Friday, March 30, 2012

Review: "Footnote"

The fun of this time of year is that, while the studios shell out lots of dreck, smaller theaters begin releasing foreign films that went through the previous year's festival circuit without an American theatrical release. First it was The Kid with a Bike, and now there's Footnote, which claimed the screenplay prize at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. A dark, semi-humorous take on father-son rivalry in the world of academia, Joseph Cedar's film has quite a lot going for it, awarded screenplay included, although it does have some flaws that hold it back from being a truly great or memorable work.

Eliezer (the father; Schlomo Bar-Aba) and Uriel Shkolnik (the son; Lior Ashkenazi) are both scholars of Talmudic Studies in Israel. Eliezer comes from an older, more strictly scientific school of thought, while Uriel leans toward a more modern, theoretical and aesthetic form of inquiry. As the film opens, Uriel has just been invited to join a prestigious academy, the latest in a series of professional successes. Divided by title cards, the first segment is referred to as the worst day in Eliezer's life; the older man has been trying to ear recognition with his hard work for years, while his son constantly earns accolades. This all changes, however, when Eliezer earns the important Israel Prize, which Eliezer has entered for the past 20 years. Except that he didn't. Shortly afterwards, Uriel learns that he was supposed to win, but a clerical error led to the award going to his father. What could have been an easy fix soon becomes a complicated illustration of the pair's rivalry as it ascends to new heights.

And right off the bat, what's good and bad about Footnote becomes quite clear. Cedar has moments of visual quickness and quiet emotional power, bolstered by Amit Poznansky's energetic score. At the same time, the pacing is inconsistent, at times deeply compelling, as in the scene where Uriel learns of the error, and at other times too languid for its own good. The opening is effective, but Cedar takes more time than he needs to get to the critical turning point in the narrative, without establishing his characters as much as he thinks he has. It doesn't take much to make the point that Eliezer's years without recognition have left him bitter and anti-social, but Cedar drags out some of the opening as though giving us more of it will make the 'twist' more effective. It doesn't. The screenplay, in one of its few weak spots, also includes a handful of pointless diversions, one involving Uriel's clothes going missing while he's at the gym. The shenanigans (which end with Uriel running around in a stolen fencing uniform) are only used so that Uriel can see his father being extremely happy and sociable (from a distance), and it seems like an awfully contrived way to get to the scene. There's also a subplot involving Uriel's son Josh, which, despite being appropriate thematically, distracts from the central conflict, which is all the film really needs to be successful.

Yet for the handful of annoyances, Cedar provides quite a lot to enjoy, even if the first act disrupts the pacing of the remainder of the film. The writer/director delivers some fun visuals, namely in a fun sequence done as though it were an animated presentation on a projector. The score, though sometimes mixed too loudly, lends the film a nice energy the few times it's used, and when the writing is spot on, everything comes together beautifully. Scenes like the above-mentioned revelation regarding the mistake, or a bitter interview between Eliezer and a young journalist, register on multiple levels. This is largely thanks to the excellent work from Bar-Aba and Ashkenazi, who dig into these characters and make the rivalry, which rarely involves incidents with the two men sharing the screen, really come to life. Bar-Aba ultimately says fewer words, but he communicates, especially in one of the earliest shots (a long, slow, zoom in on his face) the sense of dejection that Eliezer has dealt with throughout his career. Just as fierce is Ashkenazi. The film has been billed as a mix of comedy and drama, although it really leans toward the latter, with only small group of lines that really produce a chuckle. The film gains its personality because it rests on the shoulders of the rivalry, and as such it's largely bitter.

Yet the bitterness never sinks the film. Quite the opposite; it gives Footnote a stronger sense of purpose, even when the pacing falters. So when it moves into its ambiguous conclusion, there's no frustration, because Cedar has given us the right questions to mull over that a more explicit ending would have robbed us of. Whatever its flaws, Footnote ends with its best foot forward, and concludes in a manner that feels appropriate given its overarching themes. While the resolution to the problem remains something of an issue, the ambiguity of the aftermath actually deepens the film's effectiveness, when it could have come off as a cop-out. The rivalry may still be intact, but that actually makes Footnote more satisfying, because, as is often the case in real life, a more concrete resolution wouldn't make the relationships any less messy. Cedar's film may have its rough spots, but its strengths do a such a generally fine job of balancing the scale, that as time passes it's easier to let them slide, even if they can never be completely ignored.

Grade: B/B+

Review: "Mirror Mirror"

The first of two big studio take on the classic Snow White tale, Mirror Mirror was always quite upfront about its status as the lighter film. Clearly made with younger audiences in mind, visual genius Tarsem Singh's film is a mixed bag overall, despite some truly wondrous costume and set design. That doesn't stop it from being enjoyable in bits and pieces, but outside of the production values, there's not enough here to justify the journey, at least not at full theater prices.

