Sunday, January 27, 2013

2013 SAG Award Predictions


The only one of the major guild awards that has a televised ceremony, the SAGs are noteworthy more for how they indicate potential acting winners. Though there have been plenty of divergent outcomes (Viola Davis won the SAG trophy last time, only to lose the Oscar to Meryl Streep), SAG's awards still play an important role in the race to Oscar night. What makes this year so intriguing, however, is that there are a number of nominees who failed to make the Oscar list (Marion Cotillard, John Hawkes), and Oscar nominees who aren't present here (Christoph Waltz). On a broader level, the 2012-2013 awards season has been one of the most unpredictable in years, and is a logical step away from predictable results after last awards season. Where the past few years have been settled in the guilds (The King's Speech triumphed at the guilds and the Oscars, despite The Social Network dominating critics awards), this year the guilds could cement a potential frontrunner in Argo, or make the remaining weeks of the season even less certain than before. Below is my stab at making predictions for tonight's ceremony:

For a refresher on the nominees, click HERE.

Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture:
Front Runner: Silver Linings Playbook
Alternates: Les Miserables, Argo

Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role:
Front Runner: Daniel Day-Lewis - Lincoln
Alternates: Hugh Jackman - Les Miserables, Bradley Cooper - Silver Linings Playbook

Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role:
Front Runner: Jessica Chastain - Zero Dark Thirty
Alternates: Jennifer Lawrence - Silver Linings Playbook


Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role:
Front Runner: Tommy Lee Jones - Lincoln
Alternates: Robert DeNiro - Silver Linings Playbook


Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role:
Front Runner: Anne Hathaway - Les Miserables
Alternates: Nope.

Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series:
Front Runner: Modern Family
Alternates: Girls, 30Rock


Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series:
Front Runner: Homeland
Alternates: Breaking Bad


Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Comedy Series:
Front Runner: Jim Parsons - The Big Bang Theory
Alternates: Alec Baldwin - 30Rock


Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Drama Series:
Front Runner: Damien Lewis - Homeland
Alternates: Bryan Cranston - Breaking Bad

Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Comedy Series:
Front Runner: Amy Poehler - Parks and Recreation
Alternates: Tina Fey - 30Rock


Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Drama Series:
Front Runner: Claire Danes - Homeland
Alternates: Nope.


Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a TV Movie or Mini-Series:
Front Runner: Kevin Costner - Hatfields and McCoys
Alternates: Woody Harrelson - Game Change


Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a TV Movie or Mini-Series:
Front Runner: Julianne Moore - Game Change
Alternates: Nope.


Thursday, January 17, 2013

Review: "Shadow Dancer"


Director: James Marsh
Runtime: 101 minutes

Though his directing resume is filled mostly with documentary credits, director James Marsh is no stranger to the world of fiction. If anything, his gifts as a documentary film maker serve him well in his latest fiction film, Shadow Dancer, based on Tom Bradby's novel of the same name. In touching on subject matter as sensitive as the tensions between the IRA and the British government, Marsh's keen eye is able to weave a quietly engrossing story that never falls prey to the idea that one specific side is good. If anything, Shadow Dancer is one constant examination of a world filled with nothing but violent shades of grey. 

Set primarily in 1993, the film centers on young IRA operative Collette (Andrea Riseborough), who witnessed a family tragedy loosely tied to political violence two decades prior. After a terrific opening sequence (presented without a word of dialogue) set in various tube stations, Collette is captured by MI5. While in captivity, Collette comes face to face with MI5 operative Mac (Clive Owen), who pressures her to accept a deal: she will give MI5 information about IRA higher-up Kevin's (David Wilmot) next major plan, in exchange for protection for herself and her young son. 

And, just as quickly as Collette is captured, she's thrown back into her life at home with her mother (Brid Brennan) and two IRA-involved brothers (Domhnall Gleeson and Aidan Gillen). In addition to going about her daily life, Collette must now try to glean information about Kevin's plans, as well as keep up the illusion of her full-on support of the IRA's most violent tactics.

What Shadow Dancer does best is establish its protagonist and craft its quietly suspenseful  slow-burning atmosphere. The 1973-set prologue gives us a compelling window into the early 20s version of Collette we spend the entire film with. Despite her initial disgust for Owen's Mac, it's clear from the train station scenes that this isn't someone who goes about doing jobs for the IRA with absolute confidence. Collette is appropriately withdrawn during her assignment (which involves placing a bomb), but as time goes on, she seems ever closer to deteriorating. And as the narrative's stakes rise, Collette feels the pull of her various duties slowly tearing her apart. It's a marvelous set up for a character, particularly when there aren't nearly enough of these sorts of roles around as it is. 

