Saturday, December 31, 2011

Steven Spielberg: Painting the Sky with Celluloid (Warhorse)

Jeremy Irvine, Warhorse, Dreamworks Pictures, 2011.

With the final film of 2011, we have come full circle in a year of cinematic beginnings. Those discoveries are constant and within us all. Spielberg's Warhorse is unquestionably one of the milestones of his career, an intimate epic which gets absolutely everything right. Spielberg rarely achieves this cinematic state of bliss; E.T. the Extra Terrestriel, The Color Purple and Minority Report are examples of Spielberg's supreme gift in perfect accordance with his instruments at hand. All his pictures are phenomenal in some way; he's just one of those directors, one of the greatest we've ever had.

Warhorse is a riveting "period piece" which grasps our hearts, eyes and minds from first frame to last. The story of Joey, a gorgeous thouroughbred in the English farmlands on the verge of World War One. How exactly Joey passes from owner to owner (portrayed exceptionally well by newcomers Jeremy Irvine, David Cross, Celine Buckens, Tom Hiddleston and Robert Emms) ?  It all starts with Emily Watson and Peter Mullan, lending a further Fordian feel with their homestead patriarchal and matriarchal positionings. Unfolding in a narrative unusually crease free and ultimately elegiac, Spielberg tips his hat to his cinematic forefathers; John Ford, David Lean and Victor Fleming are all paid tribute to; the fury of The Searchers, Lawrence of Arabia and Gone With the Wind still courses through his, and his remarkable new film's, veins.

Janusz Kaminski lights up the skies with a wonder which can be blinding.  Warhorse contains some of the most unearthly, beautiful sequences and shots in recent memory.John Williams' score is wondrous, one of the best of his career. All of Spielberg's controversial instincts as a master visual storyteller come to the fore, and they work. A master's homage to the epic, war film and western, Warhorse is an instant classic.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Cameron Crowe: An Authentic American Experience? (We Bought a Zoo)

Matt Damon, We Bought a Zoo, 20th Century Fox, 2011.

The underpinnings of humanity, what makes us human and connects us, has always been a fascination of the charismatic penman and persuasive optimist Cameron Crowe's body of work. Beginning with his novel turned debut screenplay, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, he sought the purest form of human emotion and narratively constructed it to affect us more effectively. Some would call it manipulation; in Crowe's hands I call it sublimation. His roots as a rock 'n' roll journalsit turned him on to nuance, structure, and emotion, and how these things can shape how we look at the world. His second script, The Wild Side, was a continuum of his preoccupation with the social constructs of teenagers growing up too fast.

He continued this train of thought with his well done teen love story directorial debut, Say Anything. With Singles, Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous, Crowe has solidified his reputation as one of America's great comedy writer-directors. Only there is something more complex about Crowe. His passion for Billy Wilder may clue us in; the absurdities of human life laid bare in all their funny, sad mundanity. No other writer-director this side of James L. Brooks can write the kind of funny, sad dialogue Crowe can.

His last two features, Vanilla Sky and elizabethtown, were two of his richest, most misundersttod works. With We Bought a Zoo, his newest film loosely based on a true story, we have a family holiday film in disguise; all of Crowe's littlw moments mark this as a personal work clouded by studio involvement. Firstly, Crowe and Aline Brosh McKenna's script is as ungainly as the title. Major structural flaws ground the third act which should soar. But aside from the implausibilities, Crowe's special brand of magic shines through.

A damn good first act sets up a pat plot only shaken off when moments of truth catch us off guard. Matt Damon has rarely been better, he feels so real and raw as a journalist dealing with the aftermath of his wife's death and its affect on his very different kids. His relationship with his teenaged son (Colin Ford) is palpable, his young daughter (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) is undeniably adorable. Implausibly relocating to a zoo, they form bonds with the animals and the humans who work there.

