Wednesday, October 31, 2012


Artwork for Stoker, to be released next spring by Fox Searchlight, comes from director Park Chan-wook, the acclaimed South Korean filmmaker making his English-language debut.  He directed the original Oldboy, set to be remade by Spike Lee.  The thriller stars Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska and Matthew Goode, who play Uncle Charlie, in an obvious tip of the hat to Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt.

Looks pure genre, but in the best possible sense-- in the sense, that on first glimpse, I'm sure many will hate it without question.  Kidman, the grandest, starriest auteurial vehicle the cinema has at this point, surely looks like she's having a grand old time, biting and relishing every bit-- at least from what the trailer provides.  She, unquestionably, has little problem delving into risky projects with filmmakers, both acclaimed and newly instated-- Birth, Dogville, Rabbit Hole, Moulin Rouge!, The Others and The Paperboy have all done her well.

The Empire Strikes

In a news item that will either make your geek boot tingle or twitch, the Walt Disney Co. snapped up LucasFilm for $4.05 billion, and thus will own the rights to the not just the Star Wars franchise, but the entirety of the George Lucas vault, including effects house Industrial Lights & Magic.  Further plans are evolved as Lucas himself has written a treatment for a trilogy that would released under Disney, with a planned arrival date of 2015.  This is a major purchase.  Disney, of course already has theme park attractions of Star Wars and Indiana Jones, but now with this purchase, as well as it's slightly murkier ownership rights of Marvel Entertainment gives the company a significant boost in overall blockbuster tentpole output.  This alongside Pixar, means that Disney-proper could very provide very creative output of its very own, and still earn end of the year bragging rights; the mega-money earned earlier this year for Marvel's The Avengers proves there's still much green to be earned.  And even as the Star Wars prequels did little (or nothing) to advance the franchise creatively, all of which earned major cash merely by brand alone.  Another trilogy, merchandising, further theme park attractions, and geesh, the investment will pay off in dividends, even as a potentially, a generation of film fans will have their childhoods snatched in the process.

Now, only if Disney could snap up The Weinstein Company, all would come full circle in life.  And then purchase me, you, and all of our friends, merge with Oprah (since an outright acquisition would be out of the question), we would all have a magically life.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Cloud Atlas

A maddeningly ponderous and laborious feat is Cloud Atlas, a relentless endurance test even for the most patient and open minded of filmgoer.  Ambitious enough that the film tells six disparate stories, set from 1850 to post-apocalyptic Apocalypto territory, and requiring three filmmakers-- half the project was helmed by Tom Tykwer, the man behind the 1999 German art house sensation Run Lola Run, and the other half by the Wachowski siblings Andy and Lana, famous for The Matrix trilogy, Racer-- there's nothing about Cloud Atlas that comes across as easy, discernible or accessible.  And at a nearly three hour running length, there's a spark of creative sparks flying all over the place in a project so manically hard to pin to down, but none seem to strike as expected, leaving a pained tremor of wasted energy (and perhaps a pained posterior) for any adventurous cinephile ready for the trek.  What's missing beyond the grand visuals, the epic settings and perfectly game master cast, all of whom take on multiple roles in many cases crossing genders and ethnicity, is much of a point.  For a film that purports to be about it all, and bounds to connect the disjointed stories into a cohesive whole about life, love, death, reincarnation, and anything else pretentiously convoluted the press packages may be making up, there's such a corny, unnecessary arbitrary-ness to the event.  What may have been perceived and concocted with the intention of being the grandest cinematic mindfuck moviegoing experience is mostly just random vignettes of beautifully photographed serving moreso for cinematic masturbation for whomever will soak it in.

