Sunday, April 24, 2011

Francis Lawrence: Circus of Fools (Water for Elephants)

The Great Depression and the circus are both vividly visceral topics for the cinema. So much has been done and can be done to represent degradation and hope through these channels. Water for Elephants, an earnest but toothless film version of a sappy bestseller, fails at both.

Francis Lawrence went from promising music video maven to an exciting force in features with Constantine and I Am Legend, two genre powerhouses of annihilation. His third film is gorgeous to look at but cold to the touch. The plot is pure old school B-movie, but the screenplay is so bland that the clash of what we see and hear is jolting. Robert Pattinson is good, but doesn't seem a perfect fit for the part, and Reese Witherspoon, try as she might, can't make us believe in her character or the love story, though she looks fantastic and has fun with it. This is a failure on several levels, not just her fault. Though well directed, Lawrence can't get over the stumbling block of a story, which uses stereotypes in a warhorse story but doesn't do anything clever or emotional with them.

The real star of the film is Academy award winner Christoph Waltz, who is sublime and relishes every moment as the villainous ringmaster who comes between these two dim lovers. Rodrigo Prieto masterfully guides this shipwreck with a technicolor shine, lighting within and without the greatest show on earth. And James Newton Howard erupts with another sweepingly felt score that makes the proceedings more bearable.

With this uneven fusion of nostalgic syrup and chick lit/chick flick, Lawrence has unleashed a fascinating circus disaster, his weakest motion picture, but noteworthy as the lesser work of a great director. 


Robert Redford: History is Made at Night (The Conspirator)

The spirit of John Ford and his ilk has been lost over the years, traded in for dire shock and awe at the gasping cineplex. While the likes of Scorsese and Spielberg have kept classicism alive through their art, it is in desperately short supply.

Robert Redford shined in his glory days as not only a gorgeous golden boy, but an underrated thespian who "got" the guilt and hurt beneath the all American outside of his strapping characters. As a director, he has shown an acute eye for detail, a sure sense of pace and direction, as well as a heart which searches for the purity of truth.

His Oscar winning directorial debut, Ordinary People, was a rigorously unsentimental glimpse at familial discord and self loathing. With The Milagro Beanfield War, A River Runs Through It, Quiz Show, The Horse Whisperer, The Legend of Bagger Vance and Lions for Lambs, he has crafted a thrillingly singular oeuvre which is nostalgic, old fashioned, forward and completely underrated as far as American popular culture and mainstream film criticism are concerned. There is something endearingly old guard about his storytelling and visual style which stands apart from popular opinion.

Which is why his newest film, the rabble rousing Lincoln assassination drama, The Conspirator, is such a joy to behold. Utilizing a cinematic language which would have done a Vidor or Fleming proud, Redford recreates Civil War era Washington D.C. and the scandal and outrage surrounding Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), a boarding house proprietress accused of being a rebel conspirator in Lincoln's assassination.

The film is all about the visual language, which reminds us of our roots in simple, historical narratives, though the dialogue is important, and well done, fitting into the period schema of the piece. Redford economically creates an epic with what is said to have been very little money for this type of film. He takes advantage of every resource, recalling  Edgar G. Ulmer or Joseph H. Lewis in their shrewd auteurism.

Newton Thomas Sigel bathes the film in a daguerreotype glow which burnishes the images with a ghostly etherealism. Mark Isham builds up a strong central theme which communicates Surratt's spirit and the times, then branches from their into enchantment. Though mostly a courtroom drama and a yesteryear Liberal muckraker, highlighting outrage and hypocrisy, Redford makes it feel fresh and urgent.

James MacAvoy heralds the lead with a just right distance, torn between what everybody thinks and what he feels inside. Robin Wright has rarely been better. Her tired eyes, conviction and washed out beauty make the martyr human. Tom Wilkinson, Tony Huston, Kevin Kline, Evan Rachel Wood and Alexis Bledel are all perfectly attuned to the heart of the matter.

