Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Love: Hugo

One should never doubt Martin Scorsese.  If the man says he's going to make a 3D children's movie, don't bother questioning it.  Instead, you should assume that it will be the one 3D kiddie flick worth paying money to see, worth a Best Picture nomination, possibly worth a win, and with the potential to make every cynical film critic into a gushy mess.  Hugo is magic, my friends.  Within it Scorsese breathes new life into an already beloved book, writes a sweeping love letter to all of cinema, and proves that 3D technology can be used to move worlds, create art, and transport the viewer into another reality.  We are immersed in Hugo's Parisian atmosphere.  Objects do not lunge at us in cheap, gimmicky ways.  Instead, we are there.  Snow falls softly on the streets, dust particles drift through space, hallways and stairwells achieve real depth. Everything has dimension, every glittering bit of pixie dust shoots to life, and we relish our time in this tweed and tin celluloid snowglobe.  Paris becomes a brilliant machine, the city of light as you have never seen it.  This is how you use a tiresome technology: to enhance instead of distract.  From Hugo's first moments, I was completely entranced.  It was immediately clear that no tricks were wasted in the opening sequence, and that everything could only become more wonderful.
The film's basis comes from the award winning 'graphic novel/picture book' The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick; a black and white work told in scratchy crosshatched inks.  There was a magic to the raw material, too, but the transition from page to screen is something truly extraordinary.  Hugo follows in the footsteps of so many lost boy fairy tales.  Our hero is an orphan (Asa Butterfield) residing in a Parisian train station.  He is alone, he steals bits of patisserie to get by, keeps the clocks wound, averts the bumbling station guard (Sacha Baron Cohen), and, with a driving desperation, swipes mechanical scraps to rebuild an invaluable wind-up automaton.  We meet Hugo on the day he's caught, mid-reach, by toy shop owner Georges (Ben Kingsley), the very man he does most of his pilfering from. One thing leads to another, Hugo seeks the assistance of Georges' goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), and the stage is set for a beautiful, old fashioned, soaring adventure full of twists, turns, friendships, accidental discoveries, and...cinema. For you see, Georges is not quite what he seems.  Specifically: his surname is Méliès, and he is the man who took "A Trip to the Moon."  Unsurprisingly, Scorsese has chosen to run with the Méliès subplot, taking it to new heights and dazzlingly ornate sets.  Some have argued that the story becomes sidelined here, that everything deteriorates into a film preservation PSA. No. You have to question that logic.  For my money, you should avoid purveyors of such thoughts.  Beware of critics endorsing that line of thinking, and, for that matter, beware of naysayers who dwell too much on trivialities here...they may not love the medium as much as they claim to. Hugo is a children's story, in many ways, but it's also a simple, wonderful, heart soaring ode, and a tremendously endearing treasure. Butterfield and Moretz may not be the most brilliant of actors, but their presence is fresh and we have no trouble experiencing the the film through them.
What I love about Scorsese --and I mean love in a way that makes me really, really honestly thankful he's around --is his unbridled enthusiasm for film. He is a man clearly in love with his job, who has followed his own dreams and yet remains remarkably untouched by the fact that he is a vital part of the art form he's so fascinated by.  Scorsese is a true film fan and a certifiable movie scholar.  His enthusiasm is infectious, and he has the power to make us marvel, the storytelling ability to persuade us towards his way of seeing.  Hugo is an intricately imagined, very nearly sublime incarnation of one man's passion.  It celebrates the innovations of the past, the limitless imaginations of those bold pioneers, while simultaneously writing film's future in a gilded script that fills volume after persuasive volume with the case for film as pure vision.  Scorsese is a great filmmaker, and while Hugo may not be his greatest film dramatically, in raw feeling it is one of his best, and surely one of the closest to him.  Hugo is bound to inspire a whole new generation of creators who will seek out, eagerly, the material uncovered by the young protagonists here.  This is one for the ages, and one well worth a long theatrical run.

