Saturday, March 31, 2012

Terence Davies: The Deep Blue Sea

Rachel Weisz, The Deep Blue Sea, Music Box Films, 2012.

Reveling in the past, while examining the hierarchies of 20th century British life, has preoccupied distinguished master Terence Davies for quite some time. His past three films in this vein comprise some of the purest examinations of British family life, gender roles, and dreaming yourself alive via music and movies ever put upon celluloid. Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes have no peers in sheer perception and artistic license. Their truths are cleansing, and his recent documentary Of Time and the City capped it all off; its one of his strongest creations. Somewhere in there he mounted a fine Edith Wharton adaptation, The House of Mirth.

His drive to portray memory, longing, and loss, in an antiquarian style, has not made him immensely popular. But his inability to compromise on the road to motion picture glory, marks him unparalleled. Along with Leigh and Loach, he is the finest living British director.

And so, for his fifth feature film, he has appropriately chosen to adapt a forgotten stage play by a forgotten playwright, ironically already made into a forgotten 50s movie. Terence Rattigan's flair as a dramatist was to subtly uncover the unspoken fissures in 'proper' British society, through character development and dialogue. Davies achieves his own end through visuals and rhythm; for the two to meet halfway is pushing the limits of the sublime. Rattigan's play The Deep Blue Sea, about the hypocricy of society in the face of unbridled love and passion, was always one of his most interesting works. The stuffy 1955 film version featured an ever resplendent Vivien Leigh as the restrained wife on the edge.

For Davies' hauntingly unforgettable version, the 'true' version of this obscure play, he has wisely chosen the magnetic Rachel Weisz as his tragic Hester. The Hawthornian implications of her name intact, Weisz brings a touch of realism to the character; we believe in her so much as a person trapped, we can feel her heart breaking frame by frame. Within said frame, Davies cooly controls the image, and dp Florian Hoffmeister achieves some of the most ecstatically stylized imagery this side of Greenaway and Malick. Austerity has never felt so electric. Weisz is matched effortlessly by Tom Hiddleston, a fire smoldering in his eyes as her clandestine lover Freddie, and Simon Russell Beale as her old-fashioned husband, Sir William.

Davies has stated that Stanley Donen's Singin' in the Rain and Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence are his two all-time favorite films. The colorful wish fulfillment, dream daze of a technicolor Hollywood studio musical, and the cold, hard fact of stratification and loss in the past of Wharton's world are visibly alive inside these frames. Here, Davies seems to take his biggest inspiration from Douglas Sirk, the master of the synthetically subtextual 1950s Hollywood studio melodrama. Davies looks to the past, birthing a nostalgic beauty unlike anything else being made these days.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Jean Pierre and Luc Dardenne: The Kid with a Bike

Cecile De France, Thomas Doret, The Kid with a Bike, Sundance Selects, 2012.

One incorrigible character, driven by one seemingly simple goal, steamrolls through the Belgian streets, encountering several distinctive secondary characters along the way. In the end, an epiphany has touched all our lives, both these characters and especially us as the audience. This can sum up in words the power and trajectory of a Dardenne Brothers film. Yet the transcendent power of their best work (La Promesse, Rosetta, Le Fils, and L'enfant) is beyond mere words: they will shake you to your very core. The weight of their work is why we, the audience, should be going to the movies in the first place; to be both entertained AND enlightened.

That said, these uncompromising auteurs have seen a recent slump. Their last couple of films have suffered from imbalanced screenplays, indecipherable tones and enfuriating implausibilities. For directors who have pitched themselves somewhere between Bresson and Cassavetes, this is no way to be. Their combination of hand-held cameras, non-actors and location shooting yields authentic results, while harking back to Italian Neo-Realism.Monotony pierced by nirvana have marked them as two of the greatest artists in the world.

