Monday, December 31, 2012

Review: "Django Unchained"

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Runtime: 165 minutes

Moving from one historical horror to another (the Holocaust to American slavery), Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained has all of the ingredients to be another riotous and incendiary work of film making. Yet what's most curious about Tarantino's latest offering is that, despite so many strong ingredients, the film feels in need of serious reigning in, more so than any of the director's previous work. Perhaps the greatest irony here is that even though Django contains some of Tarantino's most direct dialogue, the film as a whole still comes off as protracted and indulgent. When the various pieces of the film click, Tarantino achieves some furiously entertaining and compelling results. Unfortunately, there's far too much limp plotting in the early stretches that undermine much of the proceedings.

Opening with, as one would expect, credits perfectly recreated from a classic Spaghetti Western, Django gets its plot moving quite soon. German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) rescues the slave Django (Jamie Foxx), so that Django can help him identify the wanted Brittle Brothers. Eventually the two extend the agreement. If Django helps Schultz, he'll help Django rescue his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from sadistic plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

And, like Tarantino's previous film, 2009's Inglorious Basterds, Django begins by introducing us to Christoph Waltz's character. And yet, from the get go, something feels off. Whereas Basterds began with slowly building tension, teased out by engaging dialogue, Django quickly succumbs to a strange sense of prolonged tedium. So much of the film's moments, even the bursts of violence, are telegraphed so early that tension is defused before it even accumulates. Tarantino has a knack for drawing out conversations in an entertaining fashion, yet here the technique feels tiresome. In an unexpected departure, much of the dialogue (especially in the early portions) is quite straightforward, getting to the point instead of dancing around said point. The great irony of this is that Tarantino's more direct approach to certain scenes feels more tiresome than his diversions.

Even the cast are somewhat let down by Tarantino's less embellished writing. Waltz, who remains a perfect fit for the writer/director's style, seems to get bored as he cuts through his lesser dialogue in order to get to the meat of the part. The same can almost be said for DiCaprio when he first appears. However, once the film settles in at Candie's plantation, DiCaprio truly comes to life, and thoroughly dominates a prolonged dinner sequence that culminates in a soon-to-be iconic speech about a skull. DiCaprio can sometimes falter when he tries to go 'big' with his performances, but here the actor is aces. His slow rise from steady boil to full blown explosion is among the film's acting highlights. It's over the top, to be certain, but the best performances in Tarantino's films rarely veer towards intimate subtlety. The film also receives an unexpected burst of energy from Samuel L. Jackson as a curmudgeonly slave on Candie's plantation. Jackson is both compelling and riotously entertaining in the role, and it stands as the actor's best work on screen in years. 

Unfortunately, even though Django is set amid the horrors of the slave trade, two of the most important black characters are among the least interesting. Kerry Washington is given little more to do than look worried and scream. More disappointing is Jamie Foxx. Despite being the titular character, one charged with a desire for bloody revenge, Django winds up feeling more like a cipher. Despite the occasional good one-liner, the character spends most of his time observing Dr. Schultz, who's more of a driving force even though the story isn't his. Foxx brings little to the role other than some sass, though there's not quite enough in the character for him to work with in the first place. 

And even when Tarantino hits the sweet spot, he sometimes ventures into overkill. A massive shootout, filled with orgiastic levels of spurting and spraying blood, nearly becomes out of control in its overwrought execution, even by Tarantino's standards. Worse are the more grounded moments, meant to highlight the abhorrent treatment of slaves. The film gets the point across - such as when two slaves are shown fighting to the death for mere entertainment - but the violence is so relentless that it threatens to become exploitative, rather than appropriately horrifying.

Yet perhaps the biggest stumbling block is the film's near-shapeless plotting. After building to what feels like a riveting, albeit vague, climax, the film trudges on for another 25 minutes to a solution we can already see coming. It's hard to know how much of this has to do with the fact that longtime Tarantino editor Sally Menke sadly passed away before the film even began shooting, or if even she could have reined the film in. Regardless, Django is easily one of Tarantino's least consistent offerings, with his indulgences getting the better of him at an alarming rate. Say what you want about his films, but they've never failed to intrigue or entertain me at every turn until now. Yet here there was a palpable lapse in energy from the get go, one that at times allowed me to wander off into tiny day dreams without the slightest concern that I was missing anything. Django may be off of the chain, and rightfully so, but Tarantino needs to be put on a much shorter leash.

