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.

AFI FEST 2011: "The Adventures of Tintin"

THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN (2011) **** 107 mins. D: Steven Spielberg. Jamie Bell, Daniel Craig, Andy Serkis, Nick Frost, Simon Pegg.

Intrepid cub reporter Tintin and his faithful dog Snowy stumble upon a new mystery involving a lost ship and a family curse.

Herge's classic comic book series makes the jump to the big screen in the first of a planned series of films about the curious reporter. This is Spielberg's first animated feature and his first feature in 3-D. For those of us still stinging by the debacle that was "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull", "Tintin" is everything that that film should have been but wasn't. It was fun, funny, entertaining and will be remembered for being the film that changed the game when it comes to CGI animated features.

I have never seen a more beautifully rendered animated feature. The level of depth that they achieved is impressive. As one watches such films as "Polar Express," "Beowulf" and "A Christmas Carol" you can see the progression that the animators were making with each generation. The animators for "Tintin" have created an environment and characters that are very three dimensional that it looks like they are actually occupying space. There were times where shots looked like they were live action but then you realize that it's still a computer generated environment.

This story could only have been told through animation. There are set pieces that would be impossible to pull off in live action and those sequences are incredibly entertaining, one of which drew a resounding amount of applause from its captive audience. The actors breathe life into these animated characters and the animators gave them depth and dimension. Spielberg staged his scenes as though he were shooting live action and the motion in these shots are so fluid that it looks like it was.

Spielberg's first animated film is a winner that should be experienced in the theatre and should absolutely be seen in 3-D. While it doesn't achieve the level of a "Raiders" or even "How to Train Your Dragon" it is a feast for the eyes and a fun ride. This is the best animated film of 2011 and I looked forward to the next adventure to be directed by Peter Jackson.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

AFI FEST 2011: "Rampart"

RAMPART (2011) **1/2 105mins. D: Oren Moverman. Woody Harrelson, Robin Wright, Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon, Sigourney Weaver, Ned Beatty.

During the Rampart scandal of the 1990s, a controversial, veteran cop who's doing his best to keep his dysfunctional family together finds himself embroiled in another incident that causes everything to come crumbling down around him.

Being based on a story by James Ellroy I would have to say the film was disappointing. In many ways it felt like a condensed, multi-part episode of FX's "The Shield."

Harrelson and Beatty are about the only two characters that have any weight to warrant the audience's interest. Harrelson is very good as a cop who knows he's crossed the line and is barely keeping his head above water. Beatty is effective as a retired cop who serves as his mentor but alas a mentor who may be just as corrupt.

The film has many solid performances but unfortunately the story itself is all too familiar and at times generic. There was one element introduced that I found rather interesting but ultimately it was either forgotten or was never fleshed out. Had it stuck with that development perhaps it may have been better.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

AFI FEST 2011: "Carre Blanc"

CARRE BLANC (2011) ***1/2 80mins. D: Jean-Baptiste Leonetti. Sami Bouajila, Julie Gayet, Jean-Pierre Andreani.

In a depressing, dystopian future, suicide is prevalent, statutory rape is pretty much encouraged and cannibalism is a part of life. The weak are deemed useless and are killed for "processing". An intrusive announcement over a P.A. continously updates everyone on how many people there are in the world and taking pride in announcing when someone has a baby. This same P.A. can be heard telling children as young as 12 that it's okay to be artificially inseminated and you don't even need your parents permission. Finally, the dead are "processed" for human consumption.

The film follows Philippe who watched his mother kill herself. She worked at the plant where the meat is processed and couldn't take it anymore. Philippe is taken to an orphanage and is, for the lack of a better word, brainwashed to believe that the weak are cowards. The film picks up years later when he is an executive who puts interviewees through degrading and sometimes painful exercises that often results in "processing." Something occurs that makes Philippe have doubts about all he's been brought up to believe and wonders if there's a way out.

Leonetti paints a very dark portrait of an Orwellian like future where the viewer would probably want to kill themselves then rather have to live in that world. Buildings are undistinguished, rooms are very drab and one of the most memorable things is a computerized P.A. telling a clerk what to do as he interacts with a customer. Interaction, even when physical, is automated. There are countless other films I thought of while viewing this, not necessarily a bad thing, "Soylent Green," "1984," "Brazil," "A Clockwork Orange" just to name a few. "Carre Blanc" stands on its own as another film that foresees a bleak future where our dependence on modern technology will control us as opposed to letting us live.

AFI FEST 2011: "The Invader"

THE INVADER (L'envahisseur)(2011) ***1/2 95mins. D: Nicolas Provost. Issaka Sawadogo, Stefania Rocca, Serge Riaboukine.

Amadou and other illegals find work at a construction site where they are essentially slaves to the owner. Housed in a garage/warehouse with nothing but mattresses for beds, they willing live in these conditions because they have nowhere else to go. A situation arises that places Amadou in a precarious position. He lashes out violently, as anyone would do in his circumstances, and runs off to the streets. While out there he charms his way into the life of a married socialite who reminds him of someone. However, his problems start to follow him everywhere he goes and his life begins to spiral out of control as he gradually becomes more desperate, more unstable and very dangerous.

