Tuesday, December 27, 2011

12-27-11: What Lies Beneath

THE SKIN I LIVE IN (La piel que habito) (2011) (R) 117 mins. **** D: Pedro Almodovar. Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes, Jan Cornet.

After a tragedy left his wife permanently disfigured, a brilliant plastic surgeon has developed a synthetic skin that can withstand any kind of damage. While openly sharing his findings with his colleagues, he is secretly testing his work on a patient "living" at his home.

Almodovar has created a science fiction/horror/thriller hybrid that I'm sure most audiences will be completely unprepared for. At once it appears to be like "Frankenstein" but as the story unfolds it evolves into something far more complex, far more sinister leaving the viewer bewildered.

Going beyond the small description I gave above, it is best to not know much of anything about this film. As I watched I thought it was going one way, then it turned out to be going another way that I thought was pretty seedy and disturbing but it turns out that's not what I was seeing and was shown something far more disturbing. I'll leave it at that.

Antonio Banderas is great as the doctor and Anaya is memorable as his patient. Their relationship is quite complex and layered.

Give this one a look, just be prepared for the possibility it may end up somewhere you as viewer may not be willing to go.

The 10 Worst Films of 2011

Well considering it's almost the end of the year and what few films I plan to see I can't see any of them ending up on this list. So here it is, my picks for the ten worst films of the year.

As a film goer this has been a very different year. I use to go see any movie I could fit into a block. I wasn't very discerning. This year I was VERY discerning about what I went to see. I pretty much skipped anything that didn't look any good, wasn't very interesting or wasn't worth my time. Granted I did miss a few that turned out to be great movies but for the most part I really cut down on the crap.

There were a great number of disappointments but they weren't bad enough to wind up on this list. That being said, there are a great number of films on my list that I was looking forward to. I wouldn't attribute the disappointment to high expectations but every film on this list was poorly executed to the point of being laughable.

Without further adieu, here are what I consider the Ten Worst Films of 2011, in alphabetical order.

To me Schwarenegger was Conan. I was willing to give this one a shot but it came off as a hodge-podge of all the bad sword and sorcery/fantasy films of late. Pretty forgettable.

Love Michel Gondry but this movie sucked. I really hated Seth Rogen that I just wanted him to die. I realize that if that happened there wouldn't be a movie...so what's wrong with that?

In blackest day in darkest night...give me back my damn money alright!! Reynolds is fine as Hal. Campbell is a great director, as long as his lead is James Bond. This was a terrible comic adaptation.

The first was hilarious...this one was lazy filmmaking to the highest order. Essentially the same exact movie as the first. The joke is suppose to be that they're going through the same exact thing. The problem is none of it was funny. Alan's actions in this one were so detestable that the film lost what little credibility it had. No one and I mean no one would ever give that asshole a second chance let alone allow him to stick around.

I didn't like anyone in this movie. I didn't buy the characters. The humor was off-putting. Easily one of the worst comedies of the year.

After seeing this I hope and pray that Tony Jaa never directs or writes again. Overly long and the fight scenes are uninspired, it feels like he captured lightning in Ong Bak 1 and forgot what made him so unique now he's just a generic action star.

If you like your SyFy on the big screen, here you go! They obviously didn't see "Piranha 3-D" because if they had this could have been fun 3-D exploitation. Instead it's chum that even the hungriest shark would avoid.

Only the 2nd film ever I considered walking out on...and I NEVER walkout of a movie. The other? Uwe Boll's "House of the Dead."

This had so much potential. They spent too much time on the finer details that they failed to address one plot point that didn't mesh with the original and became over reliant on CGI. Besides the story, acting and directing, the original's stars were the practical makeup effects.

This was so frickin' good that I fell asleep and missed half the movie. It was so good that I haven't even put forth much effort to see what I've missed.


This film was frustratingly bad. I like Snyder as a director. I thought his "Dawn" remake was fantastic. I wasn't a big fan of "300" but recognized his style. I believe "Watchmen" is one of the best comic book adaptations ever made. I'll admit when I saw the first trailer for this it looked interesting.

The opening of the film had me drawn in. I was loving it. However once the transition was made from reality to this girl's fantastical POV of her environment the film completely lost me. I was BORED beyond belief. The transitions made no sense to me. The fantasy sequences lacked any suspense whatsoever. I equate watching them to watching someone playing a video game and they won't let you play.

It was pretty obvious where it was going and once it gets there I was thrilled I could get the hell out of the theatre. Like I said, I was seriously considering walking out on this one which is something I never ever do.

After seeing this it leaves me concerned about "The Man of Steel." Will we get "Watchmen" Snyder or will we get "Sucker Punch" Snyder. That is a seriously troubling question.

Yes I fell asleep during "The Three Musketeers" but no other film left me stewing and looking at my watch every ten minutes. Bad! Bad!! Bad!!!

12-26-11: Oh the stories they tell.

THE HELP (2011) (PG-13) 146 mins. ****1/2 D: Tate Taylor. Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek.

During the 1960s, an aspiring author in Mississippi decides she wants to write a piece about the life of African-American maid's and their opinions about the white families they work for. At first hesitant due to the grave danger it may cause the women begin to open up about their moving, tragic, heartbreaking and sometimes funny experiences.

The direction and screenwriting notwithstanding the true stars of this film are the performances. Every character is rich, nuanced and real. No matter how much time they have on screen, everyone has an impact on the story. Emma Stone is very good as Skeeter. However the stars of this film are Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, who play Aibileen and Minny respectively. There performances really convey the sacrifice, the pride and dignity of these women that goes unrecognized because they are deemed lower-class. While many characters can come off as caricatures they truly capture the period and the feelings of the time. Bryce Dallas Howard is fantastic as a woman who is so blinded by her righteousness that she doesn't even recognize how racist she truly is. She pretty much serves as the villain of the piece and you really do grow to hate her.

Tate Taylor directs and adapted the best selling novel. As a southerner he really captures the look and feel of the time, there's a vibe here that only someone from the region could capture. He assembled a fantastic cast with great support from Janney, Cicely Tyson and Spacek.

It's a great look at a sad period in US history, a reverent look at the people who never received the recognition they deserved and an inspiring tale of a group of women who stood up for what's right in a time where that could have had them killed.

12-25-11: Filmmaven presents The Greatest Review Ever Wrote

POM WONDERFUL PRESENTS THE GREATEST MOVIE EVER SOLD (2011) (PG-13) 87 mins. **** D: Morgan Spurlock

Morgan Spurlock takes a look at the ever present product placements we see in film and television. He decides to make a documentary that is solely financed by product sponsors.

The hilarity begins from the moment it starts as unbeknownst to the viewer they are already being bombarded with product placements. The viewer begins to realize that what they are watching is the film he set out to make.

Spurlock takes the viewer through the process from beginning to end. He has meetings with numerous companies and sit downs with many recognizable faces such as Ralph Nader, JJ Abrams and Quentin Tarantino. He approaches the material with clarity and a great sense of humor. One scene in particular is where he interviews an anti-advertising advocate in a Jet Blue airport terminal. What he doesn't realize is is that he's right in the middle of product placements and the scene ends with a hilarious zinger.

The most interesting aspect of the film, which is not lost on Spurlock, is the degree that he may be looked upon as "selling" himself out as a filmmaker. Just how far and how much is too much?

It's not as winning or earth-shattering as "Super Size Me" but it is still a very entertaining documentary about a subject that everyone has no choice but to watch.

12-25-11: A Boy and His Horse

WAR HORSE (2011) (PG-13) 146 mins. *** D: Steven Spielberg. Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Peter Mullen, David Thewlis.

