Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Adventures of Tintin (2011) – Review

Review: The Adventures of Tintin is visually astounding but the narrative and characters are not done quite as well. The film finds Tintin, a famous journalist, thrust into a new mystery when he buys an antique ship model at a swap meet leading to a man killed at his door and his apartment ransacked. He engages on a grand adventure with Haddock, a drunken ship captain, to uncover the secret of the ship. Director Steven Spielberg has set up The Adventures of Tintin to play a bit like a mix of Indiana Jones and Pirates of the Caribbean tonally. The film looks and feels a lot like an Indiana Jones film, and the score sort of harkens back as well (same composer). The silliness of the characters also feels a bit like Indiana Jones, but more like Pirates of the Caribbean. Visually, the film is quite an achievement. This could have easily been a live-action film, but as is the action set pieces are a bit too much and the camera moves freely – both of which would be harder to accomplish outside animation. The performances Spielberg captured however are fantastic, especially in terms of getting very expressive faces and (most importantly) eyes.  The opening title sequence (which is reminiscent of Catch Me If You Can, at least it was for me) is brilliant (and my favorite part of the film), as are the many unique and interesting transitions. The narrative has a lot of action, especially in the second half. Spielberg does a good job of keeping the narrative moving forward (important for a film aimed at children especially). It seems common in animation, there being no limitations, for the action scenes to get out of hand. This happens somewhat on this film, but Spielberg still reels them in enough and gives them each their own mini-narrative to keep them engaging (not letting them creep into crazy mindless territory). The chase through the coastal town in Morocco is probably the most compelling. The real issue, however, and to an extent the main thing keeping this from being a better film, despite it being a great visual achievement, is the characters. Both Tintin and Haddock, who occupy almost all the screen time, are annoying and sort of bog the film down. Tintin incessantly spells every minor detail out, even when the audience is already told the information visually. While it is a staple of the genre to a degree, it is overused greatly here with Tintin. Haddock, on the other hand, is portrayed too much as a fool. Every breath he takes and action he does seems to impede the progress of the story. The character is just too much (like the saying: less is more). The third biggest character in the film is the villain Sakharine, and he is grievously underwritten, leaving him feeling like a rejected Indiana Jones villain. At least with Haddock and Tintin, the characters are written well enough and given enough character moments for the audience to connect with them. Sakharine is a throwaway character – not really what you want from your principal villain, let alone one that plays heavily into the story. The Adventures of Tintin is entertaining and will appeal to fans of the books, but with aspects that are so well-done it is too bad that the film has large issues that hinder it from being great.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Steven Spielberg having made the Indiana Jones films is a great choice to direct this story, his first animated feature. It is one of the most aesthetically interesting animated films I have seen (especially on a grand scale), and sets the bar very high for future animated features. Visually, it seems as if Spielberg approached the film as if he were shooting a grand live-action epic. Producer Peter Jackson also brings skill in creating fantastic visual epics (also working on his first animated feature). Writers Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, however, may have inserted too much silliness, when the tone should have been less like Pirates of the Caribbean and more like Indiana Jones. Composer John Williams delivers a score that fits the film well (but not among his best work, and not anywhere near as good as his War Horse score). The performance capturing technology at Weta Workshop is fantastic, giving the actors almost complete control over how their animated counterparts are seen onscreen. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are funny as Thompson and Thomson. Daniel Craig is not really given much to do, but is good with what he has. Andy Serkis (regardless of how I feel about Haddock in relation to the narrative) gives a fun full-bodied performance (and is rightly considered the best motion-capture actor). Jamie Bell is good as Tintin, playing seemingly the only none comedic or villainous character in the film.

Summary & score: One of the best visual films of the year (animated or live-action), The Adventures of Tintin does not quite live up to its visuals in terms of its characters. 6/10

Friday, December 30, 2011

War Horse (2011) – Review

Review: War Horse is a good war drama that plays very much as an anti-war piece. The film centers on a young colt, Joey, and his miraculous story/journey during WWI. Director Steven Spielberg is one of the great war drama filmmakers (with films such as Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List and executively producing Band of Brothers and The Pacific). WWI (the Great War) was a grave war that saw millions of young men full of vim and vigor encounter the absolute bleakness of trench warfare (nine million of them killed). All war is awful, but WWI was particularly devastating due to the technological advancement in weaponry but not troop mobility. Thus, soldiers were often ordered to charge across no man’s land against machinegun, mortar and rifle fire. Spielberg captures the sheer fear, bravery and terribleness of war on the front (though he does not dig too deep into emotional or physical destruction). Like other anti-war films (another WWI examples are Joyeux Noel or All Quiet on the Western Front), soldiers on either side are presented as both good and bad (it being more dependent on the individual character), creating a feeling of ‘why are we fighting when we might be friends in another life’, which is quite powerful. Spielberg uses Joey to show characters across the war, allowing the audience to not take sides but rather see both sides of the conflict as human. The scene that sees a German and British work together (and even strike up a friendship) drives the point home. While the film is only PG-13 and thus as not as graphic as it probably should be, Spielberg does not shy away from the emotional toll the war takes on its characters (however, it is still lighter tonally than it could have been) and does not let the audience off easy either – there is a lot of pain in the film, especially for those who invest in the well-done characters. Another triumph for the film is Spielberg’s ability to make a horse a compelling lead character, carrying the film. While there are many human characters, and an argument can be made for Albert, Joey’s friend and owner, as a lead, Joey is the principal lead and the through line. However, this also may be the great flaw of the film. While Spielberg does his best to make Joey compelling and give him personality (which he does), it is still a horse and not relatable for the audience to the same extent as human characters. Joey’s journey through the war is a great adventure, but when it is over the audience still looks to the human characters for emotional cues, as they are who the audience relates to and cares about. Sure, the audience cares about Joey, but to an extent it is in relation to Albert (or whomever he is with at the time). Thus, the film, while powerful due to the gravity of the war, is a bit hollow in terms of true emotional connection. The characters do not stay with the audience once the film ends. Spielberg also has an almost disastrous tonal issue with the narrative. The first act of the film is not very good at all, mostly due to Spielberg playing it tonally like a sappy heartwarming animal drama/comedy – something that does not work at all in the face of what is going to come. It is almost enough to ruin the film, but acts two and three work quite well and Spielberg gets the tone just right for the film he is setting out to make. War Horse is one of the better WWI pieces, and yet another reminder to just how terrible war is (despite the fact that we as people seem to often forget that), but is hampered by its shortcomings.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Steve Spielberg is the master of emotional manipulation, and he is in top form with War Horse. His gift, however, is that the audience does not feel manipulated, rather they buy in to the emotions that Spielberg would like them to feel at any given moment during his film(s) – it is one of the primary reasons he is the great filmmaker he is and his films the masterpieces many of them are. John Williams delivers yet another wonderful score (Joey’s theme may even make it yet another iconic score; hear it at the end of this excellent piece). It is among the best scores of the year. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and production designer Rick Carter do beautiful work, getting the look just right. There are a number of breathtaking photographic moments, and Carter’s design work fully immerses the audience. Williams, Kaminski and Carter continue to do phenomenal work for Spielberg picture after picture. War Horse really only has brief encounters with many of its characters, but many of the actors give very good performances. Patrick Kennedy, Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch do fine work as British cavalry soldiers, portraying the impact and loss of innocence once the violence begins. Niels Arestrup is quite good and powerful as a man who faces nothing but loss in the war. Celine Buckens, in her first role, maybe steals the film playing Emilie – a young girl who still has nothing but hope for the future even in the face of utter devastation and loss. Jeremy Irvine, also a newcomer, is good as Albert. It is his connection with Joey that makes the audience care about Joey and the film work.

