Monday, December 31, 2012

Savage Acting, Writing, Directing.

Movie Review: Savages

Director: Oliver Stone

Reviewed: 31 December 2012

jamesintexas rating--*

Oliver Stone's tepid new film "Savages" is more memorable to me for its building-sized Hollywood advertisements making use of the main characters wearing terrifying skeletal masks than for any sort of commitment to story, character development, or narrative.  I like the masks; they are scary.

It is difficult to reconcile this filmmaking with the exhilaration displayed in "Platoon," "JFK," or "Natural Born Killers.  Yet even so, if I didn't know who the director was (and to be true, this film seems stripped of most of Oliver Stone's fingerprints), "Savages" would still be a disappointment.  It hinges upon two friends, Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who are Yin and Yang; one, an ex-soldier turned mercenary and the other, an eco-warrior interested in using pot profits to save the world.  Both are united in love for O (Blake Lively), a Malibu party-girl who completes the noncompetitive love triangle and narrates the film.  Along the Pacific Coast Highway, Chon and Ben create and distribute the most powerful strains of marijuana which does not go unnoticed by the Tijuana cartels, represented by Lado (Benicio Del Toro), businessman Alex (Damian Bichir), and kingpin Elena, La Reina (a vicious Salma Hayek).  South moves North, and Chon and Ben must decide whether to walk away or to work with the cartel.  And, to add pressure to the deal, the cartel kidnaps O.  All hell breaks loose, and throw in loose canon DEA man Dennis (John Travolta), and you've got the ingredients for a messy, nasty stew of a film.

But, Stone never raises the heat or makes the film boil.  His leads are both lacking charisma and acting chops, and they have to carry the movie.  And they can't.  Some of the narration is insipid (and was in Don Winslow's novel), but in addition to that, Stone struggles to tie any of the scenes together or to sustain emotion.  He telegraphs revelations clumsily, and unwisely, he spends too much time on his young leads instead of his veterans.  I would have liked to have seen more of Hayek, Del Toro, and Travolta behaving badly, especially.  Del Toro is just so interesting, and I wish he had been given more to do.  There seems to have been more with Hayek's character, but that too is dropped.  There seems to be an attempt to criticize US drug enforcement policy and throw in some politically relevant material.  Nothing works.  It's not smart; it's not fun.  Stone is a smarter filmmaker than this and certainly a more stylish one.

I expect more.  Check out the movie poster below, and tell me if it isn't promising something exhilarating.

Go back through Oliver Stone's impressive catalogue.  And watch one of those films instead.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Les Miserables: C'est magnifique!

Movie Review: Les Miserables

Director: Tom Hooper

Reviewed: 21 December 2012

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

Wow.  Tom Hooper's sensational film version of the beloved musical "Les Miserables" comes close to cinematic greatness, offering a thrilling story with few frills.  Hooper relies upon his strong cast to shoulder the weight of the story instead of using cinematic pyrotechnics or CGI.  He trains his camera confidently on his actors, and it is enough.  "Les Miserables" is one of the best films of the year and an event of the season.

Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) served nineteen years in a French prison for stealing a loaf of bread and breaks parole leading to his pursuit by the indefatigable Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe).  In a new life, Valjean's carelessness leads to the destruction of the young Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a factory worker scrimping to send money to her beloved daughter Cosette.  Young Cosette lives with the reprehensible Thenardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) before a decision by Valjean changes her life.  Time passes, and the plot centers upon a burgeoning insurrection in Paris involving young Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and the daughter of the Thenardiers, Eponine (Samantha Barks).  With love and revolution in the air, Valjean must evade his past and protect Cosette (Amanda Seyfried).

Hooper's direction focuses on the faces of the lead characters, and he delivers long, uninterrupted takes of the singing which I feel is to his credit.  He does not chop or edit this film into fragments.  Having only seen the musical once (this past fall in Houston), I sat in the back of the theater, enjoying the scale of the cast and songs, but I never got the sense of the faces of the actors that would come from sitting in a front row seat.  And, who can afford that?  Well, for the price of admission to this film, Hooper puts his stars out in front, scaling down the film from gigantic sets and props.  He makes "Les Miserables" a film of faces and emotions, rendered beautifully by Jackman, Hathaway, and Barks particularly.  With this film and his previous "The King's Speech," Hooper has emerged as an actor's director, putting the best in front of his camera and letting them act.  That film earned Colin Firth a Best Actor Oscar and Helena Bonham Carter and Geoffrey Rush supporting acting nominations.  His strengths are at play here with actors ready for the challenge.

"Les Miserables" examines the reclamation of one man's soul, the role of faith in a person's life.  A kindness delivered upon Valjean early in the film manifests itself in two major decisions that he makes later.  Without being clumsy, "Les Miserables" offers up its treatise on the importance of liberty, equality, and brotherhood unabashedly within the framing of faith.  I feel that it is Hugh Jackman's best work ever as he proves himself fully capable, both strong and vulnerable, as Valjean.  Anne Hathaway's brief work as Fantine is memorable, and her signature song "I Dreamed a Dream" stops the film in its tracks with its impressive holding of her face as she delivers a wounded, defiant vocal.  Both Jackman and Hathaway are deserving of nominations for acting.  Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter delight as the Innkeeper and his wife, and "Master of the House" delivers comedic gold.  Both do really brilliant work here, adding levity and humor to a dark story, as well as a flurry of comic sequences to disrupt the staid pace of the film.  I do wish there were an Oscar for Best Comedic Duo; I would hand it to them.