Yet the screenplay, written by Mr. Bradby himself, also runs into some issues under Marsh's direction. Marsh's cast all turn in perfectly convincing work (including Owen and Gillian Anderson as an icy MI5 officer), even though the only one with more than one true facet is Riseborough's Collette. The problem is simply that Marsh pushes Riseborough to play all of her emotional cards within the first act. As such, there isn't much left for Riseborough to delve into for the remaining hour. 

In her defense, however, Riseborough handles everything she's given with an understated effortlessness. Having played supporting roles in films like Made in Dagenham, Riseborough has finally been given a movie to carry on her own, and she pulls it off, screenplay limitations and all. Where others would try to go big with Collette's inner turmoil, Riseborough keeps it contained, allowing it to pour out from her eyes and across her face in quiet modesty. 

Shadow Dancer's plotting, however, sometimes seems out to sabotage the efforts of the cast. While the film has no problem with only vaguely detailing its major plot developments, it can sometimes feel repetitive. This is, by and large, due to the problems with the writing for Collette.  Though there are jumps to the MI5 offices and corridors, the film's focus is so grounded in Collette that it can't help but suffer due to the limited exploration of the central character. The film also throws in an out-of-left-field moment (a kiss) that, while not played for ridiculous romance, still comes across as erratic and inconsistent with the film's tone and development. 

However, Marsh's craftsmanship is evident throughout, and his ability to convey his espionage-tinged story with relatively few words is remarkable. Even if you don't quite catch every development, the ending can still pack a punch, ambiguities and all. There are sequences featuring exceptional tension that help liven up the dingy, muted visuals that effectively ground the narrative in territory that is neither politically obtuse nor shamelessly one-sided. That said, Shadow Dancer isn't interested in discussing the politics of the day than examining how those politics played out in the actions revolving around one woman caught in a situation that seemed to have no happy ending. This is a flawed film, but one that is executed and performed with enough elegance to smooth out the bumps. 

Grade: B/B-

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Best of 2012: Dream Oscar Ballot


With 2012 roughly half a month behind us, I've decided that I ought to finally go ahead and put out what would, in essence be my picks for nominees (and winners), assuming I had a god-like control of awards season. In my Top 10 post, I said basically all that I wanted to say about 2012 in film, but it can't hurt to recap. For me, 2012 stands as an incredibly diverse year, even as it produced fewer films that were brilliant from start to finish. There are a great deal of films that I like from last year, but the number that I love is lower than 2011 or 2007. And even among the films I loved, there were few that weren't without their noticeable bumps. Life of Pi has its framing device, Les Mis has some irritating camera work and editing, and Holy Motors doesn't enthrall as much on a second viewing, when the exhilarating shock of it has worn off. Yet even so, there were so many films that had worthwhile aspects and, in some cases, reached heights that few films ever do. It may have only been in the score, the photography, or a key performance, but those individual pieces matter, whether they're the only strong part of a film or not. 2012 stands as a year in cinema that brought us few consistent masterworks. Yet broken down into pieces, it could still be viewed as a strong year, because the components of so many films were absolutely first rate. With that, here's my take on which pieces (and whole works) dominated a wildly diverse year at the movies.

*Categories have between five and seven nominees, with the exception of Visual Effects. Winners, in addition to being pictured, are typed in boldface. 


THE BEST OF 2012



Best Picture
Amour
Holy Motors
Les Miserables
Moonrise Kingdom
The Master
Zero Dark Thirty

Best Director
Paul Thomas Anderson - The Master
Wes Anderson - Moonrise Kingdom
Kathryn Bigelow - Zero Dark Thirty
Leos Carax - Holy Motors
Michael Haneke - Amour
Ang Lee - Life of Pi

Best Actor
Daniel Day-Lewis - Lincoln
Hugh Jackman - Les Miserables
Denis Lavant - Holy Motors
Joaquin Phoenix - The Master
Matthias Schoenaerts - Bullhead
Jean-Louis Trintignant - Amour

Best Actress
Linda Cardellini - Return
Jessica Chastain - Zero Dark Thirty
Marion Cotillard - Rust and Bone
Eva Green - Perfect Sense
Emmanuelle Riva - Amour
Michelle Williams - Take This Waltz

Best Supporting Actor
Russell Crowe - Les Miserables
Paul Giamatti - Cosmopolis
Jude Law - Anna Karenina
Matthew McConaughey - Killer Joe
Scoot McNairy - Killing Them Softly