Their new picture, The Kid with a Bike, draws obvious narrative influences from De Sica's Bicycle Thieves, which also inspired a superior film last year, A Better Life. Stylistically, we have vintage Dardenne. As a whole, it feels like another film entirely, albeit a frustratingly uneven one. We meet an almost unbearable little boy named Cyril (an impressive Thomas Doret) whose sleazy deadbeat dad (Dardenne regular Jeremie Renier) has sold his bike and left the kid in foster care. Acting out, running away, and searching for his bike and dad, he encounters maternal hairdresser Samantha (warmly perfect Cecile De France) who ends up trying to help him.

As I said, the style is astounding. Its just that the script has copious problems, and it affects the integrity of the picture as a whole. Along with their last film, the underwhelming Lorna's Silence, the Dardenne's have entered a period of reconfiguring their ouevres, similar to what David Fincher has been going through, producing some of their least important films. And yet, these mid-period movies are better than almost everything else that comes out. Lorna's Silence, The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and The Kid with a Bike are minor masterworks in their own ways.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Gary Ross: The Hunger Games

Jennifer Lawrence, The Hunger Games, Lionsgate Films, 2012.

With the new year, a new chapter has begun in the filmization of anotherYA fiction series. Harry Potter and Twilight are both about to be dust, so far as many of their ADD trendy fans are concerned. Time to move on to Suzanne Collins' hugely popular action-sci-fi-morality tale, beginning with the bristling, meandering, fascinating The Hunger Games.

As envisioned by gifted writer-director Gary Ross, Collins' eponymous first tome falls somewhere between Twilight and The Running Man; all the teen yearning for romance in the former, all of the genre trappings encasing a parable for modern American society in the latter. Ross gives it all a queasy patina of camp, Oz by way of Circus Circus, yet alternately grounded in some semblance of our reality.

A main strength in the film is Jennifer Lawrence as our heroine, Katness Everdene. We believe in her, and yet, she will not let us in all the way.  She is both mysterious and endearing. Josh Hutcherson, Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, Wes Bentley, Stanley Tucci, and Donald Sutherland all bask in the fun of their roles. In the end, Lawrence's conviction and Ross' vision are what stay with us most from the exhausting experience.

Ross captures several breathtaking sequences, reminding us of his strengths as an auteur with Pleasantville and Seabiscuit. Both of those remarkable achievements were his odes to The Wizard of Oz and Frank Capra. More of that can definitely be found here; Orwell and Bradbury certainly inspired Collins to write this in the first place; its the weaknesses of Collins' plot which deters Ross from sculpting a more succinct motion picture. James Newton Howard manipulates the strings to realize an aural world of familiar murmurs to mirror Ross' creation.

While the themes of oppression, starvation, invasion of privacy, poverty, and reality television are more pertinent than ever, the message is only semi-received. It is buried intermittently throughout this irrevocable piece of pop trash.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

March Monstrosities

Yes, as you can see for yourselves if you've been to a multiplex this season, it is the time when the studios dump their trash at a theater near you. Unfunny comedies, inept attempts at action-thrillers; just another dose of March monstrosities. . . .

Tom Hardy, Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine, This Means War, 20th Century Fox, 2012.

Hack helmer McG is back on trash duty with a cringe-worthy script by the tone deaf duo of Tim Dowling and Simon Kinberg; Reese is lost, and her career feels lost as well, in this painful attempt at action-romanic comedy. Tom Hardy is eye candy but Chris Pine is underwhelming once again. After the atrocity of Charlie's Angels and the offensiveness of the sappy We are Marshall, McG recouped with the excellent Terminator: Salvation. Looks like he's back where he started.

Act of Valor, Relativity Media, 2012.

Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh make a ridiculously unimpressive debut with the mediocre Act of Valor. The main problem is a terrible script by Kurt Johnstad; the directors try to go from there, and although they do get in a couple of semi-impressive set pieces, the acting is so wooden and the staging so boring that the overall effect is aversion.

Project X, Warner Brothers Pictures, 2012.

The teen sex comedy and the wild party movie get a kick in the corpse from apparently untalented Nima Nourizadeh and shitty scripters Matt Drake and Michael Bacall's cliched, idiotic Project X. Odious, badly acted, and utterly unrelenting.

Amanda Seyfried, Gone, Summit Entertainment, 2012.