After being sold to the army, Albert's horse Joey is put into the heat of battle and has a profound impact on the people he meets on both sides of the war.

Considering the subject matter this film always ran the risk of being excessively schmaltzy. Unfortunately half-way through it does start taking dips in the cheese pool which really began to hurt the film.

One factor that comes into play is the necessary anthropomorphizing of the equine cast members. Obviously they don't speak but the audience needs to buy into the idea that these horses are thinking what they are. In the outset it's cute and entertaining but as the stakes are raised credibility starts to fall by the wayside.

Approaching the film, based on the novel and stage play, as a look at the people that this horse comes into contact with should be engaging. It's unfortunate that some of them come off as caricatures of the people they portray.

The symbolize that this horse conveys is never lost on the viewer. Some of it is pretty obvious while at other times it is subtle. There is one moment in the film that reminded of a moment in another. Here the two sides call a temporary cease fire so they can assist Joey. In another film "Joyeux Noel," in a fairly similar moment, during World War I a song prompts three battalions to call a cease fire on Christmas Eve. Surprisingly, Spielberg was outdone here. The wait and emotion that "Joyeux Noel" was lacking in "War Horse." As a result the scene came off as amusing rather than revelatory.

The film looked great, acting was good and the direction was fine. My main problem with the film was its execution. I'm not sure how they could have done it better but for what it is it was only mildly entertaining.

12-25-11: Never Forget

EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE (2011) (PG-13) 128 mins. **** D: Stephen Daldry. Sandra Bullock, Tom Hanks, Thomas Horn, Max Von Sydow.

Oskar Schell is a young boy filled with a sense of curiosity and a eye for puzzle solving. He may also suffer from Aspergers but as he says the tests were inconclusive. After the loss of his father on 9/11, he finds a key in his father's closet and sets out on an incredible journey to discover what it opens.

Not since "Reign on Me" has a film dealt with the grief that followed the events of 9/11. I believe this is the first to see the impact it had on the children. Just the thought of it is heartbreaking but when you see first-hand how that moment changes Oskar's life is stunning.

The journey that Oskar takes is a fascinating one that you want to see reach a satisfactory conclusion. This young boy sets out on his own and meets countless people, strangers mind you, that he would never have met under different circumstances. It's an enjoyable and sad expedition of discovery.

This film rests solely on the able shoulders of young Thomas Horn. Not only is he believable as a boy who may suffer from Aspergers but also portrays the mixed emotions of a boy who not only misses his father but is struggling to understand why this all had to happen. Sandra Bullock is very good as his mother who is willing to give him the independence to sort things out on his own. Max Von Sydow is great as a man he meets that joins him on his adventure.

This is very much a film about grief and healing. It may be a hard journey to take but in the end it is very rewarding.

12-24-11: Jolie Steps Up

IN THE LAND OF BLOOD AND HONEY (2011) (R) 127 mins. **** D: Angelina Jolie. Goran Kostic, Zana Marjanovic, Rade Serbedzija. (Bosnian/Serbian with English Subtitles)

The budding romance between a Bosnian woman and a Serbian officer is torn asunder by a terrorist bombing during the outset of the Bosnian War. Some time later, through a series of heart-wrenching circumstances she is held prisoner at the camp he now oversees. Their relationship becomes incredibly complex and dangerous now that they find themselves on different sides. Can lovers remains lovers now that they are deemed enemies?

Angelina Jolie directed, wrote and produced this epic about the hardships of war during the Bosnian War. She makes a memorable directorial debut that is very assured and confident. In no one does this look like a film from a first time director. Not only does she make a solid directorial debut, she also wrote the screenplay and she did a fine job there as well. The film never drags and there are times where it goes where you think it will and then there are times where it takes an unexpected turn.

She makes a point to show you how both sides believe they are in the right and the lengths they will go to strike a blow. There are many atrocities committed, many of them off-screen yet quite effective. The dichotomy of the story is that Danijel saves Ajla by keeping her alive yet she is still a prisoner. Is that truly being saved? This is just one of the complex issues the film addresses.

The acting is very good from the two leads. They run the gamut of emotions over the course of the film which covers several years of the Bosnian War. Kostic is particularly good as Danijel, you can see he's torn between his love for Ajla and his duty as an officer.

Jolie is a fine actress and when given the right vehicle she can excel. With one film she has proven she can hold her own with the likes of Foster, Coppola and Streisand.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

12-23-11: The Fincher Version

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2011) (R) 158 mins. **** D: David Fincher. Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Stellan Skarsgard, Christopher Plummer, Robin Wright.

A disgraced investigative journalist is hired to solve a decades old murder. In the process he takes on an assistant to help him unravel the seemingly unsolvable mystery.

A mere two years after the first adaptation, not to mention the complete trilogy, hit screens David Fincher directs the English language version of the same novel. This adaptation is in many ways equal to and at times better than the Swedish version. The only real drawback is that if you've seen the first there are absolutely no surprises. Had this been the first adaptation I would have been enraptured by the mystery as I was when I watched the first. In this case it's more like oh here's that scene, that was in the other one or that was different.

Craig does solid work as Mikael. A flawed, troubled, vulnerable person. Totally against type. Mara shines as Lisbeth. Her Lisbeth is equal to Noomi Rapace's while they are both clearly playing the same character but they are played distinctly. More emphasis is placed on their relationship which does actually change their dynamic. In the Swedish version Mikael came off as having an odd obsession with her that lacked any real romance. Not so here.

I have not read the book but on many accounts it is said to be closer to the source. It is well written and the direction is pure Fincher. From the James Bond like opening credits to the closing shot, you recognize him in every frame. This one looks much more cinematic and grander then the previous version. Like I said, because it's the second out of the gate it lacks any real suspense. Still, it's a pretty damn good movie.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

12-17-11: The Beginning of the End

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES-PROLOGUE (2011) (PG-13) 6 mins. ***1/2 D: Christopher Nolan.

While attempting to coerce information from a trio of prisoners, a CIA operative comes face to face with the criminal mastermind Bane.

Like "The Dark Knight" this is the opening of the new film "The Dark Knight Rises." It's unfair to compare the two but unfortunately it is inevitable and cannot be helped when the latter just doesn't have the impact that the former had.

The opening of "The Dark Knight" was thrilling, especially in IMAX. The Joker's introduction was memorable. The prologue left you eager to see the film which wouldn't arrive for another nine months. With "The Dark Knight Rises" I didn't feel the same way. I kinda shrugged at the fact that it was so been there-done that. It felt like I was watching a mash up of "Licence to Kill," "Cliffhanger" and even "Jurassic Park III."

Now the major problem with the prologue and trailer that I truly hope is addressed before the film opens is Bane's dialogue. You can't understand a damn thing he's saying. There are times where you can make it out but I find myself missing the movie because I'm trying to understand what he's saying. "Dlae thea tee". "I'm sorry what?" "Dlae thea tee." "I didn't quite get that, come again." Seriously.

"The Dark Knight Rises" is one of my most eagerly anticipated films of 2012. After this prologue it's most anticipated. Honestly, there's no way it will every reach the heights of "The Dark Knight" but at the very least I hope it's a damn good finale.

12-18-11: Dollars versus Averages

MONEYBALL (2011) (PG-13) 133 mins. **** D: Bennett Miller. Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright, Kerris Dorsey.

After losing his top players to free agency, Oakland A's GM Billy Beane sets out to put together a contending team with what little budget he has.

