Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Muppets

One of the joyous refrains of the buoyant original song, "Life's a Happy Song," states "we've got everything that we need," and that just might refer to the delightful and inspired silliness that ensues throughout the manic and almost entirely blissful one-hundred minutes of The Muppets.  The greatest achievement of the film is that it reminds you just how much missed this ragtag group of misfits and their endlessly endearing showmanship.  First concocted for variety television by Jim Henson, the latest film incarnation is heavily steeped in nostalgia with enough fourth-wall nudging that one suspects it should come close to falling apart at every turn.  Directed by James Bobin, whose crafted subversive silliness on Da Ali G Show and The Flight of the Concords keeps it loose and focused, even while it's gloriously untethered, while writers Jason Segal and Nicholas Stoller relish in nearly fan-boy awe, scripting a tale that at once holds the whole Muppet crew on such a pedestal while distilling the same uncanny one-liners and panache for spectacle that made them so utterly charming to begin with.  The least ironic child will surely be humming along and become instantly besotted with gang, even on first encounter, while the tougher to bend, most ironic adult will surely not themselves from the instant rush and overly mirth that comes from the film.  The Muppets might just save the world come to think of it...

First we meet Walter, an outcast puppet-like boy with a whimsy and spirit and an encouraging older brother named Gary (Segal.)  His world is changed by The Muppet Show, the first representation of him on television; Walter being from Smalltown, America, this is a big deal.  There's probably a deeper metaphor there, and perhaps an apt one on one's personal struggle for universal acceptance, but who cares-- this is a Muppet movie, and in the end, the let's-put-on-a-show song and dance is far more fun.  Through happenstance, Walter makes it to Los Angeles to visit his dreamland, the ole Muppet Studios alongside big bro and his neglected but absolutely adorable girlfriend of ten years, Mary (played with Enchanted-like cutesy-ness by Amy Adams.)  The problem, it's a ruin, the Muppets long parted ways, their old stomping grounds a relic of the past, and currently while an evil robber baron Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) plots to take over the property due to rumors that oil runs beneath...malicious laugh.  Not to fear, Walter has a plan-- reunite the Muppet gang and bring them back to splendor, reviving their storied studio as well as their fame.  First step-- find Kermit the Frog.

The most amusing bits (and that's saying quite a lot) is reuniting the old gang in gloriously silly and insipid fashion.  Fozzie Bear is stuck in a sad Muppets cover band in a greasy lounge in Reno.  Gonzo has become a successful toilet entrepreneur, while Animal is in anger management tempted by his drums to a startling degree.  Statler and Waldorf are still cranky.  That's the spark and the note that reminds this isn't an underlying cynical film of Muppets gone irrelevant, but a fun and spirit resurrection of something that many might (including myself) have realized they didn't know they missed.  There's still that dash of irreverence, whimsical mischief, celebrity cameos (Jack Black is a real sport) and songs that made them so damned likeable to begin with.  The one holdout on the Muppet reunion is, but of course, Miss Piggy, living extravagantly Kermit-free in Paris as the high powered editor of the plus-sized division of Vogue...Emily Blunt gives a juicy cameo parodying her Devil Wears Prada role.  Rashida Jones matches as a cynical, overly latte-ed network executive.

The joy of The Muppets as always has had nothing to do with plot, but with bits-- the endless barrage of hit and miss sight gags all thrown up in the air, only to land with a big giant smirk on its audiences face.  And while time may have fattened the scope a bit-- for instance Walter, the newest muppet begins a bigger slog as the picture continues, and Gary and Mary become more and more irrelevant as well, there's that joyous showmanship that reigns superior.  For Fozzie the Bear may now come equipped with fart shoes, he still utters "Wawka Wawka" with singular stupid grace, for everything old is new again and vice versa; as long as The Muppets can keep the happy tune afloat, not to sound a total dork, I have everything I need.  A-

Independent Spirit Award Nominations

Take Shelter
  • 50/50
  • The Artist
  • Beginners
  • The Descendants
  • Drive
  • Take Shelter
  • Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
  • Mike Mills, Beginners
  • Jeff Nichols, Take Shelter 
  • Alexander Payne, The Descendants
  • Nicholas Winding Refn, Drive

  • Another Earth
  • In the Family
  • Margin Call
  • Martha Marcy May Marlene
  • Natural Selection

JOHN CASSAVETTES AWARD (Best Feature under $500,000)
  • Bellflower
  • Circumstance
  • The Dynamiter
  • Hello Lonesome
  • Pariah

  • Demian Bichir, A Better Life
  • Jean Dejardin, The Artist
  • Ryan Gosling, Drive
  • Woody Harrelson, Rampart
  • Michael Shannon, Take Shelter

  • Lauren Ambrose, Think of Me
  • Rachel Harris, Natural Selection
  • Adepero Oduye, Pariah
  • Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene
  • Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn
  • Albert Brooks, Drive
  • John Hawkes, Martha Marcy May Marlene
  • Christopher Plummer, Beginners
  • John C. Rielly, Cedar Rapids
  • Corey Stoll, Midnight in Paris

  • Jessica Chastain, Take Shelter
  • Anjelica Huston, 50/50
  • Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs
  • Harmony Santana, Gun Hill Road
  • Shaileen Woodley, The Descendants
The Descendants
  • The Artist- Michel Hazanavicius
  • Beginners- Mike Mills
  • The Descendants- Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon & Jim Rash
  • Footnote- Joseph Cedar
  • Win Win- Thomas McCarthy 

  • 50/50- Will Reiser
  • Another Earth- Mike Cahill & Brit Marling
  • Cedar Rapids- Phil Johnston
  • Margin Call- J.C. Chandor
  • Terri- Patrick DeWitt
The Artist
  • The Artist- Gui-omme Shiffman
  • Bellflower- Joel Hodge
  • The Dynamiter- Jeffrey Waldron
  • Midnight in Paris- Darius Kond-Jee
  • The Off Hours- Benjamin Kuh-Sulk

  • The Kid with the Bike
  • Melancholia
  • A Separation
  • Shame
  • Tyrannosaur

  • An African Selection
  • Bill Cunningham New York
  • The Interrupters
  • The Redemption of General Butt Naked
  • We Were Here
(presented to a filmmaker, the ensemble cast and the casting director)
  • Margin Call

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

New York Film Critics Circle

And we're off...

