Monday, May 27, 2013

The Last 365 Days of Cinema

Do you know what movie this is from?  Hint- it was released in the last 365 days. Guess in the comments.

Boozing Drivers in Space

The Memorial Day Weekend has come and the 2013 box office has finally bent thrust alive after a string of successes in the merry month of May and a gangbusters, franchise-fueled holiday weekend.  Here's the four day results:

  1. Fast & Furious 6- $120 million
  2. The Hangover Part III- $51.2 million / $63 million total
  3. Star Trek Into Darkness- $47 million / $155.8 million total
  4. Epic- $42.6 million
  5. Iron Man 3- $24.3 million / $372.4 million total
  6. The Great Gatsby- $17.0 million / $117.7 million total
  7. Mud- $2.4 million / $15.0 million total
  8. The Croods- $1.6 million / $179.6 million total
  9. 42- $1.6 million / $91.4 million total
  10. Oblivion- $1.0 million / $87.5 million total
  11. Oz: The Great & Powerful- $0.8 / $232.4 million total
  12. Pain & Gain- $0.8 / $48.7 million total
  13. Frances Ha- $0.7 / 0.9 total (60 screens)
Further down:
Before Midnight- $0.3 (5 screens) --> per screen average of $64,400
Stories We Tell- $0.1 / $0.3 total (27 screens)
Fill the Void- $79,000 (3 screens)
We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks- $34,300 (4 screens)

Behind the Candelabra

The flamboyance, the excess, the grandeur, the more of it all is as much a part of the story of Liberace as the man beneath the sequined clothing.  Mr. Showman, the piano man, played up to the heavens with a decadent splendor that positively demanded that any screen treatment that could ever be conceived to paint his picture be the biggest, the flashiest and the most colorful.  Mere 3-D wouldn't be enough to showcase the all the glitter and jewels he bespectacled and properly do it justice.  On that note it is slightly surprising that a filmmaker like Steven Soderbergh, with his muted palette and fly on the wall choreography, would be such a natural to create such a vivid, potent, subtly multifaceted biography of his life and bizarre romance with a man much younger than he.  Ever more surprisingly and sufficiently saddening is the continuing announcement that this may in fact be Soderbergh's swan song from filmmaking.  With the seemingly non-congruent pieces of puzzle in place it only makes sense, I suppose, that Soderbergh's long in development Behind the Candelabra enters the fray with a bittersweet taste to go along with its unorthodox release.  Premiering on HBO instead of the three-thousand screens that typically befits a starry-eyed Soderbergh production-- the main players here are Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, both of whom have ample experience with the filmmaker-- and coming off its in-competition berth at the Cannes Film Festival.

For a subject so peculiar and a film so fascinating, it's both a joyous and sad event that Behind the Candelabra couldn't fashion itself into movie screens.  A subject as big and brash and colorful as Liberace (and the performance that Douglas creates to match it) deserve it, but more so, seemingly demand it.  The small screen almost comes across as an insult for an entertainer who always dreamed a bigger dream than the last.  "To much of a good thing is wonderful," is a clever and cheeky line of dialogue, but Douglas devours it as a mantra.  On the other hand, Behind the Candelabra is a rarefied film in itself-- refined but bawdy, delicate but complex, unrestricted but classy, and one suggests that the practice of the Hollywood machine may have diluted Soderbergh's soulful vision to point of worthless dither, on top of the choice reasoning that the filmmaker states that the film was "too gay" for the focus testers in the film industry.  Of which may very well be true, but to deny a story of Liberace of its "gay-ness" for the sensitivity of weary consumers would be, well, to lie.  On this end, it's for the films betterment that every major studio, as reported, passed on Behind the Candelabra.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Woe is Cotillard

What does raven-haired French beauty need to do to be taken seriously?  Last year, around this exact time, critics were under the spell of her performance as the amputee in Jacques Audiard's Rust & Bone.  Many expected an award from the Cannes Film Festival to be nearly a done deal for the international actress.  And in beat-- it didn't happen.  No worries, the bar was raised when Sony Pictures Classics gave the darkly sensual film a prime awards bait release date.  At the very least the middlebrow mensches at the Academy would approach the skill, technique and tragedy that Cotillard was offering-- she had no legs, for crying out loud.  Nudges and murmurs and this is going to happen vibes started breaking when she earned Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations for her work, and in a thud, the Academy didn't catch the bait.  No worries, she would up the ante with two films at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival-- one as a sign of solidarity to her Frenchman (and beau)-- Guillaume Canet's Blood Ties, which premiered out of competition-- and the other to finally grasp the throngs of Cannes victory that eluded her one year ago.  For in James Grey's The Immigrant, the ever-busy and industrious actress plays a Polish immigrant turned prostitute in 1920s Manhattan alongside Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner.  Period film, check.  Tragic backstory, check.  She even learned Polish for the part-- a French woman playing a Polish woman speaking English, she's trying to Meryl Streep her way into movie awards land.  Alas, wasn't meant to be.

It would be foolish to really feel to sorry for the talented and vibrant actress.  She already does have an Oscar to keep herself cozy, the one she won for her 2007 breakout film La Vie en Rose, becoming only the second woman in Academy history to win for a foreign language performance.  However, considering all that, that beauty and the certain ambition, the awards bodies haven't paid much attention to her since then.  Surprising for a post-American-ified career that's translated into Oscar-friendly territory and made her a favorite on Oscar watchdog lists ever since.  Since La Vie en Rose she played a gangster's moll in Michael Mann's Public Enemies (2009)-- too divisive for Oscars taste, okay...then came Nine (2009), for which see received best in show reviews for and a Golden Globe nomination-- the film was too terrible, got that, even though Penelope Cruz scored a bizarre afterglow nomination, okay...then Inception (2010), which earned multiple nominations, winning four awards-- the film was more a visual achievement, okay...then Midnight in Paris (2011), which earned a Best Picture nomination-- that one was a Woody Allen joint, not a performance piece, okay...Rust & Bone (2012), also-ran status.  In between she found time to join Steven Soderbergh's ensemble in Contagion (2011), cultivate a fanboy base with The Dark Knight Rises (2012) and star in a few movies from her native France.  What more does she have to do?  I fear she may become the female equivalent to Christian Bale if awards bodies don't honor her with something in the near future... 

The Last 365 Days of Cinema

Know what movie this image is from?  Hint-- it was released in the last 365 days.  Guess in the comments.

Before Midnight Scores in Limited Debut

This Memorial Day Weekend, the big story will clearly be how Fast & Furious Whatever Number cleaned up shop at the box office.  The bigger story if you read deep enough is the impressive limited debut of Richard Linklater's third entry to his improbable but joyous Before-trilogy.  Starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke reprising their roles as lovelorn articulates Celine and Jesse, Before Midnight opened to rapturous reviews (the best in the series) and to splendid early numbers on five screens in Los Angeles, New York and Austin this holiday weekend.  It resulted in the best opening per-screen average for the series.  Before Midnight opened to be a tuneful $274,000 over the three day weekend, netting a per-screen average of $54,800-- the third best opening per-screen average of 2012 (just behind Spring Breakers, which opened in less screens, and The Place Beyond the Pines, which had the Ryan Gosling cool effect going on.)  To put this in perspective, Before Sunset, the last film opened nine years ago to $219,425 on 20 screens for a per-screen average of $10,971 on its way to an eventual box office take of $5.8 million.  Before Sunrise, the first chapter opened in January of 1995 to little fanfare with $1.4 million on its first weekend (on 363 screens) on its way to a $5.5 domestic take.  This may well be the lowest grossing franchise in American film history, but ironically it's also one of the best.  The early numbers for Midnight indicate what over the past eighteen years that the fanbase has thankfully grown.  Now it's time for awards bodies to sternly take notice...