Love: My Week With Marilyn

Audiences tend to love or loathe Marilyn Monroe.  Decades after her untimely death, we're still perversely fascinated by her sad duality, by the contrast between the pose she affected as a true Hollywood star and the insecurity of the little girl lost just beneath the surface.  She's a twisted figure of the Golden Age, a true legend whispered and wondered about, an animated caricature, someone used as sex symbol and security blanket.  My Week with Marilyn capitalizes on that split nature in a way that's almost enchanting.  It doesn't dive to the lowest lows in a lurid tabloid manner, but instead captures something of the spirit of Marilyn, seeking to bottle what it was about her that so captivated those she came in contact with.  We don't get a biopic or a "Star is Born" rise and fall here, but merely a gentle, lovely, picture book of a film built off of impressionistic moments and the ghostly possession of an actress by a glamorous icon.  Your choice here is simple: choose to fall willingly into Harvey Weinstein's Oscar-bait formula or denounce it as trite (with nice performances).  
There are no two ways around it.  My Week with Marilyn is pure Oscar-cruiser and a safe bet for nominations in multiple categories, particularly a Best Actress nod for Michelle Williams.  It's another in a long line of movies about movies, a trip to the wax works with beautiful photography and the thrill of the nearly fulfilled fantasy.  The 'my' of the title refers to Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), a 23-year old cinephile from a well to do family who scored the opportunity of a lifetime the summer he became third assistant director on Laurence Olivier's production of The Prince and the Showgirl.  The film may have been a tremendous flop (and certainly looks like very little here), but in its filming, Colin walked amongst his idols.  Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench), Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond, a very poor choice), and American bombshell: Marilyn Monroe.  The production is an absolute disaster from day one, with Marilyn constantly delaying filming, repeatedly falling victim to pitiable self esteem, pouting, and expressing uncertainties as to her own abilities in fleeing cries of "I just can't do this."  Olivier's agitation is amusing, but understandable.  Marilyn is impossible in a way similar to Kirsten Dunst's character in Melancholia.  She's so infuriatingly fragile, so obviously off that in many ways filming her at all feels like a violation.  Somehow, though, Colin breaks through to her.  He's a gaping fan dizzy at the sight of her face at a time when the cast and crew are up in arms.  He's young, safe, and innocent; the perfect confidant for a woman used to being used as a means to an end.
The story is a supposedly true one, as you may have gathered, based off of the real Colin Clark's production diaries.  While there's no way of knowing just how their quiet moments together truly played out, there's a beauty to them here that's quite remarkable and which captures something of the slack-jawed rush of a dizzying crush.  For a winter tale on a troubled starlet, everything flits lightly along, entertaining audiences enough that they likely won't realize just how loose the plot is.  Eddie Redmayne may be the main character here, but his role is a supporting one that works to remind us what it is we ever saw in these larger than life titans, how we can be intoxicated by their personas and caught up in the idea of their obtainability when we see that they are real people.
As Marilyn, Michelle Williams pulls something very different out of her sleeve.  By this point, we know that she's an incredible talent.  She's proven this time and again, most recently in Blue Valentine and Meek's Cutoff.  Here, she takes a quiet risk.  This is not the strong, understated actress we're used to seeing, but someone appropriately vulnerable and, at times, garishly loud.  Williams is a surprisingly good proxy for Marilyn from figure to face.  She's not the floozy Monroe, glitzed out and trimmed with furs, but the pristine, young, confused bottle blonde quaking with a devastating shyness.  From certain angles, with a brilliant team of gaffers at the ready, Williams becomes Marilyn.  While the other actors can't claim as much, Williams is worth the price of admission.  Still, at the end of the day, while you may like the film (I did), there is an element of politicking in its mere existence.  When you see it - and you will - see it for the old Hollywood swoon, for Williams, and for a popcorn flick without all the CG bells and whistles.  Just... don't mistake it for a Best Picture game changer.

Monday, November 28, 2011

RIP: Ken Russell

Because of Ken Russell, I will never again be able to consider D.H. Lawrence's works without recalling Oliver Reed and Alan Bates wrestling naked in front of a roaring fire.  I could do without this image, sure, but the fact it exists is a source of great amusement for yours truly.  Of course, Women in Love is just one of the British director's daring works.  Over his lifetime, Russell brought us an eclectic mix of iconoclastic, artistically trashy cinema; films like Tommy, Altered States, The Devils, or Lisztomania that blended controversy, music, sex, and violence with unexpected results.  Russell passed away Sunday at the age of 84.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

In Which We Give You the Freudian Slip...

...oh hey, guys.  Now that it's entering the orbit of limited release, if you're one of the two people who are just like "hmm, I wonder what this random blog thought of that other movie with Michael Fassbender," then I recommend you dig through the archives and visit my early festival review for A Dangerous Method here.  On top of it. Got it covered. Way ahead of you.  Etc, etc.

