Saturday, September 29, 2012


There's something exciting, entrancing and altogether transporting about Looper, a science fiction action hybrid film that should work for whatever an unsuspecting audience member wants to read into it.  Set in the none-too-distant future where things are slight bit different (there's a hovering vehicle of sorts, and various subtle advancements in technology in background), but still familiar.  There's plenty of action for the genre junkies, and a surplus of violence (including a few niftily off-color sequences) to excite that set, but there's a working brain behind the story, and a nicely calibrated and disarming one at that.  There's texture to the sequences set in the city, and the neighboring farms, and even a bit of international flare to set Looper an interesting, and highly discussable work of fiction, if only for those who would like to.  A fanboy, a cinephile, and even the intermittent movie goer should find something to savor, if only the clever novelty of writer\director Rian Johnson's high concept adventure.

Johnson's an interesting cinematic specimen onto himself.  His first film film was the highly stylized indie Brick (2006), a never before seen melding of John Hughes and classically pulp film noir.  It was one of the features that put star Joseph Gordon Levitt on the movie landscape, and Looper furthers that journey for both star and filmmaker.  That Johnson's second feature-- the zany caper The Brothers Bloom (2008) was so markedly different, except for the quirk, made him a more interesting auteur.  In Looper, Johnson is working on his biggest scale and shows a remarkable lightness, ease and confidence, even more impressive considering the film is bigger, grander, more adventurous, and more ambitious than his previous films.  Set in two simultaneous futures, and centered around one main character, one a younger, aggressive outsider assassin Joe (Gordon Levitt); the other the older, more weathered soul with a greater consciousness (played by Bruce Willis), Looper is the sort of science fiction epic that in story detail and description would sound confusing and convoluted, enough to engulf even the most alert movie-goer still stoked by Inception.  The remarkable trick of Looper and Johnson's delicate balancing act is that he appears even less interested in the schematics, and keeps everything nicely tight and earthbound.

Joe is a looper, a contract player for an underworld of mob men who seek to rid the planet of future goons.  Thirty years in the future from younger Joe's world, a mysterious group sends people back in time for their execution, riding them of future havoc.  Time travel is illegal and only performed by such underground groups.  The world of the looper is a fairly sad one; even as Joe goes from job to job, while carousing nightly with drugs and prostitutes in between.  One of the rules of the looper trade is that they must be killed off at some point; time travel is outlawed and these assassins have blood on their hands.  The real ride begins as Young Joe meets Older Joe, and the race and clash begins.  There's a bit more to plot, but most of the thrills of Looper are in the turns and switch of fates, including Young Joe's escape to a farm land home, ruled by a steely, and rifle-touting mother (Emily Blunt), who's ten-year-old boy may or may not hold a key to a grisly future.  Looper evolves, seemingly paying homage to science fiction past, but rather than pay lip service to it's predecessors, Johnson swaggers, holds a beat, and moves on, claiming his film as something of its own.  Jeff Daniels steps in for able comic support as mob guy, and provides the biggest, most ironic bit of amusement in the film, just by the reference of the country, "China."  It's akin to The Graduate's famous "Plastics" punchline.

There's a nicely painted backdrop to a future, not uncommon to the one presented in Children of Men or Blade Runner, that's vivid without ever being overbearing or taking focus away from the characters.  There's hints of virus that hit the world some earlier, with scary effects, but what's chilling mostly is the dissolute, seeming ordinariness of Johnson's future-- it's haunting and slightly exhilarating.  Yet that's also part of the fun; the cinematic ride of action genre yarn built around subtle artistic flourishes that ground Looper from straying too far from course in any direction.  The best exchange in the entire film involves Gordon Levitt and Willis at a dinner, each with opposing mind view on the table.  Gordon Levitt knows the rules and will nothing to win, even if killing his future self is a part of it; Willis demonstrates a tough-minded sensibility while trying to get through to his less focused younger self of the bliss of happiness and need to fight for it.  Yet Johnson ably supports both his Joes, and never loses a connection to either.  Gordon Levitt and Willis do fine work, both greatly lifted from superior material.