2013 Cannes Film Festival Winners

Cannes 2013 is in the bag.  Here is what Steven Spielberg (Jury President) and his jurors-- Nicole Kidman, Christoph Waltz, Ang Lee, Daniel Auteuil, Vidya Balan, Naomi Kawase, Christian Mungiu and Lynne Ramsay picked.

Blue is the Warmest Color (La Vie d'Adéle)- directed by Abdellatif Kechiche (France)
One of the buzziest films at Cannes netted the top prize-- it tells the story of a young girl grasping with her sexuality, finding herself erotically fixated by a mysterious blue-haired girl.  The film was noted for a graphic twenty minute sex scene and stars Adéle Exarchopoulous and rising star Léa Seydoux (Farewell, My Queen, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol); Sundance Selects acquired the film.

GRAND PRIX (Second Place)
Inside Llewyn Davis- directed by Joel and Ethan Coen (USA)

JURY PRIZE (Prix du Jury)
Like Father, Like Son (Soshite chichi ni naru)- directed by Hirokazu Koreeda (Japan)
Drama about a successful businessman who learns that his biological son was switched at birth.

Arnat Escalante, Heli (France)

Bruce Dern, Nebraska (USA)
Alexander Payne's latest film-- to be released by Paramount for an awards run this November-- is a father/son road trip.  Dern plays the father and former SNL funny man Will Forte plays his son.

Berenice Bejo, The Past (Le Passé) (France)
A Separation director Asghar Farhadi follow-up film set in France concerning the relationship between an Iranian man (played by A Prophet's Tahar Rahim) and his French wife (Bejo.)  Sony Pictures Classics acquired The Past in hopes of replicating the success of Farhadi's earlier film.

A Touch of Sin (Tian zhu ding)- written and directed by Zhang Jia (China)

Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Last 365 Days of Cinema

Can you guess from which movie this is from?  It's one that was released within the last 365 days.  Guess in the comments.

Fast Cars and Hangovers

Which long in the tooth franchise thrill ride are you handing your hard-earned dollars this weekend?  And which is gunning for the title of Queen of the Memorial Day Weekend box office race-- boohoo, I'm being catty over billion-dollar franchises.  The contestants for this year are particular muscular and the race is itching with more competitive, testosterone-y drive than ever before.  In one corner, there's Fast & Furious 6, which is inexplicably gaining bigger returns and higher critical acclaim as it ages forward; we can all relax- Fast & Furious 7  has already been set for a go.  Comparison here isn't quite as simple as the previous installment, Fast Five-- released two years ago-- came out in the lower pressure month of April and set a new high for the series.  The combatant is The Hangover Part III, which is overcoming odds on the fact that the last film-- released two years ago in the same weekend-- was felt a poor man's rendering of the first R-rated raunch attack that inexplicably engrossed audiences four summers ago.  Comparison here isn't quite as simple because early midnight showing are opening earlier and earlier these days.  This has been advertised as the final Hangover.  Here's how it stands right now with preliminary Friday numbers coming in:

  1. Fast & Furious 6- $36.0 million
  2. The Hangover Part III- $15.5 million + $11.7 made from Thursday gross
  3. Star Trek Into Darkness- $15.5 million
  4. Epic- $10.0 million
  5. Iron Man 3- $5.2 million
  6. The Great Gatsby- $4.0 million

Here's to the now middle aged men who preside over this holiday weekend!  Many considered it rather silly to have two huge (and expensive) franchise films competing against one another considering they shared the same audience.  However, it's not really even close anymore. In other news, The Great Gatsby broke the $100 million barrier at the North American box office, the first ever Baz Luhrmann film to do so.

Cannes ----> Oscar?!?!

Fun fact: only two movies have ever won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival as well as the Best Picture Academy Award.  Ever.  In history.  In that, it brings a certain irony that the festival strikes a chord and chill year after year for potential and future awards crystal ball gazing.  The last time Cannes and the Academy agreed was in 1955- for Marty, so it's not even a close record.  It's unsurprising that the cool and the fabulous creed that makes up the most esteemed film festival in history would veer off from the typically middlebrow consciousness of AMPAS naval-gazing.  It's a yearly document, however, of the lofty legacy of the year of cinema though and the Cannes programmers and the Hollywood distributors have perhaps always been bedfellows, even if the yearly jurors tend to dismiss the competition options that may have a chance of gold statutes in the their future.  Still, it would nice if one day Marty and Billy Wilder's 1964 addiction drama The Lost Weekend had some company.  Not that there haven't been contenders.  The following are films that won the Palme d'Or and collected a Best Picture nomination sans prize:

  • Friendly Persuasion (1957)
  • M*A*S*H (1970)
  • The Conversation (1974)
  • Taxi Driver (1976)
  • Apocalypse Now (1979)
  • All That Jazz (1980)
  • Missing (1982)
  • The Mission (1986)
  • The Piano (1993)
  • Pulp Fiction (1994)
  • Secrets & Lies (1996)
  • The Pianist (2002)
  • The Tree of Life (2011)
  • Amour (2012)

(500) Thumbs Up!

A poignant salute at the Cannes Film Festival for the late Roger Ebert.  The famed Pulitzer Prize winning film critic, whose handy thumb comprised (for better and worse) the most potent and patented from of cinematic approval was a regular fixture on the Croisette.  The show, of course, must go on and this years festival is nearly wrapped.

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Last 365 Days of Cinema

Can you guess from which movie this is from?  It's one that released within the last year.  Guess in the comments.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

What If "Frances Ha" Ruled the World...

I'm rather smitten with Frances Ha as I've previously mentioned.  What's engaging and almost revelatory about Noah Baumbach's new irony-soaked misfit comedy is that it's undeniably a very hopeful film.  Despite the fact that the leading character, named Frances, wonderfully played by Greta Gerwig in her finest hour (to date, for sure-- she's still quite young, but this will be a hard act to follow) is a fairly feckless woman going through a 21st century quarter century malaise.  She's an aspiring dancer at the age of twenty-seven, but really she's just an apprentice without much means for economic stability, she's romantically unattached (even rendered "undateable" by close friends) and doesn't even have a home of her own.  In fact, the entire conceit of Frances Ha is hinged on her mooching of friends and acquaintances as she hops around New York City with little else than the semi-false conviction she tells herself (and others) that it's all going to work out in the end.  And yet, the film is wistful and charming and utterly believable in spite of its post-modern, black and white filmed, Woody Allen-esque romanticism.  The film is certainly one of the few genuine highlights of the years so far, and will likely remain so by year's end.

