Sunday, March 31, 2013

When a Shy White Gay Kid Sees His First Tyler Perry Movie...

Time for full disclosure, there's no secrets here.  I've never seen a Tyler Perry movie before.  Not that I was purposely avoiding the career of the multi-hynenate wunderkind, what with his endless collection of titles that come stampeding into multiplexes several times a year.  Sure I've read articles and reviews- some positive, mostly negative, but that has nothing to do with it-- I freely admit I see tons of trashy movies every year, and while I fully disclose that I'm not likely the ideal demographic for Mr. Perry's output...I would like to think I give everything a chance, at the very least.  Well, I did see For Colored Girls (2010), the filmmakers big flourish outside his wheelhouse, but that's not exactly a Tyler Perry film, it was a cluttered, strangely alluring adaptation of Ntozake Shange's play.  Oooh and I did see Precious of course, but he merely produced the Lee Daniels melodrama.  So I began my Tyler Perry proper experience with his latest, succinctly titled gem Tyler Perry's Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor, and how...

The cherry popped experience is over, but I'm afraid there's still some collateral damage.  Temptation on the outset tells the simple tale of a young woman named Judith (Jurnee Smollett-Bell, an arresting and natural performer), a bright, educated and attractive woman who aspires to be a marriage counselor.  She met her one and only-- the handsome, if not entirely ambitious Brice (Lance Gross)-- as a child; they met adorably so, while in church in their Deep South middle of nowhere town.  In young adulthood, Judith is floundering as an in-house therapist for a high end dating service owned by Janice (Vanessa Williams, displaying a random but audience awakening Pepe Le Pew accent) whilst dreaming of starting her own practice.  As a curio or something or other, Judith is pestered by her lack of wardrobe style by workmate Kim Kardashian, whose job is that of office tart, I presume.  Trouble saunters in the office one day when Harley (Robbie Jones), a social media billionaire dude enters the picture with intentions of investing in the company.  However, it becomes obvious within mere flashes he's more interested in investing in Judith...

The temptation is, whether Judith will give up her stable (if boring) marriage and good old Christian values and succumb to Harley and all his passionate something or other he feels he would add to her life.  Temptation is a clumsily melodramatic soap opera that would be derided as disposable trash if it weren't quite so offensive, ugly and judgmental.  To whom you might ask?  Well I suppose an argument could be made on behalf of everyone with a pulse, but we should start with Judith herself.  She's begins a seemingly happily married woman, but unsettled by a job she isn't passionate about and a marriage that's becoming more than a little stale-- he's even forgotten her own birthday two years running now!  She begins a relationship with this hotshot dude, whose clearly full of b.s., but also hot and good in bed.  The problem is Temptation isn't in an way a meaningful or honest exploration of fidelity-- it's a condemnation of it, but furthermore a condemnation of a bright woman trying to find happiness, or even pursue options.  Judith does a bad thing, but Perry tortures her for it, first by a string of over-the-top behavior, and then further ridicules her when the consequences outweigh the crime.  An affair doesn't lead to drug abuse or necessitate an STD scare.  I ask, was it because Judith was driven...was that her crime?

The feat de resistance comes through in a demeaning, sermonizing and outwardly offensive sequence in which Mr. Perry's nearly literally depicts Hell.  Once Judith is deemed practically in need of an exorcism by her minister mother Sarah (Ella Joyce), she enters a hellion, nearly Sodom and Gomorrah-like party hosted by Harley.  There might as well be literal hellfire, what with the lurid setting and the alcoholism...and the drug use...and the well dressed men conversing casually with other well dressed men...good grief!  I may be a novice to Mr. Perry's oeuvre but I felt I wasn't welcomed from the start.  The flat scenes, limp pacing and distracting establishing shots (shot oddly toward the end of the film) prove faulty filmmaking, the depressing, reductive and insulting sexual politics at play still need some explaining.  D-    

Room 237

Obsessing about movies is healthy.  I hope so at the very least.  But then there are some who take this natural and quite healthy obsession into uncharted territories.  Room 237, a playfully insane rumination of the hidden codes and agendas of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, goes well and above the realm of uncharted obsessiveness.  It's easy to get hooked, especially coupled with the sparsest of backstory of the famed auteur and his storied reputation.  Kubrick was a stylist, innovator and a meticulous showman whose exacting visual prowess pervades all of his work-- there could never for once be something in his films that was a mistake, right?  And on the surface of things, The Shining was his most linear work-- an adaptation of the Stephen King bestseller starring Jack Nicholson-- made and financed with the pretense of mainstream accessibility a few years after Kubrick threw everything to the wall for the ambitious, if lowly attended, period drama Barry Lyndon.  One piece of commentary that Room 237 articulates with clarity and verve is a sense that perhaps Kubrick was drained, or furthermore, even bored with filmmaking as he approached The Shining, and he just wanted to make the whole thing more interesting for himself.  And theories abound as to how we are supposed to read the whole damn thing.

It's interesting to note that The Shining, now regarded as a modern horror classic, received very mixed. if not down right, bad notes upon its release-- it even received two Razzie Nominations in their inaugural year including one for, shutter to think, Worst Director.  The puzzle and mystery of The Shining, an obsessive-worthy film if ever there was one, is that on most respects, the film isn't exactly scary, but an endlessly fascinating and utterly loopy labyrinth of a picture that twists itself in so many directions that had it not been so endlessly fascinating, likely would have completely fallen astray.  Stephen King was famously not pleased with the adaptation, which fair to say shares only the barest backbone of the novel.  Room 237 as a documentary is intended mostly as a lark, I assume.  Director Rodney Ascher assembles a rotation of talking heads who decipher and read the hidden clues and meanings of the film, but those heads are never seen.  It's all voice-over as segments of The Shining are played (usually ultra-slow, frame by frame); it plays like a warped and thoroughly entertaining, conspiracy theory-laden special episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.  It doesn't much matter that the commentators themselves feel mostly anonymous, the film powerfully plays to a cinema-obsessed cult of geeks and weirdos whose impression is left as nerds freeze framing their well worn VCR cassettes in their parents basements.

