Thursday, March 29, 2012

Netflix This: Point Blank

     We all know the story: a wife or child is kidnapped for uncertain reasons. The man--a husband, father or brother--left behind has a specific set of skills, skills that the bad guys (usually stereotypical middle-eastern-looking men) will come to know all too well. But in Point Blank, the French film from last year where excitement trumps sanity and plausibility at every plot twist, the man trying to find his loved one, his almost-eight-months-pregnant-and-supposed-to-be-bedridden wife, isn't an ex-CIA agent who can destroy you with his hand-to-hand combat skills or 9mm marksmanship. No, he's just a low-end nurse whose luckiness seems to get him out of every unlucky situation.
     I stated that the excitement of Point Blank trumps its plausibility. This is a film that moves at breakneck speed soon after the opening credits. At only 84 minutes long, it has to. Samuel is a nurse working the night shift at a hospital. His wife, Nadia, is pregnant and on bed rest, though she doesn't want to be. When a mysterious patient is admitted to Sam's floor, and a man shows up (dressed as a doctor) and cuts the patient's breathing tube and then runs for unknown reasons, Sam saves the man's life and goes home after his shift. Unfortunately, Sam has been followed home. The next morning, as he yawns and walks out of the bedroom, he gets hit over the head and knocked unconscious. He wakes to find his pregnant wife has been kidnapped. He gets only one instruction by cellphone. Get the mysterious patient out of the hospital alive, by whatever means possible.
     This movie is like Crank if Crank wasn't the cinematic equivalent of a smelly sack of dog shit. Samuel runs into trouble at every single turn, and the stakes are escalated to involve robbers, safe-breakers, dangerous criminals, a very good detective, a very bad detective, and--finally--much of the entire police department and rioting city. It's insane. It's violent. And a whole hell of a lot doesn't make a particularly lot of logical sense, but you won't care less if you're in the mood for a short, kick-ass story about a man just trying to save the ones that he loves.
     Every situation evolves into the next with tension and insanity. How the hell is he going to get out of this one, you'll be asking under your breath. Unpredictability is key in a film like this, and it plays the viewer just as successfully as the cat-and-mouse chase scenes are played out on screen. One of my often-checked film sites has stated that an American remake is in the works, and I surely don't doubt it. Knowing American remakes, it will be a worse version of the story with less excitement. There will also be no subtitles, so people won't have to (God Forbid!) read. Do yourself a favor: watch this version, the only version available now, to get an 84-minute shot of adrenaline.

(Available on Netflix Instant)

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Netflix This: Martha Marcy May Marlene