And in the end, will-- Looper is just kind of blast.  Even when slight nods towards the bombast derail the peculiar charm, the film never quells.  It breathes with the excitement of something new, while both looking back and forward at once.  A-

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

There's an affable and hopeful nostalgia to The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a tenderly conceived, nicely acted teen misfit dramedy based on the best selling novel, that through stretches almost gets away with its strands of unevenness.  Like the central character Charlie, admirably played by Logan Lerman (Percy Jackson & the Olympians), the film isn't quite sure of itself at times, but it's likable, and something that feels should be rooted for despite it all.  There's always been a cinematic embrace to the underdog, the nerd, the wallflower of sorts-- one can make of it what one would like, perhaps the inner thoughts of a screenwriter's will.  But from the time when James Dean more or less introduced teen angst to cinemas in the 1950s with Rebel Without a Cause, it's a cinematic archetype, that while has formed into many facets, carries a certain truth to it.  In high school, everything does indeed feel more, and everything for the first time carries that much more weight to it, and while The Perks of Being Wallflower at times feels like a Juno-ized cross between a CW soap and an after school special, their are tiny and larger moments that pop with that aching feeling of something real, something genuine, and something sad.  Stephen Chbosky wrote the novel and wrote and directed the film, and does affectionate justice to his personalized tale, but leaves enough back that one imagines that a great film was possibly in reach.

Charlie is a high school freshman, recently returning from a prolonged hospitalization, he's shy, nervous, inquisitive, and like a lot of high school students, trying to fit into a world that he is smart enough to realize isn't very likely.  Almost by accident he meets a group of older misfits that turn his fate around.  Patrick (a nearly ethereal Ezra Miller) is a outgoing gay student with a snappy wit and sass mouth that would feel completely inorganic in another actors world, nearly takes Charlie under his wing, with the help of fellow senior (and half sister) Sam (Emma Watson), a bright pixie with anxiety that nearly matches (and clearly excites) Charlie.  The film chronicles the three as a genuine friendship blooms between the three, along with a secondary group of fellow underdogs.  One of the more original components to The Perks of Being a Wallflower is that it eschews the typical high school sexual nonsense of kids trying to find a mate (or someone to take their virginity away) and instead focuses on the foundations of friendship instead.  Charlie, a guy who we later learn is under a great deal of external anxiety due to a youthful trauma, seeks acceptance over sex, and that's something that makes the matter a bit more palatable, and slightly refreshing.   There is a flirtation and budding something between Charlie and Sam, and a small, ill-fated relationship that develops between Charlie and Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman), a fellow outsider, but the scenes that pop are the joyous ones of inclusion where Charlie breaks his wallflower role and, to his relief, feels "normal."

Chbosky does a nice job in grounding the film tonally in that the comedy never feels forced, and the drama never feels over the top, even in moments where it easily could.  For instance, a subplot involving Patrick's closeted boyfriend is nicely handled without any melodramatic snips or didactic sermonizing.  It's the pacing and flow that feel a bit less out of reach, for as the school years goes on, there's too often a nearly whatever approach to Charlie's search and a certain vague-ness not just to his condition, but to him.  Lerman does a nice job of keeping Charlie earthbound, but there's a certain disconnect to moments that should soar that feel more of a fault of direction than performance.  For instance, when the film makes a stern about face in the last stretch, there's a certain arbitrary-ness to it, even though it's hard not to root for the kid.  There's on-going feeling throughout The Perks of Being a Wallflower of, wow, I really want to embrace this film, I really want to adore it, but too much murk and unnecessary dirt get in the way of the parts, moments and sequences that spark.  There's a nicely, if untruthful, sequence of driving with David Bowie blaring that speaks emotionally if not for silly dialogue of the characters unaware of Bowie.  That would be fine except that the self-referential script, and attention to music to the film and the characters makes it impossible to believe that not one of these smart-alec kids knows of Bowie.  It may be a small thing, a petty thing, but it's enough to take you out of the film, and there's enough of that that start to wilt the perks of this special Wallflower.  B-