Grade: B-

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Review: "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"

Director: Peter Jackson
Runtime: 169 minutes

The source material for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey may not have the darkness, depth, or length of Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, but that certainly hasn't stopped Peter Jackson from trying to repeat the same success from a decade ago. An Unexpected Journey marks the first of three (originally two) films based on Tolkien's lighter, slimmer novel. Is the three film to one book ratio a cash driven gambit? Most likely. It allows Jackson and company to flesh out and explore more of Tolkien's world and characters, to be sure, but at what cost to the storytelling quality? Yet ultimately, though this first installment never reaches the heights of Jackson's last journey into Middle Earth, An Unexpected Journey, warts and all, stands as proof that there's no one better suited to take audiences through Tolkien's universe.

Though decidedly lighter in tone, the film still possesses the trademark Tolkinean grandeur. This is best evidenced in a flashback/prologue sequence detailing the history of the great Dwarven stronghold of Erebor, and how it fell after an attack by the vicious dragon Smaug (to be voiced by Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch in the rest of the trilogy). With the dwarves scattered, some find leadership in the grandson of the deposed king, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). Time passes, and eventually a small band of Dwarves under Thorin's command decide that the time is right to try and reclaim Erebor from Smaug, who has remained dormant. With the help of their ally Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan, as effortlessly compelling always), they find their way to the home of Bilbo Baggins (played by the other Sherlock star, Martin Freeman).

Initially upset by the bawdy Dwarvish ensemble mucking about in his kitchen, Bilbo eventually succumbs to the promise for an adventure, one that Gandalf promises will leave him forever changed (if he survives, that is). And once Jackson finally gets Bilbo on his way and the fellowship of the Dwarves begin their long (long, long) trek to The Lonely Mountain, An Unexpected Journey finally develops a sense of purpose. The opening stretches of the film are - Dwarven backstory aside - the weakest, as the reinforce the idea that this three film enterprise is nothing but shameless indulgence. Rather than simply settle in to the fall of Erebor, Jackson inserts a completely unnecessary framing device involving the old Bilbo (Ian Holm) writing down his tale, which is little more than an excuse for an Elijah Wood cameo. 

The opening also introduces us to one of the film's other shortcomings, albeit on the technical front. This is Tolkien in the age of digital cameras, and even without seeing the film in 48 frames per second, there were times when the difference was palpable. Most jarring are some of the visual effects. Gone, for the most part, is the use of miniatures and models to create epic cities and structures. Complete CGI is often king here, and coupled with the digital camera technology it can produce some displeasing aesthetic effects. Most notable is in the the Fall of Erebor, where the entire flashback sequence possesses a strange, faded glow, as if someone smeared a jumbo-sized jar of Vaseline on the camera lens. Elsewhere, the blend of sets and CGI backdrops is often too saturated and smooth to register with the same artistic majesty that so bolstered the Rings trilogy. 

Despite the occasionally distracting aesthetics, An Unexpected Journey does, thankfully, improve as it goes along. Not all of its side ventures (some of which are designed to create tie-ins to Rings) are as compelling as others. The bits involving Radagast the Brown and his sled pulled by Olympic-speed rabbits, for example, feel too cartoon-y and broad. Yet, on the other hand, when Jackson rekindles that old magic from 10 years ago, it connects. A flashback involving a failed Dwarven siege of the Mines of Moria is well-handled, and establishes Armitage's Thorin as a compelling equivalent of Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn. Later set pieces also come through, including a sequence where the troupe finds itself riding on the ridges of several gargantuan stone giants in the midst of a battle. 

Yet the film's shining moment comes without the slightest bit of violence or spectacle. Bilbo, separated from Gandalf and the Dwarves, stumbles upon a tiny golden ring, as well as its deranged owner, Smeagol/Gollum (Andy Serkis). Serkis is as good in the role as he's ever been, manic mood swings and all, and his game of riddles with Bilbo is the film's high point. Coupled with the big action sequence/chase and the surprisingly chill-inducing final confrontation involving Thorin and an Orc lord, and you have a film that truly reaches its purpose in its last third or so.