     Martha Marcy May Marlene is a little overlooked gem from last year, a film that is thought-provoking, weird and exciting. Martha is a girl who is lost in life. We're really not quite sure why. So she joins this family in upstate New York that is trying to live off of the grid and be self-sustainable. They give her a new name: Marcy May (Marlene is the name the girls use when answering the telephone). This is one of those Drink the Kool-Aid families, a family where the oldest male, Patrick (played awesomely creepy by John Hawkes--of Winter's Bone and Eastbound and Down fame--with his scrawny body looking like a menacing skeleton), essentially rapes all of the new girls that decide to join. "The first time is so special," Martha's cult sister states in her brainwashed state.
     The film's about psychological damage and the denial, love, and betrayal that someone can feel when they are being manipulated into fitting in. Patrick, through a look of the eyes or encouraging words, can make any girl feel like she is fulfilling a specific role, even if that role is bearing unwanted children or committing a crime, sometimes a minor crime and sometimes a brutal one. All of these girls (and some of the boys) are vulnerable to his tactics--gentle when need be and harsh when the situation calls for it.
     After an unseen (until late in the run time of the film) event, Martha decides that she wants to leave the cult,  so she escapes and calls her sister, Lucy, who is recently married to a rich man, Ted, with a beautiful house on a lake and many expensive material possessions. Lucy takes Martha in, and from then on Martha Marcy May Marlene is told in corresponding scenes of present day at the lake house and recent-past scenes at the cult farm. Usually the scenes bleed into each other, with a memory from one time period reminding Martha of a specific--sometimes horrific--event. Lucy cares for Martha, but it's clear that their relationship has never been very sisterly, and eventually she comes to realize the depths of Martha's psychosis. The possibility of Patrick or another cult member coming to the lake to forcefully take her back looms large in the second half of the film until it reaches a fever pitch of tension and anticipation.
     Though John Hawkes is practically perfect as cult leader Patrick, the real performance that powerfully anchors the film is Elizabeth Olsen's as Martha. Olsen, the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley, clearly got the talent and correct eating habits of the three actresses. Martha Marcy May Marlene is Elizabeth's first film role, and what a wonderful performance it is. Between her natural vulnerability and honest portrayal of a girl who has been manipulated, she is an actress who is destined to perform some great film roles. She runs the gamut of emotion with depth and skill: anger, love, happiness, flippancy, selfishness and fear. It's safe to say that no one will mistake her for Mary-Kate or Ashley in the next New York Minute sequel.
     The film is one that asks plenty of questions and answers only some of them. The viewers are left thinking, even once the credits start rolling up the screen. How can someone get so involved in a place like this? How can one decipher the thin line between actual love and manipulation? And is it possible, physically or (especially) mentally, to leave a known, sometimes vicious world behind to try and start a better life? These are some of the questions that don't get answered. But Martha Marcy May Marlene does answer one question: can this story and this cast create one of the best independent films of 2011? That answer is a definite "Yes".

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Fast and Fierce, The Hunger Games Adaptation Hits its Mark

     A future where the country is separated into twelve districts after an apocalyptic event. Every year, a boy and a girl are selected from each district to train and then fight in a random arena, slicing and dicing each other to the horror and cheers of thousands of people. The killing is beamed to every television, a kind of sick new version of reality T.V. It's a broadcast that destroys optimism and hope, a broadcast that controls. It's to the death, and there can be only one winner. A huge number of humans know this story, as Suzanne Collins' best-selling series shows, relaxing at the top of the charts week after week, month after month. You see a child or adult often carrying a copy, and their familiar covers litter coffee tables and nightstands throughout the world. A successful text to film transfer is a trickier proposition--look how lame the Twilight movies are. Fortunately for Katniss fans, director Gary Ross knows how to play the film-making game, adapting the first (of a trilogy) Hunger Games film into a frantic, anxiety-giving thrill of a movie.
     The Hunger Games is more science fiction than supernatural. No vampires fly down to suck the blood out of a young female's neck. It's a story than can be identified with as something that isn't too far-fetched. North America has basically been destroyed by an unknown war. Out of the ashes and bloodied bodies, the country of Panem arises. Panem is made up of twelve districts all controlled by a rich and perverted Capital. Each district has its own specification, focusing on resources to keep the district barely alive and the Capital fat and thriving. As a reminder for each district's insubordination, every year The Hunger Games takes place, where 24 kids get chosen through a lottery to fight to the death.
     Katniss Everdeen, the heroine of this trilogy, is the first-person perspective focus of the books and the main focus of the film. She's played by Jennifer Lawrence, who was great in Winter's Bone and fully solidifies the fact that she can carry a film franchise like a backpack. When Primrose, the sister of Katniss, gets chosen in the lottery, Katniss volunteers to take her place. Katniss is a character whom everyone can relate to, not just teenage girls with younger sisters and Young Adult novel readers. She's thrown into a situation where she must fight to survive, through talk and the Thwak of one of her arrows ripping into flesh and bone. Much of The Hunger Games book series is Katniss's interior thoughts, and Lawrence's impressive vulnerability and her uncanny ability to say a lot without saying a word proves that no other young actress could have been this good.
     About half the movie is the kid-filled battle. The books are violent enough, but Collins knows just enough to let your imagination fill in the wounds and more horrific killings. The movie is similar, using very quick-cut editing and impressive sound work to let you barely see and hear the violent fights. This movie was never going to be rated R, so it focuses more on the aftermath of each death than the death itself, gazing upon the faces of the predators and the prey. During the start of the games, after a tension-filled one-minute countdown, almost a dozen kids die after they fight to get the supplies piled in the middle of the arena. Its dizzying, and it's the one detriment to the fighting in the film. It's tough to see who's fighting who, and the half-second scenes flash by like a strobe light's rays.
     Katniss is from District 12. The boy from District 12 is named Peeta, and throughout the lead up to the games and the games themselves, the two teenagers realize that sticking together might be the best option. The film version of Peeta, played by Josh Hutcherson, is easily to like and all-too-willing to please and protect his beautiful district mate. It's the closest thing to a love story that this film has, but nothing is what is seems. In the books, Katniss has a hunting buddy back home, a dude named Gale who just seems destined to be with Katniss forever. But the film throws him to the wayside, barely showing him, and that's certainly fine by me. Katniss thinking about her relationship back home with Gale and her growing thoughts about Peeta make up the only parts of The Hunger Games books that could be considered Twilight-esque. The film version essentially ignores it, and it's surely all the better for it.
     Stories like this have been done before; it's nothing original. In the 1987 The Running Man adaptation, a wrongly-convicted man must try to survive a public execution gauntlet staged as a television game show. In particular, the story of The Hunger Games resembles the year 2000 Japanese film, Battle Royale (a film which one would most definitely want to check out if one was a fan of the Collins novels), in which a group of ninth-graders are forced to kill one another in a very similar fashion. But The Hunger Games succeeds in being something a little more, a story of never-ending hopelessness and violence transforming into something resembling a growing hope and discomfort about life's controlling conditions. Like most film adaptations, you get a lot more with reading the book. But with Gary Ross's furious directing and Jennifer Lawrence's powerhouse performance, the film version of The Hunger Games is a perfectly good companion.     (B+)