PICTURE: The Artist
DIRECTOR: Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
ACTOR: Brad Pitt, Moneyball & The Tree of Life
ACTRESS: Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Albert Brooks, Drive
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life, The Help & Take Shelter
SCREENPLAY: Moneyball- Steven Zailian & Aaron Sorkin
CINEMATOGRAPHY: The Tree of Life- Emmanuel Lubezki
DOCUMENTARY: Cave of Forgotten Dreams
FOREIGN FILM: A Separation
FIRST FEATURE: Margin Call- J.C. Chandor

The first of the majors to come out the gate, the New York Film Critics offer some illumination and also a bit of bah-humbug for gone conclusions.  Firstly, hurrah is in order in the final swoop by announcing The Artist with best of honors over the likely more predicted The Tree of Life and The Descendants (shockingly snubbed), and for Albert Brooks way-too-cool that I still find hard to buy that the fuss-backs of the Academy will truly appreciate.  Cave of Forgotten Dreams mentioned as Best Documentary was a subtle middle finger for the branch that failed to shortlist Werner Herzog's 3-D art history lesson, and Margin Call is a subtle and informed choice for Best First Feature (even if it slighted a first feature I admired slightly more in Martha Marcy May Marlene.)

The rest, well reeks a bit of the expected, not that it's undeserving.  Brad Pitt has had an exceptional 2011 with his most poised and assured performance to date with Moneyball and amassed artistic cred while working with one of the greatest auteurs of all time in The Tree of Life; certainly feels like it's his time and winning his first NYFCC award is the best way to start his awards adventure.  Meryl Streep, winning for her still-unreleased Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady is another thing altogether-- this is certainly not her first NYFCC award; she won in fact two years ago for Julie & Julia, however sight unseen, she will be nominated, all doubts removed for a legend of her stature could coast without this achievement-- with it, there's little to fight.  She's won this round Glenn Close.  Jessica Chastain, having the most banner year of any American actor this year had to settle for tying her Supporting Actress prize with only three of her nine thousand 2011 entries...for the record, I'm on team Take Shelter.  Lubezki's cinematography prize was a forgone conclusion, and that category should now be stricken from the record from any other critical organization...I still have a chill that this mastermind behind the camera will swoop up everything but the Nobel Prize only to lose the Oscar to War Horse.

Of all the mess and analysis of the NYFCC moving up there date for whatever reason, I suppose it matters nil after the fact...they likely would have voted similarly anyway-- perhaps I'm only being kind since The Artist is on top...and of that film, I certainly hope it makes it past the inevitably murky paths of first play awards exhaustion.  For the record, the only film that was not screened (at least the only one publicly kvetched about) was Stephen Daldry's Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close-- perhaps that was an intentional thing at that...

Kudos to the NYFCC for not even bothering with an Animated Feature category this year...why bother?

Sight & Sound's Top Films of 2011

The official release of the Sight & Sound poll for the top films of the year is yet to revealed, but the top ten (or in this case, eleven) are already available.  It's one of the most interesting polls of the year, because it's likely the broadest in terms of the most relevant films of any given year, given the amount of international critics that participate and an early signal of the critical trend in cinema of the year.

1- The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)
2- A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)
3- The Kid With the Bike (Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne)
4- Melancholia (Lars von Trier)
5- The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius)
6- Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Blige Ceylan)
-- The Turin Horse (Bella Tarr)
8- We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsey)
9- Le Quattro Volte (Michelangelo Frammartino)
10- Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson)
-- This is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmash)

The Tree of Life, with its Palme D'Or and Gotham win already in play has a little more to celebrate.  Perhaps an obvious choice, but further proof that the critics will indeed go big (I strongly believe), however I'd love a little variety-- hopefully that will come as the NY Film Critics (who controversially moved up their voting) will come through when they announce shortly.  The rest is full of two pleasant and enriching films, two of my favorites of the year-- The Artist and MelancholiaA Separation, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and The Turin Horse all in contention for the Foreign Film race, and We Need to Talk About Kevin and Tinker Tailor Solider Spy will get limited release spots in the coming weeks.

Last year, Oscar bridesmaid, The Social Network topped the list and in a rare move, an American film is on top two years running.

Gotham Award Winners

The Tree of Life and Beginners

A two-fer for the IFP Gotham Awards, the first organization to announce prizes for the 2011 film season as Terrence Malick's slice of American life circa 1950s\meditation of the origins of it all Tree of Life shares top honors with Mike Mills' quirky autobiographical dramedy.  Last years top honors went to Winter's Bone and the year before went to The Hurt Locker, both of which went on to become eventual Best Picture nominees.  The Gothams are a small organization set in New York and honor their favorite in American independent cinema.  Overall, the group may appear to have little impact over Oscars, and that's likely true, but being the first out of the gate, and more importantly, the first American critics society to announce end of year kudos publicly, it raises awareness on films that may have been slightly forgotten, or in need of a press hike-- both Tree of Life and Beginners came out into theaters back in the summer, and both need kind end of the year critics reaction to stay afloat.

