Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The straggler - Cannes '12 Review: "Lawless" [Competition]

A solid piece of film making that marks its director's most commercial outing to date, Lawless may not wind up a major awards contender come year's end, but it does provide an engaging ride through bootlegging in the Prohibition Era. Directed by John Hillcoat (The Proposition, The Road) with a nice sense of narrative momentum, this is a sturdy, entertaining, nicely acted film, even though it represents a less original, independent point of view than his previous films. Gone is the harsh poetic tone, replaced by lots of talk and lots of shooting.

Based on the, allegedly, true story of the Bondurant brothers, the film charts their run-ins with a dandified new officer (an eerily commanding Guy Pearce) as they attempt to maintain their bootlegging enterprise in Virginia. The plot is straightforward, yet right from the outset, Hillcoat and his collaborators create a palpable atmosphere and a sense of pacing that keeps things moving, without ever rushing. It may not really dwell on character the way Hillcoat's previous films did, but the characters come across nicely. Shia LaBeouf and Tom Hardy deliver nice work as the film's leads, with LaBeouf proving surprisingly charismatic. The characters may not be strongly fleshed out, but the actors at least inhabit them comfortably. The scene-stealer is easily Pearce, in a broadly played yet still scary-as-hell role. Less successful, through no fault of their own, are the film's two female roles, played by Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska. They're mostly used as objects of potential romantic affection for the men, and little else, although Chastain does get one nice, complicated scene toward the end. From a technical standpoint, everything looks and sounds nice, save for a moment or two where Nick Cave's score comes in far too loud. Not the sort of film that will truly amaze you, but it will hold your attention and remain engaging, even when the epilogue hangs on just a hair too long.

Grade: B

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

(Delayed reactions to the) 2012 Cannes Film Festival Winners

 It's been a busy couple of days, and as such I haven't really been able to find time to blog, a little inconvenient considering the timing. In addition to this brief commentary on the winners from this year's Cannes fest, I have one more competition film to review, John Hillcoat's Lawless. More imporant for now, though, are the winners picked by the jury led by Italian actor/director Nanni Moretti. 

Palme D'Or: Amour (Michael Haneke)
Thank goodness they got this one right, because it's all downhill after the top prize. My favorite film of the festival (competition or not), I was worried that Haneke's recent victory at Cannes - winning the same prize for 2009's The White Ribbon - would hurt him this year. How happy I am to be wrong. Not only will this boost the terrific film's profile, it also helps upset just about everything that follows. It's technically a safer choice than my other Cannes fave, Holy Motors, in that it's not completely insane, but Haneke's piercing look at death and old age only reinforces why the man is as revered as he is, all while showing us a heartfelt (albeit austere) side.

Best Director: Carlos Reygadas - Post Tenebras Lux
If you read my super brief "review" of Reygadas' film, you'll know that I am no fan of this decision. I was with people at the festival who were really rooting for Lux to take home a prize, and their adoration for the film always made me scratch my head. Reygadas is thinking big, but the execution also just feels so sluggish and empty that the film as a whole becomes a painfully long two hours to sit through. Add in the obnoxious split image/blur effect that the director throws in, and you have a massive self-important misfire. Oh well, at least he didn't claim the Palme, as some rumors were suggesting in the hours before the closing ceremony.

Grand Prix: Reality (Matteo Garrone)
A true head-scratcher, and I say that in recognition of the fact that the jury president hails from the same country as Garrone. If they were going to reward this film, it should have been in Best Actor for Aniello Arena. He was the only part of this dull, cliched look at modern culture's obsession with reality TV actually worthy of praise. Everything else was as flat as an abandoned cup of soda.

Grand Jury Prize: The Angel's Share (Ken Loach)
Another head-scratcher. Loach's film is a pleasant little diversion with some nice acting, but it's also the type of film lacking in a single remarkable element. Even if Cannes did a full roster of awards a la the Oscars, I still doubt there would be a category where this would crack the top five. To be fair, Cannes has been kind to Loach (he won the Palme in '06) for years, but the general consensus seemed to be that he was taking it easy this time. Clearly Moretti (and others?) felt differently.

Best Actor: Mads Mikkleson - The Hunt 
One of the two rewarded films I didn't manage to see, there's really not much I can say here. Yes, I had favorites I was rooting for (Trintignant, Lavant, Schoenaerts), but I've heard nothing but good things about Mikkleson's work in the film, even from those who weren't fans of the rest of the piece.

Best Actress: Cristina Flutur and Cosima Stratan - Beyond the Hills
The other victorious film I didn't get to see was, sadly, Cristian Mungiu's latest, which earned some of the festival's strongest reviews. Again, I heard great things about the work, so I have no comment, although I'm still a tad shocked that odds-on favorite Marion Cotillard didn't win. If Rust and Bone, a good but not spectacular film, was going to take home a prize, Actress seemed like its best bet by a large margin.

Best Screenplay: Cristian Mungiu - Beyond the Hills
See previous two categories.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Cannes 2012: Closing Ceremony Predictions

 With the 2012 Cannes Film Festival in its final hours, it's time to make some predictions about the festivals closing ceremony awards, including the uber prestigious Palme D'Or. Predicting the winners of Cannes is always trickier than your typical awards show. For one, you're trying to guess the opinions of the Jury, a Jury that is different every year, and therefore has no precedents to go off of. Then there's that tricky rule that states that film's can only receive one award (the rule may no longer be in place; I'm not sure). It eliminates the possibility of a sweep, but it also makes predictions that much more difficult, because it's hard to determine which aspect of a film the Jury will go for. And as much as the critics would seem to be a good indicator, they're simply not. They have their favorites, and the Jury will have its favorites. Some might align, but it's never safe to bet that the critical majority and the Jury will see eye to eye. With that said, here's a look at who/what could win, as well as my choices for who/what should win, all while keeping with that irritating one-award-per-film rule.

Palme D'Or - Amour
I'm directly contradicting what I said above, but I wouldn't be too surprised if the biggest critical favorite also captured the Jury as well. Amour is a devastating, masterful work, and it lacks the bizarro quality of a more divisive choice like Holy Motors. The only thing standing in its way? Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon won the Palme in 2009. Not that winning more than one Palme is impossible, but for someone to win it twice after only a three year gap? Not terribly common. 
Other Possibilities: Holy Motors, Rust and Bone, Mud (last minute safe pick?), Beyond the Hills

Actor - Jean Louis-Trintignant, Amour
Obviously, the choice would negate the film's chances at the Palme, but ultimately this seems more likely. It's Trintignant's first film in a decade, it could be his last, and he's outstanding in it. A final chance for the festival to honor a legend who's still in top form.
Other Possibilities: Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust and Bone), Denis Lavant (Holy Motors), Aniello Arena (Reality), Mads Mikkelson (The Hunt)

Actress - Marion Cotillard, Rust and Bone
There remains a chance that this could go to Amour's Emmanuelle Riva or Nicole Kidman's sensationalized turn in The Paperboy, but more and more it's looking like this will be her year, and Rust and Bone's best shot at a Cannes prize. She's never been in competition in Cannes, yet she's won major awards at the Oscars, BAFTAs, and France's Cesar Awards. 
Other Possibilities: Nicole Kidman (The Paperboy), Emmanuelle Riva (Amour), Margarethe Tiesel (Paradise Love)

Screenplay - Moonrise Kingdom
Certainly the prediction I feel least solid about. This seems like the type of film that will get passed over everywhere else, but would jump at the chance to throw a prize for writing Anderson's way. 