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Most of Mars Attacks in John Carter

     Last summer, I (wrongly) was highly anticipating Cowboys and Aliens, which starred James Bond and Indiana Jones as foes who join hands to take out a common enemy: creepy and vicious extra terrestrials. I mention this disappointing film because it caused me to learn a lesson when it comes to big budget extravaganzas that meld together two separate genres. You can't count on entertainment no matter how much cash is being thrown at a movie. Skepticism flowed from my mind when watching the first trailers for Disney's reportedly $250 million dollar adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' 1940's series of novels based on the planet Barsoom (which we, citizens of Earth, refer to as Mars). They surely lacked impressiveness: full of generic action and corny dialogue, it seemed like Prince of Persia 2. Fortunately, the film is filled with a bevy of awesome actors who are at least entertaining to watch, even if the pacing leaves much to be desired and some incomprehensible plot points occur now and again.
     John Carter is similar to Cowboys and Aliens in some regard. It has the same type of not-taking-itself-too-seriously humor, powerful other-worldly weapons going against ancient staples (swords), and a mild love story that isn't too exciting for most of the run time. But--once the story leaves the stale American soil--John Carter does have a sense of wonder, and it is totally gorgeous to gaze upon (it will look incredible on Blu Ray, as did Wall-E, director Andrew Stanton's last film before making his live-action debut). The set-up in America before the Mars stuff is slow and merely passable. John Carter is a civil war veteran who is something of a loose cannon. He gets taken prisoner by a Colonel--Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston, relishing a small and humorous role--who want's him back in the fight. After getting wounded, Carter takes the Colonel to a cave that seemingly has mysterious properties. A man in a robe appears out of thin air, and after a struggle Carter gets accidentally sent to Barsoom through a mystical amulet.
      Somehow, Mars (Barsoom) has an atmosphere which allows breathing and gravity is different but still present (John can jump incredible distances, and everyone in the film is unbelievably amazed, like jumping really far is more impressive than gigantic flying ships and creatures with four arms). The scene in which he discovers his new jumping ability is fun and funny, with John jumping and falling across the new barren landscape. John soon gets discovered by a race of Jar Jar Binks-with-tusks looking thingies, and he finds out that Barsoom is ravaged by the war of two human cities, and the race of aliens (called Tharks) is basically caught in the middle.
     The story also delves into supernatural and eternal beings, a princess who has to marry a ruthless and conscious-free warrior, and Tharks on a pilgrimage to appease the Goddess. But let's not get into that stuff here. Some of the action is great, even if we're wondering to ourselves, How much can John Carter rely on his new-found jumping ability? The film is filled with actors that have appeared in lots of good productions over the years, specifically in two great HBO shows. Caesar and Marc Antony of Rome make appearances. McNulty from HBO's The Wire portrays the ruthless man who is to marry the princess. Unfortunately, he is being controlled by an eternal being looking to destroy the planet, who can only been seen to those who he shows himself too. This being is played by Mark Strong, who was so great in last year's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Guard, two films that made my year end top ten list. Everyone here is entertaining and serviceable, but no one especially stands out, not even Taylor Kitsch in the lead role of John Carter.
     The pacing is where the film's problems lie. We get good action, then incomprehensible dialogue. An exciting chase scene, then romantic banter between two characters who have barely met. As soon as the excitement of each visually-striking action scene winds down, most of the fun leaves John Carter. It's like you poked a hot air balloon with a sharp object and the gorgeous views and adrenaline slowly come back to Earth (or Mars, in this case). John Carter was a big risk for Disney, a risk that surely didn't pay off for American audiences. With a $250 million dollar budget, it needed to make back a lot of that money on the first couple of weekends to be considered a success. And it didn't. But John Carter is a success at one thing: being a movie that is fun enough and slightly above-average.     (C+)