Best Supporting Actress
Ann Dowd - Compliance
Anne Hathaway - Les Miserables
Isabelle Huppert - Amour
Brit Marling - Sound of My Voice
Juno Temple - Killer Joe

Best Ensemble Cast
Anna Karenina
Killer Joe
Les Miserables
Moonrise Kingdom
Seven Psychopaths

Best Original Screenplay
Amour
Moonrise Kingdom
Tabu
The Master
Zero Dark Thirty

Best Adapted Screenplay
A Royal Affair
Killer Joe
Lincoln
Oslo, August 31st
Silver Linings Playbook

Best Editing
Argo
Cloud Atlas
Moonrise Kingdom
Skyfall
Zero Dark Thirty

Best Cinematography
Anna Karenina
Moonrise Kingdom
Samsara
Skyfall
Tabu
The Master

Best Production Design
Anna Karenina
A Royal Affair
Les Miserables
Moonrise Kingdom
Prometheus

Best Costume Design
Anna Karenina
Les Miserables
Mirror, Mirror
Moonrise Kingdom
Snow White and the Huntsman


Best Foreign Language Film
Amour [Austria]
A Royal Affair [Denmark]
Bullhead [Belgium]
Holy Motors [France]
Oslo, August 31st [Norway]
Tabu [Portugal]

Best Documentary Film
How to Survive a Plague
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
The Queen of Versailles

Best Original Score
Anna Karenina
Cosmopolis
Moonrise Kingdom
Perfect Sense
The Master

Best Original Song
"Who Were We?" - Holy Motors
"Suddenly" - Les Miserables
"Big Machine" - Safety Not Guaranteed
"Skyfall" - Skyfall
"Baddest Man Alive" - The Man with the Iron Fists

Best Visual Effects
Cloud Atlas
Life of Pi
Prometheus

Best Make Up
Cloud Atlas
Holy Motors
Les Miserables
Prometheus
The Impossible

Best Sound Mixing
Argo
Les Miserables
Life of Pi
Prometheus
Zero Dark Thirty

Best Sound Editing
Argo
Life of Pi
Prometheus
Skyfall
Zero Dark Thirty

Performer of the Year
Anne Hathaway - Les Miserables & The Dark Knight Rises
Matthew McConaughey - Bernie, Killer Joe, & Magic Mike
Alicia Vikander - Anna Karenina & A Royal Affair

Breakthrough of the Year
Jared Gillman - Moonrise Kingdom
Kara Hayward - Moonrise Kingdom
Eddie Redmayne - Les Miserables
Alicia Vikander - Anna Karenina & A Royal Affair
Craig Zobel - Compliance

Best Poster


Best Trailer

Sunday, January 13, 2013

2013 Golden Globes Predictions


Say what you want about the HFPA, but you can't deny that the Golden Globes are quite the party. The organization's awards show, given extra promise by hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, is missing some suspense this year. For the first time in decades (possibly in the Globes' history), the ceremony is taking place after the release of the Oscar nominations. As such, there's room for some interesting wins to happen, as it's entirely possible that certain winners could accept their awards already knowing that their road to the Oscars is dead (Marion Cotillard, Ben Affleck, Kathryn Bigelow, Nicole Kidman). By and large, though, expect plenty of winners to be among the names announced on January 10th. Here's my best shot at predicting who we'll likely see up at the podium in a few hours.

For a refresher on the nominees, click HERE. 




Best Picture: Drama
Front Runner: Lincoln
Alternates: Argo, Zero Dark Thirty


Best Picture: Musical or Comedy
Front Runner: Silver Linings Playbook
Alternates: Les Miserables

Best Actor: Drama
Front Runner: Daniel Day-Lewis - Lincoln
Alternates: Joaquin Phoenix - The Master

Best Actress: Drama
Front Runner: Jessica Chastain - Zero Dark Thirty
Alternates: Naomi Watts - The Impossible

Best Actor: Musical or Comedy
Front Runner: Hugh Jackman - Les Miserables
Alternates: Bradley Cooper - Silver Linings Playbook

Best Actress: Musical or Comedy
Front Runner: Jennifer Lawrence - Silver Linings Playbook
Alternates: None.


