Monday, November 30, 2009

Love: Fantastic Mr. Fox

Fantastic Mr. Fox is not just the ultimate Wes Anderson film; it's also one of the most unique works of art ever released, an instant classic for kids, adults, hipsters, and the rest of us at large. It captures a magic that few, if any filmmaker has ever been able to find, and moves Anderson from beloved to genius.

Based on the classic Roald Dahl tale, Anderson’s take follows Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) through his mid-life, or 7 year-old crisis. Once a talented and adventurous bird thief, he now finds himself living in a hole with a dead end job, a beautiful wife (the perfect Meryl Streep) and a disappointment of a son (stand-out Jason Schwartzman). After an impulsive move into a larger home within a tree trunk and a visit by his talented nephew Kristofferson, Mr. Fox finds himself drawn back into his old ways and into the chicken coups of big box farming operators Boggis, Bunce, and Bean (Michael Gambon).

Like all Anderson movies (most notably The Royal Tenebaums), this film occupies a strange mental and physical space that’s both beautiful and intriguing, always evoking a nostalgia that you can’t quite place but know deep in your heart. But unlike his other films, it’s as if everything that is Wes Anderson was finally allowed to fully germinate and blooms in this entirely stop motion film. Every shot contains an inventive touch that harkens back the genius of Chuck Jones’ Looney Tunes and the twisted beauty of Dahl’s England, the town and interiors mirroring Dahl’s own home and village. One of the most beautiful and haunting scenes is a glimpse of a wolf across the road; an iconic image that has forever been burned on my brain. The scene pictured below is another example (especially when the boys turn off the lights and switch on a play train that slides into the "real" train on the outside), so rich in atmosphere that it leaves me smiling every time I get a glimpse of it.

Anderson is known for being an obsessive, difficult, and anal-retentive director, all characteristics that allowed him to complete such an impressive work. The film is flawless in its execution. Close-ups on the foxes’ faces are expressive and incredibly lifelike. Smoke and flowing water feel real and visceral even if they are just a few cotton balls strung together. Most importantly, the foxes and celebrity voices melt into their surroundings, allowing the film to shake off any box it might have been forced into. Combined with the hilarious, snappy script by Noah Baumbach (Anderson fanboy of The Squid and the Whale fame), you forget you’re watching animals or Clooney on screen and fall in love with each character independently.

The music is the final piece of the puzzle. Anderson throws a mix of Beach Boys, Burl Ives, and The Wellingtons among others, my favorite being the inclusion of the love story from Disney’s Robin Hood (which starred two foxes).

I don’t know what else to say, other than it’s utterly, indelibly, and totally fantastic. You'll just have to see it yourself.

Under 250: Thirst

Stephanie Meyer hasn't killed the vampire story just yet. Director Chan-Wook Park (Oldboy), brings his trademark style to the bloodsucking mythology with Thirst, the tale of a priest who, in trying to do good, is accidentally turned by a bad blood transfusion. Father Sang-hyeon (Kang-ho Song) finds himself walking the line between feeding sinful desires of the flesh and filling the ever increasing needs of his spirit. It's a clever juxtaposition, and one that heightens the dizzying, brilliantly paced storytelling at work in the film. Effortlessly navigating through heavy dramatic tension, buckets of blood, eroticism, and dark humor, is a genre bending romance, epic in its scope and intimate in its telling. Kang-ho Song has an undeniable charisma, and you believe and side with him even as he falls deeper into depravity. This is no horror film, this is an exercise is methodical sadism and one that puts the relationships constructed in Twilight thoroughly under the lens. Thirst exists where escapism and brutality meet, and the tale is brilliantly told in stunning, truly beautiful cinematography. Park knows how to use color and angles in a way that clearly establishes him as one of the finest directors of our time.

