Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Horse Sense: WAR HORSE

Steven Spielberg’s War Horse starts as a pastoral, an ode to living off the land that’s soured under bad economics.  In the opening shots a horse is born as a farmer’s son (Jeremy Irvine) watches. We know right away that this will be one special horse, if for no other reason than that the boy loves him. But he doesn’t own the horse yet. His father (Peter Mullan) buys the animal at auction despite the fact that money is tight and what he spends would have been better off going to pay the rent to their condescending landlord (David Thewlis). The farmer’s wife (Emily Watson, sweet and tough) expresses dismay. This horse better help them plow a new field so they can have even a small chance to make some kind of rent payment. The boy stares at the creature with such wonder, what Matt Patches calls “the Spielberg face,” that the immediate connection between boy and horse is made clear with merely a shot and a reverse-shot.

On a certain level, this is a film about looking, about the power of the reaction shot. Not only is this used to create a sense of an animal’s emotions – as the boy trains the horse, we see them growing closer, growing in trust and friendship – but characters come to care about the horse, and we about the characters, in the space of an edit. Spielberg knows the power of images and the even greater effect in juxtaposing powerful visuals. There’s may be no more iconic image in all of cinema than that of a galloping horse, from Muybridge’s experiments to westerns and period pieces, from National Velvet to The Black Stallion. Engaged with this history, War Horse is a film that’s an epic of Fordian fields and Lean landscapes mixed with intimate close ups and stunning sequences of the kind that by now can certainly be called Spielbergian.

It’s also a film that’s literally about looking at the effects of war. Under all the intensely sympathetic human detail that opens the film, the Great War is looming. The farmer, much to his son’s dismay, sells their horse to the army after which the animal is sent along to help the war effort. The script by Lee Hall and Richard Cutris (from the novel by Michael Morpurgo) has us follow the horse. As we do, we get to know the many varied people who come into contact with him. There’s, among others, the brave and honorable British officer (Tom Hiddleston), two German brothers (Leonhard Carow and David Kross), and a French farmer (Niels Arestrup) and his granddaughter (Celine Buckens). It becomes a knockout of a film that gallops across World War I, catching glimpses of its effect on all lives the conflict intersects, no matter the age, no matter the social station, no matter the nationality.

Through the horse’s path we see the devastation of this war for civilians and soldiers alike. Spielberg stages the horror of trench warfare as a PG-13 Saving Private Ryan, grim and overwhelming. When he moves away from the front lines, there’s a terrific patience given over to the brief respites of uncertain solitude, the booming cannonade that can be heard from miles away intruding upon the hesitant daily lives of people desperately trying to avoid trouble if it can be helped. The fleeing soldiers who try to hide from the fight, the brief return to pastoral setting on the French farm, these are moments away from the front that feel nearly, if not just as devastating as the battles themselves. The horror of war may not always be foregrounded, but it’s always encroaching, booming off in the distance.

This is a film with emotion quivering right on the surface in John Williams moving, memorable, and rich score, in the painterly cinematography of deep red Hollywood sunsets, rolling green hills, and muddy gray trenches, in the scenes capable of evoking great warmth and great horror that Janusz Kaminski so handsomely photographs and that Spielberg arranges to play like a sympathy of empathy. Is this manipulative? Yes, in that Spielberg has the audience held captive by his ability to evoke any emotion, to trigger sympathy for any character. That’s hardly a bad thing. Getting a film to work on such a high level is hardly cheap and easy. This is a deliriously accomplished film of powerful emotion. An early battle scene features the cavalry charging a line of enemy machine guns. We hear the roar of the brave men as they ride their horses forward, and then cut to riderless horses leaping over enemy lines to only the sounds of gunfire. With elegant, devastating editing of sounds and shots, just one of many such examples that could be singled out, Spielberg creates a memorable and striking moment of deep emotional impact.

This film is epic Hollywood filmmaking on a scale that’s sure to satisfy those who grumble “they don’t make them like they used to.” While it’s a bit of a throwback in that regard – at times it plays almost like a new classic – it’s hardly old-fashioned or stuffy. It’s a lively, tremendously modern work. Only today’s effects and techniques could build its period piece world in such a visually accomplished way. This is no studio backlot. But what really works in the film, what marks it as neither old nor new, but timeless, is its deep, pure humanistic expression. Each and every character we meet becomes a fully fleshed human being.  We learn their hopes and fears and then plunge with them into awful war-torn circumstances. Spielberg and his uniformly excellent cast have us fall in love with these characters in order to better break our hearts.

War Horse is stirring and moving and unabashedly sentimental in ways that never feel forced. So strongly thematically engaged – and with the horse as such a strong visual and emotional anchor – that what could easily have been episodic and clunky is rendered powerfully, elegantly unified. By the end, which has brought back some of the previously left behind characters in rewarding, sometimes surprising, ways, there’s the feeling of having had a filmgoing experience so completely full and fulfilling, a rare complete and total satisfaction. Spielberg is a master filmmaker, capable of marshalling the best techniques of the past to give us thrilling and moving new examples of filmmaking at its best. Moments like the final shots of a deeply heartfelt reunion silhouetted against a gorgeous sunset, accompanied by Williams’s soaring main theme, could be straight out of a Hollywood epic of any era.  This is terrific, earnest, empathetic filmmaking that cuts straight to the heart with strong, direct emotion. It’s a film that’s involving, upsetting, and in the end somehow uplifting, that thrills and moves and lingers.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Lions, Tigers, and Bears: WE BOUGHT A ZOO


Cameron Crowe is the kind of writer-director who can manufacture moments so broad and sentimental, then deploy them with such total earnestness (accompanied with a tasteful mix-tape of a soundtrack) that they work wonders. Remember John Cusack holding the boombox under Ione Skye’s window in Say Anything? Tom Cruise telling Renée Zellweger that she “had him from hello” in Jerry Maguire? A group of rockers and their teenage embedded reporter having an impromptu Elton John sing-along on the tour bus in Almost Famous? These are moments of great magic that could have gone wrong in lesser hands, but when Crowe’s films sing, they really sing. There’s so much heart and humanity coursing through the films that they create comfortable places to settle into. Even when characters are running into problems, there’s a sense of a warm, gentle humanist spirit that will take care of them.

I should have remembered all of that when I went into Crowe’s first film in six years, We Got a Zoo. Instead, I had low expectations. It’s a comedy/drama based on a true story and featuring cute kids and lots of animals. I was worried the film would be too schmaltzy, too gooey sweet, too simple and formulaic. And it is, to a certain extent. But what surprised me was how caught up in it all I found myself. It’s hardly a subtle film, but it’s a comforting one all the same. It’s a movie with heavy material handled with the lightest of touches. It’s such a calm, warm, sunny film that it’s a pleasure to simply bask in it for two hours.

The film is about Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) a new widower with two kids, a young teen son (Colin Ford) and a seven-year-old daughter (Maggie Elizabeth Jones). Crowe makes a film about grief and mourning that isn’t all that concerned with the immediate aftermath of a death. Instead, this is a film that recognizes that life moves on whether you’re ready for it or not. They’re not. They’re still very much grieving, floundering under the demands of day-to-day life. Benjamin has quit his job. The son is moody and misbehaving; for this he has been expelled. The daughter, sweet as she can be, is nonetheless troubled in her own way. Hearing the sounds of a late night party next door she finds her dad and tells him “their happy is too loud.” The Mees need a change of pace.