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Master

The aloof, unsettling start to Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master sets the stage for a challenging, thoroughly absorbing, continually confounding piece of work.  A collection of shots, mostly centered around a garrulous Joaquin Phoenix, gorgeously photographed showing a man, clearly distraught, constantly boozed, staggering around-- a beach, a naval ship-- lack a formal cohesive center, while filmed under the utmost control.  The staggering craftsmanship at hand in The Master is easy to appreciate-- it showcases a filmmaker at the top of his artistic stride, perhaps even furthering the beautifully chilly vistas of There Will Be Blood, it's the narrative leaps and characters and themes that boggle, shake and leave the film with a quizzical sense of unrelenting questioning.  While The Master made early headlines and media controversy as that Paul Thomas Anderson film that was inspired by the origins of Scientology, it's clear that was a mere stepping stone for a more thoughtful, thought-provoking, ever challenging and heady piece of work that delves into the nature of a seemingly powerless man overtaken by a seemingly powerful one.  Only those duels are constantly at odds, and ever changing.  With serious thematic material like religion, cults and a distillation of the American Dream circa early 1950s as backdrop, The Master may be the most difficult American film in recent years to tackle, yet my mind still drifts back to the opening shots-- beautiful, absorbing and intriguingly and falsely innocent (and filmed in luscious 70mm by Mihai Malaimare, Jr.)

We later learn that Phoenix's character is Freddie Quell, a veteran of World War II, struggling to acclimate back into civilian.  He's soused and unpredictable, a condition that likely began far before the wounds of war accentuated his behavior.  He finds work as a department store photographer, only seemingly interested in gathering materials for his homemade tonics and chasing the skirts that come his way.  This beast of a performance is nearly breathtaking because of the constantly hunched over, ever longing physicality that Phoenix brings to Freddie.  A man whose incapable of sitting still, and with every mumbling line reading may spark an animated bust of laughter or an unplanned fight, he's all id-- all action and reaction with zero thought or control over his actions.  It's the deftest and most thoroughly unattainable piece of acting in his career, and a redemptive reminder of his scope and depth as an actor.  He distills a strong sense that he's in need of something.

He finds that something after drunkenly crashing a cruise ship.  Belonging to Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a grandiose intellectual sort of man, who sees something else in Freddie.  The leader and master of a newly founded group entitled The Cause, Lancaster is drawn to this 'scoundrel' either as project or protector.  The bulk and beauty of The Master is the interplay between Phoenix and Hoffman who square off against one another in a series of rattling sequences, showcasing the complexity and continual one-ups-mans-ship of their characters.  They quietly start to bond as master and protege engage in the first of a series of "processing," a powerfully filmed and acted scene Lancaster begins to shake Freddie and build a hold over him.  However, the id of Freddie is unpredictable and the animal instincts that Lancaster is forever trying to destroy, come out in dangerous showcases of loyalty.  After a while it begins to ask the question as to who exactly has the upper hand here.  The first quiver in Lancaster comes at a Cause party that is rattled by a skeptic, which merely prompts Freddie to beat the man up as a sign of respect.

Hoffman opposes Phoenix's naturalism by expressing a formal theatricality to his performance.  And while that dichotomy is sometimes a bit jarring-- nearly in the same vein as Daniel Day-Lewis' grand Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood-- it works because his Lancaster is nearly a staged performer in his own right, aggressively trying to seduce and charm his following.  It also creates a further, if intentional, barrier in truly understanding his Lancaster.  He, just as the ever expansive film, becomes more at arms reach as it continues.  This continues with his Peggy (Amy Adams), a similarly hard to crack character introduced as dowdy long suffering wife, only to be questioned as the film goes on as a figure more menacing below the surface-- all Anderson hints at is distorted through contemptuous reactionary close-ups and isolated line readings.  To be sure, there's far more interest in Freddie and Lancaster as they duel and wage verbal warfare upon each other.  Lancaster's "processing" of Freddie becomes more intense and controlling as a sense of his loyalty starts to waver; Freddie still longing connection to something argues and writhes while trying to remain dutiful.  All the while, Jonny Greenwood's aggressively unsettling and cinematically enriching score roars in the background.