This solid sports drama is based on the best-seller that chronicles how Billy Beane was able to use statistics and analysis to put together a team that appeared to be doomed to fail but proved incredibly successful.

This is an engaging film whether you're a fan of baseball or not. It's a fascinating study and uplifting story about how one man was able to achieve what many consider impossible. In the process he changed the way some management approaches the game. The story begins in the early '00s when many believed the Yankees were, and many believe they still are, buying championships by spending millions to get big name players. Beane pieced together a team based on the individual player's statistics. Nowadays no one really gives this much thought since just about everyone has played a fantasy draft at some point.

Brad Pitt is great as Beane. Proud, ambitious, optimistic but at times unsure. Jonah Hill was a surprise. As of late I've grown tired of his schtick. He always seems to play the same guy or just himself no matter what movie he's in. He should do more dramas.

This is very much a baseball film but it's not about the game but the business itself. If you're a fan you're gonna eat this up. If you're not you'll be entertained by a very engaging film about one man against Major League Baseball. This is one of the best films of the year.

12-17-11: ...and you wonder where their kids get it from.

CARNAGE (2011) (R) 81 mins. **** D: Roman Polanski. Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reilly.

After their sons are involved in a scuffle, the parents meet to discuss what to do about their boys. Their meeting begins cordially enough but gradually their true feelings and opinions begin to surface and the fireworks begin.

Roman Polanski brings together a fantastic cast in this adaptation of the play written by Yasmine Reza. Book-ended by scenes in a Brooklyn park, the film predominantly takes place in one apartment. The film by no means feels claustrophobic or dull by the lack of scenery. The limited locations means that once the verbal sparring begins there really is nowhere to run to.

This is a dark comedy on the lines of "War of the Roses." Funny with uncomfortable moments and many moments that are shockingly funny because you're surprised they went there. The four leads immerse themselves into their characters are are more than game to plum the lower depths of civility. I loved Waltz in particular. Alan is too preoccupied with work that he really has no interest in involving himself in what he believes is his wife's, played by Winslet, responsibility.

Just sit back and enjoy, or at least try to, the carnage.

Monday, December 19, 2011

12-17-11: Not as elementary my dear Watson

SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS (2011) (PG-13) 129 mins. *** D: Guy Ritchie. Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Noomi Rapace, Jared Harris, Stephen Fry, Rachel McAdams.

Holmes and Watson find themselves in a deadly game of cat and mouse when they cross paths with the criminal mastermind Professor James Moriarty.

Downey Jr. and Law are once again great as Holmes and Watson. Their banter continues to be amusing. The mystery is more an attempt to put the clues together. As an audience, we already know who's behind it but we're just waiting for him to be stopped, which unfortunately makes this less engaging. It was fun to try and figure out how Lord Blackwood pulled off his return from the dead in the original. Here it's about the chess match between Holmes and Moriarty which is pretty good for the most part. Holmes and Moriarty do face off in a chess match that ends in a rather silly fashion. On top of this, it did feel a bit long.

Ritchie has upped the action quotient from the original and has a few decent sequences that continue the flourish of slow-mo that he used before. There's a fair amount of humor especially from Stephen Fry as Holmes' brother. Jared Harris is okay as Moriarty. Rapace is very much under utilized.

Through history when you think Holmes and Moriarty you think of a battle of wits on a grand scale. There is a battle but it is not as grand as one would hope it would be. It's a decent sequel but isn't as good as the original nor is it as good as it could have potentially been.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

12-17-11: A Mission to Die For

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE-GHOST PROTOCOL (2011) (PG-13) **** 132 mins. D: Brad Bird. Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton, Simon Pegg.

After being accused of an attack on the Kremlin, Ethan Hunt and his IMF team are disavowed and are left to discover who was behind the bombing.

Brad Bird, the director of "The Incredibles" and "The Iron Giant," makes a stellar live-action debut with the fourth entry in the action franchise. Not only is it one of the best action films of the year but is the best film in the franchise. This a very well balanced action film. Plenty of action. Solid story. Amusing humor. Great characters. Finally, jaw-dropping stunts.

The film features about 30 minutes worth of IMAX footage, meaning when seen in IMAX those sequences fill the entire IMAX screen. The Dubai sequence that takes place on the tallest building in the world is nerve-wracking only augmented more so by IMAX. The IMAX set pieces are very well done and look fantastic.

Cruise easily slips into the part of Hunt. Having played him four times already it's become second-hand for him. Renner, Patton and Pegg are all great as the IMF team. Each character has an arc that you want to see reach a conclusion. There's some depth to these characters unlike most action films of late.

As I said this is the best in the franchise, directed by a director best known for his animated films. It's pretty amazing to see how easily he makes the transition. Mission accomplished.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

12-14-11: Crude, Crass with a Great Deal of Class

BRIDESMAIDS (2011) (R) **** 125 mins. D: Paul Feig. Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, Melissa McCarthy, Chris O'Dowd.

After being chosen by her best friend to be her Maid of Honor, Annie's life begins to make some interesting turns that lead to hilarity and heartache.

I completely skipped this when it opened in theatres. When I saw the trailer it looked kinda funny but it looked to me like a female "Hangover." After suffering through "Hangover Part II" I never looked back at this one. Oh, well. Gotta kick myself for missing one of the funniest films of the year.

I was not expecting this to have so much heart. It was surprisingly touching. The humor and gags feel very natural and not set up for pure shock value like the ones in the "Hangover" films. What sets this apart is it always manages to stay grounded. The characters seem very real and they aren't stereotypically "stupid." The acting is very good and everyone is quite funny. Wiig and McCarthy really shine here.

Basically this is everything "The Hangover Part II" could have been and is easily one of the funniest "R" rated comedies of the last several years. If you missed it in theatres like I did, do yourself a favor and give it a look.

12-09-11: For in that sleep of death what dreams may come.

SLEEPING BEAUTY (2011) (Not Rated) **1/2 104 mins. D: Julia Leigh. Emily Browning, Rachael Blake, Ewen Leslie, Eden Falk.

A university student holding multiple jobs to get by answers an ad in the paper for a job that starts out as a niche modeling type position but ultimately introduces her to an even more specialized service for particular clients.

I went in knowing very little about this film. I had read the synopsis but had not seen the trailer. In lesser hands this could have easily devolved into an exploitative mess. However, it is a mixed bag that unfortunately did not resonate when it reached its conclusion.

In a nutshell, the film is about a young woman who becomes an escort for a very particular set of clients. Elderly men who want a beautiful, naked woman lying next to them in their bed. The woman is in a drug-induced sleep and is oblivious to what transpires when she is with a client. Clients are cautioned by the Madam that there is to be no penetration and try not to leave any marks. Leigh teases the viewer by only giving a taste of what occurs. You may have an idea of what goes on but you have no idea.

While holding her new job, Lucy is struggling with her relationships, college and domestic life. It's unfortunate that I can't help but compare this aspect of the story to "Shame" which handled the impact that that lifestyle has on one's life and relationships. I found myself a bit ambivalent towards Lucy.

This had the potential of being a potent and engaging character piece. Instead it just left me cold and uninterested.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

12-06-11: Violence begets violence

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (2011) (R) **** 112 mins. D: Lynne Ramsey. Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller.

Still struggling to come to grips with the heinous crime her teenage son had committed, a mother reflects on the past and wonders what she could have done to prevent it or did she contribute to it.