"Les Miserables" feels a bit long, and I felt at times that I admired it more than loved it.  From a technical standpoint, the film feels, looks, and sounds terrific.  I found myself less enthusiastic about Russell Crowe's performance as Javert, but nearly everyone else delivers.  A film deserving of great praise and no doubt thick crowds this holiday season, "Les Miserables" will receive a slate of Oscar nominations and probably a Best Supporting Actress statue for Anne Hathaway who this year handled two iconic roles (Catwoman and Fantine) with dexterity.  "Les Miserables" is an admirable, technically brilliant film and a fantastic trip to the movies.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Tintin = Fun Fun

Movie Review: The Adventures of Tintin

Director: Steven Spielberg

Reviewed: 22 December 2012

jamesintexas rating--***

I am unfamiliar with the Tintin character from Herge, but I see him as the precursor of Indiana Jones.  He's daring and dashing, willing to study books in a library as well as shoot a gun, adept at motorbikes and air travel, quick-thinking, and always up for adventure.  He's got a loyal dog, a fun haircut, and he seems to be an investigative reporter with few ties who is willing to travel the globe in search of a good story.

Tintin (Jamie Bell) becomes wrapped up in a tale of intrigue involving a hidden scroll within a model ship, and his curiosity leads him to Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) as well as Sakharine (Daniel Craig)  and an old grudge from long ago.  Soon, they are sailing and flying to Morocco on an unexpected journey.

A word about the film technique here: it is beautifully rendered.  Spielberg has painted on a rich canvas with this film.  Several sequences are breathtaking.  A flashback in the desert melds the undulating sand dunes into crashing waves.  One fight scene takes several minutes and seems to be all one shot.  The colors are fantastic.

It just never moved me in any sort of way beyond admiration.  The voice work from Daniel Craig, Jamie Bell, and Andy Serkis is all fine.  I still struggle with filmmaking of this sort because the eyes of these characters seem dead to me but they've done the best possible job.  There is a clarity to the technique that is admirable.  I think it is a wonderful children's film, and I think that it never reaches to be more than it is.  I enjoyed it as a Spielberg touchstone, a chance to identify tropes and familiar moments in his film that are referenced (mostly involving Indiana Jones).  A fun time.

Superfluous Middle-Earth

Movie Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Director: Peter Jackson

Reviewed: 23 December 2012

jamesintexas rating--**1/2

Breathe easy.  Peter Jackson has not ruined or marred his legacy like George Lucas did with the abominable prequels to the original "Star Wars" trilogy.  I compare Jackson's new film "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" to Steven Spielberg's misfire "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." That film was a weak shade of the original beloved character, its special effects dwarfed its story, and it played more like a sad attempt to recycle instead of push forward.

And that is where Peter Jackson is right now.

Here's where we left off in 2004.  Peter Jackson was king of the world, holding a Best Director Academy Award in one hand and a Best Picture statue in the other.  "King Kong" loomed on the horizon, and "The Lord of the Rings" was cemented in pop culture status as an equal to "Indiana Jones" or "Star Wars."  It became a series that I looked forward to re-watching and revisiting every winter break.

And now, here we are in 2012.  Peter Jackson has crafted "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" which is part one of a trilogy constructed out of the 300 page "enchanting prelude to 'The Lord of the Rings'" according to my edition.  Which means that Jackson is stretching source material (and audience's patience) as far as it will go.  Which means I'm on the hook for another Middle-Earth story for the winters of 2013 and 2014.    

"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is the prelude to the trilogy, outlining how the ring was secured from Gollum and how a hobbit becomes a hero.  In short, Bilbo Baggins joins Gandalf The Grey on an adventure to the Lonely Mountain to help the dwarves recapture their homeland and a dungeon-full of gold from the unseen dragon Smaug.  There are Orcs and Goblins along the way, as well as mountains and waterfalls.  The usual.  Swooping camera work.  Chanting music.