Under 250: Four Christmases

Four Christmases is a film that feels only tangentially related to the December holidays, and since it takes place out in California, there's almost no trace of anything seasonal. You could call this movie Four Easters, Four Fourths, Four Memorial Day BBQs, Four Engagement Parties, anything, really. Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn play a self-involved couple who'd rather not acknowledge the turmoil and embarrassment of their relatives, noting that you can't spell "families" without the "lies", they invent charity work and excuse themselves from the obligatory get togethers. They've been doing this for years (and rightly so, their families are filled to the brim with horrible people), but this Christmas they get caught. Thus, in one day, they're forced to make the rounds and deal with UFC trained ball busting brothers, mothers who date former best friends, a cougar den of predatory women, a torturous 'jump jump', and the generally awful truths of family and one another's pasts. The concept is a solid one, four separate vignettes rife with opportunity for comedy and fresh characters. But, Vaughn and Witherspoon don't have the chemistry to pull the plots together (or make us care), and the script doesn't have the maturity (or heart) to give us a comedy for the ages. Instead, the laughs (and in spite of its all, there are laughs) tend towards the remarkably juvenile. Segments last too long, occurrences seem too forced, the overall nature and taste of the film is too trite and slapsticky to make the stories worthwhile. All the women are nymphomanical, all the men stereotypically violent. Four Christmases can't decide if it's a dark comedy or sentimental holiday fare, and it veers wildly between the two, creating something frail and irritating when its conflicting impulses meet. Maybe if they'd cast a more likable, less hyper-talkative leading man, maybe if they'd avoided the obvious gags, maybe if the humor hadn't been so cheap, it could have been more than a mild amusement.

Under 250: The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard

Jeremy Piven plays fast-talking salesman Don Ready, who specializes in closing the deal in the clunkily titled comedy The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard. The film itself is just as clunky, relying on absurd vulgarities, the slightest shred of spent plot, and an unstoppable breakneck momentum that sends the film careening into a head-on collision with its viewer's intelligence. When Ready and his team take on a small town car dealership on the verge of financial collapse, they find themselves slipping into some strange new relationships with the owner's (James Brolin) family and employees. So, you know, there are weird and awkward moments as they sit in the pressure cooker of having to sell 200-something cars in a single weekend. The plot doesn't touch the social commentary involved in such economic woes, in fact, it never really gets close enough to any single storyline to make a point or give us a solid character. As a quick distraction, it's alright if you don't mind some repetitive eye rolling. It has the right cast to be slick, with Piven typecast as the Ari Gold character, but is ultimately a phenomenally dumb and mediocre disappointment. For a movie about selling everything, it shoots right for the middle of the road and forgets (or fails) to sell itself.

Under 250: Franklyn

Strange, beautiful, and ultimately disappointing. it may be impossible to watch Franklyn without seeing everything that could have been. Driven by split narratives, the film's stories divide it between modern London and the eerie steampunk Victorian juxtaposition of Meanwhile City. The characters, each captivating in their own right, seem linked by invisible threads of destiny or insanity, but the film never makes it clear which is intended. Franklyn seems to be building a thesis on religion, art, and individual spirit on the notion that they're related, but without the deeper thought needed to pull itself together. It's too bad, really, because the visuals are striking, the acting is solid, and the film has an undeniable momentum and atmospheric strength that's a shame to waste. As individual stories, the pieces work. It may be safe to say that Franklyn should have been 2-3 different films, and that its failure arises out of first time director Gerald McMorrow's stubborn desire to force his puzzle pieces to fit. Ryan Phillipe's delusional vigilante creates a rift in the cohesion of twisted entanglement between Eva Green's delightfully deranged suicide artist and Sam Riley's (who brilliantly portrayed Ian Curtis in Control) lovelorn meanderer. Green & Riley's connections are revealed slowly, and they don't need the dystopian elements of Meanwhile City to aid their tale. As i watched the story slowly come together, i found myself repeatedly thinking my own solutions were more interesting than what was eventually revealed. Overall, while it's visually striking, i'm not sure the people who made Franklyn really knew what they were shooting for, and that's rarely a good sign.