Adapted from David Mitchell's best-selling 2004 novel and indulgently put together, and put up with a $100 million-plus budget (one such, that this may be of the first films where an audience may sympathize with the suckered studio executives and investors bamboozled), the film begins with what feels like a teaser trailer.  A prologue to the stories about to unfold, but as we get deeper into this auteurial madness of a film, there's an oddly and sadly homogenized reality that those teasers just beget more teasers, with wisps of a metaphysical passage here and there.  As Cloud Atlas reaches its half way point, there's no sense catharsis is near, and wears down anybody who may have been clinging to risible sparks of promise.  Even as the chapters themselves start to slowly, very slowly, make their initial gravitation toward a conclusion, there's the nagging but persistent notion that not one of those meticulously choreographed stories-- all of which are acted the hell out of-- would be able to stand on their own.  The exercise shows it's strain and the gimmicks becomes way too apparent, like a big-budged version of The Five Obstructions without the fun.  The barrier in consistency may be partially explained due to the fact that Twyker and the Wachowski's were working with two different sets of crews in their tales, the cast being the only thing that remained constant.  However, the range in style and tone is so radically berserk that any five minute period of Cloud Atlas is nearly batted to a thud because the inter-connectedness that feeds the entire film is never fully processed, and the stories range from the mighty to the indifferent within a whim.

The best, or most cinematically complete story revolves around a gay outcast (Ben Whishaw) living in 1930s era Cambridge who becomes an amanuensis to a weathered, but once mighty composer (Jim Broadbent.)  Told mostly through letters that the student shares with his secret lover (James D'Arcy), there's a danger and searing connection to his plight.  A ripe, if overly played out, essay of a young, penniless artist trying to mark his future and be freed from his oppressive society, there's certainly an emotional connection-- much of which comes for Whishaw's sensitive portrayal, but this also the one segment free from insipid mugging or dragged out histrionics.  The filmmakers-- Tykwer directed this chapter-- restrain this tale, play it straight and allow the complications to form organically.

The other tales, which range from 1850s shipwrecked victim (Jim Sturges), being poisoned by a guileless doctor (Tom Hanks), while making friends with captured slaves, a 70s detective story about a journalist (Halle Berry) uncovering something big about big oil, a current day tale of literary twit (Jim Broadbent) trying to break free from a nursery home, a futuristic tale of Blade Runner-esqe robot (Bae Doona) stages a revolution, and a post-apocalyptic journey lead by goat-herder (Tom Hanks), who speaks like Jar Jar Binks, all run the gambit from novelty to heavy handed, each concluding with overly simplistic ideas than which it began.  Each segment makes a statement, more or less, of a hero who is victimized and their rise above.  The gimmick the filmmakers use, of which the actors are clearly agog with, is that each actor plays several roles, many times altering gender and ethnicity.  For instance, Sturges, an afflicted notary in 1850 comes home to his sweetheart, played in white face by Korean actress Doona, and Sturges played Doona's savior in future.  The many instances imply a great device for the filmmakers in trying to make their themes palpable, but the gimmick never passes.  While there's certainly great sight gags, especially when Hanks dons a deplorably caddish accent to play a nefarious novelist in Broadbent's signature segment; other worldy thespians like Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant and Hugo Weaving journey along the centuries with the filmmakers.

The never seemingly connect, but befuddle, provide momentary giggles, as one patiently looks at their watch.  D

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Impossible

With a film like The Impossible, which documents the horrific tsunami that destroyed Southeast Asia in 2004 seen through the prism of one family, one really knows what to expect.  The emotional beats, built-in sensitivity to ones suffering, there's a certain formula; it's all in the execution.  With Spanish director Juan Antonia Bayona at the helm, who crafted the elegant thriller The Orphanage (2008), he begins his film with a bristling tension.  We know what will happen, but stages nice sequences of a family in harmony-- in this a real family vacationing in Thailand for Christmas holiday.  There's a playful ordinariness in young children frolicking, eager excitement for Christmas gifts and family swim sessions.  Of course, and just as the musical cues will remind us, a tragedy is about to strike.  Wisps of wind, birds fleeing, a red ball stopped in mid play.  Bayona stages the disaster in a uncommonly humane way, seen through the eyes of innocents unaware of whats about to happen, and sadly aware there's little they can do.  There's an immediate indictment of man versus nature eeriness that would spook anyone with it's grounded sense of reality.