Yet even though the film is truly Snow White's (Lily Collins and her magnificent eyebrows) story, the film pays just as much attention to its evil queen, played by Julia Roberts. The particulars of the story aren't really worth bothering with, but we'll get to that later. What's worth discussing is how, like John Carter, some decent acting and strong production values are sunk by a wildly flawed script. Singh's films have never been loved for their writing, but the difference between his art house fantasies The Cell and The Fall and something like Mirror Mirror is instantly noticeable. This film feels a little stiff, and watered down by big studio meddling. Had this project landed in different hands (at least at the studio level), we could have had a film that was both a sincere fairy and a razor sharp satire of the genre. Roberts has a few lines that come close to capturing this, but they come few and far between. She and Armie Hammer are obviously having fun in their roles (and Roberts' signature laugh is put to grand effect in one scene), but as is often the case with projects like this, they're left with material that's far beneath their efforts.
Less compelling is Collins, though some of this may be due to the script's weak attempts to make her more than a damsel in distress. Yes, she wields a sword and manages to outdo a man in a duel, but the girl-power elements of the character often come off as forced and feel hollow as a result. The story as a whole also runs into problems, particularly in the conclusion, where it throws out a lame monster, an all-too-neat resolution, and a lazy and rushed attempt to integrate the iconic poisoned apple. Throw in an insect on insect rape joke, and you begin to get a better picture of the script and its transition to the screen.

Worth more attention are the production values which, unlike Tarsem's last film, Greek mythology cluster fuck Immortals, actually make an impression. The castle interiors, where much of the film takes place, are a wonder to behold, a mix between a fairy tale castle and an opulent Russian palace. Even more impressive are the late Eiko Ishioka's marvelous costumes, which often have such a wide array of colors and styles that they sometimes distract from the film's weaknesses. Ishioka was a true visionary when it came to her craft, and while watching Mirror Mirror, I couldn't help but be sad during parts of the film because I knew it was the last time we'd see any original designs from her. Worse, thinking about Ishioka's passing got a stronger emotional reaction out of me than anything Mirror Mirror actually had to offer.

Grade: C+

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Review: "Haywire"

While The Hunger Games may have recently taken in over $150 million at the box office, the film is actually the second this year to feature a kick ass female protagonist. Steven Soderbergh's Haywire, despite underperforming, features this year's first breakout tough-as-nails heroine, in the form of Mallory Kane (Gina Carano, a mixed martial arts fighter). An ex-black ops assassin burned by her handlers via a set-up in Barcelona, Carano more than gives Katniss Everdeen a run for her money, even though Carano's acting is, when compared to Jennifer Lawrence, a bit lacking.

At its core, Haywire represents Steven Soderbergh at his leanest and most efficient. Though set in the present day, it carries the feel of a stripped down 1970s political action-thriller (minus most of the politics). For the most part, that's a good thing. Soderbergh and scribe Lem Dobbs' set ups are crisp and quick without feeling rushed, and the action is photographed and staged with a refreshing mix of clarity and lack of chaotic editing or shaky cameras. The aforementioned Barcelona incident, told largely only with images and David Holmes' excellent, varied score, demonstrates Haywire's best; there's a low key feeling to the action that slowly sucks you in and never goes overboard. This is a film that knows exactly what it wants to be, and there's never any hints that Dobbs' script is aiming for political commentary or deep characterization.

Unfortunately, the film is still hindered by what should be its greatest asset: Ms. Carano. Soderbergh has pulled out strong work from non-actors before (Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience), but here he can't quite cover up Carano's inexperience. Carano has the look and presence to be the badass Mallory is supposed to be, and in the fight scenes she's great fun to watch. Yet every time she opens her mouth, the dialogue is delivered in tones that register somewhere between lightweight and robotic. Worse is that the rest of the ensemble are all pros, and don't have enough to work with to really go wrong, which only makes Carano's missteps stick out further. As nice as it is to have a tough, nicely paced action film centering on a female protagonist, there were moments when I wished that one of Carano's co-stars (mostly Michael Fassbender or Ewan McGregor) had been the hero instead.

It's a shame, because if Soderbergh had been able to pull a better performance, the film could have been the stripped-down, stylistically tame cousin of Joe Wright's Hanna. That film featured a few bumps in the screenplay, but the strong work from the cast (namely Saoirse Ronan's fiercely committed turn), along with the direction and excellent technicals elevated it far above its pedestrian origins on the page. Haywire doesn't have that, which makes its stark simplicity less satisfying than it ought to be. I have to give major props to Soderbergh and the technical team for creating such a fun, taut film, but ultimately Carano's stiff performance is too big a factor in the film's success, and she's really the only thing holding it back.

Grade: B-

Review: "John Carter"

The road to theaters hasn't been easy for John Carter, Disney's big-screen treatment of Edgar Rice Burroughs' classic (ish) fantasy adventure novels. No major stars, reports of a ballooning budget, shifting release dates, and then reports of costly re-shoots all pointed to one conclusion: a massive flop. Now, considering that I'm a little late in seeing the film, directed by Pixar alum Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E), I can't make predictions. We know that the film has flopped; it's done. So, with that out of the way, we can stop talking about box office, and start talking about the film's artistic merits, of which, outside of its technical categories, there are precious few.

