Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Trailer: "Samsara"

No plot, no characters, just images. These sorts of films don't come around often, but when they do, they can be one-of-a-kind wonders, as looks to be the case with Samsara. I haven't seen Ron Fricke's previous film (Baraka), but I have seen his work as a cinematographer on Godfrey Reggio's masterful Koyaanisqatsi (1982), one of my all-time favorites. Fricke knows how to capture the vast beauty of untamed nature and rampant human development, and it looks like his gift is on full display here. What also interests me is the theme. Similar character and plot-free films have used the nature vs. industrialized world device before, but Fricke's seems to have a positive, unitive goal in mind. The theme can be found in the title, which is Tibetan for "the ever-turning wheel of life." If the visuals and music of the trailer are any indication, Fricke's latest may just succeed at what it wants to capture. Considering that it involved five years of shooting across 25 countries, I'd say its odds are looking pretty good. Let's just hope this receives strong enough distribution, as it looks like it deserves to be seen on the big screen, what with it being shot on 70mm film (when was the last time a trailer actually advertised its own medium?).

Trailer Grade: A

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Trailer: John Hillcoat's "Lawless"

Now that the Cannes Film Festival lineup for 2012 has been unveiled, the countdown begins to see which competition entries will release trailers and clips first. Near the front of the pack is John Hillcoat's Lawless (formerly known as The Wettest County until Terrence Malick gave up the title from his forthcoming film), which looks like a shot of gangster-ized adrenaline.

With a stellar cast (...and Shia LaBeouf) and a fun setting/subject matter (Depression Era bootleggers), Lawless always held a lot of appeal for me. What really caught my eye, however, was director John Hillcoat, whose two previous films (The Road and The Proposition) were simultaneously elegant and brutal. So, knowing Hillcoat's previous work, I thought I had an idea of how Lawless would look and feel. If the trailer is indication, I'm completely wrong. Lawless looks both talky and fast paced, and marks a major departure from the director's previous work. Granted, part of being an artist is the chance to explore new styles, but I can't help feel that some of Lawless looks a little ordinary, and that we're losing a chance to see what his previous style could have had on this sort of story. Granted, the cast looks to be in fine form, and Gary Oldman and Guy Pearce look like excellent villains, but as much as there is to like here, I can't help but feel that we might be headed for something of a missed opportunity.

Trailer Grade: B-

Sunday, April 8, 2012

[Short] Review: "The Raid: Redemption"

Gareth Evans' The Raid: Redemption might have one of the most efficient set ups in recent memory: a young cop leaves his pregnant wife and father behind to be part of a massive effort to clear out an apartment complex full of criminals, only to find himself the last man standing. Yet if it sounds like Evans' film is little more than a disposable cops and criminals action flick, I'll have to stop you right there. What The Raid lacks in depth it makes up for with incredible film making skill, creating an intense and visceral thrill ride that is easily one of the best action films to come along in years. 

And even though the narrative gradually fills in a few critical story developments along the way, Evans' sense of pacing never gets thrown off. He knows how to build tension, stage fight scenes, and still knows when to slow things down just enough for you to catch your breath. Just about all of the action in The Raid is jaw-dropping, not only because of its incredibly taut, lightning-fast choreography, but also because Evans captures the action so well, refraining from over-editing or a dependency on a shaky camera to create a sense of chaos (as opposed to, say, The Hunger Games). Some of it can border on exhausting, such as a 2 on 1 battle near the end, but the payoff is always worth it. Evans has crafted something so lean and devoid of narrative or stylistic flab that there's not much else to The Raid other than its set up, some light smatterings of backstory, and tons and tons of action. And it all works because the direction is so focused, and the execution so intense. Evans' film is more concerned with action than other well made style-over-substance films of late (such as Hanna), and that might make it a weaker film from an artistic standpoint, but the film as a whole is so insanely gripping and visceral that it hardly matters. Throw in dedicated (albeit one-note) turns from the cast and a perfectly matched electronic score from Joseph Trapanese, and you really can't ask for much more. This is no-nonsense action filmmaking at its absolute pinnacle.

Grade: B
The Action: A

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Review: "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"

Just about everyone in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a light comedy-drama from John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) may be in retirement, but to label the film an "old person's movie" would be a huge disservice. Boasting a fine assembly of some of Britain's finest actors, Madden's latest film does, unfortunately, set itself up for nothing more than cliches. But this is mostly in the results, meaning that even though Marigold trips up in some of its conclusions, the journey is still very much worth taking. 

