Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Kathryn Bigelow: Zero Dark Thirty

 With the much-anticipated release of action-auteur cum Oscar-winning powerhouse Kathryn Bigelow's new war-drama Zero Dark Thirty, 2012 ends on a somber, protracted note of artful despair. Following her masterpiece 2009 war film The Hurt Locker, which became one of the only recent films deserving of its Best Picture Oscar-win, the strategic, expressive mise en scene of this singular artist flexes tersely once again, in conjunction with her prior film. For Zero Dark Thirty is, if nothing more, a brilliant companion piece to Hurt Locker, his and hers, masculine/feminine. Mark Boal's muscular, intimate script for the first film was a marvel of gesture and intimation; extolling the latent impulses of the masculine war ethic, he and the attuned Bigelow gleaned inner truths about our country's instilled verbiage of violence let loose on a global plane.

The circular autonomy of Locker is repeated, yet differently, in their stunning new collaboration. Zero is much more than the sum of its parts, however flawed many aspects, including its length, may be. Moored by a breathtaking grasp entailing some of the strongest recent technichal facets of any mainstream American film, including, but not limited to, film editing, sound design, and visual effects, Bigelow goes Locker one more with a bigger budget and larger thematic grasp, which she unfortunately cannot always exceed. Luckily for her, as well as us, this trenchant, mercurial film is moored by Jessica Chastain's complex, shattering performance as Maya, a one-woman forcefield, who extolls years of her life to tracking down and destroying Osama Bin Laden.

Much has been made of the film's uneven politics, misrepresentations of the truth, com[parisons to torture porn. Suffice it to say that Bigelow's mastery of theme and style transcends most of these qualms, as her narrative grips us in a vice-like trance. Ultimately, despite being one of her most jagged films in some time (her least perfect since thwe still fascinating Weight of Water a decade ago), Zero Dark Thirty is ultimately one of her most hypnotic and powerful. Chastain stands beside Jeremy Renner's protagonist as one of her richest, most consuming characters. The problematic, uneven aspects of the venture are in the end subsumed by the scope and fury of her vision; humanity and violence in all their stunning mystery.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Quentin Tarantino: Django Unchained

Its always nice to hear from Tarantino, no matter how grandiose and self-aggrancizing he's become. The fact that one of our country's most iconic, cinephilic voices has become engorged in regurgitating revisionist history isn't quite the reason his film's have lost some of their edge. While his pictures remain thrilling and rambunctious, they lack the raw bombast in conjunction with urban wisdom which made his first three feature films some of the best American cinema of the 90s.

Kill Bill, Volumes 1 and 2, marked a brilliant departure, in that homaging the martial arts flicks he so loved as a child, the artist commanded a common ground betwixt his rough early mastery and the worldly reach of substance outside his origins. Death Proof, as always, delighted with genre and character, but lacked the sharpness of his early works. Inglorious Basterds contained countless masterful; set pieces, but in tackling WW2 and Nazis, the auteur had exceeded his genius grasp. For Tarantino does contain genius; his passion for all cinema, but especially everything exploitation, B-movie, grindhouse, drive-in, is sublime and singular; no other American director can lay claim to his heart for trashy heritage. The way he has imbued his passion into his art, via a gift for unbridled, bristling dialogue and uncommon framing and juxtaposition, marked him early on as a maverick in every sense of the word

The first act of his splendid new slavery epic Django Unchained, are some of his strongest work. Exposition, character, form, and style, are all dynamically displayed. Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz do some of their best work as Tarantino's Reconstruction revisionist mouthpieces. Waltz, not surprisingly, in particular, steals the show. Things begin to lose traction somewhere in the second half. Leonardo Dicaprio's brilliantly bodied turn as villain Calvin Candy notwithstanding, Tarantino loses focus, devolving into a typically violent climax which would have been more impacting had Sally Menke still been around to trim the film down considerably. The extra 30 minutes dulls down what could have been Tarantino's best film since Kill Bill.

A lot has been said about the racial and violent content, but this is Tarantino, and racism and violence, their intrinsic qualities in American society, are his bread and butter. The fascinating dynamic of commentary and exploitation are what make the maestro so relevant and controversial. Despite Django's weaknesses, it remains better than most filmmaker's best works. Paying beauteous homage to the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Corbucci and his ilk, Tarantino carves a distinctly American slice of bloody pie.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Juan Antonio Bayona: The Impossible

The blunt force and emotional trauma inflicted upon the audience by up and coming auteur Juan Antonio Bayona is not just formidable, but unforgettable, in his indelible, ultimately transcendent The Impossible.