Under 250: Star Trek

Love & Squalor wasn't born at the time of Star Trek's late spring release, so i feel i must insist at this time that if you are amongst the handful who have yet to see the fully accessible glory that is J.J. Abrams's reboot, do so now. Star Trek is a movie that deserves multiple viewings, and that is as exciting as the movies you became infatuated with as a kid (only this one will hold up). The original series is imagined with a fresh new cast and flashy special effects while maintaining the humor, primary color palette, established character archetypes, and overall adventure of its source material. With a plotline that bends space time to allow for shifts and spaces, the film travels effortlessly (and at warp speed) through terrain that is nothing if not 100% enjoyable. Heading up the cast are Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto, who make a pitch perfect Kirk and Spock and are matched toe for toe with a spectacular supporting crew. It's like Karl Urban was born to play Leonard "Bones" McCoy. Seriously, if you don't have a blast with this movie, you need to re-evaluate your life.

Under 250: The Limits of Control

Sometimes i feel like i should really just give up on Jim Jarmusch. While i respect him, 60% of the time i'm just not a fan of his work. I try, believe me, and i'm always pretty enthusiastic about his projects going in. Then, nothing much happens. The Limits of Control is really no exception. It's an action movie without action, a thriller devoid of thrills, a mystery without any actual mystery, it's 100% stripped down to the bare bones of cinema. And you know what? I actually kinda liked it. The film follows The Lone Man (Isaach De Bankole) as he speaks very little, practices tai chi, wanders desolate landscapes, and exchanges mysterious match boxes with strangers (Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Gael Garcia Bernal) who pontificate briefly on various subjects in the most one-sided and pretentious way imaginable. Everything is empty. The scenery, the dialogue, the relationships, all reflect a vacuum sensibility. Yet, there's something magnetic about it. I can't say i was enthralled, but i did find it rather beautiful and i was intrigued by the way it managed to feel like something was always about to happen, even if it never did. Swinton's character in the film claims that some of the best scenes are those in which people just sit there not saying anything. Nothing happens. Sometimes there's something to that.

Under 250: Humpday

Lynn Shelton's super lo-fi bromantic indie chronicles, respectfully and simplistically, the escalating of a challenge between two long time best friends. Ben (Mark Duplass) is happily married to Anna (Alycia Delmore). They've settled down and are living a sweet little life when Ben's old friend Andrew (Joshua Leonard) appears at their doorstep late one night with a wooden duck and a backpack. Ben, in an attempt to prove he hasn't gone all white picket fence, follows Andrew to a party filled with artsy bohemian types, who tell them about the amateur pornography film festival put on by an underground paper. Andrew and Ben, drunk and half joking, set a date to break boundaries in porn by having sex with each other. Two straight dudes boning. The concept alone is enough fodder for a hilarious comedy, but Shelton's sideways approach is both surprising and a bit bland. The film opens up questions about the nature of sexuality, particularly male sexuality, alongside cans full of awkward situations and opportunity. The humor is gentle and the relationships are defined artfully and with a healthy dose of respect and reverence you wouldn't see if the film had come straight out of Hollywood. Yet, the movie never quite seems to come into its own, it rides along on one joke (that turns out to be not so much a joke as a posited question or social commentary) and shows us slices of life that are both absurd and incredibly mundane. Opportunities are opened, but not taken, and in the end, while the result feels real you just can't shake the feeling that the movie, while cute, just didn't take the risks it should have.