Love: The Muppets

I never outgrew the Muppets.  In reality, I've not known many people who have.  When I was very small I loved them for their enthusiasm and ebullient, no-holds barred goofiness.  They were colorful and electric, a motley crew of frogs and bears and chickens and things: walking, talking, flailing creatures I secretly believed must have been real (and in some ways still do) and which served as the partial basis for a million and one puppeted plush personalities my sister and I brought to life each day.  As I got older, I learned to see the Muppets as my parents already did.  I seem to recall my father explaining that, like the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons he cherished, Jim Henson's puppets were in possession of jokes that improved with age and wisdom, they reminded us that it was ok to be who we wanted to be.

The Muppets -for all their cheery idealism- are a remarkably sophisticated act which, when piloted properly, offer a rare happiness and a densely layered humor.  Their mere appearance inspires joy,  yet, on the one-hand, they're a kid-friendly puppet act, on the other a self-aware, deeply meta variety act.   Part of the beauty of the Muppets is derived from the wealth of their personalities.  For every wide-eyed innocent, there's one snarkily pessimistic critic, maniac, or narcissist. When we were very small, we loved them because we wanted to know them.  As we grew up, we loved them because we realized we did know them.   The problem that The Muppets falls victim to is one of conflicted nostalgia.  It expects that its die hard fans will want to visit (we do), but tends to revere its characters and busy itself entertaining the newbies
While I devotedly watched the resurrected "Muppets Tonight" as a happily nerdy adolescent and have watched and re-watched nearly all of the Muppet shows and features in my lifetime,  I'm afraid I'm not old enough to have seen "The Muppet Show" in its original run.  For that matter, neither is Jason Segel (though he's got a few years on me).  Segel professed his puppet love (in a way) towards the tail-end of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and, as a result, wound up co-writing the script for The Muppets; Kermit's latest outing and "the human's" obvious labor of love.  Segel and Nicholas Stoller have wisely opted to put the Muppets back in context.  This is a movie that does not revolve around the far-flung conceits of Muppet outings of the 90's.  There are no pirate suits, space aliens, or Dickens re-tellings.  Instead, the goal here is to overcome the odds and put on a show.

In an opening montage, we meet Gary (Segel) and his brother Walter.  They're inseparable, and as they age, the two constants in their Smalltown lives are each other and a rabid Muppet fandom.  They're Bert and Ernie in adjacent bunks, smiling through the hard times with bowls of popcorn and "Muppet Show" reruns. Walter's a fanatic. He finds hope in the Muppets. He should.  He is one.  So, naturally, when big brother Gary and his schoolteacher girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) embark on a Los Angeles vacation, they have little choice but to cart Walter along and sidestep romantic outings in favor of a trip to the holy land: Muppet Studios. Long story short: Muppet Studios is condemned, a dastardly businessman (Chris Cooper) plans on tearing it down, and Walter takes it upon himself to do the impossible...get the Muppets back together to save the studio.
In many ways, this venture feels like a companion piece to The Muppet Movie and Muppets Take Manhattan.  Specifically the latter.  Manhattan has always been my favorite.  That film beautifully captured the pain of growing up.  We watched as the Muppets travel to New York City with their handcrafted musical, just a bunch of idealistic college theater kids looking for a way to hit it big and stay together.  They fail and, penniless, they drift apart, scattered to every far-flung corner of the United States.  In that film we saw what happened when the gang was forced apart.  We also saw what they could accomplish when given a chance to stay together.  The Muppets does just that.  Here, though, there's little of the heartfelt urgency we felt with "Manhattan Melodies."  Manhattan worked because it showed us the relationships between these characters and the way they relied upon one another and loved each other.  Here, those relationships are already assumed.  Instead, the urgent need for a show is placed on our shoulders.  We are not the Muppets.  We are merely Walter.  Walter is a conduit, a relatively bland addition used to preach the gospel of Muppet greatness and remind us that we need these characters.  When the friends are gathered, this time, in one of the cleverest sequences in the film, we get the sense that they're lost, but not in the way they were then.  The focus is not on the Muppets, but on the "people" who depend on them.  In some ways, this is a tremendous burden to be placed on those cloth shoulders, and it seems that in Walter's reverence, the Muppets are forced to sacrifice some of their own vibrant personalities to repeat the same old tricks of memory.
In the theater, I was on board with this.  I'm a serious fan, and just seeing Kermit, Miss Piggy, and Fozzie together again is enough to make me enormously happy.  The Muppets is a delightful, brightly colored winter happiness that's chock full of clever jokes and relishes its own warm sincerity. Yet, as the film drew to its inevitable conclusion, I couldn't help but feel that my time with our puppet kinfolk had been too brief, that what I'd wanted from the film, or, what I wanted the most, had been present, but accidentally suppressed. Segel is in love, and he does the Muppets a definite solid.  Where he fails, though, is perhaps in not realizing that everyone wants to see as much of these long lost friends as he does, in not knowing that Chris Cooper rapping can only make us cringe, that there's no point in Camilla clucking a Cee-Lo song, and that Amy Adams is a washed-out piece of milquetoast when put in the same room as Piggy.  As brilliant as it is to see them make their triumphant return, there are just not enough Muppets in The Muppets.  I want more.  Let's hope Disney grants them a slew of sequels.   