Like "The Bad Seed" and "The Good Son," "Kevin" is very much a horror film. Not the exploitative kind but the unnerving, disturbing kind that is all too real. At the start, you know Kevin did something unfathomable. As the film progresses you see flashbacks about Eva and her strained relationship with her son that began before he was even born. These are juxtaposed with her present day life, reclusive, drug addled, depressing. Based on the novel by Lionel Shriver, Ramsey paints a very clear picture about how a child's personality can be formed by their interaction with their parents.

Swinton and Miller and excellent as mother and son. Miller is quite chilling in countless scenes that highlight just how psychotic Kevin may be. Swinton is stellar as a mom who regrets becoming a mother and that disdain is transferred from mother to son and vice versa. John C. Reilly is great as a father who is oblivious to his son's behavior because Kevin chooses not to behave that way with him.

There are numerous chilling moments, frightening moments, sad moments and infuriating moments. It's definitely worth a look.

12-07-11: Spy vs Spy

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (2011) (R) **** 127 mins. D: Tomas Alfredson. Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, John Hurt, Mark Strong, Toby Jones, Tom Hardy.

A retired British spy is called back into service to uncover a mole within British Intelligence.

Alfredson's latest, he last directed "Let the Right One In", is a solid and engrossing espionage thriller based on John le Carre's Cold War classic. This is an exciting spy thriller but it's not James Bond or Jason Bourne exciting. This is an action movie of the cerebral kind. It's alotta talk that I'm sure would bore the most ardent action film fan.

The film features a stellar cast of British actors and everyone is great. Once again, Gary Oldman plays the chameleon and disappears into the role of George Smiley. A man who has seen plenty while on active duty who must now investigate his own. You can see it in his gaze and posture he's not thrilled with the prospect. He is surrounded by a great supporting perfs by the likes of Colin Firth, Toby Jones, John Hurt and Tom Hardy.

The film requires you to pay attention as it incorporates frequent flashbacks and leaves you to recall that information if or when it comes into play later in the film. It is never confusing or convoluted and when the traitor is revealed it may not be who you'd think.

It's smart, engaging, well acted, written and directed. It's one of the best pure espionage thrillers to be made in quite some time.

Friday, December 9, 2011

12-08-11: Corman the Conquerer

CORMAN'S WORLD: EXPLOITS OF A HOLLYWOOD REBEL (2011) **** 90 mins. D: Alex Stapleton.

You may not know the name but odds are you may have heard of or had seen something he's produced, written or directed. You also may have heard of the many stars in front of and behind the camera that he had direct influence upon. Such luminaries as Cameron, Scorsese, Bogdanovich, Nicholson, Grier, Dante, Howard have this man to thank for giving their illustrious careers a start. From the mid-50s to the present he has brought us hundreds of films that earned him the moniker "King of the B's". He is Roger Corman and his life and career is the subject of this well made documentary that features many celebrities discussing Corman and his influence on film and themselves.

No stone is left unturned as Stapleton follows Corman from his humble beginnings in Hollywood to his rise as a major player in Hollywood. The film looks at how he adjusted to the times and how he churned out many films that are associated to the decade they were released. In the process, making films that he knew would appeal to the audience's interest at the time. I think my first Corman flick was either "Piranha" or "Humanoids from the Deep." He then had me hooked with "Battle Beyond the Stars." All films that were in response to "Jaws" and "Star Wars". Films I loved.

The interviews are engaging and leave the viewer wanting more. Well, at least I would have loved to have seen more. You can see the appreciation that Corman's colleagues have for him. It's amazing to see how many career's were started thanks to Corman and how his business model is still in use today. His thoughts on production and budgets is very enlightening and I'm sure would be met with much disdain from the studios. I'm also sure that many purists would probably feel offended if they were told that "Jaws" and "Star Wars" are essentially big budget Corman films.

This is a highly entertaining look at a man who sees himself as just a business man and not a big Hollywood icon or celebrity. He knows he's made a lot but doesn't flaunt it. He knows how to maximize his production dollars. He knows how to make the films that people want to see. Granted they aren't classics like a "Mississippi Burning" or "Alien" but they are still classics in their own right. I'm totally misquoting but Scorsese said that Corman's films are "ART" but at a another level.

If you love films definitely see this documentary. If you wanna get a idea of how to get started in film see this documentary. If you wanna see how to do low budget films see this documentary. Enjoy!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

12-06-11: War is hell.

THE FLOWERS OF WAR (2011) ****1/2 140 mins. D: Yimou Zhang. Christian Bale, Ni Ni,

During the Nanking massacre of 1937, an at first disinterested American witnesses the brutality of war and tries to find a way to save the young girls that look to him to be their protector.

The Nanking massacre was a brutal period in the history of warfare, in it the Japanese army invaded the city of Nanking and killed hundreds of thousands and raped 20,000 to 80,000 men, women and children. This film captures the horror, the desperation, the brutality of that period, as well as the resoluteness of the people of Nanking.

Christian Bale is stellar as John Miller, a man who only came to do a job but finds himself put into a precarious position. You see him change from a man only interested in booze and women to one who is willing to stand up for what is right even if it could cost him his life. I was quite moved in a scene where he attempts to calm the girls by trying to put a nicer spin on events but he knows how false his words are and he begins to breakdown because he knows he's lying and knows what's in store. Ni Ni, in her first feature film, is excellent as an escort he meets. She is quite good in one scene where she describes how her life has been destroyed and how she would hate to see that happen to anyone.

Yimou Zhang gets fine performances from all his actors. His direction is assured and measured. He doesn't exploit the events and does just enough to convey the gravity of it all. He handles the last third of the film nicely as he puts the viewer through an emotional ringer. You're happy and sad, left drained and empty yet leave uplifted.

It's a haunting and brutal film that is one of the best of the year.

Monday, December 5, 2011

12-04-11: Gosling Rising

HALF NELSON (2006) *** 99 mins. D: Ryan Fleck. Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, Anthony Mackie.

A history teacher with a drug addiction strikes up an unexpected friendship with one his students. Will it be a friendship that will tear them down or lift them up?

Ryan Gosling comes into his own as Dan Dunne. A teacher who actually gets through to his students but harbors inner demons that could easily destroy everything he has taught them. Gosling does great work conveying the desire to do right by his students but shows his inability to shake his addiction. He has for the most part successfully hid his addiction but as is the case one day it will come into the light. Shareeka Epps does solid work as the student who makes a connection with Dunne. Circumstances bring them together and for what they have it just seems right.

The film is engaging as you wonder just where this relationship is going. Fleck keeps the relationship natural and realistic without getting exploitative. Outside this relationship, the interaction the characters have with other people is fairly perfunctionary. Drey's mom and a family friend aren't very memorable and the women Dunn sees is nothing spectacular.

The leads are great but the film, while good, doesn't live up to their performances.

12-04-11: Trust this Man...avoid Trust the Man

TRUST THE MAN (2006) * 99 mins. D: Bart Freundlich. David Duchovny, Julianne Moore, Billy Crudup, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ellen Barkin.

A brother and sister find their relationships with their partners are beginning to fall apart. Rebecca fears her husband may be cheating on her and Tobey fears he's losing his longtime girlfriend because of his commitment issues.

This dramatic-comedy about relationships fails on many levels. It is no surprise that this winning cast cannot elevate the material. It's such a waste of talent.

This film is suppose to be about relationships. My problem is I didn't give a damn about anyone, everyone comes of as a bitch or asshole. Why should I care, I don't like any of them. The story is pretty predictable and worst of all it devolves into a third act full of cheese and sit-com level humor that it implodes on itself.

After the first twenty minutes the film hadn't even begun to establish just where it was going. I was bored and it was already losing me. At 99 minutes it felt insufferably long.