It's a shame too, because only a few months ago another Pixar director, The Incredibles' Brad Bird, made his live-action debut with the extremely fun Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Unfortunately, Staton's transition to live-action hasn't been quite as successful, though he's hardly the source of the film's least as a director. As co-writer, however, he does deserve some of the blame. In adapting Rice Burroughs' story, the sort of fare that seems better suited as a Saturday morning cartoon, Staton, Mark Andrews, and Michael Chabon have crafted a wannabe-epic that is so scattershot and overstuffed, not to mention overly serious, that it nearly collapses in on itself.

Here's the basics: Confederate soldier John Carter (Friday Night Lights' Taylor Kitsch), after finding himself trapped in a cave, somehow finds himself transported to Mars (known by its inhabitants as Barsoom). There, the planet is at war as two humanoid cities, Zodenga and Helium, battle for supremacy. There's also green, four-armed creatures known as Tharks, who both aid and hinder Carter as he tries to piece together where he is and how he got there. Now, the past few sentences have more than a few silly words in them, but through all of it, the actors play it straight. There's a sense of humor missing here that would have made all of it a little more bearable.

Unfortunately, John Carter is so concerned with making itself the next big sci-fi/fantasy franchise, it winds up suffering from throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-if-something-sticks-syndrome (that's T.E.A.T.W.A.S.I.S.S.S. for short). It's not too much of a problem for about half of the film's 2 hour duration. Unfortunately, once it hits the last 40 minutes, the narrative goes into Important Incident Overload. There's a wedding, a massive fight in an arena, a massive Thark horde, a big battle, another wedding, and several trips between Earth and Barsoom. It's all so much that none of it carries any weight, and the dramatic shifts that should come as surprises or moments of triumph/despair ring hollow.

The acting doesn't do the film any service. There's nothing particularly wrong with it, but the dramatics all feel phoned in, and the actors can do little to elevate the material considering the take-everything-seriously direction Stanton opted for. Kitsch makes for a perfectly decent hero, and Collins has what it takes to make a kick-ass heroine, even though she's reduced to being saved by Kitsch at least three times in the exact same manner. Other roles, like those played by Dominic West and Mark Strong, have potential to be fun antagonists, but they have even less to work with than the heroes. I don't doubt that the actors involved could have made this a worthwhile journey, but the filmmakers so thoroughly undermine them that there's little they can really do.
Which is an even bigger shame, considering that the film does have one area where it truly shines: the visuals. Despite some borderline campy costume design, Barsoom looks immaculate, whether it's in the dusty desert villages of the Tharks or the halls of Helium. Best of all are the winged airships that come closest to giving John Carter's world something to differentiate itself from, say, Tattooine. The visual effects are also remarkable, whether it's the scenery, the Tharks, or the massive, 6-legged white apes. So much money obviously went to the visuals, and the VFX work is strong enough that it doesn't feel plastic-y or weightless, but that key element of movie-making - the script - is so deeply flawed that even the visuals can't redeem it.

So, is John Carter a true disaster? From a financial perspective, probably. From an artistic perspective, not so much. It's not particularly good (even the actions sequences to little to get the heart racing), and some of the final act borders on train-wreck territory due to the rushed pacing, but it's missing that special spark that would make it a true failure as a film. Uninspired? Yes, visuals aside. Weak characters? Yup. But a worst-of-all-time level failure? Not quite. It's simply that controversies and expectations have played such a big part in how we've come to known John Carter, that it's hard to separate the financial performance from the quality of the filmmaking. That doesn't mean that you need to see it, or that you're missing anything. It just means that big flops don't entirely equal major artistic failings. Sometimes they just mean massively mediocre efforts with little to nothing worth writing home about.

Grade: C

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Netflix Files: March 19 - 25

Caravaggio (1986) dir. Derek Jarman:
Among one of art house director's more straightforward efforts, Caravaggio is still a Jarman film down to its core. From the dark, stagey (yet in a good way) set design filled with anachronisms, to the touches of homoeroticism, the late auteur's depiction of the famed painter's life is a lush film that beautifully does for Caravaggio what Julie Taymor would do nearly 20 years later for Frida Kahlo with Frida. Told in a series of flashbacks, the film's main focus is on the love triangle that develops between Caravaggio (Nigel Terry) and a young couple (Sean Bean and Tilda Swinton). The way Jarman lyrically moves between episodes is fascinating to watch. And though the film does touch on Caravaggio's youth, it avoids trying to depict his entire life. By focusing on the non-traditional love triangle (it begins between Caravaggio and Bean's Ranuccio), Jarman is able to contrast the painter's struggles in work (which are somewhat downplayed) with the more volatile struggles in his personal life. It's a rich, sumptuous vision, with, filled with lovely costumes (often against minimalist sets that still speak volumes) and gorgeous photography that does a low-key, yet still effective job of using an episode in a person's life to somehow capture them as a whole.