Best Supporting Actor
Front Runner: Tommy Lee Jones - Lincoln
Alternates: Leonardo DiCaprio - Django Unchained, Christoph Waltz - Django Unchained

Best Supporting Actress
Front Runner: Anne Hathaway - Les Miserables
Alternates: Sally Field - Lincoln, Amy Adams - The Master

Best Director
Front Runner: Ben Affleck - Argo
Alternates: Steven Spielberg - Lincoln, Kathryn Bigelow - Zero Dark Thirty

Best Screenplay
Front Runner: Lincoln
Alternates: Django Unchained

Best Original Song
Front Runner: "Skyfall" - Skyfall
Alternates: "Suddenly" - Les Miserables

Best Original Score
Front Runner: Lincoln
Alternates: Anna Karenina

Best Animated Film
Front Runner: Wreck-It Ralph
Alternates: Frankenweenie, Brave

Best Foreign Language Film
Front Runner: Amour
Alternates: The Intouchables


And let's not forget the TV categories...

Best TV Series: Drama
Front Runner: Homeland
Alternates: Breaking Bad

Best TV Series: Musical or Comedy
Front Runner: Modern Family
Alternates: Girls

Best Mini-series or TV Movie
Front Runner: Game Change
Alternates: Hatfields and McCoys

Best Actor: Drama
Front Runner: Damian Lewis - Homeland
Alternates: Brian Cranston - Breaking Bad

Best Actress: Drama
Front Runner: Claire Danes - Homeland
Alternates: None

Best Actor: Musical or Comedy
Front Runner: Louis CK - Louie
Alternates: Alec Baldwin - 30Rock

Best Actress: Musical or Comedy
Front Runner: Julia Louis-Dreyfuss - Veep
Alternates: Lena Dunham - Girls, Amy Poehler - Parks and Recreation

Best Actor in a Mini-series or TV Movie
Front Runner: Kevin Costner - Hatfields and McCoys
Alternates: Woody Harrelson - Game Change

Best Actress in a Mini-series or TV Movie
Front Runner: Julianne Moore - Game Change
Alternates: Jessica Lange - American Horror Story: Asylum

Best Supporting Actor (TV, Mini-series, TV Movie)
Front Runner: Eric Stonestreet - Modern Family
Alternates: Mandy Patinkin - Homeland

Best Supporting Actress (TV, Mini-series, TV Movie)
Front Runner: Sarah Paulson - Game Change
Alternates: Maggie Smith - Downton Abbey, Sofia Vergara - Modern Family




Saturday, January 12, 2013

Best Films of 2012: The Top 10


Was 2012 a great year for film? Perhaps not. But, like 2011, 2012 stands out as an uncommonly diverse year in terms of settings, time periods, and subject matter. While the year provided fewer films that I can easily call brilliant, it still contained a wide range of stories across myriad genres, which at least makes for an interesting year. If anything, the word that defines cinema in 2012 is "divisive." Mixed opinions were everywhere, especially with ambitious studio films like Prometheus, Cloud Atlas, and Les Miserables. Even films that received overwhelmingly positive critical reception (Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Sessions) eventually developed strong detractors. 2012 also saw studios taking chances on adult-driven dramas. Some of the films were problematic (I'm looking at you, Flight), yet there were clear  home runs (Lincoln, Life of Pi, Argo). And now that we're over a week into the new year, I figured that it was about time to run down my list of favorites, before moving on to my hypothetical Oscar Ballot.  But before we get to the top 10, here's a look at a handful of other noteworthy films.

Perfect Sense
A brief disclaimer: this is easily the most flawed of this handful of Runners Up, without question. David Mackenzie's romantic-sci-fi-disease drama spends its first two thirds oscillating among moments that are gripping, romantic, and absolutely tone deaf. Then, in the last half hour, the bumps diminish as the stakes raise and the nature of the narrative becomes less repetitive. And finally, in the final sequence, Perfect Sense abruptly soars with tragic, tender beauty. Eva Green and Ewan McGregor are wonderful as the central duo, and make their characters worth caring about, even as they start the film seeming like nothing more than selfish jerks. Yet as the film, aided significantly by Max Richter's stunning score, finds its footing more and more, Perfect Sense comes together and ends with its best foot forward in the most effective way.

Life of Pi
Unfortunate framing device aside, Ang Lee's vision of Yann Martel's difficult-to-adapt novel could not have been a more endearing success. Its spiritual overtones are sometimes vague and pandering, but as a work of visual storytelling, this is Mr. Lee at the height of his powers. From the moment that massive ship is toppled by brutal waves, Life of Pi provides moments of effortless tenderness, shock, and wonder. This is, no doubt, helped by the absolutely immaculate visual effects work. In the form of the tiger Richard Parker, the film creates one of the most detailed and convincing VFX creations since Gollum first appeared on screens a decade ago.