Bolstered by career-high performances by Ewan McGregor and especially the incandescent Naomi Watts, the true story of the effect on a British family vacationing in the tropics by a tragic hurricane is rendered otherworldly yet familiar by this talented helmer. From the tour-de-force opening, reminiscent of Clint Eastwood's masterful Hereafter, to its immersive, painful body, up to an emotionally shattering climax rivaled this fall by only two other films, yet in different ways: Bigelow's masterful Zero Dark Thirty and especially Haneke's masterpiece Amour, Bayona's is a work of pure humanism, disaster by way of Renoir.

Oscar Faura's camerawork is a thing of trembling beauty, remarkable in its fragility and texture; Fernando Velazquez delivers an original score that serenades the narrative perfectly, balance, nuance, and heart all woven into the wondersome notes.

Upon leaving the theater, what stuck with me most about this remarkable film aside from its integrity and honesty, devoid of all exploitation, was Watts' fearless performance, a piece of acting so in tune with its containing body, that synergy was inescapable. Aside from the brave turns by Jessica Chastain and Emmanuelle Riva in the aforementioned films of the same season, Naomi Watts grants us her pure gifts in one of the best performances of the year.

Also, the fact that Bayona is a truly gifted narrative artist with the best intentions to match his best results. Near perfect, his picture shows all that even Hollywood can make a true film still; it's roundly possible.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Tom Hooper: Les Miserables

Translating the overrated bombast of the 80s Broadway cult fave Les Miserables, talented Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper stays true to the sappy spirit of the source while making it his own stylistically. That's pretty much the most that can be said for this rote, stale musical.

Hooper, who previously crafted the good entertainments The Damned United and The King"s Speech, once more displays a strength in cinematizing what was originally theatrical. Working in conjunction with cinematographer Danny Cohen, production designer Eve Stewart, art director Grant Armstrong, and set decorator Anna Lynch-Robinson, creates a convincingly squalid 18th century France for his ragamuffins and revolutionaries to prance about in. Costume designer Paco Delgado stitches together painstaking frocks for the game cast, but these aesthetic components are one of the overlong picture's sole strengths. Despite master Victor Hugo's brilliant narrative, the music is mostly unmemorable, and makes for a slog of a movie with few saving graces, which are, for the most part, visual.

Hooper's visualization has Cohen's camera swooning, but mostly to no avail. The film ultimately can't hold a candle to prior filmizations of Hugo's classic, especially Swedish auteur Bille August's underrated 90's version, sans the middling music, mercifully. Hugh Jackman saves the movie with his instinctive, guttural turn as convict cum gentleman Jean Valjean. His is a Valjean for the ages, almost surpassing Liam Neeson's in the aforementioned forgotten 90s flick; its unfortunate that Jackman's career high performance is contained in this artistically unsuccessful picture. Anne Hathaway is also memorable as the doomed Fantine, bringing a mousy fragility which differs from Uma Thurman's in the earlier, far better film.

The strong parts don't equal the sum, which is Hooper's weakest work thus far. Entertaing at best, frustratingly uneven at worst, at least some will love it, those in the know soley as a huge guilty pleasure.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Christopher McQuarrie: Jack Reacher

Homaging genre master Don Siegel, talented screenwriter-cum-director Christopher McQuarrie sculpts a visceral, winding fusion of narrative and viscera with Jack Reacher, the much-anticipated filmization of the popular series of detective novels. Despite fans' initial misgivings with the casting of charismatic and divisive Hollywood uber-star Tom Cruise in the titular role, most have caved in to the gifted actor's conviction, ala the Vampire Lestat.

Opening with an immersive bang via a tour de force sniper sequence, the director does not take long in revealing his gift not only as a clever script skill master, but also as a visual stylist adept at getting the job done. Despite the usual cliches both aurally and literally, McQuarrie does a more than creditable job of delivering the goods, which only goes to complement Cruise's tact and drive with one of his best star turns in years, especially after the mess that was his last debacle, the turgid Rock of Ages (despite his scene stealing turns which was that flick's one saving grace, thank God).