Even when the film falters, however, Jackson's grasp of the world remains strong, and his performers are plenty engaging, even if some of the Dwarven band blend together. Freeman makes a wonderful Bilbo, the odd man out among a group of people with a goal more personal than he can ever know. Returning cast members McKellan, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, and Christopher Lee are nail their material, as limited as some of it is. Yet it is Armitage who emerges as the most compelling figure of the bunch. Unlike Aragorn, who was almost dragged into fulfilling his role as king of Gondor, Thorin starts the story with a purpose, one tied to both duty and pride. Jackson's indulgences with flashbacks may throw some off, but those concerning Thorin do at least give a concrete sense of what this protracted journey means to him.

When all is said and done, it might be difficult to fully judge An Unexpected Journey until parts two and three (Dec. 2013 and July 2014, respectively) arrive, and we can step back and view Jackson's entire treatment. Until then, we're left with this first slice of a story that, for better and for worse, has been inflated in an attempt to match the glory that the director and his collaborators achieved a decade ago. For the sake of audiences everywhere, I wish them the best of luck.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Review: "Les Miserables"

Director: Tom Hooper
Runtime: 157 minutes

For as BIG as Tom Hooper's Les Miserables is - the music, the decades-spanning story, the emotions - this adaptation of the mega-musical also contains a surprising intimacy. Aside from the decision to shoot the musical numbers live/on-camera, no one directing aspect has received as much attention as Mr. Hooper's close-ups on his actors' faces. It's a decision that, like much of the material on display here, will likely prove divisive (not to mention the fact that the film is almost entirely sung, even outside of standard songs). As someone completely unfamiliar with the stage show as a whole (I know a few songs and some major plot points), I had reason to fear for the worst. Yet, some missteps that arise in the middle sections aside, Hooper's film soared enough to turn me into a Les Mis convert. 

As far as plot goes, there's quite a bit (which is at times a slight problem). The basics are as follows: Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), released on parole after 19 years in prison, seeks to rebuild his life while avoiding the unwavering lawman Javert (Russell Crowe). There's also a wrongfully disgraced factory worker (Anne Hathaway) and her daughter (Isabelle Allen/Amanda Seyfried), a band of student revolutionaries (Eddie Redmayne, Aaron Tveit), and a pair of nefarious inn-keepers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter). Even at 2 hours and 40 minutes, the show (and as a result, the film) wobbles when it comes to condensing Victor Hugo's mammoth novel. Thankfully, there's a game cast delivering some rousing renditions of the epic score. Ultimately, how you feel about Les Miserables could come down to the music. If the musical material isn't working for you (ballads, sung-dialogue, etc...), then it might be best to leave early on. 

But not too early. Because at the very least it's worth staying around for what will inevitably become the film's signature moment: Anne Hathaway's rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream." Though the scene's power in comparison to others has been overstated, this is the scene that will likely win over the hardest hearts, even if said hearts hate everything else the film has to offer. Hathaway's time as Fantine is brief, but she nails what little material she has, turning her doomed character into a suitable icon to loom over Valjean for the remainder of the story. Watching Hathaway's big moment highlights all that works in Les Mis, and how the soaring moments overcome the smaller missteps. Yet to cite "I Dreamed a Dream" as the sole shining moment of the film does a disservice to so many other moments.

Carrying the bulk of the narrative is Jackman's Jean Valjean. Though his songs are some of the least melodically compelling, the actor compensates by marvelously acting through them. One of his earliest moments, the expositional "Soliloquoy," pales in comparison to nearly every song, yet succeeds thanks to Jackman's ferocious commitment. Jackman blasts through the screen as Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen hone the camera in on his face, allowing himself to falter with words, his voice breaking on carefully chosen words to bring a sense of character to the discordant music. Jackman is forced to stick to his upper register, where his voice starts to veer towards shrillness, but the power he brings to the numbers remains compelling. 

The rest of the cast fare equally well, even though some have less material to work with. Eddie Redmayne, among the cast's stronger vocalists, makes the potentially bland Marius an engaging presence. His work opposite his fellow student rebels (led by a magnetic Aaron Tveit as Enjolras) resonates, and his one time to shine as a soloist reaches the same emotional magnificence of Fantine's anguished cry in the dark. His pair of romantic interests handle themselves well, even as the material lets them down compared to the ensemble. Amanda Seyfried does her best to turn adult Cosette into a compelling presence, but ultimately the role doesn't have quite enough weight to it. Then there's Samantha Barks' Eponine, who sings quite well, but lacks the screen presence of those around her.