Cannes '12 Review(s): "Cosmopolis" and "Mud"

 Cosmopolis dir. David Cronenberg [Competition]
A strong match of director and material, David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis, an adaptation of Don Delilo's novel, is an odd, icy film that remains compelling despite some intentionally brittle performances. Set over the course of a single day, we follows Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), a 28 year old executive who wants to travel across town to get a haircut. For various reasons, the trip is delayed, and over the course of the day, Packer's life undergoes enormous personal and financial changes.

From the outset, Cosmopolis seems to be split in two. One half, the atmosphere, is quietly compelling, drawing you in even as the other half, the performances, seem designed to keep us at bay. The dialogue feels rigid, and the performers generally go along with the withdrawn oddity of the general tone. Trapped mostly in Packer's luxurious limousine, this is a surprisingly quiet film, one that mimics the protagonist's state of mind. Packer is part of the 1%, a man so dedicated to empty pleasure and wealth, that he pays almost no attention when he sees riots going on just outside of his car. The same is true of those who visit him, whether it's friend with benefits/art collector Didi (Juliette Binoche), or financial philosopher Vija (Samantha Morton). It's starts off oddly distancing, yet as it progresses, Cosmopolis' tone comes to the foreground, and the performances, appropriately, warm up. The non-1% characters, played by Mathieu Amalric and Paul Giamatti liven the film up considerably, knocking both Eric and the audience out of the stifling stillness of the limo. 

Pattinson, known mostly for the Twilight films, finally has his moment to prove himself, and he acquits himself adequately. At times he seems too hindered by the tone at the start, yet he really does improve as the character gets drawn out of his catatonic state. The show, however, belongs to Giamatti, who delivers a lived-in performance as a man filled with bitterness and philosophical resentment. Just as the movie starts to flag, Giamatti comes in and helps drive Cosmopolis through to its finish. Bolstered by Howard Shore's subtly mixed-in electronic score, there remains a quiet, pulsating energy throughout, although I suspect many will be left completely turned off by the chilliness of the entire enterprise. For those with whom the film actually connects, however, there exists a very good, perhaps not quite great deconstruction of the financial elite, as only David Cronenberg could present it.

Grade: B/B+

Mud dir. Jeff Nichols [Competition]
Thought it feels decidedly broader and more commercial than the incredible Take Shelter (2011), Jeff Nichols' Mud is a touching and effective coming-of-age story that should open the talented director up to a wider art house (and possible mainstream) audience. Set in Mississippi, two young friends, Ellis (Tye Sheridan of The Tree of Life) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), discover a fugitive named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) living in their favorite secret hangout. 

The hangout in question is a small boat that has, somehow, wound up lodged in a tree, and the image brings to mind the whimsy of films like Tim Burton's Big Fish, as well as classic stories like "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." This is a film predominantly focused on one boy's experiences with love and betrayal, and all of the right ingredients are there on paper. What Mud is lacking, however, is a sense of surprise. Nichols feels comfortable with the material, but it doesn't feel like he's really pushing himself. It's good to know he can write this sort of indie crowd pleaser, but also disappointing in terms of how unremarkable (and occasionally repetitive) the plotting is. At 130 minutes, the film certainly isn't dull, but there are times when the nature of the story keeps it from being as taut or compelling as it could be. Then there's the climax, which, though handled well on its own, starts a little too abruptly, and borders on deus ex machina. 

That doesn't mean that there isn't a lot to like about Mud, because there really is. From the opening shots, including some lovely overhead shots of the Mississippi River, the nostalgic (but never sappy) tone comes through beautifully, thanks to Adam Stone's richly textured cinematography and David Wingo's lush, ambient score. The performances also help drive the story. McConaughey turns in his best performance in quite some time, devoid of his usual acting tics. He brings the sort of charming (but not smug) quality to Mud that makes you understand why people would be drawn to him, even if he might have ulterior motives. Reese Witherspoon is solid as well in a small role as the love interest Mud is hoping to reconnect with. Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson deliver strong turns as Ellis' parents, even though some of their material is among the weakest (one big fight scene turns uncomfortably on the nose). 

The standout, however, is young Mr. Sheridan, who really carries the film with his presence. He's an inherently watchable, likable screen presence, and Nichols extracts a performance from him that doesn't feel overly mannered or coached. When he finally gets his big moment, an outburst at Mud, he brings it home, cementing himself as a powerhouse. He captures Ellis' journey through romantic and idealistic disappointment with such naturalism, that I think it must be one of the best child performances to grace the screen in some time. For all its imperfections that keep it from greatness, Sheridan is excellent and, above all else, the best reason to stick through Mud all the way through its predictable, yet still touching finale.

Grade: B

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Cannes '12 Review(s): "The Paperboy," "The Angel's Share," and "Post Tenebras Lux"

The Paperboy dir. Lee Daniels [Competition]
I remain convinced that The Paperboy isn't a good movie, but that doesn't mean that you should avoid it. Quite the contrary. It should be near the top of your list of films to see this year, because I can guarantee that it will give you plenty to talk about. Honestly, bad movies sometimes seem less bad if they are at least interesting.

Adapted from Pete Dexter's novel of the same name, The Paperboy tells the story of Jack James (Zac Efron), a small-town paperboy in Florida who helps his journalist brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey) and parter Yardley (David Oyelowo) investigate whether a local man (John Cusack) was wrongfully imprisoned. In the process, Jack also starts to fall for Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), a woman with a thing for convicts who is engaged to the incarcerated, despite having never met him in person. What follows is a mystery drama that alternates between being dull and being wildly entertaining in an exceedingly trashy, campy fashion. At one point Charlotte bitches out some local beach dwellers for the right to urinate on Jack's jellyfish sting and then yells, "If anyone's gonna piss on him, it's gonna be me!" If that's not entertainment, I don't know what is. Unfortunately, not enough of the movie is of the trash/camp variety. Mostly it's a series of dull scenes that somehow feel only remotely attached to the plot. The characters interact, yet the plot seems to progress entirely outside of the movie. 