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Love: The Descendants

The last quarter of the year is my favorite film season, as I suspect is the case with most avid filmgoers.  It’s when we get the bulk of the Oscar contenders, festival favorites, and under the radar limited releases in bulk quantities with a new “good” movie (or two, or three) slipped into a theatrical run each and every weekend.  I love it, of course, but I’ll let you in on a secret: this is also a season boasting a surplus of bland yet “solid” films, and writing half-positive review after half-positive review for something you like, but don’t love, can become fantastically tedious.  My J. Edgar rehashing was tepid at best, and when I went to see The Descendants the day after that viewing, I was worried I might be stacking my non-profit workload with writings I’d have to force myself to push through in the name of self-discipline (and a mildly OCD penchant for completion).  After all, it wasn’t too long ago I found myself writing a rather underwhelmed review on Ides of March, I hadn’t been Up in the Air’s biggest fan, and there was a strong possibility that Alexander Payne’s The Descendants would be just another in a run of sad sack stories disguised as mildly comedic slices of life.

Alright, so I’d be lying to you if I didn’t admit that yes, The Descendants does indeed carry its fair share of sorrows, but otherwise I’m happy to report that as Oscar-bait family dramas go: this one is decidedly fresh, entertaining, and rather lovely.  The Descendants is yet another literary adaptation, its origins pointed to in the deft juggling of multiple storylines and the terrific depth of understanding its actors seem to possess of their assorted characters.  The film tells the story of Matt King (Clooney).  Matt self-identifies as “the back-up parent” to his two daughters, and, before we get a chance to judge him, we find him admitting to his comatose wife that he knows he hasn’t been as attentive as he should be.  Matt is trying to cope, but he’s also trying to hold together all the drifting pieces of his life.  His youngest daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) is a precocious, difficult 10-year old with an attitude.  He doesn’t understand her at all, and when he retrieves 17-year old Alex (Shailene Woodley) from boarding school, we wonder at first if her rebellious, rehabbed ways will calm the fires or douse them with gasoline.  As an additional distraction, Matt is balancing the personal with the highly public: his family has lived in Hawaii for generations and the titular descendants have passed down a massive quantity of untouched island real estate, which Matt’s veritable tribe of cousins have put him in charge of selling off.  The decision to or not to sell, or, who to sell to, is one rattled about as front page local news and one that could potentially effect the natural course of island life.   The sale could easily take the forefront in an entirely separate film, but here is treated with the uneasiness of distraction.  It’s one more nagging burden upon Matt’s shoulders, and we feel for him.

Oh, by the way?  That comatose wife thing?  Not a spoiler.  There are a few things you should know going in and the first is undoubtedly that this is a movie revolving largely around the fact that Matt King’s wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) will not be waking up.  In many ways, The Descendants is about dealing with death before the physical act of dying occurs.  In a beautifully acted moment of poor parenting, Matt confides with his angry daughter Alex that the doctors will be pulling the plug.  Of course, he doesn’t brace her for this, sit her down, or drape her in some sort of fatherly embrace, but instead tells her while she’s floating around the pool between cell phone conversations.  Clooney puts in a tremendously understated performance here, shedding much of his debonair bravado and charming smugness to become a harried, hapless parent.  This moment is quietly devastating, as so many in the film are.  We can see that Matt is frantic, that he wants to share this news, that he’s frustrated by Alex’s actions and yet desperately needs her to be in this with him;  we can also see what this means for Alex and trace back, lightly, through the assumed tactical errors he’s likely to have made in the past.