So trust me when I say skip "Trust the Man."

12-04-11: Puff-Puff-Ho-Ho-Ho

A VERY HAROLD & KUMAR 3D CHRISTMAS (2011) ***1/2 89 mins. D: Todd Strauss-Schulson. Kal Penn, John Cho, Neil Patrick Harris, Danny Trejo, Tom Lennon.

A mysterious package reunites Harold and Kumar, who have gone their separate ways. After an unexpected accident, they must find a Christmas tree on Christmas Eve and hi-jinx ensues.

Harold and Kumar's latest adventure is in 3-D. Much like "Piranha 3-D" it uses the 3-D to full comedic effect. Pot smoking wafting in your face, candy kanes hitting your nose, a claymation appendage that'll make you wanna duck.

Penn and Cho are still enjoyable as the stoner pair. Both are a little older but not above engaging in some immature antics. NPH makes a hilarious return as the host of a non-PC Xmas pageant.

While I enjoyed "Guantanamo Bay" I felt this was a better sequel. It's kind of reminiscent of how I felt about "European Vacation" and "Christmas Vacation". Wasn't a fan of "European" but loved "Christmas." This is by no means as good as that but it is still an entertaining Christmas movie but is not as good as "White Castle."

It's full of amusing 3-D sight gags, the usual stoner humor, some insane comic antics and a very funny homage to the legendary "A Christmas Story."

It's definitely one to see in 3-D as the gags will lose their impact in 2-D. Still overall, it's a fairly funny film.

11-25-11: The Saw is Family

THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE PART 2 (1986) *** 89 mins. D: Tobe Hooper. Dennis Hopper, Caroline Williams, Jim Siedow, Bill Moseley, Bill Johnson.

After capturing on air the mysterious death of a pair of college kids, a radio DJ is terrified by Leatherface and his family of cannibals. Meanwhile a former Texas Ranger, obsessed with find the family, is hot on their trail.

With a bigger budget, Hooper has made a sequel that is tonally different from his original horror classic. The emphasis is on black comedy with touches of unsettling horror.

While not a classic, I rather enjoyed this sequel for the most part. Yes, it's nuts but still has enough blood and gore to satisfy the average gorehound. Although the violence is rather tame compared to the current state of torture-porn horror films like "Saw" of "Hostel."

Hopper is very memorable as "Lefty" the lone Ranger out to put an end to the Sawyer family. Caroline Williams is also quite good as "Stretch" and is a helluva screamer.

It's bloody, funny, gory and quirky. It succeeds where others failed when following up a horror classic. Not as good but still a worthy follow up.

12-01-11: Let's Talk About Sex

A DANGEROUS METHOD (2011) *** 99 mins. D: David Cronenberg. Michael Fassbender, Viggo Mortensen, Kiera Knightley, Vincent Cassel.

While treating a patient, Carl Jung seeks the advice of Sigmund Freud and they begin to develop treatments and methods that give birth to modern psychoanalysis. Meanwhile, Jung becomes involved with the patient and finds he may have problems himself.

While to many the idea of two minds getting together and discussing psycho-babble would probably be boring. For me, I didn't get enough of that. I was more interested in their relationship then Jung's relationship with Spielrein. While the latter relationship did attribute to many new discoveries in psychoanalysis I just didn't find it all that engaging.

Acting wise, everyone is quite good. Unfortunately Knightley's Russian accent is noticeably inconsistent. I really enjoyed the discussions between Freud and Jung but there simply wasn't enough of it. I have no point of reference to say this is how they were but I felt Mortensen and Fassbender did well as Freud and Jung, respectively.

Cronenberg directed but it felt very generic. The film was based on a book but feels more like the play that also inspired it.

It was a good effort but didn't deliver what I was hoping to see.

12-01-11: Silence is Golden

THE ARTIST (2011) **** 100 mins. D: Michel Hazanavicius. Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller.

At the dawn of the Talkies, a silent film matinee idol struggles with the possibility that his career may be over and an ingenue skyrockets to fame as she embraces the new medium.

This is a very well produced, conceived, directed, acted and scored homage to the silent film era. It's unfortunate that the story itself is an all too familiar one about Hollywood itself.

Silent films can be tricky. When you factor out the score, you are solely dependent on the actors, the story and the images on screen. You can forgive the acting if it's over the top but if the story and images don't hold the viewer's attention they will drift or they will doze off. Now if the score is not engaging or doesn't fit the moment, the viewer may lose the story.

Hazanavicius succeeds in melding it all together with the exception of one key scene. In that case, how I interpreted that scene was different from what the score was conveying. I saw the character's reaction differently and the score only convoluted the matter. However, overall the score is very well done and harkens back to the olden days of live accompaniment.

I mentioned the story is all too familiar but he gets fine performances from his leads that at least make you want to see what happens to these characters. Actors like Goodman, Cromwell and McDowell give fine support in roles you've seen or can see them in before but not silent. Even the dog gives a stellar turn.

There are some moments in the film that were quite surprising, original and refreshing but I will not go into them. See for yourself.

If you've never seen a silent film before this is not a bad place to start.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

12-1-11: Les Miserables - The Motion Picture

In just a little over a year, 12-07-12, the motion picture version of one of my all-time favorite musicals "Les Miserables" will finally hit the silver screen. Based on Victor Hugo's timeless classic, the story follows Jean Valjean, an ex-con and his powerful journey to redemption.

I think this was one of the first musicals I had ever seen, not counting high school productions. It was either this or "Phantom of the Opera". I'm pretty sure it was this. My brother insisted on taking me, I was at first hesitant since I never watched that many musicals. I was blown away, I even shed a tear or three. I was in my late teens or early twenties.

It did not feature a single spoken word, every word was sung. Now I've heard that there will be spoken dialogue in the feature film which I'm fine with as long as it's used properly.

Tom Hooper, who directed last year's Best Picture "The King's Speech", is directing. I remember way back when I saw "Les Miz" for a second time the Playbill featured an ad that the film version was coming and would be directed by Sir Richard Attenborough. That never came to pass. "The King's Speech" was a fantastic film so I feel the project is in good hands.

Now my biggest concern was the casting. The film will clearly be a different experience. On stage, sitting in back you can focus on the music and not so much the acting. If you can feel the performance through their singing then they've done their job. However, with film the camera will be feet away from the performer's face which means they must not only be able to sing and sing well but have to be able to act as well.

Thankfully, Hooper is taking this to heart and is putting together a great cast of actors who CAN sing and CAN act, some who have been nominated or won Academy Awards. Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean. When given the right role, he can act. Since he's been on Broadway and sang at the Oscars he can sing. Russell Crowe as Javert. Fine actor and he's in a band so he can sing. Despite this being the first film where he'll show his chops I'm confident he will do fine. Anne Hathaway is Fantine. A fine actress and excellent singer. She had auditioned for Schumacher's "Phantom of the Opera" but could not do it due to prior commitments. I thought she would have been great. As the Thenardiers, Helena Bonham Carter and Geoffrey Rush. Great actors and yes singers. I simply cannot wait to see the showstopper "Master of the House." Eddie Redmayne is Marius. I recently saw him in "My Week with Marilyn." He's a very good actor but I've never heard him sing so we'll see but I think he's a good choice.

This leaves the pivotal role of Eponine. The two songs and moments that have always stuck with me were "Bring Him Home" and "A Little Fall of Rain". The first time I saw "Les Miz" when "A Little Fall of Rain" was sung I was very moved, moved to tears. I could feel her performance. When I saw it again with a different Eponine, I didn't feel her performance because it felt to me like she was just singing. She didn't give the moment any depth or emotion which is why I hope they get the right actor for this part.