BREAKTHROUGH ACTOR: Felicity Jones, Like Crazy

Best choice is by far the Ensemble Prize for Beginners, which is an Oscar hopeful for Christopher Plummer's wonderful performance as a man coming out of the closet in his declining years.  The film also deserves credit for it's imaginative Original Screenplay and for Ewan McGregor's breath of fresh air role as Plummer's taciturn son.  Yet the film has such a warm and rich ensemble...hopefully this will keep this small film in the conversation as the crazy months begin.  Hehe!

Also slight good news for Jones, whose Like Crazy is likely not awards bait, and I write this despite my reservations for the film-- she's fine in the sappy role, and the last out of the gates film of 2011, Pariah, a coming of age tale about a young urban girl struggling with her sexuality, as both films gets a slight profile boost.

Monday, November 28, 2011


Strong cinematic emotions stir ardently when the name Lars von Trier is mentioned. The infamous Dane is a prankster, provocateur and has been called genius, misanthropic, misogynistic and perhaps even downright evil-- he doesn't help himself in the soft and cuddly department when he (jokingly) sympathizes with Nazis either.  It's the craft and scope and intensity of his films, however, that whether loved or hated-- and that's all relative in his case, as it's quite possible to be on both sides of the fence for many of his projects-- that distinguish him as a filmmaker not easy to discount or completely write off.  His latest, a wistfully romantic dreamlike opera is perhaps his most ambitious, yet also his softest and as strange as it seems, warmly humanistic.  Melancholia could describe its characters, but it also the name of a planet that is striking close to hitting Earth; that end of days hysteria strikes the most civilized in von Trier's cinematic track record may be the ultimate prank the auteur has set for his audience.  Emotionally, however, it's easily one of his most accessible and lovely triumphs-- each image almost impossibly pretty and poetic, and while this is most certainly not a film for everyone, it's difficult to shake the experience of a seasoned filmmaker boldly and refreshingly tinkering with the possibilities and marvels of film.

Melancholia seems to float from it's opening sequence-- a wondrously shot sequence set to Wagner's Tristan and Isolde-- there's fleeting and soft shots of our characters stuck and grounded and sad and terrified.  Whether it's meant to be a dream, an allusion matters little-- it's gentle and lulling, yet strong and stirring and beautifully poetic prelude.  It's in the opening shots that von Trier provokes with uncommon gentleness and teases his audience with something rich, splendid and alive.  It's an invitation to something exciting and unique.  The story itself starts with a wedding, an extravagant affair at a regal estate.  The newlyweds are Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) and are introduced jovially and happily.  The castle is owned by Justine's nervy sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her astronomer husband John (Kiefer Sutherland.)  The wedding in running behind schedule, a matter that makes Claire and John (who have spent a fortune on it) as well as the huge wedding party and planners frantic and uneasy.  Making matters more nervy is Justine's erratic behavior-- calm and pretty one moment, fragile and unhinged the next.  What exactly is the matter-- is it her callous boss (Stellan Skarsgard) whose eager to work during her happy day, or her unstable parents both making a scene-- mom Gaby (Charlotte Rampling) is a bitter rattle-rouser, while father Dexter (John Hurt) is a looney womanizer.  Or is it that strange red star on the horizon that appears just as Justine starts to feel paralyzed with depression and unable to situate herself with her loving husband, supportive, but frantic sister or herself for that matter.

The film is broken up into two parts.  The first is titled "Justine" and revolves around her wedding and ultimate undoing.  The second is titled "Claire" and takes place shortly thereafter when a distraught and nearly catatonic Justine comes back to her sister's home as the planet Melancholia inches closer and may impart doom on all.  What's striking about the second act is that Claire is still nervous, utterly paranoid and longingly protective of her husband, unstable sister, and curious son Leo (Cameron Spurr), while Justine is barely alive-- nearly refusing to eat, bathe-- but utterly calm at the same time, as if she's accepted whatever fate comes, while actively being apart of it as well.  Whatever cosmic interplanetary connection von Trier is going for in his characterization of Justine hardly matters, it brings out the best in Dunst, who has never been so assured, arresting nor compelling on screen before. She so deeply digs into a woman overtaken by depression; something only she alone can feel and see.  It's easily her finest performance to date.  All of which contrasts the typical von Trier-ian debate over misogyny; how can a filmmaker who conjures such strong, vivid roles for females be labeled as such.  In fairness, Dunst gets off slightly easier than past von Trier characters, including co-star Gainsbourg last foray with the filmmaker in 2009's Antichrist.  She's positively glowing and filmed with an almost devastating gracefulness (she won the Best Actress prize at this years Cannes Film Festival.)

What strikes in Melancholia is the richness of character detail and history, one that perhaps is only know to von Trier himself.  It matters little why Leo refers to his depressed aunt as Aunt Steelbreaker, or why the two bond over building caves together, nor what happened earlier in the lives of the two sisters that set them off on two strikingly different paths...what matters is that the subtext is there and alive and open to multiple ideas, and shaded with such beautiful imagery that's meticulous but also a tad playful.  The comic beats of Justine's parents acting like fools, or the wedding planner who won't look in her face for ruining his wedding, it's a freer and almost seemingly happier von Trier, despite the gloom and end of days depression that surrounds it.  It's perhaps the softest and most cuddly the filmmaker has every presented.  I rather like it.