 Doe-eyed Amanda Seyfried makes a run for the action-heroine thriller and fails miserably in the God-awful Gone. Alison Burnett's script is a study in agressive minimalism; its horrible. Interesting enough, he previously wrote a film I love, Robert Benton's Feast of Love. Talented Brazilian director Heitor Dhalia makes a botched English-language debut, and yet, some of his compositions are beautiful and startling. A great cast (Jennifer Carpenter, Daniel Sunjata) more familiar from cable television, is wasted on a preposterous plot.

Paul Rudd, Jennifer Aniston, Wanderlust, Universal Pictures, 2012.

David Wain is probably the only other director on here I would defend. His films Wet Hot American Summer, The Ten, and Role Models, are all funny and well-made. His new film, the mid-life crisis couple joins an upstate commune "comedy" is a painfully unfunny film which drags the talented Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston through the mire. The weak script is complemented by bland visuals for one of the more unpleasant recent studio comedies. Justin Theroux seems to be the only one having a good time; gotta love him. A major career slump for all involved, lets forget about it right now.

Eddie Murphy, A Thousand Words, Dreamworks Pictures, 2012.

Last, and quite possibly least, is hack extraordinnaire Brian Robbins' wretchedly akward A Thousand Words. Steve Koren's lame script is only trumped by Robbins' wack direction and Eddie Murphy's sad mugging. The once-great comedic star seems truly washed up. This just feels like yet another nail in the coffin that has become his career.

And so, another March has come and gone. At least now we've cleared the table for some great films which will be trickling out of last year's international film festivals for the next few months, even into Summer!

Fernando Trueba: Chico and Rita

Chico and Rita, Luma Films, 2012.

Bursting upon the international film scene like some blast of gulf stream rhumba, Spanish filmmaker Fernando Trueba's newest picture, the enchanting, transporting Chico and Rita, is one of his very best. An old warhorse Hollywood love melodrama plotline forms the backbone upon which the director hangs a sumptuous aural and visual feast of music and color. The hand drawn animation reminds us of simpler times, when Disney had more heart and Don Bluth was the reigning master. Ralph Bakshi's funky urban animations (Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic), Stanley Donen's musical duality and gender symbolism, and Otto Preminger's tightly composed musical melodramas (Carmen Jones and Porgy and Bess) come to mind as major influences on the world contained within.

A touching flashback structure reveals a sometimes surreal cornucopia of careening shapes and colors, and amazing jazz music, as we follow jazz pianist Chico, a strapping, sweet hunk of a man, and Rita, a voluptuous chanteuse. Their sexual chemistry smolders, and this rags to riches tale takes them from Havana to Hollywood by way of Paris. Trueba and his co-writer Ignacio Martinez de Pizon grasp at plot straws from many old Hollywood films; A Star is Born most distinctly, which brought to mind Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist. Both pictures seem equal in many ways, as cinematically nostalgic romances. Trueba's picture just may be freer in spirit.

Eman Xor Ona and Limara Meneses are both perfect, providing the voices and spirits of our titular characters. Bebo Valdes' music is extraordinary; it provides the film with a considerable heat which promises never to extinguish. Trueba and his co-directors, Tono Errando and Javier Mariscal, make this labor of love a group project; through its vivid imaginings, animated cinema lives on.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Mark & Jay Duplass: Jeff, Who Lives at Home

Jason Segel, Ed Helms, Jeff, Who Lives at Home, Paramount Vantage, 2012.

Wearing its ambling, searching, sad-funny heart on its shoulder, indie (now pseudo-indie) stalwarts the Duplass Brothers continue their search for the truth at the heart of America. Many of their contemporaries are on much of the same search; Andrew Bujalski, Azazel Jacobs, Ronald Bronstein, and Ben and Joshua Safdie come to mind. Their "mumblecore" styles eschew style for dialogue and character development, relying on hand-held cameras. This conglomeration of Cassavetes and Dogme 95 can be refreshing and invigorating.