I've heard four names in the running. Scarlett Johannson, ummm...no. Evan Rachel Wood...I don't know perhaps. Taylor Swift...if you respect the material then NO. Finally, Lea Michelle. Yes, Rachel Barrett from Glee. Not only can she sing but she can emote the proper amount of emotion necessary for this role. Am I really basing my opinion on her role in Glee. No. Watch the following video.


Her performance here captured everything I loved about the first time I saw "A Little Fall of Rain" performed. So if the powers-that-be are paying attention, this is a no brainer, cast her!

So needless to say this is one of my most eagerly anticipated films of next year. I can't wait to see the first trailer.

If you haven't seen it on stage, do so. Otherwise, pick up the DVD/Blu-ray of the Anniversary Concert.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

11-26-11: 7 Days in Heaven

MY WEEK WITH MARILYN (2011) ***1/2 99mins. D: Simon Curtis. Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh, Julia Ormand, Judi Dench, Emma Watson.

After working his way into a position on Laurence Olivier's latest film, a young man is given the responsibility of looking after the film's most prominent cast member. The most recognized and popular woman on the planet, Marilyn Monroe.

This film is based on Colin Clark's diary chronicling his time on Olivier's film and his time with Marilyn. Regardless of the authenticity of his writings, it still provides for some interesting drama. I found the clash between two icons very engaging. Olivier the seasoned veteran struggles to get a performance out of an inexperienced pop idol.

Michelle Williams is excellent as Monroe. Capturing her beauty and conveying the sadness that was her life. Redmayne holds his own as the eager Third Assistant Director who also serves as Olivier's assistant. Branagh is great as Olivier, capturing his cadence and accent quite well. A bit of trivia, Branagh and Olivier both received Oscar nominations for their performances as Henry V in films they directed as well. Unfortunately for the rest of the supporting players, they seem to serve as a means to regal up the cast. Watson has the thankless role as the love interest on the side, there really isn't much to her part except to be cute.

The film is an interesting look behind the scenes of the making of a film and an engaging look at Marilyn and the impact she had on the people around her. Again, how true the facts are is unclear but for what there is it makes for a decent film.

11-26-11; Mean, Green and Back on the Big Screen

THE MUPPETS (2011) **** 98 mins. D: James Bobin. Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, Rashida Jones, Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobson.

After discovering that the Muppets Studio is in jeopardy, Walter, his brother Gary and Gary's girlfriend set out to find the Muppets before it's too late.

After a nearly 16 year long absence, the Muppets make a welcome return to the big screen in this entertaining family-comedy-musical. Segel's love for the franchise shows in the story he co-wrote. The Muppets have gone their own separate ways and it is hilarious seeing just what they've been up to. The Muppets have grown older as has their audience. The film doesn't forget that as it is geared towards the fans and the generations who will meet them for the first time.

Now what's a Muppet movie without a musical number? The songs are light and funny and performed with aplomb. Chris Cooper is a sight to behold when he gets his own number. Cooper's best known for his dramatic work and it's great to see an actor of his stature cut loose and be silly.

As expected there are cameos aplenty, some work some don't. There are plenty of gags and thankfully they are not pop culture heavy like the Shrek franchise. Let's say "Traveling by Map" is the only way to travel.

"The Muppets" stands as one of the best Muppet films, right behind the original.


A new Pixar short plays before the film.

SMALL FRY (2011) *** D: Angus MacLane. Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Michael Keaton, Jane Lynch.

After not seeing any playtime as a display model, a pint-sized, kids meal version of Buzz sneakily switches places with the real Buzz so that he can finally enjoy being played with. Meanwhile, while trying to find his way back Buzz encounters other discarded toys.

This new short featuring the gang is a mixed bag. It is still somewhat entertaining but covers the same ground. It's okay as a short but sadly feels a bit long because of the lack of originality.

11-26-11: Please curb your zoo animals.

WE BOUGHT A ZOO (2011) *** 120 mins. D: Cameron Crowe. Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Angus MacFadyen.

After the loss of his wife, Benjamin Mee moves his family to the countryside and despite not having any experience whatsoever buys a local zoo.

Cameron Crowe's latest, based on a true story, is a somewhat generic family drama. It has an air of predictability that the whole film simply goes through the motions from point a to point b.

Beyond Damon there really aren't that many memorable characters with the exception of MacFayden's MacCready. He's the drunken groundskeeper who can hold a grudge and has a way with the animals.

The only character interactions with some authenticity are between Damon and his kids and Damon and his brother. Mee is in the same situation as Clooney's Matt King from "The Descendants" but as written they aren't on the same level. When the film focuses on the family it's fine, everything else is pretty much cookie-cutter family fare and obvious.

It's harmless family entertainment just don't expect "Almost Famous" or "Jerry Maguire."

Thursday, November 24, 2011

11-24-11: For the love of cinema.

HUGO (2011) ****1/2 127 mins. D: Martin Scorsese. Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jude Law.

An orphan boy living in a train station sets out to finish fixing an automaton he and his father were working on before his untimely passing. An encounter with a cantankerous shopkeeper sets in motion a rather unexpected journey.

In 2009 James Cameron showed the world that when used properly 3-D can create an immersive cinematic experience. A few weeks back I stated that Steven Spielberg's "The Adventures of Tintin" had set the bar on what can be done with 3-D animated films. Leave it to a Hollywood icon to create what is easily the best modern 3-D film to ever grace the silver screen.

The 3-D in "Hugo" is not about objects popping out at you every five minutes. The 3-D adds depth to the images on screen. Unlike many 3-D films before it, every shot is composed to maximize the 3-D effect. Be it from little particles of dust floating in the air, to falling snow, everything serves a purpose. Scorsese truly uses 3-D as a cinematic tool and not a gimmick. One of the true highlights of the film is that he took 3-D and applied it to footage from cinematic classics of yesteryear like the famous clock scene from Harold Lloyd's "Safety Last."

Beyond the 3-D, "Hugo" is a very touching story about the search for meaning, validation and redemption. The film also serves as a lesson on early cinema, an ode to the early pioneers of film and a testament to the importance of film preservation.

If you have the option to see this film in 2-D you will be doing yourself a disservice by not seeing it in 3-D. Save the 2-D for when it arrives on Blu-ray/DVD. Scorsese has crafted a family classic that will move you, enlighten you and is guaranteed to bring a smile to your face.

"Hugo" is the best film of 2011. I know there's still five weeks left in the year and many film I have yet to see but I don't foresee anyone achieving what Scorsese has done here.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

11-19-11: There's no easy way out.

MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (2011) **** 102 mins. D: Sean Durkin. Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy.

After escaping from a cult, a young woman seeks refuge with her older sister and has great difficulty trying to assimilate to a normal life.

This solid dramatic thriller is most notable for the standout performance of Elizabeth Olsen. Olsen makes you feel the confusion, paranoia and awkwardness that has become her new life. She plays a wide range of emotions from one moment to the next that you really get the sense that this cult has really done a number on her psyche.

All the performances are very good. Paulson is strong as her sister who's frustration continues to mount as she tries to understand what her sister has been through. John Hawkes leaves an indelible impression as the cult leader both charming and deadly.

The film is well written with solid direction. Of note, this film has an ending that will either frustrate or intrigue the viewer. I'm in the latter.