The aching challenge of The Master, and it's near refusal to offer emotional peace keeping, will engage as often as it repels, but the powerful scope and ambitious nature of Anderson's film will endure.  Even with its flaws, the film prevails because of its insurmountable scope and bravura in craft and technique.  This is film that requires conversation, debate and patience.  As artful as it is pretentious, and as oblique as it is bewitching.  Sorting through the lines of exactly Anderson is trying to say, and more importantly, not saying, make The Master worthy of whatever its cinematic legacy will become.  A-  

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Weinstein Company Triumphs!

Big weekend for The Weinstein Company, as the People's Choice Audience Award was bestowed upon David O. Russell's The Silver Linings Playbook at the Toronto Film Festival, while Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master achieves the (unadjusted) highest per-screen average for a live-action film in history.  Both films won their respective award, and it's a major coup for Weinstein, as they head into another awards season, being the undefeated champion the last two years running, for The King's Speech and The Artist, respectively.
The Audience Award at Toronto can be a major win (think American Beauty, Precious, Slumdog Millionaire, The King's Speech) or an also-ran (Water, Bella, Where Do We Go Now?; remember those?)  However, the comic-tragic mental illness romance between Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, with Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver as support, played to luminous reviews and seemed a big festival hit.  The Master, the ponderously, critically drooled over film didn't win anything at Toronto (even though, an Audience Award seems somewhat antithetical for a film that keeps itself intentionally distant-- more on that later), after it's sweep at Venice, it became the king of the box office (nabbing $148,000 per screen on 5 screens this past weekend-- taking over this record from this summer's Moonrise Kingdom.)  Let the games begin.

Other winners at Toronto:

PEOPLE'S CHOICE AWARD: The Silver Linings Playbook
CANADIAN FEATURE: Lawrence Anyways- Xavier Dolan
CANADIAN DIRECTORIAL DEBUT: Antiviral- Brandon Croenberg; Blackbird- Jason Buxton
AUDIENCE AWARD MIDNIGHT MADNESS: Seven Psychopaths- Martin McDonaugh

Thursday, September 13, 2012

"Lincoln" trailer

It's been quite some time since I've been enchanted by a film by Steven Spielberg, however watching a new trailer, featuring that tag line still carries the weight of enchantment from childhood.  Even so, the first true glimpse of Lincoln, the second great Abe film of 2012-- this only likely sans vampires, raises a few alert bells.  Sure, it features a dynamo cast-- with an ever grizzled Daniel Day-Lewis front and center (and sure to be an Oscar contender; damned the actual quality of the final product.)  In fact, perhaps that my biggest peeve-- that this film can only be okay in order to receive tremendous end of year plaudits, simply by its pedigree-- look no further than last year's painfully sincere War Horse (and its 6 Oscar nominations) for more support to that thesis.  At the very least, the written by Tony Kushner back line, while lacking in childhood sentiment, adds artistic cred.  Fingers crossed November 17th!!!!


Sunday, September 9, 2012


Likely the meanest, most caustic motion picture of the year, Bachelorette, unlike last years Bridesmaids is in the truest sense of the female version of The Hangover.  A racy, raucous comedy of manners where nearly all behavior is nasty and full of contempt.  Written and directed by Leslye Headland, based on her own play, the film follows three high school mean girls as they come together for the wedding of one of their own.  Coming along for the ride is their past and current resentments culminating in a series of girls behaving badly comic-tragic displays that, while thoroughly and exactingly performed leave an often bitter taste.  The film almost feels like a collection of vignettes that would give the Romney team extra ammunition for current political policies, if not for the spirited, nearly Olympian gamesmanship of the actressses that take part, finding funny and spiteful charisma in ugly behavior and personal destructiveness.

The action begins as Becky (Rebel Wilson), announces her impending engagement.  This causes craziness from her three high school mates, Regan (Kirsten Dunst), Katie (Isla Fisher) and Gena (Lizzy Caplan.)  Not just coupled with the anxiety of a friend beating them to the altar, but the added meanness that the slightly overweight girl, dubbed as "Pigface" in high school is set to marry an altogether attractive and decent guy, all three girls seemingly go into a tailspin in altogether different ways, whilst channeling past problems.  The biggest problem of Bachelorette from the outset is that it's hard to believe that anyone of these gals were friends to begin with-- they're mean girls from different settings.