Skyfall
I don't legitimately consider the latest Bond film to be a mind-blowing achievement, but I can't deny how excited I was when it snagged a nomination from the Producer's Guild. Building on the good will established in Casino Royale (and muddled by Quantum of Solace), Sam Mendes' entry in the Bond canon is quite easily one of the franchise's finest (if not THE finest). The more personal story, the gorgeous photography, and the unusually thrilling action sequences might add up to a film that is more Bourne than classic Bond, but Skyfall stands as a nice middle ground between the iconic spy's past and present. 

Chicken With Plums
Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Parronaud's follow-up to Persepolis sputtered and died in American theaters, which is truly a shame. In a year of major technical achievements, Chicken is worthy of its own special mention, as it boasts some of the most seamless and charming mixes of animation and live action in years. The key narrative is a tad sappy, but the direction, through some lovely performances and even lovelier visuals brings it home to create a charming fairy tale, albeit one with heavy shades of death and regret.

Seven Psychopaths
As shamelessly meta as Martin McDonagh's latest film is, the director manages to keep his follow-up to In Bruges from succumbing to cheap cop-outs. Lively, funny, and unexpectedly touching, Psychopaths may be shallower than In Bruges, but it is also such a thoroughly entertaining ride that it remains satisfying. Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, and Woody Harrelson are absolute delights, and have a blast taking their relatively simple characters and running with them. It's not an exercise in character development, but the roles are big and entertaining, and the story's reflexive progression is a thrilling ride from start to finish.

Argo

Whatever failures Ben Affleck has been involved with as an actor have been quickly redeemed in the past five years. The actor and former tabloid sensation found his true calling behind the camera, and his third film has cemented his standing as one of the most exciting mainstream directors working today. Argo's general outcome is known, yet it generates more intensity in its final act that many fictional thrillers can ever dream of. The film really only has one Achilles Heel, although it's a big one: it never goes even remotely below the surface. The film is hugely entertaining and well-made, but despite the dire situations on screen, the ensemble is made up of total blank slates who we feel for strictly out of their situation. Still, those last 40 minutes are pretty damn exhilarating.


Anna Karenina
Joe Wright's bold take on Tolstoy's novel may veer more towards aesthetics than deeply-felt emotion, but what glorious aesthetics they are. As much as Wright's conceit calls attention to the artifice of the settings, the film couldn't feel more cinematic. It's a visually and aurally  ravishing work that adds a modern sense of verve to a story that could have been stiff and tiring in less adventurous hands. Most of the performances are quite game too, although it's the supporting cast (Law, Gleeson, MacFadyen, Vikander) who leave a greater impact than the leads (Knightley and Taylor-Johnson). Wright's flashy take on the novel certainly isn't for everyone, but for those with whom it connects, it will prove to be a bold and sensual work.

And now, here's to the films that made it all the way to the top:

10. A Royal Affair
Essentially the exact opposite of Anna Karenina in terms of style, Nikolaj Arcel's Danish period drama distinguishes itself with muted naturalism rather than lush artifice. Based on truly incredible true events, the film refuses to indulge in the titular affair. Instead, it incorporates them into a much larger (and more interesting) narrative about class, nationality, government, and gender politics. The trio of performances (including Anna's Alicia Vikander) are strong, if not quite brilliant, and help propel the narrative through its sobering conclusion. There may be period gowns and horse-drawn carriages, but A Royal Affair is more of a political drama than another romantic melodrama, which is just one more reason why it's worth a look.

09. Killer Joe
There are dumb movies about dumb people, and then there are searing, brutally funny, vicious movies about dumb people. William Friedkin's Killer Joe falls into the latter camp. Featuring a small ensemble of big, juicy, outstanding performances (namely Matthew McConaughey and Juno Temple), this NC-17 rated look at Texas trailer trash is a marvelously entertaining look at how one man's simple plan goes horribly, horribly wrong. The story, adapted from Tracy Letts' play, takes its time to build its characters, with only smatterings of violence. That is, until the final act. It's violent and brutal (though hardly gory), and packs the intensity of an electric shock. It will also ensure that you never, ever look at a chicken drumstick the same way ever again.

08. Tabu
Essentially The Artist as directed by a less flamboyant Pedro Almodovar, Miguel Gomes' strange story is a marvel of old fashioned charm. Split into two distinct sections (the first in the present, the second in the middle of the last century), this quietly enchanting look at romance effectively blends old and new cinematic techniques. The mostly silent second half is a particularly beautiful work of classical film making, even as it contains a few odd asides and some vaguely allegorical shots of crocodiles.

