Sunday, December 30, 2012

Tarantino Deconstructs Slavery in Django Unchained

     When a new Tarantino film is announced, it's like an unexpected and surprising gift. The first question is usually the same: what subject will be the focus of his signature and singular style? In 1997, Jackie Brown was his homage to the Pam Grier Blaxploitation flicks of the 1970's. Six years later, we got the wonderful Kill Bill, the ultra-bloody and winking nod to the Kung-Fu films of Asian cinema that he was infatuated with during his childhood.  Then just three years ago, Inglorious Basterds--the best film of 2009--was a World War II revenge fantasy that was as funny as it was exciting. Django Unchained, released on Christmas day, is his newest, a love-letter to the Spaghetti Westerns of yore with a slavery-focused plot that doesn't pretend to be politically correct: the N-word flows more freely than the brimming blood--and there is a lot of blood. What it all amounts to is a fun and simple film that doesn't rank among the director's best work but is still one of the more entertaining and stylistic films of the year.
     Jaime Foxx is the titular character, Django, and he and his wife are slaves that get split up in a trade. While he's being transported with a group of other chained slaves, we meet Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a dentist/bounty hunter who needs Django to identify a trio of brothers that have large bounties on their heads. So he buys and frees him, and the two team up in buddy-comedy style fashion. The two work well of each other. Foxx plays Django as a quiet man on a mission. Will Smith was actually offered the role of Django, but Foxx is a better choice: his gruff stares and I've-been-through-everything confidence makes you hopeful for his inevitable revenge. Waltz, just as he chewed every scene in Inglorious Basterds, is the best aspect of Django. But that's just as much a testament to Tarantino's script, specifically his signature dialogue that allows for comical pauses and mannerisms that really suit Waltz's acting style.
     The first half of Django Unchained has some comical scenes that are hit-or-miss. It's great first meeting Dr. Schultz, with his horse carriage that has a large fake tooth on a spring on top, swinging back and forth signifying that he's a dentist. A less funny scene involves some Klanish men complaining on and on about how they can't see out of their white hood eye holes because the notches are not cut large enough. It's not unfunny because it's offensive--it's just repetitive. Though there is something to be said about how uncomfortable it is laughing at certain aspects of Django in a theater with a bunch of other white people. No punches are pulled: the N-word is used in all matter of scenes, joking or serious. But this is how these men and women would talk during this time period in this location. They wouldn't hesitate using this type of language without even thinking twice about it, just like we don't think twice about any normal word we use on a daily basis as Americans living in the year (almost) 2013. Spike Lee can cry all he wants--it's an honest and unflinching look at certain aspects of the horrors of slavery.
     Django really picks up when our heroic duo enters "Candy Land", a plantation where Django's wife is being held. It's called that because it's owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo Dicaprio), a horrific person whose love for racism is only outmatched by his love for "Mandingo" fighting, a form of battling to the death between two black slaves for entertainment of white folk. Dicaprio's performance is definitely a highlight of Django, though playing a villain in a Tarantino film seems not too difficult given the screenwriter's eye for vicious and violent characters. Another high (and surprising) point is the performance of Samuel L. Jackson, who portrays Candie's so-called "House Ni**er", a man with tons of self pity, a black man who is disgusted by black people. When Django rides into Candy Land on a horse (since he is a free man due to Dr. Schultz), Jackson's reaction and performance (for the rest of the film, really) is funny and transfixing.
     Like in Kill Bill Vol. 1, Django Unchained builds inevitable Tarantino tension to a final showdown that involves over-the-top violence and hundreds of gallons of blood. The killings are not too serious or realistic: gunshot wounds spurt gobs of blood that would fill up a bathtub, almost like a bullet entering the body would shoot out every ounce of plasma out of the sizzling hole. It's cartoonish and eventually grows a bit tiresome, mainly because the shootouts are not quite as innovate as the large-scale combat in Kill Bill Vol 1. or the intimate basement bar scene in Inglorious Basterds. And that's a good sum up about how I feel about Django Unchained: it's got the typical moments of  fun brilliance that Tarantino is known for, but it never really matches the highs of his previous cinematic oeuvre, and at nearly three hours, it's a bit overlong too.
     Another problem with the film: for a movie called "Django Unchained", you would think the character of Django would become "unchained", become empowered, become something larger than himself. But that doesn't really happen. It's more of a white man's fantasy film: the white Dr. Schultz frees Django, he helps Django, and when an important moment of standing up to tyranny occurs, its the white Dr. Schultz that takes action instead of the former slave. Foxx's Django rarely does anything meaningful in regards to taking control of his situation. He's perfectly happy with Schultz leading the way. Ultimately, though, this is just a fun film about slavery (seems like an oxymoron) that is full of both horror and humor. I just wish Django had taken a more serious stand against that horror.     (B+)

Saturday, December 29, 2012

No Need to Find a Silver Lining in Silver Linings Playbook

      Bradley Cooper has gotten a bad wrap, but one that has been earned: with film choices like The Hangover, the dreadful Hangover 2, the nap-inducing action movie The A-Team, and the I-think-I-just-threw-up-in-my-mouth ensemble comedy Valentine's Day, Cooper has proven that he doesn't mind being in throwaway films that have no home on the cinematic landscape. It's surprising, then, that he shines so bright in Silver Linings Playbook--based on the book of the same name by Matthew Quick--a film directed by David O Russell that's real and emotional and full of moments that make you wish more films touched upon this type of exciting terrain.
     Pat (Cooper) is Bipolar, and when we first meet him he's being released from a mental institution (which he was attending for beating someone almost to death, though I won't get into specifics). Pat's changed significantly since he's been locked away: he's lost a bunch of weight, works out a lot, and tries to be much more positive about everything in life--tries to find the silver lining no matter the situation. He has one goal: do absolutely everything in his power to get his wife back; unfortunately, she has a restraining order against him. It's quickly clear that Pat still has some major issues to deal with, particularly when he moves back in with his parents, Pat Sr. (Robert Deniro, in one of his best roles in years) and Dolores (Jacki Weaver, who was so good in that little Australian crime drama, Animal Kingdom). When examining Deniro's character, it's certain that Pat Jr. has inherited some of his dad's traits: Pat Sr. is obsessed with the Philadelphia Eagles (NFL football plays a major role in Silver Linings), and he has an OCD nature in regards to remote control placement and who is sitting where on the sofa when watching the game. He isn't allowed at the stadium anymore--he's beaten up too many fans. 
     In his journey to win back his wife, Pat happens upon Tiffany (the always-transfixing Jennifer Lawrence), a young widow who is dealing with some major emotional issues of her own. Tiffany's a great foil to Pat: she doesn't deal with any of his shit and calls him out when he's clearly in the wrong. Lawrence herself is awesome. If you're looking for her pivotal performance of 2012, put The Hunger Games back on the shelf and look no further than here. She (emotionally) bares all. As they start to build a friendship, it's obvious that Tiffany want's more than just a crazy guy to hang out with. But Pat doesn't want to cheat on his wife, even though he hasn't seen her for almost a year. This tension propels the film into a funny and nerve-wracking final third that involves a huge bet, a dance competition, and the finding of true love.
      But Cooper is the real star in Silver Linings Playbook. His portrayal of Pat is funny and dangerous: this is a man that speaks with "no filter", a man who could go off on a violent tangent at any given moment--a nostalgic song or an Ernest Hemingway book could set him off. He feels real, like a friend or a friend of a friend. David O Russell's direction keeps things moving, too. I remember watching the trailer for this film a few months back: I thought it looked like utter crap with dull jokes and a predictable story. But that couldn't be further from the truth. Like his work in 2010's The Fighter, everything melds together into a wonderful fast-paced story about a man trying to accomplish his goals, whether that be winning a boxing title or winning his wife back.
     There are so many things going on in Silver Linings, yet the sum of every aspect equals one of the best romantic films of the year, a movie that is truly of our time. Like Pat, the film itself is all over the place: at one moment you could be shocked by the things that it says, one moment can bring tears to your eyes and another moment can give you a wide smile from its humor. By the time we get to know these characters and the film is almost over, the outcome may seem like it's going to be predictable. It doesn't especially make a difference, because the journey of watching Silver Linings Playbook--a romantic drama that is one of the best films of the year--surely isn't.      (A-)