Under 250: G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra

I'll be honest with you, the most impressive aspect of Hasbro's summer toy seller G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is the way they managed to make Sienna Miller, as Baroness, look nothing like Sienna Miller. I wasn't expecting much, but after hearing several positive reviews from those who claimed the film was so self-aware and campy it was successfully entertaining, i was hoping for a mindless good time. I got the mindless part. G.I. Joe is about as vapid as it gets, relentless action, bad puns, and a blowout of CGI covers up a script that's beneath the bulk of its cast. The "Joes", with the horrendously dull Channing Tatum as focal point Duke, are attempting to save the world from Destro, a double-crossing, weapons dealing super villain who possesses nanotechnology that can devastate a city in a matter of minutes. It gets complicated when newly enlisted Duke begins to realize that somehow this all comes back to his own romantic entanglements. Coincidences and lucky breaks like that run rampant in the film, and while i can appreciate a good tongue in cheek moment, i ultimately found the movie to be on the boring side. Tatum can't pull off a lead role for me, even if he looks the part of all-American meathead, he's got about as much charisma as a raw potato (which is both what he looks like and what his name leads me to think he should look like). With a spunkier leading man and thirty minutes trimmed off, this could have been a fun ride, as it stands, it drifts towards tedium. On the bright side, it knows it's not a serious movie, and that at least saves it from falling into Michael Bay territory. Rent it if you need something to put on in the background, if you need to successfully distract a roomful of 6-12 year old boys, or if you're interested in checking out one of the weirdest turns on Joseph Gordon-Levitt's rise to fame.

Under 250: Whatever Works

The script for Woody Allen's latest comedy, Whatever Works was originally written in the early 70's as a vehicle for Zero Mostel. It never happened, and was shelved for a good three decades. Thankfully, though, Allen dug it back out, dusted it off, and roped Larry David into doing what he does best: playing a neurotic misanthrope meandering through life with a wince and an insult. David plays Boris Yellnikov, a supposed genius who takes in a very young, stray, Southern-fried ditz named Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood) and slowly finds himself falling for her unpretentious charms. When Melodie's religiously fanatic and sexually repressed mother (Patricia Clarkson) arrives on the scene, things begin to twist away from Melodie and Boris's odd relationship. The movie is nothing new, and is admittedly a little stagey and contrived, it's hard not to expect what comes next or to feel that everyone but Boris isn't moving around like a pawn through a set of lines. But, it feels like vintage Allen, before the nostalgic 80's and apart from the London series, and that reason alone is enough for me to have enjoyed it. It follows its own philosophy, breezily moving through time and plot with Allen's oddly upbeat, charming pessimism. David's rants on humanity are solid, his outlook almost consistently hilarious, and Wood delivers a convingingly bubble-headed performance (that looks genius following her dreadful guest spot on True Blood). Brief and a little predictable, Whatever Works turns into something that's overall satisfying, and generally worth checking out.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Love: New Moon

Let’s establish some things first. I have Twilight cred. I have read all of the books, and totally loved and appreciated the first one, and mostly enjoyed the remaining three with some reservations that we aren’t going to start fighting about here. I also thought that the first movie, or Twilight, was absolute crap and an embarrassment to the resume of all involved, especially director Catherine Hardwicke, regardless of how it fit in with the books. Thankfully, she was fired.

New Moon, the much anticipated, sparklely and shirtless sequel, is not only fun to watch due to the multiple young men with six pack abs, but is also beautifully photographed, has great action, and captures the gothic/romantic spirit of the books that launched a billion Hot Topic tee shirt sales.

After an incident that reveals Bella’s (Kristen Stewart) fragility, vampire boyfriend and true love Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson, in case you didn’t already know) vanishes from her life to protect her from future harm. Enter slightly more grown up, buffer, and Native American werewolf (the movie leaves out the more convoluted rules about shape shifting) Jacob Black (youngster Taylor Lautner), who saves the day. Bella, still reeling from the vampire drama, slips slowly into a puppy love that ends up being unrequited after Cullen returns, leaving little Jake alone in the woods with his pack, just as Edward left Bella.