I suppose one of the reason that I'm so taken with Frances Ha and its main character is because I instantly felt a sort of kinship to her in a way I haven't felt at the movies in quite a while.  This being the start of the summer movie season, that's rather miraculous in itself-- not that it's impossible to feel that way about grown men in tights, per se.  Both Frances and myself (in my distorted sense of reality, we're close friends) came of age in the same slice of time, and both of us yearn for a life filled with creativity, even with the nagging sense of perhaps not having the slightest clue on how to go about doing so, and the even more nagging sense that the tide of time is starting to mark the term "aspiring" as something rather pathetic.  For 27 (in full disclosure, I'm turned 28 last fall, but that matters not) is, of course, not old...not now at least, and not here.  For coming of age now feels likes a series of blunders and missteps and false starts more so than perhaps ever before, and that's not even accounting for the fact that, as a society, we've grown ever more complacent and feel some sense of accomplishment in the sense of discovering some new toy in our iGadget world.  The feelings of entitlement over such devices is a topic for another day.

Deeper than that, the quarter century crisis of 2013 in unlike those of before because it's informed by the last two decades of economic recessions, wars on terror, the FOX News Network, eight years of George W. Bush, and six so far of President Obama.  There's been enough of an outcry to arms and confusion and anger that has beset this generation, but unlike the baby boomers distraught and outraged by the corruption of the Nixon administration and the spurring of the counterculture, us spawns of the Reagan era have lied mostly dormant-- the most radical thing we may do is change our Facebook avatars to voice our support for same-sex marriage.  Surely, that's not completely true, but that safety net and security of living through digital currency has changed the way we attack when disturbing by things-- now it most commonly comes in the form of "like" buttons.  Is this out of depression, a feeling of hopelessness or just plain right laziness?  

Frances has moments throughout the film where she says outwardly that she should be doing something, but finds herself instead with drinking with her pals and in a genuine assessment of 21st quarter century ennui-- merely hanging out.  That's our bid for doing something.  Frances Ha digs beautifully and artfully into this generation, and it's sort of post-growing pains growing pains.  It's startling to realize that Mr. Baumbach himself is 43-years-old, and yet how acutely and accurately dissects the quirks of the iGeneration and even more startling that the film is such a deft and affectionate one that.  Frances is perhaps a totem for now.

She's certainly intelligent and assured, but consumed by that certain pull of frustration and constant negativity that plagues the very now of society.  It's certainly strange, and not exactly new at all, but more persistent now in its extremity that even in languid tranquility, there's a certain doom that seems to have won the war long ago.  For instance, anyone who has watched television in the past few weeks has been beholden to the natural terrors of Oklahoma and very man-made ones in Boston.  Multiply this anguish by years of coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan and Iran, northeastern storms dubbed "Frankenstorm" and Hurricane Katrina.  This past television year, many watched show Smash out of was dubbed "hatewatching," but in a way, aren't we all just hatewatching the world these days?  It's a hard world outside and rationalizing the harshness of the scary events of the world can feel slightly suffocating if your private world is quite going the way you think it should.  Being that the cinema has long been my comfort, it's even harder to reconcile very real world terror depicted on the big screen for big popcorn thrill rides (see recent examples Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness), but there's a respite in Frances Ha's wistful hopefulness in the land that suckiness built.

Frances Ha is far removed from politics, but Gerwig's characterization is filled with the very tics I see in myself and many I'm closest too.  It's a charming and disarming movie, charmingly staged and spliced with an off-the-cuff realness that the scenes all feel lived-in, not staged at all, but any twentysomething whose ever felt a sense of struggle can relate to it, I feel.  One day, people like myself and the other Frances' of the world will rule it.  Frances copes by going on with a soundtrack in her head and hope in her heart.  The most joyous scene of the film shows her flinging and flailing the streets of New York while Bowie's "Modern Love" soothes the background.  It's a tenderly transcendent moment, even whilst being a strictly only-the-movies thing.  All the frustrations and grief and ennui and anger is seemingly pushed aside by a wave of optimism and hope and regeneration that even when all is it at its worst, you can create and imagine a more perfect destiny.  I'd love to do that too.  Unfortunately, there are certain things that can only be deemed socially acceptable in quirky independent comedies; in the streets I would be deemed a lunatic dancing to imaginary tunes.

I'm not really sure where I'm going here.  I fear this might read like a hopeless foam at the mouth exercise without order or direction, which is actually in keeping with Frances' train of thought whether she's running and falling about in the streets or desperately trying to act like a sophisticate at grown up dinner parties.  The expression of a cinematic character speaking for a generation, even if in a especially specific way, or a personal attachment of a piece of art speaking to someone at just the right moment in life.  There's a moment in the film where Frances in near-apparent sincerity says, "sometimes it's good to do what you're supposed when you're supposed to do it." For the social misfit, that's pretty much as to the point as her character gets, but more importantly, something a film character comes along at the right moment in the passage of time for it become truly meaningful.  If I were 40-years-old or 17-years-old, Frances and her vaguely misguided plights and adventures likely would not have crossed my mind as something other than an on-the-surface diversion.  Now, and at this stage, she and film come across as nearly rebellious in so that in that you trudge the shit around and within and continue because someone's art is important, even if it's silly and has an audience restricted to but one, and of absolute value even if you're penniless.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Wouldn't Be Nice If This Were the Final One Sheet?!?!?!?

Just sayin'.  You know that when formal promotional materials are made public for Ain't Them Bodies Saints, the Sundance player starring Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, which won the Cinematographers Prize at this years festival, will never look as vague, mysterious, ambiguous and as old school wonderful as this!

Blockbuster Check-In

We're will into the noisy madness of the summer movie season.  While I was struggling to write a formal review of Star Trek Into Darkness, J.J. Abrams' sequel to his 2009 prequel that rebooted the long dormant franchise, I realized I haven't even discussed Iron Man 3 yet and in the spirit of giving-- with more to do with my own inherent laziness, I have decided to take a different approach on the first big summery blockbusters of the seasons.  This weekend's arrival of Star Trek, which opened strongly albeit disappointingly to the tune of $70 million, trails the behemoth, gangbusters kind of numbers that Iron Man 3 set as the movie to best in the summertime sweepstakes.  There's a great many things wrong with this picture-- first and foremost in the notion that a $70 million opening can be in slightest way considered a disappointment, and secondly in the disparate narrative outside the films themselves that their box office picture has painted.  Here's the breakdown:

Opening Weekend Gross: $174.1 million
Domestic Gross (so far): $337 million
Worldwide Gross (so far): $1,073.2 billion
Production Budget (reportedly): $200 million

Those numbers are massive across the board-- right from the start from the start considering how much dough was poured into the latest cog in the Marvel machine (it just about makes you want to watch Steven Soderbergh's infamous, it's-all-gone-to-hell speech he recently gave and give him a great head bump before drinking yourself silly in a sad state of bitterness.)  But wait, it nabbed the second highest grossing opening weekend in North American box office history (second only to, how novel, Marvel's The Avengers) and as of this writing is currently the ninth highest grossing worldwide success story of all time, not accounting for inflation.  Happy days for the Disney-acquired Marvel, as well as Robert Downey, Jr., who returned in his venerable Tony Stark role yet again, and director Shane Black, who after making a name for himself penning early 90s staples like Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout, and directing the glorious neo-noir Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (a film that brought both Black and Downey, Jr. from the pits of extinction) can now claim partial ownership of a big, epic piece of franchise hokum.  What's not to like? 

