Friday, January 10, 2014

Top 10 of 2013

1. Blue Jasmine


2. Before Midnight


3. Her


4. Mud


5. This is the End


6. Gravity (IMAX)


7. From Up On Poppy Hill


8. Nebraska


9. Like Someone in Love


10. Spring Breakers


Honorable Mentions: American Hustle, Computer Chess, Don Jon, Enough Said, Frances Ha, The Last Stand, Philomena, The Spectacular Now, Star Trek: Into Darkness, Trance

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty and the Art of Persuasion


Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty is a modern-day epic. While films like Lawrence of Arabia, Reds and Braveheart are widely considered to be definitions of epics, Zero Dark Thirty presents a new definition of the epic. It is both historical and immediate. The film depicts both the turn of the 21st century and also events that occurred less than two years ago. Zero Dark Thirty accomplishes the rare combination of being both immediate and retrospective. There is room for contemplation and there is room for evaluation, both critical and complementary.

Running two hours and thirty-seven minutes, the film is every bit the same in stature as the David Lean films we associate with the term “epic” (Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on The River Kwai, etc.) even if it doesn’t focus on sprawling vistas. Just like those David Lean classics, Zero Dark Thirty must be seen at the movie theater. If you miss out on the opportunity to see it on the big screen, you’re doing yourself a great disservice. We tend to think that lush landscapes, huge explosions or infectious laughter are the primary reasons to pay the big money to see a movie at the theater in this day and age. But Zero Dark Thirty reminds of another reason: the escape from distraction. You cannot watch this movie with interruption. The simple pausing of a DVD or glancing at your smartphone irreparably disrupts the immersion and first-class storytelling on display here. Often complex, the film is rarely confusing despite boasting a large cast of characters, diverse locations and leaps in time.

As the movie begins, we feel thirsty for revenge and driven by virtue but by the time we get to the end, we feel some sense of closure but also a degree of uncertainty. The film leaves itself open enough for you to make your own decisions and inject your own thoughts on the issues depicted in the film. But in between, the film is wholly focused on the art of persuasion. Nearly every single scene in Zero Dark Thirty can be boiled down to one character finding a way to persuade another character do what they want. We could suggest this is a fundamental element of our own everyday lives. But life is about negotiation and compromise. Zero Dark Thirty is about getting what you want. Much has been made about the film’s depiction of torture. Without getting too far into the debate, I do not think the film endorses torture but it does contextualize it. The sequence that crystalized everything for me though was the back-to-back scenes involving Jason Clark’s character trying to get a lead from a contact in Kuwait City and Jessica Chastain’s character trying to get Edgar Ramirez’s character to increase surveillance on a target. In one sequence, a Lamborghini persuades, in the other, a Budweiser. It comes down to knowing your audience. Each act of persuasion requires a different approach. Whether you are using fear, compassion, sympathy, camaraderie, or other, Zero Dark Thirty illustrates how hard it is to convince another person to see things your way and the lengths that people will go to get what they need. Notably, the film sidesteps the ultimate act of persuasion in these events, getting President Obama’s sign-off, but that really would have been an unfilmmable scene that would have inherently disrupted the film’s verisimilitude and rhythm. We also get a strong enough sense of the chain of command from the sheer length it takes and also the different personalities in the chain of command.

Zero Dark Thirty is an instant classic. It is a film that must be seen now. In twenty years, it may not seem as relevant. But as should be suggested by a modern-day epic, it helps us to understand the times we live in.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Top 10 of 2012

1. Moonrise Kingdom 



2. Silver Linings Playbook 


3. Killer Joe


4. The Kid with a Bike 


5. The Dark Knight Rises 


6. Seven Psychopaths 


7. The Woman in Black 


8. Magic Mike 


9. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World


10. Argo


Honorable Mentions: Anna Karenina, Bernie, The Bourne Legacy, The Five-Year Engagement, Hope Springs, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Take This Waltz

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Anna Karenina: Art for Entertainment's Sake


I suspect that Joe Wright’s adaptation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is wildly unsatisfying from a literary adaptation standpoint, historical standpoint, and film grammar standpoint but if there is one thing about the movie, it is alive.

In spite of its pedigree – adapted from one of history’s most celebrated novels, bolstered by Oscar nominated performers and filmmakers, lavished with extravagant set design and virtuoso camerawork – the film's primary interest is entertainment. And this is a good thing. It’s precisely that desire that made Wright's Pride and Prejudice such a resounding success. Anna Karenina isn't nearly as successful, it's too busy for starters, but for all it's failings, it does share Pride & Prejudice's defining trait: this is a period piece that feels immediate.