Sunday, December 23, 2012

An Unexpected Journey: 1/3 of The Hobbit Trilogy and 1/3 of a Great Movie

     The Lord of the Rings trilogy, arguably the most beloved group of fantasy novels this side of A Song of Ice and Fire, amassed over 1100 pages of written word by J. R. R. Tolkien throughout the years. Nine years ago, director Peter Jackson miraculously finished turning those 1100 dense pages into three films that were perfect in their emotional depiction of Frodo's epic journey with The Ring. Flash forward to this year and Peter Jackson is showing the world his first film in a new trilogy based on The Hobbit, Tolkien's more lighthearted story that weighs in at just over...300 pages. So, 1100 pages = 3 films for the first trilogy, and 300 pages = 3 films for the second trilogy. Something doesn't feel quite right, and it's not: Jackson's first film in the so-called Hobbit trilogy, subtitled An Unexpected Journey, has plenty of exciting action and incredible special effects, but with a run time of nearly three hours, they are few and far between. It's a small story that's going to be stretched into a long film series, and this first film suffers for it--it's mostly set-up instead of sensational.
     The story is set 60 years before the events of Lord of the Rings: Bilbo Baggins (now portrayed by a younger Martin Freeman instead of Ian Holm of the original Rings films) is living a nice quiet life on the hillside, with gorgeous sunlit views and scrumptious food. Wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen, who hasn't missed a beat since playing the The Grey in the original trilogy) shows up, smoking his peace pipe, and he convinces Bilbo to go on an adventure (an unexpected journey, if you will). So in walk 13 dwarfs, and the group sets out on dangerous mission...wait, no they don't. Jackson focuses on these new characters for as long as time will allow: they eat all of Bilbo's food, make fun of Bilbo, tell stories, sing songs, and put away dishes quicker than the forest animals in Snow White. They try to convince Bilbo to go, but he's reluctant. They try to convince him even more--a clear problem in trying to expand this story into three films.
     Inevitably, off they go on their adventure! The dwarfs are led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), and they are questing across Middle Earth to attempt to reclaim their homeland, The Lonely Mountain, which is now the lair of a powerful Dragon named Smaug (we see barely a glimpse of the fire-breather in this installment). Bilbo and Gandalf tag along for moral support. Even the most devoted fans of the Rings universe will grow somewhat weary of the proceedings: there's a lot of walking and talking and orc-fighting, then more running and yelling and vacationing at an Elvish resort that almost put me to sleep. There's no real tension or danger: we know Bilbo lives because he's a character in Lord of the Rings, we know there are two more installments in this story, and every single time the group is super far up shit creek, Gandalf casts a spell or kisses a butterfly and enemies turn to stone or giant eagles swoop in to carry the group to safety.
     Martin Freeman does a fine job as Bilbo, showing off some of the same awkward nice-guy charm and sarcasm that he displayed so well in the British (definitive) version of The Office. The other performances are solid, too. The visuals are the other major problem with this first installment of The Hobbit. I'm hesitant to criticize a film because of its 3-D or frame rate. But Peter Jackson has made an interesting decision with An Unexpected Journey: he filmed it in 48 FPS instead of the standard 24 FPS. (You can only see this 48 FPS version at certain theaters, maybe only Westbrook in is sometimes referred to as "HFR"). This decision was made to reduce motion blur and flickering that can be found in fast-paced films that are filmed at 24 FPS (basically every film now produced). A few things can be said about the higher frame rate: it is incredibly realistic. You won't see a clearer image in film, and it causes some scenes to be strikingly beautiful. But it has the feel of a new television's settings, where everything is sped up a little and looks like it has been filmed with a video camera. A very non-cinematic feel. Consequently, I don't care to ever see a movie filmed in 48 frames per second ever again. The 3-D, in its typical atrocity, muddies the image in a dark tint and induces the normal rubbing of eyes.
     Late into the run time of An Unexpected Journey, Bilbo falls down into a cave that is patrolled by a Rings favorite, Gollum (portrayed brilliantly with motion capture by Andy Serkis, again). He adds an excitement and danger that had been lacking in the film until that point, especially when he loses his ring and suspects Bilbo of the thievery. But this feeling is really just nostalgia for the original Rings trilogy, when excitement, danger and tension lurked among every dark place like a ring wraith waiting for the kill. There was no filler, because there was no time for filler. The same can't be said for this first third of The Hobbit story, though Peter Jackson did do something correctly: he left plenty of room for improvement.     (C+) 

Monday, December 10, 2012

Life of Pi, a Feast for the Eyes

     When the news was announced a couple years ago that Yann Martel's 2001 book, Life of Pi, was going to be adapted into a feature film, most readers were curious and apprehensive. They were concerned that the set-up of the story--where a young boy named Pi spends hundreds of days at sea in a life boat with a zebra, an orangutan, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker--wouldn't translate to the world of film. The director certainly couldn't use real animals; it would be far too dangerous and much too difficult. Then the film adaptation gained two more curiosities: the director would be Ang Lee, a talent that fared well with small dramas (Brokeback Mountain) but produced mixed results with big budgets (The Hulk). And it would also be in 3-D, the fad that typically doesn't add anything to a film other than a couple extra dollars to the price of an already-expensive movie ticket.
     Dodging the difficulties of the source material like Pi dodges the tiger as they float in the same boat far out to sea, Ang Lee defies the large expectations and creates a really solid film that starts slow (like the book) but becomes an arresting and emotional experience that is an incredible visual eyegasm, using 3-D as part of the entire experience instead of a cheesy gimmick. Everything is gorgeous: the rolling ocean, the real and CGI animals, the hallucinogenic dream sequences. Not unlike last year's Hugo, Life of Pi is a story for every age group that has a wondrous quality that reaffirms the hope that cinema can make a viewer feel, and although some of the lessons--about the power of divinity and the importance of storytelling--are obvious and not too deep, Lee's poetic cameras sail the film almost into my list of the year's best.
     The Pi of the film's title is Piscine Patel, and he's played by three different actors during three different time periods. The film starts with the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) telling his life story to a writer looking for inspiration. As a young boy, Pi was picked on for his name (the local child bullies called him "Pissing"). His family owned a zoo full of exotic and dangerous creatures. Ever curious about life and the reason for "being", he begins to fall in love with the curiosity of religion, adapting certain beliefs from Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. Eventually, Pi's father decides that the Zoo isn't profitable anymore: he's going to move his family and all of the animals across the ocean on a big ship, settling in Canada and selling the creatures for a profit.

     The film goes from slow to stupendous during this trip across the sea. Pi is now a teenager, and he's portrayed by Suraj Sharma. His performance is the second best part of Life of Pi after the technical aspects: Sharma showcases a curiosity and kindness that helps ground the overpowering beauty of the film. It's no secret that the large ship (during a very large storm) succumbs to the hungry ocean and Pi escapes to the lifeboat with a few furry friends (or foes...). Pi must brave every aspect of the sea to survive. He keeps his mind occupied by trying to tend to the tiger instead of trying to get rid of it (he even saves its life at one point instead of letting it drown in a particularly sad scene). Does Pi find God? Can religion save him from the deep depths of the ocean? Or will his hope and will to survive come from different means? 
     Who really cares? Just look at how gosh darn pretty that 3-D is! It really is maybe the best use ever. It doesn't smash you over the head with jumpy things flying at you. It really adds another dimension to the film, which is rare in 3-D in this day and age. Enough can't be said about how good Life of Pi looks: you're doing yourself a disservice if you're planning on viewing the film once it gets released on Blu-Ray (Jesus...don't tell me you were going to watch it on DVD quality). See it in the theater with the annoying 3-D glasses, preferably on the biggest screen possible. 
     I won't ruin it for non-book readers, but the ending of Life of Pi (the book and the film) gives the viewer/reader a disturbing choice. This choice becomes an open-ended question that a viewer could ponder for as long as they desired. It's too bad that some of Pi's curiosities about life and its lessons before that reveal are simple and are not cause for too much thought. Ultimately, Lee's version of Life of Pi is just as enjoyable as the very popular book, due to it's incredible beauty and poetic nature. But since the film's technical aspects are so impressive and its story a bit easy, I found it hard not to judge this book by its cover.     (B+)

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Killing Them Softly, A Political Parable

     In 1982, a new form of research about upcoming films (other than reviews) was introduced into the media: it was called CinemaScore. CinemaScore surveys film audiences as they leave the theater and gauges their reactions to the films they just witnessed. The surveyors ask each member of the audience to give the film a letter grade, and the average letter grade of all of the polled data for a specific film becomes that film's CinemaScore. Letter grades in general are sort of arbitrary when it comes to rating and reviewing forms of art; words and the content of reviews clearly mean much more. So why am I mentioning this form of rating? Well, here are some examples of recent films and their CinemaScores:

Taken 2: B+
The newest Twilight: A
Alex Cross (starring Tyler Perry) A
Transformers: Dark of the Moon: A
Fast Five: A

What do these movies have in common? None of them are worthy of such high grades. It's all uninspired or unoriginal or unrealistic dreck. Consequently, when I heard that Killing Them Softly, the new film by Andrew Dominik (the director of 2007's wonderful The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), received an "F"--one of only 8 films ever to receive that grade--on the notoriously inaccurate CinemaScore, I was even more interested to see it. And my excitement was certainly well-justified: Killing Them Softly is a really good American film, a story about how even gangsters were susceptible to the economic recession that is filled with unlucky criminals, hitmen, snappy-vulgar dialogue, and flashes of brutal, realistic violence.
     Within a few seconds after the lights in the theater dim and Killing Them Softly starts, two things are clear: Andrew Dominick is a director with an incredible visual flourish and this is a film that is very present in its political metaphors. Barack Obama's voice from an important speech is cut back and forth with eerie music and views of a criminal who is barely surviving. This man, an Australian drug addict named Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) and his friend, the nervous Frankie (Scoot McNairy), are two scum-suckers who get talked into a seemingly easy job by their sort-of boss: they are to rob a big-buy-in cash card game filled with gangster players. This game is run by Mark Trattman (Ray Liotta, in a different role than normal, playing off of his typical typecasting), a man who hired two other dudes to rob the first card game he arranged, pretending he was one of the victims and splitting the cash afterwards. The beauty of this job is simple: these dangerous men playing in the high-stakes game will think that Mark has pulled the same shit again, and he will get blamed for this card-game incident. Russell and Frankie will be able to ride off into the sunset as Markie gets whacked, even though he wasn't actually in on this robbery.
     Enter Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), a man who solves mob problems, generally with the barrel and bullet of a gun. One of his rules is he doesn't like to kill anyone that he knows...doesn't want to get close to them. When that happens, emotion tends to get in the way. He likes to "kill them softly", from a distance, so he doesn't have to feel guilt or smell the piss that dribbles down the soon-to-be-dead man's pants. Pitt displays much of the same calm ferocity that he showcased in Assassination of Jesse James. He is great, as usual. As things happen, and more people need to die, Cogan often meets with a higher-up, kind-of middle man executive to the decision-making CEO's of the crime syndicate named Driver (Richard Jenkins). These conversational scenes echo the same problems of normal civilian employees in America: the inability to give out more money and the carefulness that business owners feel when their revenue stream has taken a major hit.
     One surprise in Killing Them Softly was the great James Gandolfini (I hope I don't have to tell you of The Sopranos fame...), portraying a character named Mickey who is brought into town by Cogan to perform one of the violent hits. It's been a few years since Cogan has worked with Mickey, and the years haven't been kind: because of money and marital problems and a violent alcoholism, Mickey has become fat and angry, spewing vulgarities at the nice waiters who serve him his drinks and nice whores who service his sex drive. He paints a great picture of what men like this must end up as when the money runs out and they have no use anymore. The real star of Killing Them Softly, though, is director Andrew Dominik and his skillful use of the camera. The film--other than the occasional bangs of bloody violence--is mainly a bunch of conversations about who should and who shouldn't die as America's economy is crumbling. But even the most normally-boring conversations, like one between Russell and Frankie as Russell is in a semi-sleep state due to drugs and exhaustion, are inspired and beautiful to watch. Or take one scene of slow-mo killing (a technique that has become incredibly stale since The Matrix) that is transfixing, even though is uses Bullet-Time! Truly visionary stuff.
     Sure, sometimes the political underpinnings that show up during many scenes in Killing Them Softly are heavy-handed and a bit obvious: we don't need a radio soundbite of George Bush speaking at a convention or a news clip of Barack Obama on a bar television screen to draw similarities to the situations that the film's characters face. And sure, this also isn't new territory in regards to story: much of this has been done before on dozens of occasions throughout the last twenty years of film and television. But the combination of all the aspects--the great cast, the snappy script, and specifically Dominik's direction--adds up to a small and worthwhile film that depicts how violent men who make their money illegally deal with a collapsing economic system.     (B+)

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Lincoln: Spielberg's Annual History Lesson

     It's extremely obvious to every serious movie-goer that Daniel Day-Lewis is probably the greatest living actor. His ability to fully enter a character's mannerisms and psyche (he even stays in character throughout the entire movie shoot when he's not on camera) with ease is awe-inspiring and always fun to watch. So when Day-Lewis was announced as the titular star in Steven Spielberg's historical and fair Lincoln, it came as no surprise: of course he was cast as Lincoln. Of course he will be totally indistinguishable from the 16th President of the United States. Of course--during awards season--he will sweep up plenty of Best Actor statuettes. It's all so obvious and predictable, and it's...true. Day-Lewis, shedding much of his normal ferocity and anger (like he displayed in Gangs of New York and There Will Be Blood), becomes Abraham Lincoln, high-pitched voice, tall stature, intelligence and all. And though the film seems like it could have played late at night on the History Channel with a no-name cast and crew, Day-Lewis's performance (and a couple others, namely Sally Field portraying Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd) solidifies this film as a must-see, even though the climax is obvious and the theater-esque direction (most of the film takes place only in a couple of different rooms) makes it--for me--a once watch.
     Other than the basics, before seeing Lincoln, I never knew that much about Lincoln. This is assuming that his portrayal is accurate, which is a statement that most historians tend to agree with. Tony Kushner's screenplay is full of little details that Day-Lewis brings to life with great respect: a plainspoken nature that the common folk could relate to, a love of telling stories that have a pertinent lesson or moral at the end, his own horror of a dead child, his unrelenting fortitude on the issue of abolishing slavery. The story is only a small part of the man's life: it takes place during his final months alive as he tries to pass the 13th Amendment in the House of Representatives. But it's powerful and emotional. And melodramatic in places, too--this is a 21st Century Spielberg film after all. Remember last year's War Horse? This is a director that pulls at the heartstrings as much as possible.
     All of the performances in Lincoln are predictably stellar. Sally Field steals the show as Lincoln's wife, a woman who has suffered an incredible amount of physical and emotional pain and sometimes takes it out on the men in her life. She is funny and heartbreaking, and she displays a ferocious insanity at times that will surely be recognized at the end of the year. Secretary of State William Seward is played by David Strathairn, a man who is always on Lincoln's side even when his opinion differs from the President. Another great performance is Tommy Lee Jones portraying Rep. Stevens, who will go to just about any length to abolish slavery. The rest of the cast: too many great names to mention, and they all play their part with typical excellence, however small or large that part may be.

     The film starts a bit slow, but it builds to inevitable well-acted courtroom scenes that showcase how divided the nation was during this time of war and slave ownership. Lincoln needed a certain number of votes from undecided (or easily swayed) House voters to pass his crown achievement 13th Amendment. Lincoln will do just about anything for these votes, and he feels that his Presidency is all for naught without passing this important Amendment that will change the course of history. Spielberg does a good job of showing us that backroom political dealings and manipulations are not just a part of modern politics. These things were happening--though in a different way--150 years ago. A person's vote can be changed by a variety of means.
     Insults fly from every angle during the court scenes. If only some of these tactics could be used today! It would make CSPAN must-see T.V. Lincoln runs into a major problem just as he's on the cusp of passing the Amendment. There are talks of peace and the war ending, but if the war ends even slightly prematurely (and even though it would save the lives of thousands of young soldiers and the horrific pain that their families would feel) all of the work that he has done on his prized political possession would come crashing down, because ending slavery with the 13th Amendment would mean ending the war anyway.
     If you go into Lincoln expecting epic Civil War battles echoing another Spielberg historical epic, Saving Private Ryan, you might walk away disappointed. This isn't a film about a gigantic war campaign. It's a film about a different type of campaign: a theatrical movie about speech and discussions that involve changing minds and overcoming prejudices. Day-Lewis's performance is subdued and un-showy, and although it was awesome, I wouldn't call it the best of the year: I'd give that honor to Joaquin Phoenix in The Master or John Hawkes in The Sessions. Lincoln is a history lesson, but I mean that in the best sense possible. In Spielberg, you have a teacher that is funny and entertaining, a teacher that masks learning with a wonderful story. But, as great as Lincoln is during most of its run time, occasionally I still had the feeling I was sitting in a desk at school, waiting for the next burst of excitement.     (B+)