The Descendants is equal parts coming of age and coming to terms, splitting its focus amongst the members of the King family.   The fractured pieces are the stuff of melodrama and prime time soap operas: dying mother, single father, troubled teen, extramarital affairs, a sneaky dose of hidden wealth.  Yet, in Payne’s hands, they seem anything but.  The situation unfolds in unexpected ways. Father and eldest daughter team up, slowly becoming closer and closer in a colluded effort to close up Elizabeth’s unfinished business.  They embark on a quest, of sorts, for something intangible which only they (and perhaps Alex’s dimwitted dude friend Sid) know the motives behind.  On one day it’s revenge.  On another,  redemption.  Sometimes it’s selfless closure, other times it’s selfish rage.  Shailene Woodley is impressive here, tapping into a depth of uncertain angst and that perfectly complements Clooney’s flailing eagerness to please.  Together they mark just one set of the film’s emotional contradictions, and the way the characters interact and intertwine with each other separates the film from dozens of others in its vein.  While I can’t be sure the film reaches the heights of the “instant classic” some are hyping it as, The Descendants is a rich, human tragicomedy as endearingly funny as it is profoundly melancholy.   See it.  Expect it to devastating in a way that’s somehow inevitable, and then allow yourself to savor the natural way the film’s humor arises from the emotional lows.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Future of Yes, Really pt. II: The Revenge

The holidays are approaching, which fortunately for me means a little more down time.  So, it's time to jump back into the Yes, Really entries and get to watching all those talked about movies I've never bothered with. We've got some classics, some cult flicks, some notable flops, some dancing, some singing, some pure insanity. Once again, I'm enlisting your help on this.  I've installed a poll at the bottom of the sidebar and am asking you to vote and cut out the decision making process here.  Choose one, choose two, choose three, whatever.  When the poll closes on December 5th, I'll begin the taxing task of watching them from winner to loser, and writing about them as scathingly as I see fit...

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Love (Just Enough): J. Edgar

For as much Oscar-buzz as it garnered prior to its release, Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar has largely fallen flat with critics and audiences alike.  We are both surprised and not at all surprised.  This was predictable and yet also unpredictable. There are many things that this film is and many things the film is not.  All of them seem to point in the direction of paradox, a mix of the good with the bad that winds up more a confusing mess of impressions instead of a straight-forward narrative.  It is, for example, a 2.5 hour meandering epic about an unlikable, problematic historical figure which asks us to both judge and empathize.  It's handsome and ugly, mixing Eastwood's now trademark silvered grayscale with liver spotted old age make-up that is in turns impressive and creepily waxy.  It is a political life but it is not especially political.  It's a portrait of a gay figure who is eternally closeted.  It is a wide-open book of stories but it is not one that reveals very much, or forms a significant larger picture.  It feels both passively expounded upon and spectacularly closed.  It's empty and drifting and rich and filled to the brim with questions and psychological inquiries and statements on society's norms and the rigid expectations of a life lived in public.
In places, J. Edgar seems confused, its flaws are many and the payoff is minimal: what's the mechanism here?  Were they or weren't they?  Why is this scene included?  Why play the story in flashbacks when the present is so uninteresting?  Is Dustin Lance Black actually only going to write scripts about gay historical figures? Is there no other way to write a fussy, impossible character than to emulate Citizen Kane?  Can we see now that perhaps Milk was primarily made successful by its actors?  Did the cast and crew reach a point at which they decided to fill in the blanks by using a past Leonardo DiCaprio success (The Aviator) as a playbook?  Why did we have to see Hoover meet Shirley Temple?  If he had a niece, where were his siblings?  Why didn't we write the story from the perspective of Hoover's confoundedly loyal secretary, Helen Gandy?  Why does the old man version of Armie Hammer look like a stone-eyed killer in a death mask swiped from Madame Tussuad's?
Still, there are successes in J. Edgar, and they're more noteworthy than most seem willing to let on.  For a drawn out tale on a difficult man, Eastwood has found a way for Hoover to charm us against his will.  The problem with a Hoover biopic is partially a problem with the the man himself.  Hoover lived his life in fictions and exaggerations.  His public image was one culled largely from imagined exploits, an amped up, megalomaniacal vision of a action and adventure.  Hoover was not present when Purvis killed Dillinger, he played a very small role in the physical capturing of the Lindbergh baby's kidnapper, yet he's quick to paint himself as responsible for both.  The real Hoover was a man of great accomplishments.  He revolutionized modern forensics and laid much of the groundwork for the FBI.  The real Hoover was also a damaged, hesitant man who lived under the shadow of a dominant mother (Judi Dench) who announces, at one point, that she'd rather have a dead son than a gay one.  Eastwood finds Hoover torn between worlds and social norms.  We understand that it's impossible for him to trust anyone but a mere handful of living, breathing, human beings because in some ways, unfortunately, everything he's built is on the line.  He's a man of secrets; who keeps files filled with the dirty bits of the lives of others and spends all of his time protecting himself.  He's brittle, fickle, and speaks in long strings of barked dialogue peppered with stuttering fits.  DiCaprio is excellent.  Even beneath the now controversial make-up, he finds the humanity in J. Edgar, the depth of his loneliness.  Still, we don't know Hoover's reality.  The film succeeds in opening up a discussion, but fails to provide any depth of insight.  J. Edgar is a handsome bit of filmmaking, and occasionally an interesting one with a performance teetering on the bring of greatness.  As great as the individual parts are, however, the film only ever aspires to adequacy.  