What's fascinating is what they come up with.  Kubrick, allegedly, took a great interest in the visual cues of suggestion that were commonly used by advertisers in the late seventies and early eighties, which may have signaled playful gags and setups of subliminal messaging.  Something like this certainly feels valid when you consider the mastery filmmaker at work, often for years at a time.  Every motif, hung piece of art work, color scheme, character movement must have been exactly choreographed.  Right on...I'm on board that Stuart Ullman walks in front of his desk to greet Jack Torrance and an exactly positioned paper weight on his desk gives the impression that he has a hard-on.  Well played.  The trick and thrill and allure of Room 237 is the way it sucks you in on the onset, just as the madness ups the ante.

Perhaps The Shining really was a grand metaphor for the genocide of the Native Americans, or a pointed commentary of the Holocaust (a subject that Kubrick apparently wanted to tackle as a subject for a film dead-on, but never did.)  Or best of all, and this where the full-tilt warped mechanics of Room 237 go all in, is the theory that The Shining was Kubrick's apologia for staging the moon landing.  It's the sort of conspiracy theorist gone batshit, aha moment that makes for grand entertainment.  The trick and further allure of Room 237 is that the arguments are compelling and crazy enough that you turn your head and buy into it, just for the quick quivering moment you might start to think...could this all really be true?

Of course, rational sense comes back shortly thereafter, but that's it's trick, it's odd Kubrickian Da Vinci Code power-- an idea transfixing and out-of-this-world enough that it can tease your senses into accepting it as reality.  Some of the commentators in Room 237 may well be certifiable, but that it's so easy to accept their seductive theories makes a case in the hopeful evolved status of film geekdom.  For one thing that is an absolute certain after an experience like Room 237-- The Shining is a nutty makes no sense and it is almost a necessity to bring whatever you would like to the table as there isn't quite a wrong answer.  And while many of its peculiarities may well be simple continuity errors, or such mundane things like that, what would be the fun in that.  Room 237 is a nuthouse, funhouse celebration of cinema, and obsessive-worthy in its own right.  A

Room 237 is currently playing in New York and will expand throughout the coming weeks.  It is also available on VOD and iTunes.     

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Best Part of Oz: The Great & Powerful

It may be a little late, but I've saved you a few's the best part of Oz: The Great & Powerful.  A magical and beautifully put together black and white title sequence that has all the spark, the fire, brains and courage that the film sadly does not.

Sunday, March 24, 2013


In the featherweight comic drama Admission, Tina Fey plays Portia Nathan, an admissions officer at Princeton University.  A steadfast, intelligent, independent and motherless woman who is a part of the team of officials you decide the fates of young men and women in hopes of entering higher education at one of the most illustrious campuses this country has to offer.  Portia, a stickler for details and perhaps a tad anal retentive, is still in the very traditional sense a Tina Fey role, what with her warmly infused sense of irony, awkward stumbling of well versed words and hidden radiance and hotness under her conservative attire.  Fey radiates a simultaneous intelligence and exasperation that's ever gracious and nearly always welcome.  It's somewhat unfortunate that Admission, directed by Paul Weitz, inhabits Fey by trying to keep Portia down so much of the time.  In the sense that a strong independent and successfully career-minded woman, even in the finicky sociopolitical climate of 2013, still must be burdened and bridled by the archaic standard of having it all.  On the onset Admission is not too much unlike a star vehicle that Katharine Hepburn might have played many moons ago-- that of a savvy and sharp woman who must be brought down a few pegs in the nature of seeming "womanly" and thus, appealing.

It's a shame because Fey is absolutely appealing, whether lampooning Sarah Palin or shading the absurdities of singleton Liz Lemon, and furthermore she is appealing here, adroitly shading Portia with a reserve fitted around a freak flag desperate to shine through.  Admission gives Fey the most "dramatic" part she's ever played, perhaps suggesting, albeit subtly, that if that was a direction she wanted to turn to, Fey, the actor not the comic, might rise to that occasion someday.  Weitz and screenwriter Karen Croner (adapting the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz) sod the edges of that drama in favor of a over-saturated film, one that's stuffed a bit too much, and nourished a bit too little.  The broader comic moments hit bigger, namely because the cast includes some of the brightest actors working, all of whom have a knowing sense on how to sell the jokes and gags no matter what.  For the reason that Admission tries to be too much, it takes away the slight pleasures that bring the whole film to a soft landing to begin with.

Firstly, it's presented as a lightly satiric jab at the admission process itself, an anarchic selection of pedigree, academics and social awareness.  It's a pageant that Portia thrives on, even as she slinks by during campus tours, and stridently advices would-be candidates to just, "be themselves."  There's even some friendly caddishness backstage as dueling admission officers Portia and Corinne (played by a wonderful, if under-utilized Gloria Reuben) compete for the affections of boss Clarence (Wallace Shawn) in the hopes of usurping his job.  A novel and refreshing take on false sisterhood in the attempts of rising above advances Admission a smidgeon, if only the parting shots.  This however is but lowest of priorities as the gradually convoluted television-ready plot contrivances start to top one another.

Secondly, the film is a romantic comedy.  This becomes apparent when Good Samaritan John Pressman (Paul Rudd) makes a plea to Portia to visit his progressive, unorthodox school in the hopes of finding Princetonian potential in one of his prodigal soon-to-be graduates-- a shaggy, haired awkwardly groomed book worm named Jeremiah (Nat Wolff.)  From the start of the meet-cute shenanigans of the pleasingly matched Fey and Rudd, it seems a given that the two will give it a go, especially since John is a noble, hippie who circulates the globe healing those in need; he even adopted a young Ugandan boy.