 The Duplass Brothers were the first to really cross over into the mainstream, i.e. using well known movie stars and character actors, with their very good Cyrus a couple years back. John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill, and Marisa Tomei were all allowed to roam free within their characters, and the audience could feel the energy.

Their new film, Jeff, Who Lives at Home, follows in much the same pattern. An inverted family slowly comes out, we get to know them, through someone viewed by others as a deadbeat kid, a grown man still living with his mother. This time, its Jason Segel, who has never really looked this far into himself as an actor. In the title role, he is nothing short of wonderful. Set in one day which goes from mundane to extraordinary, we also have Ed Helms and Susan Sarandon, as his fed-up but loving brother and mom, respectively, both giving career high performances (for Sarandon at least, that's at THIS dry point in her career). Judy Greer and Rae Dawn Chong both give riveting support.

Although admittedly uneven, such is the stuff of life. The Duplass Brothers are unwavering in their commitment to examining us as human beings first and Americans second. Their love for life and cinema is vital.

Matt Piedmont: Casa de mi Padre

Will Ferrell, Genesis Rodriguez, Casa de mi Padre, Pantelion Films, 2012.

Igniting a dynamite blast of schlocky cinema past, Matt Piedmont's remarkable feature directing debut, Casa de mi Padre, is instantly obsessable. Drenched in nostalgically saturated color tones and structured as a 1970s Mexican drive-in flick, we are overcome by delight at the complexities of its visuals, plot, and humor. Screenwriter Andrew Steele culls elements from telenovelas, old Ranchera musicals, Shakespeare, and Polanski's Chinatown for a delirious action-comedy-melodrama.

Taking off where Rodriguez and Tarantino left off, Piedmont, Steele, and company incite a cinematic garbage free for all which is a true tour de force.

Will Ferrell is a bizarre casting choice, but that is the point. As our hero, Armando, he is steely, old fashioned leading man material, yet also cuttingly tongue in cheek. His command of the Spanish language, as well as his grasp of the Latin lover look, qualify this as one of his best performances. Lately, he has shown insight in his choice of projects. Stranger than Fiction and Everything Must Go were both imaginative, deeply felt performances. Here he tackles the ghost of cinemas past.

Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal, those jovial, gifted Mexican leading men, both have fun and are brilliant, as Armando's shady brother and the local drug lord, respectively. Pedro Armendariz, Jr., Genesis Rodriguez, Efren Ramirez, and Adrian Martinez all lend colorful support. This artificial slice of cinematic Mexico comes alive on the driver's side.

DP Ramsey Nickell gorgeously recreates the bleeding heart of 70s grindhouse cinema. Editor David Trachtenberg fearlessly reconstructs the flow and feel of low-budget celluloid. Composers Andrew Feltenstein and John Nau construct a sound field of nostalgia. The entire team works at full capacity to achieve the cinephiliac fever dream we have here. Drawing attention to itself as a work of complete artifice, as a movie, we the receptive audience are brought to a collective state of Brechtian ecstasy.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Phil Lord & Chris Miller: 21 Jump Street

Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, 21 Jump Street, Columbia Pictures, 2012.

O juvenilia, twixt days of reckless fun and wild abandon, we all learn the suffocating rules of American popular comedy pictures. Amid all the stale Sandler shenanigans, the DOA Eddie Murphy vehicles, and now, lame Kevin James family films. Woody Allen and the Farrelly Brothers are really the only consistent comedic auteurs. In yester-year we had Blake Edwards, Preston Sturges, Frank Tashlin, and Billy Wilder. Today's comedy stars are cornered into inept premises which are far beneath their talents. Owen Wilson and Anna Faris deserve better.

Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller both deliver an intermittently hilarious but uneven comic filmization of the cheezy, hugely popular 80s television series, 21 Jump Street. The initial phenomenon having launched the career of one of our country's great actors, Johnny Depp. This time around, the writers curb to studio clamps on plot, but throw in enough male braggadocio and toilet humor to try and make up for the familiarity. In the end, none of it feels particularly fresh. Casting the athletic, bland Channing Tatum with the schlubby, sarcastic Jonah Hill actually works. They play off one another well, making us believe in their "bromance" as they dive headfirst into one hairy situation after another. Its all just dressing for the dirt we know too well.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Andrew Stanton: John Carter

Taylor Kitsch, John Carter, Walt Disney Pictures, 2012.