Summary & score: There are many fantastic epics and war epics, and War Horse to a degree is one of them, if only for the weaker elements of the film. 7/10

Thursday, December 29, 2011

My Week with Marilyn (2011) – Review

Review: My Week with Marilyn is both a character study and short-form biography (like a time-in-the-life, specifically of Marilyn Monroe through the eyes of Colin Clark). The film is about Monroe’s experience in England making The Prince and the Showgirl with Laurence Olivier, as told by a young man on his first film set (and first job) as the film’s third assistant director. Director Simon Curtis creates a common structure to this type of film. While Colin is the lead in terms of who the camera stays with, it is Marilyn who is the star. The film is completely built around Michelle Williams’s performance. If she is not good, the film will be awful – but she is good and thus the film works. Curtis and Williams present Marilyn as not a very likable character, as she is seems completely fake and manipulative – even if what she shows you is the truth, nothing is trustworthy and so you are never sure. And yet, she is completely engaging and you cannot take your eyes off her. In this, Curtis and Williams have created the aura of Marilyn and is the reason the film completely captivates its audience despite being filled with unlikable lead characters (for the most part). The allure of Marilyn is why the audience can relate to Colin even though his actions (especially towards Lucy) are less than gentlemanly. But, he is also na├»ve to the world, and thus his wonder also excuses his behavior. Marilyn’s personal troubles are very much known due to her sad end, and the film does not explore new territory – rather the look into the psyche of screen legends Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier is almost more interesting (if Williams was not so compelling). Narrative speaking, the film is a bit muddled. It is a character study of Marilyn, but told through sort of a coming-of-age story. The character study works but is nothing new in terms of exploring Marilyn, and the coming-of-age story is undeveloped and the audience does not really care about Colin (again due to the complete viewer and scene gravitation towards Marilyn). This leaves My Week with Marilyn a good but not great film. It is built upon Williams’s performance, and that is really the reason to see it. As a side note, the film fan (and student) in me loved the filmmaking background of the film.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Simon Curtis makes his feature debut with this film, having done lots of good work on TV. Slight narrative and story issues aside, Curtis has a great talent at garnering wonderful performances from his actors, making him someone to watch in British cinema (his style sort of reminds me of fellow British director Tom Hooper, who came out of TV to become an Oscar winning director with his third feature). Conrad Pope’s score is good and works well with the tone of the film, but the best piece of music is Marilyn’s Theme which is written by Alexandre Desplat (who could have the best score category to himself). Ben Smithard’s cinematography in the film can be exalted for his ability to light Michelle Williams so beautifully, again helping Curtis and Williams create the aura of Marilyn. Donal Woods’s production design captures the period look wonderfully. But, as stated above, this is a film built primarily on performances (not story). The performances are great (and thus the film is good). Julia Ormond, Judi Dench, Dominic Cooper, and Emma Watson (showing that she can be good in something post-Harry Potter) are all good in small supporting roles. Eddie Redmayne continues to develop as one of the best young British actors. He does a good job with Colin presenting him as completely fresh in the world (which the story dictated as a necessity). Kenneth Branagh is fantastic as Laurence Olivier. He plays maybe the biggest stage star in England at the time with such a veiled vulnerability. However, and this is true of Williams as well, his performance also comes off as if he is playing a character (not wholly becoming the character), but again he is very good in the film. Williams is astonishing as Marilyn. While it does seem as if she is playing a caricature, she captures the essence of Marilyn perfectly and to an extent Marilyn was playing a role her whole profession public life (which is why Williams comes off that way).