What Crowe does right he rarely gets wrong. His use of music is unparalleled. Bob Dylan, Neil Young, the Isley Brothers, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Pearl Jam are all put tp splendid use. His pairing of the visual with the rock aural creates a feeling few other directors could muster. Scorsese is the only other director to my mind who uses pop music as mesmerizingly. Rodrigo Prieto creates a hushed, relaxed visual tone which lets us into the proceedings even more, and Jonsi's music score is just the right mix of playful and resonant.

Even though this can be counted as a lesser Crowe work, there are still so many moments to cherish. The man sets out to craft an authentic American experience, as Damon's character says in the film, and ended up patching together a fleeting feel-good experience.

Chris Gorak & Guy Ritchie: December Diversions (The Darkest Hour & Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows)

December is a month known as a monster in and of itself for its dirth of award-ready "serious" cinema. When something unapologetically genre as these two new pics, you sort of have to tip your hat. Keep the spirit of schlock alive! When a genre film as well done as Brad Bird's Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, true admiration is merited. Popcorn flicks such as Chris Gorak's The Darkest Hour and Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows are the exception to the rule, movies so simultaneously mediocre yet fleetingly inspired or pleasurable.

Max Minghella, Rachael Taylor, Olivia Thirlby, Emile Hirsch, The Darkest Hour, Summit Entertainment, 2011.

Gorak's directorial debut is a fascinatingly simple yet preposterous B-movie horror-sci-fi yarn which basically follows in the vein of Romero's zombie-movie formula. Emile Hirsch, Max Minghella and Olivia Thirlby all appear to be slumming it as American tourists in Russia during a mysterious attack by an unexplained force coming through the electricity and disintegrating them. The script is a pile of cliches, some of the effects are cheeseball, but the hopefully intentional subtext of a catharsis to all those decades of Soviet-American interplay is extremely stimulating. Several sequences are alarmingly framed, and yet others are clumsily blocked. Hirsch gets some of the worst lines: "I'm freaking out on the inside!" is just one example. Tyler Bates' score is top-notch, homaging John Carpenter in its purity. The horror-buff in me was half-way appeased.

Jude Law, Robert Downey, Jr., Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Warner Bros., 2011.

Guy Ritchie is up to his old tricks(again and again and again) with the sequel to his hyper-stylized blockbuster re-envisioning of Doyle's master detective stories. Robert Downey, Jr. And Jude Law return as Holmes and Watson. Downey especially has a ball with his part, getting all his money's worth. The original Lisbeth Salander, Noomi Rapace, is enticing and different as the gypsy love interest. Jared Harris relishes each and every word as Moriarty. The problem is, we've seen this one before. It feels rote, and only really comes alive in Ritchie's kinetic action set pieces. The shoot-out in the woods is especially memorable. Ritchie is a true artist in danger of calcification. His visual integrity and penchant for satiric crime dramas became a fixation, and has gone on for years. His best film was Swept Away, a deeply imaginative and empathic remake of Lina Wertmuller's 70s arthouse hit. That film was vilified because his wife, Madonna,starred in it. Aside from that, his frenetic masculinity evades me.

Tomas Alfredson: In a Cold Blue War (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)

Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Focus Features, 2011.

Sending a good chilling jolt through the conspicuously missing (possibly assumed extinct) spy thriller, the type that incorporate a stylized game of cat and mouse only a writer of John Le Carre's breadth and vision could muster. Recent films such as Tony Scott's Spy Game and John Boorman's The Tailor of Panama infused that old feeling, but audiences seemed mostly indifferent to a film where you had to actually pay attention and think.

Tomas Alfredson's exceptional entry into the genre, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, is based upon Le Carre's sensational breakthrough novel, a tethering game of cutthroat chess. Having previously helmed the startling vampire film Let the Right One In, Alfredson proves he was no flash in the pan with a follow-up feature which is better than the first. Burning his characters in a cold blue light, and working with his d.p. Hoyte Van Hoytema, the director layers on a visually stunning, narratively hypnotic tale of old school espionage.