Everyone's a winner.  The truth behind the numbers is that Iron Man 3 needed a dramatic facelift after the diminishing returns of Iron Man 2, a film that was hopelessly branded more of a mammoth Marvel-sized commercial than anything resembling a piece of deliciously nutrient-free popcorn goodness.  The first Iron Man was, of course, a pleasant diversion-- a riff almost of superhero nonsense that gleefully played to the finely verbose, foot-eternally-in-his-mouth comic sensibilities of Robert Downey, Jr.  The Marvel universe wasn't quite yet a sure thing and the film was able to sustain a sense of spontaneity and a light degree of magic before the machinations of corporate politics took it over.  Remember, Iron Man 2 wasn't especially well-liked by critics, fanboys or the more arbitrarily inclined.  The massive box office is an offshoot of goodwill spurred on by the colossal colossal-ness of The Avengers-- currently the third most popular movie of all time if box office means anything about behavior or is a reflection of passion (I certainly hope it isn't!)  So now what? 

Well, Iron Man 3 is the first of Marvel: Phase Two and the film is all over the place situated in that dreadful position of trying to be and be for everyone while not likely to please many-- the fanboys protest the way the central villain (in this case, The Mandarin) was handled-- while trying to be darker, deeper and substantial, and you know...everything, whilst maintaining that singular Robert Downey, Jr. ironic/quirky vibe that gave the first film such a shot in the arm to begin with.  The tone is all over the place and not in a good way, but in a seemingly desperate way-- almost a cry for arms amalgam of the cheery, candy-colored Marvel way of movies forcibly tinged with the global terrorism and complexity that The Dark Knight provided.  The problem is that those two world will never quite work together and it just makes the film more tired and silly for trying to be both massive pop entertainment in a paint by numbers sequel sort of way while trying to be art at the same time.  C-

Opening Weekend Gross: $70.5 million
Domestic Gross (so far): $84.0 million
Worldwide Gross (so far): $164.5 million
Production Budget (reportedly): $190 million

Perhaps J.J. Abrams second go at the Star Trek saga was always going to be bridesmaid, the underdog to Iron Man 3-- I mean it did cost a whopping $10 million less to make and that has to make a world of difference.  While I protest the ridiculous notion that Star Trek Into Darkness must be a failure because it didn't manage to break any box office records, that distinction is already, unfortunately, a part of its conversation.  What happened?  Was four years too long a wait after Abrams and team so freshly and adroitly rebooted the long in the tooth Starship (not Star Wars) machine?  Was all that goodwill that was extended four years ago just a lark?  What happened?

Perhaps the truth is that nothing really happened.  Critics and audiences seemed to enjoy Star Trek Into Darkness quite a lot, even the ones who criticized the genetic re-engineering of the Star Trek machine, as well as the continuity errors, character sidesteps and overly cynical touches to further bridge the international divide over the series to begin with (historically Star Trek has been an American-only type success story-- this film is doing better overseas than any prior.)  What happened, is well, movies are expensive and Iron Man 3 (and to a less extent, The Great Gatsby) have been phenomenal sellers in the past three weeks and well, people need a break from it all sometimes.  Star Trek Into Darkness secured an allusive "A" Cinema Score grade which will go far in making sure the film has playability throughout the next couple of weeks and its multiplier should be steady because of that.

Beyond that, Star Trek Into Darkness-- however it extends or contorts from it's established lore-- is a crisp and grandly entertainment summertime popcorn thrill ride.  It may not exactly overshadow the singular surprise factor of the first prequel, but it's a confident and enjoyable companion piece.  The spot-on ensemble is aces, expertly mining the right, just slightly exaggerated way to posit their famed characters with the right balance of humor and homage.  Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto continue to further expand the wonderful bromance at the very core with their respective Capt. Kirk and Spock-- their love story really is the uniting focus of not just Star Trek Into Darkness but perhaps the entire franchise all together.  Whilst Benedict Cumberbatch as the mysterious villain at the center is a alluring, magical and frightening.  Fanboys must just relax...Star Trek Into Darkness is a blast.  B+

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Stories We Tell

Sarah Polley started young.  First as a budding actress on Canadian television shows before taking a giant leap into the independent film subconscious in 1997's terrific The Sweet Hereafter and becoming one a bonafide indie queen in films like Go and Guinevere in the late 1990s.  Since then she has straddled a strong acting presence while becoming a first rate filmmaker in her own right (her directorial debut, Away From Her earned lots of praise, including a writing Oscar nomination for herself.)  Now she's turned the camera on herself as well as her family in the lovely and delicate new documentary Stories We Tell.  A collection of memories from herself and her family.  It's a startlingly sneaky and inventive film which, on the outset would appear like a frilly showcase or a collection of home movies that wouldn't seem like they would have much interest outside the Polley family.  But the film has the tug and power of a great drama, a mystery of the heart and the past which quietly unravels as altogether something grander, slightly bold and immeasurably special.

The funny thing is that it all seemingly started out as a joke.  As a kid, Polley was teased by her siblings on the fact that she doesn't really look like her father.  A running gag, one even spurred on her father himself, of the blonde haired youngest child of stage actors Diane and Michael Polley.  Her mother passed away when Sarah was just eleven years old, but was by all accounts a vibrant and exuberantly over-the-top presence, and in many ways Stories We Tell is beautifully conceived homage to her as well a hopeful sense of connectivity from her filmmaking daughter to the mother that was taken away from her at such a young age.  The mystery concerns the events of how Sarah Polley came to be.  Diane was working on a play in Montreal during her conception, and suddenly that joke, that running gag, seemed to coalesce to something that may actually be true.  Could her biological father be someone other than the man who had raised her?

Stories We Tell is far from a sensationalized bit of soap opera-ized gossip about affairs or familial conflict, instead it's Polley's way of owning her story as well as abiding equal time to all its players.  Of which include her four older siblings, her father (who provides a droll narration of the events), and close family friends who all share their versions of the truth in their own words.  What it all builds to is an effecting and moving rumination and collection of memories-- some of which are contradictory, some are not-- that reflect a communal experience of life and love and happiness and anguish.  In other words, this isn't your family history, but it also is.  The refrain of Stories We Tell is inexplicably that the most important story can never be told, that from her mother.