Out house hunting, the realtor (J.B. Smoove) shows them a nice property that he warns has complications. They fall in love with the house and its vast expanse of fields. The complications? It’s a zoo shut down by state regulators. If there’s no buyer willing to fund and run the zoo, the animals will be sent away in a permanent fashion. Summoning up his courage – and his pocketbook – and against the advice of his brother (Thomas Haden Church), Mr. Mee buys the house and the zoo right along with it. His daughter is thrilled. His son is very much less so. Suddenly, they’re the owners of a lion, tigers, and a bear (and, oh my, zebras, peacocks, snakes, monkeys, and more). The workers that come with the zoo, including the young, passionate zookeeper (Scarlett Johansson), are just glad the place will open back up and the animals will remain under their care.

This is a film about rebuilding a zoo and rebuilding a family. The zoo’s employees become a kind of second family for the Mees as they try to rebuild their lives in a new place without their wife and mother. I would have liked to learn a little more about the actual process of running the zoo, which would have given more screen time to other zoo employees like Patrick Fugit and Angus Macfadyen. But that’s a minor quibble in a film that’s only interested in what owning the zoo means for the characters. It’s sprinkled with lovely little bits of acting and wonderful moments of soft cinematic delight. Its approach to mourning is a small wonder in a moment when a photo comes to life with a full memory or when a simple story can bring back the lost loved one, if only for an instant. Damon and the rather wonderful child actors sell these moments, yes, but they achieve a kind of visual power as well. Without a single proper flashback, the extent of their loss is felt.

As these characters try to move forward – Damon throws himself into the zoo and is a little startled by his hesitant feelings towards Johansson, his son develops a crush on the zoo volunteer next door (Elle Fanning), his daughter falls in love with the animals – there’s naturally some tension to be felt and life lessons to be learned. But what makes this film so satisfying is the way Crowe sets up an interesting situation in which the characters are all likable. (Well, except for the token jerk zoo inspector who exists solely to give the film some small semblance of deadline-based conflict). Little aspects of character work ring so true (I was particularly taken with Johansson’s halting, rushed pronunciation of Mr. Mee’s name, “Ben-jamin,”as she remembers his preference). I genuinely wanted to see things turn out well for each and every one of them. This is essentially a warm, broad, sweet embrace of a movie. I felt myself settling in to enjoy it as if it were cinematic comfort food.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Law & Order Swedish Victims Unit: THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO

There are now three versions of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a cold case mystery that introduces the character of Lisbeth Salander, crack researcher, expert hacker, stoic goth loner abused by father figures and bureaucracy. She’s quite the character, but the story she’s trapped in isn’t worthy of her. First told by author Stieg Larsson in a wordy piece of pulpy fiction, then adapted into a lifeless transcription of a film in Sweden, the material has landed in Hollywood hands. Director David Fincher, with Se7en, Panic Room, and Zodiac, has more than proved that he knows his way around a thriller. Now he’s made what might be the best possible version of Dragon Tattoo. That’s not to say it’s good, necessarily, but it's compelling. He can’t quite overcome the shallow, overcooked, and problematic nature of the story, but he gives it his best shot.

The bare bones of the plot are probably familiar by now, even for those who have yet to experience them, simply because of the story’s cultural presence. For those who’ve yet to hear, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the story of a disgraced journalist (Daniel Craig) who is hired by an elderly industry titan (Christopher Plummer) to help write his memoirs as a cover for reopening a decades-old case of a missing girl. It’s actually a terrific variation on the locked room murder mystery at its core. The man and his relatives all work for the family company and all live on the same little Swedish island which is accessible from the mainland only by a single bridge. Forty years ago, his grandniece vanished without a trace during a company picnic that happened to be on the day a car wreck left the bridge impassable.

He concludes that a member of the family is to blame, but in all this time hasn’t been able to figure it out for himself. That’s why journalist Mikael Blomkvist rides into town to pour over the details the old man has compiled over the decades. It’s a complicated task, especially since many of the suspects still lurk about the island. After all, this is a family that counts at least two former Nazis amongst their ranks, not to mention alcoholics, mysterious recluses, and anti-social grudge-holders, characters with all kinds of signs that point towards danger. Blomkvist decides to hire a research assistant and that’s when the tattooed girl roars into the picture.

We’ve met Lisbeth already, though. We’ve seen some of her sordid backstory, been introduced to her pierced face, inked body, and her stare of vacant intensity. In the Swedish version, the role went to Noomi Rapace who was so good, it’s a shame the films couldn’t match her. Here, she’s played by Rooney Mara, the girl who dumps Zuckerberg in the opening scene of Fincher’s Social Network. She’s not quite as good as Rapace, but that’s a tall order isn’t it? She certainly looks and sounds the part, a boyish young woman, an emaciated pale punk with wild hair, furrowed brow and flat affect. That she doesn’t much resemble the real Mara represents only a commitment to the optics of the role. That she makes it work dramatically to the extent that she does is what makes her performance somewhat noteworthy. This very well could become the kind of role like James Bond or Hamlet that can more than survive recasting.

Working from an adaptation penned by Steven Zaillian, Fincher finds room to put his own personal stamp on the material. (And I’m not just talking about the great inky black semi-abstract opening credits that play out like the coolest Bond credits never made). There’s still Larsson’s messy anti-misogyny message, but Fincher adds to it his love of observing processes and his love of the physical acts of investigation and technology. Here’s a movie about a cold case in which the mystery will be solved by typing, scribbling notes, scanning photographs, sticking tacks in maps, flipping through dusty old albums, and pouring over archived company records. Add to that characters who are constantly getting on trains, roaring around on motorcycles and in cars, lighting up cigarettes, getting dressed and undressed, buying supplies, and looking about fidgeting with nervousness. Fincher shoots such actions with a crisp, energetic monotone montage creating a film that exudes style with every shot. The simmering electronic-infused score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross sizzles underneath the scenes, pushing forward the chilly imagery of Jeff Cronenweth’s cinematography that seems to capture both the ice in the wintry setting and within the characters dark, cynical hearts.

There’s a real cinematic liveliness to the film that the Swedish version could never match. The griminess of the original source material remains, however. A particularly horrifying rape scene that played out with disgusting detachment in the first film adaptation is nearly handled better here. Salander is attacked and thrown about. The door closes. The screen cuts to black. I breathed a sigh of relief that was cut short when Fincher brings us back inside the room for just one more look. It’s the material’s most problematic moment for me. The scene’s an unseemly, unnecessary lingering on sexual violence in what is otherwise awfully cheap, standard mystery stuff. Sure, Larsson wanted to make a point. After all, the original Swedish title is Men Who Hate Women. But here, an otherwise strong, complicated character is brutally victimized not just by an uncomplicated attacker, but by the very story she’s trapped in. Fincher does what he can with it, but it’s still majorly problematic.

It’s to Fincher’s credit that this story, which I’m getting quite bored with by now, still held my attention. There are some very smart changes that he and Zaillian made to the material that improved the viewing experience, streamlining both the mystery and the emotional payoffs, such as they are. What I enjoyed best were the unexpected little flourishes of detail, especially in the lengthy climax that begins in a serial killer’s secret kill room wherein, stocked amongst the weapons of death and torture, one can find a bottle of Purell and an Enya album. The conclusion continues with a propulsive and satisfying (if oddly out-of-place) sequence of financial revenge I found myself thinking of as the “Lisbeth Salander: International Woman of Mystery” television pilot. Hey, a guy can dream, can’t he? She’s such a fascinating character that I’d love to see her put to use in a plot that’s less familiar, constricting and punishing. 