Garbling legend, literature, genre, and action-adventure cinema, the blockbuster adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' classic sci-fi tales hits the screen with a sickening thud. Dissapointing, considering that this is top-notch animation helmer Andrew(Finding Nemo, Wall-E) Stanton's live-action debut.

Aside from his love for color and movement, Stanton does contribute about as much as he can to a picture that fails on so many levels. To begin with, the script, co-written by at least one great writer, novelist Michael Chabon. Any hint of his inflected spirit is a no, as the screenplay is quit obviously in tatters. In bringing that garbage to the big screen, Stanton & company have devised an eyesore; the sets and costumes are quite ugly and awkward. The leads are snooze-worthy; Taylor Kitsch is handsome but deadly dull; Lynn Collins might as well not be there, that's how weakly her prescence is felt.

When your villains (Mark Strong and Dominic West) attract more attention and sympathy than your protagonists, there's definitely something wrong here. The narrative structure is ineffective and odd, the action sequences frenzied and cut to ribbons. The overall feeling is one of a long, well-earned nap. A pastiche of western, science-fiction, and sword and sandals pictures could have been a cintender; recent amazements in this key include Priest and Cowboys & Aliens! The best thing about this dud is the bounding score by Michael Giacchino, unquestionably reminiscent of Goldsmith's Star Trek: The Motion Picture themes.

Chris Kentis and Laura Lau: Silent House

Elizabeth Olsen, Silent House, Open Road Films, 2012.

The rules of the game are not surrendered while the darkness and its unknown properties eat at the edges of the frame. Shot in what appears to be one long, uninterrupted take, talented Chris Kentis and Laura Lau's Silent House is a tour de force in every sense of the word.

A remake of a popular South American horror film, Kentis and Lau transpose the material to what appears to be the grey American Northwest, but other than that, they remain faithful to the source material.

A young girl (Elizabeth Olsen) is fixing up her abandoned childhood home with her dad and uncle.  As dusk comes on, she becomes trapped inside the house with an unknown person or persons lurking in the dark. Just as that premise sounds, the film is simple and admittedly silly at times. And yet, Kentis and Lau's bravura handling of this creepily circumspect affair holds us in its grasp.

Old fashioned and unashamed of it, Silent House takes pages from Hitchcock's Rope, Polanski's Repulsion,  as well as Myrick and Sanchez's modern horror masterpiece The Blair Witch Project. Their precision is almost perverse.

Olsen, our unhinged heroine, gives a tour de force turn of her own. Fresh off of her magical triumph in Sean Durkin's powerful Martha Marcy May Marlene last year, she only confirms that she is one of the best young actresses working in America. The level of inhabitation and conviction in her fragile character dare us to move our eyes from her. Surrounded in the darkness, she screams as we scream inside, loving the old dark house movie and how genuine those old chills can be.

Michael R. Roskam: Bullhead

Matthias Schoenaerts, Bullhead, Drafthouse Films, 2012.

With the uncompromising drive of an born storyteller, Belgian director Michael R. Roskam delivers us an utterly immersive character study-crime saga. Yet this isn't a film you merely watch; it is a movie which becomes apart of you. Roskam displays the wonderful traits of a master filmmaker; assured, fearless and visionary.

Although its framework and trappings are undeniably familiar, it is the life as shaped by the constraints of celluloid which sets Roskam's picture apart. Dostoevsky flows through this one's veins. A tale of rural criminals and farmers which shapes into a subtly complex flash back/flash forward, we become wholly apart of the characters, their highs and lows. Robin Valvekens is radiant as the young boy whose burgeoning sexuality is crushed by a cruel assault. Matthias Schoenaerts is revelatory in an incendiary star turn as Jacky, a part-time thug and farmer whose steroid-abuse and shameful past have left him filled with rage and longing. His virile musculature filling the frame, his uncertain words and deceptive facial expressions bind together a truly mind-blowing performance. Jeroen Perceval as a gay thug in love with the cop he's stooling for is also highly impressive.