As a teacher, the experience of watching this film feels like watching an honors student resubmit to you a slightly reworked paper from another class.  There's little originality, little freshness, little fun, and little newness in terms of ideas or format.  Jackson is capable of so much more, and here it feels more than ever like he is spinning his wheels, recycling his favorite moments from the original trilogy, and putting emotion on autopilot.  In structure it feels exactly like the first film: prologue, time in the Shire, traveling, then fights, a trip to the Elf-land, subterranean chases, cliffhanger ending rescue.  In terms of actors delivering emotion (or even just connecting with the audience), Jackson is not working with a strong cast of Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Orlando Bloom, John Rhys-Davies, or Viggo Mortenson.  "The Hobbit's" cast is mostly forgettable with a brooding Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield and an okay Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins (doing a mostly credible Ian Holm impersonation). The dwarves, meant to provide comic relief, do little to distinguish themselves or endear us to them despite many, many scenes meant to warm the audiences to them.  Instead, I longed for Pippin and Merri's easy bouncy chemistry and sense of fun.  Sir Ian McKellen seems older and more tired (both of which must be true), and his Gandalf is not close to the Oscar-nominated performance he gave in the original film in 2001.  He now speaks in clumsy aphorisms and disappears only to reappear to save the day.  Howard Shore's iconic score hits familiar notes but carries none of the grandeur or sweep of the original and adds nothing memorable.  When Jackson employs a helicopter tracking shot of the party walking over a New Zealand mountain, it's stunning and beautiful and it's impossible to forget that it's been done before.  Better.

Guillermo Del Toro's name is on this film in some capacity, and I sincerely wish that Jackson had been able to hand the reigns off to him or another hungry filmmaker with a fresh vision.  Del Toro's signature style in films like "Pan's Labyrinth" and "Hellboy" was a tactile quality, a use of costume, make-up, and sound that can exhilarate and terrify.  I really would have liked to have seen his Middle-Earth with its ghouls and trolls, its Necromancer and dragons.

And, I'm not holding Jackson's decision to make this film the first of three against him.  A good film is a good film, but it is difficult to know that this story, which can only seem slight compared to the trilogy, is being given more time and equal weight to the original.  Scenes with Gollum (Andy Serkis) are fine, but nowhere near the electric power of "The Two Towers."  Scenes with Gandalf seem clunky, move even more slowly.  Hobbiton is less charming; the woods and forest less grand.  There is a bizarre character with a sleigh pulled by jack-rabbits.  There are an inordinate number of trolls who are terrible at fighting and never seem to injure the dwarves.

Don't get me wrong.  It is nice to see Ian McKellen, Ian Holm, Cate Blanchett, and Hugo Weaving, among others.  There are one or two potentially scary moments, one involving spiders (friends of Shelob?)  It's nice to return to Middle-Earth.  But if the return is not going to build upon the legacy of the original films or add a fresh wrinkle or take on it, then count me out.  I'd rather watch the originals and be enthralled with them instead of watching "The Hobbit" and be constantly, slightly disappointed.

So much money, effort, and time went into these films.  I wish that there were more energy, fire, passion, and daring in the filmmaking.  This is a film project that cost over $180,000,000.  If you're not willing to be daring and bold after winning the Oscar for Best Director and crafting one of the best trilogies of all-time, then when will you do it?  Perhaps it is time for Peter Jackson to depart Middle-Earth?

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Carthage, TX

Movie Review: Bernie

Director: Richard Linklater

Reviewed: 11 November 2012

jamesintexas rating--***

Poor Bernie.  In Richard Linklater's hilarious and deeply sad film set in Carthage, TX (East Texas for those of you out there not fortunate enough to live in the Lone Star State), Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) is a mortician of great promise and care.  He loves his job and loves his town, treating its denizens with grace and kindness.  When Bernie meets the wealthy and widowed Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), they form a sort of symbiosis.  Their relationship does not appear to be sexual; Bernie serves as her assistant, her confidant, her traveling companion, her record keeper.  And then, Marjorie disappears.  Sheriff Danny Buck (the always game Matthew McConaughey) has to circle around and try to figure out what happened and make sense of the stories that Bernie weaves about Marjorie's health and finances.  

Linklater made "Dazed and Confused" in the 90's, a film about a suburban Austin community's culture of high school and rites of passage, and in "Bernie" his lens is on the older members of a community, how their minds are set up, how their provincialism and self-identity affect everything they see.  At one point, the residents of Carthage talk about their neighbors the next county over as troglodytes.  There's a sensitivity with which Bernie's character is handled.  It is clear through one scene on a cruise ship that Bernie is unhappy and unable to express his unhappiness.  Yet, his crimes never seem to outweigh his charisma, and his trial leads to deep, often hilarious divisions within the small town.

Jack Black is flat-out brilliant here, and I hope that he is remembered come awards season.  McConaughey continues to dazzle us this year, and I think that he is wonderful here.  "Bernie" is both a deeply funny and deeply sad movie.  It is deserving of a wider audience.

I Love California!

Movie Review: Celeste and Jesse Forever

Director: Lee Toland Krieger

Reviewed: 22 August 2012

jamesintexas rating--***

Who are these people?  They are married but divorcing but still friends and still live together, and Celeste and Jesse played by Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg are figuring out who they are.  In a small, nicely-shot film that oozes California sunshine, the couple deals with their changing relationship as they both struggle to form identities both together and apart.  There are supporting characters that lend laughter and insight, and both Jones and Samberg are up to the task as leads.  The plot is surprising and doesn't end up exactly where I thought it might.  There's an Emma Roberts as a Ke$ha/Britney Spears-type singer that works okay.  Elijah Wood is a delight as Celeste's boss.  Will McCormack tries to steal the movie as Skillz.  It work fine.  I enjoyed it, and I think this is a fine little movie.