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Sessions: Notes on Hiring a Sex Surrogate

     Mark O'Brien is a poet and journalist. He is also (basically) paralyzed from the neck down from contracting polio when he was a child, spending most of his life either inside an Iron Lung--one of those large medical ventilators that allows a person who has lost most muscle control to breathe with regularity--or being wheeled around on a gurney by a revolving door of caregivers that also feed, wash, and clothe him. Mark, always up for an experiment, begins to wonder what it would be like to be intimate with a woman (he's a virgin). Although he doesn't have control over any part of his body below his neck, he still has sensations and can fully achieve erections and ejaculation, but he doesn't have any control of either. So he hires a sex surrogate--a semi-prostitute that allows people with sexual problems to experience their innermost desires in a controlled environment. This is the true story that The Sessions is based on, a short and sweet film written and directed by Ben Lewin (a polio survivor himself) that ranks among the year's best due to its touching performances, particularly John Hawkes as the disabled Mark O'Brien.
     This is a great adult movie about sex and desire that doesn't resort to gross-out gags or rely on the physiques of flawless actors to tell its story. Mark (Hawkes) is a lover at heart: he has a way with words and a self-deprecating humor that women find charming, especially since words are all Mark can use to woo. Though Mark is very religious, and he begins a fruitful friendship with Father Brendan, a new priest at his church played with humor and sensitivity by William H. Macy, intimacy with a woman is all he really desires: he wants to do this because he thinks his time is running out. God will give him a free pass and look the other way for this minor sin. The heart of the film is Mark getting wheeled from place to place, usually to confessional with Father Brendan or to a private room where Mark starts his sessions.
     The sessions are extremely nerve-wracking for Mark, particularly the first one. His aid, Vera (Moon Bloodgood), a nice young woman who would do anything for Mark, wheels him into a room, places him on the bed (the real O'Brien was only 4'7" and 60 pounds) and he waits for the surrogate. Mark has only spoken to her on the phone to arrange the meeting. He's never seen her. The tension is palpable: will the woman live up to Mark's expectations? Will she be gentle enough (Mark only likes to be touched very delicately)? Will he find her attractive? The "She" in question is Cheryl (Helen Hunt), and she grounds the film in a reality instead of letting it slip away into a Lifetime movie corniness. Hunt's performance is tactical and brave (not just because she's fully nude in most of her scenes). She takes her profession seriously and thinks of herself as more psychiatrist than slut. She's married to a philosopher that doesn't mind her odd profession and has a teenage son.
    Knowing that Mark, due to his condition and lack of relationship experience, becomes attached quickly and easily falls in love, Cheryl sets up some important ground rules: they will only meet six times, and it won't get too personal. They'll focus on "body awareness exercises", finally culminating in the last session where they will finish with real intercourse with actual, honest-to-goodness penetration. Through these sessions, we learn more about these two characters and what exactly they want out of life. And wouldn't you know it? These two begin to grow more during these two-hour meetings than they have during the past years of their auto-pilot lives.
     It's a nice story, one that brings smiles and tears through honesty and sadness. But it's a great movie for one reason and one reason only: the performance of John Hawkes as Mark O'Brien. For the past few years (particularly as the meth-addicted Teardrop in Winter's Bone and the chilling cult leader Patrick in Martha Marcy May Marlene), Hawkes has been able to live inside his roles with a realism that makes it seem like you're watching a real person instead of an actor portraying a character. He's never been better than here: Spending the entire film on his back, his spine bent at a sharp angle (he supposedly filmed the entire movie with a large foam piece under his back, causing actual back problems [not that minor back pain compares to having actual polio]), Hawkes builds a character with a high-pitched questioning voice and realistic facial expressions that show happiness and sadness in equal, exquisite measure. Through his performance--and to a lesser extent, Hunt's--we realize that The Sessions is about care and kindness, the kind that goes far beyond asking "How are you?" without expecting or caring about an answer. It's about experiencing what you want in life, whether you're paralyzed and stuck in an Iron Lung or healthily walking on your own two feet.     (A)

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Bond Goes Back to Basics in Skyfall

     Plenty of people were pissed when Daniel Craig was chosen as the new bond back in 2005--he was too small, too blond, too weathered. A lot of tensions were eased when Craig's first foray into the storied franchise, 2006's Casino Royale, was released into cinemas. Although a few maintained that their fears were justified (Bond had turned into a humorless killing machine that would give Jason Bourne a run for his money), it was clear that Bond had entered a new age of darkness and excitement that was keeping up with the world's collective anxieties. Two years later, Quantum of Solace left a bad taste in many a viewer's mouth: its confusing plot and typical action caused the film not feel like a Bond movie, though it was still entertaining enough.
     I've never been a huge fan of the Bond movies: I can barely make it through some of the older ones, and it's rare that the films make any sort of good progress between the bi-yearly incarnations. So where could the series--heading into its 50th Anniversary year after much legal trouble involving the production and studio--go? Apparently, the only direction was up: bringing in the great drama director Sam Mendes (creator of the fantastic films American Beauty and Road to Perdition)], Skyfall (the 23rd entry in the long-running list based on Ian Fleming's books) is an absolute blast, a stripped-down simple story of James Bond facing an awesomely-over-the-top villain, his childhood, and the inevitability of death. Progress forward is reaching back into the best aspects of the Bond canon.
    Skyfall throws you into the plot quicker than the film will make $100 Million dollars: Bond is chasing down a running man who has stolen an important hard drive with information that may affect the world. It's one of the most exciting openings of the year: with motorcycles, trains, excavators, and sniper rifles all making appearances, finally culminating in a surprising event and the new theme song sung by Adele. The opening action and great title sequence sets the tone for the rest of Skyfall: we're back to basics, a resurrection and merging of everything that has gained James Bond millions of fans over the year--a winking humor, a sense of purpose, a simple (yet exciting) story.
     M, played with an expert authority by Dame Judi Dench, begins to be in deep shit: that hard drive has data that could destroy MI6 and all of the undercover agents that are supposed to be protected by the government agency. She's getting old and tired and would like to leave a lasting legacy, but an interesting connection with a certain villain brings her knowledge to the forefront. And what would a great Bond movie be without a great villain? Javier Bardem (already a bad-guy master after his incredible job in the adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men) portrays Silva, a homo-erotic man with a penchant for showmanship and a disgusting grin from swallowing one-too-many cyanide pills. He's mischievous and funny, and he provides a good foil to Craig's portrayal of a Bond who has gained a calm control after experiencing death.
     To defeat Silva, a hacker who seemingly has control of every single computer system in the entire country, Bond must confront something scarier than Silva's deformed smile: his sense of self and memories of being a child orphan. I won't give away the climax, but it all comes together in a great showdown that allows Craig to add a little dramatic flair to his otherwise stone-faced portrayal of Bond. New characters make appearances that set up their inevitable story arcs in future Bond films: Ben Whishaw is Q, a computer nerd who is bound to help Bond with new gadgets in the later films. Ralph Fiennes is a higher-up in government that may be extremely more important than his normal job makes him seem. And Naomie Harris (of 28 Days Later fame) is an agent that harms and helps Bond in equal measure.
     The Bond films needed this. Though Casino Royale seemed like an origin story, one that echoed the sentiments of Christopher Nolan's first Bruce Wayne film, Batman Begins, it's Skyfall that becomes the rebirth that Ian Fleming's character really needed: a story that's both simple and emotional that brings forth questions of Bond's past that have never been raised before. It makes the point that although villainy, in this day and age, can be as uncomplicated as gaining access to fire-walled Internet sites and secret government websites, we still need heroes to root for, heroes to cheer for, heroes who can come to grips with their own personal demons to take down a force set to demolish the notion of humanity. Skyfall is Bond, and everything that is great about the character. Bond resurrected.      (A)

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Movie Meta: Seven Psychopaths