Grade: B/B+

Friday, March 23, 2012

Review: "The Hunger Games"

Many young-adult sci-fi/fantasy novels have reached the big screen over the past few years, with none of them ever seeming to catch fire. Whether it was the beautiful but severely uneven The Golden Compass, or the mild hit that was The Spiderwick Chronicles, so many book series have tried to launch franchises and failed. And as much as it pains me to say that The Golden Compass didn't deserve the franchise launch it was aiming for (if only a more gifted director had been at the helm...*sigh*), it does give me pleasure to say that The Hunger Games, Gary Ross' adaptation of Suzanne Collins' mega-hit YA novel, has the right stuff to (as well as solid enough film making) to launch the franchise that its studio clearly has in mind.

For those who haven't read the book, Collins' novel takes place in a post-apocalyptic future of sorts. We don't know many specifics, simply that at some point 12 districts of what was once the United States rebelled against the government. As punishment, the districts annually offer up one boy and one girl - between 12 and 18 - to compete in a savage survival competition known as The Hunger Games, where there can only be one victor. As the story proper begins, it's time for the 74th Hunger Games, where a young woman named Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and young man named Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are chosen as the tributes from District 12.

And part of what makes The Hunger Games successful is merely Katniss herself. Ross' direction is competent, haunting in spots, but it's his leading lady who must carry the 2 hr 22 minute film, and she most certainly does. She's not surrounded by stylization like recent tough-as-nails young heroines like Kick Ass's Hit Girl or Hanna's titular protagonist, but Katniss still makes her mark, albeit in a more grounded manner. Though there are a few vacant spots in the performance, Lawrence makes a compelling big-budget action film debut, proving she has the skills to be both tough and sympathetic.

This is critical, because even though Ross does any number of things right as director and co-screenwriter, there are also nagging flaws that chip away at the film's armor. I don't quite agree with critics who claim that the film's PG-13 rating has left it sanitized; there's plenty of disturbing content when it comes to teenagers being forced to savagely kill each other without being grotesque or excessive. Where the film makes some missteps is probably more tied to the source material itself, which offers a slightly convenient solution to its otherwise grim story. Granted, the ending of the titular games is thematically appropriate in a sense, given how it uses the story to show the absolute extreme of reality programming and dehumanizing spectacle. At the same time, it feels like an all-too convenient ending to a story that could strengthen itself with a much more dour ending. The film does a wonderful job of setting up the stakes and emotional conflicts that come with the Games in the first hour, but the on-screen exploits are so focused on Katniss (and, to an extent, Peeta), that when it comes to making us feel for other characters, the impact isn't quite what it could be.

On the flip side of the coin, when the film clicks, it really hits home. Some shots of the Capitol, where the rich and privileged reside, are a tad too VFX-laden, yet for the most part they ring true, and avoid feeling like generic upper-class dystopia. The first hour effectively establishes the political side of the games, as the various tributes fight to make an impression and earn favor from the masses watching. And, in the earliest moments of the Games, the violence is appropriately horrifying, without coming off as sensationalized or exploitative. The narrative sags as the Games drag on for over an hour of screen time, however, and the use of an overly shaky camera hinders the power of some of the major confrontations. There's also a surprising amount of grainy footage that throws off the generally sharp and clean look of the images.

So, for all of the strengths on display, The Hunger Games still comes across as an effective, though certainly not revelatory, take on a dehumanizing dystopia. It can feel lightweight when it should really hit home, and moments of cheesiness in the final half hour undermine the narrative's credibility from the earlier portions. Thankfully, Lawrence and the rest of the cast are all compelling on screen, even though few characters get more dimensions since the story completely belongs to Katniss. What's still missing from The Hunger Games' world is a sense of something truly special. The rules of the Games add a unique element to the story, but ultimately it's just a variation on the dystopia genre that doesn't stand out as much as its rabid fanbase would indicate. Harry Potter may have ultimately been a series of boarding school novels set in a hidden, magical world, but J.K. Rowling's details added levels of depth that the novels (and, to varying extents, the films) felt like they really stood in a realm of their own. The Hunger Games may not have wizards or enchantments, but when compared to something like Potter, the missing ingredient becomes obvious in regards to this overall solid piece of work: there's almost no magic to any of it.

Grade: B/B-

Monday, March 19, 2012

Theatrical Trailer: "Snow White and the Huntsman"

To offset the dreary early spring season (at the cinemas at least), Hollywood has really been doling out the goods when it comes to promotional material for the summer's major aspiring blockbusters. The latest, and one of the best (though not quite as great as yesterday's masterful Prometheus trailer) is the theatrical trailer for Rupert Sanders' Snow White and the Huntsman. One of two Snow White projects being released this year (the other being this month's iffy-looking Mirror Mirror), Huntsman may lack a notable director at its helm (Mirror has Tarsem Singh), but it looks like it will be a vastly superior film. Tarsem Singh is known for having such stunning visuals in his films, so it's slightly awkward to see that Sanders' film, a grittier, more Game of Thrones-like take on the story, creates much more of an impression with its images. The richer, dark look looks extremely convincing, and gives the sense that this film has the stuff to launch a small franchise (which is Universal's hope). Throw in a wonderfully cast Charlize Theron, and all in all this looks like a winner.