But first a bit of feminine rampaging must occur as Portia is involved with the selfish lout of an English professor (played to the hilt by Michael Sheen, who, by the way, once played an ill-fitted suitor to Liz Lemon)-- the film gets a lot better once he's cleared away, and Portia realizes both her freak flag and becomes more "womanly." Admission has a strange view of it's leading lady, but again it must be stressed that even the fickle sexual politicizing are soothed by Fey, and especially more so by the entrance of her mother, Susannah, a spirited feminist and novelist played by a luminous and stingingly insightful Lily Tomlin.  One almost wishes that Weitz had diverged from the text completely and just ran off with the movie as a mother-daughter project for Tina Fey and Lily Tomlin.  Their scenes have a bite, a fire and a spark that's too unsteady for the easy-listening refinement that Admission is going for.

I bring up Susannah because the third prong of Admission is that of motherhood.  The twist of the film-- not so much because it's revealed in the trailer for gosh darnit, and well, not a particularly novel twist in its own right-- is that Jeremiah, the odd young man with Ivy league potential, if not breeding, may or may not be the child that Portia gave up for adoption sixteen years prior.  And while this gesture, like all of the rest is all pleasant in going down, there is a big strike for the first and the third plot threads of Admission that asks, in the films most dramatic scene, if a hard broiled woman like Portia would vouch for the merits of admission to a case like Jeremiah without the hint of parentage?  It's not the most compelling question, nor a particularly strong reason to see a film like Admission, but there's a sense that the filmmakers were perhaps a little too afraid of a really strong woman to deal with as reason alone.  C+ 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Oz: The Great and Powerful

We're off to see the wizard, because...

Well because the powers that be at Disney have conditioned their lasted offering-- Oz: The Great & Powerful-- as the first cinematic event of the new year, a phenomena that no one associated with The Wizard of Oz could have ever possible imagined when they released their much beloved classic seventy-four years ago.  The powers that be from the force that is Disney (appropriate, I feel for a company now in charge of the fate of Star Wars) appear to have worked their magical sleight of hand, if box office truly means anything about the prowess of the magic of filmmaking, but in this viewers eyes, it's easy to call uncle to their great big and expensive bluff.  Because Oz: The Great & Powerful is not so great nor powerful, but flimsy, derivative and sadly commits one of the worst offenses that bloated, big budgets mega-projects can do: it bores.

Director Sam Raimi, who guided the first Spider-man franchise with the delicate bond of spectacle and humor, at first and foremost seems an odd and inspired choice to revisit the magical land of Oz.  With his elan and glee for macabre, outré horror sensibilities matched with a gilded professionalism, it's an easy invitation to the hallowed ground that Dorothy and friends famously traveled.  Yet something feels amiss from the start.  Oz opens beguilingly, if not altogether in inspired fashion with a black and white prologue set the Academy aspect ratio.  A beckon, a reminder, but also a bit of an arms-up defense for a film trying to hold a candle to one of the most watched pieces of cinema of all time, while also flailing about on its own terms.  It's Kansas, set about twenty-years before The Wizard of Oz, and we meet Oscar Diggs, a magician/scam artist on the traveling circus show.  The circus itself is named after L. Frank Baum in homage to the original creator of the Yellow Brick Road, whose work to the delight of many a canny businessman has entered the world of public domain.

Diggs, all show with little substance (much like the film that surrounds him) is a shrewd entertainer and one who believes he's destined for greatness, but he's a callow lad, a womanizer, a scoundrel and more than bit unseemly even for the most liberal of wannabe Disney heroes.  He's played by James Franco, in a performance that already feels divisive, and if not entirely worthy of derision, than certainly worthy of discussion.  It's not necessarily the fault of Franco that his Oscar (nicknamed, naturally, Oz) is loathsome, nor is it a terrible performance, but it reads like the cinematic illustration of Franco, the actor vs. Franco, the movie star.  In the right roles (such of 127 Hours and the current Spring Breakers), the ubiquitous and curious actor is granted the freedom to explore the strange facets of his curiosities in interesting, unsettling and ultimately surprising ways, but in the more packaged bits of the Hollywood (like Oz and perhaps his ill-fated gig as Oscar host), the actor comes across sweltered and caged by the cushy confines.  Oscar needs a performer self-deprecating enough to make his treachery and smarmy-ness somehow likeable.  A tall order, especially under the circumstances provided in the less than great and powerful dialogue provided by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire.  Franco is weighted down by the effect, but it would be foolish to point the finger on him.

After a circus skirmish where Oscar's philandering is revealed to an unsuspecting boyfriend, the wizard needs to scram, and quickly.  He hopes into a hot air balloon while in pursuit, when, well, wouldn't you know it-- a twister strikes Kansas taking Oscar to the magical, Technicolor world of Oz.  While comparison is foolish, Oz: The Great & Powerful can't quite help itself, riffing on one of the greatest cinematic moments in history as Oscar enters Oz-- suddenly the film turns into the widescreen spectacle show of color, one of which is certainly a delight and awfully pretty, but also a tad empty.  The sequence diverts into an amusement park ride, something of which is posited as a fun adventure is cynically produced as an attraction, all of which would be fine as a five-minute spectacle in Fantasyland, but unsettling at a moment in a movie where the magic is supposed to hitting its mark.

Again, something feels amiss.  It's not quite the look-- some of the shots and color palette is at times gorgeous and refreshing in its mixture of high tech visuals and just-left-of-perfect effects.  Thankfully the film, boasted as being from the producers of the grisly and ugly Alice in Wonderland, has learned a few lessons on the nature of color schemes for its reinvented plagiarizing of classics.  There's even a wondrous CG creation in the form of China Girl, the best friend Oscar meets whom he certainly doesn't deserve.  What's missing is the spark of character, something of which as the film drags on is never acquired.  Oscar finds himself in Oz and is proclaimed the great wizard that will save the land from the Wicked Witch.  The shallow false prophet tries to exclaim his non-magical prowess, but becomes distracted by the comely come-ons by Theodora the Good (Mila Kunis), a susceptible, emotional witch unsure of her rightful path; at first and foremost nothing matters at all but the eternal love she feels for Oz because of a moonlight dance.