Several action sequences are tour de forces of sound and editing. Technically, the picture is a master stroke, a studio powerhouse the type of which we wait all year for. McQuarrie glided into Studio City with the underrated director Bryan Singer. Their first three forays into narrative fimmaking in the 90s were all excellent, with each work getting more and more "studio slick", and consequently, better. The low-budget Public Access, a sly psychological media thriller, the mid-budgeted but enormously profitable and now neo-classic labrynthine action-thriller The Usual Suspects (which brought McQuarrie his much deserved Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay of the year in 1995), and the creepy brilliance of their Stephen King adaptation Apt Pupil, confirmed the commercial and, for a few, artistic, status of the duo.

Whilst Singer went his way to helm the first two ( and best) entertaining, subtextual X-Men flicks, followed by his excellent, misunderstood Superman Returns, found McQuarrie's artistic brother delving into pop culture comic book mythology. McQuarrie, meanwhile, helmed his excellent film debut, the kinetic action potboiler The Way of the Gun, which was initially a flop, though it has become a cult film in the intervening fifteen years since its release. In the meantime, the fiery scribe found work where he could, triumphantly reuniting with Singer on the very well made and financially bountiful Nazi pulp Valkyrie starring Cruise.

Working once more with Cruise, on only his second feature as a director, McQuarrie has proven himself as adept at crafting genre pictures as an auteur, as much as being a screenwriter. Fun, smashing, disturbing, and entrenchant, Jack Reacher is the sort of popcorn flick we need more of. Here's hoping that its not another decade before Christopher McQuarrie picks up the camera again.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Jacques Audiard: Rust and Bone

Piercing character study is one of excellent French filmmaker Jacques Audiard's strengths as a storyteller. In addition, he is immense in the way he cuts through social milieu to the visceral heart of his wounded, mostly realistic characters. Read My Lips, The Beat That My Heart Skipped, A Prophet, and now Rust and Bone, have all offered up palpable characterizations in addition to beautifully burnished surfaces that belie the depths of his undertakings. Almost no other French filmmaker can afford the culpability and clarity with which this artist brings forth his touchable protagonists.

In addition, his grasp of masculinity and French manhood can be startling as well as fresh and complex. With his early film, the Hitchcockian Read My Lips, he offered a female counterpart in the spunky Emmanuelle Devos character to almost balance the pathos of Vincent Cassel's brutal/brutalized con with a conscience. In his new film, the touching and typically tough Rust and Bone, he gifts the astounding Marianne Cotillard one of the strongest roles thus far in her career, as a killer whale trainer named Stephanie, who must live with the repercussions of a near-death experience.

Her chance meeting and eventual love affair with a troubled single father, Alain ( the sublime Matthias Schoenaerts, wonderful earlier this year in Michael Roskam's masterpiece, Bullhead) sets off sparks, and more importantly, opens up both characters to the audience, offering us a glimpse into ourselves in the process. Several plot twists feel a bit generic and/or forced, and yet, Audiard's intrinsic knack as a director makes up for these in the scheme of things. Two truly brilliant performances, a mostly excellent script, and overall the director's mise en scene, wash wawy the minor incosistencies which depend on your individual pov's.

Stephane Fontaine once again wields the camera with a force unforeseen, his palette washed out as the character's exhausted lives. Alexandre Desplat once more waxes a classically lovely score that is both romantic and subtle. While not as collectively powerful as Audiard's transcendent prison crime drama A Prophet, Rust and Bone remains potent proof of its creator's importance as a contemporary voice in world cinema.

Gus Van Sant: Promised Land

Continuing on an upward trajectory that has revealed, layer by layer, one of the most fascinating ouevres in American cinema, Gus Van Sant crafts the entertaining if uneven, Promised Land. Working from an original script concocted by stars Matt Damon (his first since winning the Oscar for scribing, with Ben Affleck, Van Sant's standard Good Will Hunting) and John Krasinski, the helmer paints a quotidian portrait of movie small-town America in the face of the evil corporation manipulating it. The subject of "fracking" seems original, if filtered into a been there, done that plot about one man's awakening to the negativity and exploitation of the company he works for, and the purity of the simple life through the love of a good local woman.

