Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Trevor Horn has never acted.  He is a bit of a brainiac, and a winner of Jeopardy Teen Challenge.  Horn reportedly deals with issues shared by Oscar, the narrator and lead character in the book and film, a hyper focused and curious adolescent whose single minded obsession sends him on a journey of discovery.  Horn is brilliant, and puts in one of the greatest child performances of the year.

 Two years before the story begins, on 9/11, his father (Tom Hanks) jumped to his death from one of the World Trade Center towers.  They shared a remarkably close connection and intellectual curiosity about the world and how it operates.   His father accepted his intellectual passion and the conditions that drove it and with him, Oscar felt complete and free.

After the tragedy, Oscar searches the family home for clues, or more accurately, connection with his beloved father, and stumbles across a blue vase containing a key.  Its fires his imagination and he sets off to determine its significance, what lock it opens and why “Black” is written on the envelope.  Through intense study, and some lucky guesswork, he realises Black is someone’s name.  He makes a list of every Black in Manhattan and the outer boroughs and sets off to find them and discover the key’s meaning and what they knew about his father.

Oscar is acting on his own.  His mother (Sandra Bullock) seems lost in her own world of pain and loneliness.  Her grieving appears to interfere with her life and parenting.  Oscar’s closest friend is his grandmother (Zoé Caldwell) who lives in the next building.  They can see into each other’s rooms and communicate over walkie talkies.  When Oscar lies under the bed trying to manage his grief and she comes over and lies down with him and listens.

Oscar hasn’t told anyone about the messages his father left the morning of the attacks.  He replaced the household message machine and hid the real one, with its heartbreaking. Life0-changing messages, in his closet.  His father is trying to reach the family, and gradually learns what will happen to him.  It is a huge emotional burden and Oscar prefers to carry it alone.

A stranger (Max Von Sydow) moves into his grandmother apartment and he’s warned to stay away from him.  But being the curious cat he is, Oscar seeks him out and they become friends, they join forces and pick up Oscars sojourn through New York to find the Blacks.

The gifted Stephen Daldry has taken full control of what could have been a sentimental and sloppy adaptation of the book.  The film’s uncompromising restraint makes the emotion somehow more piquant. 

Oscar isn’t the most sympathetic character to lead a film because of his incessant and aggressive questioning, head spinning strategizing and inability to take instruction.  But he is what he is.  Horn is absolutely a natural, withstands the energy of the script and character and brings it home.  Jeffrey Wright, John Goodman, the wonderful Viola Davis, Caldwell and the leads form a cast that will give you goose bumps. Throw in Daldry and wow.



The Iron Lady

Despite any years end awards or best lists, Meryl Streep’s performance as the late Prime Minister Thatcher is the best of the year.  Even her fans tend to take Streep for granted but this is an instance of the great Streep outdoing herself.  Her nuanced delicacy and corpuscular becoming of Thatcher are beyond any performance in recent memory.   She is uncanny. 

Thatcher, England’s first female Prime Minister, enemy of labor unions and the welfare state, was an uncompromising woman in a man’s world.  Some won’t take to Streep’s work to top 2011 “best” lists.  And many of Thatcher’s political colleagues didn’t take to her in the same way.  She was a tough person to like by all accounts.  Instead list makers are tending towards the fragile, sensual, “save-me” Marilyn Monroe as portrayed by Michelle Williams. Not to take away from Williams’ amazing work, but Streep has recreated a controversial, difficult character without a by your leave.   She brings the unpleasant and the important to life.

The film brings back memories of Thatcher’s world domination at the time of her service, and how she inspired love or disdain, nothing in between.  What a burden it must have been, and she probably fought hard with herself not to give anything away.

Thatcher was a polarizing figure at a difficult time in Britain’s economic and political history.  If a man had behaved the way she did, he would be cheered.  As a woman, Thatcher was portrayed as a monster.   Streep plays her bad sport moments with equal gusto, and they are ugly, without reservation.  As one of the best known right wing political players in modern history, hers is a hugely important legacy and story and it ain’t all pretty.

Streep plays the poignant moments battling encroaching dementia with all the terror, fakery and confusion that awful disease brings, with empathy and mastery.  Those who have seen dementia in the flesh will recognise the greatness of her portrayal. 

There is a marvelous scene in which Thatcher has wrongly and in a bad temper, ordered a meeting ended and once alone, deflates.  But just for a moment.  There is another where between tentative answers to prying relatives in her dementia phase, she utters just two words and says it all.

The film is not a hagiography.   It is a look behind the scenes at an elderly woman reliving her glory years in her imagination while suffering of-the-moment ravages of growing old in stark contrast.  From that point of view, and in Streep`s hands, it is breathtaking. 

Unfortunately the film doesn’t measure up to the greatness Streep gives it.  It glosses over the meat of Thatcher’s real political accomplishments which include crashing the boundaries of gender and background too quickly, to focus on drawn out sequences detailing her dementia. 

 Scenes with her late husband Dennis (Jim Broadbent) appearing in her imagination to advise and encourage are repeated to the point of ridiculousness.  Her political triumphs and fearlessness are what will go down in history, except here.  The film essentially fails Streep’s portrayal, dumbing down Thatcher’s life to episodes and dementia.  It feels loose and unfocussed at times but thanks to Streep’s performance, it is well worth watching. 





Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol IMAX

Tom Cruise is a force of nature in the franchise’ fourth outing; older and looking older, and as nimble as ever, Ethan Hunt represents the kind of movie spy with mass commercial appeal as well as he ever did.  Cruise in fine form as of days of yore, framed by a nicely meaty story and his outrageous signature MI stunts.

Take for instance rappelling on the 130th floor of a Dubai Hotel – I’ve seen the sequence twice now it’s as thrilling, mesmerizing and brain challenging as any stunt Cruise has performed.  I’m told there were no body doubles used, that’s Cruise, and there’s no green screen.  It looks horrifyingly authentic enough, except for the approaching CGI sandstorm.  It defies belief but there you have it. Thrilling.

The film barrels along at a hell of a pace from one gob smacking stunt to another, from one exotic location to another, fists flying and gadgets humming. Check the world’s coolest parking garage.

We find Hunt in a Russian prison for allegedly murdering four Serbians.  But he manages to smash his way out during a riot, staged for him, as a fellow agent Benji (Simon Pegg) newly assigned to the field, controls the prison computer system.  Pegg isn’t asked to do much more than comment sarcastically, work the computer (always a thankless cinematic role) and add some comic nerd relief.  But he is charming against Cruise no nonsense attitude.

Hunt makes his escape, taking with him a valuable Russian “asset” who may be able to lead him to nuclear access codes via an international black market.  Someone wants to start a nuclear war and the first attack is about to be launched.   Hunt must get the bomb’s access code and stop it cold.

 A new agent Jane (Paula Patton) who recently lost her lover murdered by an elusive baby faced assassin (Léa Seydoux) joins Hunt in his quest to find the codes.  Patton brings an incredible physicality and authenticity as well as quick responses.  And being strikingly gorgeous, Jane is also asked to seduce those ever elusive codes from besotted marks. 

Hunt masquerades as a Russian officer to get past otherwise impenetrable Kremlin security to find the codes on his own.  There’s an amazing gizmo – a high tech curtain he positions in front of a security desk officer to replicate his view at the end of the hall.  That way he and Benji can move up on him hidden behind this virtual view.  The Kremlin explodes as they make their getaway, but they didn’t do it. 

Hunt’s impossible mission takes him to and his team from Russia to Dubai, and then Mumbai, to railroad cars, glitterati events where he can look damn fine in a tux and run tin into the eye of the sandstorm.  The destinations are photographed beautifully which totally adds to the films eye appeal.  The travelogue aspects of the MI outings are always welcome.   The world of MI:4 is seductive, brilliant and exotic.

The film is just a teeny bit longer than it should be but that’s small potatoes.  The film is engaging, thrilling, fun and eye popping and Cruise is just fine, thank you.   It cost $140M to make and from this critic’s point of view, its money well spent just for the escapism it offers.  It doesn’t pretend to be anything it isn’t and as mass appeal action adventure goes, its tops.