The gravest mistake of Oz: The Great & Powerful and the one argument that feels worthy to get all hot and bothered about is the films characterizations of the witches-- there's three in all that make an appearance, and all of whom bedazzled and aglow with the great and powerful one.  Rachel Weisz plays Evanora, Theodora's older and more suspicious sister, while Michelle Williams plays Glinda.  The cat, I'm sure is nearly out of the bag at this point, but the twist of the story is that one of these ladies will turn green and well, wicked.  The journey to get there is the troubling part, and just in verisimilitude of the great green baddie played by Margaret Hamilton seventy-four years ago feels a bit too hard to buy.  Cast with a messed view of gender politics in a lame sort of Oz-fueled The Witches of Eastwick, Raimi and team puts forth three of the most resourceful actresses currently working in movies, casts them as powerful sorcerers and has each of them consumed by the advances of a gross mortal boy.  Sexism and Disney have gone hand in hand for generations, but even the most distressed damsel they've produced has had a bit more of a spine than these three.  Only Weisz seems to really recover, thanks to her game and camp-tinged line's unfortunate the lines themselves are all raspberries.  Even The Wizard of Oz, which entered cinemas in 1939 reads with a stroke of feminist progress as it presents Dorothy as a sharp, independent adventurer, while both Glinda and the Wicked Witch are great and powerful without the assets of a man.  It's a film that seems to have it a little both ways on terms of female gender politics, as the three main female characters are all strong and independent, while mercifully riffing on one another-- Oz: The Great & Powerful sidelines the three witches as mere props, robbing them even of the power to scold one another.  A better idea might have been if they joined forces to conjure a better script.  C- 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Call

Halle Berry shows a steely reserve (along with a sadly unflattering hairdo) in the procedural thriller The Call.  While a film is a minor and by the numbers production, the actress displays such an economical, vanity-free professionalism, that it's almost just enough to let the films ludicrousness off with a free pass in a refrain of drinking the junky, seemingly made-for-TV Kool-Aid.  Stitched together with the tiniest morsel of a plot thread (credited to four writers, no less), The Call, by early set-up almost manages something a bit nifty in garnering small thrills just on the prickly premises of a phone call.  Berry plays Jordan, a sharp and cool 911 telephone operator who unravels when overhearing the murder of a young teenage girl.  Withdrawn and not fully mended, the headstrong Jordan gets off the calls but moves instead to trainer to future operators when she's drawn again in "the hive" when a new teenage girl calls after being abducted.  Haunted, but like the actress playing her, the epitome of workmanlike, Jordan takes over the call.  The girl in question is Casey (Abigal Breslin) and the first half of The Call basically revolves around unfolding the mystery of where she is and how to bring her to safety. 

The audience is fully aware of where this is going, and the ubiquitous trailer that seemingly played in cinemas for years at this point pretty much spilled the beans on the set-up.  However, there's the slightest bit of pleasure in the opening sections of The Call because Berry displays such poise, ease and even authority in a role that required little less than ones attendance.  And there's a scant bit of taut showmanship in the early sections of the film.  Directed by Brad Anderson, a filmmaker who made his mark with the romantic indie Next Stop Wonderland (2001) and gravitated more towards the thriller genre with films like The Machinst (2004) and the underrated Transsiberian (2008.)  The Call marks his first stab at mainstream attention, or a paycheck.  The problem, either attributed to fatigue to a script that knew not what to do with its silly premise is that the film drifts into such a lazy and predictable mystery, discrediting nearly anything that was slightly engaging or thoughtful in the first act.  Berry and Breslin, as well as the immensely gifted and underused Roma Maffia (who plays Jordan's boss) cobble enough synthetic sympathy in their broad characterizations that the lack of character development is nearly excusable, but the crude and sloppy villain of the piece is a third rate caricature, and a laughable one at that.

At first just a benignly creepy bad guy who over the course turns into a Buffalo Bill clone.  If you're going to riff on Ed Gein mythology, something of which great films like Psycho, The Silence of the Lambs and Texas Chainsaw Massacre all have, you kind of deserve a lashing.  C

Monday, March 18, 2013

19th Annual Chlotrudis Awards

The Chlotrudis Awards are presented annually by the Chlotrudis Society for Independent Film, a Boston-area non-profit organization that teaches audiences to view films actively through discussion, formal and informal education, discourse, film festivals, special screenings and collaboration.

MOVIE: The Perks of Being a Wallflower
DIRECTOR: Wes Anderson, Moonrise Kingdom
ACTOR: John Hawkes, The Sessions
ACTRESS: Olivia Coleman, Tyrannosaur
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Ezra Miller, The Perks of Being a Wallflower 
ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: (tie) Moonrise Kingdom- Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola; Take This Waltz- Sarah Polley
ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: The Perks of Being a Wallflower- Stephen Chbosky
DOCUMENTARY: How to Survive a Plague
ENSEMBLE CAST: Moonrise Kingdom
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Beasts of the Southern Wild- Alex DiGerlando
CINEMATOGRAPHY: The Master- Mihai Malaimare, Jr.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

James Franco: Box Office Wizard (and Pimp)