Thankfully, some of the scenes are entertaining enough to make up for it, and the performances are all engaging. Kidman and Cusack are standouts, the former creating a sexbomb with a vulnerable side, the latter exuding surprising amounts of menace that make you doubt whether he should be allowed back into society, even if he's innocent. Efron is probably the weak link, though it really just comes down to one scene near the end. You have to admire the cast for keeping it together through Daniels' pulpy treatment of the source material. That had to be a challenge.

Grade: C-

The Angel's Share dir. Ken Loach [Competition]
An amiable comedy that isn't much of a comedy, Ken Loach's return to Cannes (his 11th time) is the sort of pleasant diversion that you can take or leave. It's certainly not must-see viewing, but there are worse things you could see. Compared to some of the films in competition, however, it comes off as hopelessly lightweight, despite skimming the surface of its protagonist's emotional turmoil.

Set primarily in Glasgow, Share centers on a group of young men and women doing community service. The group begins to bond with their supervisor, and one day he takes them to a whisky tasting. It's there that they discover that Robbie (Paul Brannigan) has a good nose for different types of whisky. Simultaneously, they devise a plan to steal an incredibly rare cask of the liquor to sell to a high end connoisseur. 

Nothing about the plot is remotely surprising, and the same goes for the character arcs. Loach, known for bracing social dramas, is taking it somewhat easy here, though one wishes he and screenwriter Paul Laverty had put a little more effort into building up the stakes and the humor. Performances are solid all around, with Brannigan making an appealing anchor for the story, but like the movie, there's no standouts. If anything, the film has too much in the way of serious elements, while simultaneously being devoid of strong comedic material. So by the time it rolls around to the conclusion, you know where it's going, and there's nothing to surprise you. It's not quite lazy, but rather a little too unambitious for its own good.

Grade: C

Post Tenebras Lux dir. Carlos Reygadas [Competition]
An excruciatingly dull piece of "art," Lux is a vague, distant attempt at...well, it's an attempt at something. Yet nothing, save for the image of a glowing red devil creeping through a house, clicks or comes together for an interminable two hours, resulting in a film that's both bad and boring. It doesn't get much worse.

After a protracted opening of a little girl running around some farmland yelling at the cows ("Vacas!...Vacas!...Vac-" SHUT UP), we're introduced to a family in Mexico. That's all I'll say because, despite an odd venture to a sex sauna, I find it tiresome to write much more. Critics can trash talk The Paperboy all they want, but nothing approaches the awfulness of this pretentious piece of drivel. Reygadas has some ideas in mind, yet the approach and nature of the narrative lacks any spark. It's that rare disaster that's mystifyingly un-engaging right from its opening scene. Avoid at all costs.

Grade: D

Cannes '12 Review: "Holy Motors" [Competition]

I'd wager that it's rare that we can use the phrase "like nothing you've ever seen before" and genuinely mean it. Film, in particular, is a medium that constantly references and recreates elements of the past, and I'm not just talking about Hollywood remakes of foreign films. Yet after seeing Holy Motors, the first film from director Leos Carax (The Lovers on the Bridge) in over 10 years, I was floored. There are certainly more narratively abstract films out there, but as far as content goes, you really haven't seen anything like this before. Whether you find it maddening, brilliant, or maddeningly brilliant, it at least deserves that one distinction.

Opening with an odd prologue in which Carax appears as himself (more on this later), the film then follows Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant), a wealthy businessman, as his driver (Edith Scob) shuttles him around Paris for various appointments in a white limo. Yet from the first 'appointment,' it becomes clear that there will be nothing ordinary about Oscar's day. First he dresses himself as an old lady and begs for change on a bridge. Then he goes to a motion capture facility where he winds up having sex (...sort of) with a woman, their CGI avatars mimicking their movements. And that's just the beginning. I could spoil the entire thing, actually, and yet I still think most would be unprepared for the actual experience of the whole thing. That's what makes it so maddening/brilliant. 

The episodes range from grotesque, to bizarre, to oddly joyous (a stunning number that begins with a lone accordion), and though some are better than others, I found myself enthralled by the whole thing. Just when I finally thought Carax had finished the craziness, he pulled out not one, but two out-of-left-field moments that left me shaking my head in disbelief. I don't have answers for what all of it means (hell, some of it is likely meaningless), but I can hazard a general aim at the film's central idea. Carax is trying to tackle the nature of performance. In the prologue, Carax caresses the walls of his hotel room, only to have a key protrude from his finger. He opens a door in the wall, and emerges in a movie theater, where an audience sits in silence (bored? enraptured?). The framing device seems to set up a deconstruction of what we think we know about film. Or maybe the audience is us, waiting to see Holy Motors, unprepared to witness what the man hiding in the balcony has in store for us. A blackly comedic little joke, yet one that wouldn't surprise me.

The challenges to ideas about performance are somewhat clearer, as evidenced by Oscar's myriad personas. At one point a mysterious man, played by Michel Piccoli, asks Oscar about his career. Oscar's response suggests that he feels like he is always being watched, as though his entire life has become a Truman Show-esque spectacle that someone, somewhere is always watching, hence his need to be so many people nonstop. This is further emphasized by the small vanity mirror in Oscar's limo, where we repeatedly see him transform himself. 

And as the man undergoing these transformations, Lavant, a longtime Carax collaborator, is magnificent in the role. Each persona feels distinct, whether it's the sullen father, the creepy sewer-dwelling monster, or the assassin who must kill himself (not suicide...literally another him). It's a sign of a truly talented actor that Lavant can be so many people (technically extensions of one) without rendering any of them as caricatures. Even in the least fleshed out persons, there is a gritty, lived-in presence that seems to radiate from him. Other performances are solid, though generally unremarkable. Eva Mendes is really just there to be eye candy, while the likes of Piccoli and Scob don't have enough to do to make a strong impression, though that's not to the film's detriment. 

The supporting MVP is, of all people, Australian pop star Kylie Minogue, who appears as another traveler in a white limousine. The performance, bolstered by a short song written for the film, is affecting in its vulnerability and tenderness. There are hints that she, too, inhabits many (or at least multiple) personas, though unlike Oscar, she is unable to cope. The film follows a man who is completely dedicated and unwavering when it comes to his 'appointments,' but Carax also shows us the danger of such constant performance. It's a weirdly touching moment in a film that is otherwise built to awe you with its strangeness. Said strangeness continues after the Minogue episode - the final scene is as 'what the hell?' as they come - yet the film achieves some deeper sense of resonance, as much as it is to process. Not for everyone, yet still a must see, if only because of what it has to offer on the natures of film and performance in the new millennium. 