     Seven Psychopaths is one of those films that winks at the audience in a self-aware fashion. Marty (Colin Farrell) is a screenwriter who is writing a script with characters that are like his friends or are his friends. The movie that Marty is writing in Seven Psychopaths is titled "Seven Psychopaths". He basically only has a title until his friends tell him stories or give him ideas about psychotic violent people who murder, maim and torture others. Much of the actual Seven Psychpaths (the one that you and I are watching, not the one in which Marty is writing) takes place inside Marty's mind, playing out his movie within his head. Other scenes showcase Marty's actual life, with a dog-napping plot involving Marty's best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell, in one one of his best performances ever), his accomplice (Christopher Walken) and a dangerous gangster (Woody Harrelson) who has separation anxiety due to his missing Shih Tzu. Sometimes the real Seven Psychopaths blends with Marty's own version. Consequently, the film is a bit jumbled, but it's fun and funny enough to overcome its own messiness.
     When Martin McDonagh broke onto the film-making scene in 2008 with his wonderful black comedy In Bruges, he was rightly labeled as an Irish Tarantino, a writer/director with a penchant for snappy, vulgar dialogue and a visually-cool direction showcasing quick flashes of extreme violence. Seven Psychopaths isn't as coherent as In Bruges--nor is it as good, either--but it still contains the same personal flourishes of McDonagh. Marty is an alcoholic, a writer who seemingly doesn't even know where to begin his story. Rockwell's Billy decides to help his friend out by putting a classified advertisement in a magazine, asking people with crazy stories of insanity to sit down with Marty and tell their stories, sparking some inspiration.Billy kidnaps dogs for a living with his partner Hans (Walken): they go to the city parks, swiping the dogs from rich owners then returning them later for the reward, refusing the money at first like good citizens.
     There are a lot of psychopaths in this film. At least seven. When Billy and Hans take the wrong dog (owned by the previously mentioned Charlie, Harrelson's loose cannon), it sets in motion a series of events that echos some of the plot points in Marty's growing screenplay. There's also a serial killer on the loose offing some of the characters in the film, nicknamed the Jack of Diamonds, because he leaves that specific playing card at each of murders. He comes and goes without much explanation like many of my thoughts in this review. There's also a terrifying Quaker and a Vietnamese suicide bomber who wants revenge because his family got murdered at the massacre at My Lai. I'll leave it to you to find out whether these characters are a part of Seven Psychopaths or the script of Marty's "Seven Psychopaths".
     The best part of this film is easily the fun performances. Farrell's Marty is a nice un-showy acting job, a nervous Irish guy who drinks too much alcohol when he is anxious. He lets the other actors play off of his nervousness.  Harrelson has fun with Charlie, a man who would die for his dog but not for a human. Two portrayals really shined for me: Sam Rockwell (who is always under-appreciated) is totally awesome and badass in Seven Psychopaths. The film, to me, was mainly a showcase of his hilarious insanity. Every sarcastic quip and pull of a gun's trigger was pure comedic excellence (a lot like Farrell's performance in McDonagh's In Bruges). Typically, I find Christopher Walken to be a little too much, as he plays essentially the same character in film after film; that can grow tiresome. But I loved his portrayal of Hans in Seven Psychopaths. He showcases a weirdness and likability, grounding the film closer to reality.
      There isn't much of a female presence in Seven Psychopaths. They're either being called a "fucking bitch" or getting shot in the stomach. But that's not to say the film is sexist: it's so self-aware that the characters talk about females being dispensable characters in typical movies in the same genre. Late in the film, the three friends travel far out into the desert to get away from gangster Charlie, drink, and jointly work on Marty's screenplay. They throw out the idea of a final shootout, guns blazing and heads exploding. Do you think, in a film that's as cognizant of itself as Seven Psychopaths is, the climax matches up with the character's ideas? You should know what to expect in a film that constructs and then dismantles genre conventions as solidly as Seven Psychopaths does.     (B+)

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Argo: Escape from Tehran

     It's very tough to make an entertaining film about a touchy and true political situation, especially with the news of the recent U.S. embassy attack in Libya making headlines everyday. It's especially difficult to add humor to the life and death dilemma. Films such as this tend to offend and become a slog through political arguing. But Argo, directed by and starring Ben Affleck (whose direction is only getting better after the solid Boston crime flicks Gone Baby Gone and The Town), succeeds at both: containing tense I-can't-believe-it's-real thrills, movie-making humor, and impeccable direction by Affleck throughout its entire run time, Argo is a rare movie for adults that is entertaining and also informative of the world we live in. Relations between Iran and America have never been so fun and watchable.
   The year is 1979. The U.S. embassy has been overrun by Iranians seeking vengeance against the deposed Shah, who has fled to the U.S. for surgical treatment. During the intense fray, six American officials escape the embassy and secretly take refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador. Argo is the story of the CIA's plan to extract the six Americans that have gone into hiding--if they are found by the Iranians, they are sure to be taken and probably executed in a brutal and violent manner.
     Luckily, the CIA has a creative force with a sense of humor: Tony Mendez (Affleck), a quiet and intense man who is a master at getting people out of tough situations. Mendez, thinking (way) outside the box, easily shoots down other official's ideas to try and covertly get the six out and comes up with a plan that is so absolutely insane that it might actually work: enlisting a movie make-up artist, John Chambers (John Goodman), and a film producer, Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to create a fake film, called Argo, concocting all of the aspects that the process involves (screenwriting, casting, a press release). Mendez, then posing as a producer himself, will fly to Tehren, meet up with the six hideways, and help them pose as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for futuristic, middle-eastern-set fake film.
     The really great thing about Argo is the suspense that is felt in nearly every scene, especially the ones that take place in the crumbled and dangerous streets of Iran: instead of relying on overblown car chases and explosions, Affleck masterfully directs quick scene after scene of the six officials living on edge, holed up in a house that they can't leave. These are transposed with the backroom dealings at the CIA headquarters, where Bryan Cranston really stands out as Jack, Mendez's boss who green-lights the movie-making scheme against his better judgement. Mendez travels to Iran, where he coaches the group with their new Canadian identities. They must memorize who they are what their jobs are for the fake film (producer, location scout, screenwriter, etc.) in order to get through the three levels of security at the airport--the last level being  a group of Iranian revolutionaries, decked out in camo and assault rifles, ready to shoot any American trying to leave the country on sight. The airport scene is the climax of the film, and it is intense stuff. The tension between America and Iran, especially correlating to today's world, is scary and real, and although there is plenty of humor in the film, some good / some corny--mainly from Arkin's cocky old movie producer--the feeling that these characters are on the precipice of death is felt throughout.
     Argo isn't perfect: the ending goes on and on, and it's somewhat predictable in places (as any real life story tends to be), but it has a magic that keeps your eyes glued to the cinema screen. At times, it reminded me of last year's Hugo, particularly in the way it shows how film can more than just a distraction for a couple of hours: it can cause a purpose in a person's life--or even save someone's life. No specific performance is amazingly special, though I did really enjoy Affleck's calm and funny portrayal of Mendez. But taken as a whole, everyone plays their small part to make the film one of the more enjoyable of the year. You probably know the ending to Argo, if you've read any articles on the film or have a good memory of recent U.S. history. However, the conclusion is only a small part of the fun and tension-covered journey. When Mendez takes the group out in public, to solidify their status as a Canadian film crew, dodging violence and gun-weilding revolutionaries, whether or not you know if they make it home doesn't matter: like most scenes in Argo, you'll be on the edge of your seat.     (B+)

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Patience and A Suspension of Disbelief: The Very Specific Set of Skills You Need to Sit Through Taken 2