Summary & score: My Week with Marilyn is going to work the best for those who enjoy very good performances, cinema history and period dramas. 7/10

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Weeknd – Echoes Of Silence Mixtape (2011) – Review

The Weeknd – Echoes Of Silence
Releasing his third album of 2011, The Weeknd has both established himself as one of the hardest working men in modern R&B but also as one of the most talented (House of Balloons is maybe the best album of the year and Thursday was very good too – all are available for download here). Echoes of Silence is very brooding and moody. It has a much quirkier sound than The Weeknd’s previous releases, but works in terms of the progression of his sound across his 2011 trilogy. Illangelo, who produced on both the previous releases, produced the bulk of the album, but Clams Casino and DropxLife also contribute. House of Balloons has a few standout hits and Thursday has some standout moments as well, but this album is more of an experience that envelops the whole album (though, the Michael Jackson cover of Dirty Diana D.D. is a fantastic track that does standout to open the album), making it an album that should be listened all the way through to get the full experience. The Weeknd’s lyrics and singing have both improved over his three releases, and all three are flawlessly and impressively produced (some of the best production of the year, if not the best). And, these are just his mixtapes that he released for free – what can we expect from his first commercial release slated for 2012? Echoes of Silence is a great album (if I had to rank them, I would say: House of Balloons, Echoes of Silence, Thursday), and I cannot wait for what he releases next. In my opinion, The Weeknd is the best artist in modern R&B right now (which includes Frank Ocean, The-Dream and many others). 4/5

Editor’s Essential Tracks:
1)      D.D. – Produced by Illangelo
2)      The Fall - Produced by Illangelo and Clams Casino
3)      XO/The Host - Produced by Illangelo

Available on Digital Download

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Common – The Dreamer/The Believer (2011) – Review

Common – The Dreamer/The Believer
Universal Mind Control, while with a few good songs, was not a great album from Common, especially following Be and Finding Forever. With The Dreamer/The Believer, Common is back. The album sounds a lot more like his earlier work (pre-Kanye West). It is exclusively produced by No I.D. giving it both a modern and old school sound melded well together, which is a nice change given what most hip hop sounds like right now. No I.D. producing the whole album gives it continuity, and yet each track still has its own unique sound. Not normally one to haves tons of features, Common shares the album with only one other MC – NaS. Their track together Ghetto Dreams is fantastic and hopefully a preview of their rumored album together. John Legend also is featured on the album. Lyrically, Common asserts himself back into hip hop, having focused on movies and TV mostly in recent years. He makes a case for himself to still be one of the most revered and relevant voices in hip hop. It is a must for fans of Common, both of his two albums with Kanye West and (especially) his earlier and iconic work, as that Common is back. 4/5

Editor’s Essential Tracks:
1)      Ghetto Dreams – Produced by No I.D., featuring NaS
2)      Blue Sky – Produced by No I.D.
3)      Sweet – Produced by No I.D.

Available on CD and Digital Download

Monday, December 26, 2011

Movie of the Week – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

The adventure film is the first part of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It focuses on Frodo leaving the Shire and starting his journey as the ring bearer. The fellowship is also formed, introducing many of the principle characters in the series. As with all the films in the trilogy (and the two new Hobbit films coming soon), Peter Jackson directs (as well as co-writes and produces). He has a fantastic group on the film with wonderful music from composer Howard Shore (a score that has since become iconic; and he won an Oscar), beautiful cinematography from Andrew Lesnie (also won an Oscar) and some of the best production design in cinema history from Grant Major. Weta workshop provides brilliant special effects. The cast is great as well. The fellowship is made up of Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Sean Bean, Orlando Bloom, Billy Boyd, Ian McKellen, Dominic Monaghan, Viggo Mortensen, and John Rhys-Davies. Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Liv Tyler, and Hugo Weaving also are really good in support. The film was nominated for thirteen Oscars and won four. The trilogy is one of the great cinematic works of the 2000s. However, this is probably the weakest film (as much of the action happens in the next two films). This is a must-see for fans of adventure films and those looking to watch the best films from the decade. Check out the trailer.

Extended edition available on Blu-ray Trilogy, DVD and Streaming

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) – Review

Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a good mystery story that acts more like a character piece in many ways. The film is about disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist who is hired by a wealthy businessman Henrik Vanger to investigate the disappearance of his niece – only, he suspects someone in his own family and the case has been unsolved for over forty years. Blomkvist teams up with reclusive and damaged Lisbeth Salander, an expert researcher, to find out what really happened. Director David Fincher has a difficult task from the outset with this film, as the Swedish version directed by Niels Arden Oplev tells the story very well (and came out recently in 2009). Fincher’s film feels a lot more like a character piece and the mystery story is sort of the backdrop for Blomkvist and Salander to interact snd meet, while Oplev’s film certainly focuses on the mystery. In terms of the story, Fincher does not really add anything new to the narrative, but he has a different take on the characters. There is confidence to his characters; they feel comfortable in almost every situation they find themselves in. They do not appear to be as venerable – at least when they find themselves in harrowing situations. However, it is in their more intimate relationships that these characters find themselves much more out of their element and venerable. Blomkvist does not know how to interact with his teenage catholic daughter, while Salander seems quite uneasy in her friendship with her sickly guardian and her deeper relationship with Blomkvist, and Blomkvist does not quite know what to make of Salander when it comes to how she might be feeling on a deeper level (as she seems so hard on the outside). A difficult aspect of this narrative is that if Fincher wanted to both focus on the mystery and still give the characters all the moments he has the film would be overly long (as it is already 158 minutes as is). Thus, he had to decide what was more important to him – and it seems to be the characters. The film has a long epilogue focusing on Salander doing something for Blomkvist as she has developed feelings for him. Now, if the audience recognizes the film as a character piece, then this epilogue is not so much an epilogue but the third act for the characters and works well, but if not then the narrative structure seems overly long and dragged out (after all the mystery was already solved long ago in their minds). Plus, Fincher flies through the uncovering of the mystery using montages and very adept directing, cutting all the fat. Things seem to develop in terms of the progress in the case much faster than they do in the actual time passing within the narrative (which takes place over the course of a full year). Also, many of the scenes early in the film seem to be brisk (the cuts coming quick, leaving the rhythm feeling a bit frantic). He does this because he wants to get back to the characters and their moments that define them – and these character scenes are the best part of the film. As a mystery narrative, it is still a good film but as a character piece it is much more interesting. The arc of Salander in particular is very well done, and subtle. This is Salander’s film, and while Blomkvist is in a lot of it, he is really a supporting character in terms who has the more developed character arc. Fincher also delves into the characters to the extent that he does because this is only the first part to a trilogy (which Sony definitely wants to go forward with). This is not the story about finding out who killed Harriet Vanger – it is the story of Salander and Blomkvist and the beginnings of their relationship. And in doing this, Fincher has done a very good job. This version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo really brings nothing new to the mystery story, but explores the characters in a new and interesting way.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: David Fincher is one of the great American auteur directors working today. While this is not his best work (as he has made many excellent films), it is yet another very good picture. He does a brilliant job with the characters and the tone, which plays into the look of the film. The aesthetic of the film is very cold and hard (much like the exterior of Salander). Fincher relies on the wonderful performances to crack through a reveal the deeper emotions that these characters have in this seemingly inhospitable environment. Fincher works with the same team as he did on The Social Network. Composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross deliver a great and very tonally fitting score. It often seems to directly interact with the emotions of the audience, making them feel tension or uneasy or whatever emotion the scene on the screen dictates. It accompanies the narrative extremely well. Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth and production designer Donald Graham Burt both do fantastic work and get the look of the film perfect, matching the tone. Sweden comes across has a very harsh place. Burt’s design work also matches the personalities of each character in the film very well. When the audience sees their spaces, it feels very authentic. There are a lot of characters in the film, most small supporting roles. Yorick van Wageningen gives one of the better supporting performances. He is just despicable, but still seems to somehow give his character a full personality (and maybe even humanity). Steven Berkoff, Stellan Skarsgard and Christopher Plummer are all also very good in support. Daniel Craig presents Blomkvist as warm and confident, a good match for Salander – as she has almost only interacted with crass and abusive men that wish to oppress her. Rooney Mara is mesmerizing as Salander (which is surprising as she is playing a role that Noomi Rapace made iconic in 2009). The audience cannot wait for her to be onscreen again each time the narrative leaves her. She is powerful, confident and isolated yet there is a heart and love there in which she would very much like to share, but life has scalded her over and over. It is one of the most engaging performances of the year.