Gary Oldman heads the cast as Smiley, Le Carre's ubiquitous protag, an investigator for British Intelligence. As he craftily weeds out a mole within their infrastructure, we come to see a light in his eyes which is disquieting and ensures this as one of the underrated Oldman's most subtly spellbinding turns. His cast of suspects and cohorts include Colin Firth, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong and Kathy Burke, all brushing shoulders in Hoytema's cruelly beautiful cold war world.

The pure delight in being washed in Alfredson's visual brilliance can only be matched by the ambitious, smartly versed adaptation by screenwriters Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan. Alberto Iglesias' score simmers along with the images, well used by Alfredson. The immensity and dark pleasure of following this gorgeous mystery of espionage are unrivaled in recent world cinema.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

David Fincher: Remaking Darkness (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)

Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Columbia Pictures, 2011.

With the simultaneous force and control which has made his reputation as a filmmaker, David Fincher mounts an ambitious, well intentioned remake of the blockbuster Swedish film, itself based upon Stieg Larsson's sensational international best-seller. For the most part, Fincher succeeds at creating a fascinating mood piece which is very uneven, despite Rooney Mara's revelatory performance as ubiquitous anti-heroine Lisbeth Salander, which is every bit legendary as Noomi Rapace in the original films.

Fincher keeps the plot and setting intact, having his actors playing Swedes speaking English. The snowy opression of Scandinavia is a glove for Fincher's stylistic fixations to slip into. Jordan Cronenweth's camera is every bit hypnotic with its distinctly lit visions of a world of betrayal akin to The Social Network. Steven Zaillian's script tries to keep the novel's spirit intact, and for the most part Fincher & company resist Hollywoodization. But the plot remains unwieldy and inpenetrable, and Daniel Craig's earnest prescence and drive for the truth don't match up to the intensity of the original film. And yet, we have Mara, burning inside, expressionless. Her performance should be an abject lesson in methody restraint. The supporting cast headed by Christopher Plummer and Stellan Skarsgard, are superb.

The main pull of the picture is Fincher's obsession with the visual limits and obscurities of this snow-filled nightmare world. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross provide a chillingly precise ambience with their excellent score. The cohesion of the images somehow do not match the portentousness of Larsson's bulky plot. And however we and Fincher dance with understanding Lisbeth, the farther away she seems, which may have been Fincher's intention. This universe he has sculpted harks back to the forbidden world of his underrated directorial debut, Alien 3.

Reassembling his creative team from the similarly uneven The Social Network, Fincher achieves a stylistic ecstasy with his last two pictures which clouds their places as minor Fincher. Visually the best works of his career, Social and Dragon cannot match the burning vision of Fight Club and Zodiac. Here we find a master practicing , sketching, shading, as he is remaking darkness.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Steven Spielberg: Living a Boy's Adventure Tale (The Adventures of Tintin)

The Adventures of Tintin, Paramount Pictures, 2011.

The great wonder that is Spielberg has been paving his way with the child inside of us all, cultivating it and allowing the nostalgia to blossom. His undivided devotion to action serials he adored as a boy as well as the mystery tales he ingested in his own youth, give many of his films a gilded edge. The child within us all reaches out towards that wionderful light, the screen, our hidden selves, our subconsciousness.

The Indiana Jones films illustrate this principle adroitly; nobody has crafted an old-fashioned adventure yarn as Spielberg has. His enchanting new film, The Adventures of Tintin, is the first in a proposed trilogy based on Herge's legendary comic strip. The boy sleuth reporter and his faithful dog would seem to be an inspiration on the director's spirit of fun, and so his pioneering animated feature film version was always meant to be. Its reason for being firstly its director's intense cinephilia which demands he repay the cinema which has invigorated him all his life. Spielberg is one of the world's consummate craftsmen; any film by him is injected with an emotional magic afforded so few masters.

The much talked about animation technique, wherein computers capture actual actors and then animate over them, placing them in a vast CGI field of vision, works here more than it ever has for Robert Zemeckis. We feel transported to an alternate world, albeit one filtered through the wonder of youth. As we dizzyingly follow Tintin, Snowy and all of the endearingly odd characters they meet along the way, we are completely bowed over by the director's unbelievable command over the cinematic narrative process.