Van Sant is a master filmmaker with an individual sensibility.His gift for delineating masculinity, family literal and symbolic, and the essences of reality and dreams, are pretty well suited to this simplistic tale. In the end, it all comes off as one of his "in between" movies, the more general fare he makes such as the aforementioned Hunting and Findind Forrester and the like, while dreaming of the textures and syntaxes of his more personal works, such as Gerry, Elephant, Last Days, and Paranoid Park. His cinematographer Linus Sandgren paints a soothing pallette of Americana in base colors, while Van Sant's regular composer Danny Elfman illustrates the action with a basic, lovely theme.

The cast is quite strong and lends a lot to the backbone of this good, if minor work in a great director's career. Damon, Frances McDormand, Krasinski, Rosemarie DeWitt, Hal Holbrook, et al, are all ideally cast. When its all over, we feel gratified yet pretty much forget it all on the drive home.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Andrew Dominik: Killing Them Softly

Grabbing the audience by the lapels and never letting go for the entirety of its hypnotic 90-minute running time, auteur Andrew Dominik's third and best feature film, Killing Them Softly, is a masterstroke which will be recognized generations from now as one of this decade's most important films. A high octane crime drama filled with rich subtext, spellbinding sequences, and a muscular miss en scene, the whole picture is a tour de force.

Dominik, an Australian director, has proven himself the most talented motion picture artist to come from down under in the past decade. His film debut, the wonderful Chopper, signaled the birth of a voice to watch;his visceral prison drama cum character study revealed his as a visionary talent, adept at not only atmosphere, but social commentary and directing actors in career high turns. His American debut, the brilliant Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, homaged Altman and Malick, reveling in the beauty of 1970s American cinematic craftsmanship.

Killing Them Softly is that picture's opposite; as fast, mean, and brief as that one was slow-paced, subtle and lengthy. Adapting a 70s novel written by pulp scribe George(Friends of Eddie Coyle)V. Higgins, Dominik immerses us in a modern Boston that could be the 70s, and feels like it, save the running commentary on our country now, as evidenced by President Obama on t.v. sets in the background.

Paralleling the underworld with our political world is a ballsy move, and it works. The intrigues of organized crime, heists and hit men hijinks, are to be relished in a fascinating script cooked up by the incredible Dominik. Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins, and especially James Gandolfini, all turn in excellent performances. The director successfully mixes these instantly recognizable stars with a great cast of unknowns; Scott McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Trevor Long, and Max Casella all shine brightly. The fusion of all elements is complete; to my mind this is the best American crime drama in years, and unquestionably the masterpiece of this Fall and Winter; no overblown Oscar wannabe can touch Dominik's cinematic genius.

Containing the best and most realistic heroin-high sequence I've ever witnessed, as well as the most original murder sequence I've seen in some time, Andrew Dominik delivers the goods in spades. Killing Them Softly holds its own against the 70s classics which fueled its fearless creator to spark this celluloid flame in the first place.

David O. Russell: Silver Linings Playbook

Submitting to popular cineplex formulae whilst maintaining his fiercely individual style of characterization and dialogue, American master David O. Russell delivers his most flawed film which still contains a multitude of pleasures. Silver Linings Playbook, an adaptation of a recent novel, tackles mental illness, family, and human frailty within the context of Hollywood rom-com generalities.

Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Jacki Weaver, and Chris Tucker all turn in splendid performances, heading a game cast that seems amped on Russell's quirky, idiosyncratic way with words. And yet, aside from all that, the structure, momentum, and denouement are all ruefully disappointing.

While it is exciting that Russell, one of our country's leading cinematic lights, has finally broken through to a mass audience, its lamentable that it is with his most ordinary film. The buzz built around Silver Linings Playbook is just that: buzz; all sound and no fury. Here's hoping that those who adored this good but minor film will glance backwards at his masterworks; Flirting with Disaster, Three Kings, and I Heart Huckabees, some of the most inspired and magical American motion pictures of the past two decades.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Nuri Bilge Ceylan: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Illuminating the thick darkness of a rural pure night, Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan lights the way, guiding us all into the depths of not only a province, a country, a culture, but also gleans the inner workings of his variegated characters and their social standings. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is that rare work indeed; an outstanding entertainment which functions equally as a courageous work of art.