There's another component that makes Melancholia a special edition to the von Trier collection, in that it's one of the first to truly use special effects of any kind.  And that kind of cinematic presence coupled with his intense, dogmatic style seems to free him even more a bit.  Dare it be said, but there's this sense of a kid playing in the sandbox in watching the film.  I'd be bullish to say that von Trier has found his inner Spielberg, but there's a joyful refrain in this film, one that's too distinctive to be ignored.  A-

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Best Documentary Feature

Let the kvetching begin with the 15 finalists, of which 5 will be nominated for Best Documentary Feature in this years Oscar race.  The shortlist is:

  • Battle for Brooklyn
  • Bill Cunningham: New York
  • Buck
  • Hell & Back Again
  • If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front
  • Jane's Journey
  • The Loving Story
  • Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory
  • Project Nim
  • Semper Fi: Always Faithful
  • Sing Your Song
  • Undefeated
  • Under Fire: Journalists in Combat
  • We Were Here
As with the case every year, the real story comes at the films snubbed rather than the ones selected.  Of the fifteen, I've viewed Buck, Project Nim and We Were Here, all pickups from Sundance and solid in their own right.  What was passed over is fairly immense, perhaps moreso than usual, including the major box office hit Senna, the Werner Herzog death penalty doc Into the Abyss (his 3-D spring hit Cave of the Forgotten Dreams was actually eligible last year.)  Also snubbed was the New York Times smart doc Page One, the magically absurd Tabloid (from doc royalty Errol Morris), and the critically acclaimed The Interrupters.

As a sidenote-- the Wim Wenders ballet documentary Pina (in 3-D) is also the official German entry for Best Foreign Language Film.

Friday, November 18, 2011


The darkly comedic morality play Carnage, based on the award winning play God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza is an interesting case study of misguided but obvious talent.  The film is directed by Roman Polanski, fresh off his immaculately crafted suspense film The Ghost Writer and stars Jodie Foster, John C. Rielly, Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz and is adapted from a hit play.  It's positively dripping with prestige and one can easily understand why such a property would attract such a heavy roster of top drawer talent, even for those (like myself) who haven't seen the original source material.  The plot is simple, but with a juicy premise-- four characters, two couples dispensing witty, savage and often feverishly brutal wordplay at one another while trapped in an apartment over a squabble that occurred between the two couples young children.  The material itself almost appears to be channeling a sort of 21th century equivalent of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with all characters, more or less awful, biting and chewing the scenery for moral higher standing-- they're a loathsome bunch, but one gets the sense in the right hands this could have been a tightly wound funhouse of grown-ups acting like children.  The sense immediately once the credit rolled, at least to this viewer, was, what happened?

On paper, Mr. Polanski seems an ideal choice for Carnage, with it's tight, in real time claustrophobia and his penchant for presenting morally shifty characters with such control and elegance.  He co-wrote the screenplay with Reza, and while lots of the dialogue stings, it still comes across strangely flat and of little consequence-- almost like a bullying child; there's anger and aggression, but it inevitably means very little.  And even at an ultra trim 79 minutes, it feels like a very long meeting of these two couples.  What's interesting is the offbeat and incompatible casting choices-- the four co-leads are all extraordinarily gifted in their own right, and are fully committed to the zesty stings they relay on one another, but none of them quite mesh-- it's as though each performer is in a different film of their own; which again might have been interesting had that been the intent.  The action starts at a neighborhood park with seemingly normal boys being boys mayhem, that is until one boy is attacked with a stick resulting in a busted lip and two missing teeth.  The real action begins when the parents of these boys meet to discuss the events, and a hopeful resolution of the situation, which culminates in ugly, childish behavior for all parties and concludes with drunken brandishing of insults.  The guilty fun of the premise is tested early on as the pacing and energy of Carnage seems to run on multiple tracks that Polanski, nor the gifted ensemble, appear to have a steady hand in controlling-- is this a slapsticky romp, moral dramedy of higher meaning, a meandering meditation of good people gone wrong, or good marriages gone to hell.  It's manic, then dithering, then manic again...until it eventually flat lines.

The hard thing to discount, or easily dismiss is the varied and all over the map actions taken by the actors.  It would be difficult to call Carnage a total waste, because the performances are so bizarrely interesting.  Foster plays Penelope, the mother of the son injured in the standoff, a fussy, pointed, culturally and politically aware writer (she's writing a book about Darfur for god's sake) trying, at first at least, to lead the show with a preternatural common sense.  That practicality goes downhill quickly as the ticking emotional time bomb that is the nature of character has such a pointed, almost intellectually stake in being the moral compass of the piece.  At first overly mannered, then overly hammy, Foster never quite seems to quite get her character, but nonetheless throws everything in the air in such a manic way that whatever she's doing, it's always interesting.  Like watching a car wreck, it's difficult to turn away and whether it stems from a nervousness at comedy, her performance is still a fascinating, if misguided, collection of tics.  However, just as with the rest of the film, just as her character should be building into a crescendo of emotion, it slowly starts to disappear.

Penelope's husband is Michael, played by John C. Rielly.  At first presented as an easy-going everyman schlep, and embodied by one of the few genuine marketable actors who specializes in such.  Seemingly cordial and agreeable...he pounces on the opposing couple long after his wife does-- he offers them cobbler and booze.  The weakest part of the film is either the character as written or the performance Rielly gives, not because he's particularly bad (he's quite good, and sports nearly as many vicious lines as his counterparts), it's that he feels the most disconnected character in the piece, the most unformed, and the hardest character to fully peg down.  At times he appears to be most nihilistic; others the most humane-- the only modulation of Michael throughout the film is that his voice goes up in volume as the film goes on.