John Williams' score is inseperable from the soul of Spielberg's film. it soars and sears with that old school, all knowing Williams genius. The visuals of the film narcoticize our senses as Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, Robin Hood and the Hardy Boys remind us of the pure essence of all our youths. Spielberg knows how to bottle that mystique; he invites us all to live a boy's adventure tale alongside him.

David Cronenberg: Triangle of Bodies and Minds (A Dangerous Method)

Keira Knightley, Michael Fassbender, A Dangerous Method, Sony Pictures Classics, 2011.

The influences of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung are still being felt today, interlocked with our society's art, commerce and reason. Art and especially literature, and by proxy, the cinema, have shown the ripples of psychoanalysis most prominently. John Huston's psychedelic Freud (1962) starring Montgomery Clift has heretofore been the only cinematic respite for Freud to be featured within. Somehow fitting that a director obsessed with visualizing the psychological should choose to make a melodrama out of the crossed paths of two of psychology's most prominent thinkers.

David Cronenberg emerged from the lo-fi Canadian horror movement of the 1970s, crafting some of the most memorable horror films of that era: They Came from Within, Rabid, The Brood, Scanners, and his masterpiece Videodrome. Moving more into the mainstream with The Fly (1986), Cronenberg spent the next 25 years of his career creating some of the most singular, stimulating works of an obsessive auteur. Fixated with Bunuel, Hitchcock, and Antonioni, Cronenberg grafted his own bizarre universe onto the cultural conscience, swathing body fear in rapturous visuals and creeping stories of psychosis and unseen terror. In his more recent phase, Cronenberg has made more austere (for him) psychological dramas, the masterpieces Spider, A History of Violence, and Eastern Promises.

How fitting, as I observed, that his newest film is a (melo)dramatization and subsequent investigation into the private lives of two of the most famous men in all psychology.

Cronenberg sweeps us into an intimate, claustrophobic world where Dr. Jung (a once again pitch-perfect Michael Fassbender) slowly becomes awed by his unhinged patient (Keira Knightley, intense) at the expense of his faithful wife (Sarah Gadon). Dr. Freud (Viggo Mortensen, brilliant) begins to spar thoughts with Jung, which culminates in the great rift in psychological circles. What is intersting is how Cronenberg and writer Harold Pinter, adapting his own play, allow this crucial aspect to take a backseat to a transformative love story.

The period is captured alarmingly well, down to the smallest detail. Cronenberg's pacing and framing have never been better, but its his grasp on the binding essence of the picture which is awe-inspiring. Peter Suschitzky lights the proceedings with a grave palette of splendor, while Howard Shore composes one of his most layered, moving scores in some time. All of these ingredients dissolve as do the desires of his triangle of bodies and minds.

Jason Reitman: Femininity, Narrative and Satire (Young Adult)

Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, Young Adult, Paramount Pictures, 2011.

The gradual decline over the past decade of so-called "chick flicks" can be attributed to heavy studio reliance on cliches. Bad scripts are standard business with all of their trite machinations. Female central characters and their foils and foibles are almost always presented in an idealized artificiality, which could work in the right director's hands. Insufferable martyrs march through cardboard plot holes as the audience devours it all. A film like Jason Reitman's bravely beguiling Young Adult and its fascinatingly fractured heroine Mavis Gary (a complex turn from Charlize Theron) comes along once in a blue moon, revitalizing the discerning filmgoer's thirst for a tartly affecting protagonist.

With one of the best screenplays of the year, Diablo Cody displays real growth as a writer, moving on from the coyness of Juno and Jennifer's Body to an evolved style with a lot more scope. Her characters feel and sound real, with her distinct dialogue toned down and smarter. Her characters are fucked up and sad and funny, her structure alarming.

The plot is incidental to the depth and style of the creative team behind it all. An ex-popular girl in high school is now a bitter, hard partying young adult novelist divorcee living in Minneapolis. Distressed by an e-mail announcing her highschool sweetheart and wife's newborn baby, she packs up her laptop and lapdog and heads home to win him back. The level of her psychosis lends the film a gravity which hangs over each sequence. Her utter failure and budding bar-friendship with a former highschool geek classmate (an invigorating Patton Oswalt) straddle the thin line between pathetic and uncomfortable.