07. Bullhead
It's really a shame that Michael Roskam's Bullhead fell victim to a split release. Nominated last year as Belgium's entry for Foreign Language Film, the film didn't open in American theaters until 2012. Yet, because of the previous nomination, it is ruled ineligible for all other categories. It's truly a shame, because despite the occasionally convoluted plot, this slow-building thriller is one of last year's best European imports. Matthias Schoenaerts (Marion Cotillard's Rust and Bone co-star) carries the bulk of the narrative, and delivers a physical and emotional tour de force as a man with a past marked by horrific trauma. Roskam's film delves into struggles of masculinity from several fronts, all of which feel organic and allow the film to build to a tremendous finish that cements its status as one of 2012's finest.


06. Les Miserables
Possibly the most divisive of 2012's major Oscar contenders, Les Miserables managed, somewhat to my surprise, to turn me into a convert (and not just as an admirer of the music). Hooper's directing has received plenty of divisive attention, and while I think certain claims (some overly fussy editing, the sometimes overly shaky camera) are perfectly valid, the overall emotion of the piece trumps the technical quibbles. The singing may not be perfect, especially among the older cast members, but it has a raw, human quality that makes it more powerful in a cinematic context. Jackman, Hathaway, Crowe (yes, I'm a defender), and Eddie Redmayne all have knockout moments, and the bigger ensemble scenes provide truly rousing emotion. These same scenes, if done as an adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel, could come off as jarringly rushed and underdeveloped. Yet the guidance of the stage show's incredible music, whether sung or in recitative, allows the story to truly soar. All things combined, Les Miserables may not be the directing achievement of the year, but as an overall work, it stands as a remarkable mix of old-fashioned Hollywood pageantry captured through an unabashedly modern lens. 

05. Holy Motors
The strangest film to hit American soil in 2012 may also be last year's most satisfying (and only?) work of cinematic lunacy. Leos Carax's story of a man (an incredible Denis Lavant) who goes through a series of bizarre transformations has great fun by taking the notion of performance to the extreme. The episodes range from grotesque, to touching, to joyous (that instrumental performance), yet they all have their merits. However, the strangeness of the whole enterprise, which avoids a direct statement of purpose and meaning, can sometimes be more tiresome than engaging. But as far as nutty, unconventional odysseys go, Holy Motors succeeds as an epic performance piece, even as it vaguely questions where modern performance is currently headed.


04. Moonrise Kingdom
Ah, the Wes Anderson universe. Where the children act like adults, the adults act like children, and everyone goes about their lives in a constant state of hyper-deadpanning. Yet Moonrise Kingdom marks the first time in years that Anderson's niche vision has felt so effortless and so effective. The story is pure oddball charm, even down to the striking visuals, and the cast is filled with winning turns from actors of every age. Additional viewings only make it better, as bits of humor previously covered up by the straight delivery are revealed. It may not be rich with substance, but this strange little love story is so beautifully balanced when it comes to wit and whimsy that it remains a wholly satisfying work, through and through.

03. The Master
Though not quite the cinematic second coming it was hyped as, Paul Thomas Anderson's latest opus is still a commanding exploration of powerful human dynamics. The performers give it their all, though among the main three Phoenix and Adams fare better under Anderson's cold and distant execution. The real star of The Master is Mr. Anderson, without question. In perhaps his most heavily Kubrickian work to date, Anderson holds his characters at arm's length, allowing them to be part of the narrative tapestry, rather than truly pop out of the frame. It may keep the performances from feeling as passionate as in previous Anderson films, but the technique pays off in terms of atmosphere. The large bulk of The Master is shapeless middle, full of developments but without any sense of where those developments are headed. Yet the developments deliver fascinating results, regardless of their immediate clarity.