Denzel Behaving Badly: A Pilot Under The Influence

Movie Review: Flight

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Reviewed: 13 November 2012

jamesintexas rating--**

Despite the best efforts of Denzel Washington, "Flight" stalls before take-off, never reaching lofty heights.  Robert Zemeckis curiously directs this film, and though the airplane disaster is filmed with intensity and skill, the rest of the film fails to reach any sort of emotional power.

The script raises an intriguing question.  What if the person responsible for saving hundreds of lives was also the person partially responsible for putting them at risk?  What if we found out that Captain Sully who landed the Miracle on the Hudson was high at the time?

An elaborate backstory is set up for Whip Whitaker, a boozing, drug-using pilot who takes the controls while still recovering from the night before.  When a terrible incident occurs in the air, Whip makes choices that end up saving nearly everyone on the plane.  But, in the aftermath and investigation, his addictions come out, leading to serious questions about how far he (and those around him) are willing to go to hide the truth.  "Flight" feels like director Robert Zemeckis trying to be gritty, showing us Denzel Washington behaving badly, having John Goodman march into the film to "Sympathy for the Devil" by the Rolling Stones while rattling off so many drug names that I have never even heard of, clumsily layering Red Hot Chili Peppers' songs from 1992 over a drug scene, having a supporting character semi-involved with the porn industry.  Kelly (Nicole Reilly) is introduced as a fellow addict and given very little to do as Whip's friend.  Her story line is particularly unsatisfying.  

The story is less about the process of recovery than I would have hoped.  There are marvelous actors in supporting roles (Melissa Leo and Don Cheadle) who have little to do.  The plot hinges on a joining door in a hotel room being left open, which just feels lazy.  Whip put lives in danger every time that he flew under the influence some sort of drug or alcohol, and the film glosses over why his crew, especially Margaret (Tamara Tunie) would lie for him and protect him for so many years.

There is little sense to make of why Whip was able to invert the plane and save so many lives.  Perhaps there is no reason.  It could have been luck.  However, the same creative quick-thinking resides in the mind of the man whose aggressiveness and stubbornness, whether alcohol and drug-fueled or not, allowed him to take the controls while not at his best.

I like a quiet conversation in the stairwell of a hospital best in this film, with two characters getting to know each other through a third.  I like that this film is about serious things: addiction, enabling, fleeing from the truth.  Denzel Washington is always credible and here he is strong, probably nomination-worthy.  The ending of the film is not earned, and the emotion for me is simply not there.

Cohen's Failure: Unfunny Dictator

Movie Review: The Dictator

Director: Larry Charles

Reviewed: 19 November 2012

jamesintexas rating--*

A comedy is supposed to be funny.

And Sacha Baron Cohen's latest vehicle "The Dictator" is simply not funny.

I loved "Borat" for its daring and chaotic glee.  This film seems to have taken away everything that has worked for Cohen in the past.  The script shackles him to a flimsy story of a dictator transplanted to New York City and replaced by a double.  Ben Kingsley is wasted here, as is Ana Faris, as the owner of the organic grocery store where Cohen's character finds work.  There's zero nuance, zero shading, and despite a willingness of Cohen to say or do anything, it just doesn't work.

There's just little to like here, and I don't think that it delivers on any of the promises of the preview (much funnier).

I laughed less than five times.

A comedy is supposed to be funny.

We Bought A...Forget It.

Movie Review: We Bought A Zoo

Director: Matt Damon

Reviewed: 12 November 2012

jamesintexas rating--*

Cameron Crowe has lost his touch.  The director of "Almost Famous" and "Say Anything" almost completely delivers a disaster of a film in "We Bought A Zoo."  The charming Matt Damon cannot do anything with his role as Benjamin Mee, grieving (horribly misguided) father who purchases a zoo and uses it as way to heal the wounds within his family.  There are no stakes in this film; money just appears whenever main characters need it, and a villain is contrived from a regulator who wants to make sure the zoo is up to code and safe.

Heavy-handed, slow, and just awful in its sentiment, "We Bought A Zoo" brings very little to the screen to like beyond some shots of animals being cute.  The animals and Matt Damon's earnestness have earned this film one star, but I caution anyone against seeing this film.  The first twenty minutes of "Life of Pi" depicts zoo life and a family with far less cloying children, cliche, and Scarlett Johannson.

A Political Film For The Ages: Lincoln.

Movie Review: Lincoln

Director: Steven Spielberg

Reviewed: 1 December 2012

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

Wow.  To see Daniel Day-Lewis acting is a cinematic event, and a performance from the actor who played Christy Brown, Hawkeye, Gerry Conlon, Bill The Butcher, and Daniel Plainview is a rare treat.

And Abraham Lincoln, perhaps our most beloved president, has yet to be rendered cinematically.

Adding director Steven Spielberg to the mix is intriguing but also risky because of Spielberg's difficulty handling more serious stories.  Spielberg remains our most popular modern director, lending an air of excitement that such a populist is constructing such a challenging story.