Regan is a controlling, type-A control freak, a woman with an Ivy League education and glare that could chill a ghost.  She's cleverly nicknamed Hannibal by a male suitor who wants her, and her resolve makes her a perfect maid of honor, if intolerable in reality.  Katie is a party girl who never quite grew up, still impressed with the one-ups-man-ship of out-drinking and out-drugging the lot.  While Gena is the caustic depressant with the most clever one-liners (only matched by the amount of cocaine she can store) and severest of social norms-- this is tested by the presence of her old high school boyfriend Clyde (Adam Scott.)  That these three girls and Becky were friends in high school seems tonally impossible, yet the film coasts on the performances of the leading ladies who dispel bad behavior and naughtiness with absolute commitment and ugly charm, along with a clear headed inventiveness in staging by Headland, who keeps things quick and sprite.  Instead of dwelling from ugly moo point, she just jets to the next one.  Most of the plot settles on an ill-fated bachelorette party that results in an a sobbing bride and a coke-filled incident that mars her wedding dress.  The distressed and highly intoxicated girls work around the clock the fix it in an effort to not let their crazy ruin the festivities.

Throughout the brightest performer of the bunch is Dunst, who plays her high-wire act with a nervy, bitchy tension that is intoxicating in its control.  Especially in a nicely and tightly put together third act sequence that's essentially a classic French slamming doors farce take off, Dunst owns the film with a spicy power.  Caplan delivers her nasty lines with vigor, while Fisher plays destructive lush gamely, but there's an underlying tinge of nastiness that overpowers Bachelorette as a female-centered film that seemingly hates women.  Is it okay that this film was made by a woman, does that make the misogyny more acceptable, or does it raise a bigger issue.  I enjoyed the film and laughed several times, but the aftertaste is slightly bitter.  B-

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Venice Film Festival

The awards seasons has officially begun with the Venice International Film Festival unveiling the winners, as the Telluride Film Festival and Toronto Film Festival continue to unleash and distinguish the haves vs. the havenots.  Paul Thomas Anderson's greatly anticipated Scientology-soaked feature The Master makes huge strides toward eventual Oscar-dom, winning two prizes at Venice, while failing to take the top award.  Michael Mann headed the jury.  the winners:

Golden Lion: Pieta, directed by Kim Ki-duk

Silver Lion (Best Director): Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master

Special Jury Prize: Paradise: Faith, directed by Ulrich Seidl

Best Actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
Wonder what the Academy will do with the possibility of both being considering leading actor-- usually one gets downsized to supporting, however the monumental-ness of the performances\performers seems a crime to do so in this case.

Best Actress: Hadas Yaron, Fill the Void

Best Screenplay: Something in the Air- Olivier Assayas

Technical Achievement Award: It Was the Son- Daniele Cipri

Best Young Actor: Fabrizio Falco, It Was the Son and Dormant Beauty

The other main attraction out of Venice was the latest by Terrence Malick, To the Wonder, starring Javier Bardem, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams and Olga Kurylenko, a mere fourteen months after The Tree of Life opened in theaters.  The reviews were mixed as many argued that the film was even less accessible and free of dialogue than the former.  The film is still awaiting a distributor, however one can at the very least except that the religiously-scoped love story is scrumptiously filmed...cinematographer\poet Emmanuel Lubezki filmed this one as well.   

Monday, September 3, 2012

Robot & Frank

Frank (Frank Langella) is a quiet senior man, a former cat burglar, whose sometimes forgetful memory nevertheless doesn't prevents him from his daily routines.  A walk into town, to the library for a book he's read several times before and platonic flirting with a friendly librarian, played by Susan Sarandon, followed by casual shoplifting at a local beauty store where his favorite restaurant resided many moons ago.  Living in partial squalor in a big house in a time set in the near future, Frank's son, Hunter (James Marsden) is worried, yet also uninterested in the treking several hours to watch the old man, who still believes him to be in college.  His solution-- a helper robot to look after his old man, specifically programmed to ensure that Frank stays healthy and in control of his senior moments.  Seen as a humorously benign new-age Hal from 2001, Frank's robot, voiced dryly by Peter Sarsgaard with a winking human undertone, a friendship between man and machine starts to develop, as the robot (never given a proper name) re-triggers an old-time sense of fun and danger for the ex-con man.  Essentially, Robot & Frank is the ultimate new age indie comedy centering around one final job.