Grade: A-

Friday, May 25, 2012

Cannes '12 Review: "Killing Them Softly" [Competition]

Killing Them Softly, the next film from Andrew Dominik (2007's masterful The Assassination of Jesse James...) may lack the poetic beauty of its director's previous film, but that doesn't stop it from being a rollicking good film in its own right. An adaptation of the novel "Cogan's Trade" by George Higgins (the film initially shared the same title), Dominik's film may not be a subtle piece like his last film, yet what emerges is undoubtedly the work of a compelling filmmaker. Though perhaps just shy of the greatness required to, say, win the Palme D'Or, Killing Them Softly boasts strong performances and excellent technical aspects that make it one of the stand outs of the festival, as well as the year (the Weinstein Company will release it theatrically in the fall).

Moving the story to New Orleans, Dominik's film first introduces us to a couple of low-level thugs (Scoot McNairy and Animal Kingdom's Ben Mendelsohn) who rob a card game held by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). As it turns out, Markie once robbed his own card game, and then admitted it (albeit late enough so no one got too upset). Still, if he were to pull the same stunt again, things wouldn't go over so well. So when McNairy and Mendelsohn's thugs go in to rob the game, naturally, things start going south for poor Markie. Enter Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), backed up by Johnny Cash's "The Man Comes Around" to spectacularly satiric effect. Hired by the unseen upper echelon mob members, it's Cogan's job to sort things out, and punish those who deserve punishment. In hindsight, the plot isn't anything special on paper. That's where the execution comes into play.

Set against the false hope(s) of the 2008 presidential election, Killing Them Softly is one cynical bastard of a film, and it's all the more enjoyable because of this. Dominik never attempts the subtle route in his message - that America is a business - yet the film doesn't feel weakened because of this (though I'm sure many will disagree). Filled with technical flourishes (lateral camera moves, tracking shots, depth of field manipulation, etc...), Dominik takes an ugly looking world of decay and grime and turns it into something oddly beautiful. Sometimes it becomes too much, such as a scene where the camera tries to evoke the feeling of Mendelsohn's high-as-a-kite character, but ultimately his stylized tendencies are a resounding success. The tracking shots in particular pay off nicely, building a nice sense of momentum and tension. Watching the camera follow McNairy and Mendelsohn into the critical heist is made more cinematic and suspenseful by virtue of the unbroken shot(s) following them towards their target. Another crucial moment, a mob hit, comes stunningly to life thanks to the use of gorgeously gritty slow motion. 

The performances aren't half bad either, by which I mean there's some damn good acting in the film, even if some is a little one note. Pitt, who shows up surprisingly late in the game, starts off merely decently, but evolves into one hell of a presence. His Cogan is a man who does his job well, but takes no relish in it, preferring to kill his targets "softly," (take them out from a distance) so there's no room for emotion to get in the way. It's not on the same level as Pitt's collaboration with Dominik in Jesse James, which saw the actor reach new heights of dark magnetism, but the film does show the two to be a strong actor-director match. It's somewhere between the richness of their previous collaboration and one of Pitt's better "star" turns, like last year's Moneyball, a mix of persona and actual character detailing that is never truly remarkable yet impressive nonetheless. 

The supporting players are dynamite as well. James Gandolfini is truly remarkable as a major hitman Cogan calls in, only to discover that he's past his prime and wasting his life on hookers and booze. Though the interactions between the two go on just a hair too long, there's no denying that Gandolfini owns the scenes, creating a cynically tragic figure, a man left wallowing in decline in a position of greed and violence. McNairy and Mendelsohn are also quite fun to watch as the idiot thugs who try and get away with the heist that sets everything off. Richard Jenkins, in the most normal role of the bunch, remains compelling in his interactions with Cogan as the mob's coordinator. 

Yet despite its upfront nature, Killing Them Softly has a little more on its mind, and I suspect this is where it will prove divisive. Dominik is clearly trying to say something about a part of America left behind before the promises of the 2008 election, as well as how America is becoming more and more of a business. While I wouldn't question the opinions of those who found Dominik's approach to be too much, I have to concede that I enjoyed the hell out it. It's not subtle, nor does it pretend to be. It's in your face, and extremely satisfying because of it, culminating a pitch-perfect bit of black comedy that is also Pitt's best scene. Technically stunning, well acted, and packing a (completely in-your-face) message, Killing Them Softly may lack the poetry of Dominik's last film, but that doesn't stop it from being a damn good one. 

Grade: B+/A-

Cannes '12 Review: "Amour" [Competition]

As meticulously controlled as any film he has ever made, Michael Haneke’s Amour introduces an element of heart that has never been so prominent in any of the austere Austrian’s work. A director known for films that deal with dark and unpleasant facets of humanity, Haneke has turned his keen eye on something new with his examination of old age and death. In doing so, he has crafted an emotionally wrenching, deeply human film that never feels exploitative. Instead, it is honest, unflinching, devastating, and an immensely deserving candidate for this year’s Palme D’Or.

Opening with a brief look at the end of the story, Haneke then takes us back to the beginning. In a long shot looking out from a stage into an audience, a couple (who we don’t see distinctly until the next shot) of music professors watch a performance. We next see the pair – Georges (Jean Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) – returning home, where they discover that someone may have tried to break into their apartment. This is but our introduction to the long-married couple. Where things start moving is the following afternoon, when, over a meal, Anne has a small stroke.

And it’s this small incident, rendered with beautiful simplicity and respect by Haneke, that sets off Anne’s general decline in health. From there Haneke merely observes said decline. Yet the director’s typically cold tone manages to find painfully heartfelt emotion in the performances, which are the true core of the film. As Georges, Trintignant brings the toughened quality of someone who believes he always knows what’s best for his wife, and feels offended when people question his judgment. Among his questioners is his daughter Eva (the wonderful Isabelle Huppert), who appears only a few times, caring yet too caught up in her own life to be there full time.

This leaves the film down to Georges and Anne, and both performers deliver top tier work. Riva in particular deserves credit for never letting her character’s decline in health become a performance gimmick. This isn’t a case of a character’s disability hindering the performance. Because we get to see Anne before her health severely declines, we have a sense of the woman we’re watching fade away. She and Trintignant play off of each other with the natural chemistry one would expect of a couple who have been married for decades. Isabelle Huppert’s contributions are welcome as well. The actress previously turned in a stunning performance in Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2002), and this second collaboration shows them two be a strong match, even though she’s nowhere near the lead this time around.