Departing from the spare interpersonal connections of his masterful first two features, the critically beloved Distant and Climates, he only deepens his gift for subtle psychological insight into his characters and continues exploring neo-noir genre from his remarkable last feature, Three Monkeys. Anatolia may well be his most complex project yet.

Working closely with his exceptional dp Gokhan Tiryaki, and shooting on deceptively rich digital, Ceylan triumphs at birthing one of the most beautifully digitally construed cinematic pallettes I have ever encountered. As opposed to the longer timespans of his evocative first three narratives, the master confines himself and us to one night and the following day for his newest work. As the local police inspector, lawyer, and doctor, as well as several officers, accompany two criminals on a nocturnal search for the scene of a murder and where their victim's body is buried, he slowly reveals his true agenda; casting light on local bureaucracies and their agents of administration. In addition, he touches on themes of contrasting careers, nationalism, masculinity, and the nature of good and evil. His male characters are sharply drawn, yet open enough for interpretation.

Ceylan respects the audience, and believes enough in their intelligence to craft his deeply drawn films which enrich and enlighten. Steeping us in the magnificence of his images and themes, we watch in wonder at the majesty of one of the world's greatest living film artista.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Peter Jackson: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Picking up where his great fantasy epic trilogy adaptation Lord of the Rings rested its laurels, cinematic wizard in his own right Peter Jackson weaves another mesmerizing, if overlong, foray into the magical Middle Earth. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is really everything a fan could ever have wished for in an epic modern visualization of J.R.R. Tolkien's world of wizards, gnomes, and warriors.

Martin Freeman (so fun in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, another filmization of a cult fantasy novel) makes for an ideal Bilbo, the younger version of the character portrayed by Ian Holm in the trilogy. Jackson relishes each and every step of his remarkable journey of self discovery. We can feel Jackson's sheer joy at being able to return to his cherished Tolkien universe. It's hard not to be swept up along with him. Even though Phillippa Boyens and Fran Walsh's script may be way too long and inclusive of a lot of minor details which would have been better left out, I for one am glad that they tackled the project the way that they did.

Coming off of the triumphant double whammy of the masterpieces King Kong and The Lovely Bones, Jackson & co. have artistic license to be way self indulgent in both style and substance. An expert cast is in line with his old team of production magicians; art-directors, visual effects artists, sound designers, costume designers, et al, are in their element once againn, aiding their maestro innumerably in his quest for enchantment.

Jabez Olssen does a magnificent job of sewing it all together; admittedly, 45 minutes could have been trimmed, but I was nonetheless transported all the more for its length. Andrew Lesnie's camera is a magic lantern once more illuminating Tolkien's feverish discoveries by way of Jackson's cinematic realizations, and Howard Shore constructs a gorgeously alive piece of music which stands apart from the lush soundscape of his career defining work on the trilogy.

What we have here is a shining example of the best studio fantasy films we've seen in some while. Simultaneously, we have a delightful continuation of Peter Jackson's search for the glory and soul of modern visual effects within narrative filmmaking.

Sacha Gervasi: Hitchcock

Hitting select cinemas with the sickening thud of the corpse of a master director's career against the collective conscious windshield, Sacha Gervasi's narrative debut Hitchcock is a travesty in every sense of the word. Desecrating a legend, sullying a name and family, and tarnishing the synthesis of one of his great masterpieces, this dramatization of Alfred Hitchcock's definitive moments leading up to one of the greatest films ever made, Psycho, is tasteless and offensive.

John J. McLaughlin's screenplay is all sound and no fury, as he focuses on the most lurid and debateable aspects of Stephen Rebello's hotly contested book on the making of one of the master's great works. Gervasi paints in sledgehammer blows, directing much of his cast to a state of hysteria that is wretchedly campy and intermittently nauseating.

Anthony Hopkins, under pounds of eyesore make-up and prosthetics, is truly bad, his incantation of Sir Alfred all surface, and what an unpleasant surface that is. Helen Mirren is soarly miscast as his devoted wife Alma; her subplot involving adultery with a wasted Danny Huston is ludicrous to say the least. What's most enraging is the team's portrayal of Hitch as sociopathic, creepy, and psycho himself. The entire affair goes from bad to worse, until even the most clueless viewer would have to be a masochist (or sadist) to stay through the end credits.