My only reservation is that the story ultimately rests on Kristen Stewart's shoulders, despite the fact that the marketing has leaned so heavily on Theron. She's a capable actress, but her work in the Twilight series seems to have somewhat stunted her abilities. Let's just hope that Sanders (making his debut) and Stewart's cast mates can help bring out the best in her. To an extent, the movie really depends on that happening. Otherwise, this looks like a grand slice of big-budget fantasy filmmaking, with enough of its own look to not feel derivative (although that hulking creature with the horns does feel like it belongs in a Guillero Del Toro film; kudos for taking inspiration from a master, though). Also, that crazy sequence with Charlize flying around the room in the form of a million little knives (glass shards?) is outstanding. Consider my ticket bought.

Side Note: Kudos to Charlize Theron, who has this opening 1 week before Prometheus, in which she also stars.

Trailer Grade: B+/A-

The Netflix Files: March 12 - 18

The Servant (1963) dir. Joseph Losey: An outstanding domestic thriller that owes more to its screenplay (adapted by Harold Pinter from Robin Maugham's novel), The Servant starts with ordinary ingredients and few predictable turns, but manages to end up in a frightfully exciting place at the end. Aside from the fascinating is-there-isn't-there? homoerotic subtext to the relationship between aristocrat Tony (James Fox) and socially awkward servant Barrett (Dirk Bogarde), the film's sharp deconstruction of employer-employee power dynamics is thrilling to behold. Throw in the fact that it's edited and paced just about to perfection, and even the more mundane conversations feel as though they're richly layered with barely visible tension. The final half hour is a bit of a sharp turn stylistically, like something that Ingmar Bergman and David Lynch might have cooked up over coffee, but in the end it only elevates the film, which owes so much to Pinter's excellent script to another level. Not terribly deep from the human side of things, but as a work of narrative manipulation and character maneuvering, it's a wonderful little gem of a thriller.

Grade: A-

Le Cercle Rouge (The Red Circle) (1970) dir. Jean-Pierre Melville: Melville's last noir (and his penultimate film as a director) also stands as one of his best. Understatement is the name of the game, but even coupled with the film's deliberate pacing it never fails to intrigue, if at times from a very chilly distance. Melville takes his time setting up the four principals (three criminals, one cop) and their loose connections to each other. The film won't ever be remembered as a strong work of character study, but at least the gradual pacing and extreme understatement lend the material more depth than would have been there otherwise. Much more impressive is the narrative's build towards its masterful highlight: a near-silent heist sequence set inside a supposedly impenetrable jewelry house. It's stripped down, icy stuff, but Melville ultimately makes all of the pieces worth caring about, even if the emotional reactions it inspires are often rather muted.

Grade: B+

Saturday, March 17, 2012

[EDIT]IMAX & Theatrical Trailers : "Prometheus"

It may be unconventional (and inexcusably nerdy), but I think this may be my favorite thing to happen on St. Patrick's Day this year: the release of a brand new IMAX trailer for Ridley Scott's Prometheus, which is doing its best to not get mistaken for an Alien prequel...even though it might be one anyway. The trailer keeps the suspense up without giving up an ounce a plot, which I really love, especially seeing as we're in an age where big-budget films spoil 2/3s of the film in their promotional material. The production design and VFX look outstanding, and the cast is, as I've said before, loaded with charisma and talent. There may be no Sigourney Weaver among this group to grab a surprise Oscar nomination, but at the very least we can rest easy that this blockbuster material will be played out by actors with range and depth, and that's always comforting. Ridley Scott has certainly had his ups and downs over the past decades, but his return to sci-fi continues to look extraordinarily promising.

Trailer Grade: A

And now, just a day later, we have a full-blown theatrical trailer. This is the first time that any proper sense of plot has been revealed, and yet still, Prometheus remains shrouded in mystery, and the marketing team deserves high praise for it. There's enough here to let people in who want a taste of the plot, but no hints toward the actual progression of events (other than the crew landing and discovering things aren't as they seem). And despite how high the bar was set with the film's teaser trailer and IMAX trailer (the one above), the marketing team has truly outdone themselves here, giving us an incredibly intense look at a richly conceived and gorgeously rendered sci-fi world. Clearly the film relies heavily on VFX work, yet it all looks so beautiful and textured that it lacks that plastic, weightless feel that plagues so many overblown summer spectacles. Look out, Christopher Nolan; The Dark Knight Rises officially has its biggest competition (at least in terms of likely quality, if not box office) of the summer. Welcome back, Ridley Scott.

Trailer Grade: A+

Friday, March 16, 2012

Trailer: "Dark Shadows"

Despite being in a state of completion for quite some time, Tim Burton's Dark Shadows, an adaptation of the famous cult TV series has been kept, well, in the shadows. Until recently, only a handful of production still have emerged, with nary a poster or trailer in sight until last night. It might seem like a bad sign, considering that the film opens just under two months from now (May 11th), but to an extent it makes sense. May marks the high-gear kickoff to summer blockbuster season, and May 2012 looks pretty stacked with big, more widely appealing films, namely Marvel's The Avengers. So, in a sense, Warner Bros. is playing it smart by aiming for a short, powerful burst of marketing right before the film's release, so they don't end up spending a bunch of money on a film that, on paper, shouldn't provide much financial competition against the likes of Marvel's super-hero orgy.