The best parts of Robot & Frank are Langella as grand curmudgeon; a hilarious reaction shot, followed by a profanity-infused line reading are genius when the robot suggests that Frank take up gardening.  And the film, directed by Jake Schreier and written by Christopher D. Ford, is sharpest and at it's most clever in the rapport between Frank and the robot; the con jobs are besides the point, leaving little in the way of mystery and suspense, while his human compatriots are relationships better served for movies of the week.  The film premiered at this years Sundance Film Festival, and earned many plaudits mainly because Langella is too strong and sturdy an actor to undercut a scene or throw away a flimsy piece of writing or narrative indiscretion, and while his performance works both as comedic and poignant, there's a strange topsy-turvy, seemingly lack of narrative structure to the film.  Farcical one moment, serious the next, with a strange save the books sermon thrown in for some reason.  The problem with this silly movie is that it takes itself way too seriously to be seen as novelty indie fun, or a nifty high concept conceit.  C+

Sunday, September 2, 2012

On the Road teaser

On the Road, the once-thought unfilmable defining Jack Kerouac novel, has a teaser trailer.  The film, directed by Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries, Central Station) comes courtesy of IFC Films off a moderately successful run in competition at this years Cannes Film Festival.  Starring Kristen Stewart, Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, Kirsten Dunst, Amy Adams, Elizabeth Moss and Viggo Mortenssen. 

For a Good Time, Call...

The best reason to check out For a Good Time, Call..., the latest in the girls behaving badly movement bolstered by Bridesmaids' high grosses, is for Ari Graynor's lead performance.  She plays Katie, a bawdy, smut-mouthed sassy blonde.  In a snap she recalls the flightiness of Goldie Hawn in her prime tinged with an unexpected natural grace that recalls a mixture of Sissy Spacek's innocence with Debra Winger's earthiness.  And while the film is a trashy, but gentle spirited portrait of female bonding, it's Graynor's game and spitfire comic timing that keeps things interesting-- she's seemingly transcending the dumb blonde archetype with every playfully naughty gesture and pose.  For those smitten with her scene-stealing gross-out in Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist (2008) and watched her talents go under-utilized in this summers Celeste & Jesse Forever, she pounces feverishly and delivers most of the good time on display here.  I have a feeling Woody Allen could write a marvelous part for her.

The film about two young women-- Graynor's Katie and Lauren (played by the films co-writer and Ms. Seth Rogan, Lauren Miller), both of whom have a long-standing loathe of one another since college, are due to improbable circumstances stuck as roommates in a beautiful (and unreal) Manhattan apartment.  The set-up is sitcom-kitsch, as Lauren is the uptick, stick up her butt do-gooder type and Katie is the free-spirited pixie.  When Lauren learns of Katie's secret trade-- she's a phone sex operator-- she's instantly judgement, but also a bit turned on.  Further circumstances lead the two going into business with one another; Lauren is a no-fun Type-A control freak, but even Katie admires her business plan.  What slowly starts to develop is a friendship that's rooted as a meet-cute boys-meets-girl romantic comedy, and there's a nice underlined sweetness to the girls courtship as besties.  And while the revelations that come are far from fresh-- for instance Katie is not quite as loose as her dirty talk lets on, and Lauren is not nearly as much as a bore once her freak flag starts to rear in-- the performers keep it from seeming stale.

For a Good Time, Call... was directed by Jamie Travis, and written by Miller and Katie Anne Naylon instills a candy-colored backdrop, instilling a nice, never stern or scary eavesdrop into sex-trade workers-- even the girls' clients are never seen as sleazy, creepy individuals, just randy men (Seth Rogan makes a cameo as a horny pilot), while the fake orgasms and sex toys never over-populate the sweet friendship at the film center.  The film deserves at least half the success of The Hangover, with a premise just as likely, but instilled with far more humanity, and two very funny ladies.  B
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...