It’s Lautner that ends up stealing the show. The man who fought to keep his part shows off his hard work both physically and emotionally, and plays Black with perfect, sincere sweetness and frustration. More importantly, Lautner holds the sexual tension. Forget the Bella/Edward love affair; Stewart and Lautner show incredible chemistry that saturates the film. It keeps the pressure between the Edward/Bella/Jacob love triangle high, playing off of the driving force that makes the books so attractive and page turning.

The other actors also seem to have gotten a boost from new director Chris Weitz. The previously wooden Pattinson and Stewart actually show real emotion and facial expressions, something that seemed out of their grasp in the first film. Most exciting for a fan of the books is the change in Ashley Greene’s Alice, who is transformed from boring and quiet to her proper place as perky and electric. Perhaps, its because Weitz is able to capture the introspective nature of the books, which are mostly narrated by Bella, a place where Hardwicke failed horribly. Mastering that perspective is the key to keeping the film interesting, maintaining the flow, and giving the actors a stake in the film. The film isn't just dramatic, it's also funny with a well written script, allowing the actors a little breathing room.

To top it off, Weitz captures the haunting backdrop of the books by bringing in rich color, and lush surroundings, making the film pop off the screen; a huge change from Hardwicke’s homage to bad, melodramatic monster movies. The scene in which Bella leaps from a cliff and ends up in the water with an imagined Edward and killer red headed vampire on her heels is absolutely stunning. The vampires finally look simultaneously more normal (remember the horrible wigs and strange hair we witnessed in the first one?) and more exotic. The CGI werewolves are a bit shocking at first, but begin to fit more seamlessly as the film goes along. Weitz also took the fight scenes multiple notches above Hardwicke’s film and it’s clear why the ability to make a decent one became an issue in her firing.

New Moon is not the greatest film ever made, but it’s certainly a decent one. It’s fun for girls and guys, Twilighters and non-Twilighers alike, and has enough to feed the romantic souls of Team Jacob members and Team Edward members for generations to come. If there is fault here, it's not in the moving making, but in the original source material.

New Moon and New Moon Pictures

Late Night Trailers: Daybreakers

On the vampire note:

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Love: An Education

An Education follows a fairly straightforward premise; younger, underage girl falls for rich, debonair older man with the ability to charm the pants off girls and parents alike. Surprise, surprise, he’s just as slimy as you expected and she gets an education in life and love. I expected a Police song “wet bus stop” and all to start playing. Been there, seen that.

But director Lone Scherfig’s film is unconventional in its delivery. Nick Hornby’s screenplay (based on Lynn Barber’s memoir which, sadly cannot be purchased in the U.S.) is hilarious, intelligent and never trite or sappy, unusual territory for this sort of coming of age yarn. Beyond the script, the performances also deserve credit for transforming the film from boring to success. Lead Carey Mulligan is entirely natural and charming. While she easily shows the na├»ve arrogance we expect from Jenny, Mulligan never comes off as the annoying rebellious teenager or pretentious pseudo intellectual, making her watchable and likeable. It also makes her return to earth sobering in its sincerity and her fall from grace both upsetting and humorous. It’s hard not to laugh along with Rosamund Pike’s skillfully jaded and flaky Helen when Jenny throws French into their conversation like any too-cool-for-school-teen would have done in the presence of such money and beauty.

Pike and onscreen boyfriend Dominic Cooper are one of the great strengths of the film, their facial expressions narrating the film on a sub-textual level that gives it more depth. Alfred Molina also gives a startlingly complex performance as Jenny’s father. Again, while he could have fallen into a bumbling caricature, he makes it sweet and earnest, giving the film a dose of reality that keeps it engaging. Peter Sarsgaard’s performance as the seducer David is not overly impressive, falling into his usual creepy undertones, but his accent succeeds where I expected it to fail miserably. It's here that the movie falls flat just a bit. Jenny and David's relationship never feels quite as creepy or as passionate as it should, a fact that removes the luster from an otherwise stunning film if pondered too closely.