The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

It seems odd to remake the critically acclaimed Swedish film "Män som hatar kvinnor" and to remake it so closely resembling the original, but from any point of view The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a treat.  It’s still a deep,  labyrinthine, visceral and engaging adventure with one of the most dysfunctional and fascinating heroines in modern movies, a brainiac who may be addicted to drugs, sex and deadly risk.  But they did it and the result is sensational.

The American remake is still European at its heart. It’s set in Sweden in what looks like the same house with bridge in the original.  The blue grey tone against grainy white is the same and the story’s as captivating as ever.

Rooney Mara takes over the reins from Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander.  Rapace didn’t want to play the same role she’s played in three films despite her popularity. Daniel Craig who plays photojournalist Mikael Blomkvist takes over the role originated by Michael Nyqvist and brings greater warmth and compassion.  And David Fincher, who dealt with a serial killer previously in Zodiac, replaces Niels Arden Oplev.

Blomkvist is a respected journalist who has just escaped a libel suit.  He has been given the intriguing and lucrative task of chronicling Sweden’s largest private family business, by its patriarch (Christopher Plummer).  That job masks what he’s really been hired to do, to solve the forty year old murder of the man’s teenaged daughter during a family party on the family’s private island.

Blomkvist arrives at the island, a chilly, grey, wintry place where each family member sits in his own house, not speaking to the others, each stewing in the weirdness of the family and its legacy of Nazism, sexual and physical abuse and at least two murders.  He is given boxes of photographs, business documents and other family ephemera and he goes to work.

Through the family lawyer he learns of the great computer prowess of Lisbeth, a punk with a sad, bruising past and a resulting distrust and hyper alertness.  She’s eaten up all her bad experiences and made herself a protector of all hopeless girls, especially murder victims.   Lisbeth is raped by her welfare officer in scenes less explicit that the original film and she has her revenge.  We know she is a warrior, capable of plotting, strategizing, using brute force and brain to have the results she wants.  Lisbeth and Blomkvist make quite the investigative twosome. There is understanding between them and soon, a sexual relationship. And their hunt for the truth as dangerous and deadly as it is, begins.

This one of the great opening sequences.  Trent Reznor’s blazing yet strangely moody rendition of Led Zeppelin’s The Immigrant Song, as tattoo ink or blood flows over tight close-ups of crime scenes in shades of black. 



Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Set in Cold War Britain and Europe in the early seventies, the titular characters are British intelligence agents operating in the dark world of espionage.  Their spy nest is a mean place where the top men are jaded by decades together in a job that is never done, and unable to trust one another.  These civil servants (Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds, Mark Strong, David Dencik) are trying to hold on to the idea that what they’re doing is useful despite evidence to the contrary . 

Longtime boss Control (John Hurt) is about to take the heat for a case-related murder in Hungary a year earlier.  He recalls George Smiley (Gary Oldman in fierce form) from enforced retirement to ferret out a Russian mole within the highest ranks of the organization.  A rogue spy (Tom Hardy) has “treasure”, information gleaned from a female spy that could lift the lid off a major can of worms.

Subtlety is the key to le Carré and Alfredson’s approaches.  Actually subtle is an understatement.  The spies operate at a temperature well below room, trained never to give themselves away, and they have become what they learned.   A raised eyebrow, a lingering look, taking a beat too long to walk to a car, a shadow of a muscle movement is the sum of expression.  They’re constantly under friendly and enemy surveillance and innocuous giveaways can lead to death and political devastation.

Some things aren’t so subtle, like the recurring images of chess board, intertwining stair cases that lead nowhere, and depth of field into endless empty office space represent the nature of the game.  Spies can follow cases over decades and get nowhere.  And there is no one to understand the information and context they carry or a way to pin down the wavering loyalties of the game.

The film represents a small miracle in storytelling.  From the dense and nearly impermeable British TV series, the filmmakers have gleaned a smart 127 minutes while being faithful to story and the characters, inimitable feel and tone of original.  And the neatly put together package is more accessible than the impermeable Alec Guinness outing.

The cinematography is wickedly stylish.  Frame by frame there is great artistry.  It opens up the claustrophobic world of the story with its buildings, shabby and well worn, grand architecture and its representation of a world that is changing and maybe not for the better.  The past its prime, room décor and the perpetual chill and rain create an authentic world of a country still reeling economically from WWII and now battling a new enemy from the east.

Tomas Alfredson directed the critically acclaimed Let the Right One In with a spare aesthetic, and he works his magic here with fearless use of silence, stunning visuals and barebones scripting.

With so much to take in, so much richness in the characters and their milieux, that the film bears repeat viewings to find added treasure.  It’s an astonishing distillation of the TV series, and faithful to the unique le Carré spirit.  It’s a bygone era where no technology could come to the aid of the soldiers beyond a teletype and borrowed telephone.



The Adventures of Tintin

Steven Spielberg’s ambitious film adaptation of the classic – and quite stylish - Hergé comic book looks good, and may well save the motion capture industry from itself.  Its Spielberg’s first animated outing and his first comic book adaptation, he’s given it everything he’s got plus lots of love and the results are there. But more interesting, Spielberg’s been grooming the story of Tintin since the early 80’s, a passion project that’s finally in theatres and strangely competing for box office bucks against his World War 1 love action drama The War Horse.

The Belgian cartoon character of Tintin solves mysteries and travels the world, with his bouncy little dog Snowy.  He is the perfect little boy.  He’s not the exciting type although Jamie Bell has infused him with energy but he’s  beloved for being who and what he is, a smart, if bloodless, innocent adventurer. 

Enter Captain Haddock, played by Andy Serkis, the sea captain who hooks up with Tintin on this adventure.  He balances TinTin’s milquetoast qualities with a hair trigger temper, a ship captain’s knowledge of the world and a great sense of humor.

It all starts in the market where Tintin spies a model ship he wants.  He buys it and is immediately targeted by a certain Mr. Sakharine who kidnaps and imprisons him.  He’s spirited off to Morocco on a ship captained by Mr. Haddock when the crew mutinies and Haddock and Tintin are left to fend for themselves.  Intrigued by why Sakharine wanted the model ship so badly, they set off after it and discover a long dark and dangerous history.

This is an exotic road trip / buddy movie as Tintin and Captain Haddock join forces to reach their goals.  It reminds me of the Bob Hope/ Bing Crosby road trips more than anything.  Haddock’s funny and Tin Tin’s earnestness is well, cute as a button and everything plays out in wonderful unfamiliar territories.  Oh, it’s a fish out of water story too!   Haddock!  [I go too far].

Spielberg lays the magical atmosphere on thick and displays the period sensibility that holds the story within its all important historical tradition.  It’s long ago and far away and Tintin is like no other young hero.  The film’s refreshing and entertaining to the very last drop and is set apart by its refusal to be ordinary, a real treat.

Regarding the motion capture triumph of Tintin, Spielberg has put the life into the characters eyes and given it a light touch.  Together with Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, the motion capture forecast has improved.  If Tintin and Hugo films are possible with the loathed technology, the one that was used to create the horrific dead look of Polar Express, then it’s a new technological era.



Arthur Christmas

Seasonal family folderol with a winning story and a surprisingly diverse voice cast including High Laurie, James McAvoy, Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Jim Broadbent, Laura Linney, Eva Longoria, Robbie Coltrane, Joan Cusack and Michael Palin.  I know, right?  

It’s Christmas Eve. The Claus family is no different than any other, they have their ups and downs, and at Christmas time, the stress understandably mounts.  Seems Santa is losing interest in his job, while his father Grandsanta, who, incidentally is a bad tempered firecracker, kicks over the traces as to what a great Santa he was. 

Santa’s eldest son Steve is heir apparent, and with bringing the job in line with the times, has computerised the entire operation.  Hundreds of elf nerds man banks of computers and in a sly nod to video war games, Steve wears high tech solider gear.  He’s exasperating.  He thinks he is efficient, brilliant and in charge.  To him Santa is just a demented old man who should  hand over the reins of the sleigh – which he has now morphed into a Star Wars like space dreadnought, sure to bring more horror than happiness to those who grew up B.C. (before computers).   He seems poised for an overthrow.