Kate Winslet plays Nancy, the mother of the boy with a stick; an icy upper crust investment banker.  Proper and poised at the start, but also a bit cold, she, like Penelope, at first thinks the most pragmatically, only to end the meeting having thrown up twice (possibly due to bad cobbler) and drinking up a storm to relieve her hostility and anger at both Michael and Penelope and her own husband, Alan (Waltz.)  Like Foster, Winslet is completely manic and all over the place in her characterization, but it reads a bit differently-- she seems to get the fun and be in on the joke a tad more, distilling insults with a quick aplomb and perhaps relishing the naughty wordplay games.  It's a shame that towards the end, either by design of the screenplay or the performance, that Nancy comes across somewhat pathetic and wretched.  At once trying to be a protective mother, while acknowledging her slimy husband, Nancy lunges into girls behaving badly simplicity.  However, it's still a fascinating portrayal because of her unmitigated commitment.

Waltz rounds out the loathsome foursome as a hot shot attorney with little interest in being there-- he spends most of the film on his cell phone.  But the cool, fiercely charisma of the actor breathes life into a character that's the easiest to hate, at least initially.  His demeanor is always calm, even while uttering destructive invectives-- as if he knows that none of them will ever quite be able to shake him, and it's true.  Alan is the immoral center of the group that shakes everyone up to the point of unleashing such aggression and anger, calling out the sinner in the seemingly morally upstanding person.  And while his graceful precision and mastery of the babbling and vicious dialogue comes off the most sincere, there's the problem: that the four all together never quite work out a way to meet somewhere in the middle-- they're all disjointed characters in need of a center.  C+

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Snow White & the Competing Trailers

What hell hath Tim Burton's ugly Alice in Wonderland brought us?  In the next two years, two competing Snow White tales will be rear their heads onto cinemas.  The first will be Mirror, Mirror directed by Tarsem Singh (The Cell, The Fall, The Immortals) starring Lily Collins as the fairest of them all, Armie Hammer as Prince Charming and Julia Roberts as her Evil Queen.  It comes from Relativity Media and packaged as a family friendly screwball comedy.  The second will be Snow White & the Huntsmen, from first time director Rupert Sanders starring Kristen Stewart as Snow White and Charlize Theron as the Evil Queen.  Which will prevail?  Which will be winner?  Huntsmen is looking for an edgier take to tale, however both like like high camp, do they not?

Theron, at the very least, looks the spicier villain.


Harsh and cold, brittle and fascinating, Shame, the controversial, newly instated NC-17 second feature from British filmmaker Steve McQueen is a haunting experience, mostly due to the stark realism that grounds its intense nature.  Yet for a film that dives into human sexuality with such a brisk nonchalance, it's easy, if perhaps slightly false, to call a film like this titillating, or exploitative-- a matter of which the misguided prudes that make up the Motion Picture Association of America, or many regular filmgoers themselves might struggle with.  For this is a movie; and a specifically grown-up movie, about a man with an unhealthy sexual addiction-- one that prevents genuine human contact of nearly any kind-- with friends, family, much less potentially solid suitors.  What matters and makes the film a unique and interesting slice of cinema is the humanity and non-judgmental ques the director gives his actors, and the nakedly expressive performances that arise from much so that the heavily hyped nudity of the picture feels so much of an after-thought after the film is completed, and lingers and questions and builds from whatever you bring to it, and take out of it.  Much like McQueen's first feature, Hunger (which centered around the real-life hunger strike lead by IRA prisoner Bobby Sands), Shame is bold, yet quiet...propulsive, but controlled...interesting and unsettling and difficult shake, in spite of and because of its flaws.  In short, it's a film that may gain notoriety due to its dangling body parts, but it's a haunting feature that matters.

The hero of sorts is Michael Fassbender, who got his big breakthrough with Hunger a few years back and was awarded a richly deserved Best Actor mention at this years Venice Film Festival for Shame.  He plays Brandon, an Irish-born corporate swell in Manhattan, and the first beats of the film reveal his unhealthy sexual routine, consisting of online pornography, prostitutes, regular hook-up girls, all the while maintaining his quiet, easy-going self around drinks with his co-workers.  It's an uncomfortable rut from the start, and the quick entrance of his wayward younger sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) shifts and slowly starts to mess Brandon up ever more.  While their backstory is never explained, the notes and disconnection between Brandon and Sissy is obvious and destructive.  Sissy is a seen at first as a charmingly flaky free spirit; she could easily be a token girlfriend part in a silly romantic comedy, but she's just as damaged, and the ebb and flow of their relationship is part of the complicated, but spellbinding achievement of Shame.  He, the tightly wound introvert trails off for anonymous sex and inappropriate self-love (or hate), while she is more the outgoing, impulsive type who leaves her vulnerability to the stage, as she is a wannabe lounge singer.  There's an eerily striking early scene where Sissy performs "New York, New York" in a slow manner that serves both as wake-up call and cry for help simultaneously for both her and Brandon.  That the scene is shot in a nearly unbroken take adds to the raw vulnerability.

McQueen's slow moving camera and tight shots of his actors inform the tension and work almost as another character altogether, exposing the actors in a way that would feel almost voyeuristic if it weren't grounded in so much reality.  For it's really a rare film that pounces on the darker aspects of human behavior, and characters both fully formed and still strangely kept at arms length; the closer more personal scenes with Brandon and Sissy linger because of the things not said, and the distance between them.  The game changer that eventually spirals Brandon further down his destructive path is one that seems, at first, entirely throwaway.  He's chatted up and hit on by an attractive co-worker (played with graceful humanity by Nicole Beharie) and the two go on an actual date; something entirely foreign to Brandon as his fiddles and fuses while trying to make conversation and put aside his own baggage he's so eager to dispose of.  The scene itself is rendered with acute precision-- McQueen this time pulls back his camera, as Brandon struggles, as he's knowingly aware that he may have met a good one and is fearful of what to do.  The only caveat to this rich scene is a stink of misjudged comedy that throws the rhythms off the alluring duets of the actors.