The sequence itself is a grandiose display of technical precision.  Tightly shot, exactly executed and bravura in craftsmanship.  There's a tinge of on-ones-seat nerves, as one might expect from the fun but scary disaster films of yore, but the awareness that this, in fact, true, quells movie-going excitement, and subdues it to utmost emotion.  As the water covers the ocean side resort that the well off Bennett family is staying at, there's an immediate ripe undercurrent of immediate sadness.  That Bayona stages the disaster with such a no-nonsense immediacy, barely taking time for the viewer to grasp whats happening is a triumph; it's just a shame that him and his team couldn't sustain it, instead going the easier way out, harkening and bludgeoning his audience with assaults of suffering without the same sense of control.  But as a beginning, The Impossible succeeds with long stretches, with unsentimental displays of nearly wordless, almost pure cinema.  In the aftermath, Maria (Naomi Watts) is dragged down the ocean current, separated from her husband, Henry (Ewan McGregor) and three sons.  Bayona assaults Maria with nature's affect in a sequence that's harrowing and nearly impossible to watch.  Watts surely will be commended for the pure physicality of her performance as her Maria is bruised and ambushed.

When she meets her eldest son Lucas (Tom Holland), there's a relief and a respite as the film ventures from disaster movie to survival film.  It's this stage of the film where Bayona loses sight of the reality he so authoritatively presented during the storm.  The emotional stakes are high, and certainly tears will continue to be shed; it's just that kind of movie, but there's a more pronounced bit of manipulation at hand, one that can't easily be forgotten, even in the course of crying ones eyes out.  Holland, however, gives a marvelous performance a young child, afraid, but forced to take on the role of leader and plays his scenes with a naturalistic dignity and preternatural command.  Towards the center of the film, he takes charge of the sequence where he, as a lucky victim not too terribly injured, becomes a surrogate to helping bring other victims together in a nearby hospital.  The setup is mawkish enough for anyone to easily call uncle, but Holland and the filmmakers, perhaps seemingly aware, underplay the grandness of it.  It's through this sense of command that plots Holland as the only actor to really ever break out of pure sad survivalist role in the film.  Watts and McGregor are certainly charismatic actors and do good work, but under the minimalist script by Sergio Sanchez, neither are given too much of interior life, outside of the keep moving sense of struggle.

There's a harrowing and graceful tribute to the victims of 2004 tsunami tragedy, and thankfully the film supersedes movie-of-the-week tackiness, but there's still a nagging sense that The Impossible might have soared without such an easily-connect-the-dots the conclusion.  This is a real story, and based on a real family's tragedy, and since the trailer itself gives the whole thing away anyway, there's nary a spoiler on that front.  There is something to be said, however, for the trite dialogue, unsubtle gestures of suffering all in service for entertainment.  What starts as a horror film swiftly turns into a somewhat hokey survival fetish film, masquerading as humane drama.  Either as a good thing or bad, it becomes all too apparent Bayona was more interested in former.  B-

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Sessions

A short synopsis for The Sessions reads like a typical little Sundance indie that mawkishly pleads to pluck your heartstrings, send you off in a good spirit and hopefully pick up an award or two along the way, while being ever aware of the manipulations at hand.  The story of man, a real man in fact, stricken with polio from a young age who hires a sex surrogate to take his virginity away sounds, in fact, reeks of nearly horrid forced sentimentality and sexual awkwardness for an American film-- that the film premiered at this years Sundance Film Festival doesn't do it much favors.  Yet, here comes a surprise.  A joyous and happily earned one, in that The Sessions, directed by Polish filmmaker Ben Lewin, is a ripely tender, sexually frank, happy, sad small chamber, centralized and grounded by actors who express open-ended humanity and maturity.  The honesty presented in a story about the growth of one mans sexuality is nearly tantamount to one of the few American homegrown specimens to explore the subject free of typical yucks or graceless romanticism of foreplay.  There's been fewer times in American cinema where the idea of sex was treated so frankly, but with such little fanfare over the idea of shown body parts or choices in language.  For that The Sessions, with its small, but truthful tale and overall arc, deserves a piece of whatever Sundancian goodwill may come its way.

Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) was a real life poet, and real life victim of polio-- he was also the subject of the 1997 Oscar-winning short subject documentary Breathing Lessons: The Life & Work of Mark O'Brien (the real O'Brien died into 1999 at the age of 49); The Sessions, itself, was based upon O'Brien's own article, "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate."  Spending most of days confined to the iron lung that takes his breaths for him, O'Brien's days are spent writing, flirting with his female attendants, and in the few hours he is able to spend unconfined, visiting church.  Still alive, long after most polio survivors have meet their maker, the virgin O'Brien is, well frustrated, but more clinically, horny.  As played by Hawkes, an invaluable character actor for years who delivered major (and quite creepy) performances back to back in films like his Oscar-nominated Winter's Bone and last years Martha Marcy May Marlene, is revelatory as O'Brien.  Dynamic in carrying and leading the movie despite and despite the limitations of playing a victim incapable of standing or much movement beyond slight gestures in the head, he demonstrates and underlying charisma, joie de vivre and physicality.  There's hardly gestures of victimhood in his performance, nor shades of pity felt-- he's a charmer, but also a bit of a cad, as some of his attendants might defend in awkward bathing moments.

While doing separate research on a piece involving sexuality with the disabled, and spurred on his new attendant Vera (Moon Bloodgood), O'Brien seeks advice on his own sexual chances with a sex therapist.  Through this he meets Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a sex surrogate who may be able to help with his unique condition.  The role itself, as Cheryl begins to extol, of a sex surrogate is far from a prostitute, but more a therapist who clinically awakens, re-awakens sexual desires in someone on a path to sexual prowess, not one who intends to retain repeat customers.  The rules are simple in that the limit to the number sessions is six.  Hunt proves a terrific foil for Hawkes, and the heart, the soul and bulk of the film thankfully revolves around their sessions, and budding relationship that begins to emotionally alter both of them.  Hunt, typically known for her comedic chops, has seemingly never quite dug down as deeply before, and while many will make notice of her frequent undressing, its the casually carnal demeanor that she exhibits that's more impressive.  It's the calm, but reaffirming gestures she imbues in Cheryl that unleashes the possibilities in O'Brien that he never knew he was quite capable of to begin with.  In the sessions, there's hardly a false note.

Outside of the wonderfully calibrated scenes of O'Brien starting to get his groove on, however, prove the weaker spots of The Sessions, and unfortunately so, because there seems like there may have been something far more potent there too.  O'Brien was also a devout Catholic.  His daily visits and confessions with Father Brendan (William H. Macy) are the easy way into his story; most of the film uses these as flashbacks to further the movie.  What could have been a firmer, more thought-provoking angle to the O'Brien sexual odyssey may have been if the film explored the faithful man and his doubts in a more mindful, adult manner.  Whereas the film is a huge achievement in the way it explores sexuality with a pure straight face, his pious nature is more of a long-running joke.  Not an attack on Catholicism, mind you, but a less absorbing piece of the narrative puzzle.  Macy's constant mugging works against him and the film, making the church visits more a comic relief resting stop than a sobering discussion of a deeper conflict-- in this case pre-marital sexual intercourse.

Perhaps the idea was to soften the film; this a crowd-pleasing Sundance entry after all.  Lewin's smartly gilded light touch may have been enough, however, to the keep the film from drifting into melodramatic territory.  But Lewin deserves a multitude of credit for shaping this little movie with a big pulse and a humanistic spirit that never strays into saccharine sentimentality.  And for keeping the two leading performers so leveled-- there's hardly been a better match pair on display in any film in 2012.  B+

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Seven Psychopaths

The nutty, energetically clever Seven Psychopaths serves as Martin McDonagh's follow-up to his Oscar-nominated crime comedy-thriller In Bruges.  What's remarkable is that the English bloke, a renowned playwright and previous Oscar winner for his short film, Six Shooter (2006), is his incredible gift for chatter.  The man has a natural gift for that of gab, and Seven Psychopaths-- likely one of the best Pulp Fiction-riffs ever (saying much, since the days of ripping that off are long gone)-- can attune that gift, an atypically ironic, alpha male, witty one into any sort of shape.  The ensemble cast of Seven Psychopaths makes that case alone.  A filmmaker who can give the best sprouts of lines to such a diverse cast like Colin Farrell, Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson deserves praise in-it-of-itself.  That his dialogue is spread out so well, that many of the best lines are delivered by the day players and the characters actors marks McDonagh the violent prig version of Preston Sturges.  Moreso that Seven Psychopaths is a twisty, very Los Angeles film noir, rotted in great meta composition and silly nods that feel they could topple after every beat yet never wavers in seething, smugly charm, can't be seen as anything more than a huge accomplishment.