Summary & score: Much like with Let Me In and Let the Right One In, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is as good (but different) as its Swedish counterpart. It gets the mystery narrative right, and dives a bit deeper into the characters becoming more of a character piece than a mystery thriller. 8/10

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011) – Review

Review: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is a very fun action film that in many ways surpasses the first. The film finds Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson on the trail of their greatest nemesis Professor Moriarty. The best aspect of this film is the relationship (and the scenes between) Moriarty and Holmes. They play off each other extremely well, and are the main reason this is one of the better action films of the year. Plus, their scene together at the climax of the film is phenomenal. Director Guy Ritchie is maybe a bit over indulgent in the style that he has created for the Sherlock Holmes franchise. There is a lot of slow motion (and by a lot I mean A LOT). However, while this should get old quickly, the artistry of the mise en scene during many of these slow motion shots, and the way each frame is designed, is fantastic (especially when Holmes and crew are being chased through the forest with mortars going off). Other aspects of the film are a bit exaggerated as well. Holmes is almost a caricature of himself with countless sight gags and an over-the-top performance by Robert Downey Jr (almost bordering on Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow in the later Pirates of the Caribbean films). That said, his character still works in the framework of the narrative for two reasons. Ritchie has built the series around the infusion of humor, and thus some silliness is not only expected but encouraged. And, Holmes is grounded as a character, despite all his antics, because his relationships with Moriarty, Watson and Irene Adler feel real and have a truth to them – thanks to great performances and chemistry among the actors. Also to Ritchie’s credit is how well he paces the film. He continuously keeps the narrative moving, with building tension and great action set pieces. While the film lacks a strong mystery aspect to it (which could be taken as a huge flaw in the film – as Sherlock Holmes is the world’s greatest detective so of course a film with him should have a fantastic mystery plotline to it – and probably should be), the film is too much fun to be overly concerned with the fact that the audience knows everything from the beginning (more or less) and does not have to figure anything out. Plus, some of the principle characters (specifically Simza Heron) are pointless on a deeper level and only serve to forward the plot. Ritchie also takes full advantage of his actor’s comedic skill and does a great job with the humor, as the film is quite funny at times, but he also still manages to have the stakes feel real and does not lose the overall tension of the narrative – again thanks to good performances and chemistry (plus, again, the showdown between Holmes and Moriarty is brilliant and makes the film really a success). A Game of Shadows is a highly entertaining film that also manages to keeps its characters feeling real. It is a lot of fun to watch.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Guy Ritchie has probably made his most entertaining and rewarding Hollywood film with A Game of Shadows (though it is not quite as good as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels). He has found a good balance between his own aesthetic style and creating good characters that exist in entertaining narratives (something lacking in many of his recent films). Hans Zimmer’s score is brilliant (like almost all of his recent work). It is likely to be among the most deserving but overshadowed scores of the year (plus, he took himself out of the running for the Oscars). It is both intense and playful with the character (here is a sampling). Philippe Rousselot’s cinematography is also top notch. (As state above), his shot compositions, working with Ritchie, are very good. They have so much kinetic energy and yet still capture the beauty of the surroundings and the gravity of the situation. Sarah Greenwood’s work (she is becoming one of my favorite production designers) is also very good, matching the tone and feel of the piece perfectly. Ultimately, even given the fame of the character, this is a star vehicle, and in so much should contain an iconic star performance. Downey Jr. has done just that with both the Holmes films. Here, while he is a bit on the caricature side, he brings life and complexity to the character, portraying his gift as a curse and playing jokes to hide the pain. Jude Law is great as Watson, and really his performance is essential to grounding the over-the-top nature of Downey Jr.’s Holmes. Jared Harris is the perfect choice to play Moriarty. He is himself not menacing in a physical way, but his face and line delivery inflict so much weighted terror that he is completely believable as the world’s greatest criminal mastermind. He is in every way a wonderful match to Downey Jr., which he absolutely needed to be for the film to work. Stephen Fry is quite funny and Noomi Rapace is decent, both playing grievously under-written characters (though, they do forward the plot and are not the focus of film). Fry however makes up for his lack of true character with a wonderful performance, the same cannot be said for Rapace. Kelly Reilly and Rachel McAdams are both good in their small but important appearances.