And then there’s Arthur, a keen, peppy and optimistic teen who only needs to know that every child gets a gift from Santa on Christmas Eve to be happy.  But as Santa’s take-off time approaches, Arthur’s enthusiasm boils over and he’s barred from the front lines and tries to be useful behind the scenes.  Brother Steve sends Santa off with impersonal precision. 

Glorious scenes of Santa’s trips around the world are worth the price of admission; the artistry and attention to detail shows how different and special each country is, a festive kind of a travelogue celebrating the vastness of the world and how things like traditions unite us, no matter where we live.  Scenes of Santa and his elves delivering gifts are priceless, funny, imaginative and exciting.

It all takes place in a night and home they come. Unfortunately, Santa forgets to leave a gift for a little girl in southwest England. He’s too tired to turn back; Steve is unconcerned, leaving Grandsanta and Arthur who are galvanised into action.   Grandsanta digs out his trusty old sleigh and the eight reindeer he’s been secretly raising and off they go to fulfill the little girl’s dreams of a pink bike.  And that’s about when all the trouble starts.

The film is unusually adult in its approach, but all the bells and whistles are there for the kids too.  It is big on the ideas of responsibility, respecting elders, kindness and team spirit, but it’s also a lot of fun. Crusty old Grandsanta’s the coolest and Arthur, well, he’s overflowing with love and hope.  They are the perfect partners for a journey will be dangerous and unpredictable and requires a lot of guts.  I see a long future on TV and digital media for Christmases Future.



Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Pt. 1

This is about enough.   I can’t watch cement-faced Kristen Stewart and passive, pasty faced Robert Pattinson as Bella and Edward anymore, unless they change the act.  SO many trials and tribulations, so much angst, blah, blah. Everything is too much in this ironically bloodless exercise, a ‘will she or won’t she’ soap opera coated in blood starring a couple of milquetoasts.  To quote Elaine Benes, “Die already!” 

How many minutes of film have found Bella weighing love with Edward the vampire against leading a ‘normal’ life?  Well, not that many, it’s Edward who is to blame for dragging this thing out over how many films? How many times must we be reminded how in love they are and what a danger it is to her?  We get it.   The rationale is that fans of the book and the film franchise will eat it up, whatever is served.

That is true, sadly.  They’re not going for the story or character development or to see a film that makes sense.  They’re going to watch real life honeys Robert Pattinson and Kristin Stewart ham it up bringing to life a book series they treasure and to be part of the communal  “experience” of seeing the film.  These are strictly colouring book movies, two dimensional and simple minded at best and this is the worst of the bunch.  

I’m up to here with the internecine aggravations and soul searching that never leads anywhere, the Sullen Cullens, the Wimpy Wolves, the alligator tears and all-consuming selfish obsessions. Even the battle of the vampire and werewolves is getting stale, and in this outing, is way down the list of priorities. 

Okay so Belle and Edward are about to tie the knot, having avoided sex for fear of a passion so great and a vampire tradition so powerful they would break the world in two.  But they get married in a sequence that rivals The Deerhunter’s for length and reminds me of a series of travel brochure photographs of people looking really in love.   I’d rather watch feet clogging in tight closeup for twenty minutes than watch them mooning another second.

Inertia sets in until Jacob shows up to give Bella his support.  Apparently Edward has kindly arranged it because he understands their unique bond, but once again Jake loses his cool.   Taylor Lautner, who has been through the mill thanks to his hiatus film adventures (Abduction) can take a bow.   The only real drama happens when Jacob is around mixing things up.   Bella and Edward together are deadly, in a boring way but Jacob’s simmering, seething eyes and hair-trigger temper create the films high points.

Then comes the honeymoon which takes place on a private island off Rio where they do it.  Finally. The world doesn’t end, there’s just a little damage to the bed and a curtain is torn down.   However, Bella realises that she is pregnant, two weeks after they consummate their union.  The baby’s growing at a hell of a rate.  (Cue Twilight Zone music)   Bella doesn’t feel so swell.

And that’s all you’re getting.



My Week with Marilyn

Michelle Williams has found her Best Actress entrée.  She is shimmering beautiful, translucent, lost yet strong, everything we think of when we picture Marilyn Monroe, struggling between the reality of her sexpot status and her dreams of winning respect as a classical actress and an enlightened woman. 

Williams is nothing short of eerie in the role, and clearly gave a lot of herself to capture the look, the walk, the delivery, carriage and fleeting quality of her eyes just right.   She reflects Monroe’s apparently seething emotions and confusion, and that layer of druggy nowhere-ness.   Williams is a phenomenal actress, imbued with depth and intelligence.

The story takes place in 1957 in London and Pinewood Studios where Monroe filmed The Prince and the Showgirl for Marilyn Monroe Productions.  It was her company’s most ambitious project, and they had secured Sir Laurence Olivier to co-star with her and direct.  Unfortunately, Monroe’s “method” training, so foreign to Olivier, her instability and the influence of her coach Paul Strasberg troubled the shoot from the get go.

Monroe was famously late to arrive onset and sometimes just didn’t show up.  She was drugged, depressed, fearful or unprepared and production would be shut down for hours, bringing Oliver to the end of his tether.  He was unkind to her and she would retreat further.  Olivier had little use for her, until he saw her dailies.

Colin Clark was a third assistant director on the film, a rich kid who wanted to be in the film biz, who simply waited outside Olivier’s office till he got the job.  Monroe took a liking to him and when her husband Arthur Miller was stateside, had him by her side around the clock.  He was just 23 at the time.  He kept a diary, wrote a book and co-wrote this screenplay; one can only imagine what havoc that historic friendship played in his life.   

Curtis lets the story tell itself as its own pace, and offers breathing room for the frantic dictatorship of Olivier.  When Marilyn breaks free for an afternoon in country, it feels free.  It’s part of his explication of Monroe’s world, in which she could never operate like a normal person.  She tries to go shopping only to be turned back by an adoring mob.  She is always watched and judged for her appearance, habits, professionalism and it seems her breathing, for being Marilyn Monroe.

It’s a jewel of a film, set in the luxe world of high toned movie making with the biggest stars of their time.  Everything is beautiful, the reproduction set of the film, the countryside, and mansions and inside Windsor Castle where they go a peek.  It feels exotic, especially with Monroe planted in the frame.

Again, Williams deserves the highest praise for her performance.  She continues to outdo herself and given the near impossible task of bringing the most famous woman in the world of the time to life, her triumph is total.



The Descendants

The Descendants opens with a voice over warning that nothing is what it seems. The story takes place in Hawaii, but Clooney’s Matt King says that despite appearances of luxury, simplicity and beauty, life in Hawaii is like anywhere else, the realities of poverty, unhappiness, despair and the rest of it happens there.   He is a lawyer with a beautiful heritage home and two young girls.   But his wife is in hospital on life support following a boating accident when another man was at the wheel.

It’s a painfully familiar story to anyone who has been through the death of a loved one and revelations they might not have wanted to hear.   It hits marriage, teenaged rebellion, childhood, Alzheimer’s Disease, love, friendship, betrayal, resignation, morality and much of the vast canvas of the human condition.  It crosses three generations, and depends on family bonds and history.  It’s a remarkably ambitious pulling together of these things in just over two hours and its nearly flawless. 

Matt’s wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) is seen as his idealised wife in her element, waterskiing and loving life. Cut to the present and she is in a coma, hooked up to a breathing machine and otherwise lifeless.  Matt must decide not if to unplug but when, to adhere to her final wishes.

Matt fetches his eldest daughter in boarding school on another island; he wants her to make peace with her mother, whom she despises.  After an uncomfortable journey and time at home, she tells him she hates her mother because she was having an affair.  Matt sets off on a quest to find out who he is and confront the man, taking his daughters and a boyfriend to another island where the second chapter of the story begins.

It is excruciating to watch Matt take hit after hit, as he discovers his friends’ and family betrayals and insensitivities.  It was common knowledge his wife was having an affair and that she was going to leave him and they all blamed him for working too hard.  All of this is set against a land dispute between Matt’s cousins, and a mysterious potential buyer.  If the sale goes through they would all be millionaires. 

Shailene Woodley as the eldest daughter has uncommon ability and depth for someone so young, and she is given plenty of room to use her gifts.  She begins the film as the snappish, disrespectful and hostile towards her father and her terminally ill mother.   As the family navigates the emotional seas around the mother’s infidelity and certain death, she blooms; it’s a breathtaking arc.