Polley, who has always captured a rare and defined sensitivity as both an actress and as a filmmaker. She posits her Stories with an expert precision as she blends her familial talking heads seamlessly with home movie footage and reenactments.  There's a quiet grace and expressive subtly to the way she weaves her own history that at first it may be easy to overlook how witty and precisely delicate Stories We Tell actually is.  Most lovingly, in spite of what occurs, is the very central and earthbound rapport between the filmmaker and her father (biological or not.)  With this up close and personal film, it demonstrates more than ever the bristling humanity of Polley's work and even powerfully shifts her past work-- for instance the father-daughter dynamic so masterfully and creepily displayed in The Sweet Hereafter (filmed many years before she knew of her own family secrets) takes on added layers of difficulty and nuance.  A-  

Frances Ha

"27 is old though," so says a friend to Frances (Greta Gerwig) in the new comedy Frances Ha, the gorgeous, generous and utterly beguiling new film from director Noah Baumbach.  The comment isn't said out of cruelty or resentment, it's uttered as an off the cuff observation of which both is and isn't true in itself, but it does unsettle Frances in it's brash honesty and bequeath an aura of reflection.  Frances is an aspiring dancer living in New York City who hops from apartment to apartment because she has none to call her own.  She has troubles with money and no actual job nor stable romantic relationship.  She has her friends, her intellect and the hopefulness that many young people lie to themselves (and others) about in keeping on, especially when that means pursuing something creative.  She is somewhat a symbol of twenty-something complacency-- a subset of a hyper literate, somewhat arrogant and entitled, irony infused generation sorting out and coming to terms with the messiness of adulthood.  It would be wrong to describe Frances Ha as a coming of age tale of a hipster gal getting finally her shit together, because the film, in all its quirky dalliances, rings truth in the romanticized notion of growing into, as Frances might put, a "real" person, if not quite a successful one.

In actuality, most of the film is a series of vignettes of the trouble Frances gets herself into and how the she digs herself deeper into a hole of failures and embarrassments.  That sounds about right coming from the acidic and puckish intellectualism that makes up the structural DNA of Mr. Baumbach's filmography (The Squid & the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, Greenberg), but the wonder and joy of Frances Ha comes from its warmth, wit and generous spirit.  It's an optimistic and genuinely warm-hearted confection of real life trials and tribulations spun into a vacuum that looks and feels like a French New Wave comedy remade as a 1970s-era Woody Allen film.  Gerwig co-scripted Frances Ha with Baumbach and from all appearances the relationship has opened something special in both of them.

Shot in charming black and white by Sam Levy, Frances Ha may strike firstly as Manhattan for the new millennium, and surely the glow and wonder of the city plays a character in the film itself.  Especially since the film is divided not by seasons or something of that ilk, but instead by the various apartments Frances lives in throughout the film-- there's even title cards that appear with actual street names, and the burroughs and adjacent playgrounds for Frances add an ironic and wistful playfulness to the film.  The film opens in somewhat harmony as Frances lives with best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner aka Sting's daughter who makes a bewitching presence.)  The two, which Frances dubs "the same" drink and sneak cigs out their windows and entertain with one another with the story of them, in which Sophie becomes a huge literary publishing icon and Frances a world famous dancer.  I believe all generations can relate to such liquor-infused dialogues between pals.  The two are a sort of odd couple of sorts but even in their playful eccentricity (Frances is charmed by the notion that others believe they are in a long term, sexless lesbian romance), there's an honesty and novel truth to their friendship, the kind of which that can only bloom and become eternal with the shared twenty-something failures.

Frances' world turns on when Sophie moves in with her boyfriend and cuddly play fighting turns real.  There's always that silly belief that certain blissful and seemingly cosmic friendships can never be disturbed, not even by the realities of growing up.  Frances (her last name is decidedly not Ha-- that is decided by charming final shot), ever quick on her feet, moves in with two male buddies-- Benji (Michael Zegen) and Lev (Girls' Adam Driver)-- in a pricy three bedroom apartment.  Again money becomes an issue-- this is a young woman who is clamors with excitement when a tax rebate arrives in the mail and gives her an opportunity to invite a boy to a real dinner (of which leads to comical blunder)-- and Frances continues her mooching.  This includes a holiday spent with parents in Sacramento, which surmises a lovely montage, and a quick weekend getaway to Paris (more destructive than romantic.)

Through it all, Frances Ha manages to never sway to the maudlin or depressing, even as Frances' opportunities seem to vanish from beneath her.  That's due to the strange and lovely gifts Gerwig invests into her singular character.  She's plays a dancer, but is not quite graceful, but utterly spirited.  She moves in an utterly balletic way however, whether teaching a class of young girls or running through the streets of New York in search of an ATM, or in the films most potent and rousing sequence, scrambling through the streets as Bowie's "Modern Love" blares most joyously on the soundtrack.  Gerwig creates the impression of a slapstick-prone slouch, but it's just the guise of a skillfully physical performer-- like a musician who makes a purposeful flub on purpose for effect.  It's enough to make Frances' career ambition both credible and a tad ridiculous, itself a truth for the many marginally talented sorts casting aside stability in pursuit of art.  The physicality is not merely present when Frances is prancing around however, as she adds a burst of energy and nuance to scenes where an ironic glare or shoulder shrug make everything just slightly more awkward than they should be.  It's a brilliant performance.  A

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Great Gatsby

"Is it too much?" asks a nervous Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) in the first section of Baz Luhrmann's "Spectacular Spectacular" retelling of the often told F. Scott Fitzgerald novel The Great Gatsby.  The much in question refers to the abundance of flowers that enshroud a living room like a hanging green house that he has anxiously over-prepared for his first meeting in many moons with his longtime obsession and love, Daisy-- played this time by Carey Mulligan.  Of course it's too much, and much can said about the movie itself with its artifice dripping off the walls and burning the holes of the retinas of its audiences.  Yet in that very nature of being too much, Luhrmann and team bring such a forceful and unrestrained visual aesthetic to The Great Gatsby, that in it's over-the-top cartoonish, blaring third dimension, cornucopia of colors spectacle of sight and sound, they uncannily sum up a modernized look at the too much that was the Jazz Age house of mirrors that Fitzgerald was commenting and ruminating about at such rigorous detail.  There's certain hints in the text that demand the Luhrmann Red Curtain Trilogy treatment.  The problem is that while Fitzgerald was in loathe of the artifice while Luhrmann cannot help himself but be ever encapsulated by it.

Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby (which he co-wrote with Craig Pearce) is the fourth cinematic rendering of one of the essentials.  Ever thirty odds years or so, Hollywood summons the courage (despite past mistakes) to hopefully get it right.  The novel has tripped many up before, what with Fitzgerald's somewhat plotless prose evoking near sacrilege status for re-invention along with characterizations that read largely more like ideals than thinking, breathing human beings.  The much maligned 1974 version directed by Jack Clayton (written by Francis Ford Coppola) tried to put a stately touch to the material, but flatlined with the drama, evoking nothing more than a pretty 1920s-era (by way of the 1970s) postcard.  Baz Luhrmann does do something radical with the entombed novel, dubbed by many as the Great American Novel, but it's largely just on the surface.

Mind you it's a maddeningly beautiful surface.  For the parties that mysterious nouveau riche billionaire Jay Gatsby throws in the attempt to impress and finally court his longtime love Daisy are a marvelous old-new concoction that serve Luhrmann, the purveyor of Spectacular-sized entertainment as well as the auteur in a manner that gets right into the trenches of the feeling the Roaring Twenties might have evoked for the flappers and all else.  Criticize the filmmaker all you wish for including hip hop tracks to deejay the festivities, the anachronism achieves a blissfully lurid experience coupled with the marvelously decadent production design and costume numbers (each handled courtesy of Luhrmann's partner in more than one ways, Catherine Martin, who will likely be seeing a few more Oscar nominations come her way.)  Filtered together and edited into a sort of blended stew, there's intoxicating and rich high that's achieved.  As Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" hums, fireworks alight the Long Island bay just outside in a perfect symphony of noise and colors.  Bravura and, in at least at the very beginning, digs sharply into the meglo-madness that Fitzgerald was all enraged about in the first place.  Of course, the party must come to an end at some point.