Summary & score: A Game of Shadows is one of the most entertaining films of the year, mainly in a purely spectacle sense but also due to the excellent chemistry and portrayals of Holmes and his greatest nemesis Moriarty. 8/10

Young Adult (2011) – Review

Review: Young Adult is funny, but sort of depressing. The film centers around Mavis, a 37 year-old woman who returns to her small hometown hoping to rekindle a romance with her high school sweetheart Buddy after her own failed marriage, jolted to action when she receives a baby picture from Buddy and his wife. Director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody (the pair that made Juno) have created one of the most unlikable characters of the year, and yet positioned her to still work as the protagonist (and this is probably the great achievement of this film). They also took a huge risk with the character, in that she does not really evolve or learn anything (unless you read the somewhat ambiguous ending differently, as there is something more there I think). Mavis, despite the awful stuff she does and the bad attitude, is still relatable and ultimately the protagonist because of the deeper sadness she tries to hide and her budding friendship with Matt (a nerd who has a crush on her since high school). What is more shocking is the statement that Matt’s sister Sandra (also a loser in high school) delivers to Mavis – that Mercury (the small town) is full of losers and that everyone is really just envious of Mavis and her lifestyle in the big city. What is shocking about it is what it says about the psyche of many in Middle America. To an extent, we all look at someone else with envy but Mavis is anything but a role model or beacon of hope. And this revelation by Sandra is maybe the saddest aspect of the whole film. Mavis was the popular girl in high school and felt this way (and now leads a seemingly unfulfilling and unhappy life), so what chance does Sandra have at happiness? The scene is one of the best in the film (along with Mavis at Buddy’s baby party) because it works on two levels. Sandra is trying to cheer Mavis up, but there is also a sad sincerity to her words. The narrative overall, however, is a bit on the weak side. While it is eventually revealed, Mavis suddenly going after Buddy, after not talking to him in many years seems too out of the blue. The audience does not really understand why Mavis is suddenly so interested in winning Buddy back and this to an extent hurts the overall narrative because the viewer is not so much connecting with Mavis as they are rejecting her (as she is a fairly awful person, as we are lead to believe). However, Reitman does have enough character moments (and even sympathetic ones) along with the reveal to ultimately make Mavis a full and relatable character for the audience – it just takes almost the full film for this to happen (losing viewers along the way). While Young Adult is a funny character drama, it is a much more scathing commentary on humanity – and both these aspects are good, but neither is great.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Jason Reitman, now four features in, has straddled the line between auteur and very good indie dramedy director. I do not think he is quite an auteur yet, but he continues to show promise. Young Adult is maybe his weakest film to date, but he still shows off his ability to really drive at the heart of his characters and get at the core of what makes them the way they are – making for great characters and performances in his films. Rolfe Kent’s score is fitting, but (like a few other scores this year) it is greatly overshadowed by the fantastic found music – hits from the 90s (things like 3 Non Blondes – What’s Up and Cracker – Low). Eric Steelberg’s cinematography is good. It has an indie style to it, letting the characters exist in a realist space, while focusing the attention of the audience on the performances. Kevin Thompson’s production design also works to make the space that the characters occupy feels realistic. The film is a character piece at its heart, but only really explores two characters deeper than the surface, and thus there are only two full performances and lots of small supporting roles. Of the supporting roles, Patrick Wilson, Elizabeth Reaser and especially Collette Wolfe (as Sandra) do the best work. Patton Oswalt is very good as Matt. He plays the role both tough and venerable, and matches Charlize Theron’s Mavis perfectly. Theron is also very good as Mavis. It is hard to play an almost completely unlikable lead character and still give her humanity and make her relatable.

Summary & score: Good performances, humor and interesting characters elevate Young Adult above its weak overall narrative. 7/10

Monday, December 19, 2011

Movie of the Week – The 40 Year Old Virgin

This week’s movie is The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005).

The comedy is about Andy, a forty-year-old man who is still a virgin. When his co-workers find out, they make it their mission to get him laid, but Andy is really looking for something more (like love). Writer-director-producer Judd Apatow (coming off the success of producing Anchorman and two excellent but cancelled TV series: Freaks  and Geeks and Undeclared) made his feature debut as a director. He worked with composer Lyle Workman (who has since scored many other Apatow produced films), cinematographer Jack Green and production designer Jackson De Govia. It also features a number of comedians that are firmly apart of the Apatow brand, including: Carla Gallo, Loudon Wainwright III, Jonah Hill, Leslie Mann, Jane Lynch, Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, and Steve Carell (his first starring role, coming off a hilarious supporting part in Anchorman and picking up the lead in The Office). Elizabeth Banks, Romany Malco and Catherine Keener also star. More so than Apatow’s other films to date, The 40 Year Old Virgin introduced his ability to create a comedy that was very funny, rude and dirty and also full of heart and real characters that the audience could connect with. Basically, Apatow changed the genre (for better or worse). Carell is great in the film, but it is the work and improvisation of the supporting players (namely Rudd, Malco and Rogen) that makes the film a comedic gem. It is, however, the story that makes it special. The 40 Year Old Virgin is a must-see for R-rated comedy fans and those who like Apatow’s work (both as a director and producer). Check out the trailer.

Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Streaming

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011), The IMAX Experience – Review

Review: Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is a ton of fun, very entertaining and filled with incredible action set pieces. The film, more so than other installments in the franchise, has emotional connections to the previous sequel (Mission: Impossible III), as the audiences finds Ethan Hunt in a foreign jail with rumors about what happened between his wife Julia and himself. And yet again, Ethan and his team are called on to foil the plans of a madman and save the world. Director Brad Bird picks up where J.J. Abrams (who produces the film) left off in terms of narrative structure. The film is almost a non-stop thrill of escalating grandiose action set pieces, but also has character development and momnts creating an emotional connection with the audience (which is key to its ultimate success). The audience cares about Ethan and the members of his team and thus have an emotional stake in their success, making all the big action all the more intense and gripping. Bird does a great job with the action. The set pieces are intricate and each has their own mini narrative. They absolutely absorb the viewer. The locations are also fantastic. Bird is equally adept at giving the characters moments – be it emotion, humor or levity. These moments are what sets this film apart from most of the action films that have come out this year, boasting the same big action set pieces (though, I would say these are very impressive and sort of blow everything else this year away) but they are merely just spectacle. They lack the same connection that these characters have with the audience. However, an issue that this film has (in comparison to III) is that the villain is not really given much character. He is basically a glorified nameless, faceless entity of evil. Owen Davian (the villain in III) by comparison is a much fuller and more realized character, which makes Ethan’s struggle with him more powerful. Plus, the stakes in that film are more personal for Ethan. It is not just about saving the world. Ghost Protocol lacks both a strong villain and deeper emotional stakes for Ethan. This does not detract from the overall entertainment of the film, but it does not resonate to the same extent. That said, this is the best pure action film of the year to date (and likely will maintain that title through the end of the year). It has the best action set pieces (all the stuff in Dubai and the parking garage scene in Mumbai are incredible), good character moments and humor – all the things Ghost Protocol needed to be great.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: There was never any question that Brad Bird would make a seamless transition into live-action. And given his work on The Incredibles, there was not really any question that he would make a fantastic action film with Ghost Protocol. I am very excited to see what he does next in live-action. Michael Giacchino’s score (as always) is very good (here is a piece). He builds on both the visual thrills and the emotional beats perfectly, while also capturing the flavor of the locations and franchise. His work on the film reminds me of a John Williams’s score at times (one of his main influences). Robert Elswit, whose work is often gritty, shoots the film with a very clean and glossy look, capitalizing (again) on the locations and huge action set pieces, and this is where the IMAX camera comes into play in a big way, amplifying what is already amazing (I highly recommend seeing this in IMAX, plus The Dark Knight Rises prologue is quite astounding). Production designer James Bissell also infuses the film with a lot of color and wonderful sets, which goes hand-in-hand with Elswit’s work. The international cast is very good. Josh Holloway, Lea Seydoux and Anil Kapoor are great in their small supporting roles. Miraj Grbic and Vladimir Mashkov are standouts among the supporting players. Michael Nyqvist is good as the villain, but really is not given much to do. Paula Patton has a potential star-making role in the film (and is good in it), while Simon Pegg is great comedic relief. Jeremy Renner plays his role with a fun skepticism and brings humanity to it as well. And finally, Tom Cruise has charisma and flair and completely owns the role of Ethan Hunt.

Summary & score: Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is brilliantly entertaining with some of the greatest action set pieces, but has heart and character too. 8/10

Shame (2011) – Review

Review: Shame is dark, angry and unflinching. The film explores the effect that sex addiction has on a successful New York man, Brandon, and how his life (and routine) is disrupted when his sister (Sissy) shows up unannounced. At its core, this is a film built around a brilliant performance by its lead (Michael Fassbender), without which it would fail completely. Both Sissy and Brandon are damaged – but the audience not informed of why – and why is not important to this story. Writer-director Steve McQueen seems only interested in the immediate emotional toll of the addiction on Brandon, and how he seems to be completely disconnected from humanity. While there are glimpses at a normal life (and maybe even feeble attempts by Brandon for connection), he is a slave to his addiction and there is no pleasure in it. The film is affecting as it addresses pain in such a frank manner – it is right there for the audience, uninhibited. Plus, it is not veiled by reasons for the anguish Brandon feels – McQueen wants to look at the darkness straight on, without the stipulations for the audience to cling to and rationalize. As the film progresses, Brandon seems to become less and less human (even appearing as some sort of monster in one climatic scene which is the tail end of his decent seemingly deeper into the darkness – but what makes this film so haunting is that it is unclear if this is just an extreme episode or one of many, which seems to be the case). McQueen also unnervingly makes Brandon somewhat charming at moments, and even places moments of humor into the narrative – just enough to give Brandon a connection to the audience and enough light moments to relieve the tension momentarily. Sissy is the perfect character to crash into Brandon’s world. She is almost the complete opposite of Brandon. He does not want anyone to see, to really touch him on an emotional level. She is completely open with her emotions and intrudes on his world, in a sense making him look at himself, which he does not want to do. The heart of the story (and really the best moments) comes from the pressure that Sissy seemingly puts on him to be more normal, which comes crashing down. The narrative structure that McQueen uses is also interesting and works well with the material. While there is a character arc for Brandon, many of the scenes and sequences feel more like a series of clips of Brandon’s life, not a flowing moment by moment story. It is montage – piecing together specific moments creating the character and building the tension (though, the pacing is not going to work for everyone). But the rhythm that McQueen creates pulls in the viewer, and leaves them emotionally impacted (and this is the power of the film). The ambiguous ending (which seems to be especially popular among indies this year) puts the emotional determination in the hands of the audience (and is the perfect way to end it). Shame is graphic, but not because of the nudity – the emotional strain and look behind the curtain of a much darker psyche will affect the viewer (especially if you give yourself over to the film).

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Steve McQueen, two films in, has established himself as a filmmaker who is not afraid to dive straight into deep and dark emotional issues. As with Hunger, he does not marginalize the emotional weight of his subject (and thus, his films are not going to appeal to those looking for light entertainment, because Shame is anything but that). He is one of the great auteur filmmakers of the new generation. Harry Escott’s score is very good (here is a suite). It hits the right emotional touchstones but is not overwhelming and does not detract from the performances. It picks up on the sadness of the isolation in Brandon’s life, going hand in hand with the pain and anger he feels. Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography is gritty and places the narrative very much in the real world. I liked the long takes in the film, as they reinforce Brandon’s solitariness and allow the score to reinforce the emotions. Judy Backer’s production design also places the narrative in the real world, and is gritty as well. Much of the film is void of color, expressing the bleakness. As good as the film is visually, it is built completely on its performances. James Badge Dale and Nicole Beharie are good in their small supporting roles, but the two principle characters carry the film and almost all the weight. Carey Mulligan plays off-type bringing life but also a deep sadness to Sissy. She is the spark that ignites the narrative. Michael Fassbender gives what is probably the bravest performance of the year, completely giving himself over to the anger, pain and utter bleakness of Brandon. It is phenomenal work.