With The Conspirator, Robert Redford slaps awake those who care and remember what it is to be American, love history, and most importantly, the dawn of Hollywood story craft.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Wes Craven: Synthesis of the Slasher (Scream 4)

Numerous divergent elements have subsumed over the past forty years to form what we now know as the "slasher" film. Hitchcock, Powell, Fulci, Argento, Hooper, Carpenter and countless others have crafted chilling and ingenious movies which prayed on not only our fears of the unknown in the darkness, but specifically on the knife wielding maniac lurking there.

Over the years, this horror subgenre has become a mighty media market in its own right, a pandemonium by which pop culture takes the youth's pulse. From our now halcyon days of the seventies drive-in, to now beloved eighties teen slasher craze, on up to our current output of dim remakes and rehashes, the slasher film has said something intrinsically fabulous and negative about us as Americans. I mean, who doesn't enjoy jumping in the dark amidst a good old fashioned gore show?

Apropos, then, Wes Craven's Scream franchise, arguably the horror tentpole most deserving of existence. The first film was a breath of fresh air, scripted by teen tv scribe Kevin Williamson and tersely helmed by Horror auteur Craven. Its characters knew all of the slasher flick stereotypes, even as they were being stalked by a psychopath. It was original and clever, a horror film about the pure, unadulterated love of horror films, almost as good as Wes Craven's New Nightmare.

Scream 2 was more of the same, while still entertaining, and Scream 3 started to feel the strain of stretching a premise to its breaking point, though this may have been the most cinema obsessed of them all, concerning the business of making a film based on the events from the earlier films.

Scream 4 comes a decade later, Williamson scripting once again in place of the imbroglios of Ehren Kruger, and the results are unsurprisingly mixed. While it is fun to get the gang all back together, many of the series' key resources are hashed up as a hazy fricassee. While the plot is old horror hat, with Sidney Prescott(Neve Campbell) returning to Woodsboro amid a slew of new student bodies, while Sheriff Dewey (David Arquette) and muckraking magpie Gale Wethers (Courtney Cox) try to make sense of all the bloodshed (once again), Craven runs with the chance to tweak the genre accoutrements.

From his movie within a movie within a movie opening to a character ranting off every horror movie remake in the past decade, Scream 4 is more than anything a bloody satire. A game supporting cast (Emma Roberts, Hayden Panettiere, Marley Shelton, Rory Culkin, Mary McDonnell), Marco Beltrami's sly twist on his iconic theme music and the surreal ridiculousness of the entire affair go a long way to making this Scream worth our whiles.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Susanne Bier: Knowing Me, Knowing You (In a Better World)

Many of our recent Academy Award winners for best foreign language film have been very questionable, as to the tastes of voters and the countries sending forth their rankest, most dishonest, hence Hollywoodized, fare to be nominated.

The Lives of Others was possibly the best, with a paranoid thriller twist on Cold War procedurals, though it devolved into typical provocation. The Counterfeiters was pretty standard Holocaust fare, lacking a visionary touch. And then Departures, a saccharine snooze fest and one of the weakest Japanese films to open stateside in some time. Finally, The Secret In Their Eyes, a well acted mystery with an insulting screenplay and stultifying progression.

Susanne Bier is unquestionably the most gifted out of this random group of directors, having made her mark with intimate, raw family dramas which attempt, like any pure film, to touch us with the unseen. After the Wedding, Brothers and Things We Lost in the Fire were all exceptional dramas.

Then, it is heartening to know that her newest film, In a Better World, is honestly one of the better recent Oscar winners for best foreign film, though it is arguably her most troubled film.

Crosscutting between Denmark and an unnamed African country, Bier films in a visual chorus of the hand held and the shimmering, acquainting us with two problematic adolescents and their very different yet similarly dysfunctional families. Elias and Christian(Markus Rygaard and William Johnik Nielsen) forge a curious bond, as their parents cope with their own problems, the every day lives of adults.

The beginning of the film is pure and feels just right, with a number of astounding moments. Halfway through we feel a strain, and in the end it drags to a conclusion bent on tying up all loose ends. It's a shame, because if it were'nt for the uneven screenplay, the combination of Bier's fiercely inquisitive direction and the brutally honest performances of her actors, this would have been a masterpiece.