Reitman hits a career high note here. Always an ace at building narrative, with the indefatigable Young Adult, he masters it . Thank You for Smoking was a brilliant debut, followed by two solid successes, Juno and Up in the Air, which displayed his destiny as a great American satirist with heart. In Young Adult, he has complete control of all elements in the world he is simulating. His devices are so well done that they become invisible.

Charlize Theron has always dazzled us. Transcending the shallow pretty girl roles her momentous beauty landed her, with Monster, North Country, The Burning Plain and now this, she solidifies her reputation as one of the best actresses working in America. The subtle nuances and surmounting psychosis she inhabits and owns with intensity is infectious. Her rapport with earnest shmo Patton Oswalt is a joy to partake of.

For more than anything, Cody and Reitman have crystallized a deeply woven satire. Satirizing "chick-flicks", middle-America, Gen-X disillusion, expectations of femininity, the very core of storytelling. Mavis' deadpan voice-overs from her newest teen novel provide a freshly provocative narrative-mirroring device which enfolds the picture in rich delight. Recalling Alexander Payne at his sharpest, Young Adult is the best "chick-flick" of the year.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Brad Bird: Motion in Millions (Mission Impossible:Ghost Protocol)

Tom Cruise, Mission Impossible:Ghost Protocol, Paramount Pictures, 2011.

What fresher, exciting choice as director of a major action picture has there been this year? Brad Bird, the visionary animation auteur behind The Iron Giant, The Impossibles and Ratatouille takes on Tom Cruise's high octane franchise with an ease and fluidity which obscure the fact that this is his first live action film. Following in the inspired footsteps of DePalma, Woo and Abrams, Bird engineers a doozy.

Cruise returns as the unstoppable Ethan Hunt, who, teamed with a well cast Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton and Simon Pegg, must stop a dastardly Soviet plot. . . . Are we still fighting the Soviets? Anyway, the plot is happenstance to Bird's beguilingly agile action set pieces. One after another roll out and wow us with their spellbinding visual dexterity. The popcorn spy thriller receives a much needed surge of energy from his expert mise en scene.

Cruise carries the flick like old hat, but his star strength is in his ability to make us feel as if its his first time out, right there with us. We never feel a strain, only an unmarked pleasure at being swept away on an escapist masterclass, caught up in the motion which nets millions.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Roman Polanski: The Animal Within (Carnage)

Foster, Reilly, Waltz, Winslet, Carnage, Sony Pictures Classics, 2011.

The inexplicable behavior of human beings has motivated the psychological bent on theater and ultimately the cinema in our time. Yasmina Reza's bourgeoisie character breakdown, God of Carnage became the toast of stages coast to international coast. Roman Polanski would seem an odd choice for the film version of her WASPy bitch-fest. On second thought, at this stage in his uncompromising career, Polanski can do whatever he wants and make it work seamlessly.

Two differing sets of parents meet up at the apartment of one to settle the playground fistfight of their young sons. In essence a claustrophobic chamber piece wherein differing approaches to parenting and life in general are skewed through heated dialogue, Polanski transports the action from Paris to Brooklyn, where he and Reza  dissolve in their intentions and we are offered an aptly vicious portrayal of American hypocrisy. At 80 minutes, it is the director's most brisk picture, while the heated monologues and ranting arguments feel no less important than the pleas of his unforgettable protagonists in The Pianist and Oliver Twist.

In collaboration with master cameraman Pawel Edelman and master composer Alexandre Desplat, and his uncannily gifted cast, Polanski has crafted a singular dark comedy experience which functions both as a conundrum of performance vs. experience and a ballsy little film experiment, a stylistic watershed. Class conflict, wage disparity, the shallow elite, stateside living room subterfuge all combine into a richly savage attack that could have been made by an uncommonly astute 25 year-old.

Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly and Christoph Waltz all do some of their most vital work here. Foster and Reilly especially stand out, her uptight Liberal neuroses bristling brilliantly with his fed up, shouting schlub. Foster flies off the handle into a hysteria heretofore unseen, and Reilly's snapping comebacks straddle the line between hilarity and awkwardness sublimely. Winslet and Waltz are both excellent as well, nailing the stand-offish, milquetoast ennui of east coast inanity. All four locate their characters' hearts, but it's their equal prejudices that we will remember. Polanski's final masterstroke is to make us laugh so heartily while acknowledging the animal within us all.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Steve McQueen: Deep Seated American Masculinity (Shame)

Michael Fassbender, Shame, Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2011.

The naturally ingrained instinct for survival and all of the unexamined pathologies which come with it are astutely examined in Steve McQueen's triumphant, deeply affecting sophomore feature, Shame. A dynamic character study shrouded in the common thread of self-loathing and fear which permeates the notion of American masculinity, McQueen's brave new work shatters perceptions of what is acceptable in American narrative filmmaking. Moored by the divine performance of Michael Fassbender, only on McQueen's visual and dream-like flights of fancy does the picture begin to soar away.

Fassbender's Brandon is a creature of ill comforts, a modern metropolitan man who is running from his past (aren't we all?) and attempting to fill the void with compulsive sex, to the degree that he almost shuts off when he is "performing". He is filled with rage and longing. He is a fantastic character, and as brought to life by the immensely gifted Fassbender, he is one of our new decade's most iconic movie characters. His troubled kid sister(Carey Mulligan at her best) shows up, bringing along all of her baggage. Their lives begin to unravel.

McQueen, a British performance artist, made his feature directing debut a few years ago with the extraordinary Hunger, also featuring Fassbender in an amazing performance. That film, with all its IRA and socio-political context, as well as its somnambulent silences and slow/still camera, announced the emergence of a major filmmaking talent. Shame proves he was no fluke. McQueen is here to stay, and we wouldn't have it any other way.

From Bobby Sands to Brandon, McQueen has demonstrated his inclination towards the lost, but also the resilient. His visual rhythms are intoxicating, clipping at our eyes as he weaves it all together.  He is a visual artist of the most exquisite order.  Sean Bobbitt's cinematography and Harry Escott's music score work in unison to bewitch us while making us think. Aside from an uneven third act, this powerhouse featuring two of the best performances of the year raises some of the most intriguing questions, without seeking an answer.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Michel Hazanavicius: Tripping the Limelight Fantastic (The Artist)

Jean Dujardin, The Artist, Weinstein Co., 2011.

The nitrate glow of Hollywood's golden age gets a resuscitation by none other than the French. Gifted director Michel Hazanavicius molds an homage to the cinemas past which is both refreshing and moving. The novelty of the creation is definitely eclipsed in the end by the sheer invigoration of the whole affair.

Anchored by the strength of Jean Dujardin's enveloping turn as silent film star George Valentin, his inviting face, kind eyes and strappingly debonair build belying the purity of his intentions, as he succumbs to the wretched onslaught of sound. The fact that nobody has made a feature length silent film portraying similar events is surprising; this rise and fall story utilizes its style to comment on its subject, a visceral effect which only magnifies the magic on-screen.

Although the story is a war horse, Hazanavicius' culling of the visual and thematic trademarks of silent cinema breaks down those standardized walls. We are enchanted as we are swept up.

Berenice Bejo dazzles as Peppy Miller, a young extra who gets a big break which sees her star rising as Valentin's falls. Their unrequited love story and divide is integral to the structure. Hazanavicius has fun with his casting. A film about Hollywood, made by and starring the French in the leads would never be complete without a slew of American character actors filling out the supporting ranks. John Goodman, James Cromwell, Missi Pyle, Ken Davidian and Beth Grant play second ran deliciously.