Summary & score: Shame is not a fun, entertaining trip to the movies, but for those filmgoers looking for an affecting piece of cinema this is a fearless look at sex addiction. 8/10

Friday, December 16, 2011

TV Series of the Month – Wonderfalls

This month’s TV series is Wonderfalls (2004).

The show is about Jane Tyler, a highly educated but utterly disinterested and procrastinating girl who works at a souvenir store in Niagara. Then one day something magical happens to her, inanimate objects start talking to her, giving her instructions that she must carryout in order to help people. The series was created by Todd Holland and Bryan Fuller (one of the best and most creative writers  in TV – also created Pushing Daisies and Dead Like Me, and was a principal writer of season one of Heroes), and executively produced by Tim Minear (coming off Firefly and Angel). The cast is brilliant with Caroline Dhavernas (who is fantastic on the show and should be a TV star), Katie Finneran, Tyron Leitso, William Sadler, Diana Scarwid, Lee Pace, Tracie Thoms, and Jewel Straite (who featured in a small arc after Firefly was cancelled). Despite the show being completely original and loved by critics, it was way too quirky for network TV and Fox (of course) canceled it during its first season. Not only is it considered one of the best shows cancelled too soon, but also one of the best shows of the decade. While this is an odd series and probably not for everyone, it has such charm, creativeness and interesting characters that it is something well worth checking out. It is just different than anything else on TV. It is a must for fans of Bryan Fuller’s work. Check out the episode one.

Available on DVD

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Most Anticipated Films of 2012 – Part 2: Prestige and Fun Films

The Most Anticipated Films of 2012 is a two part look at the movies that should be the biggest and the best of the year to come. Part One is a look at the biggest, the Blockbusters, and Part Two will focus on the films that should be among the most fun and best of the year (not counting the Blockbusters and those that details are not yet known about).

Prestige Films:

Release: Fall
Genre: Period Drama
Director: Joe Wright
Plot: An adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina about a girl trapped in a loveless marriage searching for more, only to find herself in a far more complicated life.
Why It’s Anticipated: Anna Karenina is one of the great dramatic stories, and really a perfect project for director Joe Wright and star Keira Knightley to tackle (they made Pride & Prejudice and Atonement together, both are brilliant). The cast as a whole is very solid, and Wright has his usual excellent craftsmen behind the camera. This has a lot of awards season potential.
Editor’s Thoughts: Both Pride & Prejudice and Atonement are among my favorites of the last decade, and I loved 2011’s Hanna – Wright is one of the great new generation auteurs and thus any new film from him comes with a lot of built-in anticipation. Plus, I am looking forward to great artistic work from Seamus McGarvey, Dario Marianelli, Sarah Greenwood, and Jacqueline Durran.
Trailer: Here

Release: Spring
Genre: Crime Thriller
Director: Andrew Dominik
Plot: Jackie Cogan is an enforcer and point man for the mob. When their assets are stolen in a heist, Jackie is enlisted to investigate on their behalf.
Why It’s Anticipated: Writer-director Andrew Dominik’s first feature Chopper was decent, but his second The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford announced him as one of the best new directors working today. Cogan’s Trade sees him again reteaming with Brad Pitt for what could be the best crime drama/thriller of the year (think 2011’s Drive).
Editor’s Thoughts: While the known actors are all really great for this genre, I am interested in seeing the work of excellent under-the-radar actors Garret Dillahunt, Ben Mendelsohn and Scoot McNairy. I am also looking forward to the collaboration between Dominik and wonderful cinematographer Greig Fraser.
Trailer: Here

Release: Spring
Genre: Historical War Drama
Director: Yimou Zhang
Plot: In 1937 during the Nanking Massacre, an American priest John Magee helps a group of Chinese escapees find sanctuary when Japanese troops invade the city of Nanjing, China.
Why It’s Anticipated: Yimou Zhang is maybe the best director working in Chinese cinema today (he is like the Steven Spielberg of China for reference), and he is working with one of the top five leading men in Hollywood Christian Bale (not so much in terms of popularity, but in terms of talent). The Flowers of War is China’s entry for Best Foreign Film at the 2012 Oscars.
Editor’s Thoughts: Zhang is one of the great visual directors and his cinematographer Xiaoding Zhao’s work is utterly astounding (House of Flying Daggers for example). Bale is pretty much always excellent, but it will be great to see his work acting for one of the top international directors, whose style is much different than what is typically found in Hollywood.
Trailer: Here

Release: 5/25
Genre: Drama
Director: Wes Anderson
Plot: When a young couple runs away from their small New England island town in the 1960s, a local search party led by the town’s sheriff and the girl’s parents fan out to find them.
Why It’s Anticipated: Wes Anderson is one of the most artistically interesting filmmakers. His style is unique and plays off his love of both the medium of film and storytelling. He is working again with co-writer Roman Coppola (they wrote The Darjeeling Limited together with Jason Schwartzman who also stars in this film) and cinematographer Bob Yeoman (who has shot all but one of Anderson’s films).
Editor’s Thoughts: Anderson is one of those special filmmakers whose work is entirely original and unlike anything else in cinema. I love his films: the style, awesome soundtracks and wonderful quirky characters. I am excited to see how new faces to the Anderson group work in this film (specifically Norton, Swinton and Willis who is notoriously difficult to direct – but remember how great Gene Hackman was in The Royal Tenenbaums, plus Murray has got Anderson’s back).
Trailer: Here