He Can't Help Himself: SHAME

It would be a mistake to call Shame’s Brandon Sullivan a hedonist. His life is controlled and partitioned, a place for everything and everything in its place. He’s a fairly successful office worker who goes to work in an anonymous New York City office building and then returns to his spare apartment with a minimum of complications. It’s a life of quiet desperation, for the man has arranged his life so carefully in order to hide his darkest, most shameful addiction. He’s not an alcoholic, though he does like to drink. He’s not a womanizer, though he loves flirtatious pursuit. No, he’s a sex addict. For him, it’s not about relationships. It’s not about the pleasure anymore. It’s not even about meeting new people or finding some small moment of solace from his lonely, meaningless life. It’s about the desperate need to feel something, to constantly seek new sources of stimulus, about clandestine, risky tendencies that drive him to find someone, anyone, to help him get his next fix.

Of course, the film’s not really interested in exploring sex addiction, at least not in any truly meaningful or distressing way. Wouldn’t it be all the more disturbing to be a sex addict who wasn’t as handsome and capable of charm as one Michael Fassbender? The terrific European actor has had something of a Hollywood breakthrough year after first catching eyes with his art house success in the 2008 IRA hunger strike drama Hunger and crossover scene stealing as World War II’s coolest film critic in Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 film Inglourious Basterds. This year alone he was Jane Eyre’s Rochester, Carl Jung, and proto Magneto. His performance in Shame is without a doubt the most fearless of his roles this year. It’s a portrait of a desperate man who hides his basest addictions under a calm, hesitantly charming mask of dignified yuppie tranquility. It’s little wonder why women would be attracted to him and why he wouldn’t let them stick around long enough to figure out who he really is.

Unfortunately, there is one woman in his life in a position to figure it out. That’s his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a fragile and aimless young woman who shows up unexpectedly at his apartment one afternoon. She’s been kicked out of wherever she had been and needs a place to stay. She’s a singer. She says she’s making real money now. She just needs a warm place to pass the time between gigs. She just needs the comfort and care of someone. Brandon’s rattled by her appearance. He tries his best to hide his discomfort and his addiction. She gets enough hints, though. It’s not an easy thing to hide a life given over entirely to basest pursuits, especially in such a furtive, urgent way.

Brandon’s boss (James Badge Dale) is a typical macho womanizer, constantly hitting on waitresses and commenting on women’s bodies. For some reason, that’s behavior that doesn’t fall too far outside the norm. Because Brandon’s desires take a compulsive, secretive, insatiable form, it reads as depressive, as a man trying to cover up ambiguous psychological problems with physical sensation. One of the most thrilling sequences in the film, a string of moments that have extraordinarily simple suspense and humor, involves Brandon going on a date with a co-worker (Nicole Beharie) and trying to have normal conversation, to open up emotionally with another human being. In the process, he has to withhold his urges, resist slipping up and inadvertently revealing how he spends his time. It’s difficult for him to be without a clear view to his next hit.

British artist Steve McQueen, who directed Fassbender in Hunger, has made a tightly controlled film with a detached clinical eye. It’s a film that is extraordinarily well made on every technical level. Harry Escott’s pounding score and the still, smooth compositions that gain a sinuous power with each camera movement from cinematographer Sean Bobbitt contribute to a skillful evocation of a man who’s every waking moment is given over to his addiction, finding more avenues to find what he wants or ways to cover up and otherwise make possible the maintenance of a “normal” life.  This is a powerfully acted film, with Fassbender and Mulligan exuding a kind of neediness and an intimate shared trauma that’s as concerning and strangely symbiotically damaged as any relationship on film in recent memory. These are characters with deeply felt problems from their pasts that are not easily resolved in their present circumstances. They’re aware of the damage. They may even be aware of the consequences. But they’re powerless to fix themselves, let alone help each other.

The only thing holding the film back is its thematic game of Mad Libs. It’s a film not just open to interpretation; it’s open to any interpretation. I love sparse narratives and exercises in style as much as the next guy, but here McQueen pushes the fuzziness of character to a detrimental extreme. The relationship between Brandon and Sissy is ripe for analysis. At one point she tells him, “we came from a bad place, but that doesn’t make us bad people.” So, they have a shared past that is also a troubled past. What does that mean? What are Sissy’s emotional problems? Fill in past trauma here. What is Brandon’s problem? Fill in psychological explanation here. From what kind of “bad place” do they come? Fill in backstory here. You get to pick whatever problems you want to read into them. The ambiguity is at once thrilling and frustrating, as if McQueen had such a killer idea for a film that he didn’t want to risk saying too much thematically for fear of being called on the vacant ideas the end result covers up only too well.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Good Old-Fashioned Derring-do: THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN


With The Adventures of Tintin, Steven Spielberg, one of our greatest and most popular filmmakers working today, is experimenting with the most modern of filmmaking tools. Consequentially the film has the creak of an accomplished professional trying to adapt his style to a new format. Luckily for us the results are a film that is not an uninteresting exercise but a playful and fluid adventure film that’s as charming and low-key as it is fun and visually stimulating. Working with performance-capture techniques for computer animation, Spielberg can send his camera any which way he wants it to go and send his characters into any dangerous situation he wants. Luckily, he has some solid material to guide his way.

Intrepid boy reporter Tintin first appeared in the comics of Hergé in 1929 and has endured in some areas of the world, mostly Europe and parts of Asia, as a recognizable and beloved figure. Spielberg’s film has a script from three of the best and cleverest screenwriters working today, Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright, and Joe Cornish, that sticks close to the original conception of the character as a blank goody-two-shoes who happens to be clever and resourceful in getting out of the scrapes that his curiosity gets him into. The film starts with Tintin (Jamie Bell) and his faithful dog Snowy buying a model ship from a street vendor, a simple act that soon grows in consequence. He doesn’t know it at first. He’s simply perplexed as to why his little impulse buy is met with such urgency from such mysterious sources.

It turns out that the ship is not a model of just any ship. No, it’s the Unicorn, a ship that legendarily sunk with hundreds of pounds of treasure in the cargo hold. It turns out that a wealthy man, the evil Sakharine (Daniel Craig), will spare no expense to get his hands on the model for hidden within it lies a clue that will lead to the real thing. There, at the bottom of the ocean, lie vast piles of treasure. So, it’s a deadly intercontinental race, then. But first, Tintin is kidnapped and placed aboard a ship mid-mutiny where he’s forced to help Sakharine find the treasure. He’d rather not, so he flees with the ship’s embattled drunkard captain, Haddock (Andy Serkis), to beat them to it.

The set up here is terrific. There’s a nice mystery to solve and a fun MacGuffin for these characters to fight over. The plot, though I’ve made it sound so simple, also involves a murdered American, a centuries-old conflict between warring pirates and their descendants, a pickpocket, two bumbling bobbies (Nick Frost and Simon Pegg), an opera diva touring a Middle Eastern country, and circuitous action sequences involving boats, planes, and automobiles that comes to a head in one great rip-roaring chase of death-defying destruction through a crumbling and flooding sea-side town. (There’s more movie after that chase, but it is unquestionable the high point of the spectacle). It’s the stuff B-movie matinees are made of.

The movie’s essentially a case of this happens and then this happens and then this happens, a galloping plot that sweeps across several serialized episodes of adventure and thrills with characters stumbling into cliffhangers and then solving them with ease. Spielberg digs back into the same place within himself where he stores the kind of uncomplicated B-movie energy of something like Raiders of the Lost Ark, but that film’s warm, propulsive and tactile (not to mention quite possibly the best action film ever made) while Tintin is cool, level, and smooth (and not the best action film ever made). It’s a film with visual play and skillful slapstick choreography animating its computerized soul but it never feels like real human stakes are in play. The cliffhanger method of storytelling works like gangbusters but leaves things up in the air. It doesn’t come to a satisfying conclusion any more than these new renderings of 2D comics characters ever really feel like fully fleshed movie characters. Still, though, the film’s comfortable wit, bright colors, and energetic staging make it more than acceptable entertainment.