However, the director of "Jaws," "Close Encounters," "Raiders of the Lost Ark" works with an innovative, dazzling screenplay from playwright Tony Kushner to construct "Lincoln," a film with as much to say about our world in 2012 as it does about the slice of January 1865 that it depicts.  The screenplay and a focus on the telling of a meaty, complex, political story is what saves this film.  Spielberg had to reign in his tendencies in order to keep the focus on Lincoln, the man in the White House, surrounded by his family, trapped by the public, consumed with his devotion to ending slavery through the political process before the ending of the war.  There is one battle scene here, but Spielberg could have made this "Saving Private Ryan" set in the Civil War and doesn't.  He is more keen to focus on Lincoln's curling up on the floor next to his youngest son whom he then carries to bed in a tender scene that communicates more than narration or speeches ever could.  He focuses on the messiness of the political process and the way ideals have to be compromised in order to achieve anything truly great.  It seems radical, but "Lincoln" shows us the world of politics with its passion and zeal as duplicitous, ugly, and vital.

To be clear, Spielberg made a film about Abraham Lincoln and does not have him read the Gettysburg Address, does not show any Civil War battles beyond the opening scene, does not show the actual reading of the vote of the amendment in question, does not show the signing of the treaty at Appomatox Courthouse, does not show his reelection in 1864, does not show his assassination, and only allows us a narrow glimpse into the president giving the famous Second Inaugural Address to close the film.  He has constructed a film that is so unconventional in its treatment of a revered public figure that there's no other word for it but astonishing.  The narrow focus on the few months in 1865 involving the amendment abolishing slavery has much to do with this film's success.  It never overreaches.

As for Daniel Day-Lewis, he anchors the film with gravitas, humor, and weariness.  The actor who is known for his physicality inhabits Lincoln with all of his complexity, making him a quieter, quirkier figure than I think I ever saw him.  His grabbing of the hand of his Secretary of War while anxiously waiting word on an impending battle is one of my favorite moments.  Lincoln's penchant for stories leads to many laughs in the film, yet the folksy stories uncover the past of the man, his values, and his ability to be two steps or two plays ahead of everyone in the film.  Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader, and others deliver fantastic performances.  The focus of the film on the passing of the amendment abolishing slavery necessitates showing less of Lincoln's relationship with Mary Todd (Sally Field) or his son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and if I had a complaint against the film, it would be its lack of screen time or depth with both of those characters.  However, there is something remarkable about seeing how open the White House used to be, with Lincoln cradling his youngest son in his arms while still dictating policy and hearing complaints from citizens who just show up at his door. He's a man, a father, a husband, the supreme military commander of the Union Army during a vicious struggle, and he's exhausted the entire film.

Ultimately, "Lincoln" resonates with more modern fights for equality.  As it delves into the political theater of Washington and the world of Senate votes and compromises, Senators on both sides of the aisle decry giving African-Americans or women the right to vote.  And now, here we are in 2012, with an African-American president and a female Secretary of State who had vied for the presidency.  In twenty years, will we look back at some of the speeches and vitriol of this day with the same cringing?

The times, they are a changing, Bob Dylan sings, and "Lincoln" reminds us of the fervor of now must not prevent us from looking forward to the possibility of what the future can be. Spielberg ends the film with Lincoln reading these famous lines: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

What those words mean to me is a recommitment to democracy, to our process of working together, to our belief that binding up our disagreements and wounds is vital and necessary.  We are a country of greatness, just as Lincoln says about himself, "clothed in immense power" that we can use to achieve greatness and kindness and peace.  Those are words that can give us pause despite which side we supported in the last election or any election.

And, both North and South and West and East should agree in private and in public, Daniel Day-Lewis deserves his third Academy Award for Best Actor this winter for "Lincoln."

What a gift his performance is.  

Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master: An Evocative Journey

Movie Review: The Master

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Reviewed: 25 September 2012

jamesintexas rating--***

"The Master" exists within a class of films that I didn't always fully understand on first viewing.  I will start this review by stating that I must see this film again.

Joaquin Phoenix is Freddie Quell, a sailor adrift after the end of the second world war.  Philip Seymour Hoffman is Lancaster Dodd, a charismatic religious cult leader.  Amy Adams is his wife Margaret Dodd, and she may be the eponymous master, pulling the strings behind the scenes.

Filled with tension, the battle of wills between the two men is complex and confusing.  Director Paul Thomas Anderson, the master himself behind "Boogie Nights," "Magnolia," and the epic "There Will Be Blood," seems to be commenting on the post-World War Two malaise in America, the sense of drift felt by veterans who have returned home from war, perhaps addicts, perhaps damaged.  Phoenix's performance is completely mesmerizing; I simply have never seen him this way before.  He's a jumble of hunched shoulders, marble-mouth speeches, capacity for violence, and obsession.  Hoffman is at least his equal as the charismatic, fatherly Lancaster Dodd, a man who instructs others on a shadowy belief system called "The Process."  Amy Adams does supporting work as Margaret Dodd, the woman behind the man.

