Friday, August 31, 2012

Chris Butler and Sam Fell: ParaNorman

ParaNorman, Focus Features, 2012.

Under the tutelage of American animation maestro Henry Selick, Chris Butler, an immensely talented young storyboard artist on Burton's Corpse Bride and Selick's Coraline, realizes his own dreams with the best animated movie of the year thus far, the transporting ParaNorman.

Butler and co-director Sam Fell both cast a middle American town in the fractured clay fortitudes of Selick's style, and yet its markedly different, rougher if you will. Butler and fell construct a giant homage to the 1980s films they loved, especially The Goonies and The Monster Squad, with a touch of Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense thrown in for good measure. Yet it works fiercely on its own. So many little touches demand multiple viewings; the inexplicable beauty and emotion of it all are bewildering. We are not used to animated movies this heavy!

Norman is an outsider, a little boy mocked at school in his small New England town, because he can talk to ghosts. He builds a ragtag group of friends to battle a witch's curse on their village. This simple plot gives no hint at the pure pleasures of the world these talented directors have crafted; touching on themes of disaffected youth, technology as a death knell to human interaction, media blitz, childhood, death. ParaNorman is not your average kids flick, this one is an instant classic.

David Frankel, Tony Gilroy, Jay Roach, and Peter Hedges: August Crowd Pleasers

David Frankel . . . . . .  a talented workman, Frankel showed visual pizzazz and smarts with his directorial debut, the adaptation of The Devil Wears Prada. Marley and Me was a sentimental film done right, and The Big Year was a sleeper comedy nobody saw last year starring Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson.

Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Hope Springs, MGM, 2012.

Hope Springs, a marvelously mature studio film, takes its characters and subject seriously enough to have us laugh with them. Vanessa Taylor's original screenplay is very well written and Frankel handles the proceedings with verve, while Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones deconstruct an aging troubled marriage brilliantly. Steve Carrell is at his best as their marriage counselor at a paid getaway, but its Jones who stuck in my mind the most. He's never given a performance like this before. The way he communicates anger, loneliness, frustration, all wrapped up in an American any man makes for some of his best work in years.

Tony Gilroy . . . . . ace screenwriter behind the fun Bourne movies starring Matt Damon and directed by underrated Doug Liman initially, and then British visionary Paul Greengrass, Gilroy had the directorial debut every screenwriter dreams of. Michael Clayton was like a well calibrated machine, slick, steely, hypnotizing. The legal thriller reminded of 70s ballsiness in its refusal to kowtow to audience expectation. He was nominated for an Oscar as best director, as was his film as best picture. His actors, George Clooney and Tom Wilkinson, were nominated, while their costar Tilda Swinton deservedly won for her villainess.

Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, The Bourne Legacy, Universal Pictures, 2012.

His second feature, Duplicity, was a fun, more mainstream, smart romantic comedy starring Julia Roberts and Clive Owen. His third feature is the much debated fourth entry in the Bourne series, not based on a Robert Ludlum novel, but from a dense, convoluted, intelligent original screenplay by the director, who really pulls a feat here by making the picture work minus its tentpole star, Matt Damon. While Jeremy Renner is more of a character actor, he straddles that fine line as almost a lead. Here, he commands the screen as another agent who becomes drawn into a labrynthine plot to track the "real" Jason Bourne. Exotic locales, bristling dialogue, scenery chewing abound. Gilroy is a stylistically muscular director; he is equally capable of directing a good action sequence as writing a great dialogue. Edward Norton, Rachel Weisz, Scott Glenn, and Stacey Keach are all in top form. Gilroy's third feature is a fun action film with guts.

Jay Roach . . . . . . an underrated comedic director, he is noteworthy as the man behind the 60s spy spoof series Austin Powers, he also helmed the sleeper Mystery, Alaska, he's also the man behind the initially funny, gradually terrible Meet the Parents series. Most recently he helmed the interesting misfire Dinner for Schmucks, before doing some of his very best work earlier this year with the HBO movie Game Change. Detailing the McCain-Palin presidential bid with tongue planted firmly in cheek, it afforded Julianne Moore, Ed Harris, and Woody Harrelson some of ther best roles of their careers.

Zach Galifanakis, Will Ferrell, The Campaign, Warner Bros., 2012.