Thankfully, the trailer actually seems pretty promising, though I do have a handful of reservations. I've never seen any of the show, so I can't judge whether or not Burton's darkly farcical tone clashes with the show or not. Still, said darkly farcical tone is right up Burton's alley, and Dark Shadows looks like an opportunity for the director to make something in the vein of Beetlejuice, which certainly wouldn't be a bad thing. I'm not sure most of the jokes are supposed to be gutbustingly funny, but I thoroughly enjoyed the laughs that the trailer showcased, particularly the bits with Eva Green, who looks like she's having an absolute blast as the film's villain. And, as per any Burton film, the production values look marvelous, and the generally higher amount of on-location and/or studio set-photography is a welcome change of pace after the nauseating CGI mess that was Alice in Wonderland.

All the same, there are a few shots in here that feature a sort of cheap, weightless-looking VFX look that contrasts with how nicely filled out and tangible the other sets come off. I'm hoping that these scenes are only a brief portion of the film's runtime, and that they're merely vestiges of Burton's work on Alice, because the man really does know how to work with his creative departments to create wonderfully textured worlds.

As for the cast, apart from Green and Helena Bonham Carter, I am a little worried about some of the other players, including, unfortunately, Johnny Depp. Burton and Depp have a great history together, but lately they've been slipping, to the point where I think it might be time for Burton to find another male muse (Bonham Carter is more than welcome to stay as his female muse, however). I'm also a little nervous about Michelle Pfeiffer, because her role seems a little too straightforward and stiff. The above-mentioned actors are all gifted at stylized performances, and it's unsettling that some might be getting past their prime and doing the same old thing (Depp), or not being properly utilized (Pfeiffer).

Finally, there's the plot. Frankly, I'm not expecting anything revolutionary, though I'm sure there will be fun in seeing Depp's Barnabas try to figure out the world of the 70s. What worries me more is whether the genre trappings and tone will elevate the "save the family business!" story line, or whether said story line will drag down the genre elements. I'm crossing my fingers for the former. Either way, though, I'll still be there first in line on May 11th, since it's been too long since Burton's last film, Sweeney Todd (now that this trailer is out, I'm going to start pretending that Alice never happened). And if this doesn't work, I suppose there's always Frankenweenie later this year.

Trailer Grade: B

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Review: "The Kid with a Bike"

Cannes has been extraordinarily kind to Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes, having awarded them the Palme D'Or twice (in 1999 for Rosetta, and in 2005 for L'Enfant). And even though their 2008 effort, Lorna's Silence, failed to nab any prizes from the Cannes jury, it was still met with plenty of acclaim. Jump forward to May 2011, and the directing duo added another prize, tying for the Grand Prix (Cannes' second place award) with Turkey's Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. That's not too shabby considering the multitude of talent that comes to Cannes annually as part of the international festival circuit. But when you've built up so much prestige, that nagging little question emerges: is all of it earned? Tough to say, but at the very least, The Kid with a Bike is another strong entry in the Dardennes brothers' filmography, even if it has the sort of minor flaws that might make one question its second place triumph at Cannes last year.

The plot, as per usual with most of the Dardennes' work, is fairly straightforward: Cyril (Thomas Doret), abandoned by his father, tries to find him, while bonding with a woman named Samantha (Cecile De France), who becomes his foster mother of sorts. And to be perfectly frank, it doesn't get much more complex than there. Samantha's motivation for taking Cyril in is never really sketched out, but by the time the film is over, it's not the sort of question that really requires an answer. This is a simple, upfront tale of social interactions in the vein of De Sica's classic The Bicycle Thief. Despite the young boy at the center of the tale, it's not meant to tug at heartstrings, but rather present a level-headed depiction (one that can, at times, veer close to being too clinical) of its subject matter.

And for most of the runtime, that's really all the film needs. The Dardennes, who also wrote the film, never once indicate that they might pull out an absurd twist of any sort. Their concern lies strictly with the characters, which is for the best considering the film's slightly distant tone. Yet even said distance doesn't prevent The Kid with a Bike from achieving its own emotional potency, albeit in a rather muted fashion. When Cyril's father (Dardennes regular Jeremie Renier) rejects him, the boy begins hurting himself in Samantha's car until she intervenes and holds him while he cries. It's all done in a single, simple, backseat shot, with barely any of the actors' faces exposed, yet it still rings true, and it's all done with out hysterics or overbearing music.