In the end, Brandon succumbs to his nature in almost excruciating sequence of hitting bottom.  It's masterfully shot in pieces, for the audience to link what happened when, and while thankfully it doesn't quite have the over-the-top Lost Weekend feel, it's unblinkingly terse.  Fassbender is nearly impenetrable, distilling such a clear authority over his dark character, that when he unravels in such naked abandon, it's heartbreaking and exhausting.  To his and the films credit as a whole, Brandon is never presented as a glamorous ladies man, nor a charming cad, but something altogether more haunting and human: a sad, lonely man who long ago disconnected himself from everyone-- casual sex is the only way he can express himself with another person, forgotten the rhythms and joy of intimacy.  That Fassbender is also such an endearing and charmingly expressive performer, with movie star stature makes the transition all the more unsettling.  Mulligan nearly matches Fassbander, as does many of the other nameless supporting players, most pop up for a scene or two of anonymous pairing.  McQueen makes the demanding nature of the story explicit on everyone, including the audience.

But that's also the wonder of a film like Shame, in that even under such strict demands, it manages to be alive and exciting at the same time for the that patient, grown-up moviegoer.  And for a feature called Shame, there's never that judgement expressed on its characters, that's all internal-- Brandon is ashamed of himself.  And moreso for a movie that's so rich in substance and mood, it becomes more and more interesting when the film slightly goes astray and loses itself every once in a while, for unintended histrionics in a feature so painfully raw are quickly grounded by the steady hand of the actors and McQueen's grimly beautiful camera.  A-

Monday, November 14, 2011

Margin Call

With the wirey intensity of a thriller, a nicely nuanced sense of Mamet-inspired wordplay and an honest indictment of the realities of the beginning of recession-era American economics, Margin Call comes out the gates, perhaps a few years too late, but a nicely stinging piece of work.  Set at a powerful investment firm at the break of the impending financial crisis, first time writer\director J.C. Chandor creates a terse, forward moving all night wake up call for his characters and the country, with very rich men (and women) at it's center, beginners and veterans all scrambling and fearing the worst.  That the film is for the most part free of right or left wing speechifying, over-the-top histrionics or the slightest bit of judgement on its characters makes it all the more richer and absorbing.  That the film is essentially about faulty number crunching, wherein characters exclaim, "Say it in English" makes it urgent and accessible.  That it features singularly strong performances from a generous group of actors makes it a small, but undeniably potent chamber piece of  contemporary American independent cinema.

The film starts before the music, so to speak, as ended, with a massive corporate overhaul.  Incoming imposing suits with pink slips and an ultra-serious demeanor.  The first sequence, which already makes one antsy, is strong because it's intimidating and cold-- the first to be canned is Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), a risk management corporate player with many years to his credit; the scene is so terse that he has to be explained when while being canned when the firer is being apologetic.  The problem is Eric has been crunching numbers and discovered a flaw in booking which he passes on to his protege Peter (Zachary Quinto), with the crypt message to be careful.  The bigger problem, which Peter resolves, is that essentially the music is over, and the company, and perhaps the market itself is headed to certain doom; that the coin is worthless.  It gets bigger and bigger and Peter's boss, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) takes it to his boss, Jared Cohen (Simon Baker) to the man in charge, John Tuld (Jeremy Irons.)  As the numbers reveal almost certain doom, Margin Call becomes the Dazed & Confused for the Wall Street set.  Set over the course of a very nerve-racking 24 hours.  As the fate of the company and the men (and few women-- mostly just Demi Moore) are unraveled, the most remarkable part of Margin Call is the distilled dignity and, gasp, sense of consciousness from its characters.  It's hardly the type of film to point fingers, nor proclaim all Wall Street folks as uncaring monsters.

Not that everyone gets off easily...again Demi Moore comes into play, but it's that inquisitive morality that makes Margin Call a better and more unsettling film than one might expect set around a rich boys club.  Again the performances are the biggest sell, working with a solid, but sometimes meandering screenplay.  Quinto (who also produced the film) still has the bushy brow and pronunciation of a young-Spock, but underlines that with an intelligence and grasp of what's at stake, while keeping in stock his own future.  Tucci is quietly commanding, while office mate Paul Bettany (as a charismatic, sometimes morally shifty bloke) nails the ambivalence of middle management type, secretly scared out of his wits.  It's Spacey, however-- he of such infamous Glengarry Glen Ross fame that's most striking in his quiet (for him) and almost graceful humanity. Even the shiftier moments of Margin Call come with a pain-staking understanding of the rules at hand-- some will get thrown under the bus, others lose their livelihoods, others guided toward higher grounds-- and that very notion, while sickening and unsettling marks a tone of integrity to the story, just as the realistic mood of the film, that even while everything is crumbling, some will survive, some will not, and all of that has more to do with politics than actual merits.

In short, Margin Call is essentially the movie that Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, the misguided recession-era sequel of last year, should have been.  B

Saturday, November 5, 2011

European Film Award Nominations

  • The Artist 
  • In a Better World
  • The Kid With the Bike
  • The King's Speech
  • Le Havre
  • Melancholia

  • Susanne Bier, In a Better World
  • Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, The Kid With the Bike
  • Aki Kaurismaki, Le Havre
  • Bela Tarr, The Turin Horse
  • Lars von Trier, Melancholia

  • Jean Dujardin, The Artist
  • Colin Firth, The King's Speech
  • Mikael Persbrandt, In a Better World
  • Michel Piccoli, Habemus Papam
  • Andre Wilms, Le Havre

  • Kirsten Dunst, Melancholia
  • Cecile de France, The Kid With the Bike
  • Charlotte Gainsbourgh, Melancholia
  • Nadezhda Markina, Elena
  • Tilda Swinton, We Need to Talk About Kevin