     It's pretty obvious what happens in Taken 2, the awful sequel to 2008's Taken, which showcased Liam Neeson as Bryan Mills, a CIA field operative who--when his daughter gets kidnapped and sold into an overseas sex trade--kills his way through dozens of Albanians as slickly as any well-made video game. The first film was simple, yes, but it showcased well-thought-out action scenes and innovative ways for Mill's to get his revenge. It was exciting fun, and the direction was stable and concise, rarely resorting to overly-slick techniques like the shaky cam or high-speed camera cuts that make you feel like you're watching a commercial instead of a low-budget action film. Taken 2 sits on the opposite end of the spectrum: instead of coming up with an innovate story to continue the Mills' family saga, this is same shit different movie, which would be tolerable (though uninspired) if the script wasn't written like a kid scribbling with crayon and the action wasn't so pathetically unexciting.
     This time, Mills and his wife and daughter travel to Istanbul. It's all fun (lounging in a hotel suite with gorgeous views of the city and swimming in shiny blue pools) until--while out on a date--Mills and his wife, Lenore (Famke Janssen), get taken. By who, you may ask? A better question would be: does it matter? These Albanian villains are all simple creations, with cliche dialogue and the ability to shoot ten billion bullets without having to reload, leaning in and out of doorways and alleyways like popups at a shooting range. These uninspired baddies, straight from the foreign villain handbook, are led by a man named Murad, who is the father of a man that Mills killed in Taken, electrocuting him with homemade jumper cables. So Murad has made it his mission to kill Mills--after he witnesses his wife and daughter get tortured first.
     Through a tense phone call seconds before he gets taken, Mills contacts his daughter and gives her instructions to avoid getting kidnapped herself. In one of the funnier scenes in Taken 2, she drags her dad's CIA kill kit from the closet and proceeds to run around the rooftops of the city, dodging big drops and bad dudes, setting off grenades in different locations so Mills--clearly the smartest agent in the history of agencies--can lead her to him just by the big sounds of boom. She get's to him at the exact moment that Taken 2 moves from laughable to straight boring.
     It's no spoiler that Mills, chained and locked up along with his wife, breaks free from the impossible situation (what else would a man do with a set of skills like his?), and proceeds to go on a rampage throughout the city, tracking down Murad and his mini army of lame Albanians. Whatever excitement from Taken has been lost here: everyone he sees dies with ease, even though Neeson--in the four years since the last movie--has seemingly eased into geezerdom, moving like an old man. The movie is so unbelievable that Neeson essentially grabs people, wraps his long arms around their neck, and then they die. Any hand-to-hand combat is disguised by quick cuts by terrible director Olivier Megaton--my bowel movements provide more excitement, and those are much quicker, 5-10 minutes instead of 90. It doesn't even matter what happens in Taken 2, because people pay the high ticket price to watch Neeson protect his family and beat the living shit out of anyone that gets in his way, not for acting and plot development. Unfortunately, they even failed at that.
     Maybe I wouldn't be so harsh on Taken 2 if I hadn't enjoyed the first one so much. But deep down I thought that the cast and crew could at least make something comparable, rather than incredibly worse. There are no thrills: sitting here at my computer, trying to think of the most exciting moment of the movie, all I can do is muster a yawn. There are no exciting moments in Taken 2. For the general movie-going public, it's just a bad movie. For lovers of Taken, it's insulting. If Neeson (more like "when Neeson", because after making a killing at the box office, it's bound to happen) gets a call from his agent to star in Taken 3, where Bryan Mills must save his daughter's unborn baby from revenge-seeking Albanians, hopefully he just hangs up his phone...and decides to take a nap instead.      (D-)

Monday, October 1, 2012

Looper, A Smart and Skilled Sci-Fi Saga

     Films about time travel always amaze or annoy: either you're sucked into the fascinating thought of traveling back to a different era or your mind gets stuck in the paradoxes and plot holes and you wish you could travel back in time to buy a ticket to another movie that made more sense. Looper easily falls into the first category, with its slick storytelling and unflinching violence. Director Rian Johnson's third feature (after the cool Brick and The Brother's Bloom [he also has directed two Breaking Bad episodes]) blends intriguing storytelling with tension-filled plot twists to create the best Science Fiction film since last year's Source Code.
     The year is 2044. The United States is recognizable but is in a realistic state of danger and dilapidation after an economic collapse. 10% of the population has a genetic mutation causing minor telekinesis (essentially boys floating small objects in their hands in order to impress pretty girls).  Flash forward 30 years to 2074: time travel has been discovered, but the powers that be deemed it far too dangerous to be legal--imagine the repercussions of citizens travelling back in time, causing a butterfly effect across decades. However, the mob--led by a new, brutal head boss with no remorse referred to as "The Rainmaker"--has decided that time travel is great way to dispose of bodies (The Mob loves capitalizing on illegal activity). In the year 2074, tracking devices make it far too hard to discreetly "off" the competition. So this major criminal enterprise, taking control of the time travel machine, send people back in time 30 years to 2044, where gunmen called "loopers" are waiting, blunderbuss in hand, ready to blow brain matter and chunks of flesh onto plastic sheets (easier for cleanup).
     Are you following? Picture this: a man (a looper) stands in the middle of a cornfield in 2044. He has his powerful gun in hand. Five feet away sits an empty plastic sheet, lightly blowing in the wind. He compulsively checks his ticking watch. Poof, a different man appears on the plastic (from 2074), tied up with a hood covering his head. Boom,  the man dies and blood squirts. Let's make things more complicated: when the crime boss (from 2074) wants to end a looper's contract, they send the looper's 30-year future self back in time to 2044, where his 30-year younger self is waiting, yet again, with a gun in his hand, ready to kill. This is called "closing the loop", and when this happens, the looper from 2044 collects a giant payday and is free to live out the next 30 years in whatever way he wants to. In this future world, many loopers end up addicted to an epensive psychedelic drug in the form of eye drops, living in addiction and squalor.
     The looper that Looper focuses on is named Joe. He's played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (popping up in many new releases nowadays), as a cocky, drug-addicted gunman who lives for the silver he gets in order to get his next fix, to get to the next party, to hook up with the next beautiful woman. But he doesn't quite look like himself. In preparation of filming Looper every day, Levitt had to sit in the make-up chair, donning realistic prosthetics and accentuating make-up to look a little more like...Bruce Willis. He even has mannerisms like Willis and sounds like Willis. You half expect him to utter, "Yippee Ki Yay, Motherfucker!", whenever he pulls the trigger.
     You can probably figure out why Levitt needs to resemble Willis. One day, on a normal looper mission, Joe waits with gun and ticking watch in hand. Poof, a man appears. Only this man has no hood, and 2044 Joe hesitates just for a second. It's 2077 Joe. Old Joe escapes, and the rest of Looper is like an intricate chess match, with each incarnation of Joe trying to foresee the other's next move. As one can imagine, it's not good for a looper to not eliminate his target, so Young Joe so is also on the run from his boss and his boss's cronies, trying to find his future self to put an end to the madness. But Old Joe has plans of his own, plans that need to be completed with his 30-year younger self in the way or not. Old Joe knows that "The Rainmaker", the previously-mentioned crime boss from 2077, lives in the area (30 years younger) and he sets out to kill him, consequently changing the events that caused Joe to go back in time in the first place.
     Phew, this time travel stuff is complicated. Luckily, Looper doesn't dwell too long on the technical aspects of the space/time continuum and doesn't bother with the question of whether effecting a butterfly's flight trajectory will cause a future nuclear explosion. Other good actors appear in important roles, namely Jeff Daniel's as Joe's sometimes-forgiving-sometimes-malicious boss and Emily Blunt as a secluded farm owner with pertinent secrets of her own. But the real star of this show is Rian Johnson, whose script is just smart enough and just fast-paced enough to not question the validity of the time travel scenario and whose direction is fervent and beautiful. Looper  makes plenty of sense if you go by the guidelines of the rules in which it creates. It's easiest to sit back and take Old Joe's advice when talking to Young Joe at a diner (I'm paraphrasing): "We're not gonna sit here all day and talk about time travel, we'd be here all day making diagrams with straws." Taking that sound advice, Looper--like shooting a blast from a blunderbuss barrel--is loud, violent, and incredibly exciting.     (A)

Monday, September 24, 2012

To Lead or To Follow: A Look at Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master