This lousy picture's only saving graces are the uncanny turns of James D'Arcy and Scarlett Johansson, both superb as Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh, respectively, and master Danny Elfman's wonderful score, so deserving of a better movie to contain it.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Ang Lee: Life of Pi

Washing across the screen and touching spectator's hearts with a force uncommon these days, while challenging minds and expectations, master Ang Lee's newest work, adapted from Yann Martel's wildly popular recent novel, is crystalline, artful, and finally, breathtaking.

Adept at immersing himself entirely in every genre and subject, Lee's strength lies equally in locating the heart of the matter, and visualizing these worlds with a gleam that goes hand in hand. From his earliest breakthroughs, the Taiwanese domestic dramas The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman, it was clear that Lee had a precious gift for sharp composition and depth-of-character. Those light enchantments gave way to his highly-anticipated English-language debut, his masterwork Sense and Sensibility, to my mind the greatest filmization of Jane Austen's literature ever made. He nailed the intricate world of early 19th century British life, the delicacy of its comedies and horrors, and the palpable impact of unrequited love.

With his American debut, the even better The Ice Storm, he perfected his portrait of 1970s American family life. With each subsequent work, he has modeled the correct way to bring literary creations to the screen with heart intact, whilst making each picture wholly personal and wrenching. Tackling the Civil War ( the dense, flawed but fascinating Ride with the Devil), martial-arts fantasy (the intoxicatingly graceful Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), comic book superhero (the underrated, majestic Hulk), 20th century Western ( his third true masterpiece and possibly greatest achievement, the guttural Brokeback Mountain), and most recently, his minor works (still stylistically and thematically arresting and better than most other director's best films) Lust, Caution and Taking Woodstock, it has always been obvious that Lee is a cinematic renaissance man.

Notwithstanding his detractors cries of indifference and zero integrity, Ang Lee is one of our international-cum-American masters. Life of Pi belongs with his great films, if not the masterpieces. A rich, complex and subsuming work, there is nothing quite like it you've seen before. In lead actor Suraj Sharma's handsome intensity, Lee has coached an impressive breakthrough performance. In David Magee's jaggedly harmonious script, Lee has his blueprint for the hallucinatory story he will hypnotize us all with.His crew works in unison, crafting one of this or any year's most technically impressive blossomings.

Claudio Miranda's camera work is nothing short of magic; each bewitching sequence transitions into the next immaculately; dissolves have never been so subtly shamanistic. His control of 3-D is masterly; he and Lee employ the recently popular gimmick better than any live-action film this side of Cameron's Avatar, only Lee's is the far better film. Tim Squyres' editing is work of wonder; his technique bolsters the cinematography, birthing a breathtaking sorcery hard to forget. It's quite simply the best editing all year, if not in years. The CGI employed is staggering in its believability.

The flashback structure and high symbolism work on many levels; literal and figurative, its an adventure tale for the ages. Although I did not care for the ending, I understood Lee stayed faithful to the novel, and in my mind, surpassed it. Mychael Danna's score incorporates the characters' ethnic milieu and indigenous instrumentation into his lush compositions, crafting not only one of the best music scores of the year, but also one of the maestro's career best works.

Fantastic, phantasmagoric, and stunning, Lee's accomplishment here is nothing short of the most technologically accomplished film in his ouevre. One of the great movie going experiences of the year, Lee's magical opus will take your breath away!

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Leos Carax: Holy Motors

When a film work as maddening, fresh, and bizarre as underrated auteur Leos Carax's Holy Motors comes barreling our way, we must not only take notice, but bask in the glory of its sheer audacity. Carax, with only a handful of magically transporting works under his belt, has almost topped himself with this richly consuming piece.

The plot almost defies description - it must be seen to be believed and savored. Carax's stock star and alter ego (?) Denis Lavant, with his elfin visage and diverse body language, portrays a mysterious agent working for an unclear organization. Driven from scene to scene in a black limousine by his faithful and adoring partner (an enchanting Edith Scob), he uses wigs, make-up, and costumes in the bacseat to transform himself into a bevy of bizarre characters, insinuating himself into the'reel' world as a crippled beggar woman, a virtual-reality sex partner, a dying father, and even his monstrous sewer troll from Carax's beyond weird segment from the omnibus film Tokyo! from a few years back.