  • Jean Pierre & Luc Dardenne, The Kid With the Bike
  • Anders Thomas Jensen, In a Better World
  • Aki Kaurismaki, Le Havre
  • Lars von Trier, Melancholia

  • The Artist
  • Essential Killing
  • Melancholia
  • The Turin Horse

  • The King's Speech
  • Melancholia
  • Three

  • Habemus Papam
  • Melancholia
  • The Skin I Live In

  • The Artist
  • The King's Speech
  • The Skin I Live In
  • The Turin Horse
Favorites from Cannes and two Oscar winners from last year dominate this years European Film Award nominees, as The Artist, The Kid With the Bike, Le Havre, and Melancholia all had a nice show alongside last years Foreign Language Oscar winner In a Better World and Best Picture winner The King's Speech rounded out the top honors field...what the hell, a year later and a stuttering Colin Firth is still being fetted by awards societies?@!%  The cool thing is that some of these might actually have a fair showing in this years race (Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer won the top prize last year) as The Artist will get the big Weinstein-endorsed awards treatment when it opens later this month (and deserves so much...I heart it), Le Havre is the Finnish Oscar selection, and opened in limited engagement two weeks ago, Melancholia can be seen in theaters in two weeks, or in your living room as we speak...sadly stateside, non-festival going movie fans will have to wait on the Dardenne Brothers latest The Kid With the Bike, and Belgium decided to not pick it as their Oscar selection this year.  Also kinda cool is the Best Actress field includes two Oscar dark horses with Kirsten Dunst and Tilda Swinton.

Like Crazy

A great love story doesn't need much, it can be remarkably simple and still be like magical.  The one thing it needs in spades is a palpable connection between its leading characters.  The posers of Like Crazy wouldn't know a thing about that, instead it's the distance and innate miserablism that bonds the shapeless, dithering that inexplicably captured the Grand Jury Prize at this years Sundance Film Festival.  A sort of indie precocious, hipster version of Sleepless in Seattle, Drake Doremus' dormant little romance makes more mileage out its outre filmmaking process than anything that appears on screen.  Shot without a script, and on the spot with its actors working on small backstories rather than actual words, Like Crazy seems to crave to be the American equivalent of a Mike Leigh enterprise...the problem is that lacks a pulse, a soul, a reason to care about its young lovers.  Minimalist is admirable; boredom is quite another thing, and while it may be a reasonable cause for acclaim to feature a love story around young people without bells and whistles gimmicks or other nonsense, there's a sense and feeling early on, that a fairly tedious affair is in store, and that while showcased as an anecdote to indie romantic whimsy like (500) Days of Summer, there appears not nearly enough crazy, but instead a staid, depressing detachment to our budding young lovers.

The lovers themselves are quite attractive.  Jacob (Anton Yelchin) and Anna (Felicity Jones) meet in the waning days of college in Los Angeles, have an inexplicably nerdy meet-cute moment and fall madly for one another.  Smitten, because I suppose the wordless script told them too.  Truth be said, she's a tad strange, and he's tad quiet and the instant rapport, while perhaps correct in pointing out social awkwardness on first dates, plays so slight, so inconsequential, one sort of wonders why the two agreed to a second date.  She's an aspiring journalist; he's an aspiring furniture maker-- she's also British and on leave on a student visa, needing to return to her jollier-than-realistic parents (Alex Kingston and Oliver Murhead) once her university stay is complete.  However, there love is told to us to be pure and once class is dismissed, Anna (the far more outgoing of the two) decides to stay the summer in sunny California with her boyfriend.  What follows is an escalating, and simultaneously depressing and boring cross Atlantic love spell that leaves both parties bitter and lonely.  Slowly the film becomes quite like tedious.

Years pass, and Anna's visa trouble keeps her trapped in England and to the advances of a fitter lad named Simon (Charlie Bewley) and Jacob's booming furniture business keeps him bound to Los Angeles and the comely allure of Samantha (Jennifer Lawrence.)  All the while, the two are distracted, distraught and altogether boring in their affection and devotion to one another.  And that's the problem of Like Crazy in a snap-- there's nothing keeping these two together other than the false romantic notion that meet cute moments can materialize into true love; both really are quite content without one another-- she's becoming a successful writer for an online magazine-- and it's almost in the scenes after their first brush that make that more apparent.  But it's also the overly understated bitter sequences that follow and very slow make Like Crazy like incredibly dull.  Instead we're treated to false montages of implied happiness and stunted scenes of forced sadness.  It becomes apparent too soon that these two are perhaps more in love with the fact that someone has embraced the others inaccessible charm versus any sort of charm floating to the surface.

To Jones' credit, she fairs slightly better (and won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance); she has an offbeat sensibility that manages to save a few excruciating sequences from final doom by her utter refusal to back down, and a uniquely pretty face that grows more interesting as the movie goes on; in truth one suspects she could eat Jacob as an appetizer any day; again the wordless script prevents such actions.  It's unfortunate that Yelchin is one of the more colder of fish on terms of romantic drama-- he's certainly handsome and seemingly game, but out of his depth as a dashing, volatile lead.  The real romance may perhaps lie between the filmmaker and the eternally love struck, hipster sad sack.  C

Friday, November 4, 2011

Best Animated Feature

Here are the 18 films that will vie for contention for Best Animated Feature:

  • The Adventures of Tintin
  • Alois Nebel
  • Alvin & the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked
  • Arthur Christmas
  • Cars 2
  • A Cat in Paris
  • Chico & Rita
  • Gnomeo & Juliet
  • Happy Feet Two
  • Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil
  • Kung Fu Panda 2
  • Mars Needs Moms
  • Puss in Boots
  • Rango
  • Rio
  • The Smurfs
  • Winnie the Pooh
  • Wrinkles
Whose for cancelling this category this year?  May I have an amen!  The most interesting bit will come from Tintin which is currently winning raves and gangbusters box office in its European opening (it's based on
children's books far more popular overseas), what with its stop motion issue (which may or may not be a problem) and the Spielberg issue (will the animators take issue with the biggest director of all time invading their turf?)