The film opens with a series of efficient introductions to its cast of characters, all of them British retirees who, in one way or another, find themselves sent to India as part of the next (and likely final) stage of their retirement. The characters range from Evelyn, a housewife who recently lost her husband (Judi Dench) to recently-retired judge Graham (Tom Wilkinson). Meanwhile, the group of seven stay at the titular (and severely misrepresented) Marigold Hotel under the watch of Sonny (Dev Patel), the young, idealistic manager. The film as a whole is generally light on plot from that point forward, although that usually works in its favor. 

Madden and screenwriter Ol Parker allow the characters and the audience to get a sense of the beauty and chaos that is India, without ever falling into the trap of becoming an accidental National Geographic special. And even though it runs just over two hours, Marigold never feels like it overstays its welcome. Certain characters and subplots are sometimes left alone for too long (particularly Sonny's relationship with his girlfriend), but once they come up again, the film executes them well. Madden and his tremendously gifted cast create a wonderful atmosphere, tinged with the right mix of comedy and drama, that the proceedings only begin to feel slight in one of the film's most critical sequences near the end, where nearly everything is resolved too neatly for its own good. 

So much of what makes the film enjoyable to watch is how it uses the Indian setting (as well as the clash of cultures) to inform the character study across the ensemble. Among the film's best segments are those revolving around Wilkinson, whose character is the only one of the group to have been to India before. That the character is returning to India (where he actually grew up) marks a nice contrast to the other stories. He is going to live out his last days back where it all started, whereas everyone else is going further from home than they've ever been. These are the sorts of narratives that don't seem to require the most concrete resolutions, except that the script insists on them anyway, completely throwing off Madden's lovely vision of India as a land that assaults all of one's senses at once. The film's final sequence rectifies this to a degree, ending on a note that feels more in line with more open, character-based style, but the big scene, which resolves three or four problems all in rapid-fire succession, comes off as a weak attempt to ramp up the dramatic tension in the story, and it feels wholly unnecessary. Yes, elements in Marigold are cliched, but they don't feel cliched thanks to the execution, that is until the above-mentioned scene comes along and calls direct attention to it. 

Thankfully, even the film's weakest moments are elevated by the stellar ensemble. In fact, the benefit of having a cast that isn't young at all is that everyone is a pro at this, and one never gets the sense that any of them are trying too hard (though it's a shame that Downton Abbey co-stars Penelope Wilton and Maggie Smith never have a chance to engage in any verbal smack downs). This isn't to say that the cast puts in the bare minimum of effort, merely that there's a level of comfortability so that one never has to worry about one odd member of the group throwing the balance of the ensemble off due to less experience. The behind-the-scenes team isn't too shabby either. Thomas Newman's score captures the scenes nicely without becoming overbearing or getting in the way of the actors. More impressive is Ben Davis' cinematography, which captures the wild range of texture and color that India has to offer in any number of sumptuously photographed scenes. Newman and Davis' work stands out just the right amount, never calling too much attention to itself, while still smoothing out some of the bumps in the screenplay through their contributions to the film's atmosphere. 

So despite the cliches that ultimately mar the resolution, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has so much going for it that it's hard to knock it down too much. This is a measured, though still heartfelt film about aging and new beginnings that, despite its older cast, has something in it for a wide range of ages. It's also a reminder that Mr. Madden, while having never topped the success of Shakespeare in Love over a decade ago, remains a sensitive and effective film maker whose work is still worth following. 

Grade: B

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Review: "Bully"

It almost feels wrong to say anything bad about Bully, Lee Hirsch's documentary on bullying in American public school systems. In addition to the film's noble goals, it has also faced a rather ludicrous dispute involving its rating, which would affect its ability to be screened in elementary and middle schools. This is tough material to deal with, and at the very least, Hirsch, the rest of the crew, and the Weinstein Company should be applauded for how hard they've fought to promote not just the film, but also its message. All the same, Bully falters in two critical areas that severely hamper its effectiveness from both ethical and filmmaking standpoints. 