Friday, November 18, 2011

Mixtape: Nobody Loved Laura. Just Us.

What’s up doc? Just a few words before I go to sleep. I feel like I’m going to dream tonight. Big bad ones. You know, the kind you like. It's easier talking into the recorder. I guess I feel I can say anything. All my secrets. The naked ones. I know you like those doc. I know you like me too. That’ll be my little secret, okay? Why is it so easy to make men like me? And I don’t even have to try very hard. 18 songs for Laura Palmer with Anna Calvi, Lana Del Rey, and Tamaryn.  Listen here or on 8Tracks.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Late Night Trailers: The Iron Lady

This past weekend, a friend asked over dinner if I was at all excited about seeing Meryl Streep play Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady.  On Saturday, I must confess that I answered with a very taciturn sort of "not really" and then some rumblings about seeing it any way out of some obligation to my own odd seasonal obsessions.  What had been making the rounds was a lot of talk about a lack of authenticity to the story.  Granted, I don't know much about what it was like to live in Thatcher's England (though I've certainly read and seen a fair amount opposing it), but I must say the trailer is surprisingly lively and appears to be much more promising as an overall film than the next great Streep performance I was chalking it up as being.  

While it does appear to be relying on some of what made The King's Speech sell last year (and this could certainly be trickery), I will now confess that I'm definitely curious.  That's all you'll get from me.  

Late Night Trailers: Mirror, Mirror

What's up with Tarsem Singh, guys?  The Immortals is getting panned all around (granted, I haven't seen it yet), and the trailer for his Snow White film, Mirror Mirror is almost nauseatingly saccharine (and Julia Roberts heavy).  While the visuals, as per usual, look fairly impressive, the adaptation reads as...silly?  That might be the right word.  Honestly, I'm not sure what to make of it quite yet, but at this point I'm feeling far more invested in the Kristen Stewart version of the fairy tale.  Tarsem's gets a release first, in mid-March, several months ahead of Snow White and the Huntsman.  Probably for the better.  Ugh.  Julia Roberts.  I don't even know.  Out of all the actresses qualified to play a good wicked queen...

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Late Night Trailers: Pixar's 'Brave' Gets a Full Ad

Somehow, I'd completely failed to notice before the internet hubbub today: Brave features Pixar's first female lead.  That's right.  All of those other Pixar movies you love have one thing in common: they're technically "male" (as much as, say, a trash-compacting robot or action figure can be).  Merida, a rebellious, tough-ass princess (voiced by Kelly Macdonald), is Pixar's bonafide first lady, and Brave looks like no other film they've attempted before.  While tonally the trailer is a little confusing, this is one of those cases where I have a tremendous amount of faith in the final product.  Disney has faltered in properly selling its films to a critical audience in the last several go, and I suspect the unevenness here is just another instance of them attempting to skew the appeal in as many directions as possible...all at once.