Sawadogo is striking as the title character. He really sells the transition from someone who's charming, caring, friendly to someone where you fear for those around him. The entire film rests on his shoulders and he carries it well.

Provost makes a solid feature film directorial debut. Interestingly enough, when I initially wrote this review I was very disappointed in the ending. However, when giving it further thought I now feel it is a solid, ambiguous and interesting conclusion.

Monday, November 7, 2011

AFI FEST 2011: "Snowtown"

SNOWTOWN (2011) **** 120mins. D: Justin Kurzel. Lucas Pittaway, Daniel Henshall, Louise Harris.

The film opens with an act of pedophilia. A disgusting moment for sure but that pales in comparison to what will follow.

A recently arrived neighbor, John Bunting, comes to the aid of the family and helps coerce the predator to leave town. The family finds a father figure in John and one of the sons, Jamie, begins to spend more and more time with him. John is at once charming, nurturing and loving. However, his true colors are revealed in one of the film's most memorable scenes. John Bunting is a serial killer.

The film is unflinching and at times intense. The sure-handed direction by Kurzel and the solid performances by his leads, for some this is their first film, convey the horror and desperation of the situation.

Daniel Henshall is downright scary as Bunting. On the surface he comes off as a nice guy but underneath he's intimidating and sadistic. Lucas Pittaway is haunting and tragic as Jaime. You really feel how trapped and lost he is once he's forced to get involved with Bunting's "work". What really stands out about their performances is that they've never acted before.

It's a worth entry into the serial killer genre that has the distinction of not only being very well done but being based on true events, which is more terrifying and disturbing to think about.

AFI FEST 2011: "Beyond the Black Rainbow"

BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW (2011) ** 110mins. D: Panos Cosmatos. Michael Rogers, Eva Allan, Scott Hylands.

Set in 1983 at a clinic that promotes mental and physical wellness, a doctor is treating a female patient who appears to be exhibiting abilities that go beyond normal.

Where to begin. This film is chock full of striking imagery, great sound and felt like a throwback to 1970s sci-fi films. However, it succumbs to a third act that was straight out of a generic slasher film and was overly long and at times tedious.

While there appeared to be some sort of structure to the story, the execution of it will try the patience of the most discerning viewer. You can throw the most bizarre and disjointed imagery and scenes at me and in many cases I will walk away with some sort of logical interpretation of what I've seen. In this case, when it ended instead of asking what was that all about I was wondering what was the point.

On the surface it was about a girl being experimented on who wants to get away. Her doctor is obsessed with her. When she finally gets away, he becomes homicidal. Pretty simple, huh. When I look back at what transpired on screen, I'm not even sure if that is what was intended. If it was, he could have done it in a better way.

AFI FEST 2011: "Bonsai"

BONSAI (2011) ***1/2 92mins. D: Christian Jimenez. Diego Noguera, Natalia Galgani, Gabriela Arancibia

Julio meets Emilia at a party and hopes to impress her by lying that he reads Proust. A budding romance ensues. Eight years later, Julio is alone, in a casual relationship with his neighbor, Blanca, and struggling with his editing and writing career. After being fired from an editing job for a well-known author, he lies to impress his neighbor that he is still editing and proceeds to hand write his own novel about a man looking back on his first serious relationship.

The film jumps between Julio and Emilia's story eight years ago and Julio and Blanca's eight years later. The film itself is very much about Julio and how his relationships had foundations based on a lie. You'd think after doing it once, he'd learn from it and not tempt fate twice but I suppose it's in his nature.

I had intending on seeing another film but missed it so this was the next available screening. I knew nothing about it, I may have read the synopsis when the schedule was released but I didn't remember it. This turned out to be a very suitable alternative. Bonsai is well directed and written with good performances. It's a heartfelt romance about longing for the one that got away and how some circumstances are doomed to repeat themselves.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

AFI FEST 2011: Luc Besson's "The Lady"

THE LADY (2011) ***1/2 126mins. D: Luc Besson. Michelle Yeoh, David Thewlis, Jonathan Raggett.

Upon returning to her home country of Burma for a family emergency, Aung San Suu Kyi is thrust into the political spotlight as she spearheads the Burmese democracy movement.

Besson's film chronicles the struggles and sacrifices the Nobel Peace Prize winner faced as the existing militant regime did everything in their power to silence her. All the while she had the unwavering support of her husband and two sons who reside in London.

Yeoh and Thewlis are very good as Suu Kyi and her husband Michael Aris, respectively. Their struggle went on for many years and the screenwriter did her best to encapsulate and condense the key events that would give the story its weight. Besson's direction is fairly straight-forward. You don't see any of the visual flair that we've seen in his other films but considering the subject matter it would be distracting.

My main qualm with the film is how the Burmese government is portrayed so one-dimensionally. It almost plays off as comedic. We see them plot their next move, we then see Suu Kyi somehow ruin it, we then see them reacting wondering what happened. Stallone's "Rambo" really rubbed your face in how sadistic this regime was. What they did show gave you a hint of just how bad they were but it really didn't show you enough. I'm not sure if that was their intention but it felt like it was just some dictatorship that the people wanted to end and not a sadistic, genocidal, militant regime that ruled through fear and intimidation.