Bully wastes no time in getting to the hard hitting material: the opening sequence revolves around the Long family, whose oldest son committed suicide after torment from his classmates became too much. Hirsch gives us plenty of moments like this revelation that hit quite hard, including a mind-boggling and infuriating scene involving parents and the school administrator they appeal to for change. There's no question that there's enough material covering both kids and their families, but Hirsch seems more interested simply in showing the footage instead of crafting it into something more informative, insightful, and purpose-driven. For, as good of a look at bullying as the film gives us, the film's goal seems to stop at "bully is bad, let's make it stop," without ever trying to probe into the deeper issues, such as the motivations for bullying. Obviously, this is a documentary, so there are no 'characters,' but that doesn't stop the film from pulling out moments that seem engineered to make us hiss as if we were seeing a villain twirling his mustache.

Not that the film was ever going to try and go so far as to excuse the actions of the bullies, but a little examination of them wouldn't have had adverse effects. It would have only helped, and could have made Bully a much richer viewing experience. And even among the subjects that it does focus on, Hirsch and company fumble the ball more than once. Each of the stories of the central kids - Alex, Kelby, and Ja'Maya - would have been enough to illuminate the issues of bullying, so it's admirable that the film takes on all of them, their families, and the Long family. Yet even though each kid and/or family is allotted time, Hirsch and company fail to effectively manage them all fairly. Kelby Johnson, a high school girl who finds her whole family practically ostracized after she comes out as a lesbian, is particularly let down, as though Hirsch felt that they had enough material of some of the other families and didn't need to give her as much screen time. 

And if Bully doesn't have enough problems tripping up its noble (albeit overly simplistic) intentions, it can be a bit of a mess from a production standpoint as well. Right off of the bat, the film has distracting issues in audio and focus, and they don't stop for the entire 100 minute run time. It may seem nit picky, but it has to be said: there are times when Bully simply isn't well-made, and just like all of the aforementioned issues, it keeps the film from being as effective and powerful as it could be. Bully is ultimately a success, but not by much. For all of the effective looks at bullying and administrative negligence, though, superficiality gets in the way often enough to make you wish that there was another, better documentary coming out soon covering the same basic subject matter. People like Alex or Kelby deserve to have their stories told, but they deserve to be part of a much better film, one that is willing to delve deeper into its material and its subjects, instead of telling us what we more or less already know. 

Grade: B-/C+

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Trailer: "To Rome with Love"

Though not set for release until June 22, Sony has finally rolled out a first look at Woody Allen's follow-up to Midnight in Paris, which became the director's biggest financial success and earned him another writing Oscar. Allen's track record seems to go one hit, then one or two misses, which doesn't bode well for To Rome with Love, though that's hardly concrete evidence to go on. I'd love for Allen's love letter to Italy, which features three separate narratives, to be his second successive success for any number of reasons. First, it's the first time in a while that Allen has appeared on screen in addition to writing and directing. Second, the cast is wonderful, and the three narratives should keep things lively. Allen has quite the cast assembled (as per usual), and the material here looks both engaging and funny (Judy Davis' jab at Allen's IQ and his line about the family of his daughter's boyfriend are gold). I don't like that so much of the Baldwin-Eisenberg-Page-Gerwig segment is spoiled while the other two segments reveal less, but hopefully there are still some surprises left over. Surprise worked well for Midnight in Paris, which teased none of its time travel in the trailer, so here's hoping there's something else to the triptych of stories than the obvious.

Trailer Grade: B

Monday, April 2, 2012

Review: "Perfect Sense"

Mixing hints of the apocalypse and romance seems like a guaranteed recipe for disaster. The romance and disaster genres have enough trouble working on their own, and combining them often seems like a big headache. Of course, as movies like to prove time and time again, there are exceptions to the rule, as is the case with David MacKenzie's Perfect SenseLike a less expansive, more emotional version of Steven Soderbergh's Contagion, MacKenzie's tale of love amid a mysterious epidemic has its share of rough patches, but ultimately winds up a success that should have been given more of a chance (the film played for a few weeks in one theater in New York, and that's it as far as stateside showings go). 

Set in Scotland, the film follows the relationship between Susan (Eva Green), an epidemiologist, and Michael (Ewan McGregor) a chef at a restaurant near Susan's apartment.  As their on-and-off relationship is just starting to get off of the ground, though, a mysterious infection begins spreading, robbing people of their senses in moments punctuated by things like extreme, irrational hunger. It's not the easiest story to use to try and blend romance and disease-drama, yet MacKenzie's choices ultimately lead the film in the right direction.