11-19-11: Kovacs' 7

TOWER HEIST (2011) ***1/2 104 mins. D: Brett Ratner. Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Alan Alda, Casey Affleck, Matthew Broderick, Gabourey Sidibe, Michael Pena.

After losing their pensions to a wealthy business man's Ponzi scheme, the employees of the building he lives in plot to get their money back.

In what can easily be described as "Oceans-lite," this heist comedy is pretty entertaining. In many ways it's better than expected.

The film is very much an ensemble piece and fortunately they assemble a pretty good one. Everyone has their moment and they deliver the laughs, Eddie Murphy in particular. It's been ages since Murphy has played an amusing smart ass, street wise character that you remember he wasn't only known for those light and family friendly comedies of the last decade. He use to be sharp and funny. While in this vehicle he doesn't seem to get enough screen time but what time he does have is funny.

Despite the great cast and some funny moments, the film does suffer from a few unnecessary subplots that slow the film down. Still, it's entertaining overall and it's a welcome return, albeit a tease, to old school Eddie.

Friday, November 18, 2011

AFI Fest 2011: "Shorts Program-Animation"

As a part of the shorts schedule at AFI Fest 2011, animation was given it's own program. Here are my reviews for the shorts that were screened.

MASKA **** 24 mins. D: Stephen Quay, Timothy Quay.

Based on Stanilaw Lem's novel "Maska" this stop-motion animated short tells the tale of a being created to perform a specific task who must choose between carrying out her duty or finding love. The Quay brothers film is full of great sound, striking art direction and cinematography and is well worth watching.

NIGHT HUNTER ***1/2 16 mins. D: Stacy Steers.

Stacy Steers animated short about a woman and her time in a cabin in the woods is strange, haunting, disquieting and compelling. Composed of collages and featuring Lilian Gish, who is seemlessly inserted into the story as the woman, the short leaves you wonder just what exactly you were watching, was it a nightmare or was this anthropomorphization?

TO DIE BY YOUR SIDE **** 6 mins. D: Simon Cahn, Spike Jonze.

After a storekeeper locks up his bookstore, the books come to life and Macbeth's Skeleton and Dracula's girlfriend Mina come together for a little rendezvous.

This is an entertaining, adult themed romantic comedy adventure. Expertly animated through paper cutouts, the adult humor over the end credits is a nice touch that had me laughing throughout.


Photos from a 1974 yearbook, a dark secret is revealed underneath the idealic high school memories.

This animated short takes existing photos and creates a narrative much like taking stock footage for a film. While the presentation is good, the narrative itself was just okay.

THE EAGLEMAN STAG ****1/2 9 mins. D: Michael Please.

A man reflects on his place in time and his attempts to counteract aging.

This stop-motion animated feature is very funny and very original. Looking at moments in the narrator's life, Please enfuses each scene with humor and a distinct visual flair.

Definitely worth seeing.

LIBERTAS ***1/2 3 mins. D: Kan Lume, Megan Wonowidjoyo.

Over a collection of drawings and animation, a young girl explains why she wanted to become an animator and what her mother felt about it.

Not so much about the animation itself but the story that is told by the narrator. When the point of the story is revealed, the animation that came before it.

ZERGUT **** 6 mins. D: Natasha Subramaniam, Alisa Lapidus.

When you close your refrigerator door, it's war between the fresh goods and spoiled goods.

This is a well shot, high-speed photography short that uses fruit and other goods in various states of freshness and decay.

ONE MINUTE PUBERTY ***1/2 2 mins. D: Alexander Gellner.

This amusing animated short takes a quick look at the hardships that a boy must face as he goes through puberty.

DR. BREAKFAST ***1/2 7 mins. D: Stephen Neary.

In this short, a lonely man finds the value of friendship and the nefarious, all-devouring Dr. Breakfast.

This wacky short looks like Ren & Stimpy and has the vibe of a Japanese cartoon. Funny, strange and surreal.

AFI FEST 2011: "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia"

ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA (BIR ZAMANLAR ANADOLU'DA) (2011) ***1/2 157mins. D: Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Muhammet Uzuner, Yilmaz Erdogan,Taner Birsel, A. Mumtaz Taylan.

Over the course of a night and day, a group of officers, government agents and soldiers are taken across the countryside to find a body that the perpetrator buried but can't recall exactly where.

This is the setup for Ceylan's slow moving crime drama where the crime is not the focus of the film but all the characters involved. As they move from one similar location to another, the viewer serves as a fly on the wall as we listen to the conversations shared between the men. Some relate to the task at hand while others are completely off topic and amusing. If you were ever curious about what cops talk about while on a stakeout, this film may provide you with some answers.

Every character has a story to tell. How they interact with each other, be it the criminals or the officers, is interesting and engaging. About mid-way through the film, they stop off in a nearby town for a break and the conversations become more telling and their behavior begins to expose layers to the story that weren't immediately evident. And when it ends, it leaves unanswered questions along with questionable actions by some characters.

While it did feel a bit long, it is over 2 1/2 hours, it was still a decent crime drama that kept my interest.

AFI FEST 2011: "Bullhead"

BULLHEAD (RUNDSKOP) (2011) **** 124 mins. D: Michael R. Roskam. Matthias Schoenaerts, Jeroen Perceval, Jeanne Dandoy.

Jacky, a hulking farmer and business muscle for a faction of the Belgium hormone mafia, has a bad feeling about a proposed business deal with a notorious beef trader. After the assassination of a cop an intricate web begins to unfurl that involves Jacky's past, his present and a rather bleak outlook for the future.

Roskam's first feature film is a powerful debut that features an incredible performance by Schoenaerts. You sympathize for this man who was bullied in his youth. Despite his hulking size and violent nature you still get a sense that deep down he's actually a good man trying to find his place in the world.

This is not your stereotypical crime drama like a "Goodfellas" or "Heat". The film focuses on Jacky and uses flashbacks to tell his back story. Each flashback adds to our understanding of the character and provides a new wrinkle in the story. Without going into detail, Jacky's story is quite tragic and barrels towards its unpredictable yet inevitable conclusion.

If you have the opportunity, this is definitely one to watch.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

11-16-11: Payne Strikes Again

THE DESCENDANTS (2011) ****1/2 115 mins. D: Alexander Payne. George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Nick Krause.

After being informed his comatose wife does not have much time left, a father begins a journey that is unexpectedly full of heartache, anger, confusion and redemption.

To describe this film any further would do it a grave injustice. I will say this, the performances are phenomenal.

Clooney plays Matt King, a land baron who must not only finalize a huge land deal but is also grieving for his wife and trying to hold his family together. Then, things get a little more complicated. If you've seen the trailer then you probably know what it is. However, there is so much much more to it then that.

Clooney's performance is Oscar worthy and he may very well be the front runner. This is another performance where you see the character and not the actor. He is a flesh and blood father who's doing all he can to keep it together with grace and dignity. The daughters played by Woodley and Miller are exceptional. All of the performances bring life to characters that are very real and genuine.

Payne directs with a very assured hand and paints a picture that's not depressing or sad despite its premise. There are moments that may very well bring a tear or two. It is very touching, funny, realistic, human and one of the best films of the year.

11-13-11: "I like to wear women's clothes." Well, allegedly.

J. EDGAR (2011) *** 137 mins. D: Clint Eastwood. Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, Armie Hammer, Judi Dench.