Spielberg has made his first animated movie with the verve of an old master doodling around just for the fun of it. He concocts sequences, especially that aforementioned chase, that would be logistical nightmares to direct in live action. His imagery has a range of movement that is at once freeing and problematic. In some ways, it leaves him rudderless, too tied to the technology to fully exercise his control over the technique. At times it feels less a Spielberg film than a Spielberg product. It lacks the power and humanity of his best efforts.

But then again, I’m really only trying to put my finger on what it was that kept me ever so slightly from fully embracing a film that’s so lovely, well-crafted, and entertaining. The fact of the matter is that this is a fun movie. It’s pleasant and funny and every so often takes giddy leaps into exciting action. Just as its plot engine of constant forward movement, always pushing into the next complication and smashing into the next cliffhanger, creates a series of fun sequences that lack a satisfying resolution, the film's very distinctiveness – so old fashioned, so relaxed, so European, and yet so cutting-edge Hollywood with its CGI and 3D – is both its greatest flaw and greatest asset.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Ohana Trouble: THE DESCENDANTS


Until now, writer-director Alexander Payne hadn’t made a movie since 2004’s fine comic drama Sideways. (Though his short in the 2007 anthology Paris, Je T’aime was easily the best part of that film). Watching his new film, The Descendents, I realized how much I had missed his cinematic voice. It wasn’t until it was gone that I discovered how much I enjoyed having new work from him appearing every couple of years. Funnily enough, not knowing what you have until it’s gone is also the major theme of this new film. Lawyer Matt King (George Clooney) is away on business when he receives word that his wife has been in a speedboat accident. He rushes back to their Hawaiian hometown where in the hospital she lies in a coma, kept alive by the tubes for breathing and feeding. Her heart’s still beating, but her brain is silent. They didn’t have a perfect marriage, but now they’re on the verge of never seeing, never speaking to each other ever again.

Matt is left having to take care of their daughters all on his own. Little Scottie (Amara Miller) is in trouble at school for bringing in a scrapbook filled with pictures of her comatose mother for show and tell. Alex (Shailene Woodley) is standoffish and, when he picks her up from boarding school, he finds her just a little drunk. These girls are going through a hard time. Alex invites her “friend” Sid (Nick Krause) to come stay with them, emotionally blackmailing her struggling father to get him to agree to the unexpected guest’s presence. “I’ll be a lot more civil with him around,” she threatens with a spiteful teenaged glower.

Matt’s doubly distracted by an impending real estate deal that must be resolved. His ancestors owned a large parcel of land on the island that is now held in common amongst all of his cousins. They’re preparing to sell it and become instant millionaires. It’s a pretty big deal, but it’s hard to make such a major decision when your wife is on the precipice of death. Her will asks that she not be kept alive artificially in the case of just such a catastrophic accident. Matt tells his girls and then sets off to tell close family and friends that it’s time to say their goodbyes.

On top of all this, when he finally confronts Alex on why she’s behaving so bratty, she tells him that his wife, her mother, had been cheating on him prior to the accident. This could easily be a soapy twist, but the film is stronger than that, or rather it’s working for a calmer, more perceptive goal. Discovering and possibly confronting this other man is just another plate that Matt has to keep spinning. How is it possible to be mad at the one you love when it’s impossible to confront her, when it’s time to be saying your final goodbye? The complex emotions in this film are not easily resolvable.

The opening of the film spells out some of this set-up in narration that becomes a bit of a crutch. Most of what’s told is easily understandable from context clues and most of what isn’t could have easily been inserted into dialogue or the production design. What follows, though, is a film of such well-lived performances and thoughtful directorial choices. Reflecting the laid-back atmosphere of a tropical island while taking place in the kind of mundane suburban side-streets and office buildings that could be found in any location, the sturdy, relaxed pace and glimmering observational eye of the film help bring to life this man’s story in a moving and empathetic way without tipping over into self-seriousness.

This is lovely, emotionally engaged filmmaking from Payne who is working from a script co-written with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash that’s moving and involving precisely because of its specificity. Payne has a sharp, observant sensibility that can find the humor in deathly serious situations, making such a clean cut to laughter that emotional heft is left unscathed. This is hardly the funereal dirge that the above plot details could easily have been describing. There’s a vibrant sense of life here in a deep and talented ensemble that includes lovely character moments for a father in-law (Robert Forster), a cousin (Beau Bridges), and a goofy neighborhood couple (Mary Birdsong and Rob Huebel). There’s some especially fine work in scenes given over to a realtor (Matthew Lillard) and his wife (Judy Greer) who first appear late in the film but leave a lasting impact on the emotional terrain. Payne gives the characters room to breathe and grow at a comfortable pace.

This is a film that earns its quiet laughs and warm, tear-jerking sentiment without appearing to break a sweat. Clooney, at the center of it all, gives such a warm, relaxed yet controlled performance that’s removed from the easy charm he brings to most of his roles. Here he disappears into the character in a way that allows his pop culture persona to fade away. Here he’s just an average (though definitely handsomer than average) man struggling with a life that has taken sudden, and unexpected, turns. His performance matches the filmmaking. This is not a flashy movie, but one that lets a potentially loud human drama unfold quietly with great care, great humor, and great sensitivity. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

End of Her World: MELANCHOLIA


Danish provocateur Lars von Trier’s Melancholia opens with striking slow motion shots of a metaphorical nature. A bride (Kirsten Dunst) tries to move through an ominous forest with dark, heavy strings tangled around her arms and legs. A woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) tries to run across a golf course carrying her young son, but finds her feet sinking into the ground. Then the world ends. This is a movie about depression, about the soul-deadening dive into unceasing and motionless sadness. These opening shots, so just so, are such a perfect evocation that the following film is merely a two-hour plus continuation of the themes that have been so simply expressed. This film is tiresome and oppressive and that’s exactly the point. It’s every bit as emotionally draining as I’m sure Von Trier would want me to find it. I can only assume it’s a good approximation, an evocation, of depression.

The first part of the film follows a wedding reception that slowly drains of revelry as the distracted bride’s depression grows clearer and stronger. She slips away from the party to wander through the mansion of her sister (Gainsbourg). She tries to nap. She takes a bath. Meanwhile the guests are getting anxious. Her new husband (Alexander Skarsgård) grows increasingly confused. Her mother (Charlotte Rampling), who didn’t want to be there in the first place, wanders away as well. Her father (John Hurt) seems mostly oblivious. Her sister’s filthy rich husband (Kiefer Sutherland) is stewing, thinking this party is fast becoming a waste of money. The wedding planner (Udo Kier, in a very funny performance) is so upset in a dry, passive-aggressive way that he declares he will no longer look at the bride, covering his face with one hand to block her from his vision.

This poor woman is so clearly troubled, slowly sinking into her depression as if it were quicksand. She gets testy. Her boss (Stellan Skarsgård) finds reason to doubt her fresh promotion. A few different people forcefully tell her to “be happy.” As if that will help. This marriage is over before it’s even begun. There’s a destabilizing depression settling into its foundation.

The second part of the film follows this woman as her condition has worsened. She’s back at the mansion of her sister and her sister’s husband and son. She sleeps constantly. Sometimes she can’t even bring herself to move, not even to take care of herself. Her sister half-carries her to the bathroom, runs a bath, undresses her, but can’t get her to lift her leg to get in the tub. Her sister cooks her favorite meal, but one bite of meatloaf has her weeping, saying it tastes like ashes. This is truly becoming a debilitating depression. It threatens to pull in all of the characters around her.