02. Zero Dark Thirty

Appropriately meticulous, intense, unpleasant, and exhausting, Kathryn Bigelow's take on the hunt for Osama Bin Laden is a marvel of reserved execution. It is best defined by how it evolves from mere procedural, to one person's immense attachment to seeing one duty through. Zero Dark Thirty operates in a different mode than The Hurt Locker, but Bigelow's techniques remain ideally suited. To paraphrase a line that has almost become a parody of itself, it's not the Bin Laden movie some wanted, but it's the one we deserve. There's no feeling of rah-rah-rah patriotism over the credits, nor is there the sense that Bin Laden's death is the nail in the coffin for those who want to blow us up. Zero Dark Thirty, with astounding precision, shows us what happened to us, and what we did, and then boils it down to what it meant for one tireless individual, without ever indulging in one-sided sentimentality. Now that is extraordinary craftsmanship 

01. Amour

You can't exactly call Michael Haneke's latest a sentimental film, even though it stands as the director's most accessible (and "warmest") work to date. The subject matter certainly isn't entertaining, but what Haneke and his actors deliver is so rich and authentic that it proves rewarding, even as it hurts. Though set almost entirely in an apartment in Paris, Amour never feels cramped thanks to Haneke's masterful sense of place. The emotions are painful and intimate, yet the surroundings have enough space so that those emotions never become oppressive, even as the story becomes more dire. Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, and Isabelle Huppert all deliver masterful performances, and the relationships among the lot feel strikingly authentic. And, despite the painful subject matter, Amour hardly jerks at your heartstrings to earn blubbery tears, nor does it ever sink to the level of overwrought "misery porn." It works more in the vein of Louis Malle's Au Revoir Les Enfants, and comes from such a level-headed place that it registers deep within. This is love at is most difficult and unromantic, and because of Haneke's brilliant execution, and his cast's beautiful performances, Amour is a painful and powerful look at old age and death that resonates down to the bone.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Review: "Zero Dark Thirty"


Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Runtime: 157 minutes

It's difficult to write about Kathryn Bigelow's Osama Bin Laden drama Zero Dark Thirty after what's happened over the past few weeks. With the reviews, the controversies, and the responses to said controversies, what on earth is left to say? Well, let's start with the basics: it's a really damn impressive piece of film making that stands tall in a year filled with diverse narratives.

If you've missed any coverage of the film whatsoever, the story essentials are little more than the fictionalized account of the decade-long hunt to locate and kill Osama Bin Laden. And even though Bigelow's film, which reunites her with The Hurt Locker scribe Mark Boal, runs over 2.5 hours, Zero Dark Thirty knows how to make every moment count. Whereas The Hurt Locker truly was a character study, Zero is much more of a procedural set against our so-called War on Terror. 

Yet even though the center of the story, Jessica Chastain's Maya, is often reserved and completely consumed by her job, Bigelow and Boal haven't forgotten to make her a character as well. When Maya first enters, she's practically a blank slate. Fresh off of the plane in Pakistan, Maya witnesses the much-discussed torture of a detainee. To answer the question of whether or not the film glorifies torture, I'll merely offer this much: Maya has no problem telling a detainee that giving honest answers will make his life easier, but she doesn't exactly look on with icy approval as she watches that detainee suffer at the hands of CIA agent Dan (Jason Clarke). What Bigelow and Boal have pulled off, along with Jessica Chastain's work in front of the camera, is one person's journey from being an outsider doing an uncomfortable job, to becoming unwavering in her determination to see everything through. 

Where Zero Dark Thirty could have been simplistic, sugar-coated, and jingoistic, it is instead meticulous, blunt, and intense, without emotional manipulation. One could accuse the film of trying too hard to be objective, but that all gets blow away by the film's masterstroke: the raid on Bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad. Bigelow's strength comes from her ability to generate tension without going overboard, and the tactic pays off grandly here. The raid is intense, but not without the appropriate grimness (women shot and killed, children left crying and alone, etc...). Yet best of all is the treatment of Bin Laden's death. In different hands, such a moment would be completely overwrought. Bigelow and Boal, however, allow the death to unfold in a relatively anti-climactic fashion that couldn't be more fitting for the movie's tone and themes. Yes, the SEALs got the "bad guy," but what now? Where do they have to go next? What repercussions could this death have? Answering those questions would need a completely different film, yet it's important that Zero doesn't wrap everything up so neatly that it gives a sense of complete and total closure.

However, the film does allow the right level of closure for Maya. Chastain is mostly front and center here, and turns in another performance that capitalizes on her wide emotional range. As reserved as Maya often is, Chastain's work never feels lazy, and just because she's putting up a poker face doesn't mean she's not present. If anything, it means the exact opposite. Being present and listening is what Maya does in order to inch towards her goal, through every disappointment and disaster. The rest of the ensemble turn in perfectly convincing work, although few truly have much to work with. Stand outs from the supporting cast include the above-mentioned Clarke, as well as Jennifer Ehle as an older, more experienced operative. 