Not to say that there aren't weak moments. The first two thirds feature awkward peaks and valleys in storytelling. As a result, a solid or good scene is often followed by one with strange execution. This is most often true in the scenes where we see people having episodes before losing a particular sense. On paper it makes sense to show people in ravenous hunger right before they lose their ability to taste, yet the execution is sometimes a tad daft. While seeing people chow down on the ingredients in Michael's kitchen is absolutely reasonable, scenes meant to illustrate the extent of the cravings inevitably reduces the film to showing Susan chomping down on a bouquet of flowers while the woman next to her bites into a tube of lipstick. Again, thematically speaking, nothing wrong, but moments like these undermine what MacKenzie is able to pull off in the good scenes. 

The big problem that Perfect Sense has to overcome is that it wants to mix elements of the intimate and epic, using one location to communicate the epidemic at large. Strangely, the broader strokes in the film, which often involves the use of archival footage to show the disease impacting other parts of the globe, are more successful than the ones scripted directly for the film. Scribe Kim Aakeson is headed in the right direction with the basic elements she inserts into the story - such as Susan's relationship with her married sister - but the way in which they're dealt with can be inconsistent, and at times (even with MacKenzie's guidance) a little tone deaf. It's as if MacKenzie (or someone near the top of the production) was so taken with the basic outline of the story that he didn't bother to smooth out the first two acts. 

It's a shame, because these inconsistencies in execution do a disservice to the film's performers. Green and McGregor are clearly invested in the material, as daffy as some of it must have seemed on the page, but you can feel a slight dip in energy in the weaker scenes. When everything is running smoothly, however, the pair deliver some lovely work, and when it comes time for the big moments in act three, they knock it out of the park. Green is particularly good, even when the script gives her slightly stiff dialogue to work with, and McGregor, despite being saddled with a character who doesn't go through as much of an arc as he should, has marvelous moments as well, including a painfully beautiful scene where he talks into a phone, unable to hear his own voice. 

Yet for all of these ups and downs, everything in Perfect Sense comes together in the last act, with increasingly haunting results.  As the stakes get higher, and more senses disappear, the impact of the disease feels more palpable and more meaningful. While the first two acts disrupt the momentum of the good scenes, act three allows them to finish just about free of interruption. Encounters are better handled, tone is consistent, and the awkward scenes fade away, leaving only a succession of stronger scenes that culminate in a heart-wrenchingly beautiful finale that will likely be one of 2012's best moments come year's end. For the most part the technical elements are adequate (kudos, though, on the limited use of trash to convey a sense of social dysfunction and chaos), but Max Richter's astoundingly beautiful score takes the film up to some pretty incredible highs, namely in the aforementioned finale. For everything that goes wrong in Perfect Sense, the ending is a reminder of the importance of ending a film with its best foot forward. And that's exactly what MacKenzie and company do, creating an ultimately satisfying and beautifully moving romantic drama tinged with hints of science fiction. The film as a whole may have its significant flaws, but its best moments work so well that every once and a while you're tempted to forgive them, which is more than a little impressive.

Grade: B

Sunday, April 1, 2012

"Wrath of the Titans" is a masterpiece!!

That's the best I could do as far as April Fool's jokes are concerned. 

Now, onto the actual review. The last thing most of us really cared about was a sequel to 2010's Clash of the Titans remake, but that sure as hell didn't stop the studios. The '10 film was a surprisingly unenjoyable action-adventure fantasy, made worse by some stiff looking 3D VFX work. So it comes as quite a surprise that the completely unnecessary sequel is actually better than its predecessor and has some enjoyable parts to it, even if they don't necessarily justify a trip to the theater (wait for the DVD).

Picking up a decade after Clash, Perseus (Sam Worthington, whose acting seems to have plateaued at an unfortunate level) now lives with a young son in a seaside village. Unfortunately, trouble is brewing again. The gods are losing their power as fewer people pray to them, thereby weakening the bonds that have kept the titans imprisoned in Tartarus. When Hades (Ralph Fiennes) and Ares (Edgar Ramirez) betray Zeus (Liam Neeson) and Poseidon (Danny Huston), they set the world on a path towards destruction that only Perseus can stop.