Of course, it doesn’t help matters that a newly discovered planet many times larger than our own has a wide arc of an orbit that will swing it past the Earth with some chance of a devastating collision that would engulf the entire planet. This planet is named Melancholia, clearly marking it as a symbol of the film’s central concern. Depression is a terrible and terrifying condition that seeps bone deep into Dunst’s character then slowly infects Gainsbourg and the others. The panic over the looming potential of a forthcoming apocalypse adds to the sense of inescapable devastation and understandable pessimism. Melancholia, like her depression, may very well destroy their lives.

These are fantastic performances, filled with a kind of immediacy and depth that belies Von Trier’s more schematic aims. He’s content to lay out the themes of the film in broad, though artful, strokes, but through the skillful actresses’ best efforts, this depression moves beyond a collection of signifiers both vague and specific, both literal and metaphorical. Dunst utter helplessness in the face of it, the aching battle within her that is masked at times by her stoic unhappiness, is painfully honest. Gainsbourg joins her in a duet of emotion with a performance that, once it descends into pure anxiety, is infectious. These sisters live contagious emotional lives that bring an edge of danger to their respective, intertwined, psychological issues.

I had an intense physical response to the aesthetics of the film. The swirling shaky handheld camera, especially during the wedding reception, made me nauseous. I’ve never before had that response to a shaking, swooping camera. Something about the intensity with which the film explored such a strong, corrosive state of mind melded with Manuel Alberto Claro’s cinematography to make me sick to my stomach. Later, as Melancholia grows closer, I found anxiety for my nerves to match my stomach. By the time the film arrives at its gut-rattling cataclysmic climax, it was as if a weight was lowering onto my shoulders. In short, this film left me a bit of a wreck and in desperate need of a recovery period. This is such a powerful and upsetting film, as well as often tedious and seemingly repetitive, maddening and overwhelming in equal measure. It’s a great evocation of a seemingly insurmountable problem. In the end, it’s a film about how depression is great practice for dealing with the end of the world.

Candle in Wind: MY WEEK WITH MARILYN


My Week with Marilyn is a lead balloon of a film that so desperately wants to float it’s pathetic. Because director Simon Curtis has the whole endeavor covered in a gloss of prestige – good actors in a based-on-a-true-story period piece about famous people – this is the kind of movie that can be snuck into awards’ season and be essentially taken seriously, whether it deserves it or not. And in this case, the answer is definitely not. If it weren’t a film about Marilyn Monroe (with supporting characters Laurence Olivier, Arthur Miller, and Vivien Leigh, among others) this would be a film entirely undeserving of attention given the dull plotting and total lack of emotional curiosity.

Michelle Williams is one of our finest actresses, but the role of Marilyn Monroe works against the very qualities that make Williams so good. Monroe was her own spotlight. She glowed on screen. Her greatest asset as a screen presence was her very presence. Physical, sensual, she seemed to be both desire incarnate and a total innocent. She was a dumb blonde who was in on the joke. There was some there there, despite appearances.

Williams, on the other hand, has an intense interiority and a sharp intelligence to her acting choices that she uses to draw in sympathy. She’s pretty, to be sure, but she doesn’t use her looks to prop up a persona or win over an audience with easy charm. Her characters aren’t in on any jokes; they’re often struggling to survive. There can be a convincing desperation to the way Williams adapts her physicality to her characters’ struggles. This isn’t to say that Williams is inherently a better actress than Monroe was, nor is she worse. (Though it’s hard to imagine Monroe fitting in a role as complex as the one’s Williams has played in the likes of Blue Valentine and Wendy and Lucy.) It’s simply to say that Monroe and Williams are screen presences who use their bodies to inherently different purposes.

Still, it could have worked. Williams summons up a good enough impression. She does best with the off-screen material where Monroe finds herself completely removed from the spotlight and can drop a bit of her persona. It invites sympathy in a glimmer of the ways Williams is so good at doing just that in other, better films. The problem is the way so much of the film is given over to that persona in a fairly unsympathetic way. It’s a film that pays lip service to her troubles – with marriages, with her career, with pills – but never really seems interested in letting us know her. It neither recreates nor problematizes Monroe’s legend. It’s a film that’s content to gaze at her with mostly unquestioning reverence and a condescending attitude that treats her as a poor thing that needs rescuing.

It’s all a matter of point of view, really. The film, despite being all about Monroe, is on the literal plot level a coming-of-age story about a determined young chap, Colin (Eddie Redmayne), who wants to work in the movies. The lad gets a job as the third assistant to Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) who is in the process of gearing up to direct and star in a film opposite Monroe. Over the course of filming, Colin gets an up close (and occasionally a rather intimate) look at the stars’ struggles. He even thinks she’s falling in love with him. She’s certainly flirty enough to lead him to that conclusion. But what is clear is that he loves her. The first scene is the then unemployed Colin watching Monroe in a film. The camera finds him sitting mouth agape in the cinema, staring dumbstruck at the screen. From that first scene all the way to the end, this is a film standing aside, simply regarding Monroe. Adrian Hodges's script wants to have a light comedic touch that also reveals the darker underside to the woman’s life. It just never comes together in such a manner to allow that to happen. It struck me as miscalculated every step of the way.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Highflying Action: MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL


Brad Bird, the remarkable animation director behind such freshly minted classics of the form as The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille has completed his first live action film, which happens to be nothing less than a massive action-thriller and a new entry in an established franchise. Debuting with the fourth in the Mission: Impossible series is not indicative of a lack of courage. But the risk paid off.  Perhaps not since Looney Tunes animator Frank Tashlin switched effortlessly to cartoony Technicolor farces in the 1950s has an animator so successfully ported over his skills with imagery into a live action setting. With Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Bird removes all doubt that he’s at the top of his game as one of modern cinema’s finest pop filmmakers, a genre expert adept at crowd pleasing with confident, energetic, hugely satisfying features.

The Mission: Impossible series is Hollywood’s most successful accidental experiment in auteurism. Each film has been given over to a different director, each allowed to put his own stamp on the material. Way back in 1996, Brian De Palma got to introduce us to Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt of the Impossible Missions Force, a plucky agent who will pull together with his team to execute complicated plans, defeat the bad guys, and save the MacGuffins. That film, a thriller loaded with plenty of action and plenty of backstabbing (at the very least double- and triple-crosses) indulged De Palma’s love of long takes and intricate visual playfulness. It was a complicated (convoluted?) story stylishly told.

For the sequel, which arrived in theaters four years later, Hong Kong action master John Woo spun out a tale of spy vs. spy as an overheated action buffet by way of a crypto-remake of Hitchcock’s Notorious. It’s no Face/Off (Woo’s greatest American effort by a mile) and a seriously compromised vision. It was reportedly edited down from a much longer director’s cut. But it has a paradoxically glossy and shaggy wild-eyed charm.

After another six years, the franchise fell to J.J. Abrams, a television director and writer making his feature film debut. He brought his always-be-closing, serialized thriller chops from shows like Alias and Lost to make M:I:III what was the best of the bunch to date. It’s a film with a great, gnashing villain in Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and a tight script that’s a constant jolt of cliffhangers and set pieces with a surprisingly emotional romantic undertow.

Now it’s been five years and Brad Bird has his shot to make the series his own. He actually hews pretty closely to the slick narrative style that Abrams’s used in his entry, but Bird jazzes it up with his sensational eye for action and his remarkable sense of visual space. The film gets off to a bit of a slow start (relatively speaking, of course) with two agents (Paula Patton and Simon Pegg) instigating a prisoner riot in order to break Ethan Hunt out of a Russian prison. “If you broke me out of there, things must be really bad out here,” he gravely tells them. Sure enough, the villain this time around is a crazed expert in nuclear war (Michael Nyqvist) who for some reason or another wants to spark just such a conflict between Russia and the United States. Like Salt, the best pure action film of last year and which also made great use of cinematographer Robert Elswit, this film gets a lot of mileage out of its cold-war revival scenario. It’s all so scarily plausible. Well, plausible enough, at least.