We follow a Hollywood tale, at first as least, as Marty (Farrell) is a screenwriter, trying to thaw through his latest, a demented little piece of fiction about psycho-killer people.  With an unbridled conviction to make a violent piece of pulp, that's ultimately about love, with a heaven and hell connectivity underlined, Marty's having a bit of trouble.  Not just because his film, also called "Seven Psychopaths" reads too disparate and random to work, but also because Marty's quite an alcoholic.  His bestie, Sam, played with a flaky charm by Sam Rockwell, is a wannabe actor\dog-napper wants to help.  He's also a loon, working in the dog-napping trade with a bigger loon named Hans (Christopher Walken), whose dark past warps from past to future and into Marty's script.  The trouble starts when Sam steals the wrong dog-- a beloved Shih Tzu of a deranged gangster (played by Woody Harrelson.)  The meta-madness and gleefully violent fun of Seven Psychopaths begins as it follows these characters and their eventual quests, making pit stops along the way to ruminate, not just McDonagh's great dialogue, but working both and against how Hollywood noirs are suppose to behave, leaving an audience in shreds.  The opening box office numbers for Seven Psychopaths were less than auspicious, but mind that little, as there's much hope in the future, as this destined-for-cult-hood film should find itself a nifty side future as a midnight movie choice for generations-- this film demands to seen with a crowd, who can be laugh, screen, be disgusted and wet their pants at the pleasures of it's nifty structure.

Through Marty's script, we chart seven psychopaths-- one of which is an original creation, one of which is a random follower, inconceivably met along the way (and played with bumbling charm and off-kilter joy by Tom Waits); the others are guys (and girls) met along the road.  The entwining of reality versus fiction versus meta-madness never confuses but delights just in the gleeful feeling of, what the hell is gonna come next, loosey-goosey feel of the film.  So much so that the first sequence of the film-- a funny aside about people being shot in the eyes-- is just is a mere whimsical aside for the gory delight set ahead.  Farrell, as he did in In Bruges feels strongly attuned to McDonagh's way-- the non-good guy, not quite anti-hero hero of his tale.  He's a charming and convincing cad, but has his own off-kilter modes that jell well with Seven Psychopaths off-kilter modes.  The rest of cast sizzles on their own idiosyncratic charms; with actors as nutty as Rockwell, Walken and Harrelson, McDonagh seemingly relishes giving them wacky jewels to play, plot and go to town with.  They do, and with aplomb.  If this wacky film has any semblance of a beating heart to match it's clever rat-a-tat shoot 'em up sprees, it come from Walken who provides it.

Interesting, McDonagh inverts the rules of the noir, without especially redefining them.  Case in point is his characterizations of female characters.  In what may be staged as misogynistic or bizarrely feminist, whatever the viewpoint, he riffs that none of ladies are given a three dimensional part-- they're either sex kitten or bitch, but comments on it authoritatively enough that can read as either offensive or affectionate, or both at once.  Abbie Cornish plays Marty's irritated girlfriend, while Olga Kurylenko counterpoints as a scheming fatale.  There's another slice where Seven Psychopaths ports its tale into an entirely different direction, diverting its audience that its quest for violence is gone, replaced by a more thoughtful tune of remorse filled with lots of talking.  That McDonagh drifts his audience into thinking that's actually the outcome is only a tease for the real finale and clear sense of not just his gifts as scribe, but as a filmmaker, finely tuned in the art of a great tease.

What's left is a film, one of which has multiple endings, nearly exceeding The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in its journey to find an actual conclusion, that's a great piece of pulpy fiction.  What's missing is the substance.  Hopefully McDonagh will provide that with feature number three.  B+