Roskam handles it all with a touch of genius. Nikolas Karakatsanas' camera-work is alternately hallucinatory and cold, shifting along with our tragic protagonist. The icy blues go perfectly with the austerity of the director's tone. Maculinity, child abuse, homosexuality, desire, regret, loss, love, and forgiveness are the themes which run through this supremely confident first feature. I was reminded of two recent directors of similar brilliance, entwining masculinity and violence; Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive) and David Michod (Animal Kingdom), as well as past masters Visconti and De Palma. The shattering impact of this novelistic mini-epic declare it as one of this new year's best films.

Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda: Dr. Seuss' The Lorax

Dr. Seuss' The Lorax, Universal Pictures, 2012.

Overflowing with eye popping synthetic candy colors, this new version of timeless storyteller Dr. Seuss' conservation cautionary tale The Lorax from 1971 is undeniably engaging. The film's overall plot structure reminiscent of Burton's Edward Scissorhands, this tale of generic suburbia, hypocracy, and going green has a fun little script written by Ken Daurio. He also co-wrote the songs for the films' musical numbers, with the brilliant composer John Powell. Powell's lush sound-score for the film contributes a lot to the atmosphere of endearment.

Zac Efron and Taylor Swift are our young neighborhood kids, our heroes, with a crush, of course. After we are exposed to the utter drone-ism of suburbia, recalling the 60s mixed with inexpressive CGI for a maximum feeling of ambivalence. Ed Helms (great) as the Once-ler, Danny DeVito (perfect) as the titular character, not to mention countless others.

While the plot does wear rather thin, and the animation is ultimately unsatisfying aesthetically, the filmmakers do a good job of keeping things popping at a peppy pace which kids all over will eat up with their buttered popcorn.

Tyler Perry: Good Deeds

Tyler Perry, Brian Jai White, Good Deeds, Lionsgate Films, 2012.

Nobody knows how to manipulate African-America on such a grandiose scale as entrepreneur extraordinaire Tyler Perry. The down home, God-fearing population he caterd to have a rich history of dance, song and theater from which to cull inspiration from. Perry, who has built an empire on sappy movies which are fascinating in their popularity, what that says about us, and their ultimate ineptitude.

Madea is a frighteningly transfixing black gay icon, yet Tyler Perry just isn't a very good actor when he's playing it straight. Good Deeds, his fleetingly interesting new picture, draws extensively from Douglas Sirk-era 1950s Hollywood melodramas and American daytime soap operas (now nearly extinct.) Perry as the titular character, a never believable rich guy with a heart of gold, surrounded by wretched people. Phylicia Rashad and Gabrielle Union both have thankless roles as his emasculating, over the top mother and fiance, respectively. It takes him meeting another unlikeable, forced character (played by the amazing Thandie Newton, though), in the form of a destitute, single mom cleaning lady, cue music.

Aaron Zigman's score is definitely one of the best things about the entire affair. Brian Jai White overacts uncomfortably as Perry's troubled bro, while Perry clandestinely underacts to the point of extinction, blowing the whole thing. Token white actors Rebecca Romijn and Jamie Kennedy appear. The San Francisco scenery is breathtaking. Its just that Perry really has no style, its all too cliche-ridden and simplistic, but I guess THAT is his style.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Neveldine/Taylor: Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

Nicolas Cage, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Columbia Pictures, 2012.

Blazing off the screen with a juvenile passion that is insurmountable, tech wizards Neveldine and Taylor deliver their fourth feature film, a sequel to Mark Steven Johnson's guilty pleasure Ghost Rider. Being a superhero film, albeit a dark one, we are exposed to all the usual plot tropes, as in the first outing.