And speaking of arcs, her irritating, clueless slacker boyfriend (Nick Krause) who accompanies the family on its truth seeking mission sees enough to gain some wisdom.  His story is one of the film’s most surprising and rewarding highlights.

Once again, George Clooney knocks it out of the park in a powerfully moving portrayal of a man in desperate straits.  He has a deep understanding of the material and expresses it with both precision and lifelike naturalism. It’s an Oscar worthy performance and The Descendants is an Oscar worthy film and one of the year’s best.   Prepare to go through hell with a family and feel heavy hearted afterwards, but knowing you have experienced something beautiful and transformative.  This is George Clooney and Alexander Payne’s shared moment.



J. Edgar

FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was a demagogue with a vengeful streak, and Eastwood reveals a man who patriotic to the point of obsession, who allied himself to high morals but kept secret , sometimes false files on leading figures of the day for blackmail purposes and bowed to break any enemy.  What a subject!

 Hoover’s is an extremely interesting story, whatever people think of him.  He was so powerful that he ran the Bureau for fifty years, a position that usually runs just 10, and served under eight Presidents.  Di Caprio gives a weighty (in more ways than one) performance; he is very good indeed.  He seems to have embraced an older self, accepting his maturity and years.  And he can also lay claim to DeNiro and Pacino’s territory – he’s that good.

Armie Hammer plays Hoover’s lifelong protégée Clyde Tolson, who may or may not have been his lover. They famously worked together, ate their meals together and were buried next to each other; he had a strong influence over Hoover and stayed in the Bureau far longer than he was useful. Hammer does a bang up job despite unfortunate aged makeup, which for the last third of film is distracting and false.

*Fun fact – Hammer knew of Hoover’s ways growing up.  He says Hoover’s men went through his great-grandfather’s trash in their quest to discredit him.  His grandfather was industrialist Armand Hammer.*

Naomi Watts plays the pivotal role of Hoovers’ long time secretary Helen Gandy, a steadfast woman who turned down his marriage proposal just after they met.   She protected Hoover from all kinds of invasions from the outside world, kept his secrets and hid his private files.   A few leaked out later in Hoover’s career, but the majority was never recovered; Gandy is seen shredding them in the film.  Watts is quite wonderful in what amounts to a supporting role.

The film holds shocks for some, including information Hoover gathered on President Kennedy’s sex life and Eleanor Roosevelt’s bisexual affairs.   It makes rather subtle references to Hoover’s reported habit of cross-dressing and the resulting guilt and fear he suffered  especially in light of his war on “unnatural” sex. We learn that Charles Lindbergh, whose kidnapped baby became another of Hoover’s obsessions, hated him.

Eastwood has made an elegant film, but as mentioned, we’re taken out of it by the glaring age makeup in the final third.  It is a real problem.  However, Eastwood is an artist and this is another example of what he can accomplish, it’s severe as Hoover was, dark as he was and like him fascinating.  It’s detailed, and moves  seamlessly from past to present to best bring authenticity to this complicated man’s story, set in an absorbing milieu of US government during a long an turbulent period.

The most feared man in America, who made his reputation stealing glory from his men’s exploits, is parsed and examined.  It’s fascinating and repugnant at the same time and Eastwood makes it work.



Like Crazy

This depiction of romantic yearning depends upon the childish irresponsibility of one of the lovers, an English girl who simply decides to ignore her visa regulations and return home at a specific time.  Instead, she decides to stay in bed with her boyfriend in LA and throw her fate to the winds. Thus her romantic house of cards collapses and we have a story.  It’s a modern Romeo and Juliet, two lovers forced by circumstances to be apart when they want to be together, not by family feuds but by international immigration laws.  Not so sexy, but...

Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones are Jacob and Anna, young idealists, whose previous relationships haven’t turned out.  They meet; its kismet and they are convinced the other is ‘the one’.   They understand one another and their chemistry is achingly real.  

But Anna is headstrong and when she decides to stay in bed with Jacob the day she’s meant to fly home, we know she will always do what she wants because she’s selfish and immature - young.  Eventually she goes home with a warning from immigration that because she lingered, she’ll have difficulty getting back into the States.

While at home, she gets a job she enjoys that has the potential for advancement but never mentions to Jacob how well it’s going.  Also there’s this guy across the hall...

Being separated is a kind of exquisite agony for Anna and Jacob.  They’re gutted to be apart but kind of enjoying the delicious craving to be together.   Anna’s sympathetic family engages a lawyer to untangle the red tape and get her a visa to the States.   While she waits books a flight to LA and on landing, is sent right back to England.

As silly as she sounds, Felicity Jones does an outstanding job of winning our sympathy, a tough job considering Anna’s randomness.  Yelchin is sensational, a nice kid whose heart is overflowing with love for this girl.  He would never presume to tell her what to do.

Writer director Drake Doremus’ choices are interesting and by the way, he admits to an unsuccessful long distance relationship.  He never shows the lovers having sex.  He laid the foundations of their intimacy indeed it fills the screen, so and there’s not a great need for such scenes to fill in the blanks.  He also filmed long, uninterrupted scenes which intensify our connection to them.  It’s as though we are in their rooms as they converse and get to know each other and the parameters of their relationship, as though we are somehow participating. 

Doremus film is imbued with a gossamer, story book romanticism – warm, natural light, sunny colours, lots of sunlit flesh and glossy hair – idealised and hopeful, against the reality of the story.  The characters are flawed and do the wrong thing a lot, but we still root for them.  It’s an unusually engaging film a step up from the Sundance romance style and filled with enough contrasts and illusions to make it very interesting indeed.



A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas

It’s been six years since the Guantanamo Bay fiasco and Harold and Kumar agreed to disagree.  They have no contact with one another.  Harold finds life easier without the troublemaker and Kumar doesn’t so much but smoke pot.   He’s annoyed that his girlfriend is pregnant because he suspects it will force him to grow up Meanwhile Harold’s doing everything possible to impregnate his wife while living a conventional married life in the suburbs.   He’s motivated, disciplined and has developed a fondness for things like well-designed sconces and bay windows.

A mystery package arrives for Harold at the apartment he once shared with Kumar.  Curiosity gets the better of him so he hand delivers it, finding a Harold he barely recognises.   Harold has just sent his extended family of Mexican in-laws off to midnight mass so he can decorate the tree his bullying father in law (Danny Trejo) grew for the occasion.   Kumar’s arrival with the mystery box throws Harold off and when they light up the huge joint in the unmarked box, they inadvertently set the tree on fire.

Thus begins the Christmas Eve sprint to find a new one.  The clock’s ticking; they have to somehow repair their relationship and get the job done, but face a constant stream of obstacles each worse  and funnier than the last.  They find themselves onstage in a Christmas musical extravaganza co-starring their old pal NPH, in a sexual fix in a Russians mobster’s home, dousing a baby girl in several hails of cocaine, accompanying Santa in his sleigh before he’s shot in the head and Harold getting his privates get stuck on an icy pole – one of many references to A Christmas Story.  That’s the kind of outrage you can expect in A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas.

The film actually makes the case for 3D a little stronger; they play to it and it brings the shattering glass, bodily fluids, and whathaveyou right into our shocked faces.  It may not have been what the 3D originators had in mind, but this seems just about perfect.

Kal Penn and John Cho are so in synch with the roles of Kumar and Harold that they seem not to be working as much as playing.  You have to wonder if the series is a bit juvenile for these thirty-something actors.  Penn worked in the White House's Office of Public Liaison and Intergovernmental Affairs and Cho’s creating an impressive roster of TV and film roles.  But hell, no!  It’s perfect!  Turns out I missed them!

But Neil Patrick Harris’ sequences may be the strongest in the film.  He has showmanship rarely seen in an actor of his generation; he brings the most flamboyant yet heterosexual Broadway persona he can muster and marries it to his own and kismet!  



Real Steel

Is it because Hugh Jackman is so darn likeable that this movie is so darn likable?  It is impossible not to admire and enjoy this talented, gorgeous, upbeat Aussie who can do it all.  You can even love him when his character is a bit of a jerk in the first act.  But can you see past him?   