Let's get a few things out of the way. The writing isn't deep at all, characters go through roughly no development, and most of the story feels quite minor before the massive finale. That said, there's something oddly enjoyable about Wrath. It's obviously not good, but it's no train wreck, and even though some of the action is only adequately handled, some of it is quite fun. A lot of this has to do with the technical aspects, which are aces across the board. The visual effects team and props department deserve quite a bit of praise for all of the detail they've put into everything. Watching Cronos, seen here as a semi-humanoid mound of molten lava, burst out of a mountain in rage is spectacular. Other creatures, like a set of siamese-twin demons that wreck havoc on Queen Andromeda's (Rosamund Pike) army, are equally impressive. The film also boasts some wonderful design, namely in a killer sequence where Perseus and company navigate into Tartarus via a massive, constantly-shifting stone labyrinth.

And as little development as there is, the film does contain one surprisingly nice moment involving Zeus and Hades. Considering the scene that follows, I began wondering how much more fun both Clash and Wrath would have been if it had focused entirely on this relationship. But what ultimately saves Wrath of the Titans is that, despite having all the hallmarks of bloated-yet-hollow schlock, it's not offensively dumb or trashy. It's silly, but there's a sense of fun present that makes it a decent enough viewing experience, especially when it reaches its epic climactic battle. It doesn't happen often, but there are times when sequels surpass originals, and this is one such case. Not that the bar was set high by Clash, but it's nice to know that when Hollywood makes a sequel to a bad movie, they can still redeem themselves...sort of.

Grade: C+

The Best of the Month: February + March 2012

Best Film (Theaters): The Kid with a Bike

The Dardennes brothers' latest film is a small, somewhat flawed film, but that doesn't stop it from being something of a gem as well. The writing and direction are restrained and honest, and the cast members give top flight performances. The final scene is troubling because it comes off as too open-ended for its own good, but just about everything before is lovely. It won't go down as one of the Dardennes' best, but it's still a strong entry in their filmography.

Best Film (DVD/Streaming): The Servant

A deceptively simple domestic drama/thriller, Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter's adaptation of Robin Maugham's novel is a taut tale of power dynamics filled with striking cinematography and strong performances. Though the ending has a bit of a stylistic shift - it feels like the result of a Bergman and Lynch mash up - the storytelling is handled so well that it hardly matters. It's strong enough before it turns weird, but the strangeness of the last 15 minutes gives the film something to help it stand out. 

Best Director: Danny Boyle - Trainspotting

Boyle's ability to energize nearly any subject matter works wonders in his 1996 breakout film. The subject matter - drug addiction - isn't glamorized by any means, but Boyle's style keeps it from being a grim slog to sit through. Cementing the film's greatness is the way Boyle and his tech team stage Renton's (Ewan McGregor) withdrawal hallucinations, all set within his childhood bedroom. It's a mesmerizing and terrifying piece of work that demonstrates Boyle at the peak of his power.

Best Male Performance: Lior Ashkenazi - Footnote

Half of the father-son duo at the core of Joseph Cedar's film about rivalry in academia, Ashkenazi narrowly bests his excellent co-star to deliver the film's finest performance. His role may not have the depth that comes with the father character's age, but he compensates by being so absolutely committed that it's hard to take your eyes off of him, even when the film's pacing falters. 

Best Female Performance: Cecile De France - The Kid with a Bike

She's one of France's biggest stars (and deservingly so), but her role in the Dardennes' latest is built fully on character rather than any sort of star persona. A dedicated turn every step of the way, De France makes her character worth following, even though the screenplay never fully fleshes out her motivations. This is wonderful, restrained work from one of world cinema's brightest talents. 

Best Screenplay: The Servant by Harold Pinter

His adaptation of Maugham's novel is a swift, sharp delight from the opening scenes, all thanks to his astute writing. Pinter keeps the action mostly confined within the house, yet the story never grows dull or feels repetitive, nor does it ever come off as stagey. A master class in building slow-burning suspense out of a seemingly harmless (and even boring) setting.

Best Ensemble Cast: Trainspotting

Character development may not be one of Trainspotting's strong suits, but the ensemble is, at least, completely dedicated to bringing Boyle's hectic vision to life. McGregor is excellent, as are Johnny Lee Miller, Kevin McKidd,  and the somewhat underused Kelly Macdonald. 

Best Cinematography: Gabriel Beristain - Caravaggio

Jarman's film achieves much of its success thanks to Beristain's magnificent job of capturing the anachronistic, minimalist sets as well as the look and feel of the titular painter's works. It's gorgeous to behold, with wonderful mixes of motivated light and shadow, yet it never threatens to get in the way.