Anna Karenina transports you not only to a different time but a different world. The characters don't necessarily move or behave like humans and the world they inhabit is barely recognizable. That’s because the movie is filmed almost exclusively on sound stages and much of the time that’s made readily apparent by revealing the different facades or miniatures. The filmmakers have gone on record that this decision was made partly out of economic necessity but surely they are reaching for a subtextual significance as well. I’m not sure how rewarding it would be too spend too much time analyzing the film but on a fundamental level, the affectation does serve as a nice illustration of the pretense and theatricality required for high society. During the love / lust sections of the movie, the artifice takes less prominence and the true emotions take center stage. At the end of the day though, it all feels more Moulin Rouge than Dogville.

But I don’t want to undermine how incredibly entertaining this picture is to watch. And the fact that it takes such a boldly stylistic approach gives the film a real personality and inspires plenty of conversation points post-viewing. Joe Wright is one of my favorite working filmmakers and with the possible exception of The Soloist, his films never fail to be emotionally stirring and technically captivating.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Skyfall: Changing of the Guard


I didn’t find Skyfall quite as exuberantly thrilling as Casino Royale or as captivatingly vexing as Quantum of Solace but it is a more than worthy addition to the Daniel Craig Bond series. One of the most exciting things about these last three films is the filmmakers’ insistence to give each film a theme (or multiple themes). The films aren’t about ticking off the requisite Bond series traits checklist (although they do that, too). They each grapple with a theme. Whether it was gender in Casino Royale or ‘bonds’ of friendship in Quantum of Solace, all three of the Daniel Craig Bonds give the audience something to chew on.

The central theme in Skyfall is the struggle between youth and old age. While the film doesn’t come down hard in either direction, there’s a sense that we must adapt to the times but we must not discard the past either. Bond is visibly older, his hair cropped short to show his receding hairline and the skin around his eyes increasingly craggy. When Bond grows out stubble he doesn’t look like a model on the pages of GQ, he looks like an older man who has lost the will to groom. Similarly, when MI6 gets moved to a new location, their underground digs look ramshackle and weak rather than resembling a hip Silicon Valley office with its exposed brick and open plan seating.

In the battle between youth and wisdom, the subject of technology becomes a major part of the conversation. With the age of technology replacing the need for human-to-human immediacy, the relevancy of spies is questioned. When MI6 headquarters is compromised, it’s not through an invasion of armed attackers, it’s through a computer virus. Of course it’s nothing novel. Live Free or Die Hard explored a similar question while also using a beloved franchise to frame the argument.

There is a sense that anyone can learn how to use a computer. The casting of Ben Whishaw as Q is simultaneously a stroke of genius and also 17 years late. Meanwhile, Javier Bardem’s villain sure doesn’t seem like a computer genius which gave me the feeling like he had an unidentified band of computer hackers that we never see – a subject avoided by the film: perhaps the anonymous computer hackers don’t even know who they’re working for? In this day and age it does feel more realistic that a super villain would have access to a legion of computer hackers than to an army of muscle-bound henchman marching headfirst into death.

Skyfall seemingly wants to have it both ways. It begins by showing the likeliness of human error and then illustrates the precision and alacrity capable with remote computer technology but ultimately concludes with a proud stamp celebrating James Bond’s endurance in its 50th anniversary at the cinema.

As much as the film wrestles with the issue of aging and finds multiple touch points, it doesn’t make a firm decision either way. It seems to be suggesting the answer is a balance of both – most perfectly captured in the barbs traded by Q and Bond in the National Gallery Museum. “Youth doesn’t guarantee innovation,” being my favorite. But I couldn’t help but feel the end of the film restores a regressive viewpoint with the reprisal of female secretary Moneypenny and a gender rebalancing that reverts the progressive element introduced in 1995’s Goldeneye. This image is perhaps more symbolic than literal – Judi Dench’s M is characterized as harder nosed than Ralph Fiennes’ MP Gareth Mallory after all. But then he’s still the one jumping over desks and jumping in the line of fire while M’s call to action is setting light bulb-based booby-traps and later admitting her embarrassment over her poor gun performance.

Amidst some tremendous action sequences (in particular the Shanghai high-rise fist fight and the chase through the London Underground) the film still feels most vital when director Sam Mendes recalls his American Beauty roots in the moments that feature the tease of uneasy sexual exploration hinted at between Bardem’s villain and Bond or during the film’s inspired conclusion at Bond’s childhood home. Casino Royale established that the new Bond was resolutely a human being with emotions and fears. Quantum of Solace continued this exploration by creating a Bond film that was essentially a revenge picture and now Skyfall crystalizes this pursuit by arguing the importance of human consideration in an increasingly virtual world. To underline this point, it turns the film’s concerns from the national to the personal with Bond returning home to protect his surrogate Mother and Father from intruders. I appreciated the hints of both Straw Dogs and Jane Eyre in this bravura set piece that I’d never have imagined to see in a Bond film before. The sequence is both thrilling and thematically rich. It’s the main reason to see this film.