Outside of the performances, Amour remains a richly realized, elegant film. Haneke could have used certain elements – the need, at one stage, for Georges to change Anne’s diaper – for cheap exploitation, with gross-out moments to drive home the degrading nature of Anne’s position. He doesn’t. A nurse establishes the diaper, and in one brief scene George helps Anne pull up her pants after using the toilet, but Haneke refrains from showing us anything. The emotions running through Amour’s veins are painful enough, and as such Haneke keeps the treatment of the subject matter restrained. In previous films, Haneke’s cool control of the frame has often been utilized to provide unexpected jolts for the audience (a certain scene in Cache comes to mind). Here, he still gives us a jolt, but adds to his arsenal the ability to pull out painfully moving moments without shamelessly tugging on heartstrings. One that stands out involves Georges watching Anne playing the piano, only for the film to reveal that he’s merely listening to a recording while looking at the instrument, remembering his wife as she was before her stroke. The scene is simple in execution, and stands as a testament to Haneke’s powers as a writer and director when it comes to such difficult subject matter.

Some may find the film to be dull or bland, but even among those who haven’t experienced what the film presents, I suspect there will be many who somehow connect to the material. This is the sort of film that you won’t want to rush to see again, if only because its piercing honesty is so powerful on the first go-round. Amour is both Haneke doing what he does best, and Haneke branching off and doing something new. It is a quietly devastating film, filled with restrained, exemplary filmmaking, one that tackles a part of life that is too often ignored on the big screen. And even though its subject matter keeps it from being traditionally enjoyable, it does provide its own pleasure. That pleasure comes from watching a master director tackle a difficult topic with such elegance and restraint, while still injecting an appropriate sense of heart into it all.  Will I rush to see Amour again upon its American release (which will likely be late 2012 or early 2013)? No. What I’ll do is remember what a powerful experience it was to behold. That will be enough to sustain me until I can finally set eyes on it again.

Grade: A/A-

Cannes '12 Review: "Beasts of the Southern Wild" [Un Certain Regard]

I've heard many refer to Benh Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild as the film that "isn't in competition for the Palme D'Or, but really should be." Consider me among the unconvinced. Despite its intriguing premise and a few standout technical aspects, this Sundance hit (which  one major critic referred to as the best film to play at Sundance in over  a decade) suffers from clumsy symbolism, a repetitive first act, and performances that are either off-base or simply so thin that they are in danger of evaporating. 

Set in the fictional Bath Tub, a region of the Louisiana swamplands, Zeitlin's film centers on the relationship between five year old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) and her father Wink (Dwight Henry). One day Wink falls ill, for reasons not entirely clear, and Hushpuppy must set out to set things right. But before the story proper can really settle in, Zeitlin seems intent on keeping us in an unbroken loop of scenes. There's a look a the poverty, the people, and then BAM! the score (which is, to be fair, phenomenal) swells and we get voice over from Hushpuppy telling us how the people in the Bath Tub always pull together in hard times. It's actually great in a celebration scene involving chaotic fireworks, but other times it feels like Zeitlin is trying too hard to create his environment. The production design is already astounding, and not just for its low budget, yet the writer/director insists on hammering the conditions of the characters home over and over again.

And even when things do kick into gear, Beasts fails to ever gain any sense of narrative momentum, even as it introduces a group of fearsome creatures who awaken after being unfrozen in the South Pole (wow...subtle...). The world the story takes place in (the future? a slightly modified version of the present?) is strongly realized, yet it feels like little comes of it, even with the stakes involved. Weaker still are the performances. Henry brings a volatile, tough-as-nails energy to Wink, and he certainly gets your attention. The character, perhaps more due to the writing, goes through jarring outbursts of anger and violence don't feel entirely earned. I have no problem with Wink as a father who so insistent of teaching his child to survive that he treats her too harshly, but the way Zeitlin and Henry bring it life on screen is distracting. Yet at the very least, Henry feels like he's giving an actual performance. Wallis, on the other hand, comes off like any other small child going through the motions and doing what she's told. Yes, it might sound "real," but that doesn't mean it sounds convincing. Only in one key scene does she actually feel like she's performing and emoting, rather than simply reading lines because someone told her to.

Worse is the way the plot tries to bring in parallels to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which muddles the focus. Yet nothing disappoints more than Zeitlin's handling of the titular  beasts, whose symbolism does become apparent, only to make you question to point of them. The scope of Zeitlin's vision has to be admired, but not his execution. The character arcs feel week despite the potential, and the attempts at some sort of deep southern magical realism never click. An admirable attempt, but ultimately a misfire that deserves little attention. Except for the score, that is. That deserves a standing ovation.

Grade: C/C-

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Cannes '12 Review: "The We and the I" [Un Certain Regard]

Though it spends 95% of its 90 minute duration on a single New York City bus, Michel Gondry's ensemble drama about troubled teenagers in transit rarely feels repetitive. Using mostly non-actors, the director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless mind is in a vastly different world than in his previous films, yet his skill at crafting honest character-driven drama remains intact, even if the result will likely go down as a minor work. 

Opening at the end of the last day of school, the film's set-up is a straightforward as they come: a large group of students ride the bus home, with their various personal issues surfacing over the course of the long journey. It's not much to go off of, yet Gondry and his co-writers wring remarkably authentic drama out of the cast of teenagers. Some fare better than others at acting (a few feel stiff or too mannered), but the overall effect is painfully honest and poignant. Sometimes Gondry lets the exchanges sink into tedium and repetition, but the performances are so lively and the conflicts so authentic that it rarely becomes an issue. The point may be simplistic (herd mentality crushes individuality), but the incidents used in the film and in its flashbacks are so vivid and feel so accurate that it's hard to deny their importance. Yet even though the 90 minutes are engaging, there are a few spots that feel redundant, and even Gondry's playful direction can't do anything about it. The conclusion is lovely, yet some of the journey feels a little too banal to keep the film from being more than a uniquely designed after-school special about teen dynamics.

Grade: B-

Cannes '12 Review: "Reality" [Competition]

Satirizing the cultural effects of reality TV isn't exactly new at this point, but that doesn't mean it's impossible to say something fresh about obsessions with shows like Jersey Shore or, as in Matteo Garrone's Reality, Big Brother. Sadly, the Italian director, who was last at Cannes with the acclaimed crime drama Gomorrah, has a bit of a misfire on his hands with his attempt at the subject matter. Despite some nice performances and a handful of good scenes, Reality is ultimately a bit of a dull, empty slog to sit through.

Opening with a shot of a baroque carriage driving down a city street (I won't call it Felliniesque, since everyone's done that already), Garrone gets off to a decent start with a lavish wedding where we're introduced to Luciano (Aniello Arena) a Neopolitan fishing merchant. Performing in drag, he has an encounter with local celebrity Enzo (Raffaele Ferrante), who earned his 15 minutes on Italy's Big Brother. Pushed by his family to try out for the show, Luciano soon becomes a little too involved in the process, becoming paranoid that the show's producers are watching his every move to determine whether or not he'll go on the show. 