Whereas screenwriter cum director Johnson relied more on constructing subtext via the tools of his trade, character and dialoge, Neveldine/Taylor concoct an entirely visual world of free interpretation and genre deconstruction. Their obsession with movement, perspective, and form is fascinating. Their vision has fueled a cheezy, fun Spring actioner which improves on the original. Their grasp of 3-D is startling, as if they'd invented the gimmick.

Nicolas Cage reprises his role, his hammy instincts on high. The visual effects remain mostly unconvincing, but it all lends itself to the distinct aura of Saturday matinee. In the margins, we can revel at the overlooked artistry of Neveldine/Taylor, who hold the detritus together through their visual dynamisn and stylish panache. Transforming the pedestrian into at least a porsche driver, these guys are two of America's best action auteurs.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Agniezska Holland: In Darkness

Robert Wieckiewicz, In Darkness, Sony Pictures Classics, 2012.

 The Holocaust and its eternal horrors afford artists the ultimate expression of the evil in man. Holocaust films, by proxy World War 2 films, carry the weight of these scars. Spielberg and Polanski have investigated the vortex with shattering results; Polanski's picture, The Pianist, has the distinction of having been made by someone who lived through it all.

Polish director Agniezska Holland, who studied under master Andrzej Wajda, has been obsessed and driven by the Holocaust and its affects on her country, her countrymen Jews. Europa, Europa was her most famous; Angry Harvest and this, her new film, In Darkness, are equally wrenching examinations of the human cost of Nazi insanity.

Taking her inspiration from Wajda's masterpiece Kanal, Holland whirls us into the claustrophobic world of Nazi-occupied Poland. As the remaining Jews descend into the sewers, a local man, Socha ( a top-notch Robert Wieckiewicz) takes advantage, charging them exorbitent amounts of cash to take care of them. As the Polish police, betraying their own people, close in, Socha grows to care deeply for his new friends.

Now while the plot does not sound like anything new, it is Holland's artistry which captures and ultimately releases us. David F. Shamoon adapts Robert Marshall's book exceptionally, while Jolanta Dylewska's rupturing, rich cinematography perfectly captures the time. It is the way Holland intrinsically inverts Socha's character while steeping us in a frightening, unpleasant world, which slaps us awake once again to the lessons of the past.

Oren Moverman: Rampart

Woody Harrelson, Ice Cube, Rampart, Millenium Entertainment, 2012.

Gliding through grit like some sort of slumming angel, novelist James Ellroy has produced some of the most extraordinary Angeleno crime yarns the world has yet to see. From The Big Nowhere to L.A. Confidential, Ellroy's acid kiss and poetic realism permeates the neon dusk. For gifted scripter turned helmer Oren Moverman's choice to craft an intensely felt psychological portrait AND a capturing of a specific period in L.A. law enforcement's iffy past, his inclusion of Ellroy in the creative process has elevated his sophomore feature into the realms of the unreal.

Once again working with the fiery Woody Harrelson, after the dramatic and critical triumph of their first time out, Moverman's lauded debut The Messenger, Moverman and Ellroy have birthed a fascinatingly complex man whose vices and virtues play out for us amid a miasma of characters surging through the inner-city. Harrelson realizes the character of Brown with a burning conviction which marks this as his greatest performance to date. We feel the dark backwards of his life, and the discomfort smarts just right.

Moverman and Ellroy cast us adrift in the early-90s Rampart division scandal in the L.A.P.D., yet they focus more on the inner workings of a so-called crooked cop with an uncommonly astute insight. Backed up by an outstanding cast including Cynthia Nixon, Ben Foster, Anne Heche, Ice Cube, Sigourney Weaver, Robert Wisdom, Robin Wright, Steve Buscemi, and Ned Beatty,  Harrelson is propelled into the stratosphere of Lee Marvin, sharing his particular blend of aged masculinity and secret tenderness.

Bobby Bukowski's camera burns the smeary, vivid colors of the past into our minds. Jay Rabinowitz's cutting is breathtakingly paced and pure. Dickon Hinchliffe's score is evocative of the inner-turmoil of Brown. Working together, guided by the spirit of noir-master Ellroy, and under the direction of new American master Moverman, this team has made one of the most important pictures of the new year.