman Polanski's Carnage. Adapted from Yasmina Reza's Tony-winning play, the director's latest features an excellent cast (Waltz, Foster, Winslet, Reilly) in a situation that seems rife with possibility for juicy drama and dark comedy. The only problem is that all released info and footage so far has done little to calm my fears about one key aspect: the source material. As I'll probably end up saying every time I discuss Carnage, I was no fan of the stage show, which felt like it thought it was smarter, funnier, and more insightful than it actually was. I was counting on Polanski and his excellent cast to find something in the material that would make it work better. Judging from the first few reviews, I'm still stuck on the damn fence:

InContention - Guy Lodge (2.5/4 stars): "...the film....doesn't give [the subject matter] much resonance beyond the universal fun factor of milquetoasts behaving badly." "Foster is given the play's most garlanded role, and enjoys herself most when the character at last self-immolates." "The men, perhaps surprisingly, fare better."

The Guardian - Xan Brooks (4/5 stars): "...a pitch black farce of unbearable tension." "[Polanski's] direction is precise, unfussy, and utterly fit for purpose..." "It does turn a shade too the final stretch..."

IndieWire - Oliver Lyttelton (C+): "'s pleasurable enough, although anyone hoping for a return to 1970s form for Polanski will be disappointed..." "For this writer, it's Jodie Foster who was the highlight." " best Reza's material is targeting some fairly low-hanging fruit (upper-middle class hypocrisy, in the main) without adding much to the discussion..."

The Hollywood Reporter - Todd McCarthy (N/A): "Snappy, nasty, deftly acted...Carnage fully delivers the laughs and savagery of the stage piece..." "Polanski too often abandons group compositions in favor of close-ups..."

Variety - Justin Chang (N/A): "...never shakes off a mannered, hermetic feel that consistently betrays [the film's] theatrical origins."

Venice Verdict: Though it has moments that work, Polanski's adaptation of Yasmina Reza's play is a minor, and flawed, pleasure. Jodie Foster and Christoph Waltz emerge on top, even though the film around them fails to say much that hasn't been said before.

The Month in Review: August 2011

Another month, another wrap-up of the best of what I've seen. Unfortunately, August hasn't proved to be my best month, whether at the theater or in terms of DVD choices, so the love isn't spread around as much as I would like. Some months I'm able to really stick to my rule of giving no film more than 2 awards. August 2011? Not so much...

Best Film (Theaters): The Help
Tate Taylor's adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's novel may not boast first class film making, but it is a nicely handled, emotionally resonant piece of social change story telling. The screenplay isn't the best in terms of focus, but Taylor, the artistic/tech team, and the wonderful cast help turn this potentially corny story into something filled with moments that illicit genuine laughs and tears. And, not to get too ahead of myself, but don't be surprised if this one shows up in a few categories come awards season.

Best Film (DVD): The People vs. Larry Flynt
Perhaps Milos Forman's most politically charged works made in English, Larry Flynt also features his most unlikely protagonist. But even though the film may gloss over the seediest aspects of Hustler Magazine, it isn't so kind to Larry Flynt that it asks us to support everything he does. Its goal is simply to use an unlikely candidate to stand up for First Amendment rights, and thanks to Forman's keen eye behind the camera directing a fine cast, the film is a resounding success.

Best Director: Milos Forman - The People vs. Larry Flynt
Though it's not quite up there with his work on Cuckoo's Nest or Amadeus, Larry Flynt represents yet another triumph for Forman. With his ability to generate comedy out of human interaction (rather than overwrought set-ups and punch lines), this story of the world's most unlikely First Amendment crusader manages to be insightful, well-acted, and highly entertaining.

Best Male Performance: Woody Harrelson - The People vs. Larry Flynt
Remember when I said that I wasn't spreading the love around this month? That said, I really didn't see anything that was worth giving this too over Harrelson, who embodies both the hick-ish Everyman and sleazy porn publisher sides of the titular Larry Flynt. It's not necessarily the most subtle performance of Harrelson's career (for that, take a look at The Messenger), but as one of Forman's typical larger-than-life protagonists, he certainly gives it his all. The result is a (thus far) career-best performance.

Best Female Performance: Viola Davis - The Help
In Doubt, Viola Davis practically stole the show with one scene. In The Help, she has considerably more screen time, and proves that her work in Doubt was anything but a fluke. Though Skeeter (Emma Stone) may be the center of the story (well...sort of), Davis' Aibileen is easily the heart. The actress brings a beautiful warmth to her role, completely selling the idea that she's been more of a parent to the white children she's raised than their actual mothers, and does so without becoming manipulative. In addition to the rest of the cast, she helps The Help overcome its tendency towards corniness, and allows it to rise closer to its full potential.

Best Ensemble Cast: The Help
As I've said before, The Help is not necessarily a great film. It does, however, feature a fantastic cast, with even the most insignificant of roles making a solid impression. Stone is solid, Davis is the heart of the picture, Sissy Spacek is a riot, and Bryce Dallas Howard makes a fantastic villain. Then there's Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain, who are absolute joys to watch from the get go. The pair would have likely run off with the movie had it not been for Davis bringing in the powerhouse acting moments. Can you say "SAG Award nominee"?

Best Screenplay: The Devil's Double by Michael Thomas
The screenplay may have its significant flaws, but one has to at least give Michael Thomas some credit for turning Latif Yahia's story into an Arabic Scarface. It may sacrifice depth and the chance to better examine the characters and their surroundings, but at the very least, it keeps events moving, and covers quite a bit of ground without short-changing any aspect of the story.

Best Cinematography[TIE]: Larry Smith - Eyes Wide Shut & Andre Szankowski - Mysteries of Lisbon
Neither of these films blew me away (though I prefer the former), but they did have one thing that was consistently exemplary: their photography. In Eyes Wide Shut, we see Kubrick combine his love of long steadicam shots mixed beautifully with hazy lighting (from Christmas decorations and neon signs) that conveys the dream-like state the film is aiming for. It's the one aspect of Kubrick's final film that is a complete success. Long, beautiful shots are also prominent in Raul Ruiz's last film, and Szankowski does a fantastic job of keeping the camera in motion, often while navigating around any number of extras. The use of digital may sap the scenes of the richness of certain colors, but Szankowski's impeccable work still shines through this technical bump in the road.