Less immediately entertaining are the story's comedic relief cast members, the nefarious Thenardiers (Cohen and Bonham Carter). For those not acquainted with the material, the Thenardiers' "Master of the House" could prove awkwardly stitched together and jarring, considering the material that comes before. The Thenardiers' presence is something of a mixed bag throughout, and the might have better served the film with fewer, more carefully chosen, scenes. 

Last, but not least, is Russell Crowe as Valjean's tireless nemesis, Inspector Javert. Crowe has become the single most divisive element of the cast, yet I have to confess that I found the actor compelling, despite his thinner vocals. Crowe's limited range fits into an interesting rock opera range, yet thanks to the close-ups, he's able to make it work. Both of Javert's big solos, vocal rough patches and all, managed to give me the right kind of chills. Redmayne is the vocal star of the supporting cast, but as far as acting is concerned, it is Crowe who truly makes every moment count. 

With the cast generally turning in strong work, however, there's still the matter of everything around them. And thankfully, despite some shortcomings, Hooper and his behind the scenes collaborators have brought their A game. The cinematography, wide angle lenses and all, gives the songs a sense of immediacy. These are not the prettiest renditions of the score, yet thanks to the use of close-ups, they are guided from their lofty pedestals down to a much more human and visceral level. And Cohen's camera also captures the often dark scenes with a surprising richness, and the scenes set in daylight possess a painterly texture that fits wonderfully with the time period. Technical aspects, despite the inherent dreariness of the setting, are also aces. The stylized sets and costumes are bold and textured, and the makeup ranges from wonderfully subtle (Valjean's aging) to appropriately cartoonish (Mme Thenardier in particular).

Yet for all that Mr. Hooper gets right as a director, he does make some decisions that get in the way of his cast, rather than helping them. Given the magnetism of the performances, Hooper's framing can be overlooked. Less forgivable is his staging of certain numbers, which isn't helped by the occasionally fussy editing. It's going too far to say that the film succeeds in spite of Hooper's direction, but some of his choices do provide some unnecessary hurdles. However, Hooper does allow the camera to settle in enough places to create some stirring (and stable) imagery. 

And when Les Miserables soars, it does so magnificently. The songs of the student rebels are among the most rousing, and lend the film a new sense of energy as new characters and arcs are introduced. Even when characters appear  as though the entire cast was living in a shrunken version of Paris, the music's power in the hands of the ensemble remains undeniable. The richness and grandeur of this musical epic remain fully intact, despite the deliberately unpolished vocals. Whether you weep or find yourself lifted in triumph, Hooper's shamelessly epic treatment of the material, coupled with the bracingly intimate treatment of the performances, manages to rise to the occasion over the technical bumps in the road. It may take some time to adjust (I have seen the film twice now), but even for the uninitiated, there is potential for this extremely faithful version to win you over. Or, at the very least, you can hear the people sing, and hopefully like some of what you hear. Les Miserables is full throttle in its sincerity (there's no Sweeney Todd-style black comedy) and devotion to the musical/operetta form. As such, it will undeniably turn off plenty, whether they be those driven away by the music, or Hooper's direction. Yet for those with whom the film even partially connects, there will be moments that register with a level of old fashioned majesty that's worth singing about.

Grade: B+/A-

Friday, December 21, 2012

Review: "Return"

Director: Liza Johnson
Runtime: 97 minutes

Linda Cardellini's performance in Liza Johnson's Return immediately reminded me of Marion Cotillard's work in Rust and Bone. Not because the roles have a great deal in common (though there is some shared thematic territory), but because both performances involve the actresses making the most of relatively thin material. Cardellini's work, however, is stuck in a film that, despite its maturity, never achieves anything noteworthy. Return is a film of purposefully modest ambitions, yet one can't help but feel that perhaps Johnson should have opened the film's character's up more to provide more to latch onto and understand. The old saying tells us that less is more, but in this case, having "less" ends up working against the film and its strong central performance.

Return's story is simple, yet ripe with potential. Army soldier Kelli (Cardellini) returns home from a tour of duty, and must readjust to life at home, even as the people she knows have changed. Kelli's husband Mike (Michael Shannon) tries to keep things normal, but as Kelli reconnects with neighbors and co-workers, she learns some unpleasant truths. Had it been more successful, the piece would make a nice companion film to The Hurt Locker (which only briefly showcases the stagnation that the real world presents to returning soldiers).