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Game Change or: Point and Laugh at Sarah Palin!

     There's no question that Game Change, the new HBO film based on the book of the same name about the 2008 Presidential campaign, is pretty gosh darn flippin' unsympathetic to Sarah Palin. Even before seeing the film or reading the book, who couldn't be? This woman knew what she was getting into before the long and personal attacks on her started, but she accepted the offer and made a fool of herself on a myriad of cringe-inducing occasions (most notably the Katie Couric interview, which is covered in the film). However, if half of the conversations, speeches and actions that Palin performed in Game Change are legitimate truths--and I'm assuming that at least most of them are, since the book is extremely thorough with hundreds of interviews and eyewitnesses on both sides of the political spectrum--then she isn't just unsympathetic, she's straight up unlikable: bitchy, commanding and demanding.
     Game Change the movie is quite a bit different than Game Change the book: the written work focused on a vast cast of political characters involved in the 2008 election period, including Obama, John Edwards, Joe Biden and Rudy Giuliani. The movie basically focuses on Sarah Palin and the head of McCain's advisors, Steve Schmidt, and to a lesser extent McCain himself. It might as well have been called, Game Change: Sarah's Story. And for a movie that's only two hours long, that's alright. (Also, Palin is clearly the most captivating of the select group of political warriors, either due to her conviction or stupidity [I'm voting the latter].)
     McCain's campaign--near the beginning of its run--needed a spark. Obama was a young, exciting world figure already at that time, and McCain was old and boring. So, after not much thought or investigation, the team decided to pick Sarah Palin. This move, like much of the film, is told through the eyes of Steve Schmidt, portrayed by Woody Harrelson. Schmidt was pretty instrumental in the selection of the Alaska governor, and it's great entertainment to watch Harrelson's slow realization of how deep he's dug McCain's campaign into a hole. The selection seemed great at first: Sarah was confident and very charismatic. But the selection process was very quick and not very thorough due to the time constraints. Schmidt didn't even ask her any foreign policy questions, to test her knowledge. Pretty soon everyone witnessed how deep the depths of her stupidity really went: she bossed the staff around like a diva, she backed out on agreements she made from the very beginning, and her knowledge of important information for a potential world leader to know--like geography, the Iraq war, and United States history--was atrocious. This woman was a heartbeat or bout of cancer (McCain already had cancer twice) away from being the Commander in Chief of the United States of America.
     The performances are what really elevate Game Change above typical cable movie fare. Harrelson's great and entertaining--that's been covered. Ed Harris portrays McCain as a very likable character, a man whose honor exceeds many, and a man whose vulgarity and excitement is charming. For a war hero who is at the top of his ticket, he plays second fiddle in Game Change just as he did on his actual campaign. He doesn't even leave Palin hard feelings at the end, when it's clear that she may have cost him his presidency. The film's always great when Julianne Moore is on screen, portraying Sarah Palin. This is an embodiment of a character, much different than Tina Fey's impersonation on Saturday Night Live. Though she does look uncannily like Palin, Moore proves what a great actress she is with every action, annunciation, strut and hand gesture. This is woman who believes that everything good has happened to her because it's part of God's plan. She's always confident and firm in her beliefs. Yet it's the more intimate moments of Moore's portrayal that showoff her excellent performance, when Sarah gets overwhelmed with the media's bullying or when she receives a phone call from her son in Iraq.
     If the only difference between a hockey mom and a pitbull is lipstick, then the only difference between Sarah Palin and a great actress is a Presidential campaign. She fools everyone constantly, pretending to know answers to questions when she doesn't. She captivates the eyes of thousands upon thousands of Americans. She even memorizes her lines for a debate instead of actually knowing the answers. Watching these behind-the-scenes moments add just enough, so it seems like something more than just re-watching the 2008 presidential race. We see snippets of many of the same interviews and rallies that we have seen before, but in Game Change, they still seem fresh. One thing is sure: Sarah Palin would have been a dangerous President.  