Yet, the way she touches on evil, violence, family and masculinity feels perceptive and right, and the juxtaposition of Elias' dad (Martin Buch) tending patients on a refugee camp in Africa with the opaque sequences of life in Denmark, is rewarding in its conceptualization and realization. Ulrich Thomsen and Trine Dyrholm are both brilliant as, respectively, Christian's widower father struggling with emotion to connect with his son, and Elias' distraught mother.

So, even though this is her least successful creation, it has finally earned Bier recognition through an Oscar win and simmers with the realization that we never can really know one another.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Julian Schnabel: Revolutionary Awakening (Miral)

Julian Schnabel is a multi-faceted artist, starting his career as a painter, crafting dense, textured canvases which intoxicated the eye, gradually moving on to films, practicing music in between.
He has shown himself to be a gifted, one of a kind cineaste, shaping the way we see biographical dramas and the tenuous filter between life and the screen. Basquiat announced his arrival with a lived in, perceptive portrayal of the acclaimed 80s painter. Before Night Falls was gorgeous and genuine in its retelling of the life of a gay Cuban novelist stifled under the richness and perverse politics of his country, garnering Javier Bardem his first Academy Award nomination. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was his most acclaimed film to date, a sinuously filmed story of a man coping with paralysis, garnering Schnabel an Academy Award nomination as Best Director.
All of his works are bound together as visually ravishing biopics portraying marginalized characters within a specifically stultifying cultural milieu, and his latest, the brilliant Miral, is no exception. Inspired by true events and adapted from the acclaimed novel, Schnabel controversially portrays the Israeli-Palestinian divide, from the Palestine perspective, over forty years.
Yes, it is an overly ambitious task, but he triumphs with a multi-layered piece which functions first as a human drama, secondly as a political essay, touching on misogyny in Arabic society, religious hypocracy,police terror and political activism. Freida Pinto(Slumdog Millionaire) gets her best role yet and runs with it, delivering a deeply insulated turn. Schnabel frames Miral's tumultuous coming of age with the stories of several other women fated by their sex for spinsterhood,prison and death. Their fierce fights against gender roles and political oppression inform Miral's revolutionary awakening to fight for what she knows is right, not to lie down like most and be a helpless victim.
Schnabel's eye and heart are sharper than ever. His form is impeccable, his structure indelible, enveloping some of the most haunting and beauteous images and sequences I've seen for some time. A rape scene from the victim's POV and a suicide sequence in the dark swallowing sea are imprinted in my mind's eye, as is a feverish closeup of a bellydancer's shaking, sweat speckled navel.
The cast is superb, especially Alexander Siddig, Hiam Abbass and Omar Metwally, Eric Gautier's cinematography heavenly, constructing with Schnabel his richest, purest work as a filmmaker.

David Gordon Green: Adolescent Male Fantasy (Your Highness)

The male adolescent fixation on boobs, dick jokes and pot smoking has been a lasting source of motivation in a great many American comedies over the past thirty odd years. To combine this element with the eighties fantasy adventure/dweeb role playing is close to genius.

David Gordon Green has (d)evolved in peculiarly twisted ways since he stepped onstage a decade ago. His first four films (George Washington,All the Real Girls,Undertow and Snow Angels) announced the arrival on scene of a pure and gifted auteur paying homage to his Seventies masters. Then came Pineapple Express, a hugely successful stoner comedy which threw a golden wrench into his game. It will be interesting to watch his career en route, and Your Highness seems to be the logical movie to follow his biggest success.

Inspired idiot savant Danny McBride (Eastbound and Down, The Foot Fist Way) co-writes and stars in a delightfully skewed mashup of Dragonslayer,Magic and Cheech and Chong which takes freeingly juvenile liberties with its top drawer cast (James Franco, Natalie Portman,Justin Theroux and Zooey Deschanel) while staying true to the genre with fanciful sets and costumes as well as eye popping visual and creature effects.The epic scope of Green's vision and Steve Jablonsky's rip roaring score remain honorable to the old school fantasy adventure while having a grand time out, having as much fun with the picture as the audience surely will

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Joe Wright: Reviving the Thriller (Hanna)

The thriller is programmed to race our pulses, keep us on our toes and guessing, place us in their shoes. Like any film genre, there are works which define what the thriller is, even reach beyond that, and then there are bad eggs which go through the motions and stultify the intelligent audience.