There's the trickiness of the narrative to get through as well.  As in the novel, the film is narrated by Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), this time a la Moulin Rouge! writing the past events in the invented sanctuary of a sanitarium, driven blistering mad by alcoholism and anxiety by what he's experienced.  He's the cousin of Daisy, the prim epitome of old world beauty.  Newly rich in the fortunes of the era, Nick is the also the West Egg neighbor of Jay Gatsby, he is quickly immersed into the hedonistic foreign world of spectacle, glamor and all that which inspired surely a great many soap operas.  Mysteriously befriended by Gatsby as a sidekick to lure Daisy back-- she lives at the other end of the bay in East Egg, directly across Gatsby's grand estate, symbolized by a blinking green light, on which he is frequently staring at.  Part of the narrative struggles of The Great Gatsby preside in the fact that in essence it will always be Nick's story, his memories, an expression of which can encumber the plot as our surrogate is just that-- his burdening plight has little consequence to the tale itself.  Luhrmann tries to correct this, but Maguire's bland and plucky portrait offers little insight.  The likable performer is tad too old for a character this readily eager, and it suggests in an unflattering light his most furtive cinematic period nearly a decade ago before Spider-man became his calling card.

Ushered into pull of this singular Jay-Z-scored take of Jazz Age, Nick becomes foil for Gatsby, and compatriot to Daisy's troupe of Old Money regulars-- golf champ friend Jordan Baker (newcomer Elizabeth Debicki) and her sketchy husband Tom (an excellent Joel Edgerton.)  Tom comes in tow a mistress on the side from the poor section of town-- a woman who has the forthright to call during meals-- Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher.)  There's a sequence early on where Nick travails with Tom to a hotel room for assorted shenanigans that at first reads as a scene that may have at first been written atop the Elephant suite in Moulin Rouge!.  So assertive in its debased debauchery, The Great Gatsby takes its time (more so in its overly generous two-and-a-half-hour running time) to settle and breathe from its arch "too much"-ness.  The biggest problem is that when it does so, the drama has run out of steam.

Which leads to perhaps the most nagging concern when trying to adapt The Great Gatsby in the first place.  It starts with the title character himself-- an oblique image of elegance and refined beauty (and a role that suits and tailors an actor like DiCaprio, at least on the surface of things, like a fine toothed comb), but he's merely that-- an image, a symbol, a sacred totem of a lost boy who reinvented himself as a gentleman seemingly for nothing more than to court another beguiling specimen.  Of course, there's a dark belly that scratches that elegant surface (and everybody knows it), but it's still a hardly tangible character to flesh out.  Daisy is even more difficult.  Herself, relegated to a mere supporting idea of beauty and idealism in what is supposed to be a his and her epic romantic drama, can really only a tease, a glimmer of femininity in an adaptation done correctly, a mere cipher can only do so much in her part of a star-crossed love affair.  And Luhrmann's take closely hews Fitzgerald's narrative, visual aplomb taken aside.  The leading actors, themselves finely coiffed and perfectly bred, offer only a whisk of interpretation themselves, which may work for the artifice, but stalls anything close to drama.

It's unfortunate as the supporting characters, while many of whom are given significantly lesser roles than in the novel, create vivid and exciting portraits that feel lived-in to Luhrmann's master set piece as well as grand ciphers to Fitzgerald's world as originally created.  Edgerton is absolutely watchable and rich as Daisy's philandering husband, opting big to match the set design, but distilling a hard Old Money flare to his line readings.  Fisher, as well as Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty) as her cuckold dim bulb of a husband are reduced so greatly in the film, that the third act drags along on the wisp of circumstance, but the two actors game as can be.  Dedicki as Jordan is vivacious and offers plenty of presence despite limited screen time-- in the novel she's upgraded to Nick's lover, here she's more of first mate which plagues a question only round aboutly hinted at-- may the great romance of The Great Gatsby truly lie in Nick's eternal fascination of Gatsby himself.  That may have been the cork needed to wipe the cobwebs of the dusty masterwork in the first place.

That may have been something.  Alas, Luhrmann seems only interested in the unlocking The Great Gatsby in familiar ways, perhaps afraid of offering, ahem, some sense of narrative discovery to a property nearly one hundred years old.  I certainly hope it doesn't seem like I'm hating on this grandly shaped film, because I quite enjoyed it, I just wasn't immersed in it the way that only a compelling drama can.  There's a singular, bewitching, maddening beauty to The Great Gatsby, of which Luhrmann excels in driving at.  There's also a twinge of possibility of what it may have been had the filmmaker partook dramatic license to the same degree on which he does visually.  B-

Friday, May 17, 2013

Upstream Color

If pressed into a corner to describe the plot of Upstream Color one may experience a dizzy spell, a headache or an irrational body twitch.  The film, the second by filmmaker Shane Carruth-- his first since the confounding, bravura brain trip that was 2004's Sundance Film Festival Grand Prize winner Primer-- is yet another micro-budgeted art house oddity.  Enigmatic to the point that it reads like a stiff middle finger to those who even attempt to sort out its narrative mysteries, Upstream Color is the epitome of a film not for everyone.  Yet, it's also haunting and compelling in a weird, elegant way and made with a crystalline precision, visual sophistication and sense of wonder that recalls a nearly poetic and dreamily absurd marriage of Terrence Malick at his most ethereal and David Cronenberg at his most playfully eerie.  Like Primer, Carruth's latest is a mystery of apprehension, at first a tease of technical sneers from someone clearly smarter than most, but Upstream Color takes on a more soulful and decidedly emotional course than his previous time-traveling tinkering toy.  The biggest surprise is that the film turns out to be a love story above anything else, and a fairly substantial one at that.

The things that are easiest to decode are this: Kris (Amy Seimetz, a wonderful new screen presence) and Jeff (Carruth) meet one a train one day and over time start to date and become lovers.  Their relationship is built on something larger and their connection is hinged upon something bigger-- both are intrinsically linked by a cosmic, nearly universal pull.  Carruth, the prankster and philosopher stages this love story in the least tidy and messiest of science fiction/art house gone mad of stories, but builds a lovely sense of investment (coupled with confusion) to Kris and Jeff.  In the beginning of the film, Kris is drugged with a psychotropic worm by a thief who in tern steals her money.  It starts as a horror freak show with a few nauseatingly terse sequences that are truly frightening.  Upstream Color is one of the rare films that can seemingly lull you with the prospect of the wonder of cinematic possibility, which (in)plausibly rears feelings of fear over the anxiety of whatever could possibly happen next.