I was struck by how nervous this movie made me feel.  I really didn't know where it was going, what could happen from scene to scene, and I think that there is a real focus brought to the work by zeroing in on the two men.  The film tells American history, wrestles with the rise of religious belief, addresses philosophy and the construction of meaning.  Lancaster Dodd tells Freddie, "If you figure out a way to live without a master, any master, be sure to let the rest of us know, for you would be the first in the history of the world."

Those are compelling words and this is a contemplative film, rich in imagery to match the performances.  I hope to see it again soon and amend this review, but for now, let me say that it is rich and evocative and most certainly worth a viewing, though it will disturb and sicken and frustrate.  Paul Thomas Anderson certainly knows how to do all of those things in his films.

(To be continued...)

Best Visual Effects, yes, but who is Pi?

Movie Review: Life of Pi (3D)

Director: Ang Lee

Reviewed: 2 December 2012

jamesintexas rating--***

Ang Lee is a tremendous directorial talent, and both "Brokeback Mountain" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" made my short list for the top ten films of the last decade, so a new film from him is an event. Despite the occasional misfire (I'm looking at you, "Hulk"), Lee directs with a visual style that includes a love of manners and grace, motion and place, a strong color palette, and he always seems to elicit strong performances from fine actors like Heath Ledger, Emma Thompson, and others.  He has won the Academy Award for Best Director, and I will always watch his films.  His most recent film "Life of Pi" is more of a technological wonder than a living, breathing film, but I admire the work that Lee does here to render the world of the young Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma), an Indian boy who grew up in a zoo and survives a sinking freighter ship (a terrifying storm) that wipes out everything and everyone he knows.  Pi finds himself cast away on a life boat alongside a hyena, an orangutan, a wounded zebra, and a ferocious Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.  More, I will not say.  Lee fully employs the 3D effects in an almost painterly fashion, using them not to throw things at the audience or make us duck.  Instead, Lee places the life boat swimming as if in a seaof stars, making it appear that Pi is floating in the sky more than the ocean.  Whales dance with translucent colors, and fish fly.  Lee changes perspective at moments, taking us inside a tiger's eyes and then inside of a fish's eyes, swirling through the ocean with its colors and lights.  At one moment a painting literally comes alive with images spiraling and turning every direction.  To frame the story, the journey of survival becomes a tale told by the older Pi (Irrfan Khan) to a young man interested in both faith and being a writer, a set-up that I was not totally convinced was needed.

"Life of Pi" is engineered best for the 3D experience, and there are more than five jaw-dropping sequences that seem assured to win this film an Oscar for Best Visual Effects.  The tiger itself is a triumph of digital creation, and there are sequences that are on par with "2001" and "Tree of Life" for their majesty and beauty.  Lee lovingly captures the underwater world and the world of the stars, forging a cinematic magical realism with colors and images rarely ever depicted on film.  Those sequences are what I will remember from this film.

Despite being engaged in the story and the technological marvel of it (Lee paints so much in CGI that nothing really stands out and seems inauthentic; he's blended things so well that there are no lines), I left "Life of Pi" feeling both a distance and a coldness.  I like the fact that despite some difficult, violent imagery (ship sinking, animals being animals), the film is suitable for all ages.  The lead performance by Suraj Sharma is fine, though the narration started to grate on me a bit.  I wonder if this film needed the outside narration or the framing device at all.  Probably yes, because it brings the audience into Pi's mind, and besides the tiger, there is really no other reason for him to talk at all.  He doesn't have a device like Wilson the volleyball.

However, what if Ang Lee had allowed himself to tell the story more by using imagery instead of words?  What if he allowed sequences to go on without narration for ten, twenty, or thirty minutes?  He could have pushed the limits of what an American audience would see in terms of purely visual filmmaking.  Lee wisely drops the framing device midway through the film in order to not interrupt the focus as the survival story builds in its intensity.  However, I would argue that the framing device doesn't add an emotional clarity to the story, and the ending does not really work.  In general, I think "Life of Pi" is an interesting story, but the framing devices and the ending (of both the book and the movie) failed to bring me resolution.  The story seems at times to be trying to tell us that it is about telling people good-bye.  It also examines what a person is capable of doing under extreme stress.  Is the film an advocate of faith or belief in religion because it is simply the better story?  Is there something about this Job-like struggle that is unique to Pi or his tri-religious philosophy?  Are the stories that we tell ourselves the lifelines which can keep us alive?

I'm just not sure.  I'm not sure the storytelling always matches the visual flair and wonder.  I'm not sure that the film's examination of religion and faith reaches any sort of depth.  But I'm sure of this.  You should see "Life of Pi" on the big screen with 3D.  I agree with fellow critics that this film is a great example of the power of 3D filmmaking if put in the right hands.  Ang Lee's hands are the right hands.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

I Heart Silver Linings Playbook, Second Viewing.

Movie Review: Silver Linings Playbook

Director: David O. Russell

Reviewed: 1 December 2012

jamesintexas rating--****

Bradley Cooper proves that he can act, David O. Russell proves that he is a preeminent director of A-list talent, and "Silver Linings Playbook" proves to be an emotional, visceral film of strange power and grace.  It is one of the best films of the year.