Regardless, the animation looks (as usual) phenomenal.  I mean, get a load of the texture on that hair!  Let's all set little imaginary clocks to countdown the days until June.  That's right.  You have to wait all winter.  All winter.   

Late Night Trailers: The Hunger Games

Guys, we're not on the ball.  You'll just have to excuse us for totally failing to actually watch the full trailer for The Hunger Games until about two minutes ago.  Don't worry, though.  It's taken care of.  I must admit that this trailer is more promising than I'd anticipated.  Something about the direction the casting had been going (with the exception of Jennifer Lawrence, of course) had been preventing me from getting my hopes up for any flat out dystopian sci-fi.  Watching no-name teen male after no-name teen male fall into line was making this into a sort of Twilight deja-vu for me, but I think I may be able to actually grant this a vote of confidence now.  What I'm digging, specifically, is the surprisingly spartan, bare-bones approach to the cinematography.  There's something that does seem to echo old school science fiction here, somewhere between Logan's Run and Rollerball.  If they can pull that off visually, while working with the strength of the story and its strong female protagonist, this could be something great. We'll know come spring.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Late Night Trailers: Snow White and the Huntsman

Alright, I'm really excited about this one but it makes me a bit nervous to see Kristen Stewart silent in this trailer. Let's hope it's not because all she has to say was, "I get to have a sword and stuff, and really cool weapons."

Snow White and the Huntsman [Trailer]

Love: We Need to Talk About Kevin (Notes from the Chicago International Film Festival)