This year has been a snooze for the most part when it comes to box office grosses, what with attendance and admissions all down from the previous year, along with the typically uninspiring product that the first few months of the years brings out.  Well, the key to 2013 box office riches appears to be...James Franco.  Specifically if you surround the actor with a bevy of attractive women seemingly all aglow with the magic and power that is marks this strange specimen of actorly range.  The actor stole the show on both the macro and micro level on this weeks box office chart with the prepackaged Disney extravaganza, Oz: The Great & Powerful maintaining the top spot in its second week of release earning $42 million for a total so far of $145 million, making it the top seller of 2013 so far.  Not content to the object of desire (and eventual disdain) by the powerful witches of Oz (Rachel Wiesz, Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis, respectively), Franco also dominated the limited engagement world with the huge take brought in by Spring Breakers, the latest from enfant terrible Harmony Korine (Gummo, julien donkey boy, screenwriter of Kids), which bolstered the highest per-screen average for any film since last years The Master, rearing a take of $270,000 on three screens in New York and Los Angeles, for an average of $90,000 (the largest for any film so far in 2013, and higher, in fact, than those set by eventual Oscar winners Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty when they charted on their limited debuts; the film also boasts the 22nd biggest per-screen average in history, unadjusted for inflation.)  Spring Breakers, which cements Franco as some sort of career beasts, tackles the role of a white rapper/Spring Break emcee who shepherds past Disney Channel pets Selina Gomez and Ashley Benson into the world of R-rated carnality.
More on Oz: The Great & Powerful and Spring Breakers soon, but this weekend at the very least, we can assume it's James Franco's world and we're just living in it.

In other news, Halle Berry surprised with The Call, the combined magic of Steve Carrel and Jim Carrey couldn't get arrested as The Incredible Burt Wonderstone bombed hard, Jack the Giant Slayer is but an afterthought (more on that soon, too-- I realize no one cares about it anymore!)

The brighter side came from the limited field as not just the impressive achievement of Spring Breakers, but two other films got off to a solid start as well.  From Up on Poppy Hill opened on two screens in New York to a nice average of $27,500; the internationally successful anime from Goro Miyazki (son of maestro Hayao, who co-wrote the film) will arrive in Los Angeles next week, with further expansion to go.  Upstart indie outfit A24 Production was behind Spring Breakers but also unleashed the Elle Fanning period piece Ginger & Rosa (which actually had a blink and you've missed it Oscar qualifying run last December) to solid results as well with a $15,000 average on three screens.  This week, in a highly unusual move, will certainly raise the stock of A24, which has some interesting films in the pipeline including Sophia Coppola's The Bling Ring.

Friday, March 15, 2013

"Frances Ha" Trailer

This may be just looking for failure, but based merely on the trailer alone, Frances Ha may just be my favorite film so far of 2013.  Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the screenplay with director and paramour Noah Baumbach, stars as a neurotic, budding dancer in this black and white, only in New York comedy/drama.  Thankfully, it did earn nice notices from last years festival circuit.  We shall find out this May. 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

"The Great Gatsby" Heads to Cannes

Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby will be the opening film at this years Cannes Film Festival, out of competition.  Luhrmann is no stranger to Cannes-- Moulin Rouge! famously (and rather opulently) opened the 2001 film festival (coincidentally Moulin Rouge! was once slated to open the fall of 2000 before being pushed into the summer of 2001, not unlike Gatsby.)  It marks a coup for festival director Thierry Frémaux, who coincidentally took charge of Cannes the year Moulin Rouge! debuted, with this selection following the announcement of Steven Spielberg as the head of this years jury.  Gatsby will open in the United States on May 10th, making its Cannes presence a moo point (Cannes begins on May 15th), but it will mark the European leg of the 3-D adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's most famous novel (which was written in France nearby the Cannes Film Festival site.)  This marks the third straight American film to open the festival after Midnight in Paris and last years Moonrise Kingdom.

Now, naturally, the attention turns to what will headline the competition.  Deadline offers worthy suggestions.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Greedy Lying Bastards

"President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans.
And to heal the planet.  My promise is to help you and your family."

That's directly from the transcript of Mitt Romney's speech given at last years Republican National Convention, and it provides the greatest and most sensationalized moment in Greedy Lying Bastards, Craig Stuart Rosebraugh's new climate change documentary.  The film, and the moment in question, isn't quite the dig on the Romney campaign (or Republicans) you might expect-- well it is, but only gently.  The greatest moment comes from a perfectly sliced edit right after the quotation above that ricochets to a small, but affecting montage of recent mother-nature-at-its-worst moments, and greatly exemplifies the guttural kick to the stomach that a film entitled Greedy Lying Bastards should entail.  Name calling and rousing its audience into a fitted bit of rage while not forgetting the impossible entertainment value of the even harsher nature of modern-day politics.  Rosebraugh attempts to remake An Inconvenient Truth as though it were a Michael Moore film, but with few exceptions-- and to the lacking of the film itself-- he's far too diplomatic, far too reserved and, well, not nearly angry enough to own up to it.  It almost matters not that the subject in question in such that words matter not-- as the images of our ice caps evaporating are enough to sink into your soul, just as the images and and damages from the wave of super storms that have ravaged our planet-- and so that the issue itself is boggling (lefty or righty) in it's own regard as to why were still arguing about it.

What should matter on the loose terms that Greedy Lying Bastards sets up for itself has less to do with artful filmmaking but instead with a righteous indignation, which in it of itself can be artful in the right hands.  A few years back, documentary filmmaker Kirby Dick made a not un-similar stink regarding gay politicians versus their own personal agendas in the film Outrage; the film called out the names in questions and opened that up to a deeper conversation not just about the said politicians, but about our political system in general.  In contrast, Rosebraugh certainly names a few names and even gets a few goons to make personal appearances on behalf of the deniers of climate change club, but they're all nearly relegated to Idiot #1 and Idiot #2 status, while we listen to testimony that would hardly appear to be newsworthy to the frankly aware moviegoers who might be in attendance.  The incendiary battle cry never quite gets summoned, even though the topic itself is illuminating.  And while there's certainly a nobility to the scope on which Rosenbraugh sets himself, as well as few disconnected stories of timely, current and devastating effects, that charge is greatly missing.