So even though the film's plot becomes more predictable as it goes along, the Dardennes' smooth pacing and honest tone mostly offsets this. That is, except for the handful of spots where the Dardennes seem to have become a tad lazy. So much of the core relationship - that of Cyril and Samantha - is wonderfully structured. By contrast, Cyril's involvement with local misfit Wes (Egon Di Mateo), comes off as rushed. Thematically it fits with Cyril's rebelliousness and desire for a father figure, but the lack of any scene to bridge the two encounters is offputting. Most of the scenes between the two boys are perfectly solid, though, but the transition from their first encounter (which ends with Samantha telling Cyril to never speak to Wes again) to their second is so abrupt that it threatens to undercut the relationship between the two boys. Likewise, some of the developments in the last 10 or 15 minutes, in stark contrast to nearly everything that come before, happen so quickly as to cause whiplash. The film has another small issue in the music department. There's less than a minute of music on the soundtrack, and it all comes exclusively from Beethoven's 5th piano concerto. There's nothing wrong with the piece itself, but rather how it is incorporated: 4 insertions at key emotional moments throughout the story. Beethoven's music, beautiful and grand though it may be, feels wildly out of place with the bare-bones storytelling and cinematic technique, and one has to wonder if the decision was made by someone other than the Dardennes themselves.

These blips in storytelling aren't, however enough to sink, or even significantly hinder the film as a whole. The Dardennes latest is a low-key, down-to-earth childhood drama that successfully explores the themes that it sets out for itself. The acting all around is strong, with De France's lovely turn easily being the standout. And despite the aforementioned issues with the screenplay, the Dardennes have proven that, even though this may not be quite up there with their best work, they're still two of world cinema's most insightful and valuable voices.

Grade: B/B+

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Review: "Game Change" [TV]

Though not a theatrical release, HBO's Game Change, an adaptation of Mark Halperin and John Heilemann's novel about the 2008 presidential election, ranks up there with some of the best behind-the-scenes political thrillers. Though some (on sides left and right) will balk at the film's portrayal of political lightning rod Sarah Palin (Julianne Moore), Game Change does, in all honesty, deserve quite a bit of credit for tackling such a highly divisive figure and coming out with effective results.

The film beings with John McCain's (Ed Harris) campaign on a downward slide, and unfortunately this is mirrored in the quality of the opening scenes. As a whole, Danny Strong's screenplay is quick and sharp, but before Sarah Palin's introduction into the mix, Game Change feels slightly off, and at times weirdly on the nose (particularly in a scene where McCain's advisors inform him of the need for a "game changer"). Yet once Julianne Moore's Palin picks up her cell at an amusement park and says, "This is Sarah..." Game Change does a complete 180. Palin herself had plenty of incredible highs and shocking lows during the '08 campaign, but Jay Roach's film captures the good and the bad with a fierce intelligence.

And even though Tina Fey has already created her own landmark portrayal of the former VP hopeful, Moore's performance is richer by virtue of not being a parody. Palin certainly isn't lionized, and there are times when she is drawn as an expert of image maneuvering, but she isn't thrown under the bus for the campaign's loss, nor is she portrayed as a villain. Whether Palin is eagerly taking down notes, or slouched in a chair in a catatonic stupor, Moore keeps the portrayal grounded, never once veering into broad-strokes territory. Yes, she has her vocal tics, accent, and even her walk down, but thanks to Moore's commitment to the turn and the sharp script, the surface details don't end up controlling the performance. What the film does best, with the benefits being tremendous, is present Palin with as many facets as it can, all underlined by one crucial idea: regardless of her intentions, or her ability to function as a political celebrity, she was simply not prepared for the chaos of the national stage.

'Stage' is a particularly appropriate word, because in fits in with the film's larger idea, one that's bigger than McCain, Palin, and Obama combined: the transformation of the politics - specifically, elections - in the age of social media and the 24 hour news cycle. As Palin becomes more prominent, McCain all but vanishes as the campaign's focal point. Palin is the GOP's Obama, an appealing politician who has the energy to also function as a celebrity. This notion plays out beautifully over the film's 2 hour run time, namely in scenes involving campaign manager Steve Schmidt, and senior campaign advisor Nicolle Wallace (Woody Harrelson and Sarah Paulson, both excellent).

Yet what Game Change ultimately does best, which is high praise considering the strong individual pieces, is recreate the twists, turns, and thrills of the 2008 election, although here it's been condensed into 2 hours, and not painfully dragged out over 3 months with endless coverage. In fact, Roach's film almost makes the race more exciting, because of all of the glimpses, some developed, some fleeting, we are afforded of the campaign's behind-the-scenes activities. Occasionally it becomes overwritten - listening to characters issue commentary while Palin delivers her famed RNC address disrupts the flow somewhat - but on the whole it's a riveting piece of political story-telling that, thanks to its real-life basis, avoids sensationalism. Every once and a while, I thought Roach and company were about to take things into the full-on thriller genre, but nothing ever materialized. There is no Chekhov's gun, and the script feels no need to contrive one. There was never an intention of making this a thriller, rather, Game Change's story is simply thrilling in its own right: thrilling written, thrillingly acted, and thrillingly constructed, even though it's ultimately just a string of conversations among a group of conflicted individuals.