"Three Kings" was a story of a community of soldiers during Desert Storm with Ice Cube, Spike Jonze, Mark Wahlberg, and George Clooney.  "The Fighter" is nothing if not a family story with Mark Wahlberg's drug-addicted brother, smattering of sisters, domineering mother, and equally tough girlfriend.  "The Silver Lining Playbook" features multiple scenes that layer in family members, neighbors, friends, police officers, and extended family.  Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver play Pat Senior and Dolores. Jennifer Lawrence and Julia Stiles play sisters Tiffany and Veronica; Cooper and Shea Whigham play brothers Pat and Jake.  Danny (Chris Tucker, welcome back!) plays a friend Pat meets in a Baltimore institution, and Pat's best friend Ronnie (John Ortiz) who is married to Veronica.  There's Pat's psychiatrist Dr. Patel (Anupam Kher) and Pat's local Officer Keogh and a Pat's dad's best friend, a Cowboy fan and a bookie named Randy (Paul Herman).  Russell doesn't necessarily introduce anyone in this film; he just layers them in, one on top of the other. Everyone knows everyone. A character that begins the film as possibly being imaginary ends up being incredibly real. A character that I thought was dead magically shows up halfway into the film without explanation.  It is a magical, transporting film.

Without giving anything away (since deferred information is one of the strengths of Russell's screenplay of Matthew Quick's novel), Pat is recovering from a violent episode, hopes to reconcile with his wife, and checks out of the hospital with his mom. The film begins with his return to his parents' home, and then it centers the concentric circles surrounding Pat.  He literally runs in circles around his neighborhood, trapped in his head and his past, triggered by the world around him, struggling with his mental illness.  He meets Tiffany, a recent widow, and they forge an unusual, unconventional connection.

Everyone in this film is interesting.  Everyone.  Even bit parts.  I wanted to see an entire movie with Chris Tucker's character Danny.  And Ronnie.  And Randy.  And the mom.

Russell's use of setting is inspired.  The film takes place in a community, a neighborhood where a screaming episode wakes up all the neighbors who stand out on their stoops.  Most scenes take place inside homes.  The film breathes Philadelphia in with a lived-in quality and few obvious references beyond one scene at Lincoln Financial Field.  The film features Halloween trick or treating, eating at the Llanerch Diner, running around the winding roads around Pat and Tiffany's Philadelphia neighborhood, Christmas celebrations, outside of the Eagles game with the tailgaters, at a dance competition happening the same time as an Eagles-Cowboys game on television. Russell is uncovering some deep stuff here, exploring where mental illness ends and rabid fandom begins.

Put another way, isn't being a Philadelphia Eagles fan (or, insert your favorite sports team or television show or website or musician here) just another form of mental illness?  Is Pat any different, worse, or exactly the same as the E-A-G-L-E-S-EAGLES! shouting fans outside Lincoln Financial Field eight Sundays a year?

The way sports can be used in lieu of communication in American culture is insightful.  Pat Senior wants to spend time with Pat watching the game.  Let's watch the game together.  Let's have something to talk about.  Russell is commenting on our national cultural practices in a way rarely depicted.  He's not mocking them but questioning our habits.  He's wrestling with the rituals of American life: wearing costumes, decorations, watching games, superstition, gambling, competitions, eating, recovery, rallying.

In short, family.

The performances are spectacular.  I'm expecting multiple acting nominations, starting with Cooper and Lawrence who are both deserving.  I loved seeing Chris Tucker again.  The filmmaking layers in sound: the doorbell, Cooper's rapid-fire no-filter conversation, the spectacle of watching two, three, four characters speaking over each other.  Russell's philosophy is to cram a scene full of as many people as possible and have it absolutely work, have it absolutely make sense.  Because really, all these people are a part of the story, know each other, care about each, make sense to Pat, and for economy of storytelling, why not have them in the same room?  

I think the filmmaking mirrors the feelings of mental illness, and I'm in awe of Russell's powers as a filmmaker with specific cinematography and editing choices.  He avoids cliches and mawkishness, cutting deep into characters in pain.  Yet, the film is ultimately one of hope and joy, earning its ending, and surprising me in the amount I was moved by it.

A must see film from one of our greatest living directors.

Update: I've seen the film twice now, and it is even more rich and wonderful in a second viewing. Some of the tension dissipates, yet I'm still enthralled by Russell's techniques: swooping cameras, layers upon layers of sounds (telephones ringing, doorbells ringing), and his casting.  The film should earn nominations for Cooper, Lawrence, De Niro, and with any luck, Weaving.  Best Film, Best Director, and Best Screenplay should also be forthcoming.  I'm ordering the soundtrack and preparing to read Matthew Quick's book.  I teared up even more in the second viewing than in the first.

Friday, November 23, 2012

A Better Life needs A Bigger Audience.