Release: Spring or Fall
Genre: Romance
Director: Terrence Malick
Plot: A romantic drama about a man who finds love with a girl from his hometown after his rushed marriage to a European woman falls apart.
Why It’s Anticipated: Terrence Malick has made five films (his latest The Tree of Life), each is beautiful and sort of transformative. He is one of the great filmmakers working today (and with new passion – making four films between 1973 and 2005 and now four between 2011 and 2013), and thus his films are all cinematic events. He also has a great group of actors, which also includes Jessica Chastain, Olga Kurylenko, Amanda Peet, Barry Pepper, and Charles Baker.
Editor’s Thoughts: Yes the cast is very good, and yes Malick is a phenomenal visual director, but what I am most interested in this film is Malick’s third collaboration with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. He also shot Malick’s The New World and The Tree of Life, which are both brilliantly photographed (especially The New World – probably among my top ten best photographed films of the last decade). They work so well together, and the same can be said for Malick’s work with production designer Jack Fisk. He has designed all Malick’s films since The Thin Red Line. The artistry of his films is what makes them so special and really the reason this is among my most anticipated.
Trailer: Here

Fun Films:

Release: 12/25
Genre: Western
Plot: Django, a slave turned bounty-hunter, sets out to rescue his wife from the brutal Mississippi plantation owner Calvin Candie.
Why It’s Anticipated: After the fantastic job writer-director Quentin Tarantino did with his genre film Inglourious Basterds, tackling the western genre seems like a great idea (as we could always use more quality westerns). Plus, Tarantino’s stardom as a cult director brings with it a lot of cinema fans. Releasing this at Christmas makes me think that Sony Pictures and The Weinstein Company have high hopes for this as a critical (as in awards season potential) and commercial success.
Editor’s Thoughts: We all know the talent Tarantino brings to his films, but I am very interested to see Leonardo DiCaprio’s work as a villain (I cannot recall him every playing a straight-up bad guy). He has been brilliant in his last few films. I am also a big fan of Christoph Waltz ever since his breakout role in Inglourious Basterds – really I look forward to any performance from him. I love westerns. It is one of my favorite genres and I am eager to see what Tarantino brings to it (even if this is not quite a classic style western).
Trailer: Here

Release: 4/27
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Plot: The story of Tom and Victoria and their ups and downs as an engaged couple.
Why It’s Anticipated: This is the new film from the team of Jason Segel (star, writer), Nicholas Stroller (writer, director) and Judd Apatow (producer) creates of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which was the best R-rated rom-com of the last decade. Segel and Stroller also wrote 2011’s The Muppets.
Editor’s Thoughts: Forgetting Sarah Marshall is very funny, but what makes it great is its heart and characters. The Five-Year Engagement hopefully will be the same. Segel and Stroller have certainly put together a stellar cast with dramatic talent in Emily Blunt (who I think is one of the top leading ladies to emerge at the end of the 2000s), Rhys Ifans and Jacki Weaver (who was nominated for an Oscar in 2011 for Animal Kingdom) and comedic talent in Alison Brie (who is brilliant on Community), Chris Pratt (who is very funny on Parks and Recreation) and Mindy Kaling (who is awesome on The Office). This very likely will be the best comedy of the year.
Trailer: Here

Title: Looper
Release: 9/28
Genre: Action Sci-Fi
Director: Rian Johnson
Plot: Joe is an assassin who works for the mob. When he is hired to kill his next target, he recognizes him as his future self.
Why It’s Anticipated: Writer-director Rian Johnson’s first film was the very good genre-meshing Brick. He is reuniting with Brick’s star Joseph Gordon-Levitt for this, his third film (Gordon-Levitt also has a very brief cameo in Johnson’s ambitious and artistically interesting film The Brothers Bloom). Sci-fi is a genre that does not often produce good feature work, so when a project that have a lot of great potential comes along fans take notice.
Editor’s Thoughts: Johnson is one of the most inventive indie directors, but Looper comes with a ton of expectations as The Brother’s Bloom while good was a little bit of a letdown after Brick. On concept alone, Looper sound awesome, and it is something completely different from Johnson’s first two films.
Trailer: Here

Release: Spring or Fall
Genre: Comedy
Director: Woody Allen
Plot: Four vignettes involving the city of Rome.
Main Cast: Woody Allen, Ellen Page, Jesse Eisenberg, Penelope Cruz, and Alec Baldwin
Why It’s Anticipated: Woody Allen has made six of his last seven films in Europe garnering three wonderful films (I also really like Scoop, but realize I am in the minority). With Nero Fiddled, he focuses on the city of Rome (much like Midnight in Paris and Vicky Cristina Barcelona did for Paris and Barcelona and Match Point, Scoop, Cassandra’s Dream and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger did for London). Penelope Cruz is reuniting with Allen after winning her Oscar starring in Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
Editor’s Thoughts: In addition to the big names starring in this film, I am excited to see Alison Pill, Greta Gerwig and Ellen Page deliver Allen’s dialog. Allen is also working again with cinematographer Darius Khondji whose work on Midnight in Paris was excellent. I have really enjoyed Allen’s work in Europe since 2005 and I look forward to seeing how he utilizes the Italian capital.
Trailer: Here

Title: This Is 40
Release: 12/21
Genre: Comedy
Director: Judd Apatow
Plot: A spin-off of Knocked Up focusing around the relationship of Pete and Debbie.
Why It’s Anticipated: Judd Apatow is maybe the top working writer-director and producer in comedy right now (this will be his fourth film – The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Funny People). It also has a great group of comedians with Jason Segel, Charlyne Yi, Albert Brooks, and Annie Mumolo also starring in addition to the main cast (Megan Fox, Ryan Lee, Maude Apatow, and Iris Apatow are also in it). While Funny People was a disappointment for critics who were mixed (though, I liked it) and at the box office, Apatow looks to return to the success of his first two films, which is maybe why he is reusing characters for his biggest hit.
Editor’s Thoughts: While this seems much more like a summer movie, Universal pushed it back until December so that they could put Snow White and the Huntsmen in its place in June. For me, Apatow working with Rudd, Mann and Segel is enough for me to be excited to see this. I think Rudd and Segel are two of the best comedic actors right now.
Trailer: Here