P.S. Here's hoping Romney makes the same mistake, if not for the sake of the country, then for the sake of comedy.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Netflix This: Like Crazy

     I recently re-watched 500 Days of Summer because a friend wanted to see it. I won't name names here. Upon that viewing, I realized how much I hated it. It's full of cliche, sappy, trying-way-too-hard-to-be-hip dialogue and humor, and its characters name drop so-called good bands at a hilarious rate. It wasn't the cast's fault: the script was just too darned cute for its own good. When Like Crazy came in the mail, I was more than a little concerned that it would fall into the same trap. Luckily, I was more than pleasantly surprised: the film's one of the better movies to come out of 2011, a sad and honest tale about a young couple who just can't stick together for a plethora of reasons.
      Like Crazy won the 2011 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize for Drama, arguably the highest honor of any film festival in a given year. That may not mean much to some, but when films such as Winter's Bone, Frozen River, Primer, The Believer, and Blood Simple have won in previous years, it's surely something to take note of.
     The story is simple and has been told in various ways throughout dozens of years and hundreds of films. It's a story about love and the difficulties of being in love. Jacob and Anna are both college students in Los Angeles. Anna is a British exchange student, and she instantly has a liking to the quiet and talented Jacob, who--at a young age of 22--is already starting his career as a furniture maker. They quickly make a connection and start to grow as a couple. Anna convinces herself that it would be a wonderful idea to stay the summer after the school year with Jacob, staying in bed all day and falling more and more in love as every minute passes. Unfortunately, staying the entire summer has consequences: Anna overstays her Student Visa, and when she tries to come back to L.A. from London after a short family obligation, she is detained and sent back on a plane to her homeland. This begins a frustrating and tension-filled ride that contains a long-distance relationship, each character getting involved in their work and other lovers, Visa problems, and the question of whether or not two people can still be in love after months apart and life's everyday problems getting in the way at every turn.
     As I said, love stories like this have been told before. But Like Crazy is original and honest enough to rise high above typical romantic fare. The director, Drake Doremus (whom I hadn't heard of before this film), has stated that the script is fully improvised, and it shows. Each word feels natural and unforced, as do the gestures, nervousness of a strained relationship, and the unfortunate circumstances that Jacob and Anna each place themselves in. It goes beyond most romantic garbage that gets assembly-lined into the theaters nowadays, surprising the viewer with its in-depth intimacy.
     Does Like Crazy have the occasional corny line of dialogue or sappy facial expression? Of course: all relationships do, as do all films about relationships. It doesn't hurt the enjoyment. It also doesn't hurt that the film stars an actor and an actress who are destined to become stars. Anton Yelchin plays Jacob, and he is always likable: whether the film is Alpha Dog, Star Trek, or The Beaver, he is always natural, funny and easy to watch. Felicity Jones plays Anna, and she will break your heart more than a few times in Like Crazy. A complete natural and completely beautiful, every scene that she is in glues your eyes to the screen.
    Be warned: the film isn't a great one to watch with a new significant other. Some have called it a movie to watch with someone you're about to break up with. But that's a harsh statement: though Like Crazy is about a couple who have to hurdle seemingly impossibly-high obstacles (and often failing), it also shows that love can cause you to jump really fucking high on occasion.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Netflix This: Take Shelter