Shawn Levy’s spirited tale of a man and a boy and a robot is far better than seems possible given the fact that it’s about battling robots.  That’s an idea that could go off in many undesirable directions but thankfully, it hits home.  It’s a feel good movie that features a kid Max (Dakota Goyo) who can dance and act like there’s no tomorrow, robots that don’t have emotion per se, but create emotional interest, and... Hugh Jackman.

Jackman is Charlie, a long in the tooth battle bot entrepreneur (this is the future, btw) at the end of his tether.  His bots are falling apart at an alarming rate, he hasn’t enough money for a room and his late wife’s sister wants custody of the son he hasn’t seen in ages.  He will care for him for the summer, and hand him off when the school year begins.  And in the meantime, he’ll live a hard scrabble life, kid or not.

This is the first Disney film, I think, in which a father tries to sell his son.  He agrees to give fill custody to his sister-in-law for a huge cash settlement; he needs the money and he has no real interest in this kid or any others.  He can’t make ends meet and the extra expense and worry of an 11 year old is not on his radar, especially as he prepares for the big battle paydays.  There are few who would qualify less than Charlie as a babysitter, but he agrees, knowing he’ll be free in September. 

Max is pretty hard headed himself and after a rocky start, they slowly begin to realise that they are more simpatico than they look on paper.   They sleep in Charlie’s robot truck, live hand to mouth, and run up against an arse kicking cowboy (Kevin Durand) who demands the return of a loan Charlie can never hope to repay – unless his bot wins an upcoming battle.   Or six.   Life isn’t easy but at least Charlie and Max are getting along.

Turns out Max is pretty handy with computers and helps get the latest bot ready, with a hand from Charlie’s good friend Bailey (Evangeline Lily).   Charlie’s old school and the computer programmes for latest models are a little beyond him, so Max helps out, giving the bots more abilities than Charlie could have imagined, and thus they rebuild their future.

The world of battling bots is a fascinating place for Max.  He discovers he has the gift of showmanship. Before the bots go into the ring, Max leads them in a dance, and as they are programmed to mirror his every action, they become a cool duo, creating rock star moments in front of thousands of cheering bot fans.

Levy is a terrific director, having mastered the CGI world in the Night at the Museum films, and comedy in Date Night as well as children’s interests in a long list of specialty television and movies.  He is in territory he knows.  Battling bots is a little off the beaten path at first glance, but it turns out Levy’s good natured, optimistic view of the world is what makes this film sing ...  along with Hugh Jackman!  And Dakota Goyo!   It’s a winning trio of talents, a special chemistry and a can’t-fail story that’ll have audiences cheering.



Abduction

Poor Taylor Lautner has been well and truly betrayed in his first big film.  It’s not long after he appears onscreen that he is shirtless.  As buff as he made himself to play Jacob in the second Twilight, he’s still a person and an actor, not a commodity as he most definitely is in this under baked tale.  The love scenes are the slurpiest, messiest, tightest close-ups probably ever seen outside a porn film.  His lips are a big feature of this fetishism, super glossy, bright red and parted.  It is sad to see him caught in this hunk trap.

The story is interesting on paper.  Nathan, a highschooler, who feels he doesn’t belong in his own life, discovers a picture of himself as a little boy on a missing persons website and sets out to unlock the mystery of his past.  His parents aren’t his parents – they are CIA agents who raised him, played by Maria Bello and Jason Isaacs.  Within a short period of time, he learns menacing strangers have found his location and are out to hurt him and / or his parents.  They are killed by these men dressed in black and soon the house explodes in a fiery ball – film highlight!

Nathan hightails it out of there with the girl next door and his former g.f. Karen (Lily Collins) He calls the only person he can trust,  his psychiatrist (Sigourney Weaver - see?  Great actors to support Lautner in an obvious lack of confidence in him) who runs him to safety with more men in black hot on their trail.

Thus begins a long and hazardous escape that finds Karen and Nathan on a train, mourning the death of his “parents”,  the discovery of his false life and the danger they’re in  but going ahead anyway with a little bit o’ sex.  Cue slurping and extreme tight close-ups.

Their journey takes them to the apartment of an unknown and unseen man, where there is a bag packed with money, supplies and a phone.  So someone has been anticipating his arrival.  Back on the road they face mortal danger including a deadly meeting at a rural café, an episode in a rushing river, and well...

The screenplay is weak as water, although the concept is interesting.  The direction is as mentioned exploitative and senseless and the performances are mundane.   All of this to supposedly cement Lautner’s status as an action hero and sex symbol.  He’s not ready for this.  He needs to be a lot more comfortable with the camera than he is and the people around him must have his best interests at heart and stop treating him like a side of beef stuffed with cash.  It’s actually appalling that a 19 year old is bought and sold like this.



Moneyball

Brad Pitt’s thoughtful portrayal of the Oakland A’s Billy Beane is certain to get him a top spot on the Oscar race charts.  It’s not a showy performance but it is full formed and defined, with a certain economy that very experienced actors have.   It’s expressed with delicacy, through body language and delivery that is true to his creation, not to the great god Pitt.  And he fronts an interesting real life story.

Billy Beane was the General Manager of the Oakland A’s, a losing team that he and a baseball geek turned around with a computerized system that rated players on specific things like “getting to first”. Their revolutionary thinking flew in the face of 150 years of baseball philosophy which in 2001 touted the better looking, conventional and well-behaved players over the distinctive, raucous, shy and underappreciated players, the cast-offs.  He recognized that getting a good player was paramount, not good copy.

This baseball movie doesn’t have a lot of baseball.  The action is in the shaping of the game, in the minds of the behind-the scenes executives who changed it.  There is a mathematics angle as new players have to fit into a painfully low budget.  It’s actually a bit of a puzzle they’re putting together and it’s a fascinating journey.  Nearly all of Beane’s choices for his new team were met with howls of derision, but he was confident, maybe beyond reason, that the system devised by his assistant Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) held water.  Beane was brave, never afraid of change.  And change was clearly needed.  

Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays the gruff team manager who blocks Beane at every turn.  Barely physically recognisable, his character is quiet and angry, seething because he’s humiliated by his single year contract and Beane won’t give an inch.   He doesn’t say much but what he says is to the point.  It’s an unusual role for Hoffman who is generally much broader and dominant.  Capote previously starred in Capote for Miller.

Miller’s Moneyball is masterful, subtle and beautifully rhythmic.  He doesn’t exploit Pitt or Hill (now in a bit of a star phase) but rather allows them to be fairly restrained.  This is a big story and baseball is a big game but this is as intimate a film on sport as I’ve seen.  It’s dispenses with the obvious sports film manoeuvres in favour of an intellectual approach – there are still the big fan moments but they are sometimes heard from the locker room, or seen on a screen instead of showing a crowd doing a boisterous wave or the players jumping all over each other.   We hardly get to know the players because as far as this story is concerned, it’s not really necessary.   The real action goes on in the analysis, negotiations, strategizing, salesmanship and results.

We all know what happened for the Oakland A’s.  And know we know how it happened.



Ides of March

George Clooney directs this effective but slightly hysterical political thriller focusing on a young idealistic political campaigner who becomes enthralled with the process and possibility of wielding power.  Myers, played with gleeful wickedness by Ryan Gosling, undergoes a sensational transformation during his time spent behind-the-scenes supporting presidential candidate Morris (Clooney).  Gosling, not Clooney, gets the lion’s share of the story in a career high performance that comes so close on the heels of another Gosling triumph, Drive.

Myers is dedicated to promoting the political ambitions of Governor Morris and strategizing; tweaking each and every step he takes.  Myers answers to Zara (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) the veteran lead campaigner and flirts with intern Molly (Rachel Evan Woods) while avoiding Horowtiz, the hardnosed reporter (Marisa Tomei).  Life’s tough in this circus and it’s good to look over the shoulder constantly.  It’s great dramatic fodder.

Myers is so exceptional at what he does that the other team goes after him, led by the sardonic Duffy (Paul Giamatti).   Bit by bit, Myers begins to grapple with his conscience, and develops a protective layer that gets thicker as each day goes by.  He begins to discover his inner, amoral animal.  And then the fun really begins.  Political candidates always have vulnerability and its loud and clear here.  You’ll be reminded of Bill Clinton and his lowest.   Rather than being beaten by the system Myers thrives.  He thinks nothing can bring him down.