But at the end of the day, the film is mostly a showcase for Chastain to quietly carry the film, and for Bigelow's extraordinary storytelling and atmosphere to shine through. The aesthetic may be roughly the same as The Hurt Locker, but there's no way to walk out of Zero Dark Thirty and think that she's made the same movie twice. The Hurt Locker used its characters to paint a portrait of various kinds of soldiers. With Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow moves a step up the ladder in terms of authority. She's looking at the people behind the scenes, the little pieces that have to be assembled before the troops undertake missions like the Abbottabad raid. In doing so, Zero Dark Thirty, which opens with audio from 9-1-1 calls on 9/11, feels applicable to a wider range of people, because of how it weaves in the broader implications of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It takes us from the moment of no return, all the way through an act of collective revenge, one that ellicits not cheers and grins, but solemn contemplation on what happened to us as a nation, and what we did, for better and for worse, because of those actions.

Grade: A/A-

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Review: "Compliance"



Director: Craig Zobel
Runtime: 90 minutes

Craig Zobel's Compliance acts as a perfect counterweight to Ben Affleck's Argo. Both films are rooted in true stories, yet their difference in tone, scale, and execution are worlds apart. Argo succeeds because of its first rate Hollywood craftsmanship, while Zobel's film, despite its share of imperfections, works because of how flash-free intimacy. Unsettling, but never over the top or manipulative, Compliance is a gripping true-life thriller that paints a troubling portrait of how easily our resolve can crumble at the suggestion of authority.

Set in a small town, Compliance takes place largely over a single day at a fictional fast food restaurant. Manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) has had an unpleasant start to her day, so she quietly takes it out on her staff by lecturing them about proper procedure and responsibility. Yet minutes later, she slides into a conversation in an attempt to feel like she's truly on the same level as her underlings. Among her staff is Becky (Dreama Walker), a solid employee who usually does her best when at work. Things take an unexpected turn, however, when Sandra receives a call from a man claiming to be Officer Daniels (Pat Healy) with the local police. Daniels insists that a member of Sandra's staff, which turns out to be Becky, stole money directly out of a customer's purse earlier in the day. He asks Sandra to detain Becky until he or a co-worker arrives.

The strength of Compliance lies in how it (usually) keeps its events grounded on the narrative's small scale. This is not a hostage drama (well, not exactly), nor is it an unrelenting assault of human cruelty. Daniels' increasingly disturbing instructions progress with a sense of logic that makes sense. The situation starts innocently enough, but eventually evolves into something more sinister.

Where the film trips up comes down to how it balances character with the situation. We know these events (perhaps not exactly, but in the general sense) happened, yet Compliance doesn't go quite deep enough to provide a look at Sandra's rationale. The obvious question is, even with 'Daniels' masquerading as a police officer, why would Sandra (or the others brought in to watch over Becky) barely put up any resistance to the more extreme instructions? The ensemble is strong, and Dowd is truly excellent, but there are times when the slight thinness of the characters sticks out, even as the actors deliver on the emotional front. Spelled-out, direct answers would have been disastrous, but Compliance's script could have used a few more deftly inserted hints to give us a deeper understanding. The actors still make the most of the material. We may not know quite enough about their personalities, but we get a strong sense of where they are in the moment, which pays off nicely. Dowd is the true MVP, however, as her briefly sketched out character details add up the most upon reflection. The actress hits a home run as Sandra, capturing the subtle shifts the character undergoes without turning her into a wrathful, two-faced schemer.

Zobel's direction largely makes up for the flaws in the film's writing, and the scenes, most of which involve at least someone against against a phone, are never overheated. Most impressive is his treatment of the film's more unpleasant scenes, which arrive in the last act. Zobel allows the images to tell us enough, yet never shows too much or allows the icky stuff to feel sleazy. And, despite a simplistic color palette, DP Adam Stone gives the film an appropriately dim, but never rough or lazy, look. Less successful is the score. Its first appearance gets the film off on the right track, yet all following uses often feel grating and overbearing. It's in this one area that Compliance feels like it's trying to become a much bigger story than it really is.

Yet even though Zobel's film, his second feature, has its share of problems, it also has enough worth praising that it's worth a look. The pacing occasionally lags in the second act, but the naturally developed atmosphere is more than admirably executed. Throw in a mostly compelling screenplay and a handful of gripping performances, and you have one of 2012's hidden gems. Zobel never quite expands his vision enough to satisfyingly explore issues regarding authority and obedience, yet he captures the specific narrative with enough successes that Compliance still feels complete, albeit rather slight.

Grade: B-