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Another Nail in the Coffin for Los Angeles Indie Movie Theaters

Rather sad day, at the very least personally, hopefully to many cinephiles in the Los Angeles area as well as the venerable institution known as the Sunset 5 will be closing its doors December 1st.  Owned and operated by Laemmle Theaters, a small Southern California chain of art houses, the decision comes with a whimper on the already sad state of art house complexes in Los Angeles.  Over the past few years, many have folded (thinking of the Fine Arts Theater and NuWilshire Theater, and the others (including the Sunset 5) have for some time appeared fledgling at best.  All of which is terribly sad news, not the least bit personally for the indelible marks seethed into my memory, but the lack of art houses in Los Angeles itself.  While bigger, fancier multiplexes have popped out and have over the past few years have increasingly shown a bigger diversity in mixing big Hollywood films with the smaller art house offerings, and certain local revival houses are doing stellar business working on their own terms (thinking of the New Beverly Cinema, owned by Quentin Tarantino, and Silent Movie House of Fairfax.)  But what's becoming of the simpler, scrappier art houses that value screen space to the truly independent, foreign and documentary features that now, more than ever appear less and less existent in Los Angeles.

Perhaps saddest for me, because I was at the Sunset 5 just yesterday (where I saw Take Shelter) and have been a regular and happy consumer for several years-- I saw films like Weekend and Tabloid there as, and as both are currently two of many favorite offerings of the year.  Yet it's fact that this nearly two decade old cinematic haven (it opened its doors in 1992) has a lasting legacy; the theater is located in center of West Hollywood and opened its doors to the small, but everlasting moment in independent filmmaking of the Queer New Wave, showing the early titles of brash filmmakers like Todd Haynes, Gregg Araki, Lisa Cholodenko, and Todd Solondz.  Before the look started to become slightly rundown, it was the hippest theater in town, but also a lovely communal moviegoing experience in of itself. 

Plans are underway that Sundance Cinemas will renovate the space and open a 7-screen multiplex in 2012, but that's hardly the point.  The of late, no-thrills atmosphere of movie places like the Sunset 5 are reminders that plush and fancy (not to mention-- ridiculously expensive) are not the wave of the future, but the reason why many prefer staying home.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

"Shame" French one-sheet

Leave to the French to be a bit naughtier in their marketing the hotly buzzed about sex addiction drama Shame.  I feel like Fox Searchlight's bitch at the moment, but I really can't quell my excitement for this movie-- others can have their franchise crap, I'll gladly take a hard, unsettling, likely depressing (and newly anointed NC-17) drama any day.

Take Shelter

The first shot in the eerily absorbing Take Shelter shows a man outside his quaint American heartland home as he is caught in a sudden downpour-- raindrops coming down with the color of motor oil.  Something's clearly afoot here in this paranoid, end of days art house chamber piece.  Directed by Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories), and starring Michael Shannon, it's the large quiet moments that matter most, distilling a texture of a modern, alienated man trying to keep his hold on reality.  In fact, Take Shelter, while perhaps best described as a thriller, is almost totally silent and a bit demanding, but builds unnervingly well to the patient moviegoer.  Not just a mad stormy weather piece, nor man gone crazy drama, but a meditation on modern struggles and recession-era stress.  Whatever the point, Nichols elegantly builds the films terrors beautifully, and Shannon, while certainly in his comfort zone in playing a zonked, mentally unstable man (think of Bug, his Oscar-nominated supporting turn in Revolutionary Road and nearly everything else on his resume) gives an altogether raw and impassioned performance that both elevates the film in it's reality-based horrors, and connects on a larger chord to the masses who struggle to keep both feet firmly planted on the floor.

Plagued by nightmares, hallucinations and really bad weather, Curtis (Shannon), a hard-working construction worker with a lovely and dutiful wife (Jessica Chastain) is having a rough go at it.  Seeing imposing clouds in the sky (and wondering if it's just him seeing them), distraught of the woes of not being able to provide for and protect his family, Curtis is spiraling down a rabbit hole of paranoia and fear.  Sensing that his dreams may be prophetic as well as a sure sign of complete madness, he spends the majority of the film trying to maintain order.  That's part of the trick of the movie and the masterful quality of Shannon's performance.  Where is this coming from?  Could it possibly be genetic-- his mother (Kathy Baker) was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at his age.  Could it be financial-- he's kind of struggling at work, and bills need to be paid, as well as his deaf daughter's looming surgery-- yes there are quite of bit of squirmy plot points, but they never overtake the film thankfully. 

Curtis' master plan to solve all: to build an immense storm shelter in his back yard.  Whatever the case, or whatever the outcome, the thrills of Take Shelter are the quiet gestures of Curtis trying to maintain his stability-- he even seeks counseling.  Fears of ending up like mum and abandoning his family come to surface as well. For her part, Chastain matches Shannon's intensity with her soft sensitivity; a bit like the other side of the coin to the idealized motherlyness she brought to The Tree of Life; she's down to earth, maturely level-headed and filled with the natural humanity of an average hard-working wife and mom.  She makes curtains and pillows for extra household cash and she's nurturing to her husband's strange behavior till the point of breakdown.  What builds, and I'm hasty to give much away, is a climax that's as unsettling but tenderly earned.  Take Shelter beautifully drifts its audience in with artistic gracefulness.  B+
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