Yet even though the wedding is enjoyable, and the reveal that most of the family members live in the same cramped, crumbling apartment complex work very well, the film quickly declines. At just under two hours, Garrone fails to really focus the narrative, which leaves Luciano's escalating paranoia poorly served by the plot. By the time it reaches its conclusion, which isn't nearly as meaningful as it ought to be, you merely want to get the hell out of the theater. Not helping matters is the fact that the supporting cast, consisting mostly of Luciano's aunts and cousins, are all broad, indistinct stereotypes.

Contrast this with Aniello, who does a strong job of conveying Luciano's mental transformation, and you start to realize  what a missed opportunity Reality really is. Like 2010's Biutiful, Reality has a strong performance at its core, yet one has to endure the sluggish movie around it in order to experience said performance. And like Inarritu's film, Garrone's work isn't really worth slogging through, as good as Aniello is. Alternating between too-soft satire and straight up drama, it winds up being unsuccessful at both. Aniello is strong, as is the slightly sentimental score by Alexandre Desplat, but the movie around them is so thoroughly blah that they can't elevate Garrone's film, let alone make it worth checking out.

Grade: C-

Monday, May 21, 2012

Cannes '12 Review: "Rust and Bone" [Competition]

As bracing, unromantic, and muscular as its male lead, Jacques Audiard's Rust and Bone, the follow up to his excellent mob drama/thriller A Prophet (2009), is a solid, well-acted film, one that impresses even as it fails to live up to its predecessor. Though it's doubtful it will make quite the international splash that Prophet did a few years ago, Audiard's drama should perform well, and could even land the director a second nomination for Foreign Language Film, despite the handful of flaws that keep it from true greatness. 

Based on a series of short stories (that are actually set in the United States), Rust chronicles the relationship between Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts, a break out from the Belgian drama Bullhead), a poor club bouncer, and Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), a whale trainer at water park in southern France. After a brief meet up at a club (Ali takes Stephanie home after she's injured in a fight), the pair are reunited after Stephanie has an accident at work that leaves her without both of her legs. From there, the two form a bond that helps Stephanie put her life back together.

Yet as much potential as there is for cliche in the set ups, Audiard and co-writer Thomas Bidegain present the cycle of physical and emotional recovery in such a stark manner that there's little room for the narrative to fall into maudlin histrionics. In this regard, the film mimics the attitude of Ali, a man who is certainly capable of love, but rarely good at expressing it. Whether with his five year old son or with Stephanie, Ali rarely lets his guard down, offering comfort in the smallest amount possible. This has something of a ripple effect across the film and its performances. Schoenaerts and Cotillard deliver strong turns, though it may take audiences a while to connect with them, seeing as much of the emotion is contained to body language and glances. 

Ultimately, it's not a bad thing at all, and allows the performances room to breathe and grow in your head once the credits start rolling. And for those afraid that the film will be too contained for its own good, don't worry. Both leads have moments to let their emotions explode onto the screen, and there's a not a false note to be found in any of it. Cotillard has the right mix of beauty and steely determination for Stephanie, making up for some of the vagueness of the character. Always a watchable screen presence, here she really gets to inject something more than star quality in the role, subtle and flash-free though it may be. Schoenaerts is equally impressive, and where Cotillard communicates beautifully with her eyes, he does so with his hulking body.

Where the tone and execution are less successful are in the overall plot. Though the structure is admirable for trying to make the arcs feel less conventional, at times the different threads feel too fractured. Ali's side job as a street boxer never quite materializes into anything profoundly emotional, despite the immense physicality involved, and at times you wish that Audiard would string more than two scenes in a subplot together to build on the emotion (it's contained enough as it is, why limit its potential further?). But while Ali's fighting and Stephanie's recovery (as well as their gradual relationship) all work despite the bumps in the road, a key story involving Ali and some shady dealings isn't emphasized enough. It appears vaguely two or three times, and then only returns for the sake of dramatic convenience. So even though it matters a great deal to a key supporting character, it's a moment where the film's lack of overt sentiment truly leaves the audience at arm's length, and not in a good way. What really makes this a shame is that it's this incident that sends the film to its conclusion, and the result is that one key scene near the end, while heart-stopping, also feels a tad contrived because of the fragmented narrative that preceded it. 

Even so, said ending is effective on its own terms in how it relates to the tone and themes present. On the technical side, the narrative is carried by sun-blasted, stark images, a limited color palette, and frill-free, hard edits. Audiard also makes smart use of slow motion to highlight the importance of whale training and street fighting to Stephanie and Ali, respectively. Alexandre Desplat (who scored three of the competition films) contributes a low-key, appropriate score, although it's ultimately unmemorable. 

It's worth noting that at the 2009 Cannes Festival, Audiard's A Prophet came in second place, losing the Palme D'Or to Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon. The decision that year must have been tough, as both films, though quite different, stand at roughly the same level. Barring a surprise, however, Audiard is a little further behind Haneke this go-round, which I'll get into further when I finish my Amour review.

Grade: B/B-

Cannes '12 Review: "Chrysalis (AKA: From Your Window to Mine)" [Market]

Having already opened in its native Spain, Paula Ortiz's feature debut, a story about three women in different time periods in Spain enduring various forms of physical or emotional transition, is now looking for future distribution. But despite some nice performances and solid production values, it's difficult to see this one branching out too far across the continent, and an American release looks borderline impossible. It's evident that Ortiz is aiming for a rich, epic tapestry of emotional struggle across time, yet what emerges often feels half-baked, more noble failure than outright success. This isn't a case of a film being bad, but rather of a film being not good enough in comparison to similar work to merit any attention. Much of it is very pretty, but Ortiz's attempts at Malick-esque uses of landscapes fail to accomplish much outside of the scenes involving Maribel Verdu (Pan's Labyrinth, Y Tu Mama Tambien) struggling in the desert. Verdu and the cast are are always watchable, and in little moments even remarkable, but Ortiz's attempts to convey emotional turmoil often feel banal, sincere as they may be. A decent piece of work, it fails to linger in the memory in basically every department.

Grade: C

Cannes '12 Review: "Moonrise Kingdom" [Competition]

If you gave up on trying to like Wes Anderson a long time ago, his latest, the Cannes opener Moonrise Kingdom, will do nothing to change your opinion. If you're a fan or somewhat indifferent, however, the New England-set coming of age comedy will likely prove to be, at the very least, a charming outing, whether or not it sticks with you long after the credits roll. Set in New Penzance Island at the end of summer, Kingdom follows two children - Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward) - who decide to run away together. This, of course, doesn't go unnoticed, and soon the island's quirky residents, old and young, are off to find the duo. 