For instance, there's shades of a the film (one not titled Greedy Lying Bastards) might have looked at when the filmmaker ventures to Tuvalu, a Polynesian island on the brink of vanishing for good.  Chats with the worried, and mostly poor, townspeople that illuminates the untimely demise of not just a piece of land, but an entire culture-- a recent storm kept the entire island under nearly three feet of water for three days.  Same is true of the village of Kivalina in Alaska, as the ice caps have started melted and whittling away their land-- they've been experiencing, for the first, beach erosion.  There's no problem in dividing a film between the smarmy politics and the moving personal of its subject, but Greedy Lying Bastards is a tad too tender and too on the nose, seemingly truly afraid of making too big a stick, only sheepishly pointing the finger at the denial theorist with their hand in big oil.

Even a last minute endeavor when the film takes a literal cue from Michael Moore's Roger & Me and Rosenbraugh tries to get an interview with the heads of ExxonMobil and Koch Industries, rouses little more than a whimper.  Not just because of the inevitable, but because he seemingly puts so little fight in to it.  The revelation comes when he storms a private shareholders meeting (after procuring a small amount of Exxon stock) with a hidden camera in toe-- and the big shout out, as at the show it's revealed that perhaps man has something to do with this after all.  Minor victory dance for the lefty muckraker in all of us, which stands for Rosenbraugh's achievements and the film as a whole.  B-

Friday, March 8, 2013

Just When You Thought it Was Safe to Go Back to a Crappy Art House Theater!

What on earth is happening to Terrence Malick?  Less than two years after the ponderous art house experiment The Tree of Life (my initial thoughts here) won him the Palme D'Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and earned three Academy Awards nominations (including a director nomination for Malick), he's returned with his latest, and it's already been screened at festivals (notably, last falls Venice Film Festival) and has a distributor (Magnolia Pictures) and a stateside release date (April 13th.)  I'm confused and boggled and nearly dumbstruck, and not just in the sense that I'm still kind of reeling over The Tree of Life and it's metaphysical whatsits.  First a bit of trivia--  Malick, in his fabled forty career has only released five motion pictures so far and is known and prone to take his time; for a new Malick entry to be ready a mere two years after last one was released and thusly heralded the masterpiece, as it would be, in many corners of the cinematic universe, is unheard of--- craziness.  The steadiest he's ever worked before was between his brilliant debut Badlands (1973) and his follow-up, Days of Heaven, which made its way to theaters five years later.

What's to speak of his new found productivity, and as The Tree of Life it a good thing?  So comes To the Wonder, a romantic spiritual something or other starring new-crowned Oscar king of the world Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams and Javier Bardem.  Some things in the canon of Malick's wonder never change as Rachel Weisz, Michael Sheen, Amanda Peet, Barry Pepper and Tree of Life alum Jessica Chastain all filmed roles that were eventually cut-- a business as usual affair when working for the reclusive artiste (Jim Caviezel famously thought he was the headliner of The Thin Red Line before realizing his part was all but vanished from the final product-- legend states he found out at the films premiere.)  But regardless of productivity, To the Wonder as crackled down into trailer format looks more of the same hopelessly beautiful lost art sans narrative that The Tree of Life wrought.  Sure, ace cinematography Emmanuel Lubezki is back, and he is any filmmaker's best asset, but will To the Wonder dither away with the same sheen of art house pornography?

The story as described by IMDb states To the Wonder is:
After visiting Mont Saint-Michel, Marina and Neil come to Oklahoma, where problems arise. Marina meets a priest and fellow exile, who is struggling with his vocation, while Neil renews his ties with a childhood friend, Jane.

Early reviews suggest that in the wake of The Tree of Life, perhaps Malick may have lost some of his magic:

Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter
However accomplished Malick's technique might be in some ways, this mostly comes off, especially in the laborious second hour, as visual doodling without focused thematic goals.

Richard Corliss, Time Magazine
A ramble through the ecstasies of the natural world as experienced or ignored by little people on a giant, gorgeous planet.

A bigger question from me is, will there be dinosaurs?

Thursday, March 7, 2013

"Stories We Tell" trailer

Sarah Polley, the writer and director of Away From Her, as well as a terrific actress in her own right (The Sweet Hereafter) comes out with Stories We Tell, a documentary about her own family.  Of which has been earning raves since premiering on festival circuit last fall.

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: "The Wizard of Oz"

The Film Experience has a wonderful series that asks movie lovers to pick their favorite shot from a pre-selected film.  This weeks offering, to coincide with the release of Oz: The Great & Powerful is The Wizard of Oz.  I want to play along.

Because I was so moved by Jodie Foster when she received the Cecil B. DeMille Award last January, I feel the urge to confessional too.  It's something I don't talk about very much and have never really been able to air publicly and somewhat feel the cinematic elite may shun me eternally for, but here goes:  I've never really particularly cared for The Wizard of Oz.  The classic 1939 fantasia never quite worked its magic on me as a child-- to be fair I was far fussier back then and the realm of the fantastic at once read to simplistic and far went over my head.  Also, I confess that Margaret Hamilton always scared the crap out of me-- in both Miss Gulch and Wicked West from.  I'm glad to get that off my chest.  I've regressed or grown (thankfully) throughout the years, and like, if not love, The Wizard of Oz more and more as the years grow on.  Of course, Judy Garland in her sepia-toned wonder singing her signature ballad, "Over the Rainbow" is a marvel, and the production itself (for all its difficulty, and near killing of Buddy Ebsen) is monumental.  In revisiting the Victor Fleming classic, I appreciate it more and more for its visual delight (and thus picking a "best shot" was fairly daunting), it's off kilter compositions that read perfectly appropriate and strangely don't feel outdated in the slightest despite the bug of technology prowess that's come since, and while I can't claim yet to an Oz-convert (the sting of stubbornness has always been a sore point on my end), my appreciation ever grows.