What drags the film down, unfortunately, is a somewhat dry narrative. The script tries to balance scenes that illustrate Kelli's discomfort with her old life, while also informing us of who she was before her tour of duty. To her credit, Johnson stages the former incidents with an understated naturalism, never going overboard to beat us over the head with Kelli's alienation. Yet in trying to establish who Kelli was, Johnson flounders a bit with the execution by presenting too little to understand or draw our own conclusions. 

Thankfully, Cardellini is front and center the entire way through, which helps the film even in its thinnest moments. Skilled at both comedy and drama, this is perhaps the biggest showcase the actress has had to carry entirely on her own, and she does it with aplomb. She makes the most of Kelli's journey, even when Johnson's script gives her little more to work with than being blank and uncomfortable. This is not a performance of big moments, but Cardellini makes the more prominent flashes of emotion register with graceful restraint. Her relationships with her husband, and especially with her two young daughters carry a beautiful authenticity that is never made overbearing or cloying. 

Ultimately, Return works best when it moves its character study elements into more interesting situations. Watching Kelli sit around on the couch in a stupor isn't nearly as interesting or insightful as her interactions with her AA group later on. The problem is that Johnson takes too long to move her protagonist into the more dynamic parts of the limited plot, thereby undercutting the power of the finale. The uncertainty about how to address the war (and Kelli's involvement, to a lesser extent) mitigates investment in Kelli's story, despite Cardellini's strong work, and the maturity of the writing. As character pieces go, Return certainly touches on an important subject matter, but it's altogether too slight and too cautious to achieve any sort of impact outside of its central performance.

Grade: B-/C+

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Review: "The Turin Horse"

Director: Bela Tarr
Runtime: 146 minutes

I have to confess that I admire the work of Hungarian director Bela Tarr from a distance. With the exception of Werckmesiter Harmonies (2000), Tarr's style often leaves me cold. However, given that The Turin Horse, officially released in the US this year, marks Tarr's supposed retirement, I figured I had to give his farewell work a shot. For those who already have definitive opinions on Tarr - brilliant auteur or pretentious drivel peddler - don't expect The Turin Horse to change your mind. Those in love with his aesthetic will likely find much to satisfy them (though whether they consider it a major or minor work may vary), while the other side will struggle to make it through the two and a half hour endeavor. And, try as I might, I could not help but land in the latter camp. 

Opening with a small anecdote about Friedrich Nietzsche having a breakdown about a beaten horse, Tarr opens the film with a blustery long shot of said horse pulling its master and his cart home through a windstorm, accompanied by repetitive, dirge-like music (Fair warning: If you're a Tarr virgin and the opening doesn't do much for you, then perhaps it's best to take a nap or just make your way for the exit). Once home, the man, the horse, and the man's daughter go about their monotonous routines as apocalyptic, gale-force winds continue to rage around them. 

It would make for quite the atmosphere if Tarr's signature pacing wasn't there to drag it all into the ground. The director's love of long takes has been established for quite a while now. Whether simple or complex, these takes can produce masterful results (the riot sequence in Werckmeister, for instance). Yet what often plagues Tarr's work, The Turin Horse most certainly included, is that the long takes stretch any potential feeling or atmosphere to the point where they wear off. Almost all of the shots in the film have moments that make one simply want to yell, "cut!" 

Certainly not helping matters is the limited, repetitive nature of the plot. There are occasional diversions (a man who visits and asks to borrow some rum), but the majority of the scenes involve the man and his daughter dressing, going about their tasks, and then undressing. By the time the daughter began helping her father with his clothes for the fifth time, I was ready to throw something at the screen. Given the nature of the story and the pacing, one wonders if Tarr couldn't have achieved something more effective if he'd simply dared to cut it down to get the point across with greater efficiency. There are moments here and there that have the ability to register. Some of these moments are larger, such as the neighbor's visit, and others vanish after a few seconds, and can be as brief as a bit of framing and composition during a shot. 

Yet with so little to latch onto, the film can't help but feel too long for its own good. We honestly know more about Mr. Nietzsche, who never appears on screen, than the father-daughter duo at the center of the story. Tarr keeps them at such a distance that they remain blank slates. If they have some deeper thematic purpose, it gets blown away with the winds quite early on. Sadly, the same applies to the whole of the director's swan song. It is a tiny piece of work that has been inflated into something overbearing, sluggish, and portentous.