Suu and Michael's story is very touching, powerful, sad and is the main reason why this film works. It becomes one of those films that makes you wonder what you would do if the shoe was on the other foot. The film is at its best when it stays with these two heroic characters.

Despite its flaws, it's still pretty good for a biopic and worth a look.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

11-02-11: The Last Command? SEE IT!

THE LAST COMMAND (1928) ***** 88 mins. D: Josef von Sternberg. Emil Jannings, Evelyn Brent, William Powell.

In late 1920s Hollywood, an old man who does extra work is hired for a specific part in a film. When he arrives he learns that the film is about the Russian Revolution. The man claims to be the cousin of the Czar and had served as a General in the Imperial Russian Army. While being belittled by his fellow extras, he reflects on his past when he was one of the most powerful men in Russia.

This silent film's engaging set up leads to a fantastic story about a powerful man, a feared man but ultimately a kind-hearted man caught up in a revolution. Emil Jannings is mesmerizing as Grand Duke Sergius Alexander. Every emotion, every nuance, every moment is etched on his face that you truly feel for this man who is actually a villain. Jannings won the first Academy Award for acting for this film. It's well deserved.

He falls for a revolutionary, memorably played by Brent, but as is the case things can go tragic at every turn. There are several memorable scenes that Jannings and Brent share that are quite moving and heartbreaking.

There are many fantastic scenes in this film but none can compare or is as powerful or as stirring as its impactful conclusion. An unexpected reunion and circumstance brings all that Alexander had bottled up within him to the forefront. Jannings must be seen to be believed.

If you have the opportunity to see this in a theatre, do yourself a favor and go. Either way this one is well worth seeing.


I saw this at the Silent Movie Theatre with live organ accompaniment. It was a great theatrical experience.

In addition to "The Last Command" two shorts were screened with live organ accompaniment. "Big Business" (1929) with Laurel and Hardy and the animated "Ko-Ko's Klock" (1927.

BIG BUSINESS (1929) ***1/2 19 mins. D: James W. Horne, Leo McCarey. Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, James Finlayson.

Stan and Ollie are selling Christmas trees and run afoul of one homeowner who simply doesn't want a tree. The hijinx escalates from simple insults to mass destruction as they try to one-up each other in the devistation quotient.

Funny and over-the-top almost to the point of overkill. Still pretty entertaining but I don't remember these guys being so sadistically destructive.

KO-KO'S KLOCK (1927) ***1/2 7 mins. D: Dave Fleischer.

In this entertaining Ko-Ko the Clown short, Ko-Ko serves as his master's alarm clock and must find a way to make sure he wakes up in time. It's a very nice blend of live-action and animation.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

11-01-11: I don't wanna grow up

YOUNG ADULT (2011) **** D: Jason Reitman. Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, Patrick Wilson, Elizabeth Reaser.

While writing her latest novel, an author returns to her hometown in an effort to reconnect with an old flame. With each passing day things become more awkward and desperate as she tries to come to grips with what brought her home in the first place.

Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody reteam for this very entertaining dark comedy about a career woman who is having what can only be described as a mental breakdown.

Charlize Theron is fantastic as Mavis. Played like a bitch but you can see there's something there beneath the surface that is eating away at her. Patton Oswalt is charming as hell as an old classmate who repeatedly warns her not to go after her ex, Patrick Wilson. The two have great chemistry that really helps the tense and tender scenes they share.

Like "Up in the Air" there are many elements that an audience can relate to. Longing for a lost love that you can never have back, watching helplessly as you watch a friend go down that road of desperation, the lack of affirmation from loved ones because they just don't get you.

By no means your stereo-typical comedy, it seems it's being billed as a quirky comedy. There is plenty of funny moments but it is first and foremost a dark dramedy.

Beyond what I've mentioned it's kinda difficult to go into detail, at the risk of revealing far too much, about the film. There are character arcs that you think you know where its heading but in the end you don't know anything. You'll just have to see for yourself.

As a whole it is a funny and engaging character piece that you'll either like or hate. I for one liked it.

10-30-11: He Ain't Dr. Doolittle

ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932) ***1/2 D: Erle C. Kenton. Charles Laughton, Bela Lugosi, Richard Arlen, Kathleen Burke.

A shipwreck survivor finds himself on the mysterious island of Dr. Moreau and encounters the infamous scientist and the island's strange inhabitants.

Based on the novel by H.G. Wells, this early adaptation doesn't dwell on the creatures as later versions have. It approaches events scientifically and draws the horror from the ramifications of what has been done. It really focuses on the characters and I like how events unfold realistically. The science seems sound, especially when watching it from a 21st century perspective.

Laughton chews the scenery as Moreau. Equally sinister, creepy and mad. Kathleen Burke is memorable as the Panther Woman, Lota. Her attempts to seduce Parker are sweet, sexy and awkward. Part woman, part beast...still qualifies as beastiality? Lugosi appears as the Sayer of the Law and makes due with the part.

Dark and atmospheric, it is easily the best of the adaptations that is far more memorable then the latter versions.