J. Edgar Hoover recounts his life-long career as the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Clint Eastwood's biopic blurs the line between fact and fiction and leaves the viewer to decide what is true and what is conjecture. Much like Larry Cohen's "The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover" this film serves as a "Cliff Notes" version of Hoover's life. The film spends plenty of time with the Lindbergh case and follows Hoover as he tries to legitimize the work of the Bureau by trying to solve the crime. It takes a slightly ambiguous approach to his alleged homosexuality and cross-dressing that again leaves it to the viewer to decide for themselves if he was or wasn't. Unfortunately, it does at times lay it on a bit thick to sway towards the former.

DiCaprio does a fine job playing Hoover through the years. Judi Dench has a brief but memorable turn as his mother. As for the rest of the cast, they perform well yet the roles weren't all that memorable.

The film moves at a leisurely pace and at times did feel a bit long yet kept my interest. The structure frequently jumps between the present, the 1970s, and the past as Hoover recounts another moment in history.

Like Cohen's film it's a decent biopic but suffers from too much grey area between stating the facts and twisting them for entertainment value. You get impressions of the man but you never really get to know him which is unfortunate for such a complex man as Hoover seemed to be.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

11-13-11: "Clash of the Titans"...done properly.

IMMORTALS (2011) **** 110 mins. D: Tarsem. Henry Cavill, Mickey Rourke, Frieda Pinto, Stephen Dorff, John Hurt.

Eons ago a war was fought in the heavens. The winners were declared gods and the losers were banished to Earth as titans. During the battle, a powerful weapon was lost and fell to Earth. Now a tyrannical king seeks this weapon and the gods turn to a mortal to oppose him. This is the setup for Tarsem's Greek mythology action film that gets right what "300" and "Clash of the Titans" failed to do before it.

While not as memorable as his last film "The Fall," Tarsem's spin on the mythos is engaging, entertaining and original. Zeus watches from above and orders the other gods to never interfere in mortal affairs. Theseus will only fight for those he loves, the rest be damned. King Hyperion simply seeks power and vengeance. All three forces collide in an epic final battle that is truly violent, bloody and exciting.

The performances are very good, Cavill and Rourke are particularly memorable as the hero and villain. The visual effects are great. When the gods intervene it is neither over the top or showy. However, when they unleash their wrath it is gruesome and cool.

Tarsem's take embodies what the "Titans" remake lacked, real heroism and villainy and the combat scenes are far more engaging then those in "300." Leave it to a gifted story teller to put a refreshing spin on an age old tale.

You'll probably want to check this one out in 3-D.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

AFI FEST 2011: William Shakespeare's "Coriolanus"

CORIOLANUS (2011) *** 122 mins. D: Ralph Fiennes. Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox.

After being banished by the city, Cauis Martius, a hero who gave everything he had to defend it, joins forces with his enemy Tullus Aufidius to exact his revenge on its people.

Based on William Shakespeare's play, the setting while "Rome" is a modern city caught in the midst of intense modern warfare. The new setting serves the story well.

Fiennes does a fine job in his directorial debut with a script by John Logan. Never losing the audience as the bard's words are spoken on screen. The only problem with the film are the performances, they are relatively uneven including Fiennes. Gerard Butler, a capable actor in the right vehicle feels like he's merely speaking the words when in quite soliloquies. However, when he's in full "Leonidas" mode the words have feeling. Fiennes delivers well but at times lacks feeling. The sole cast member that stepped up was Vanessa Redgrave. Every line, every word she performed had depth, had feeling. It's too bad the rest of the cast couldn't match her level.

It was a very good attempt at putting a new spin on Shakespeare, it's just unfortunate that some of the performances brought it down.

AFI FEST 2011: Werner Herzog's "Into the Abyss"

INTO THE ABYSS: A TALE OF DEATH, A TALE OF LIFE (2011) **** 105mins. D: Werner Herzog.

Werner Herzog's latest documentary takes a balanced look at capital punishment.

Herzog follows two convicted murderers, one on death row and the other serving life. He looks at the evidence and lays out the heinous crime that these two committed. Neither would fess up blaming the other for committing the crime. Herzog flat out tells one that he respects him but doesn't like him. So begins his look at the effect of capital punishment on the perpetrators, the victims and those who have to carry out the sentence.

Herzog allows the people to tell the story, he does not provide any voice-over narrative as it would seem superfluous. He does not set out to make an advocacy film. As you watch the film you realize that its more about life then it is about death. The film is at times humorous as Herzog often manages to find humor in the most unexpected situations. During an interview with a pastor he focuses on something that most filmmakers would dismiss. While at first funny, it evolves into a very profound and moving story.

Full of memorable characters, each with sound and justified reasons for being for or against the death penalty. It will neither make you pro or con but allows you to make your decisions.

Friday, November 11, 2011

AFI FEST 2011: Steven Soderbergh's "Haywire"

HAYWIRE (2012) **** D: Steven Soderbergh. Gina Carano, Michael Fessbender, Ewan McGregor, Channing Tatum, Bill Paxton, Antonio Banderas, Michael Douglas.

After being betrayed on a covert mission she was specifically selected for, a seasoned, hard-nosed agent sets out to uncover who turned on her and why.

Steven Soderbergh unleashes his take on the action-espionage genre and it was pretty damn fun. The plot is pretty basic for the genre and is essentially "Bourne" without all the hyper-kinetic editing. It is very much like an '80s action movie where the plot's sole purpose it to bridge the fight scenes which in this film's case is not a bad thing at all.

Speaking of being unleashed, Soderbergh plucked Gina Carano out of the MMA cage and put her in a vehicle that is tailored for her. Beautiful, stealthy and lethal. Carano is a veteran MMA fighter and her talents are put to great use. She does all her own stunts which adds to the excitement of the fight scenes. She is stellar in combat but as for acting, I think we still have to wait and see. In serious situations, she exudes a level confidence that she can handle herself and is not at all worried which adds to her level of badassness. I'm not sure if the lack of urgency was due to her acting or it was a conscious decision for the character. Either way, it worked.

The rest of the cast pretty much serve as fodder for Carano to manhandle. Despite that the supporting cast of Tatum, Douglas, McGregor, Fessbender, Banderas and Paxton are up to the task and clearly had no qualms about being upstaged by a lady.

Soderbergh's thriller effectively introduces the world to a new action heroine and hopefully Hollywood will take notice. She's already being touted as the female Steven Seagal, except she's better looking, a better fighter and a better actor.

AFI FEST 2011: "Shame"

SHAME (2011) **** 101 mins. D: Steve McQueen. Michael Fessbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie.

The life of a successful business man with a severe sex addiction becomes unhinged when his younger sister arrives for an extended visit.

Steve McQueen's new feature takes an unflinching and raw look at sex addiction and the destructive nature it has on someone's life, career and the people around them.

Fessbender exposes himself, physically and emotionally, and delivers a powerful performance as Brandon, a man who's addiction is controlling his life. You've heard the phrase "He'd f**k anything with a hole in it." Brandon is that guy. This is by no means a comedy even though to some it may sound funny. This addiction is real and I don't recall seeing any film tackle the subject so frankly. His porn browsing is not just limited to his home but is at work as well, much to the chagrin of his boss. The closest thing he has to a relationship are the prostitutes he frequents. When he has the opportunity to have an intimate relationship with a real woman he's not up to the task. In every instance, Fessbender draws you in and you can't look away. I would be shocked if he doesn't receive an Oscar nod. Mulligan performs just as well as his younger sister, the woman who disrupted his "existence". Their scenes together are electric, at times funny and cute but felt very real and very sad.

This film received an NC-17 and deservedly so. This film is not porn, it is not meant to titillate. If you're going to see it for that reason perhaps you should just go watch a porn instead. It is a film for adults about adults and is not a film easily forgotten.