     One of my most anticipated films of the year, Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, is filled with incredible (easily some of the best of the year) performances and top-notch direction that layers thick tension and beautiful cinematography on the viewer. It shouldn't come as a surprise: ever since Anderson's first film, Hard Eight, he has created some of the most interesting characters and stories in modern American cinema--Adam Sandler's toilet plunger salesman in Punch-Drunk Love, Tom Cruise's misogynistic character arc in Magnolia ("Respect the Cock!"), and Daniel Day-Lewis's otherworldly performance in--one of the best films of the 2000s--There Will Be Blood come specifically to mind. With The Master, Anderson has created yet another interesting and unique story, this time about a man referred to as "the Master", who helps create a faith-based organization that is very Scientology-esque, and an unpredictably violent drifter who becomes wrapped up in the religion's powerful grip. It's a great film, and although the story lacks a specific sense of purpose (and the film as a whole never reaches the greatness of 2007's There Will be Blood), the two lead performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman are plenty enough reason to stare in awe at the screen.
     I'm hesitant to keep mentioning There Will Be Blood, but since it's Paul Thomas Anderson's last and best film, it's surely relevant. Out of all of Anderson's cinematic directions, The Master is most similar to There Will Be Blood--stylistically and aesthetically (even Jonny Greenwood's score bears similarities). But where There Will Be Blood left the viewer with a sense of dread and foreboding, The Master deals with more daily human plights: the need to follow, the need to fit in, the need to be a part of a cause, whatever that cause may be. Lancaster Dodd (Seymour Hoffman), also known as The Master, is the leader of an up-and-coming faith-based organization that has connections to the real-life practice of Scientology. Dodd performs "processing" on his followers, which is basically a series of questions which causes the subject's spirit to get in touch with its other incarnations throughout the span of time. Seymour Hoffman's portrayal of this enigmatic character is wonderful: he's the jovial writer of books that have retained many followers, and he thinks he has the secret to the human existence. But Dodd, with his snake-oil salesman charm, only realizes his full potential when drifter Freddie Quell shows up at his doorstep.
     Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) is a troubled man, and he's the real star of The Master. The film starts with different scenes of Freddie as he drifts through different jobs. He mainly thinks about two things: sex and getting black-out drunk. Early in the film, he's either rigorously masturbating to a sand sculpture of a naked woman or concocting dangerous alcoholic mixtures with paint thinner or rocket fuel (or anything else that will alter his state of mind). He's a lost soul, and a dangerous one: anything will set this man off towards a violent episode--a crying baby, running out of hooch, a sarcastic remark. It's hard to explain Phoenix's performance in The Master. It's something that has to be seen to truly be believed. After his break from acting after the (now known) parody of celebrity culture (and semi-documentary) I'm Still Here, Phoenix needed to make a statement, and he surely does here: filling Freddie with nervous laughter, a fascinating anxiety, and incredible destructive alcoholism, his portrayal of Freddie is the best performance of the year (or of many years).
     On a particularly lost night for Freddie, he drunkenly hops the railing of a heavenly sailing vessel that leaves its port and heads out into the open ocean. This is Dodd's boat, and once the master meets his unknown drifter, it sparks the creativity in him to continue his writings for "the cause". Freddie, seemingly stumbling upon a reason to keep on keeping on, becomes something of an acolyte to Dodd--his right-hand-man, a lost cause that becomes loyal and thuggish in his defense of the one person who has finally accepted him for who he is: a troubled man with more to give than just a sip of his homemade hooch. Throughout the second half of The Master, director Anderson intricately layers complexity upon complexity on the two character's relationship. They feed off of each other: Freddie looks to be accepted into the cause despite his violent episodes and battle with booze, and Dodd realizes the importance of accepting and trying to help any "animal" that is trying to become a man. But like any faith, Dodd's cause is ripe for criticism. Is the master "making it up as he goes along", as his grown son (Breaking Bad's Jessie Plemons) states? Or is "the cause" worth following unquestionably with the utmost loyalty, as Dodd's wife, Peggy (Amy Adams, in super-serious mode) does?
     Organizing your thoughts after one viewing of The Master is a tricky proposition. The film will definitely benefit from a second viewing. Like Freddie's daily battle with his sexual and alcohol appetite, criticizing The Master is a challenge. One surely couldn't write this movie off as a simple critique on Scientology, a film to make Tom Cruise squirm or L. Ron Hubbard roll in his grave. What is The Master trying to tell us? An easy answer is never revealed. The final third of the film is slower and a bit confusing, entering into Freddie's (maybe?) dream-like imaginations and second guessing. But the film, at it's heart, is about man trying to live a philosophical life, while also questioning the basis of life itself. It's challenging and thoughtful, and it has two performances that both will surely win awards at the end of the year. Ultimately, The Master is a film that solidifies the fact that Paul Thomas Anderson is--above all--a cinematic master.     (A)

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Netflix This: Friends With Kids

     If one were to read my pieces on the other web site that I write film reviews for,, they could see that I was a big fan of the 2001 romantic comedy, Kissing Jessica Stein, a girl-meets-girl story about a woman who decides to try to become physically/sexually attracted to other women. It starred (and was written by) Jennifer Westfeldt, and it was a humorous blend of drama, love and desire. Last year's Friends With Kids--also starring and written by Ms. Westfeldt--falls into that same category: a romantic comedy that's smart and different about the strain that having a child puts on a relationship, whether between two lovers...or two friends. Like Kissing Jessica, it's a pleasant surprise that propels Jennifer Westfeldt into the hierarchy of top chick-flick writers, and it's film that men should be happy to watch with their significant others instead of the typical, cliche, moronic feces that gets diarrhea-ed into theaters every week.
     Friends With Kids focuses on three couples in love and friendship. Mainly, we see Jason (Adam Scott, revelatory in this starring role) and Julie (Westfeldt), two long-time friends who have known each for years and live in the same building in New York. These two are not in love, but their platonic connection makes them ideal friends: they know each others' values and insights, they finish each others' sentences, and they constantly tell each other about various men and women who they date, sometime graphically. Alex and Leslie (Bridesmaid's Chris O'Dowd and Maya Rudolph) are a fairly normal couple, with the typical amount of love and bickering, and when they decide to have a child, it puts the thought into Julie and Jason's head that their biological clock is ticking faster and faster. Ben (Jon Hamm, in a good change-of-pace role from Don Draper on AMC's Mad Men) and Missy (Kristen Wiig) round out the friend group, and they portray a couple that constantly emerge from bathrooms and other public places with an orgasmic glow (until they have children, too, of course).
     Flash forward a few years later, and Julie and Jason are seeing what their friends are going through: once the two other couples have had children, the lack of sex, disappearance of sensuality and prominence of poop in their lives has turned them bitter and less fun-filled. Despite all of this, Julie and Jason take a huge life step: they decide to have a child then share the custody and continue their own, separate journey through love. That's the premise of Friends With Kids, and the adventure in baby barf, arguments, and observations about parenting and funny and fruitful. In a film such as this, with its typical romantic comedy set-up (Will Julie and Jason realize that resistance if futile? Will they fall in love, once their friendship produced a child?), the ending might seem predictable. But the sharp and shrewd screenplay, along with the touching performances of all involved, heaves it high above the heap of 2011's chick-flick fare.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Lawless: A Tale of Bootleggin' Brotherly Love

     Lawless is a story about brothers and the lengths they will go for each other, their criminal enterprise, and their notorious reputation. It's hard to imagine two more different actors playing the two main Bondurant brothers: Tom Hardy, ever the presence of cinematic electricity in every film that showcases his ability (specifically his brawny insanity in Bronson, his emotional brutishness in Warrior, and his masked-villain anger in the recent The Dark Knight Rises), portrays Forrest, the leader of the Bondurant brothers, a man with many legends and a history of violence in the moon-shining era. Then we have Shia LaBeouf, ever the presence of cinematic annoyance (specifically as Michael Bay's golden boy in the Transformers franchise and in the easy-to-forget Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of *Fart Noise*), portraying Jack, the Bondurant "runt of the litter", a man who finally begins to realize his potential in the family business. Somehow--with Hardy's typical brilliance, LaBeouf's first worthwhile starring role, and the script and direction--it works. Lawless is a good but flawed film, a film that is saved by its performances, yet with a run time of nearly two hours, it feels too short.
     Lawless was originally titled The Wettest Country in the World, and it's based on the book of the same name by Matt Bondurant, the grandson and great-nephew of some of the characters in the film. The movie jumps right into the main story: the Bondurant brothers make some of the god-damned best moonshine in Franklin County, VA. They have a good hold of the market, and when it comes to opposition, they--especially Forrest, who speaks mainly in grunts--take no prisoners. Soon after meeting the brothers (the third of which is named Howard [Jason Clarke], who has a mean streak due to his moonshine alcoholism), a group of men ride up into the Bondurant compound. These men are led by a man named Rakes (Memento's Guy Pearce), a special agent from Chicago with a chip on his shoulder and a stick up his ass--maybe literally...he sure seems a bit off. He doesn't really have any eyebrows and reminded me of Steve-O when he shaved his body hair for Jackass. The problem with Rakes isn't Pearce's slightly-over-the-top performance (he speaks in a villainous high-speech, is immaculately dressed and wears more perfume than whores at a brothel), but the fact that he enters Lawless with no buildup or back story. Who is this man, this foil for the Bondurant brothers, and why does he care so much about bringing them down?
     The brothers base their operation out of a bar/restaurant (and gas station, I guess. I only know this because during one violent episode a pump-nozzle gets shoved into someone's mouth). Police hassle them there, rival booze-runners hassle them on the road and during drop-offs, and nearly every few scenes showcase a brutally violent showdown that has Shia LaBeouf getting his ass kicked (something he needed to do as an act of goodwill for movie-viewers worldwide) and Tom Hardy breaking bones with a set of brass knuckles, grumbling in his Neanderthal charm. Two women eventually enter the picture, and basically their only purpose is to add a female eye-candy presence to the proceedings: Maggie (Jessica Chastain) is a dancer from Chicago who was tired of violent men, clearly making the wrong choice to move to Franklin county. She becomes a worker for the Bondurants, performing various tasks to help the business run and add a pretty face. Bertha (Alice in Wonderland's Mia Wasikowska) is a preacher's daughter that LaBeouf's Jack falls madly in love with. Neither woman adds anything particularly interesting to Lawless. I won't even get into the fact that the great Gary Oldman is in the film as a powerful gangster, as he is so under-utilized that I questioned his presence altogether.
     Lawless was directed by John Hillcoat, and he was definitely a good choice: just like in his desolate films The Proposition and The Road, the way he films the land and the way he shows the shocking flashes of violence are top-notch. It was also written by musician Nick Cave (who also wrote Hillcoat's The Proposition). Unfortunately, Lawless doesn't quite match up with the former film's weirdness and original story. This is nothing we haven't seen before in the good Western films of the past twenty years, or even the last two years in HBO's wonderful and far-more-engaging Prohibition epic Boardwalk Empire.
     It's impossible to ignore the effort that the cast and crew put into Lawless. When Shia LaBeouf finally shows that he has the talent to act alongside wonderful character actors Hardy and Pearce, I consider that a win for everyone. But it still doesn't change the fact the film feels disjointed and the ending--the inevitable violent conclusion--predictable. Occasionally, one scene will jump to the next, and the viewer feels like they missed something. Gary Oldman's character, as I stated before, seems particularly pointless. Apparently, there is a reason for this: Lawless supposedly had an original three-hour cut before the studio made Hillcoat shave it down to a more viewer-friendly two hours. It wasn't for the best. When blood is spurting and the brothers are warring, Lawless has a brutal and visceral appeal--for the rest of the film, I felt like I had guzzled too much moonshine.     (B)