Joe Wright has made a promising foray into filmmaking with a superlative Jane Austen adaptation(Pride and Prejudice), a mixed Ian McEwan adaptation(Atonement) and a bizarre male weepie biopic(The Soloist). With the audacious thriller Hanna, he has made what is arguably his best picture.

The film is feverishly cut to a pounding Chemical Brothers score, following a twisty plot of evil CIA agents, rogues and hitmen crossing continents, gender roles and familial units. Saorsie Ronan is fabulous, following incisive and deeply felt turns in Wright's overrated Atonement and Peter Jackson's masterpiece The Lovely Bones, she is ressurected here as a kick-ass action heroine, holding her own against powerhouses Eric Bana and Cate Blanchett.

The way that Wright fuels his ferociously singular thriller with anarchic energy and kinetic movement is passionate and exciting to experience.

Friday, April 8, 2011

James Wan: A House Divided (Insidious)

The haunted house picture is one of the most tried and true subgenres of the horror film. No filmmaker has been able to rival what master Robert Wise created with The Haunting(1963), though Tobe Hooper came close with his eighties masterpiece Poltergeist.

James Wan and his writing partner Leigh Wannell are adept at what it takes to creep into our consciousness, the power of the hint as opposed to the sledgehammer. Their cinefilic passion for seventies horror and the likes of forefathers Hooper, Carpenter and Craven is apparent in their fascinating fearflexing with Saw, a creepy and funny 70s style horror film which spawned a deplorable torture porn franchise which negated what they had created in the first place, and Dead Silence, a guilty pleasure entry into the random possessed ventriloquist dummy genre, ala Dead of Night and Magic.

Their third feature, Insidious, is arguably their best, a stalking and creepy old fashioned haunted house movie which pays equal homage to Wise, Hooper, and even Tarsem's incredible The Cell. Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne are the parents who move with their young children to an old, dark house where things start to go bump in the night. When their son falls into a coma, they move houses, but the haunting follows them. Ultimately, they bring in psychic Lin Shaye and her team to save their son.

Wan and Wannell conduct a pretty routine plot into a supreme exercise in good old fashioned horror style, leading up to a tour de force climax which leaves their audience shaken and grateful in the safety of the hands of great horror artists.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Duncan Jones: 8 Minutes Infinite (Source Code)

The time-travel sub-genre of science fiction is a boundless thing, its possibilities for reverberation are infinite. Films that bend time and get inside of their hero's mind can be the absolute best form of cinematic expression  (Christopher Nolan for example).

Duncan Jones showed effulgent promise with his feature debut, the resourceful Kubrickian sci-fi mindmelt Moon, which trailers for his sophomore film, Source Code, promised to exceed. Source Code, however, arrives stillborn, an intriguing premise which feels off kilter, not fully formed.

Jake Gyllenhaal is our military hero, who finds himself trapped within the source code, a new government experiment sending soldiers back in time to discover the cause of terrorist attacks. The one glitch is that they only have eight minutes, and if unable to get to the bottom of the incident, they must return incessantly. And so our hero finds himself on a Chicago train in another man's body, sitting with a gorgeous brunette (Michelle Monahan) and surrounded by disparate characters played to comical effect. Every time he finds himself back at base, sequestered in a capsule, communicating via sattelite with superiors played by Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright.

The idea is limitless in its possibilities, harking back to Harold Ramis' masterful comedy Groundhog Day, yet Jones never quite makes us believe in the jumble, care about the characters or their fates. The darkly comedic tone is odd and off, and though there are several blindingly superb shots, this sophomore effort is never more than basically good.

David Schwimmer: The Victims and the Victimizers

Rape has always been a delicate topic in films, and has been showcased with outrage, malaise, horror, sarcasm, symbolism and manipulation. Actor-director David Schwimmer's new film, Trust is engrossing in an outrageous sort of way.

First of all, we begin with a somewhat unconvincing family which, okay, we  grow into. Brit dad Clive Owen and ordinary mom Catherine Keener. Three kids, cute teenage son and moppet daughter, with Annie(Liana Liberato in a revelatory turn) stuck in the middle, the innocent yearning teenager growing up ungarnished. The plot is penetrated when Annie is raped by a predator she meets on the interenet, and the remainder of the film is spent with the family coping with this tragedy, and especially how it affects Annie and her justifiably enraged father.