Paranormal Activity 4

It's been an incredible journey for the Paranormal Activity franchise.  Four years ago, it not only unseated the Saw franchise as the chosen place for annual Halloween-time terrors, but in the process became not just an incredible cash cow for distributor Paramount Pictures, but a mammoth achievement of cinematic marketing.  The first film was introduced with such a tease, that there sensed this eery delight that here was a horror film-- no horror event-- that felt needed, a jolt to scare fans, and to an industry who shelled out schlock with such regularity, a generation was over it before it even began.  By making the first Paranormal Activity an on demand, you must hunt out to see it type affair, it built a sensation, and three films to follow.  The unfortunate discovery was that that first film was too much hype, too much of a tease, and the franchise itself is its own unfortunate undoing by mere circumstantial existence.  The found footage set-up, the digital age grain, the humming of elongated shots of suburban ordinariness, that white noise soundtrack.  The films are all tease, jolted by old time movie behavior of a creepy house noise or a distant footstep that anyone can identify.  The real triumph is that the well-oiled machines these films have become, upping each production budget to such a micro amount that the films can keep going, not just long enough for even the fans themselves to start to protest, but as long as midnight showings alone can cover the expense.

The first Paranormal Activity was hardly original, it was just marketed as such.  The found footage horror sub-genre existed previously-- the film was really just a glossier rip-off of 1999's The Blair Witch Project, marketing materials included.  The genre, of course, has grown-- case in point this years found footage teen superhero film Chronicle and frat guy party flick Project X.  The shaky camera work, incongruous editing, and crappy sound effects have the ability to channel a lived-in sense of humdrum normalcy, a natural fit and setting for the horror genre-- but the Paranormal series, likely unaware that a franchise could have possibly bloomed-- had to bust something out of their asses and try and create some sort of mythology to keep the series and its dividends flowing.  That's the stretch for director Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (also the pranksters behind 2010's Catfish), and there are stretches of monotonous day in the life humdrum-ness matched by occasional spooky whatever-ness that successfully build up slight smidgens of tension especially in the beginning.  But, there's never a payoff, and for a chiller, it's quite boring; Paranormal Activity 4 is just a tease.  C-

Saturday, October 20, 2012

London Film Festival Awards

Rust & Bone- Jacques Audiard

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God- Alex Gibney

Beasts of the Southern Wild- Benh Zeitlin

Sally El Hosaini, My Brother, The Devil

Tim Burton, Helena Bonham Carter

Jacques Audiard won the top prize at the London Film Festival, the first filmmaker to win twice-- he won the top prize for 2009's A Prophet as well (this is only the fourth year the venerable film festival has given a top prize.)  His film, Rust & Bone, starring Marion Cotillard and Bullhead's Matthias Schoenarets debuted at Cannes earlier this year and is a gritty movie about the relationship between a Sea World-type whale trainer who is crippled from a tragic accident and a thug.  Sony Pictures Classics is mounting an Oscar campaign around Cotillard who will be honored at this years Gotham Awards.  Gibney is a documentarian vet in the Oscar running this year as well...he previously directed Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.

Frankenweenie opened the fest.

Friday, October 19, 2012


Ben Affleck's third trip behind the camera is Argo, a slick and smooth piece of big studio entertainment, a sort of which many could make the argument that Hollywood long ago forgot how to make.  From the beginning, using the retro Warner Bros. "W" logo, Argo makes a plea to be true to its period, and unites the growing directorial sensibilities of Affleck into a more esteemed setting.  Set during the Iranian Hostage Crisis in 1980, there's a sobering disclaimer, but the film-- glossy and greased like a well-oiled pan, is an entertaining piece of showmanship; a professionally and structurally sound studio movie elevated elite status for its daring to showcase a serious, real world situation.  The narrative of Argo-- six Americans the CIA tries to extract from Iran by dressing them us as a Canadian film crew-- brings with the narrative of Ben Affleck.  Once considered a stalwart Hollywood up and comer, crowned Oscar winner for co-writing his breakthrough film, primed for pretty boy status, only to become box office poison once his celebrity started to outweigh his films, Affleck found career redemption behind the camera.  First taking on the genre piece Gone, Baby, Gone to good notices, then tackling the heist yarn The Town, which yielded nice box office returns and bona fide clout.  That Argo is a film that recounts an American horror story is admirable, however it's in his service to Hollywood that will likely make the film seemingly more artistically successful than it actually is.  There's a humbling cinematic homage to the screen that make Argo, perhaps less comparable to great reality-based bombshells of 1970s filmmaking than to last years films-are-our-world mentality of The Artist.  Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a CIA agent, and becomes entangled when it becomes clear that six Americans manage to escape the American Embassy in Iran as the crisis begins.  They seek refuge at the private home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber.)  The real challenge is how to get them out of Iran, as the anti-American sentiment continues to rise; there's a nice respite in the political realm of Argo that presents the case clearly, authoritatively, and certainly patriotic, but still manages to sneak real world dimension into the story instead of merely painting the red, white and blue as grand healers of all.  Mendez begins to challenge every suggestion brought up-- Affleck, in a performance that's natural and form fitting, but never showy does himself a nice degree of justice in that, even as the star of the film, he relents the heavy lifting from himself on camera.  He's never come across so human on screen before, despite arguably doing less than ever.  Mendez concocts a crazy plan-- wild enough that this loosely based on a true story couldn't dare to dream up on its own-- what if the six Americans were Canadian filmmakers scouting for a new film.  1980s filmmaking makes that accessible to believe as these were the years where the birth of blockbuster had just arrived and Star Wars (a film partially shot in exotic locales like Tunisia) had sent Hollywood and the world into a sort of mania.  Mendez sells the concept in a way more accustomed to Hollywood deal-making than anything else, but there's a daring sense of adventure, twinkle of suspense, and gleeful sense of entertainment all at play that make Argo a fun thrill ride.  A higher degree of difficulty artistic treasure may be aroused, but in earnest in highly manipulated.