What does it all mean?  That may only be knowable by Carruth himself, who not only directed and acted in the film, but also wrote, produced, scored, lensed and self distributed Upstream Color, but in its elliptical, nonsensical way works as a compelling and absorbing mind bender for audiences willing to submit themselves for a heady chiller.  There's a seemingly vast mythology to the film itself-- presented in the strained courtship of Kris and Jeff, whose romance is singed by memories that are collective, even though they are strangers.  There's an even more mysterious stranger who may be pulling the strings, referred to only in the credits as, "The Sampler," played with sketchy motivations by Andrew Sensenig, who appears to be scoring the soundtrack to the broken and heartbroken of the film-- the film to it's credit is a master class in sound design with a showy, but beautifully calibrated Foley Scheme that may or may not be further connective to the broader story.  What's important instead, rather than pulling ones hair out to find narrative clarity, is to surrender to the intoxicating and elegant pleasures of Carruth's strange and weird world-- the show itself is a confounding comfort.

Carruth was recently name-checked in Steven Soderbergh's recent "Hollywood is doomed" speech he gave at the San Francisco Film Festival.  In it, the famed, maybe retired director named Carruth one of the visionary filmmakers that Hollywood should entrust more of, and while that's high praise and it seems appropriate that Soderbergh, whose made a career out navigating the industry with lush big product mixed with teeny-tiny, strange chamber pieces of movies would be a follower and fan of Carruth.  However, I feel that Hollywood would  doubtfully ever successfully taint or lure someone like Carruth because even with only two films under his belt, the confidence and verve he's established is clearly demonstrated only from a filmmaker with his own clear (however indecipherable) vision.  One marked by an unbendable talent that could only exist in the throes of independent cinema and for only the bravest of audiences.  B  

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Holy Cow!!

Since it was announced that visionary mastermind/poet/bringer-of-all-things-good Alfonso Cuaron would be following up the masterful Children of Men with a science fiction lost in space yarn entitled Gravity, there was a palpable rush of adrenaline felt in the cinematic community.  The casting of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney added star luster, but the real treat was always going to be the magic that Cuaron would bring to his 3-D space tale.  It was a disappointment to learn that the film was pushed back a year after brief murmurs it would make its debut in the midst of last falls awards season.  Whatever the wait, and whatever the hype, this already demands to be a must see.  It is said that the film will open with a bravura 17-minute single take opening shot.  Heady, confounding, and potentially genius!  The synopsis is eerily simple:

"Astronauts attempt to return to earth after debris crashes into their space shuttle, leaving them drifting alone in space." 

Here's a first reaction of a someone who alleges to have seen an early cut of Gravity, courtesy of AICN:
This is not just next level shit, this is several levels ahead of next level shit, & quite possibly the highest level shit you could possibly make. This is like if Avatar had been released in 1927 a week after The Jazz Singer. People won’t know how to comprehend what they are seeing. In short, Gravity genuinely makes you feel like you have been to space. It really, really does. And guess what? It’s beautiful, and awe-inspiring, and profound (and a little scary too), everything you thought it would be since you first thought about going to space when you were a kid. The movie exploits dreams it knows every sentient being has had, using the best special effects I have personally ever seen. I honestly don’t know how you could enhance a cinematic experience more. I kept waiting for a cameo from the Tupac hologram.  However, some people might end up saying that Gravity ends up being too light on story & is just an expensive space roller coaster ride, ‘Space Mountain: The Movie’ if you will. But those people would be wrong, stupid & ungrateful. Gravity is an important & subtle character study wrapped up in the guise of the most technologically advanced film of the new millennium… To me the film is about apathy and isolation. It’s about people today not knowing why they should be excited about living but only knowing they don’t want to die. It’s about looking at your own insignificance in the universe (or on Earth, or at your job, or at your school, etc.) & becoming empowered by it instead of defeated. And most of all, it’s about seeing what it would be like to float through space like an astronaut (spoiler: it’s fun).

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

To the Pretentious Pits of Cinematic Hell

Forgive me for my rather unfriendly retitling of Terrence Malick's latest, To the Wonder; I really had no choice.  Coming less than two years after his last film, The Tree of Life in all its Palme D'Or, thrice Oscar-nominated art house success glory, it's at first jarring just to settle into this new found prolific era for the famously reclusive filmmaker who used to enchant and startle the cinematic culture with a film once every decade or so.  Whatever is the impetus for his unexpected productivity (he's got a few more projects on the ways as well), To the Wonder feels nothing more than a highly stylized and mighty pointy middle finger to...well I'm not sure to whom exactly, but it's pointed for sure.  A love story between two aimless archetypal figures played by glamorous movie stars is the focal point for To the Wonder, but the mostly montage of a film plays like a gorgeously lit Instagram profile recapping the joys and sorrows of a summertime fling.  That may appear harsh considering the high minded frame from which Malick is coming from and his impossibly idyllic imagery, but the drama, the backbone, the pulse, the spark of To the Wonder is so elusive that Mr. Malick, either consciously or not, refuses to share it with the audience.

We start in Paris as Olga Kurylenko, a former Bond girl and last year one of the Seven Psychopaths, plays girl and lover to Ben Affleck, former matinee idol turned awards-bait golden boy.  They are in harmonic bliss as blandly nondescript narration whispers greeting card displays of affection along with foreshadowing of future unhappiness.  Forget all that-- they're in love.  Kurylenko, in a performance or pantomime of exhausting physicality, dances and prances and skips and jumps on beds and scampers about in fits of joy and sadness.  She has a young daughter who is equally in awe of her mother's new American friend and a similarly balletic composure.  Affleck is stoic, cool and reserved, delivering his six or so lines of dialogue with a plain, simple disposition as he paces and broods and makes googly eyes at his pretty lover.

The action (as well as the prancing) moves to Kansas as Affleck takes the two lovely French ladies back home, and for a stretch To the Wonder plays like lost scenes of idealized Americana left over from the finished cut of The Tree of Life.  Nothing much happens, or matters, incidentally, but the camera moves so swiftly and gingerly, seemingly as in awe with the possibilities of burgeoning love as the two movie stars appear to be.  Instead of drama, To the Wonder offers circumstance, as the lovely French ladies are sent back to Paris as their visas are about to expire...and the American brooder takes up a fling with another beautiful woman-- a rancher played by Rachel McAdams.  There's a reconciliation, of course (along with more prancing), but that's when the nagging asides of To the Wonder pitter-patter to a continual stench of nothingness.  It's important to note the glamor of the movie stars as they appear in so perfectly coiffed and remarkably beautiful in contrast to the regular (and one assumes, non-professional) supporting passerbys.  Kurylenko, Affleck and McAdams are magazine chic.

Meanwhile, Javier Bardem plays a local priest who pops by occasionally to offer sullen and disillusioning takes on society as a whole.  This may be the literal interpretation that Malick has ever expressed in his continual takes on faith and the divine, but more importantly, the only small nugget of substance that seemingly can be gathered in To the Wonder is the conceit that the longing and suffering of its characters comes from a disbelief or lack of faith in the almighty himself.  While as an exploratory means of art that may be all well and good, but Malick drags his heels in the mud in the final stretch of To the Wonder which plays more so as a preachy advertisement than a thread of dramatic stitching.