The film is adapted from the novel North Farragut, in reference to a Washington business square where failed politicians go to open their consulting firms.   It lingers in the back of the mind that Farragut awaits any political operative who makes a misstep.  And it’s easy to do considering the kind of people, money and influence in which that world deals.  The media is always nearby hungry for headlines and scandals. It’s a brutal world that tests loyalty on a moment to moment basis.  The Ides of March is a really covers ground as an insider’s look at ambition run amok.

This is well executed, if somewhat conventional storytelling that focuses on the information rather than cinematic tricks.  It’s snappy, fast and fun as we become voyeurs beyond the Beltway.  Clooney’s a supple, mindful director and has an eye for talent too, casting Gosling just as the younger’s talent is starting to show remarkable promise.  It’s the land of the movie giants here and they do brilliant ensemble work.  The problem is that the film is over-excited about itself, as though corruption at the highest levels was something new. It’s as old as the hills.

I hope Clooney continues to make thought provoking films on important subjects in his traditional style.  He is one of the great class acts and I for one will see just about any film he decides to make because there will be something stirring, momentous and real about it.   And he won’t waste my time with excess and cinematic noise.   And as for Ryan Gosling, the world’s his oyster now.  Let’s hope he stays the course.



The Skin I Live In

Pedro Almodovar and early male muse Antonio Banderas are reunited in this intense study of obsession and revenge.  They have achieved some pretty strong magic together in an exceptional, original and shocking story of a plastic surgeon with an unhealthy fixation and ultimate power.  At the Toronto Film Festival where the film gained notoriety and admiration, more than one person described it as “fantastic, but messed up” and I concur.

Banderas plays a Dr. Ledgard, a Spanish plastic surgeon developing super tough and gorgeous synthetic skin in his state of the art home lab/ operating theatre.   He’s held in high regard in his country.  He’s well respected and sought after as a scientist, consultant and surgeon but he keeps to himself, and methodically sheds people form his life.   He’s reached a crucial point in his experiments and prefers isolation to finish his work, because the law, medical ethics and decency are to be tossed aside.  He knows it, but doesn’t feel it; instead he is entirely unbound by normal restrictions.

There is a woman living in his underground lab, in a small room.  She is under video surveillance 24/7 and can’t leave the ugly, perpetually lit prison.  She is being held against her will to be his human experiment.   He is rebuilding her.  Who is she?  How did she get there?  Why did the doctor choose her?   Why can’t she leave?  Does anyone miss her? 

Almodovar’s dark imagination takes him into evil territory here, as we try to understand the doctor’s motives and why the women seems to accept her fate and even appears to love him.  It’s a twisted and enthralling story that unfolds piece by piece over an emotionally agonising couple of hours.

Spanish actress Elena Anaya is a knockout as the woman.  Her expressive face speaks volumes, even as her body is covered in bandages, synthetic skin strips, masks and bodysuits.   She maintains a delicate balance between the illusion of what she says and does, versus the reality of her position and emotions.

And regarding Dr. Ledgard, we sympathise which makes us co-conspirators, and he gets the moral pass that respected, brilliant people often do.    But don’t think you know the answers.  This has to be seen to be appreciated.  Banderas has masterfully given this man life, he’s seductive and godlike and completely believable.

Almodovar’s piece is minimalistic; a departure from his earlier films that seemed to burst with colour, flavour, sights and sounds.  This is a chamber piece, not a celebration of life.  It is stark, moderne, steel and chrome, severe rooms, costuming, art direction.   It intellectualises the world with a cold, impervious point of view.   The imagery is dramatic but dark, hard edged and very beautiful. 

While it’s so different from Almodovar’s other films, it has his masterful touch and vivid imagination. Let’s hope The Skin I Live In is remembered come awards season.



Machine Gun Preacher

Sam Childers was a Minnesota gang biker with a violent history of drug dealing, battery and prison time.  He was a drug and alcohol addict and was fascinated by guns.   He became an armed guard for drug dealers and eventually wound up in prison; while he was there his wife, a stripper, was born again as a Christian.  When he was released, she took him to Assembly of God services where he says he experienced a “conversion” and on that same night, a pastor predicted he would go to Africa to do good.

Childers went to Sudan which was under the iron rule of the Lord’s Liberation Army and its murderous leader Joseph Kony; the LRA routinely kidnapped children and forced them into a life of war as soldiers.  They were threatened and harmed, intimidated into staying.   Childers knew he had to help these innocent children and dedicated himself to saving as many as he could by any means possible.

After returning home to the US and selling his construction business, he came back to the Sudan and built an orphanage, which was, of necessity, protected by armed guards.  He cleared the land, trained the builders and gradually orphans came to live there.  There were countless others to be rescued from Kony’s clutches so he began to lead armed missions to rescue children.  He gave them a home, food and security; they gave him the nickname the Machine Gun Preacher.   To date, his Angels of East Africa has fed, housed and kept safe 1000 children.  Childers describe his exploits I the book Another Man’s War.

Machine Gun Preacher, starring Gerard Butler as Childers, tells this fascinating story which as a piece of fiction would be hard to believe.  As it is, it’s inspiring and uplifting.  The film itself looks beautiful; the cinematography is glorious contrasting urban USA and the barren deserts of the Sudan.  

The film contrasts the elements in Childers life as he struggles to create his orphanage and fulfill his destiny.   A former criminal, now a savior to countless African children, his remarkable arc is an example of what we can do with our lives.

The performances are good. Butler is convincing as the unreformed Childers and the crusading Childers and Michelle Monaghan is equally stirring as his wife. 

The film is fairly conventional in its approach and relies heavily on the story to carry it, there isn’t a lot of cinematic weight and the script is pretty light at times.  It would have been good to know more about certain elements like Childers’ conversion in context.   We are shown that the mission remains Childers passion after 13 years but we’re not shown his weaknesses or temptations to give it up, normal responses someone might have to an overriding obsession of many years that asked so much of him.  

Maybe it’s enough to see this man’s life work on the screen, drawn in by the presence of Butler and the rest of the cast.   Whatever we might think of the movie as cinema, the story is golden.



Killer Elite

There are two astonishingly awesome fight sequences in Killer Elite.   Jason Statham, an assassin-for-hire in the upper echelons of political and corporate intrigue, is tied to a chair, sitting.   He proceeds to beat a man, disable him, then move across the room and throw himself out the window, land on a truck, free himself and escape.  Those few electrifying seconds alone makes this film worthy.

Clive Owen, who often plays dark characters, gets in the fray with Statham in another fight scene, and they really go at it.  I’m not a moviegoer who gets thrills from movie violence.  I tolerate it, but these scenes are so balletic and unique and new that they must be mentioned.   They bring to mind Statham in Crank, thrown from a helicopter hurtling towards earth, reaching into his pocket for his cell phone and making a call.  Jaw dropping stunts like these are talking points that help a film live on in geek glory.

It’s an interesting and complex story of betrayal, revenge and redemption for sure, and it’s based on a true story, but the films raison d’etre is Statham’s antics, straight up.   He’s   Danny, a retired and decorated member of Britain's Elite Special Air Service and he’s considered one of the best agents in the world. He has a stellar record of service and loyalty, but he wants to begin a new life as a farmer.

However his plans are interrupted when his mentor and friend Hunter (Robert De Niro, in fine form) is taken hostage in Oman, drawing Danny back into business to retrieve him. Hunter’s being held in the armed fortress of a sheik, whose m.o. is to draw Danny to him.   He orders Danny to kill the people who killed three of his sons, a mission that will take Danny into danger around the world. 

Meanwhile, Owen’s Spike, an operative of a British secret military vigilante society known as The Feathermen, has an agenda, and he is focusing on Danny.   It was he who arranged the hits.  Spike is a gifted strategist and fighter, well connected with some of the most dangerous men in the world.   So Danny and Spike, equally matched in their particular skills, are good opponents.  

The chilling thing is that this story of international assassination is based on an incident as described in Ranulph Fiennes 1991 novel The Feathermen, which has been described as part fact, part fiction [Fiennes is the second cousin of Ralph and Jospeh Fiennes].   The case in the book played out over many years, but the film shortens it for drama and time.