As is common in Anderson's films, the images are calm, steady, bright, and colorful, and the characters all seem to be various incarnations of their upfront and deadpan writer/creator. This upfront attitude carries through the entire narrative, as Sam and Suzy decide to leave together without a moment's hesitation, their faces stoic and determined. As is common with comedies like this, the children are acting like spontaneous adults, while the adults are often stuck acting like big cartoonish children.

 Under Anderson's guidance, the film's pleasures come more from the scenes with the younger actors - Gilman and Hayward have natural introvert oddball presences - and their adventures. In addition to Sam and Suzy's pre-teen romance, the story also follows a group of young boys (Sam's former camp-mates) who go off to find the duo claiming that they don't intend on embarking on the search unarmed (cue the one laugh-out-loud moment: the group of boys marching into the woods with ludicrous makeshift weapons). Leave these adventures mostly on their own, and you have the potential for a bizarre and oddly winning story of childhood romance and adventure. Distinct as Anderson's voice may be, enough of the material resonates enough to ensure either laughs or general amusement. And, by downplaying the nature of Sam and Suzy's statuses as outsiders, certain moments that are strikingly adult come as genuine, well-earned surprises that further enforce the children-as-adults dynamic.

Less satisfying are the adults, who, despite being given equally vague characters, somehow feel weirdly distanced from the movie. A subplot involving Suzy's mother (Frances McDormand) and her affair with a nerdy cop (Bruce Willis), feels too minor, even as they play into the film's themes of growing up. The story ultimately belongs to the kids, so as fun as it is to see McDormand, Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, and Tilda Swinton (only referred to as Social Services and nothing more) on screen together, not much comes of it, even at the literally stormy climax. 

But if the adult-starring scenes are the weakest, the film does build to a strangely affecting climax. It's both eccentric and quietly touching, even as it also registers as completely superficial, which is both a good and bad thing. Even for those left unmoved, however, there are other things to enjoy, like the meticulous production design, warm summery visuals, a killer soundtrack, and Alexandre Desplat's rousing score. The constant pacing, efficient but never rushed, is also a plus, and helps the story maintain a nice momentum over its clean 90 minute duration. Few will be blown away by Moonrise Kingdom, save for the most diehard Anderson devotees, but there is more than enough here, both technically and emotionally, to ensure that many will at least have an enjoyable experience.

Grade: B/B+

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Review: "The Avengers"

You have to admire Marvel for their dedication. Over the past four years, they've poured a lot into building up the four distinct big players who make up The Avengers, as well as an array of smaller roles. So, with so many big characters set up, The Avengers faced the challenge of bringing a lot of larger than life personalities, the film needed someone at the reins who could effectively juggle all of the film's pieces. Enter Joss Whedon, beloved creator of TV shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly. What Whedon achieves, thankfully, is a lively balance of comic book fan service and capable cinematic vision, even if it lacks anything to make it more than a fun ride. 

And, despite a 140 runtime that could have given us a bloated mess a la Transformers 2, Whedon actually moves the pieces of the plot with enough verve to keep the film from falling into indulgence. Though the opening is easily the weakest part, it doesn't last long and is at least efficient in setting up a critical part of the story, Tom Hiddleston's returning villain, Loki, last seen in 2011's Thor. From there, things generally get better and better, and even when the film stalls, it's never for long enough to really make an impact. Whedon's script isn't as smart or witty as it thinks it is, but it does do a good job of playing the characters off of each other. Particularly well-utilized are Iron Man/Tony Stark's (Robert Downey Jr.) clashes with Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), two men who represent two very different manifestations of what America stands for. Less interesting is Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who fights with the above-mentioned characters along with Mark Ruffalo's Hulk. As these fights are kept purely physical, they do little to add to film's presentation of the Avengers as a bit of a rough-around-the-edges group. The two less flashy characters - Scarlett Johannson's Black Widow and Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye - are also less interesting in general, although at least Johannson has plenty to do, while Renner is sidelined for a great deal of the plot. More fun is Hiddleston as Loki, who actually brings a fun sense of menace to the role that seemed missing in Thor. His motivation is as standard as they come, but at least the actor gives the role some presence.

So even though it does a better job of handling its characters than the average summer spectacle, it still falls short in this department. Much is forgotten (though not forgiven), however, in the massive climactic battle, in which Manhattan is, as always, brought nearly to ruin. Though there are a few edits that puzzle, Whedon's staging of the sprawling battle covers all of the heroes so comfortably that the battle never grows tiresome. The stakes are never quite there - Whedon keeps things a little too safe - but at the very least it's always watchable, engaging, and throwing enough at you to hold your interest without becoming bombastic nonsense. What's really missing though, outside of one hilarious scene involving the Hulk, is anything memorable, either in the laughs or the drama. It's a fun ride, and certainly worth seeing on the big screen, but don't be surprised if you don't find much to talk or reminisce about a day later.

Grade: B-

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Cannes 2012: The Hit List

 Ever since I secured an internship at this year's Cannes Film Festival, I've been eagerly awaiting the selection and the screening schedule. Now, the former has been out for a few weeks now, but the actual schedule has only arrived as of this morning. Though I still don't know what days I'll be working/not working, here's a run down of the heavy-hitters I'll try to see from the competition, the Un Certain Regard, and everything else:

In Competition:
Moonrise Kingdom dir. Wes Anderson: Great cast, nice premise, and typical killer visuals/production values. I'm not always a fan of Anderson's work (I think I was the one person who didn't "get" Fantastic Mr. Fox), but he's always interesting at the very least.

Rust and Bone dir. Jacques Audiard: Though I'm still slightly iffy on the story (it seems to be more of a relationship drama/character piece, though), the idea of Marion Cotillard working with the director of the outstanding A Prophet (2009) has tremendous potential. Throw in Matthias Schoenaerts, who won raves for his work in Bullhead, and you have one of my most anticipated entries. 

Beyond the Hills dir. Cristian Mungiu: This one was on my radar since announcement, but it only shot up to my top priorities after I saw Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, which earned the director the Palme D'Or in 2007. Mungiu's latest once again centers to the relationship between two women, although this time the central conflict revolves around one woman's desire to leave Romania, while the other wishes to stay and work in a convent. On paper the story doesn't have the immediate drama of 4 Months, but I'm hopeful that Mungiu can work his magic once again.

Amour dir. Michael Haneke: Speaking returning Palme D'Or winners, Michael Haneke returns this year with his follow-up to The White Ribbon, which earned him the top prize in 2009. The story here is also simple - an elderly couple tries to cope when one of them suffers a heart attack - but the people involved are reasons to get excited. In front of the camera are the brilliant Isabelle Huppert and Jean-Louis Trintignant, along with Certified Copy's William Shimmell. 