It goes almost without saying that the camera work is astonishing.  To the Wonder reconnects Malick with his go-to lenser Emmanuel Lubezki, whose visceral setups and expert frame work are art gallery-worthy, or at the least, screen savor worthy.  However, even despite the beauty To the Wonder manages to film, there's a hollow, shallow emptiness to the entire movie.  There's nothing to cling to, either by way of nostalgia or novelty, and for the first time in his career, Malick seems to have, perhaps, been swayed by the decades of being heralded a filmmaking genius, and offers little more than post card ready snapshots shot to the ether ready to raved and lavished upon.  F

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Fruitvale Station

Fruitvale Station, retitled after winning both the Grand Jury Prize and the Dramatic Audience Award at this years Sundance Film Festival gets a winning teaser poster as well.  The Weinstein Company will release the film this summer as a counterpoint to the comic-book bonanza fest.

"The Butler" Trailer

For those of you not turned away by The Paperboy, director Lee Daniels returns with The Butler, which follows the life of the head butler at the White House from the early 1950s to the mid 1980s.  On first glimpse, the all-star, back by Harvey Weinstein endeavor looks-- dare I say it-- reverent.  The story is based on the real life of Eugene Allen, fictionalized by Forest Whitaker.  Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo and Terrence Howard co-star.  The support casting is flamboyant to say the least:

John Cusack as Richard Nixon
Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan
Minka Kelly as Jackie Kennedy
Melissa Leo as Mamie Eisenhower
James Marsden as John F. Kennedy
Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan
Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson
Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower

At the very least, the conservatives might get themselves all hot and bothered by the notion of Hanoi Jane playing Mrs. Reagan.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Musings and Stuff's Snarky Summer Movie Part 2

Because the movies are nothing without franchises.


June 7th, 2013
The first weekend of June will be a relatively quiet one because of the quick scheduling move on the part of Sony's After Earth moving a week earlier.  Again this might be a great weekend to catch up on (hopeful) art house pleasures like Before Midnight, Frances Ha and Stories We Tell, all of whom will likely be playing on 2,000+ screens the first weekend in May due to endless demand queries-- it could happen!  Otherwise the big attraction will come squarely from Fox's Vince Vaughn-Owen Wilson buddy-dumb-dumb comedy The Internship about two loser salesmen who try to conquer the digital world of now by becoming interns at Google.  Shawn Levy, the director of the Night at the Museum franchise, helms what will surely be a compelling tale of middle aged men in competition with nerdy geniuses for future employment.  Rose Byrne, John Goodman and B.J. Novak co-star.  Trailer here.

If you want to be the cool kid in your selected city, the obvious movie-going choice for this weekend will be Joss Whedon's black and white, modern re-staging of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing.  Whedon shot this during a break from shooting of The Avengers and it features a collective whos-who of past Whedon players including Amy Acker (Dollhouse), Alexis Denisof (aka Mr. Willow-- Alyson Hannigan's real-life husband and Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Angel alum), Fran Kranz (The Cabin in the Woods) and Nathan Fillion (nearly everything.)  All which prompts a fun game of Whedon musical chairs to the tune of Shakespeare-- certainly a drinking game can arise from this somehow.  The film premiered to nice notices at last years Toronto Film Festival and this springs SXSW.  Strangely, given the popular cinematic art form of gutting the work of Shakespeare endlessly, Much Ado About Nothing has only been made into a theatrical film once before in 1993's Kenneth Branagh's version which starred Emma Thompson, Kate Beckinsale, Denzel Washington, and, ahem, Keanu Reeves; that version is actually a beaut and worthy of checking out as well.

Also opening: Provocative documentary Dirty Wars which follows investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, while Evocatuer: The Morton Downey, Jr. Movie is another documentary which explores the divisive, chain-smoking shock jock.


There's such a sense of nostalgia that rails through Mud-- writer-director Jeff Nichols third film-- that it might be easily confused as a period piece.  If nothing else the film expertly infuses a bygone time period look as it wades across the river banks of the small Arkansas town in which it is set.  Meditatively paced, and harkening to a mythic style of storytelling, one of which that not just recalls the literary facets of Mark Twain, but also the cinematic beats of the Old West infused with the convention of ones coming of age, Mud, in its best stretches, lulls with a powerful beatific pull.  Unfortunately, the surface is whats coded with a special and enticing gloss, that the more you get to the bottom of the enchanting playground on which Mud is set, there is sadly not too much there.  But that gloss is dreamy and Nichols, if nothing else, proves a more than confident filmmaker with a flourish and sweep of the cinematic realm.  He shoots he a gracefulness and an economy, making no shot seem wasted or overly fussed about.  It's that confidence and ease of control that shapes this imperfect American film as something notable and refreshing.

Mud tells the tale of two young boys-- Ellis (a terrific Tye Sheridan, who was one of the sons in The Tree of Life), a sensitive, searching young lad and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland, making his acting debut), the more pragmatic and cynical of the two.  On a seemingly routine, boys-will-be-boys type of adventure, the two find a boat wedged in a tree on a nearby island off their riverbed shanty homes.  It's a beguiling and nearly poetic image from the start.  A relic likely transplanted there after a storm, but a perfectly engaging and surreal setup for a playtime adventure.  The mood and danger of Mud arises upon the arrival of Matthew McConaughey who plays a fugitive (referred to as "Mud") who has sought solace on the island and has claimed the boat as his own.  Afraid, but also intrigued, the boys wage to help the man.

Mud showcased another exciting entry in the journeyman rebirth of Matthew McConaughey.  As Mud, he is asked to be calming, romantic, fatherly and dangerous in the same breath.  It's a testament to his last minute resurgence as a serious and convicted performer that the once eternally trapped movie star of banal romantic comedies, feels and reads perfectly in sync with his character.  It's further testament, that within the stretch of a calendar year, the actor has travailed through fascinatingly imperfect films such as Magic Mike, The Paperboy, Bernie and this one, and seemingly revitalized all of them by his mere presence and sense of discovery throughout them. 

He invests more than anything a thoughtfulness to Mud as a lovestruck loner as he relays the story of his doomed love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon.)  This appeals mostly to Ellis who comes from a home that is one edges of coming apart and his teenage impulses are starting to coalesce.  Thus a plea is drawn-- the boys will help Mud in gathering food and spare parts to repair the boat in the tree-- Neckbone is drawn in more so because Mud promises him a pistol in exchange and as second fiddle to Ellis.  The most industrious and beguiling portion of Mud is in inception as the film delves into more conventional Old West terrain with a noisy and trigger-happy conclusion, nearly devoid of catharsis.  The overall tidiness of the conclusion seems a bit false in the onset of story built from the intriguing messiness of its premise and all the stretched truths and tall tales it tells.  But in the journey, Nichols creates a memorable and interesting mood study.  The supporting players are aces as well including unshowy, but tenderly drawn showcases for Sam Shepard, Sarah Paulson and Michael Shannon.

It's nearly novelistic by design, but Nichols has a sweeping flow of the rhythms of character and intrusive visual scheme that is lovely to look at times.  If perhaps it feels a bit of come down from the bravura metaphysics he was playing with in his last film in the mesmerizing 2011 indie apocalypse tale Take Shelter, the promise and intrigue of an American journeyman filmmaker still looms strong.  Mud is certainly a film worthy of a look and a thought, I just wished it lingered a bit longer.  B-        
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