The travel aspect of the film is richly appealing, taking us to rural Australia to Paris, London, Wales and the Middle East, where we learn that there is nowhere to hide if someone wants to find you.  If a bullet shows up in your rural Australian farm which you believe to be off the radar, there’s big trouble brewing.

One slight problem with the film is that the only female presence, Danny’s childhood friend Anne, (Yvonne Strahovski) is the idealised character of shampoo commercials, blonde, beautiful, sexy yet innocent and conventionally moral (even though she learns what Danny does and is okay with it, maybe she pouts a little) who inspires wicked men to be better than they are. 

But overall, it’s a fun yarn with top notch action and adventure.



Footloose

I never saw the original 1984 Kevin Bacon morality dance off so  I’m looking at this new version starring some of the best looking people in that demographic,  as a standalone.   There’s a lot of dancing, a lot of parental control and youthful acting out.  Rebellion.  There is underage lust but little action, these kids are all show.  There’s a go-for-broke school bus battle and there are plenty of brawls, pitting alpha dog against newcomer alpha dog.  Just kids being kids.

This is precisely what the local Georgia minister Rev. Moore (Dennis Quaid) doesn’t want.   He’s a man informed by the enforced local moralism of generation ago when burning rock and roll records scared the kids into behaving.  Or aimed to.  He wants the kids to be home by ten p.m., eleven on weekends, and to refrain from dancing, acting lewdly or playing loud, offensive music.  

It seems outrageously dated but for all I know there are still pockets of American civilization where this is normal.  His anxiety appears to stem from a tragic car accident in which five youngsters, including his son, were killed on their way home from a dance.  So ban dancing.  Ban fun.  Right.

And when you’re Red (Kenny Wormald) a new kid in town from Boston, who has lost his mother to leukemia and must start over again in his uncle’s car barn, well, it’s harsh and lonely.   Especially since Ren is a dancer.  He acts out a little; nervous locals take it for a lot.  The town authorities, especially the Reverend, immediately have their backs up because he dares to bring in a new ways of thinking and behaving, and he plays music loudly.  

 Ren’s getting it from all sides because the prettiest girl at school Ariel (Julianne Hough) is flirting with him pretty heavily, raising the ire of her pugilistic boyfriend who bears a strong resemblance to a moving truck.  He has a posse that means Ren no good. 

Ariel is seriously acting out in part due to the loss of her idealised brother and her father’s vice grip on her and the town’s youngsters.   Hough has a nice arc to play, as her character responds to this new kid in town and begins to see things more clearly. 

 Andie McDowall plays Ariel’s mother Vi, a bit of a milquetoast until she’s just had enough of the Rev and delivers a crucial speech in defense of the kids and their right to partay. 

I would have expected to see more dancing.  The dance cast is exceptional:  Hough was a principle on Dancing with the Stars and Wormald is a prize winning hoofer.  There aren’t that many dance sequences, and when the final scene is done, there’s a sense of disappointment that there won’t be more.   The film is entertaining, dramatic and very pretty to look at.  Remake or not, it works.





Straw Dogs

Many filmgoers have vivid recollections of Sam Peckinpah’s highly controversial film adaptation of   Gordon Williams’ novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm. They might remember it as one of the most violent pictures made at that point, with its bloody brutal and sexual horrors, and its strong sense of misogyny and sadism.   A man and his wife return to her childhood small town to take over an inherited house.  Locals, including an ex-lover gain access to them by taking on construction jobs.  Issues from the past combine with the couple’s apparent wealth and status and the locals’ envy to form a fireball of hatred, fear and the will to destroy. 

Peckinpah’s version of the story is still upsetting to watch today, as Dustin Hoffman pulls out all the stops to protect Susan George who plays his wife.   It is an extremely unpleasant cinematic experience, and begs the question why make another?

Filmmaker Rod Lurie (Nothing But the Truth, The Last Castle, The Contender, et al) mas made another version of Straw Dogs.  But he took the higher road.   Lurie’s film is impeccably made, refined, classically informed and most importantly, watchable.   Every bit of suspense, every crumb of the thriller is there, but Peckinpah’s in-yer-face and frankly unnecessary sadism is gone.

James Marsden and Kate Bosworth, who play the young married couple David and Amy Sumner, have been given a hell of a career boost in Straw Dogs.  Their characters are on edge to begin with, as they begin a new life in Louisiana, far from LA where he writes screenplays.   The locals clearly resent them and their ostentatious wealth.   They would normally drive expensive cars, tip big and toss money around.  But in Hicksville it’s translated as a kind of superiority.  And David does not try to play it down; he seems to take pleasure from it.

As the situation escalates, they must first believe it, and then figure out the extent of it.  Soon they are at the end of their rope, and must face the most basic truths about themselves in order to survive the night.  They’re stripped down to will, focus and determination; all the prettiness and pleasant artifices of life have vanished, maybe forever.  The actors have rich character arcs which they handle with ease.  And both are nicely shaded.  The film doesn’t try to glean motivation but it certainly presents us with what we need to know.

Alexander Skarsgård plays the construction crew boss, an ingratiating, troubled man who dated Amy in the past.  His two buddies pick up on that and a kind of shared madness comes over them.  Egging them on is the Coach (James Woods) a drunkard and spiteful man who’s world is handed over to violence and intimidation.  Woods is amazing! And Skarsgård, who plays an altogether different character in the upcoming Melancholia, is mesmerizing.

Lurie has taken an infamous film and made it work.  He’s hired the right people, moved the story from England to Louisiana and given it a kind of gracefulness, despite the subject matter.  This is a deeply satisfying, artistic and memorable film.





Melancholia

Melancholia is famous for being the topic of conversation at Cannes when Lars Von Trier ran off the rails ranting about Jews and Hitler and Nazis.  I’m putting aside Von Trier’s ridiculous, inflammatory remarks to focus on the film, his first in years and the one he did instead of the final chapter to Wasington, which would have rounded out the trilogy begun with Dogville and Manderlay.

Von Trier has always put forth a deeply depressed vibe, indicating some kind of obsessions with sadness, death and destruction, and it comes to full flower in his most commercial film yet which takes place as the earth is about to be destroyed by stray planet hurtling towards it.  Talk about the ultimate sadness.

Melancholia is divided into two chapters which take place at the same mansion in the country where the wedding is held, and a few days later.  The first is Justine, focusing on Kristin Dunst’s depressed bride, and the second is Claire, from the point of view of Justine’s nurturing, long suffering sister played exquisitely by Charlotte Gainsbourg.

It is Justine’s wedding day.  Her husband (Alexander Skarsgård) is adoring and patient with her inattention and apparent selfishness.  They arrive at the mansion two hours late, and then Justine can’t seem to focus on it. She takes a bath, takes a lover, and ultimately takes a powder on her new husband. Guests are shocked – the wedding planner (Udo Kier) refuses to look at her, covering his face whenever he passes her. 

Justine’s mother (Charlotte Rampling) is a vicious, unhappy woman, determined to express her disgust for social norms, and her father (John Hurt) refuses to have a heart-to heart  she desperately wants.  Claire shoulders the responsibility of orchestrating the evening even as Justine refuses to play the role of happy bride.   Claire’s husband (Keifer Sutherland) is wealthy, and used to having his own way so this acting out makes him really angry.

It is abundantly clear that Justine has deep emotional problems and issues and has hit a wall.  Besides she has spotted a strange red star in the sky that frightens her.  She “knows” things and one thing she knows is that it has to do with death.   Everyone tells her there’s “no chance” it will.  Justine seems not to care about living anymore, so what’s a death star to her?   Dunst takes a risk in this unsympathetic part, and pulls it off in sensational style and she navigates a juicy arc beautifully. 

Melancholia was shot in Von Trier’s usual ground -  Trollhättan, Västra Götalands län, Sweden where he also made Dogville, Manderlay and Dancer in the Dark, familiar territory at home.  The stars come to him including the mostly American cast of Melancholia.

It’s not a particularly weird or big story, instead, it’s an intimate look at end days through one isolated, screwed up family.  It’s stylish, maddening, gorgeous and leaves you limp.