Grade: C-

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Review: "Oslo, August 31st"

Director: Joachim Trier
Runtime: 95 minutes

I've been eager to follow director Joachim Trier's burgeoning career ever since I saw his wonderful debut, Reprise, roughly four years ago. Time came and went, and then finally word of Trier's sophomore feature film emerged. Trier spent five years writing his feature debut, so perhaps I should have been prepared for something of a wait. Thankfully, after his time away prepping his next film, the director has delivered another accomplished, quietly affecting work that further establishes Trier as a major talent, even though it doesn't reach the same highs as his debut.

For Oslo, August 31st's biggest strength and flaw comes from its deceptive simplicity. Set over the course of 24 hours, Trier's film follows recovering addict Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie, one of the leads in Reprise) as he journeys to Oslo reconnect with friends before heading off to a job interview. As in Reprise, Trier opens the film with a brief glimpse of urban Norway, before plunging into the more intimate and specific details of his characters. And frankly, there's not that much on paper that's terribly surprising. Anders reunites with friends and former girlfriends, with some encounters ending well, and others less so (Trier smartly lets the major conversations end in an emotional grey area). 

Yet where Oslo finds its strength is in the particulars of the writing, along with Trier's subdued direction and some strong performances. Each conversation opens up intriguing little pathways into the characters and their past lives. Anders is, without question, the film's only true protagonist, but when Trier expands the film's scope to include Anders' relationships with friends in the past and present, Oslo starts to take flight. Unfortunately, the film peaks somewhat early, after a lengthy series of scenes between Anders and his close friend Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner). This is the story's most richly thought out and detailed relationship, and once the pair part ways, the film enters a bit of a lull (though it is certainly livened up by the uncomfortable job interview sequence). Trier keeps his actors grounded in naturalism without letting them slide into mumbly laziness, which stops the film from sinking. Danielsen Lie is every bit as good as he was in Reprise, and proves himself a worthy muse for Trier. 

Unfortunately, Oslo eventually slips into a period of mere competence that drains the film of its initial promise. Whereas the opening stretches showcase Trier's talent for understated, moving drama, the middle seems more content to simply check off a series of dramatic tropes. Perhaps the one saving grace is that the inevitable moment where Anders briefly relapses is handled with simplicity and maturity. However, one could also argue that Anders' relapse is simply too sudden, and that Trier doesn't afford it the proper weight.

This leads to the script's chief problem, and the likely explanation for the saggy middle stretch of the narrative. Trier does an excellent job of giving us information about Anders' past, but he doesn't give us enough to work with. There are hints of Anders' parents being too lax when he was a child, among other things, but nothing emerges that can stand as a true insight into Anders' struggles with addiction and substance abuse. So even though the film resurrects itself for the final stretches (which include some truly lovely and haunting film making), Trier's morally ambiguous finale is troublesome because of what precedes it. With so much time spent understanding Anders' struggles with those around him, there isn't enough left over to focus strictly on Anders' past. Trier certainly saves himself with the ending, but upon further reflection, the substance of the conclusion still isn't quite enough to satisfy the somewhat hollow attempts at characterization and insight.

Grade: B

Monday, December 3, 2012

Review: "Flight"

Director: Robert Zemeckis
Runtime: 138 minutes

Robert Zemeckis' Flight, the director's return to live-action filmmaking after three divisive motion-capture efforts, is certainly a polished, well-made film. After his trio of soulless animated features, the director proves that he's still game as ever when it comes to working with real people, sets, and locations. Yet Zemeckis' energetic direction isn't quite enough to prevent Flight from stumbling thanks to its script, even though he does keep the film from going into a complete nosedive. 

Whip Williams (Denzel Washington), as is quickly established, is a womanizer, an alcoholic, and an avid cocaine user. He's also pilot. While it's not a good combination, there's no doubt as to Williams' skill in the cockpit. On a routine (and very short) flight, Whitaker's plane endures a series of malfunctions, eventually pitching into a straight dive. Almost miraculously, Whip successfully lands the plan after rolling it not once, but twice before setting down in a field behind a small church. Six people die in the course of the landing, but Williams is hailed as a hero, even as he flees the spotlight. Yet complications arrise when blood samples taken after the accident reveal levels of intoxication in Williams and another crew member. 