The camera births a beauty all its own whilst paying homage: Guillame Schiffman grafts a web of nostalgia with his lens, honoring what has to be the helmer's main inspiration: George Cukor's irreplaceable What Price Hollwood? (1933) and the first of its re-makes: William A. Wellman's A Star is Born (1937). All of the glory and sadness of those backstage showbiz classics are evident as well. Ludovic Bource's music score is pitch-perfect, its imitation of silent film music breaking the mold and soaring into charmingly new heights for film music and its importance as a pivotal function of the completed flick.

For all of its charms, its allegiance, its depth of expression, the dance numbers and especially the dog, Hazanivicius' new picture is inseperable from all of our pasts, as he offers us his hand as we go tripping the limelight fantastic.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Simon Curtis: True Star Turn (My Week with Marilyn)

Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, My Week with Marilyn, Weinstein Co., 2011.

Tis the season for overstuffed, well-intended Brit-Oscar bait, in the form of many a biopic and literary adaptation. This year's The King's Speech in its Academy pedigree, biopic showing a brief period in the subject's life, and a mesmerizing lead performance which is bound to capture awards.

Director Simon Curtis assembles a grandly handsome affair, replete with period-perfect sets and costumes, and follows all the Weinstein's rules of gold by focusing on Marliyn's sojourn in Great Britain to shoot one of her most dismissible films, Laurence Olivier's The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), in order to surround her by as many distinguished Brit-thespians as possible. Branagh, Dench, Jacobi and more fill the proceedings with a high falutin' air, yet somehow, Michelle Williams soars above them all with an astounding performance which defines the true star turn.

Williams, an unassuming, talented young American actress, becomes Marilyn Monroe in a spellbinding turn more akin to a possession than an acting job. For all its quaint production and entertainment value, the picture feels so light beneath Williams' fearless invocation; the picture itself almost cannot contain her!

Touching on themes of artistic conflict, especially the rift between old-fashioned acting and the Method, as well as generally displaying the journey of making a movie in however slack tones, Curtis achieves a moving picture which somehow manages to be smile-inducing and melancholy at the same time. Williams' display of Marilyn's struggle with addiction and depression is some of the best acting I've seen this side of Streep in a long while. Eddie Redmayne manages to make his lovestruck innocent feel authentic and new, and Judi Dench steals her scenes as veteran stage actress Dame Sybil Thorndike, who offers Marilyn a friendly hand.

What we take away with us is that Michelle Williams is one of the greatest actresses of her generation. Her Marilyn matches the depth of range she displayed in Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain (2005). Barely scratching the surface in Kelly Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy (2008) and Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine (2010), in the incomparable Marilyn she has found the role she was born to play.

Werner Herzog: Cycles of Justice (Into the Abyss)

Into the Abyss, IFC Films, 2011.

From a disarmingly ambling opening to its calm beholding of loss and torment, German New Wave master Werner Herzog's new documentary, Into the Abyss, stoically regards many facets of our culture and social constructs. As in all his works, the abyss is both the emptiness within ourselves and its manifestation in nature and the unseen. A sad cast of characters live before the lens through their piercing words, no matter what side of the story we find them on.

The American death penalty remains a hot-button issue, dividing citizens as much, if not more, than other volatile subjects. Our punishment is a bureaucracy so built up, a machine so well oiled and working, that it eats up many without the education or money to defend themselves. Despite this, Herzog films his story objectively, almost passively. He plays police videos, films the haunted murder sites, interviews fringe characters of the law. But as we spend time with the two convicted killers, their loved ones, and the victim's families, that passiveness gains an unremitting power which puts everything into an emotional as well as intellectual perspective for us.

The failings of an unfair system, the society itself which breeds poverty and crime, the inconsolable emptiness left by death, are communicated with a strength of vision which is staggering. This last decade has seen a fascinating if unassuming body of work by the great Herzog. His documentaries Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World, Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Into the Abyss all penetrate the strange power within and without us all. Invincible, Rescue Dawn, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? all showed him at his most astute as a narrative artist.

His fascination with the mysteries of our world keeps his works alive with an air of sweet abandon. In his gaze, life shapes the tragedy of man. In this cycle of justice in our country, Herzog easily finds the abyss he knows too well.