Shark Night 3D

Because its concept was so very new and cutting edge, Jaws knocked us flat with terror and awe.  Its pioneering, nature-based violence, implicit and explicit was somehow beyond the pale and yet acceptable. It became cinematic history.  Dread was created judiciously, slowly and relentlessly through inspired camera work, editing and scripting, and it was never rammed down our throats.

Shark Night 3D, some 36 years later, is a return to the dark ages of horror films, to the world of second rate frights as in The Blob, Plan Nine From Outer Space and whathaveyou.  What we have is an underwritten, an obvious approximation of horror, marred by an agenda of fast, fast, fast for the attention impaired.  Today’s sophisticated audiences who appreciate a primal jolt every once in a while also like their films smart and nicely paced.  A solid story helps.

One of the problems of Shark Night is its shapelessness.  The situations faced by our preppy heroes weekending at an island lake home are kind of piled up and on top of each other, separately, unlinked to each other artistically.  They are true “events”, separate, short, episodic and as a result are emotionally detached.  The outcomes of these events are telegraphed in a kind of classic “wait for it…!!”  from stem to stern.

A group of college friends, the nerd with glasses, the party boy, the minority guy, the edgy girl, the sports hunk, the Hispanic girl and the blonde cutie  trek up to the blonde’s remote mansion on a Louisiana lake. They are vaguely threatened by “locals” (isn’t it always the locals?) at the bait shop and chased friendly by the beer swilling sheriff.  There’s no cell phone coverage and for some reason, there isn’t a landline in this massive, conspicuously expensive home (cue Twilight Zone theme).  As for staying connected to civilization, there’s a motor boat, a Jet Ski and a flare.

There are sharks in the waters of this inland lake, an unusual occurrence as sharks dwell in the salt water of the oceans.  Sharks are the last thing on the preppy’s minds.  So when one of them loses an arm in a surprise attack, it takes an attitude adjustment.  All hell breaks loose, and before long, the creepy locals drop anchor in response to the preppy’s emergency flare. Things get more exciting when we learn the truth behind their double dealings.  The truth is a whopper, to be sure.

Shark Night 3D is pretty fast paced, and the 3D is nice, but the meat’s missing.   Stereotypes rule – southern backwoods racists, the evil sheriff, the tattooed, edgy girl whose fate recalls the tattoo parlours needles, the sweet, naïve blonde, even the dog. These clichés don’t allow us to develop empathy, so they have little emotional connection to the audience.  I would like to feel something when folks are eaten by sharks, but, instead, I just don’t care.  

However, that’s probably the way they want it.  The filmmakers are onto a young demographic with a short attention span. Rather than seething dread, it’s chop, tear, blood. And repeat.  So while the film doesn’t meet with the sensibilities of those of us who think Jaws is a meaningful experience, it will find its audience.





Conan the Barbarian 3D

Jason Momoa’s turn as the iconic Conan the Barbarian is somewhat less than glorious and for a remake of a beloved story, it’s a deal breaker.   With his Valley accent, glaring white teeth and superbly coifed hair and waxed eyebrows, there’s about as much authenticity here as there is in the heavy handed, stupefying CGI which hammers audience in to senselessness.  

New Conan has none of the regal, noble savage vibe that Arnold exuded although he’s certainly as mighty and fearsome in appearance.   Shallow observations aside, Conan personifies the screen gore that is so popular amongst young viewers and fans of the original.  But it doesn’t come from him as much as it does the artists behind the computer.  There’s s strange lifelessness to the characters, the stagey fights and the film in general.

The story is familiar.  Conan is born to a Cimmerian woman dying on the battlefield, felled by brutes of an enemy tribe.  His first taste isn’t mother’s milk but mother’s blood.  It shapes his life; he craves revenge and becomes a bloodthirsty and exceedingly clever fighter whose gift borders on supernatural.  His father Corin (Ron Perelman) who is incidentally, 99% fur, teaches him in the ways of the warrior and nobility of character.  Noble here means patiently vengeful.   He wanders the mountains and plains waiting for his moment.

Conan finally comes face to face with the people who murdered his mother and wiped out his village.  They are a huge nation with weaponry and magic at the ready.  He encounters the king and his witch daughter Marique (Rose McGowan) who is the worst of the enemy bunch.  Her slashing metal hand and intense sense of smell are her super powers and she’s driven by her connection to her father.  There is a strange flirtatious vibe there too that’s a little disturbing.  McGowan has a thankless job here delivering cringe worthy lines, with a vampiristic expression … or is it insane cat?  Embarrassing.

Rachel Nichols is Tamara, Conan’s g.f., a monk who can fight with the best of them while looking like am innocent, freshly plucked daisy.  She allies herself with Conan and they fight the good fight to the most obvious arc ever.   Nichol’s is the one character I buy here.  She is authentic and has complex inner life, which shines through the constant flying gore and noise. 

It is always amusing to see how women are treated in film through the ages.   Back here in primitive Hyboria, the women are startlingly beautiful, again with the teeth and waxed brows, buff bodies and amazing hair.  How did they do it?  The secondary male characters look like they were pulled through a filthy hedge backwards and then kicked down the street.  That way you know who to root for and who to lust for and who to boo. 

Overall, the movie is big and brassy, empty and ultimately a bore.  Arnold!  Come back!





Fright Night 3D

Colin Farrell maybe the hottest vampire that ever lived, or unlived.  Buff, romantically pale, dark eyed and seductive, he’s a Gothic dream / nightmare in the desert, in low slung jeans, a tool belt and T.  And those looks!  He’s just moved in to an isolated Las Vegas suburb where the population is fluid and comings and goings aren’t out of the ordinary.   He’s Jerry, the local handyman whose messy, closed home is the talk of the neighbourhood.   Charley Brewster, (Anton Yelchin) who lives next door with his mother, has recently left the nerd world and become cool.  He’s a dude at school and dates the prettiest girl Amy (Imogen Poots).  He’s got it made.

This is why an intrusion into his life by Ed, a nerd from his past, to warn him about a vampire in the hood, is unwelcome.  Charley is concerned about his image and appearing with the hyper, bespectacled former friend.   And he writes off his story as nerd-gone-wild ramblings.  Ed begs him to help him kill it before they are killed, but Charley rebuffs him.  Ed has painstakingly collected evidence after school friends went missing and is convinced Jerry’s undead and dangerous.   And before long Ed is missing.

Soon comes the dawn, and Charley starts thinking Ed might have been onto something.  He breaks into Jerry’s house and finds vampire paraphernalia and Jerry’s lover, imprisoned and covered in blood but still alive.   Charley spirits her out of the house in a daring daylight escape, only to watch her explode into a fireball.  Vampires don’t like sunlight.

Charley knows he must seek immediate assistance of Peter Vincent (Dr. Who’s David Tenannt), a spoofy Criss Angel Mind freak type, a Las Vegas black magic entertainer with a difficult disposition and a rare collection of rare religious anti-vampire artifacts and holy relics, including a spike blessed by St. Michael.  Vincent’s website is the place to go for information on killing vampires, so Charley bursts in on him, demanding help.   

Vincent clearly has something dark going on, and that museum in his Las Vegas stronghold, but he has sunk into a kind of celebrity ennui, and alcohol which, while he provides some comic relief, makes him pretty much useless.  He refuses to look at Charley’s photos and evidence he’s gathered on Jerry, and soon we learn the reason why, He has an axe to grind concerning the undead.

 The pacing is stellar; you can’t take your eyes off the screen for missing a moment because something significant is always just around the corner.  The tensions build organically in a beautifully realised arc. It dispenses with the repeating shock gore of today’s horror films and looks to the past for the slow build towards a gripping and satisfying conclusion.

An experienced cast, some from the theatre, helps elevate what could have been a camp disaster into a thoughtful, dramatic whole, where there are no unintended laughs, snickers or boos.  Character counts as much as the events and they achieved the right balance. 

The cinematography is outstanding, shot in a moody desert scape which surrounds the suburb, much of it at the golden hours of twilight and dawn.  The vast, natural edges of the natural world contrast beautifully with the hard edged cement suburban landscape. 

So it is beautiful to look at, smart, makes sense and holds our attention.  How unusual for a horror thriller in 2011!  And it’s fun!


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