Grade: B+

Friday, March 9, 2012

Trailer: "On the Road"

I don't remember whether or not Walter Salles'
On the Road, an adaptation of the classic Jack Kerouac novel, was stuck in development hell, or was simply announced long before it even began casting. Regardless, the long-gestating (?) project has been completed for a while now, and at last we have our first look at some footage. I have to confess, I've been meaning to read Kerouac's novel for the past few years, but have yet to get around to it, so I can't really comment on whether or not the casting choices seem appropriate. What I can say, however, is that the talented that Walles enlisted gives me a lot of hope. First is Walles himself, who directed the wonderful The Motorcycle Diaries (2004). That too was something of a self-discovery road-trip film, so On the Road should be right up the director's alley.

The cast isn't too shabby either. Garrett Hedlund is an appealing, charismatic actor, and Sam Riley has already proven that he's capable of top flight work (2007's excellent Control). The supporting cast is filled with excellent actors, including Viggo Mortensen, Amy Adams, Kirsten Dunst, and Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss. There's also Kristen Stewart, in what appears to be the third major role. Stewart is certainly capable of delivering a solid performance (Adventureland), but unlike a great deal of the cast, she has yet to develop a consistency to her work. This makes her the film's wild card, which could prove to help the film a lot...or hinder it. On the Road, though slated for 2012, doesn't have a specific release date set for US theaters, so it will likely be a while before we get an answer. Maybe they'll even take long enough so that I can get my act together and actually read the damn book.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Review: "The Grey"

I've gotten off to a slow start when it comes to 2012 releases. Despite the stereotype that January and February are wastelands (save for films expanding from limited release or foreign films finally making post-Oscar theatrical debuts), there have been quite a few films that have caught my attention. Unfortunately, many will have to wait for DVD (sorry, Haywire), given how sluggish I've been. However, last night I was able to finally make it to my second release of the new year, and thankfully it was a marked improvement from The Woman in Black.

Despite not being much more than decent, Joe Carnahan's The Grey is a big step forward in the director's career, and a refreshingly solid piece for star Liam Neeson. Having previously directed Smokin' Aces and The A-Team, I went into Carnahan's latest expecting yet another Neeson-driven action flick, albeit one set in the wilderness. Yet despite the sizable helping of violence in the film, The Grey represents a more mature effort from Carnahan; here's hoping the trend continues.

The premise of The Grey is simple: following a horrific plane crash in the Alaskan wilderness, 7 oil workers must fight for their survival, facing off against nature in the forms of weather and a nasty pack of wolves. And, for the most part, the execution is straightforward. Yet perhaps its the general absence of crazy, kinetic energy that aids The Grey, despite its somewhat predictable path. There are any number of strikingly long shots, many of which steadily intensify both the emotion and the atmosphere. And even though there are any number of violent confrontations with the group's lupine adversaries, Carnahan balances these with scenes occasionally punctuated by the wolves' howling. The animals don't just pop out of nowhere (barring a few jump scares); we get to see how they work as they try to whittle away at the group's stamina (as well as their numbers).

So even though the characters - Neeson excluded - aren't exactly fleshed out save for expositional details, we as an audience do feel a sense of community among them, despite the presence of the obligatory trouble-maker (Frank Grillo). That said, the ensemble each have some solid moments, but nothing that a bunch of amateurs couldn't have accomplished. Neeson, in a refreshing turn, gives some of his best work of the past few years. It's not up there with the actor's best work, but considering his recent run of blockbusters and throwaway action fare, it's something. The actor possesses an inherently commanding persona, yet here he's actually given material that forces him to do more than coast on said persona. The only questionable aspect of the performance is the fact that Neeson seems to cover up his Irish accent, only for it to slip out further down the line. The film does later tell us that Ottway is, in fact, Irish, but it feels like a hastily thrown in addition to the script, as though Neeson said to hell with faking an American accent midway through production.

And speaking of production, that's where the other key strengths of The Grey are found. Masonobu Takayanagi's photography has some truly sublime moments, and keeps the tundra locales from becoming dull or repetitive. In the aural departments, Marc Streitenfeld's score, despite a few beats that come on too strong, lends the film's funereal narrative some needed energy, particularly in the slight cop-out of an ending. Less successful are the special effects, which don't quite bring a convincing enough edge to the wolf pack hunting the protagonists down. In close-ups the animals look fine, but in wide shots they look like they belong in the cartoony and stylized world of Zack Snyder, which couldn't be further from the rest of Carnahan's film. Much better are the more practical effects, including two excellent bits involving Ottway being, quite literally, ripped from his dreams.

Yet despite some inspired moments and strong aspects, The Grey isn't quite as powerful as it strives to be. From quite an early point after the plane crash, you'll realize that it doesn't matter what the outcome is, merely in what order the demises occur. The ending undoes some of this, and it creates a compelling moment out a scenario that both sinks your stomach and makes you shake your head at the enormity of the coincidence happening. Somewhere within The Grey, there was a truly harrowing tale of survival, but Carnahan's film seems caught between artistic inclinations and action-oriented storytelling to maximize its potential. Not a bad film (disregarding the wolves, that is), but one whose merits are knocked down by an overall sense of settling for little more than adequacy.

Grade: B-