From there, Flight glides ahead with energetic camera work and solid performances, even as the script constantly throws in some unwelcome turbulence. As capably as the cast performs (Washington is as engaging and watchable as ever), John Gatins' script is both too thin and too morally muddled. Whip's alcoholism is treated more as a plot device than a character trait. While the portrayal of alcoholism (and the self-deception involved) likely hits some truthful notes, we never have any grounding as to why Whip drinks the way he does. At best we know that his drinking was responsible for ending his marriage, but the conflict is too thinly detailed to hit home. 

Credit should go to Washington, however, for taking a relatively one-dimensional character and making him compelling to follow, even if it's more due to the actor's inherent star magnetism. With a richer script and a deeper character to latch onto, Washington could have truly soared. Instead, he's left putting in a lot of emotional effort into a role that is written at a level far beneath him. 

Other cast members aren't so lucky. Don Cheadle, as a lawyer tasked with sorting out Whip's side of the criminal investigation, has the script's least developed major character. Yes, his character's purpose is ultimately to support and challenge Whip, but the character appears to have been written on autopilot, used more as an expository tool of legal information. Kelly Reilly, as drug addict Whip meets in the hospital, gets a tad more to work with, but the role is as shallow as they come, as she's used more to bring up the painfully thin AA subplot in the film. Gatins gives her an interest in photography to lend her something outside of her drug troubles, but it's barely touched upon. Worst of all, the film wastes Melissa Leo as the head of the investigation into the crash landing. John Goodman also pops up in two irritating scenes, one of which is so bizarre and confused in its morality and tone that it beggars belief.

Surprisingly, it's some of the smallest parts that stand out in the film. Washington and Reilly's performances (mostly the former's) have received the most awards talk, but the stand out of the cast might actually be James Badge Dale. The actor only appears for one scene, yet his turn as a rambling cancer patient is nothing short of electrifying, and it's a shame that the actor wasn't used to better effect. Honorable mention should go to Brian Geraghty (The Hurt Locker) as Whip's co-pilot during the crash landing, who brings an extra layer of intensity to one of the many one-note roles filling out the ensemble.

Unfortunately, as Flight progresses through its three main "chapters," it becomes weaker and weaker. The crash landing is a marvel of white-knuckle intensity, but once Whip wakes up in the hospital, the drop in dramatic power is tremendous. The middle section, which had the most room for character development, squanders it on scenes that merely coast by. Both Whip's relationship to Reilly's Nicole and the background details of the investigation are touched on so lightly that it's as if Gatins nearly forgot about them. There's a level of expert craftsmanship in Flight, even down to the seemingly "normal" but richly textured cinematography. Yet, unlike some examples in recent memory (Joe Wright's Hanna springs to mind), said craftsmanship isn't nearly enough to overcome the overarching weaknesses of the writing. The great irony, then, of Flight is that it only soars when its titular character is plunging straight down out of the sky.

Grade: C

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Review: "A Royal Affair"

Director: Nikolaj Arcel
Runtime: 137 minutes

A Royal Affair, Demark's 2012 submission for the Foreign Language Film Oscar, may be a historical costume drama, but it's no stuffy, overblown drama of outdated etiquette and powdered wigs. Based on true events in 18th century Denmark, Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg's adaptation of Bodil Steensen-Leth's novel has a liveliness uncommon among similar films. There may indeed be a royal affair at the center of the narrative, but Arcel's film has much more on its mind than romantic entanglements. It is equally involved in the politics of the day, and, judging by the style and tone of the whole piece, it's safe to assume Arcel and Heisterberg are interested in the titular affair only in how it relates to the overarching political story. 

Consider A Royal Affair the soft spoken  less flamboyant cousin of Joe Wright's Anna Karenina (which also stars Alicia Vikander). Both approach romantic period pieces from strikingly different angles. But while Wright's film is more concerned with its conceit, Arcel's film forgoes intentional artifice in favor of subtle modernity in its aesthetic. Though visually muted when compared to Anna, Affair is a delightful surprise because of how seamlessly it incorporates its central romance into a much larger (and more important) story. 