Is Bond still relevant? Casino Royale proved to audiences in 2006 that he definitely was. But the filmmakers still feel required to address it in 2012. There’s the usual casting rumors floating through Hollywood about the next Bond and while I think Craig is due for at least one more go around, the arc in Skyfall makes a nice case for calling it a day with the tidy character progression illustrated in this trilogy. Casino Royle did, after all, begin with Bond becoming a 00 agent.

Friday, September 21, 2012

It Takes Two: Hope Springs


Last week I saw a profound film with a clearly stated message, a dialogue-driven script and three incredibly natural performances. I'm as surprised as you are that the film was Hope Springs.

The movie is about a couple that has recently celebrated their 31st anniversary but found themselves in an entirely loveless marriage. The wife, Kay (Meryl Streep), signs up her and her husband Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) for a weeklong therapy session in Maine. As the film unfolds, we see their bumpy road to recovery. But is it too little too late? A palpable suspense resides throughout.

Frankly sexual and even-handed in its gender battles, Hope Springs is one of the bolder studio films released this year. Yes, there are several scenes that are excruciatingly bad (office banter with Lee Jones' co-worker, Elizabeth Shue playing a world-weary bartender) and the name of the town they visit is Hope Springs (ugh!). But these clunkers are contrasted with scenes of such wisdom and patience that they must be by-products of the filmmakers having to keep the studio happy. Such sacrifices were worth it to afford such starkly realistic scenes elsewhere.

The plot plods along at a casual pace and much of the dialogue is didactic, but the film sticks to its guns throughout. This is no smooth, montage-fueled romcom. This is a labored look at what it takes to sustain a marriage. It's clear that there are no shortcuts.

Anchored by three powerfully affecting performances, many scenes play out like direct-to-viewer counseling. I'd be tempted to prescribe this movie as an early step toward marriage counseling. I'm not sure if a licensed therapist would agree with me – surely the film takes a lot of liberties – but Hollywood can be a powerful medium and it's heartening to see a film like this use its platform to inspire.

If any of the three central performances hit a single false note, the film would fall apart. But each one succeeds magnificently. Jones and Streep both create rich, nuanced characters. Steve Carell has a very difficult role to pull off as their therapist. Not only must he combat the audience expectations of his comedic persona, he also has to serve the role of authority and wisdom while sharing the screen with two of the most celebrated authorities on acting. I imagine he must have been scared out of his mind having to go toe to toe with these acting legends. But he does it with unblinking confidence.

Hope Springs may be about 50+ characters but anyone who puts value in a romantic relationship should see this movie. It doesn't matter if you have been married more than 30 years or if you just started dating, the movie presents a core fundamental that is universal: nothing is perfect, there are two sides to every story and the only way to be happy requires both partners to put in an equal amount of work. Hope Springs doesn't have all the answers. But it believes it has some.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Top 10 of 2011

1. Beginners


2. The Trip


3. Tree of Life


4. Midnight in Paris


5. The Adjustment Bureau


6. The Guard


7. Win Win


8. Shame


9. 50/50


10. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (IMAX)


Honorable Mentions: The Artist, The Dilemma, Hanna, Hugo, In a Better World, Source Code, Weekend

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

I'm Feeling a Little Woozy Here: Thoughts on Scream 4



Eleven years after the release of Scream 3, the Scream franchise returns to the multiplex with Scream 4. Returning from the original trilogy are all three leads: Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox and David Arquette. They’re joined by a gaggle of new high school characters, all of whom look alarmingly young. These intentionally nubile performers look much more youthful than the original cast did in the first film, which makes things all the more unsettling. Seeing how young the new characters looked forced me to confront that I was merely twelve years old when I saw the first Scream film. In retrospect, I’m a bit disconcerted that I was watching this type of film at that age. But oh how I loved the first film – and still do. Not only did the film excite me from a suspense standpoint it also presented teenage characters whose thoughts and desires felt entirely recognizable – well, not the psychopathic ones of course.