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Netflix This: "The Raid: Redemption"

     Now, the title of this blog post is "Netflix This:". One would assume that the following text would give the reasons to why one would want to Netflix a certain movie. But for this one, there is a disclaimer: Netflix This only if you are a fan of totally badass martial arts, incredible stunt-filled fight scenes, blood that spurts in every single direction and out of every single human orifice, and a plot that involves only one thing. Violence. Lots and lots of violence.
     The story--what little there is--is simple and sparse: deep in the ghetto of a city in Indonesia, a huge apartment building becomes the safe house for some of the city's most notorious and dangerous criminals. These are not the type of people that the general public wants to mess with. Crime lord Tami Riyadi is the sickest of them all, torturing and shooting rival gang members and even the police.
     Rookie cop Rama and a 20-man SWAT team lead a mission into the building to rid it of the criminal scum. Floor by floor, they have to slash (or shoot, or stab, or dismember, or bone break, or impale, or bludgeon, or smash, etc) their way higher into the decrepit pit of an apartment building. Challenges await at every turn: doors are blocked, men with automatic machine guns wait around corners, stairways are in rubble. The lead gangsters live near the top of the building with plenty of high-tech gadgetry and cameras to keep tabs on the ever-dwindling SWAT team. Not everyone in the building is a hardened criminal, though they all are loyal to their frightening landlord. Most men attack the police squad, and kids act as spotters to slow the team's already-slow progress.
     There's a very simple way to determine whether or not you will enjoy The Raid: Redemption. Take a look at this fight scene. Most in the film are different variations of this--senseless and ultra-violent killing with martial arts and incredible fight choreography:

     It's best to the leave the discussion about the place of violence and killing in film at the door with The Raid. Someones you're just in the mood for a visceral experience that is basically unrivaled in its absolute non-stop action and bloodshed. Once the SWAT team is in the building, downtime is minimal. There cant be much more than 15 minutes of dialogue in the entire film (unless you count grunting and the weird high-pitched noises that every martial artist yelps when they land a hand-to-hand blow as dialogue). As one might except--like in the older Steven Seagal or JCVD showcases of violent revenge--some of the fight scenes obviously get a bit repetitive at times. But Welsh director Gareth Evans sure knows how to stage amazing stunt-packed fight scenes, and there's enough innovation to keep your attention throughout the entire 100 minute run time. Almost like an intricate ballet or a gymnastics performance, The Raid: Redemption sucks you in to its sophisticated action while shooting your arm with a needle filled with 100% adrenaline.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Reborn Bourne Leaves a Lasting Legacy

     When we first meet Aaron Cross, the new hero of the Bourne franchise that is still surprisingly good, he's hanging out in Alaska, popping mysterious pills like an Oxycontin addict, making superhuman leaps and having a William Tell-esque marksmanship with his high-powered rifle. He is seemingly in a training exercise to see how the human body responds to horrendous conditions and unknown medications that he has to take at certain time intervals. The first bit of this new entry in the hugely popular franchise could pass for an original thriller that wouldn't need to draw connections to Matt Damon's trilogy. However, The Bourne Legacy--with its new plot, new star, and surprising innovation to the formula--morphs into a perfectly good and worthwhile entry into the growing franchise that is better than any viewer should expect it to be.
     As the plot moves along, we realize that this is a Bourne film through and through, with all of its secret backroom government discussions and brutal hand-to-hand combat fights that work incredibly well. Much of the success has to do with the Bourne franchise's new star, Jeremy Renner: yes, ever since his intense turn in 2008's The Hurt Locker (easily one of the best films of that year), Renner has taken a role in just about any franchise that will write him a paycheck (Marvel's superhero universe, Mission Impossible), but he really shines bright here. It helps that he always brings an intensity that is rare in young, modern actors; he's a guy that thinks before he acts, yet always seems to make the right decision, usually in life-or-death situations. Unlike Matt Damon's portrayal of Jason Bourne, who was surprised at his own killing skill set (just as the viewer was surprised that Matt Damon could be such a force to be reckoned with), Renner is fully capable from the beginning, showing an aptitude for pulling off I-can't-believe-that-just-happened maneuvers.
     Speaking of Jason Bourne and his escapades, Aaron Cross (obviously) gets put in a similar situation: flushed out from a secret government project, similar to "Treadstone" in the previous Bourne films, he goes on the run to hunt for a way to have all of the abilities that his daily medication gives him without having to pop the pills. So he meets up with Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), an expert on the blue/green pills and the way that they interact with human genes. She has problems of her own, as she knows way too much information on this secret government project once the metaphorical excrement hits the oscillating air device.
     Leading the charge to take out anyone and everyone who knows far too much about this dangerous program is Eric Byer, played with seriousness by Edward Norton, an actor who is a natural at playing intense characters that always seem to be trying to fix something. The rest of the cast contains a bunch of notable names, whether they are in the film for five minutes or five seconds. Usually it's quick flashes of dialogue or arguing about video surveillance footage or drone radars--all of these scenes show the most modern of spy-type technology: it would come as no surprise that in the inevitable Bourne 5 these electronics-fueled government types will be able to tell where Aaron Cross last ate lunch from a Google Earth image of a post-poo toilet bowl.
     This wouldn't be a Bourne film without some great action scenes, and Legacy has plenty of them. The first scenes in Alaska are cool and cold, as Aaron battles wolves and the elements like Liam Neeson in The Grey. The scenes involving Weisz's Doc involve an added tension, as Aaron has to battle two things at once: bad guys wielding automatic weapons and Marta's ineptitude at hurting people without emotion. A chase around the rooftops in Manila starts off strong, with leaps, bounds, and plunges up and down the uneven metal roof terrain. This chase finishes with a vehicular chase, kind of a signature of the Matt Damon films, but Legacy's was a bit unrealistic (particularly when Aaron grinds down a stair-railing with a motorcycle better than Tony Hawk could have done with a skateboard). The finish was brutal and unexpected, though.
     This fourth entry in the Bourne franchise was directed by Tony Gilroy, who had previously written or co-written the three previous entries. He also directed the slick (and good) George Clooney thriller, Michael Clayton, about backroom mental breakdowns and lawsuits at a major corporation. He is plenty fit for this job: The Bourne Legacy looks great and moves at a breakneck speed, even when there are long scenes of dialogue on the screen (and even when the plot becomes indecipherable at certain moments). Ultimately, even though the film ends quite abruptly with a (Spoiler Alert!) set up for the inevitable sequel, The Bourne Legacy, with its interesting addiction plot and the addition of agents with better strength, stamina and intelligence, is a step in a certain direction. Not a step forward, nor a step backward: a step sideways...into intriguing territory.     (B+)