Now the problem is that there is an unevenness of tone, an incompatibility of device that threshes the after school special to the revenge film to the melodrama. Schwimmer is more triumphant than not at illuminating the soul of Annie as opposed to exploiting it. Liberato is insanely talented for such a youngster. Her performance is both deeply felt and wrenching. Apropos Owen, Keener and the subtly powerful Viola Davis, who give their all for such a dubious project. Nathan Larson's score is beauteous and building, and Andrzej Sekula is adept at creating the visual atmosphere to accompany this story, especially the artful and disturbing assault scene.

In the end, though not entirely riveting, Shwimmer does keep you watching, ingeniously blurring the line between the victims and the victimizers.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Richard J. Lewis and Tom McCarthy: Arms and the Man

Paul Giamatti stands arms and head above most other leading men in contemporary American movies. His indefatigable way of gleaning the insides on the outside, his ability to elicit identification in the average Joe, his joy at just being is contagious and inspiring.

In two recent films, he showed the range of his precious gift. As Barney Panofsky, the schlubby, cigar chomping, alcoholic womanizing sitcom writer who gets mixed up with zany women and a murder mystery, the complexity that is a man, a human being, has never been more extinguishing to our preconceptions. Though Richard J. Lewis goes deliciously for the look and feel of a seventies movie, his plot stalls out and falls apart. But at the center is Giamatti as this irresistible mess of a man, chewing up scenery beautifully with Dustin Hoffman as his offensive, ex-cop father.

Tom McCarthy shows us with his solid junior effort as a director, Win Win, that he is a truly talented, old fashioned writer-director of human comedy drama. Giamatti once more displays a warmth and depth as senior citizen lawyer and high school wrestling coach Mike Flaherty, who through a plot twist ends up taking care of not only his wife and daughters, but a client suffering from Alzheimer's ( a brilliant turn by Burt Young) and his runaway grandson( superb debut by Alex Shaffer), who turns out to be an ace wrestler who can save Mike's team. Unfortunately, the movie gets bogged down by the usual plot contrivances in its last half, not withstanding a charming tone and wonderful cast, including Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor, Melanie Lynskey and Margo Martindale.

These two slight "independent" films provide one of our greatest actors the chance to shine once more in multi-layered performances.

Francois Ozon: The Personal as Political

The melodrama has twisted and turned in the constituencies of chaotic time, devolving into mainstream skid marks on our collective consciousness, spat out as vivisected nothings, dishonest tearjerkers and romantic comedies starring whoever happens to be the current it girl.

Francois Ozon understands, truly feels the incendiary necessity of reviving the "woman's" picture, as realized by Old Hollywood master Douglas Sirk, New German visionary Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Spanish provocateur Pedro Almodovar. His films, from See the Sea to his current yearly output of exciting "queer" vanguard cinema, pay homage and resuscitate this forgotten subgenre in astoundingly fresh ways.

Potiche (Trophy Wife), his current foray, is an adaptation of a vintage women's lib stage play, set in the late 70's and shot through with a smirk on the face but a heart that beats true blue for his fractured characters. He takes their stereotypes, turns them on their heads and makes us examine the ways we view gender roles, both in films and in life.

 The glorious Catherine Deneuve brings to life the title character, an unassuming, sweet upper class hausfrau condescended to by her philandering, opportunistic husband and pampered grown children, who, through a strange twist of fate, takes control of her life, puts everybody in their rightful place, though remaining loving and warm throughout. The way Deneuve inhabits this woman is one more notch in the belt which marks her as one of the greatest actresses in the world.

Taking the reigns of her hubby's umbrella factory, quelling the labor squabbles so prevalent in that post-awakening  decade, befriending her husband's secretary/mistress, rekindling old flames with the district supervisor (a stout Gerard Depardieu), all while taking care of her family, she begins to find out who she is, and not in any typical manipulative way, but in an honest, culturally and socially conscious respect. She binds the personal and the political, and it feels genuine and refreshing.

Though Ozon steeps his film in a campy, seventies essence, it's heart is true, and that is a very rare feat of style and substance.