How fitting that Roach's almost simultaneous excursion into the multiplexes be the frequently hilarious and over all well made political comedy The Campaign. Will Ferrell and Zach Galifanakis both are at their most surreally funny as equally moronic adversaries in a race for a seat in the state senate. Its all ridiculous and not all of it works, but the parts that do make up for the others. Its another triumph for Ferrell, after the brilliant Casa de mi Padre earlier this year. Roach knows how to bring things just to the right pitch of bizarre hysteria, how to frame for maximum physical comic effect, and how to wring laughs out of the most randomly peripheral things.

Peter Hedges . . . . is another screenwriter cum director, who initially wrote Lasse Hallstrom's best film, What's Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993), before embarking on his own directorial journey. Pieces of April (2003) was his warm, funny, humane debut, a year after he co-wrote with the Weitz Bros their masterful drama About a Boy. Both films were Oscar nominated. His sophomore feature, Dan in Real Life (2007) starring Steve Carrell, was sweet and funny and sad. His third feature, The Odd Life of Timothy Green, has alot of heart, and for a sentimental Disney family film, is one of the most sincere I've seen in some time.

C.J. Adams, The Odd Life of Timothy Green, Walt Disney Pictures, 2012.

Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton are the couple who cannot conceive; through a strange miracle, precocious Timothy (C.J. Adams) comes into their lives. Based on a story by Ahmet Zappa, Hedges brings his human touch, ear for real dialogue, and eye for visual space to the magical project and makes it succeed sweetly as his own.

These four films represent studio film making, if not at its best, than at its most harmlessly well done.

William Friedkin: Killer Joe

Matthew McConaughey, Killer Joe, LD Entertainment, 2012.

Brilliant and abrasive, 70s American master William Friedkin's new film Killer Joe is a blast of narrative ingenuity that feels like it could be the first film of a hot young director, it flows that madly. Adapted by Pulitzer-prize winner Tracy Letts from his own controversial stage play, visionary Friedkin transforms Letts' blueprint into a trailer trash neo-noir as energetic as his masterful film debut, the incredibly surreal Good Times (1967) starring Sonny and Cher.

Friedkin's mise en scene is deliciously precise, claustrophobic, stagey yet free in its visual dynamics and character movement. Its one of Friedkin's most important works, comparable in its own curious way, to The Boys in the Band, The French Connection, The Exorcist, Sorcerer, Cruising, To Live and Die in L.A., and most recently, his other adaptation/collaboration with Letts', on the mind-blowing Bug.

Matthew McConaughey, just as Michael Shannon in the aforementioned Bug, gives the performance of his career. Letts' preoccupation with men straddling the line of reality and insanity meets Friedkin's career long exploration of American masculinity in all of its great mystery; masculine violence is usually the transcendent climax. McConaughey's southern braggadocio is crystallized by his inception into this dark union. Psychopathic hitman cop Joe is one of this year's great characters, and the actor's interpretation of him is the stuff of legend.

All the other characters are perfectly deplorable in that sublime Cain-Thompson fashion. Emile Hirsch, Gina Gershon, and Thomas Haden Church are all at their blistering best. Multiple sequences spellbind with the power of Friedkin-Letts' cinematic marriage. But Juno Temple is the film's other acting revelation. Her naive, sweet Dottie is a femme fatale in reverse; her performance is amazing.

Master cinematographer Caleb Deschanel regally lights up the trailers and dive bars of Friedkin's vision. Tyler Bates' music score is textural and simple, perfect accompaniment for these savage rubes. The dark side of humanity hasn't been done this well in some time; Friedkin nails it with another one of his masterworks.

Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris: Ruby Sparks

Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano, Ruby Sparks, Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2012.

Flying high on the indie-fumes of a meta-film meltdown, pseudo-indie helmers Dayton and Faris, of Little Miss Sunshine fame, concoct a fun and diverting little Summer indie with the indefatigable Ruby Sparks.

Adapted from an original screenplay by talented young actress-writer Zoe Kazan, the movie mostly works in starts and fits, its a sporadic pleaser much like its predecessor. Sparks, our fiery red haired heroine, is actually a fictional character who springs magically from the mind of a young writer played well by Paul Dano. The odd rom-com whirlwind she takes him on makes up for most of the picture. Some of it works, some of it doesn't. Dayton and Faris are good at pulling quirky performances from their diverse casts; their progressive narrative flow and framing aren't their strong suits.