There's a lot of fun, and much actorly grandstanding in the first stages as Mendez lands in movie land.  Seeking the help of acclaimed make-up artist, and covert CIA conjurer John Chambers, a real life beacon of Hollywood, and Oscar winner for his work in Planet of the Apes, and played with graceful notes of dry humor by John Goodman, Mendez gets the ball rolling.  Chambers connects him with middle of the line producer Lester (Alan Arkin; enjoyable hammy and cranky as ever) and comes across a script for a science fiction, Star Wars-rip off called Argo.  Making the film a seeming reality in the biz begins as Mendez prepares to enter Iran.  At first the American fugitives-- all mostly faces with scant identity of themselves-- are unsettled by the arrival of Mendez, unaware how his crazy plan can work (the CIA is in a similar situation with ace actors like Bryan Cranston and Kyle Chandler providing differing sides of the pendulum.)  Of course, Mendez is risking not just their lives, but his own, and trust in him is earned, mercifully without making too many sappy gestures.

The last stretches of Argo are phenomenal, clearly establishing and building tension from frame to frame, relaying the movie-making entertainment at the start with a clear directive where there's real stakes and genuine suspense-- much of that credit belongs to editor William Goldenberg, who with each cut, makes that tension palpable and for the only time in the film, real.  What before feels like on the surface pieces of Hollywood professionalism and discipline at its finest (which, indeed is a neat trick in it of itself) builds with the charge of electricity that's genuinely sweeping.  As the group, led by Mendez begins their trek to the Tehran airport, there's a danger looming at every corner, and any false note could lead to all their undoing.  Affleck stages the events slowly and swiftly, and provides with a great filmmaking sense of authority, the rules of the game.  For Argo is above nothing a superior thriller that happens to be set in a real world sense of danger.  The reality isn't nearly as important as is the look and feel; Argo achieves that ultimately.

With Gone, Baby, Gone, Affleck established he was serious in filmmaking; The Town made it clear that that cache was deserved with audience residuals, and Argo cements a larger, more accomplished slice of that puzzle.  Here, he's working not just outside his Bostonian comfort zone, but one a larger scale, a more ambitious one.  And while Argo isn't nearly on par with the film that it may like to be in a larger company with, the great American muckraking pieces of filmmaking that were around in the 70s (All the President's Men comes to mind) nor even smoother recent pieces of actors-turned-directors (like George Clooney's Good Night...And Good Luck), there's a neat feat of watching a filmmaker enhance their gifts and tools, refined and rejuvenated, every time out.  At this rate, Affleck may yet have a masterpiece his way soon.  B+