More persistently than the previous three films, Scream 4 poses the question of the damaging affects of viewing (or is it witnessing?) violent content. The Scream series has always been blatantly about the influential power of both viewing and making films. Even the much maligned Scream 3 offers some insightful scenes on studio back lots and soundstages. But Scream 4 takes it even further. Self-reflexive doesn’t begin to describe the film. In one of the best moments, Gail (Cox) refers to something as Meta and when Dewey (Arquette) is befuddled she responds with exasperation, “I don’t know, I heard the kids say it!”

But it’s difficult to draw the line between where Scream 4 indicts the youth of America for being too impressionable and where the film is encouraging the provocation. Take for example the extended death of an on-duty cop: an exquisitely framed single shot and a virtuosic feat of timing. That the shot runs without cutting is evidence of just how savvy director Wes Craven is to anticipating how an audience will react – and it’s all played out for laughs, culminating in a silly line about Bruce Willis. But let’s also not forget a line from one of the (many) opening scenes: “This isn't a comedy, it's a horror film.” Who exactly gets the last laugh has always been ambiguous in this series.

All three sequels have lacked the suspense of the original entry; the trade-off for all the hyper-aware pop culture references being the loss of investment in character and the genuine fear that corresponded. As
EW pointed out, the original film had a level of mystery that’s been neutered by all the genre-checking in the sequels.

Still, the opportunity to see Sydney Prescott, Ghost Face, and the town of Woodsboro on the big screen again was a treat. And I leapt at the opportunity to don my Scream 2 t-shirt again. But after the nostalgic delight had worn off, I couldn’t shake the unease and icky feeling that the film relished its depraved violence a bit too ardently. The film’s conclusion is a powerful bit of cynical ideology – if not suspense – but the steps in getting there are less surefooted.



Sunday, April 10, 2011

Shoot to Thrill: A review of Hanna


“I just missed your heart,” says the title character, Hanna (Saoirse Ronan), in symmetrical shots that open and close the film. It’s a concise, somewhat heavy-handed, indication of filmmaker Joe Wright’s intentions with this lyrical, violent, beautifully photographed thriller. Wright wants us to be emotionally invested but in the end, able to walk away without too much attachment lest we be turned off by all the gruesome bloodletting and the psychological ramifications of the characters’ actions.


“The Devil is in the details,” states a different character around the film’s midpoint. Hanna is crammed with details. Some of which are arbitrary – Tom Hollander’s bottle-blond, short short sporting, whistlin’ killer is a hoot to watch, but his quirks ultimately don’t add up to much. More effectively drawn are Sophie (Jessica Barden), the tabloid-obsessed teenage tourist who befriends Hanna in Morocco and Cate Blanchett’s Clarise Starling-esque villainess whose ruthless, tactical precision is visualized in her dental care and whose pig-headed determination is expressed through her vanity and footwear. Without this level of specificity, Hanna would be just a Bourne knockoff (the cinematic impact of that spy trilogy continues to engulf the action genre) but instead, it is a thriller with a personality and an artistic sensibility.


I’ve made it no secret that Joe Wright is one of my favorite directors working today due to his cinematic eye and his drive to make mainstream cinema both entertaining and thought-provoking. He directs Hanna with a mixture of hyperactive cutting and calm restraint, lingering on vistas and background characters, as well as a steadicam shot that rivals the complexity of the Dunkirk scene in Atonement.


The tone here is a change of pace from Wright’s three previous films (literary adaptations Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, and The Soloist), but his adeptness at the thriller genre furthers his credit as one of cinema’s more versatile craftsmen. There are a lot of chase scenes in Hanna, all of which are scored to the pulse-pounding beats of The Chemical Brothers’ new music which keeps the movie zipping along enough to entertain the Saturday evening audience. The film is also very violent, too violent for the PG-13 rating it received and should be withheld from younger teens as its stylized brutality is issued without ample ethical consideration. But for those who can handle it, Hanna is an exciting, peculiar thriller that will impress you viscerally and also exercise your analytical skills, if not win your heart.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Keep the Car Running: Thoughts on Take Me Home Tonight


Take Me Home Tonight features ‘80s pop music and multiple shots of the lead character staring wistfully into the distance and lamenting lost opportunities and mistakes made. Usually, those two characteristics alone are enough for me to enjoy a movie. But to my dismay, Take Me Home Tonight is such a sloppy, overlong, morally uncertain misfire that there’s little to appreciate here. The novelty of witnessing Topher Grace’s last performance where he’s still youthful enough to believably play an awkward, insecure post-grad (the film was shot in 2007), is one bright spot, but even that wears thin quickly.