In addition to the performances, my favorite part of the film was a message that lay between the lines. Jenny’s time at school with her no nonsense headmistress (the beautifully glib Emma Thompson) and her exasperated well-meaning teacher Ms. Stubbs (Olivia Williams) is never quite the center of the story, acting as more of a foil to her exploits with David. But Jenny’s interactions with Ms. Stubbs and even the headmistress reveal a girl power message that can’t be ignored. They know how limiting early 60’s life is for an average girl. They understand why Jenny wants to escape and the instant bonding session that occurs between the older and younger generation as a result is moving and instantly recognizable. It leaves you with a surprisingly upbeat story and a big smile on your face.

It’s great fun, moving entertainment in a beguiling package despite its standard messages about the big bad wolf hiding underneath fancy sports cars and trips to Paris.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Updates: 18th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival Nov.12th-22nd

This Thursday marked the beginning of the 18th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (or SLIFF if you're into shortcuts), which I am lucky enough to both work at for the behind the scenes intrigues and visit as a spectator. I'll be posting reviews here and there, and updates if I hear anything good.

Already the turn out has been impressive, and the organization and general feel of the festival has been superior to my most recent visit to the Chicago International Film Festival. That festival not only seemed to have some major organizational problems, perhaps due to the size and layout of the venue, but also had issues with digital projection. The short films and marketing promotions that opened each film were highly pixelated and unprofessional in appearance, while the SLIFF marketing team (with their technical staff) has insured that their work fits seamlessly with the art on screen that follows. Did I mention I love that image on the promo poster? It hits all my film, sci-fi, and design nerd buttons simultaneously.

I've had the chance to see An Education, Edgar Allen Poe's Ligeia, and Precious, and will be checking out Youth In Revolt and Yella in the coming days. Thursday, the festival opened with a sold out An Education, unfortunately sans Metro St. Louis native Peter Sarsgaard who canceled due to the filming of a new Tom Cruise movie. Tonight, Precious sold out the entire Hi Pointe Theater for one showing (485 seats), with requests for it making the phone ring every 20 seconds for 13 hours and an interesting and passionate forum afterward with CASA regarding child abuse. Competing against it at the Tivoli was the equally crowded St. Louis filmed Up In the Air with special guest director Jason Reitman.

Download the program and pick out your favorites for the next few days. See you there!

P.S. If you have tickets to the screening of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and would like to give them away to an eager Terry Gilliam lover, I will give them a good home (the person in front of me bought the last ones!).

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Under 250: M Butterfly

David Cronenberg is not a shrinking violet of a filmmaker. From gross out effects to inner darkness of mind and body, he’s one of few masters of the surreal to capture the beasties that crawl out from the deepest recesses of human experience. Unfortunately in 1993’s M Butterfly, his attempt to play things straight leaves the film distant and lackluster.

Based on a play of the same name, the film explores the real life relationship between a Beijing opera star posing as a woman (John Lone), and the French consulate officer (Jeremy Irons) that loves her for 20 years without discovering that she's actually a man. Irons and Lone provide solid performances, with a surprising level of chemistry. Lone especially deserves credit for his nuanced performance that plays with ambiguity, occupying the gray areas of gender with ease. While it’s hard to believe that anyone could be so dense in regards to their lover’s gender, the fact that it’s a true story removes the fault from the film.

The film is beautifully shot, showcasing the elaborate staging of Chinese opera and the exotic splendor of a 1960’s China caught between the old and the modern. Within these performances and strong backdrop, Cronenberg asks many important questions about gender, race, art, and love, but they never quite feel sincere. He’s distant here, just as the Asian Song Liling is from her white lover Gallimard. It gives the film a Kubrick-esque feeling that may work on a grander scale, but feels forced and cold in such an intimate tale focused on love and obsession, especially from a director usually so skilled in addressing inexpressible emotional themes on screen.

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