Through a series of unfortunate events, the three agents find themselves disavowed by the United States, blamed for a bombing they didn’t commit and trapped overseas without easy access to the Force’s equipment and assistance. They’re all on their own to stop this sinister threat by tracking down vital pieces of technology, intercepting black-market nuclear code swaps, and doing whatever they can to ensure nuclear war won’t break out on their watch. They’re not completely alone since they managed to find themselves joined by a State Department analyst (Jeremy Renner), but that still only brings their team up to four. Four against the world!

The film hurtles through Budapest, Moscow, Dubai, and Mumbai, staging sensational (and rewarding full-scale IMAX) action sequences every step of the way. I can hardly remember the last time an action movie had moments that had me feeling like I was clenching every muscle in my body. And I certainly can’t remember the last time a vertiginous moment, a near literal cliffhanger, turned my stomach in suspense so viscerally that I briefly worried I’d be grossly putting my popcorn back into the empty bag. From a dangerous climb up the side of the world’s tallest building to a car chase through a blinding sandstorm, and from a host of foot chases, shootouts, and hotel room brawls to a multi-part climactic sequence that’s a masterful cross-cut thrill, the film never stops to take a break. It sizzles with suspense every step of the way as the characters continually set up intricate plans only to see them fall apart in various ways, each time leaving them scrambling to save the world.

Brad Bird not only proves that he can handle live-action action, but he sets the bar high with sequences so delightfully imagined, impeccably staged, and flawlessly executed that my jaw would have dropped more often if I hadn’t found myself so breathless. It’s also shot through with a welcome kind of playfulness and one-liner energy that feels of a piece with the kind of tone Bird struck in The Incredibles. It’s thrilling, yes, but it’s also such a hugely enjoyable good time. This series has always been in nothing more than the set-piece delivery business. Here, there’s a kind of perfect marriage between characters’ minimalism and the elaborateness of the action. In that way, Bird’s approach is the perfect melding of the previous films’ greatest qualities. It’s the best action thriller of the year, a propulsive juggernaut of action and thrills that put a smile on my face and had my heart racing long after the credits ended.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Outwit, Outlast, Outplay: SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS


I remember being surprised by how much I found myself enjoying Guy Ritchie’s take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes when it showed up two years ago. It was the kind of big holiday season spectacular that rolled in, made a bunch of money, and rolled away leaving nary a trace. I remember only the sensations, the charm Robert Downey Jr. brought to the title role, and the surprising score. I looked back on what I wrote about it at the time and found that I called it “a mostly enjoyable experience, a big-budget, slightly goofy, action-thriller-mystery driven forward, and kept afloat, by its cast, its production design, and the charmingly off-kilter score by Hans Zimmer that recalls The Third Man’s zither in its unexpected instrumentation.” So, there you have it. It was a fun movie, but, aside from distinctive aspects of design, casting and score, not especially memorable on the plot level.

Going into Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, I was ready to be disappointed. Once again, I emerged surprised. It’s a fun, slam-bang adventure in the spirit of its immediate predecessor, hardly the patient mystery of past Holmes, but still a rush, and I mean rush, of deduction that often leads to loving photographed destruction. It’s a slicker follow up to a film that was itself very slick. Ritchie directs with a bit more of a more confident style and a wider screen, speeding his characters through a convoluted, yet ultimately simply twisty, plot set amidst fantastic production design. The 1890’s bric-a-brac is lovingly presented as it sits ready and waiting to be blown to bits. The costumes themselves are sheer delight. This is a movie that has an old-school period-piece glamour that it zips through with action sequences sped up, hacked up, or slowed way down. It’s a collision of approaches that can be quite bracing.

The plot this time around concerns Dr. Watson (Jude Law) checking in on his good friend Holmes (Downey Jr.). The detective has been consumed with his research into a series of bombings that have plagued Europe in recent months. The opening sequence, involving the beguiling Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) from the first film, causes Holmes to start drawing connections. These bombings, blamed in the press on anarchist groups, must be circuitously connected to the devious Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris, most recently found on TV in Mad Men). But before the investigation can continue, it’s Watson’s wedding day. Too bad the poor bloke won’t get much of honeymoon, though. Moriarty is onto Holmes’s investigation and targets the two men in order to take them out of the equation. No loose ends can be had, you see.

The film becomes a continent-crossing adventure that takes Holmes and Watson from London to Paris, from Germany to Switzerland. They even pick up a helpful gypsy (Noomi Rapace, so good in the otherwise awful Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) who sneaks them across borders and helps them decipher some crucial clues while Sherlock’s brother (Stephen Fry) helps them decode the treacherous political climate that has Europe on the precipice of war. For most of its run time, the script by Michele and Kieran Mulroney keeps the set pieces big and action-heavy. The rapport between Holmes and Watson still shines at times, but more often than not they’re getting involved in shootouts and fisticuffs that occasionally turn into chase scenes and extensive use of explosives.

But right before I was about to declare myself warn out by the film’s bigger-is-better attitude, it pulls back. The climax thrillingly foregrounds the mind games that Holmes and Moriarty have been playing over the course of the last couple hours or so. Theirs is a game of wits and skill, misdirection, obfuscation, and surveillance. I wish the film could have let us in on the game a little earlier, giving us clues instead of relying on rapid-fire flashback inert shots that show us all the little details, even moments of earlier set-up, that only Holmes saw earlier. Downey Jr. and Harris are a good match, though. They’re believable charming and intelligent and bring to their roles a nice amount of playful danger. They clearly hate each other, but are relishing the opportunity to clash intellect with their equal and opposite.

It all provides a good time at the movies. The movie is a light, accessible romp through late-1800’s Europe, and a thunderous, stylish, red-blooded adventure with little comic flourishes. There are even some good set-ups and pay-offs and some nice winks at original Holmes lore. (I particularly appreciated the use of a waterfall late in the picture). It’s hardly essential, but with both of these Sherlock films Ritchie’s doing some of the best work of his career. These are stylish, reasonably well done crowd-pleasing popcorn films, with mostly satisfying mysteries, puzzles worked out with some degree of wit amidst the gunfire and explosions. 

Once Upon a Bad Dream: SLEEPING BEAUTY


Australian novelist Julia Leigh makes a strong, but ultimately fairly empty, provocation of a filmmaking debut with Sleeping Beauty. It’s a stereotypically artsy film, filled with long, quiet master shots that let disquieting monotony slowly drip by. The opening scene finds a young, broke college student (Emily Browning) showing up to a sterile campus lab to earn a little extra money as a human guinea pig. The scientist thanks her for coming and proceeds to slide a plastic tube deep down her throat. It’s a nearly silent scene, save for her sudden neck spasms, her eyes clenching shut with accompanying, horrifying, gagging noises. That’s the film in a nutshell, a cold, quiet film with intermittent reasons for gagging.

Aside from participating in these experiments, the girl, a pale, thin, smooth waif of a young woman also works sorting papers and making copies in an office and in a third job waitressing. She’s a girl of fragile strength. She’s behind on her rent and struggling with her finances. She sets up a job interview at a secretive company. There, the owner tells her that they have young women dress up in lingerie to cater and serve at exclusive events. The company pays their girls hundreds of dollars an hour. “Please don’t make this a career,” she’s warned. She takes the job.

She does her job well, made up and dressed up to look like a perfect objectified female figure. She looks creepily vulnerable and so very young. But she pleases her bosses. The clients must be happy. The company offers her a promotion. She’ll drink some tea laced with a compound that will cause her to enter into a deep sleep. Then she’ll simply lie in a bed while men pay for the privilege to sit in the same room as a sleeping beauty. It’s all perfectly harmless. There will be no physical intimacy. The boss has already assured her that her “vagina is a temple.”