     Take Shelter is one of those films that relies on a performance of one actor, a performance that is central to the greatness of the film as a whole. Michael Shannon, who is always totally captivating (particularly in Bug, Shotgun Stories, Revolutionary Road, and--lately--HBO's Boardwalk Empire as Prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden), stars as Curtis LaForche, a construction worker whose dreams and visions of an impending doomsday storm--full of oil-slicked rain and violent chain lightning--draws him into the depths of underground storm shelters and madness. It's a performance that is nothing short of incredible, and it adds another bullet point on my list of reasons of why the 2012 Oscar nominations were the equivalent of a sack filled with foul dog feces (not that the five Best Actor nominees were not good, but I'd take Shannon's performance over any of them).
     Michael Shannon is an actor that always looks creepy and uneasy, like he is about to snap and murder everyone on screen at any moment. But his portrayal of Curtis in Take Shelter is better and more subtle than that: at the beginning of the film, he seems content, even happy, a man with nothing to gain but everything to lose. He's got a supporting wife, a cute daughter who is deaf (she's on the verge of a transplant that will help her regain some of her hearing if the family's health insurance comes through), and a loving family dog. His house sits in a field where the skies are endless and clouds look like mountains on the horizon line.
     Everything's great--until the dreams start. At first they are short and intense, a snippet of the family dog attacking him and biting his arm (his arm hurts the entire next day) or chain lightning with dark, ominous clouds littering the big sky. The dreams are ultra-realistic, and they confuse Curtis and the viewers of Take Shelter about what is real and what is imagination. Director Jeff Nichols, whose previously mentioned Shotgun Stories is also a small, intense drama starring Shannon, is already a pro at building suspense and dread. As the dreams occur more frequently and more intense, Curtis must come to grips with one of two things: either his visions are the product of the illness in his mind, or they are something far more serious, real visions signifying the devastation of everything he has in his life due to a more dangerous and unpredictable climate.
     Curtis and his erratic behavior start to worry everyone in his life, specifically his wife (Jessica Chastain, in her 7th film role this year), who is amazingly forgiving and supportive of her husband who is losing his shit. His co-worker, Dewart (portrayed by another Boardwalk alum, Shea Whigham), also bear's the brunt of the fallout of the vivid dreams. The news of his possible mental illness spreads quickly, as news in small towns seemingly always does without effort, and soon the paranoia that Curtis feels seems justified in some regard. Far into the film, Shannon's portrayal of Curtis at a community dinner--where everyone is staring and whispering like cruel schoolchildren--is especially poignant. The outburst is shocking, sad, and brilliant acting.
     I watched Take Shelter after I wrote my Top 10 list for 2011. It wouldn't have made that list, but it's not too far away. It's a slow-building, intense drama about a man who may or may not be mentally ill. The story as a whole, without giving away its ending that leaves you thinking days after watching it, can be--without much effort--taken as an allegory about global warming. Curtis's visions, like the more-and-more powerful storms and tornado patterns that are happening every year, can be accepted or denied. But acceptance or denial doesn't affect the weather, even when the glaciers are melting at an astounding rate, the streets are flooding with rain, and the oceans are turning into hot tubs.