My favorite shot is the dreamy dreamscape on which Dorothy drifts back from her adventure.  A bit strange, mystic and perhaps even a bit wild for a film from 1939.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

MTV Movie Award Nominations

For those wiling away from post Oscar withdrawals (some mental health expert will surely come up with a more clinical word for it), here's something to gravitate to-- The MTV Movie Awards.

The Dark Knight Rises
Django Unchained
Marvel's The Avengers
Silver Linings Playbook

Not a bad line-up, and refreshingly not skewing the MTV norm of favoring current flavors of the month.  All props for breaking tradition with not choosing The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2, although isn't a bit odd that Skyfall, one of the best reviewed blockbusters of the past year is oddly snubbed!

Ben Affleck, Argo
Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Jamie Foxx, Django Unchained
Channing Tatum, Magic Mike

Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
Mila Kunis, Ted
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Emma Watson, The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Rebel Wilson, Pitch Perfect

Ezra Miller, The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Eddie Redmayne, Les Miserables
Suraj Sharma, Life of Pi
Quevenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Rebel Wilson, Pitch Perfect

The Campaign- Will Ferrell & Zach Galifianakis
Django Unchained- Leonardo DiCaprio & Samuel L. Jackson
Marvel's The Avengers- Robert Downey, Jr. & Mark Ruffalo 
Silver Linings Playbook- Bradley Cooper & Jennifer Lawrence
Ted- Seth MacFarlane & Mark Whalberg

Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Alexandra Daddario, Texas Chainsaw 3D
Martin Freeman, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Jennifer Lawrence, The House at the End of the Street
Suraj Sharma, Life of Pi

Christian Bale, The Dark Knight Rises
Daniel Craig, Skyfall
Taylor Lautner, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2
Seth MacFarlane, Ted
Channing Tatum, Magic Mike

Have to appreciate the reversed sexist roll call here, even if MacFarlane's inclusion is absurd.  Perhaps it's meant to be subversive for those jokes and consistent laments about his Oscar performance.

Django Unchained- Jamie Foxx & Kerry Washington
Moonrise Kingdom- Kara Haywood & Jared Gillman
The Perks of Being a Wallflower- Logan Lerman & Emma Watson
Silver Linings Playbook- Bradley Cooper & Jennifer Lawrence
Ted- Mila Kunis & Mark Wahlberg 

The Dark Knight Rises-  Christian Bale vs. Tom Hardy
Django Unchained- Jamie Foxx vs. Candieland Henchmen
Marvel's The Avengers- The Avengers vs. Tom Hiddelston
Skyfall- Daniel Craig vs. Ola Rapace
Ted- Mark Whalberg vs. Seth MacFarlane

BEST VILLAIN (I obstructed one name because its a spoiler; scroll to see)
Javier Bardem, Skyfall
Marion Cotillard, The Dark Knight Rises
Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained
Tom Hardy, The Dark Knight Rises
Tom Hiddelston, Marvel's The Avengers

Les Miserables- Anne Hathaway
Magic Mike- Channing Tatum and the Strippers
The Perks of Being a Wallflower- Logan Lerman, Emma Watson & Ezra Miller
Pitch Perfect- Anna Kendrick and the Bellas
Silver Linings Playbook- Bradley Cooper & Jennifer Lawrence

Skyfall- Javier Bardem
--Mutilated and deformed after a botched suicide attempt, Bardem's villain twists his prosthetic mug to show the few teeth he has left in a gut-twisting moment filled with vindictive vengeance.

Pitch Perfect- Anna Camp
--As Aubrey, Camp gives a barftastic display of a capella angst that tips the scales of cinematic grossness.

Django Unchained- Jamie Foxx & Samuel L. Jackson
--In an excruciating sequence, Foxx's Django blasts servile head-servant Stephen, played by Jackson, and sets the Candieland mansion ablaze with the strike of a match.
Ted- Seth MacFarlane
--Fuzzy, flirtatious and flagrantly inappropriate, Seth MacFarlane's Ted takes his co-worker crush one step too far.
Flight- Denzel Washington
--Washington's Whip Whitaker rolls an inverted plane out of a 90-degree nose dive and saves the lives of 96 passengers on board.

"What Maisie Knew" trailer

First glimpse of What Maisy Knew, the latest from Scott McGehee and David Siegel (The Deep End), a contemporary adaptation of the Henry James novel.  Stars the great Julianne Moore in her latest of bad mother parts-- at least two of them should have won the Oscar for her in the past.


The first impression of Stoker is nearly exasperating in that the film, the English-language debut of famed South Korean filmmaker Chan-wook Park (he of the aggressively stylized and violent art house confection Oldboy), so delicate in design, is a messy hodgepodge of lurid mystery and feminine coming of age.  The design, however, is nearly intoxicating, at least at the start.  Never mind the silliness that begins Stoker, a lilting bit of voice over narration where our main character, a dour young woman named India (Mia Wasikowska) explains her supernatural gift of hearing, its difficult not to marvel at the craftsmanship of the imagery and the eerie tease of this psycho-sexual thriller.  Superficially, Stoker is a success because it bridges suspense in such artfully composed ways; dramatically it's more than a bit overwrought.  But there's a small wake of cinematic grandeur just because the composition is so interesting, so deliberate and inventively assured yet flowing and fluid-- it reads early on as a nervy, demonic thriller staged by Terrence Malick, as Park swoons with gothic suspense on the nature-y backdrop of the immense estate Stoker is set on.  But Park is mostly grabbing from Hitchcock.  Stoker on the onset is an art house re-tooling of the master's excellent 1943 mystery Shadow of a Doubt.

India's father has just been killed.  Ruled an accident, but shrouded with excessive mystery, the event concurs with her eighteenth birthday.  From the start, something feels amiss-- the young lady is introverted and clearly left alone in the sprawling estate, and in nearly fable-like fashion, she finds her birthday presents in a tree.  Her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) is distant and cold; her only rapport with her sullen daughter is teased in passive judgements.  Little is known about her father (played in flashbacks by Dermot Mulroney), except that he and India bonded over hunting, and perhaps a fondness for saddle shoes-- India's ritualistic birthday present.  What shrouds the nearly dialogue-free film is its perverse mystery, one that is slow to unravel, and unfortunately starts to collapse as it does so.  The strength of Stoker, is when its oddly withholding, as the artifice is what intoxicates.