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Paperboy

The Paperboy is set in a particularly swamp-infested part of Florida circa 1969.  A noir, a sudser, provocation and auterial nut house of a movie, inverted and twisted with indelicate pacing by director Lee Daniels, in his follow-up to Precious, settling, I'm assuming once and for all, that the Oscar-honored 'Based on a novel Push by Sapphire', may have truly been a fluke.  The Paperboy is a mess.  A lurid, humidity-rising tale of a death row inmate, his pen pal lover, the journalists brought along to investigate the crime, and the young paperboy in the middle, The Paperboy, under Daniel's unstable hand tries to be many things at once.  A picaresque period film, or which his team has a lot of fun with inventively period specific production designs, costumes and rendering his images as if they came from that period, yet it's also a hothouse, nearly gratuitous exploitation film as well.  Worst of all, Daniels expresses and filters his coming-from-directions with seemingly sanctimonious examinations of race and sexuality, nearly all of which comes across didactic and more and more off center.  What were left with is pervy, art house kitsch masquerading as art, curiously designed by a filmmaker who has never appears more ego-centric nor full of themselves in attempts to throw away all the rules.

The most fascinating and bewitching component in this trashy endeavor is Nicole Kidman's radiant performance, once that shifts from the mercurial to the deranged in a fly.  Playing a lower class Southern belle named Charlotte, this gutsy, gonzo force of a creation would be viewed as a master class in acting had the stuff surrounding her white trashy gal not been quite so trashy itself.  Charlotte's hobby, or fetish, or something is writing letters to prisoners-- had the film any backbone or substance, we might understand this behavior at least slightly, what we're left with is grand, out there notes from Kidman that express and intrigue as the film confounds and folds in on itself.  Charlotte falls for Hilary Van Wetter (John Cusack, doing his best Nicolas Cage impression), a lifer nearing the green mile when an investigation is reopened by two Miami reporters named Ward and Yardley (Matthew McConaughey and David Oyelowo.)  Along for the ride is Ward's younger brother Jack, a once collegiate swimming prodigy, now horny toad young man wiling away as a paperboy for his father.  Jack is played by Zac Efron, in an attempt to grow from past his Disney awe-shucks roots, all of which might be seen as slightly more impressive had Daniels' not fetishized the twinkly matinee idol with extended long shots of the actor in his underwear.  The story, if there really is one, is mostly from Jack's point of view and the hot days and nights surrounding the investigation and his growing lust with Charlotte.

Based on the novel by Pete Dexter (who co-wrote the film with Daniels), there's a sense that there might be a nifty B-level potboiler to the tale.  The actors are certainly all game, and do the most with the insane shenanigans that Daniels sets out for them, but there's politics involved as well.  The film gets too caught up with the sexual and racial morays of the period to fully let them become entwined with the story.  Oyelowo, Ward's partner, in particular reads like a morally loose spin on Sidney Poitier's In the Heat of the Night character, while Macy Gray, playing both narrator and good-natured housekeeper to Jack's family is something right of The Help.  The sexual politics becomes even murkier as Ward's demons start to surface.  And what may have read or seemed as examined by Daniels, is at times preachy when it's not utterly detestable.  D+

Gotham Independent Film Award Nominations

Moonrise Kingdom earns two nominations, including Best Feature.

The 2012 awards season is officially underway as the first governing body has announced its selections for the best of 2012.  The Gotham Awards are always the first organization to do so, and while their nominations aren't necessarily clear bellwethers for the Oscars, they put a few things on the map, giving them a boost, so to speak, as the season starts getting crazy.

The Loneliest Planet
The Master
Middle of Nowhere
Moonrise Kingdom

How to Survive a Plague
Marina Abramavi?: The Artist is Present
Room 237
The Waiting Room

Moonrise Kingdom
Safety Not Guaranteed
The Silver Linings Playbook
Your Sister's Sister

Antonio Mendez Esparza, Aqui y Alla
Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Brian M. Cassidey & Melanie Shatzky, Francine
Jason Corlund & Julia Halperin, Now, Forager
Zal Batmanglij, Sound of My Voice

Mike Birbiglia, Sleepwalk with Me
Emayatzy Corineldi, Middle of Nowhere
Thure Lindhardt, Keep the Lights On
Melanie Lynskey, Hello, I Must Be Going
Quevenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild

An Oversimplification of Her Beauty
Red Flag
Sun Don't Shine
Tiger Tall in Blue
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