Kazan is a zany revelation, balancing just the right amount of sweet and looney, as she realizes she does not really exist. Dano is strong as the masculine center of the movie.  Antonio Banderas, Annette Bening, Steve Coogan, and Elliot Gould all have fun with their supporting roles. A mild seasonal Sundance selection, Ruby Sparks is a worthy diversion to get out of the heat and into the a/c.

Todd Solondz: Dark Horse

Selma Blair, Jordan Gelber, Dark Horse, Vitagraph Films, 2012.

One of the most narratively original films of the year, Todd Solondz's daring comedy-drama Dark Horse, is worthy of all your attentions and cinematic devotions. The dark comedy master from New Jersey serves us one of the most subtly powerful films of his career. Taking inspiration from Paddy Chayefsky's 1950s stage classic Marty, and Delbert Mann's subsequent Oscar-sweeping film version, by way of Woody Allen's wonderfully surreal fantasy streak, as his starting point for a work of art that is truly transformative.

Jordan Gelber is shattering as our pathetic protagonist, a middle aged schlub still living with his aging parents (Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow, both superb). He works with his Dad at the family business, where Dad's secretary Marie (an amazing Donna Murphy) looks longingly at him from her desk. His world begins crashing around him, after he becomes smitten with a strange, medicated woman (Selma Blair) who also lives with her parents. Their awkward courtship bookends the interconnecting fantasies and dreams of all of the characters, until Solondz has obliterated our perceptions of filmic "reality".

The pure inspiration flowing through Solondz's little world, the dignity he affords his fractured characters, grants us a glimpse inside one of our country's great directors; he has had yet another triumph in a long string of masterpieces: from Happiness to Life During Wartime, and now this, one of his strongest creations. Along with Wes Anderson, we are witnessing the maturation of the 1990s indie auteurs into integral American masters.

August Atrocities

Ahhhhh, August - end of the Summer movie season, and one of the studios' designated "dumping ground" months, along with January, to unleash all the crap they don't really know what to do with, or that they know stinks to high heavens. So lets go over some of these "stinkers" if you will, some of the absolute worst movies of the year. This August has also been incredibly rewarding and rich, which we shall see later.

The Watch, apparently tone deaf helmer Akiva Schaefer's stupendously bad sci-fi comedy starring Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, and Richard Ayoade at their most grating and unbearable.

Ice Age: Continental Drift, 20th Century Fox, 2012.

20th Century Fox's formerly cute but dismissible animated franchise, Ice Age, comes to grisly end with the obnoxious, last straw retread that is Ice Age: Continental Drift.

Sparkle, a tepid remake of a 1970s movie that wasn't so hot to begin with. But I'll take a Seventies misfire any day over a shitty millennial remake filled with decent music while all else is indecent, save Whitney Houston's final role, strong and interesting, as the matriarch.

Jordin Sparks, Whitney Houston, Sparkle, Tri-Star Pictures, 2012.

Step Up Revolution, one of the most moronic movies of the year. Bad everything, crazy dance moves make for a God awful time at the cineplex.

The Apparition, another faux  reality horror excretion, filled with good looking bad young actors, terrible dialogue, limp direction and an overall shrug worthy denouement.

Jason Statham, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, The Expendables 2, Lionsgate Films, 2012.

Finally, this August wouldn't have been complete without The Expendables 2,  Simon West's turkey of a sequel to Sylvester Stallone's campy action extravaganza from a couple years back. The inclusion of a feverish number of male action icons within one ridiculous film makes for a kitschy, so bad its fascinatingly bad time at a theater near you.

Jose Padilha: Elite Squad: The Enemy Within

Wagner Moura, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, Variance Films, 2011.

Continuing his riveting tale of a special Rio police task force straddling the moral line between law and crime, one of South America's masters, Jose Padilha, delivers a sequel rare in that its worthy of its brilliant predecessor.