October is always a busy month around these parts, and November isn’t much better. It seems that lately we can’t get through the fall without all hell breaking loose (in the best way, I suppose), but somehow I always manage to sneak in a movie or two at the annual Chicago International Film Festival. This year, it had been my intention to spend a few days camped in the AMC multiplex the fest calls home. I had big plans to check out whatever the schedule offered me, and to take in more than the usual dose or two of ‘special presentations.’ Work, weddings, and travels out of town interfered with that goal, but fortunately I still took in a couple worthwhile screenings. Next year, maybe I’ll take a few days off. Next year, maybe they’ll update that god awful intro reel (I’m looking at you, Columbia College). Next year, maybe I’ll have time to border jump over to TIFF. Next year, next year, next year. For now, though, part two: let's talk about Kevin.
Every so often I pick up a book I believe myself to have no interest in.  These are usually best sellers and ‘book club’ titles; novels along the lines of The Poisonwood Bible, The Lovely Bones, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Help.  Most of the time, I find my lack of interest validated.  Every so often (The Poisonwood Bible, for example), I’m pleasantly surprised.  Picking up Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin last year was one of those latter moments.  I couldn’t have imagined how engrossed I’d be in a novel so centered on unpredictable violence and uncontrollable offspring.  With Kevin, Shriver tells the story not of the titular boy (though he certainly plays a large role here), but of the woman who birthed him.  In letters to her estranged husband, we receive Eva Khatchadourian’s compelling narration of events; she’s frank, darkly funny, angry, detached, and tragic.   As the story unfolds, building from the bliss of her glamorous life without children to the anguish and unpleasantness of motherhood, the tale sparkles with pitch black insights and even-keeled suspense.   I loved Eva, flat out, and was thrilled to find a female character as complicated, strong willed and honest as Shriver had written her.   Kevin worked for me, it became somehow real, somehow personal, and I’m still shocked by how effective it was.   That’s why, though I knew that the subject matter weighed heavy and the drama dipped to a devastating low, I couldn’t wait to see this film.
It’s taken me nearly a month to get around to writing this review.  There’s much that I’d like to say and much that I simply shouldn’t, as this is a story best approached blindly.  I’ll try to effectively critique the visual layering occurring here without revealing too much, or leading you too far astray.  What you should know, going in, is that Kevin is an emotional horror story.  Shriver seemed to intend it as such and auteur director Lynne Ramsay has filtered the book’s contents, capturing its poetic essence on screen and bringing us symbolically loaded frames in which food frequently seems to double for blood and vandalism is an act of violence akin to the slashing of human flesh.  Shades of crimson do incredible amounts of work here, and the tremendous strength of the visuals (and hairstyles) keep us tethered to a strict timeline in the story’s nightmarish chronological flux.
In print, the overarching bleakness could be kept at bay by the vibrancy of the epistolary narration.  Here, Ramsay has made the startling decision to omit Eva’s verbal presence.  We don’t talk about Kevin, or we barely do.  Eva speaks, of course.  She’s played, to a tee, by the perfectly cast Tilda Swinton.  Her dialogue, however, is the stuff of mere pages and not volumes.  Instead, we are shown Eva’s fractured life in fitting, flying colors.  Swinton can say more with a facial expression than most actors can say in an entire film, and we know that Eva was never the motherly type.  She tried, yes, and sometimes succeeded, but perhaps not willingly.  What we know about Eva, what I can tell you, is that Kevin is guilty of something awful.  He has done something inflammatory, destructive, and vile, and Eva is forced to live with it daily.  She’s tormented and downsized.   We’re with her as she’s haunted by events outside of her control and made to suffer with constant, uncivilized reminders thoughtlessly gifted by neighbors and strangers.  We watch her toil, watch her face fall as she sees her porch has been doused in paint, watch her want nothing more than to flee when she sees a familiar face down a grocery store aisle.  This is a woman who will buy a carton of broken eggs instead of taking the time to go back and face her tormentors.   This is a woman who wants nothing more than to go where nobody knows her name, if that’s possible.  She suffers almost silently, as she takes the misguided abuse of her neighbors.
Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (with Ramsay close by) has managed what should be a textbook example of how to achieve a character study through visuals.  Between McGarvey and Ramsay, food becomes a horrible fixation.  We watch as teenage Kevin (Ezra Miller) takes on a new affection for the peeling and chewing of lychee fruits and we’re disturbed, sickened by their Halloween-likeness to eyeballs.   Consumption, disposability, the gnashing of teeth; all are conceived as violent acts.  The film is stained with crimson in every incarnation:  a gleeful food fight becomes the site of a symbolic martyrdom, paint and lipstick become unsettling objects, spilled wine is no less than creepy.   Everything works in a dirty synchronicity.  The actors themselves - Swinton, Miller, and the two other boys who play Kevin in his younger years (Jasper Newell and Rock Duer)- are stark canvases in high contrast black and white; pale, cool, each with their own devilish allure and reptilian gaze.
 Swinton is phenomenal, this goes almost without saying.  As Eva she begins strong and self-assured, a worldly amazon, only to become defeated, trampled, gaunt and weary by her demon spawn.  There’s a neutrality to the story, an ambivalence  inherent in Eva’s character that makes it unclear which side of the nature vs. nurture debate Kevin’s crimes fall on. Kevin is a first-class Damien, a regulation bad seed, it seems, almost from the get go.  There’s something wrong with him, and yet, Eva lives debating whether or not she could have changed this outcome.  If it was ever up to any action of her doing.  Swinton aces it, but she has three chillingly unsettling children to work off of.  Ezra Miller and Jasper Newell, in particular, deliver compelling, strikingly creepy performances that ensures you won't forget their faces for some time to come.  Miller has already had successful turns in City Island and Afterschool, but misfit teen Kevin is his breakout.  At the festival, John C. Reilly (who stars here as Eva's blissfully ignorant, well-intentioned husband) mentioned that Miller and Newell spent a lot of time together on set practicing mirroring each other's facial expressions and body language.  They became the same character at different ages, successfully, each with dead eyes and a cold, malicious smirk.  They're so frightening, in fact, that it perhaps becomes difficult to believe that Eva is the only one capable of seeing the darkness in Kevin's psyche.  If that's the film's only fault (and it might be), it's not exactly an egregious one.  We can hope the Academy embraces this dark mix of sound and vision, and that people do talk about Kevin.  They should.  They really should.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Post-Halloween Check-In

So, happy late Halloween, happy Day of the Dead, all that business.  We're late, but that's only because Halloween isn't really over for us yet.  Don't let our lack of Halloween posts this year fool you: we're still all about this holiday, guys.  So much so that at least one of us (ahem, this one) has declared that all parties occurring prior to Thanksgiving must be costume parties.  Hell, maybe Thanksgiving too.  You know what? This deadline may extend indefinitely.

That said: if you're missing our horror posts, go back and visit October 2010, when M. and I ran through 31 whole days of blood, guts, demons, and psychological scar tissue.  Also, take a minute to watch this excellent little animation from A Large Evil Corporation (no, really, that's what they call themselves) and continue to get high on fructose.  Nom, nom, nom.

Also, did anyone go out in any rad movie themed costumes this past weekend?
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