I’m usually willing to overlook questionable behavior whitewashed for the sake of narrative convenience but this film features rampant cocaine use, larceny and driving under the influence without anything approaching real consequence. It features not one but two scenes where it approaches consequence before shying away both times into what is virtually a ‘just kidding, everything’s fine’ timidity. Which is a shame, as one scene – a confrontation between Matt (Grace) and his father, is surprisingly powerful and an example of a degree of intelligence not present throughout the rest of the film. The subsequence scene is so dissonant in terms of tone and integrity, the most generous conclusion is to suggest it’s a product of test audience-induced reshoots.

Another strong scene between Matt and his high school crush (Teresa Palmer) is bracingly honest and suggests a provocative justification of Matt’s initial apprehension and subsequent deceit that the film introduces but later rescinds, less believably.

More damning than its questionable morality and its schizophrenic tonality is how downright sloppy the direction and editing are. The film jumps from shot to shot, lingering on minor characters doing completely inconsequential actions, with such jarring discord that the film borders on the incomprehensible; a bewildering ‘getting ready’ near-montage is particularly painful. Late in the film, after a pivotal scene, we cut back to a pair of characters without any provocation other than having not seen them for the past 20 minutes.

The final insult is when the end credits roll and Atomic Tom’s cover of “Don’t You Want Me Baby” hits. A fine cover and the lyrics actually relate to the film’s themes obliquely, but it also signals the complete absence of the Eddie Money pop classic from which the film derives its title. It would be one thing if the title had an explicit connection to the narrative beyond the evocation of ‘80s nostalgia – but it doesn’t. The absence of the song (a surefire way to alienate its audience) is indicative of the film as a whole and inadvertently sums up the lead character’s plight: the inability to capitalize on potential.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Top 10 of 2010

1. Toy Story 3


2. The American


3. The Ghost Writer


4. The Social Network


5. Exit Through the Gift Shop


6. Winter's Bone


7. Catfish


8. Black Swan


9. Fish Tank


10. Paranormal Activity 2


Honorable Mentions: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, Inception, Please Give, Tiny Furniture, Unstoppable

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Real American Heroes: A Review of Unstoppable

Since seeing 2004’s Man on Fire, I’ve been an ardent admirer of director Tony Scott’s films. In particular, his post-millennial work that exhibits a fascinating synthesis of hyper-kinetic formalism and near art-house experimentalism. Some films have been more effective than others (last year’s Taking of Pelham 123 was a low-point, marred by excessive violence and profanity) but his latest, Unstoppable, is one of the best illustrations of his talent: using a cutting edge aesthetic to tell a timeless tale.


Frequent collaborator Denzel Washington stars as Frank, a veteran train engineer and proud father of two daughters working their way through college. He’s paired with Will (Star Trek’s Chris Pine), a rookie conductor whose temper has sent him through a series of short-lived jobs and placed him in the midst of marital estrangement. But their banter and inevitable camaraderie isn’t the film’s sole focus, even though it represents the majority of the two actors’ respective screen time. Rather, the driving force of the film is an unmanned train carrying hazardous material hurtling through the Pennsylvania countryside. After a series of ineffective attempts to sideline the runaway train by corporate-issued mandates, Frank and Will realize they’re the only people who can stop the train.


In an age where our cinematic heroes seemingly need to be comic book inspired guardians, conflicted cops / soldiers or Jason Bourne mega-men, Unstoppable is refreshingly down to Earth when it comes to heroism. Frank and Will are not genetically mutated or born with supernatural powers. Instead they are flawed, recognizable human beings who acknowledge an impending disaster and leverage their trade skills and industry knowledge, along with a palpable dose of bravery, to avoid it, even though it means putting their lives on the line for a greater good. Their heroism is all the more poignant and inspirational because of their fundamental humanness. Unstoppable is perhaps the most humanist action movie of the past decade.


It’s not a physically demanding role for either Denzel Washington or Chris Pine as the majority of their time on screen requires them to be seated. They aren’t given much room to showboat verbally either as they are handed appropriately demotic dialogue. Yet they manage to make their characters engaging and their situation engrossing purely because they are both strong actors. It’s a testament to their talent that they can do so much in an action movie that gives them so little to do.


The film is shot with Scott’s trademark flair but it all looks realistic and does not bare the blemish of overdone CGI. Of course Scott’s camera roves without traditional reason, but it conveys the length of conference rooms, the confined bubble of an engine room and the slithering mass of train cars in a masterful way that gives you the whole picture without multiple camera setups or traditional cutting rhythms. Given society’s obsession with nanotechnology and ever diminishing gadgets, it’s remarkable to see a film that respects the physical mass and immense weight of massive machinery. With a simple story and a simple visual style (at least for Scott), Unstoppable embodies exactly what a modern, enjoyable, socially conscious action/adventure should be.