It is lines like that that had me half sure the film was just a biting, straight-faced satire of economic conditions and societal pressures of the young, beautiful and aimless. How could anyone write, let alone say, such a line and not expect it to be greeted with a the kind of half-laugh that sticks on the roof of the mouth in an attempt not to break the silence in the theater? The film is so deadpan and calm with its long master shots and dialogue spoken at a volume just this side of a whisper that it’s sometimes hard to puzzle out the intent behind the clinical compositions that are hardly hiding the underlying upsetting nature of the events presented. 

It’s clear that Leigh is making a statement against objectifying women, against commodifying beauty. If it were presented any clearer it would be bludgeoning and the restraint shown is certainly preferable to the leering male gaze burlesque of something like Sucker Punch (which, coincidentally, also stars Emily Browning). Leigh has a remarkable sense of the visual space of the screen with her just-so compositions that the camera holds steady, regarding for minutes at a time. There’s so little cutting going on that each scene plays out with total stillness in what are more or less unbroken takes. It’s the banality of the unease that make it all the more chilling.

The problem here is that the anti-objectification message is ultimately obfuscated by the way that the film itself treats Browning as an object, as just another piece of the art puzzle slowly pulled together with every passing scene. She’s not playing a character; she’s playing an idea. Who is this girl? She’s going to school, but what for? She seems to know her landlord. How? Her mother calls her office job and we hear only the daughter’s side of the conversation. She’s reciting her credit card number. Why? We never learn anything more than superficial things about her, much like we never learn anything more than the bare bones of the nature of the company providing her unique services, and we certainly don’t get access to the inner lives of any of the clients or the other girls in their employ.

Clearly, such emptiness is intentional. I don’t bring it up as if it were a mistake. I didn’t sit there saying “Oh no, they forgot the characterization!” I bring it up to object to the approach itself. Browning attracts sympathy towards her character with her open face that seems to carry a heartbreaking vulnerability with a dark secret stewing underneath and a matter-of-fact acceptance of her lot life that makes you hope she’ll find her way out of her situation. But the film is only interested in exploiting this performance instead of utilizing it. She could be a great asset to the film, a psychologically wounded beauty, but she’s only used for the visual element she brings to the film. She’s there to have a tube shoved down her throat, for creepy old men to loom over her, for the dull, gray city, and secretive business, the very mechanisms of commodified femininity, to oppress and take advantage of her. Which makes the film’s point, I suppose, but I wish I could have cared more about the plight of the character instead of spending the run time questioning and growing angry with the film’s approach.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

There Goes the Neighborhood: FRIGHT NIGHT


Fright Night, a Todd Holland film from 1985, is a horror comedy about a teenaged horror fan who is convinced that there is a vampire living next door. It’s a film that’s fitfully amusing and frightening and very much of its time. When I saw that, very eighties, film for the first time earlier this year I found myself affectionate towards it while seeing room for improvement. Now, here comes Craig Gillespie’s remake, a film with gimmicky 3D effects, a soundtrack featuring Kid Cudi and Foster the People, and characters checking their smart phones for important information. In other words, it’s Fright Night marked specifically for posterity as belonging to 2011. It’s also, luckily, a slightly better movie in some ways than its predecessor, a little bit funnier, a little bit scarier, a little bit slicker. It’s a good story that’s now been well told twice.

This version bursts to life in a stylish way. Bold, graphical splashes of blood-red credits announce the film’s visual energy. The camera swoops in bird-of-prey circles around the little neighborhood, spinning mid-air to capture the isolated tract housing, the place with the unseen menace lurking under a deceptively normal setting. The movie situates the suburban neighborhood on the outskirts of Las Vegas, the city that never sleeps. It’s the perfect cover for this vampire who can claim his blacked out windows and nocturnal habits are because he works the night shift in a downtown tourist trap. Jerry the Vampire trades in his relaxed, suave Chris Sarandon eighties wear for a grimy workingman wardrobe placed on the muscular shoulders of Colin Farrell. He’s a physical creature, a matter-of-fact menace, and a disarmingly regular guy who digs around in his home improvement projects and kicks back with a beer in front of his TV to watch some iteration of the Real Housewives.

The kid next door knows what’s really up, though, but not at first. The kid (Anton Yelchin) is Charley, a high school student. He’s a former nerd who’s distanced himself from his best friend (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) in exchange for entry into the cool crowd, including a budding relationship with a class hottie (Imogen Poots). The new neighbor only registers as a mild annoyance until Charley’s friend comes to him with proof of strange goings-on. People have been disappearing and a chart of last know positions puts Jerry’s house at the center of the mystery. That seems to point to more than just an annoyance next door. With a little research (well, spying and Googling), it becomes clear that Jerry is indeed a vampire. But we already knew that.

The film then becomes more or less what you’d expect, an escalation in the tension between the teens and the vampire. Charley’s mom (Toni Collette) is a little oblivious. She thinks she might have a chance with the attractive neighbor. Charley’s girlfriend’s weirded out. Why doesn’t he want to make out with her, prefering instead to leap up at the sound of a car in the neighbor’s driveway? Charley finds this all distressing. Why won’t anyone believe him? It’s bad enough that the vampire tells him to his face that his mom and his girlfriend have nice necks, but now his friend is among those who have disappeared. (Maybe Charley should ask for help from the Vegas magician (David Tennant) who claims to be expert in the occult). It all builds to a series of splashy effects pieces, well rendered conflict between the horror creature and the only mere mortals who know what he really is

This is effective, energetic popcorn filmmaking. Like the original, it’s a halfway decent teen comedy that turns into a series of effects sequences. Laughs are lightly mixed in with the flowing tension and gooey gobs of CGI blood. The performances are largely charming and the adapted script by Marti Noxon (a writer on Buffy the Vampire Slayer) knows its way around teens and vampire hunters while still humanizing them all. There’s enough grist of psychological complexity (not a lot, mind you, but just enough) to ground the insistent effects and showy scares in some small semblances of reality. The film also makes great use of a score by Ramin Djawadi that contains a wonderful melodic flourish that works hints of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D minor,” a piece associated with old-school horror, into the film’s musical texture. All of this just to say that this new version of Fright Night surprised me. It held my attention and entertained me by being better than I expected it to be. It’s not a lazy remake of a minor 80’s hit. It’s reworked and, as they say, reimagined into a proficient new telling of a solid story.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Mind, Body, and Soul: THE SKIN I LIVE IN


The Skin I Live In, a great, nervy thriller from Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar, is a film that takes a gut-churning twist in the center with a perverse shock that makes perfect, horrifying thematic sense. It also makes the film incredibly difficult to discuss without spoiling the stark, delirious horror of the surprises. I'm going to attempt to steer clear of discussing it in detail. Instead I'll describe the set-up, talk about tone and theme, and hint at the extent of the gorgeous madness of it all as I try to pick my jaw up off the floor. This is melodrama that starts ever so slightly camp, and then scrapes away any sense of overheated frivolity to become an engrossing thriller that grows steadily more horrifying. It’s an ingenious twisty film of great disturbing depth.

The film begins with a half-imagined, but nonetheless potent, sense of something being very, very wrong and then sets out to deliriously prove that glimmer right tenfold. In a secluded house in the Spanish countryside lives a skilled plastic surgeon (Antonio Banderas). We learn that he’s been a part of most of the successful face transplants in the world. He’s respected and talented, but also mysterious. In his home there is a lab where he works growing and testing synthetic skin. His housekeeper (Marisa Paredes) goes about her business, occasionally interacting with the gorgeous patient (Elena Anaya) locked in an upstairs bedroom. Surveillance cameras allow the surgeon and the housekeeper to keep tabs on her. The kitchen has a bank of monitors on a counter. The surgeon’s bedroom has a large TV on which he can view a larger-than-life real-time image of his captive, staring at her sleeping form at night, much as one would regard a beautiful painting.