Vikander plays Caroline Mathilde, a member of English nobility married off to Denmark's King Christian VII (Mikkel Folsgaard). Arranged marriages were the norm among high society for centuries, though Caroline's situation is quickly established as being one of the less fortunate occurrences. Aloof, immature, and at times unstable, Christian is a temperamental volcano of a man (or man-child) who has no qualms about sneaking off to whore houses only days after his new wife arrives and they consummate their union. It doesn't take long for the relationship to become chilly (surprise, surprise), which leaves Caroline with little to do but watch after her firstborn with no one to engage with. Christian, on the other hand, continues to visit the local women of the night, while also lazily sulking through meetings with the royal court, signing laws into effect that he barely understands. 

Where things change for the unhappily married couple is upon the arrival of Johan Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), Christian's newly appointed physician. A self-proclaimed libertine (and man of the Enlightenment), Johan is able to keep Christian's temper in check, and even turn it to good use. Most significantly, he helps Christian use his love of acting to increase his stature in the royal court. Christian may not understand the laws he pushes through, but with Johan's guidance he finally looks like he does. And, though initially repulsed by the newcomer, Caroline comes around to him as well. As the pair grow closer and closer, they begin together to work through sweeping social reforms across prudish Denmark, allowing the country to blossom. The nature of the laws (outside of their obvious functions) is often skimmed over, but Arcel infuses the process with an understated energy that it's difficult to see these scenes as anything but a boon. 

But just as quickly as things start to look up, complications arise. In Anna Karenina, Vikander's Kitty watched, heartbroken, as potential suitor Count Vronsky swept Anna off of her feet in an intimate dance. Caroline, however, gets a special dance all of her own, and while it lacks that baroque staging and choreography of Anna and Vronsky's encounter, it is equally effective. The color scheme, built mostly around natural light, may be somewhat muted, but it only adds to the more understated atmosphere that pervades Arcel's film from beginning to end. This works because, as stated before, romance isn't the only thing on the film's agenda. A Royal Affair takes it time introducing Johann, before gradually working him into Caroline's life, and finally making him her lover. And even then there is so much more beyond the revelation of the forbidden romance. 

The film may not aspire to the same political insight of Lincoln, but its incorporation of political matters and royal decrees is admirable for opening Affair up to exist as more than a romantic tragedy where society rips two lovers apart. The discovery of the affair carries profound risks for the social progress Johann and Caroline have worked so hard to enforce. By the time the film begins to tie up loose ends, one feels connected to Johann and Caroline not simply because of their affair, but because of what they accomplished as people who were interested in more than their own happiness at the top of society. 

It helps tremendously that, despite not possessing a fully convincing romantic chemistry, Vikander and Mikkelsen click together on screen. Vikander has had a breakout year on screen, and is quickly establishing herself as a reliable actress capable of sweetness and vulnerability, but also a quiet strength. Mr. Mikkelsen, best known to American audiences as the villain in the Bond film Casino Royale (2006), with his slightly fishy face is an unconventional choice for Johann, but the actor is perfectly believable as his final scene is both understated and devastating. Folsgaard is entertainingly obnoxious as Christian, although the script thankfully gives him moments to be more than an oppressive boor. Equally intriguing, if less developed, is David Dencik as a highly orthodox member of the royal council left none too happy by Johann's social reforms. It's a role that, in decades past, would have likely included shades of over-the-top villainy, but is here allowed an appropriate level of naturalism. The film elegantly establishes the various players in the plot, and maneuvers them effortless as it builds towards its climactic moments. 

Aiding the journey along are the lush musical contributions from Gabriel Yared and Cyrille Aufort, lending the story a nice flourish of straightforward (yet un-cloying) romanticism. Yet the technical standout, amid the pretty sets and elaborate gowns, is Rasmus Videbaek's decidedly modern cinematography. Not only does the reliance on natural light lend the film a muted (but still lush) pallor, but the shallow focus and handheld work lend even the simplest of scenes a touch of modern energy, as if to shake us out of our expectations of how a period romance should be shot. 

Under Arcel's guidance, the performers and technical collaborators come together to create a subdued, yet handsomely mounted and strongly executed tale. Mr. Arcel displays a level of artfulness that was sorely lacking in his previous film, the Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. His modern approach to Stieg Larson's novel was adequate an unremarkable. Yet apply that same technique to a costume drama, and the results something worth marveling. This is mature, smart filmmaking that, without going to radical lengths, breathes quiet new life into a genre too often held down by stiffness and a reluctance to let go of the ways of the past. How refreshing it it that Mr. Arcel and his team were willing to be part of the small group that took the plunge, and simply let go, as though it were nothing to fuss about whatsoever. 

Grade: B+