Killing Them Softly dir. Andrew Dominik: Originally titled Cogan's Trade, Dominik's follow-up to 2007's masterful The Assassination of Jesse James once again finds Brad Pitt leading the way, albeit in a drastically different time period. The little snippets released on line make this look less lyrically beautiful than James, though that seems appropriate given the subject matter.  Boasting a stellar supporting cast (Ben Mendelsohn, Richard Jenkins, Garrett Dillahunt), Softly looks like a very different, yet very worthy follow-up to Dominik's last outing.

Cosmopolis dir. David Cronenberg: Many complained that last year's A Dangerous Method felt too safe and bland for a Cronenberg film, but those same voices likely won't say the same about the director's latest. Based on Don Delilo's novel about a young executive enduring a surreal journey across a chaotic Manhattan, this looks like an eerie, brutal return to form for Cronenberg. Though I wish Colin Farrell had stuck with the lead role, I won't completely disregard Robert Pattinson. There's still hope for him as an actor...not much, but some. Also, Juliette Binoche is in it, which is never a bad thing. Ever.

Mud dir. Jeff Nichols: Though not slated for a U.S. release until 2013, the chance to see Nichols' follow-up to Take Shelter (my favorite film of 2011) is extremely tantalizing, in part because I was under the impression that the film hadn't even been shot until it was announced as part of the line up. While the presence of Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon makes me leery, Mud does reunite Nichols with Michael Shannon, and the story holds a lot of promise.

The Paperboy dir. Lee Daniels: This is easily the competition film that I'm most nervous about. Daniels' last film may have been Precious, but the man has directed straight up trash before. The subject matter is interesting, but this feels like a potentially messy, over the top mystery thriller that only seems worth seeing for Nicole Kidman's reportedly strong performance. If only the actress was attending the festival for Park Chan-wook's Stoker instead...

Like Somone In Love dir. Abbass Kiarostami: Just two years ago, Kiarostami's Certified Copy lit up Cannes, and now the ecletic director is back, jumping from Italy to Japan. Details on the story aren't clear, so my anticipation for this one is based strictly on my admiration for the director, who will hopefully provide something as lovely and mysterious as his previous film.

Un Certain Regard:
Laurence Anyways dir. Xavier Dolan: Though I've never seen any of directing wunderkind Xavier Dolan's, I'm still intrigued by his next film. The young director is known for having a strong grasp on tone and style, which is always exciting in someone so young.

Out of Competition:
Hemingway and Gellhorn dir. Philip Kaufman: Technically an HBO movie, Kaufman's look at the relationship between Ernest Hemingway (Clive Owen) and Martha Gellhorn (Nicole Kidman) looks like the sort of epic, intelligent romance that no one really tries to make anymore. The film also has an amazing supporting cast in addition to the two striking leads, and Kaufman has done excellent work over the years (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Quills).

Once Upon a Time In America dir. Sergio Leone: Though I've seen this Leone classic several times, the chance to revisit it on the big screen seems like too good of an opportunity to pass up. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Gosling + Stone Round 2: "The Gangster Squad" trailer

For a few weeks about a year ago, set photos of The Gangster Squad, Ruben Fleischer's follow-up to Zombieland (yay!) and 30 Minutes or Less ( lit up the Internet with glimpses of cast members Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, and Josh Brolin in costume. Yet nothing about those initial pictures indicated anything close to the look that the finished product appears to have, which certainly adds an element of surprise to Fleischer's next project. Based on Paul Lieberman's novel, the film chronicles the LAPD's fight to keep east coast mob members from claiming territory on the west coast. Incredibly stylized, Squad at least has a capable (if not terribly proven) director who has proven he can deeply immerse himself in a genre, and a really strong cast. All the same, there's a certain spark missing that would otherwise make this look like a must see, in spite of those involved. With John Hillcoat's Lawless already set to hit in August, Squad could come off as redundant. At the very least, Gosling's presence is a plus, not only because of his talent, but also because he has an eye for good projects, which many actors near or at his level lack, leading to less consistent filmographies. Hopefully he's right on the money here, and this isn't a rare misstep for him (and everyone else). And let's hope the marketing team re-cuts this trailer with a better choice of background music. It's a movie with machine guns, you don't need modern music to somehow 'connect with' modern audiences.

Trailer Grade: B- 

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Netflix Files: April 30 - May 6

Midnight Cowboy (1969) dir. John Schlesinger
Despite all of the controversy surrounding this X-rated Best Picture winner upon its release, nowadays it's the sort of "classic" film that people just don't seem to talk about that much. After finally seeing it, it's somewhat understandable. Jon Voight and especially Dustin Hoffman are outstanding, and the two play off of each other's extreme differences quite well. Yet even though there's plenty to admire, Schlesinger's direction sometimes feels too chaotic for the story's own good. 

Grade: B

Lolita (1962) dir. Stanley Kubrick
Lolita may not be up there with Kubrick's most memorable films, but it does still feature the director's ability at exercising complete control over a film's imagery and themes. At two and a half hours, the film does drag in spots, but the black humor and excellent performances often make up for it. James Mason and Sue Lyon have just the right chemistry as Humbert and Lolita, never letting us in too deeply into the relationship between step-daughter and step-father. The real highlights, however, are Shelley Winters as Lolita's volatile mother and Peter Sellers as the eerie Clare Quilty. The film's marketing back in 1962 teased audiences with the question, "How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?" The answer is with snark, subtlety, and black-as-night humor.

Grade: B+

4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (2007) dir. Cristian Mungiu
I've been meaning to catch this 2007 Cannes champion for a while, but haven't had the chance until now. Having finally seen it, I can only say that I'm glad I waited as long as I did; the 'me' of 2007 probably wouldn't have appreciated Mungiu's work as well then. Though the first 30 minutes are dedicated all to basic character intros and sketchy plot setup, once the two female protagonists find themselves locked in a vicious argument with the abortionist they've sought out, the film flies off into the stratosphere. Mungiu's style, in keeping with the Romanian New Wave, features lots of long shots, which lends a nice amount of documentary-like style to the gritty, frank tale. But even though the story may be about a girl helping her friend secure an abortion (at a time when the procedure was completely outlawed), Mungiu's film is more focused on painting a general picture of life and friendship (or lack thereof). Anamaria Marinca is brilliant in the lead role, while Vlad Ivanov lends a realistic sense of menace to the abortion doctor, a man who feels as though his clients are both cheating him and possibly endangering his life. The level-headed, even distant treatment, though off-putting at first, pays off, and creates a brutally realistic sense of unease that is critical to the film's tremendous success.

Grade: A