What’s going on here? Who is this woman? She wears a skin-colored bodysuit. She doesn’t say much. She seems to be accepting of her fate. Is she locked in of her own accord? What is her relationship to these people who are limiting her mobility, restricting her actions, and yet feeding her well, providing her books, clothes, and art supplies. Perhaps she’s being paid to test the surgeon’s new synthetic skin. When he goes away to a medical conference, he presents data on his new breakthrough. When pressed by a colleague to say what, exactly, this skin is being tested on, he’s coy. It’s animal testing, he insists.  

While the surgeon is away, the secluded house receives an unwanted visitor. It’s the season of Carnival. That’s why the housekeeper’s fugitive son (Roberto Álamo) can walk somewhat freely through the streets. He’s dressed in a gaudy tiger costume and insists his mother let him into the house. Bad idea. The psychopathic son spies the imprisoned patient on the screen, ties up his mother to a kitchen chair and heads upstairs to sexually assault the captive. “You aren’t my son!” his mother shouts at him. “I just birthed you!”

When the surgeon arrives at the home and sees what is going on, he fights the intruder off. After all this, I still haven’t arrived at the most shocking developments the film contains. This is mere prologue. The stage is set for further shocks. In the aftermath of this startling violence, the film unravels, flashing back through time to trace the traumas and the terror underlying the current situations. And that’s when things get really complicated. The film has a complex flashback structure that elegantly floats through time, revealing the full extent of the story’s horrors with a clinical series of emotional slices.

We learn the surgeon is mourning the deaths of his wife and his daughter. They died years apart, in separate tragedies that are revealed over the course of the film. He’s been left consumed by mourning and revenge, a cauldron of emotion held in check and funneled into a medicinal drive to control. Could this have something to do with the young man (Jan Cornet) who has gone missing from his home in a nearby town?

The surgeon’s methodical approach to his revenge never wavers, growing eerier with stillness and patient silence. Banderas delivers such a tightly controlled and nuanced performance that mimics Almodóvar’s relatively restrained stylistic approach here. This is a masterfully outlandish film with wild moments adorned with the director’s typically colorful, gorgeous mise-en-scène. Yet there’s such restraint here, a gorgeous exterior of patience that belies the total chaos beneath.

This isn’t a film of traditional thrills and jump scares. It’s the kind of insinuating horror that slips up under the skin and expands, slowly enveloping you with dread from the inside out. It’s a psychological horror film on the subject of identity. Who are you when everything you are on the outside has been taken away? To merely say that the film is creepy and disturbing and the main character is an unscrupulous plastic surgeon is to wrongly imply that the film is some kind of grotesquerie that lingers on bodily harm. No, though the film is fairly explicit, the grotesqueness of the film is solely on the plot level, the thematic implications a red-blooded, twisty destabilizing force inflicted upon the characters that pulls under the audience as well. The horror of the surgeon is his quiet madness. The horror of the patient is – as we learn – her quiet resilience. Banderas and Anaya have magnificent stares, rich soulful eyes that burn holes in the screen and in this film carry the weight of greater traumas than we can even begin to imagine. At times, I found myself squirming in sympathy with the pain on screen.

The film is a intense, stylish, slinky horror film of turbulent sexuality, violence, death, and identity. There’s a fluidity to the plot and the characters (and the magnificent score from Alberto Iglesias) that matches the lush style and creates a stirringly distressing unity of purpose. Like the best of Almodóvar, the film deals in doubles, in lies, in sexual secrets, in familial traumas, but here it feels fresh all over again. It’s a case of an auteur finding striking new ways to work through his favorite themes. I was carried up into the film’s style and, almost before I knew it, I was horrified and moved in equal measure. The final scene of the film is a knockout, a moment that takes the destabilizing twists of the movie’s melodrama and horror to their most moving conclusion. Yes, I found myself thinking then and several other times throughout, not only does Almodóvar go there, but he earns it.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Crowded Party: NEW YEAR'S EVE


New Year’s Eve is a cinematic Wal-Mart, crowded, cavernous, filled with cheap versions of exactly the products you’d expect, and no one seems particularly happy to be there. Like Valentine’s Day, also inflicted, albeit with less pain, by director Garry Marshall, the new film is a massive ensemble romantic comedy built around a holiday, a slickly produced product, nothing more than an excuse to see dozens of celebrities, or at least recognizable faces, playing just about everyone on screen but the extras. It used to be that when this many name actors showed up in one place the boat was capsizing or the skyscraper’s ribbon-cutting party was going up in flames. Now, all that happens is precisely what you’d expect in the form of predictable, plodding sitcom pandering and plots thin to the point of breaking. The only disaster is how exhaustingly cliché and dispiritingly unimaginative it is.

There are 31 recognizable faces (at least when I counted them just now on the cast list from IMDb) in New Year’s Eve, which zips around New York on December 31, 2011 as people fall in love (never out, this is one aggressively happy movie) and find their soul mates. It seems pointless to try and point out individual characters and motivations as the film is so cluttered and static that by the time we’ve met everyone and learned their main conflict, there’s barely time to resolve them before the ball drops and Times Square explodes in confetti. Besides, the characters barely registered in my head as anything but the person playing them. It’s like a bad school play in which you can only think about little Bobby when you’re meant to see the man supposedly on his deathbed.

Of course in this case little Bobby’s last name is DeNiro. His nurse is Halle Berry and his doctor is Cary Elwes. Then there’s Hilary Swank directing the Times Square festivities, fretting about the ball drop with security guard Ludacris. When, much to the dismay of Ryan Seacrest (as himself), there’s a technical glitch, Hector Elizondo shows up to fix it. There’s also Sarah Jessica Parker who says daughter Abigail Breslin can’t go downtown with Jake T. Austin. Stuck in an elevator in their apartment building are Ashton Kutcher and Lea Michele. Jessica Biel and Seth Meyers are about to have a baby and are competing with Sarah Paulson and Til Schweiger to have the first baby of the New Year. OB/GYN Carla Gugino is not amused. Mousy secretary Michelle Pfeiffer convinces bike messenger Zac Efron to help her finish her list of resolutions before midnight. Executive Josh Duhamel catches a ride into the city with Yeardley Smith and family. And Katherine Heigl and Sofia Vergara are catering Cherry Jones’s fancy party at which Jon Bon Jovi (not playing himself) will perform.

As you can see, it’s a little ridiculous. It got to the point that, when Ludacris tells Hilary Swank that “Mr. so-and-so is here,” I was only pondering which famous face would step out of the back of that limo. (Matthew Broderick). Rather than bringing all we know about the personas to their roles to serve as some kind of insta-character, the overloaded cast only points out the thinness of it all. Not a one of these plotlines could stand by itself. Worse, the way Katherine Fugate’s script stumbles from one scene to the next refuses to allow the characters to thematically interact. This is a movie that has nothing to say and little idea of how to even make that fact entertaining. We’re supposed to be delighted when, say Efron answers the phone “hey, sis,” and we learn which big name has been – gasp! – his sister this whole time! If the film were packed with too many Meet Cutes and sweeping smooches, it would still reach a point of diminishing returns well before the film’s credit cookies but at least it wouldn’t be quite so empty. For all of these actors present, so many dumb threads of plot, there’s just not enough to sustain two hours. Why couldn’t someone find something interesting for someone, anyone, in the cast to do? New Year’s Eve is a celebration of the superficial without the energy or the trashy pleasure such celebrations could provide.
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