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within is raw, lived in, ultimately transcendent. The writer-director's excursion into the psyche of Latin-American masculinity by way of a police procedural crime drama feels original and intense. Wagner Moura and Andre Ramiro play two sides of the coin; friends, brothers, colleagues, they are both specimens of repressed masculinity bordering on rage and violence.

While the first film was one of the most important Latin-American films of the past decade, its searing sequel feels very necessary, brilliantly so.

Watch it now on Netflix Instant Watch

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Manoel De Oliveira: The Strange Case of Angelica

Pilar Lopez de Ayala, The Strange Case of Angelica, The Cinema Guild, 2011.

Continuing his fascinating fore into the inner-trappings of narrative cinema, octogenarian Portuguese master Manoel De Oliveira delivers his annual tale of love, obsession, and death with The Strange Case of Angelica. A mysteriously beautiful film, Angelica channels Bunuel as usual as well as the Brothers Grimm, Hitchcock, and Renoir. The simple narrative is a deceptive guise for De Oliveira's musings on the aforementioned facets of life.

Ricardo Trepa, the director's grandson, serves as his surrogate once more, this time playing Isaac, a young man who becomes drawn into a strange mystery involving a wealthy family in a Portuguese village and their recently deceased daughter, the title character. Through a strange series of events, he is taken for the village photographer and hired to photgraph Angelica in her death bed. When he looks through the camera lens, she is alive and smiling.

The shifting sensibility of his fascination with the dead girl tinges every scene with a melancholy light somewhere between the end of life and beyond. De Oliveira's trademarks are on display; an extremely brief running time, distance, austerity, coolly beauteous images, curious peripheral characters, internalized protagonists we can never quite grasp, emotions hidden away. The framework perfectly suits his narrative style. Dp Sabine Lancelin burnishes his artful images onto the celluloid; together they craft some of the most intoxicating imagery this side of Raoul Ruiz.

At 103 years old, one of the last masters of world cinema shows why he is still relevant, and reminds us how mediocre motion pictures are getting, with this small gem of wonder.

Watch it now on Netflix Instant Watch

Raoul Ruiz: Mysteries of Lisbon

Joao Arrais, Mysteries of Lisbon, Music Box Films, 2011.

Wrapping our troubles in dreams his own passionately peculiar way, Chilean master Raoul Ruiz has devised not only one of the best pictures of his career, but also one of the most important films of the new century.

Ironically, in adapting Portuguese literary powerhouse Camilo Castelo Branco's dense, Victorian inspired novel, Ruiz was forced by the sheer length of the thing, to make it as a mini-series for Portuguese television. Yet he had always intended for it to be seen on the big screen. Running four and a half hours, this intoxicating, mind bending period piece is one of the great movie going experiences of my life.

Detailing in minutest positioning, the memories within memories of a boy as he becomes a man, Ruiz crystallizes his distinct style as a visual storyteller. The dark intensity of 19th century Portugal whisks us away on Ruiz's visionary passions. Pedro Da Silva is a Dickensian orphan who is compelled to unravel the mystery of his origins. Memories become wrapped in dreams, multiple characters reflect on their own lives and decisions via masterful use f voice over, and it all washes over us a testament to the power of cinema.

Joao Arrais and Jose Afonso Pimetel both hold our hearts splendidly as Pedro, the boy and the man. The rest of the cast all match that driven focus; how Ruiz culls it all together is part of the magic in its mystery, and reminds us that he is one of the most important directors in the world. Three Crowns of the Sailor and Time Regained are his two previous films this reminded me of most; mythical dream world meets dense character drama; both entwine until indistinguishable. Yet this film is better than both; in fact it is the crowning achievement of the master's career.

Having passed away earlier this year, we have lost one of the most distinct and enchanting voices in world cinema. And yet he lives on through his movies. Mysteries of Lisbon was one of the great movie going experiences of my life. It was televised in Portugal in 2010; played art houses in L.A. and New York City in mid-2011, and now is available on dvd in 2012. Not surprisingly, its better than anything that has been released stateside so far this year; Malick's Tree of Life is the only recent film that can rival it in depth and scope.

Ultimately we are under Ruiz's spell as he spins another surreal internal narrative of love and death. Recalling the Bronte's and Dickens among others, Mysteries of Lisbon is pure unadulterated cinematic craft.

Watch it now on Netflix Instant Watch