The elusiveness of the premise and its delivery are open to audience and critic interpretation, which seems to be the director's sublime intention. He calls our attention to the metaphoric process of watching movies and being affected by them. In its vague sublimities, the unclear transforms the spectator into the creator. His work is what we make of it. No other recent movie is as dialectic or challenging as this one. Certainly no film in its director's canon.

Open-ended, enfuriating, fascinating, calling into question genre and the very act of cine-voyeurism and the artform in its entirety, Holy Motors is a spellbinding provocation every movie lover must see to believe.

Steven Spielberg: Lincoln

Unfurling across national screens with the graceful stamina of a late-career master's stroke, Steven Spielberg's much-anticipated historical epic Lincoln has the strange distinction of being both a measured study in classic storytelling and the odd slog of a great director's letdown. For in pinpointing the accuracies of a celebrated presidency and decisive turning point in our country's history, Spielberg allows the dust to settle far too much.

Coming off the jubilant high of his triumphant double feature last year, the delightfully rambunctious adventure film The Adventures of Tin-Tin and one of his few works of shattering perfection, War Horse, Lincoln couldn't help but be anti-climactic. Despite perfection in all technical departments, and on the parts of his stellar cast all delivering career-high point performances, the mainstream maestro's ode to arguably our greatest president is studied, overlong, and dull.

Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, and Tommy Lee Jones are all three hypnotic in the immersion of their respective roles - Field's conviction is mesmeric, and Day-Lewis' transformation is not surprising knowing his track record but stunning nonetheless.

Opening with a roar, we are reminded of Spielberg's ingenious choreography of his battle sequences in his masterful World War 2 opus, Saving Private Ryan. But the brutality and realism of these Civil War battle scenes and Lincoln's mysterious introduction, and complex symbolic dialogue with black and white soldiers, gives way to the cold, leaden pacing of the rest of the film.

It's as if the passion and vision of War Horse drained the director of the emotion and heart one of his most important projects needs to survive. Janusz Kaminski's camera work is some of his best with his perennial partner; this world feels lived in, the color drained of blood along with the country, dying from its fissures. The art director and set decorators expertly recreate the period, almost better than any previous record of the time; Joanna Johnston's costumes are equally measured and just right.

Michael Kahn's editing is thoughtful and paced; as the picture drags on, we can't help but remember that Spielberg is one of many helmers who often has trouble knowing when to end his pictures. John Williams' music score is magisterial and classic, in union with the spirit of the entire old-fashioned affair. One of Spielberg's most inspired touches is his surprisingly fresh take on Licoln's demise; other than that it all goes down predictably, though well-done.

As the credits rolled, I couldn't help but be disappointed; my hopes are that this picture endures, and will deepen upon multiple viewings - Spielberg deserves them. I didn't care for his A.I. Artificial Intelligence upon its release. In the past couple years, I've watched the picture several times and adore it now. For now, Lincoln is one of my least favorite Spielberg movies.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Robert Zemeckis: Flight


Taking a much needed breath of anti-animation fresh air, Robert Zemeckis triumphantly returns to live-action narrative filmmaking with his riveting, complex new film Flight. Working from an excellent script by the talented John Gatins, Zemeckis aligns all the elements just right, delivering easily his best movie in over a decade.

Flight not only affords the director a chance to stretch his creative maxims into regions he's never gone before, but also gifts Denzel Washington one of the strongest roles of his career; he is thankful in gifting the audience, in return, one of the richest, most challenging performances of his in some time. The plot, regarding an alcoholic, drug binging pilot and his moral confliction after he saves the lives of passengers and crew with quick thinking, harks back to the days of morally ambiguous, adventuresome, and crafty American filmmaking of the 1970's.

Zemeckis, in solid conjunction with his stellar cinematographer Don Burgess, multi-faceted editor Jeremiah O'Driscoll and longtime collaborator, the incomparable composer Alan Silvestri, weave a fascinating tapestry rife with questions of hero-worship, addiction, and media-mongering. Washington's conviction is spellbinding; we come to care deeply for Whip, and his fate. Solidly, Zemeckis and Gatins leave a lot of said questions unanswered.

A wizard of the 70s generation wunderkinds including Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, and Lucas, Zemeckis is best known for his fantasy strength in masterworks such as the Back to the Future trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Death Becomes Her, and Forrest Gump. With Flight, he achieves one of his subtlest, most mature and humane creations yet.