What is to be made of Stoker.  The title itself seems to recall Bram Stoker, and while the film holds it as the namesake of the family at its center and there's not a literal blood-sucker in the group; the suggestion holds a bit of ground as the mysterious Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) enters the fray.  Seen, or nearly just heard (remember India has some voodoo heightened aural skills) at her father's funeral, Charlie makes his appearance known at the reception service afterwards with intentions of staying with his coping distant relatives.  Goode makes a pretty and haunting figure, but the stretch of Stoker starts with a huge leap of faith, as his creepy-as-can-be uncle saunters onstage with a smug charm, but such a frozen, vacant stare, that stinks, reeks of up-to-no-good.  While the onlookers choose to merely point out the casualness of his appearance (he perhaps is more in the mood for a rousing cocktail party instead of a funeral recession...), reality is gently pushed aside.  Again the inventive and swaying visual aesthetics lure in favor of the drama.

India, on the cusp of womanhood, is frightened, intrigued, and perhaps even slightly turned on as the uncle she never knew existed enters her life.  Disgusted, perhaps, at his interest in her mother, but intuitive to the fact that Evelyn seems more of cipher character in the story, her story.  The character itself is slightly fascinating, as she (along with the movie itself) is aloof enough to leave room for analysis.  Dressed in morbid colors, top and skirts that look like Jane Austin couture made special for Wednesday Addams, the dark haired girl is quiet, independent and singularly literary minded.  Wasikowska, for whatever its worth, gives off a moody, frightful and wonderful presence, and the brings the quiet expressiveness she brought to her Jane Eyre.  It's unfortunate that Park is more invested in production design and caters the actors more so as just another set of props.  Gorgeous, distilling and beautifully photographed props, but props nonetheless. 

Partially the reasoning behind that must be attributed to the elementally generics of the plot (Stoker was written by Prison Break actor Wentworth Miller), for the mystery and the gloom and doom of the setup are far more disappointing and it drifts into the dithering.  Shortly after Uncle Charlie arrives, for instance, people suddenly start disappearing.  First, the Stoker's longtime housekeeper Mrs. McGarrick (Phyllis Somerville), presented at the beginning as a confidant to the distraught India vanishes without a trace-- Evelyn and, one assumes, the authorities are too consumed by grief or ennui to further investigate.  India's suspicions are further upped and aroused when her trusty Aunt Gwendolyn (played by the warmly welcomed Jacki Weaver) arrives for solace and comfort.  Of course, she's well aware of Charlie and a past that the audience will be beholden to later, and is quickly shoo-ed away in a timely fashion.  The most artfully morbid sequence of Stoker spills the beams to India of her beloved aunts grisly murder with an inventively chilly cell phone ringtone, a great and sad touch for a film with an expert sound design team.

And while pieces of Stoker are relentlessly withheld to latch onto its suspense, there outlines are nearly in place well before.  Charlie, the sinister seducer and India as his chosen latchkey, but the unsatisfactory plot details get in the way of some of the nervy, twisty fun that could be had, as well as the interesting dynamics between the actors as they finesse their way through Park's gothic house of mirrors.  And even as the film shifts, nearly impenetrably between reality, fantasy and memory, the road it invariably leads to is far less exciting or interesting that where it stops along the way.  India's queasily erotic playing of the piano which extends to a seductive duet with Charlie, or egging on tease of the flesh to a local high school boy (played by Alden Ehrenreich) which leads to a near rape, and his eventual undoing-- all of which informs India of freshly veiled blood lust, an escape to the dark side that Charlie unsubtly dangles in her face.  It's one thing for a deranged character to feel in control of her own fate, but it's quite another to work it as a metaphor for impending womanhood.  Stoker takes the case that accepting ones inner sociopath might hold something to root for in its leading character, the film unfortunately nearly plays it kitsch, albeit ugly, bloody kitsch.

While Stoker's plot and ever consuming silliness and ugliness prevent the film from being considered a great piece of art, the alluring aesthetic of the film still tantalizes on the thrill of what Park and team could have created had the story being stronger.  His visual inventiveness is sharp as a tick, even in the most mundane of sets.  I was instantly struck of the an early image of India sitting in a chair in her breakfast nook being consoled by Mrs. McGarrick-- the words themselves render little meaning, but she sits in chair or enormous weight and height, as the smile sunken in India plays with her food-- she looked so small, so adolescent and innocent.  There's more meaning and structural weight in those fleeting frames than in the bulk of Stoker's one-hundred minute run time. Or the impossibly beautiful switch cut from a swath of hair to a meadow.  Or the elegant circle of shoes that frame India as a passage of her fathers death; shoes plays a big visual touch in Stocker.  Or the snow drop-like shifting of letter as India unravels the mystery of Uncle Charlie-- there's a poetic grandeur to the movement if not to the drama.  It marks a true directorial scope for Stoker to come across as elegant as it is, even if it reads as a hat trick for Park's past achievements.

I almost wish he had just left the two dueling sociopaths and hit the road with Evelyn, as Park matching Kidman's eye for muse-like shepherding for strong willed directors might have provoked a stronger narrative, or at least a less dreadfully boring violent one.  As is, Evelyn drifts in and out like a long lost Tennessee Williams' heroine only at the last stretch to give a biting and jolting monologue of her resentment for her little girl.  Kidman aces the line readings with a twitching and involving benevolence, but it feels a little too late for a character sidelined for most of the grisly proceedings.  In the end, Stoker stokes, lots of people die, an we're left championing the root work of a new (post)modern monster.  C-
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