Movie Review: A Better Life

Director: Chris Weitz

Reviewed: 19 November 2012

jamesintexas rating--*** (3 stars)

"A Better Life" slipped past most audiences, and despite an Oscar nomination for Damian Bichir for Best Actor, I have not yet met anyone who has seen this film.  Modest in its scope, director Chris Weitz has crafted a film that weaves the modern post-9-11 politics of deportation into a tender relationship story between an undocumented father Carlos Galindo (Bichir) and his teenage son Luis (Jose Julian).  In a year when "self-deportation" was legitimate policy suggested by one of the two presidential candidates, Weitz's film focuses on the reality of illegality, represented in the omnipresent fear of police, the inability to seek legal justice for crimes committed, and the juxtaposition between the Malibu landscapes and the harsh work being done by workers to create that image.  Carlos and Luis see each other rarely; the opening shot is a dissolve of the father sleeping uncomfortably on the couch before departing for work. His son hangs around the edges of the world of Los Angeles gangland violence, chasing down a fellow student, earning a suspension, dating a girl with gang ties, suggesting a possible future reality available to him.  A reality different than the subservient, punishing work that his father endures, climbing up palm trees, working with the land.  Their conversations are brief and harsh, punctuated by open and uncomfortable disdain by the son for the father's type of work.

"A Better Life" keeps a narrow focus on a small cast, and by the forty-five minute mark when something disastrous occurs, I was emotionally hooked and fraught with nervousness for the aftermath. And the aftermath is rooted in logic and the realities of the characters; the stakes are quite real.  Carlos's crumpled baseball cap, hesitant English and his lined face convey a world of pain endured and sacrifices made.  Bichir's performance is the powerhouse here, holding most of the screen time.  His actions suggest a desperate man but a man with his honor intact.    

Weitz has an interesting track record as a director.  He has worked on "American Pie," "The Golden Compass," "About A Boy," as well as "The Twilight Saga: New Moon."  I have on seen "Pie" and "Boy," but both seem preoccupied with a central father-son relationship.  The emotions at the end of "A Better Life" are genuine and earned, yet I don't think that Luis is allowed the same level of introspection that his father is given.  Luis's actions at the end are significant, yet a jump forward four months leaves too many questions unanswered.  Weitz's direction is fine, yet he doesn't reach beyond the melodrama of the final third of the film.  He has made a relationship film and an issue film, yet doesn't seem interested in moving into a more profound realm.  However, Weitz depicts an insular world and its denizens with respect and care, and I hope to see more films like this one.

A film that deserves of an audience, "A Better Life" quietly pushes the question of immigration policy and the disruption of families into the forefront.  It works best in several quiet moments between father and son, as well as some intense scenes of suspense.  Many people denigrated Bichir's nomination last year for Best Actor over the more well-known, flashy performances of Michael Fassbender for "Shame" and Leonardo DiCaprio for "J. Edgar." The Academy was right; Bichir's performance is a quiet masterpiece, deserving of such high praise.

From Scotland With Shotguns

Movie Review: Skyfall

Director: Sam Mendes

Reviewed: 23 November 2012

jamesintexas rating--****

As a scholar of both the James Bond novels and films, the psychology of Commander James Bond of Her Majesty's Secret Service has always been of interest to me.  Audiences may have fallen in love with the witty repartee between Bond and Moneypenny or the dazzling displays of innovation from Q Branch or even the cackling laughter of a villain who should kill Bond instead of talking to him.  But me?  I fell in love with the character.  The haunted killer.  The company man.  With a license to kill.  With his pained background and avoidance of close relationships and a ruthless consumption of alcohol and cigarettes and women.  Bond for me was marked by trauma and guilt.  The losing of first love Vesper Lynd, used against him by an unseen enemy.  The holding of the body of his beloved wife Traci, killed on their honeymoon.  The clutching of broken friend Felix Leiter, brutalized by sharks at the whim of a madman.  James Bond is a haunted man, one seeking the solace of a cigarette or a martini in a lonely hotel room with danger lurking nearby.

James Bond never existed for me as an immortal action hero.  James Bond could always die, and his recognizable emotions of rage, bravado, grief, and insouciance are what I search the series for, always hoping that the interiority of the spy will be given as much attention as the gadgets, tropical locales, and underground lairs.  Ian Fleming's writing delves into the psychology of the man, shading him.  Very few Bond films have delved into the man himself.  "GoldenEye" had its quiet moments, as did the fantastic and bloody "Licence To Kill," with Bond as a true avenger who carves out a bloody path to reach the  man who slaughters a friend's wife on her wedding day.  Bond's vendetta and its brutality echoes his grappling with his own traumatic past in the excellent "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" where Bond falls in love and marries, albeit briefly.  I am also a fan of Bond under pressure, facing imminent death and fighting back, not always quipping and smirking, so "From Russia With Love," "Goldfinger," and moments from "For Your Eyes Only" resonate with me.  The last film begins with a Bond at Traci's grave though it proves to be a momentary respite from the usual plot machinations.  My point is that Bond is a man with flaws and pain, and the best Bond films and stories consider him such.  I reject his invincibility and immortality.  James Bond is a man who can die.  A man who can bleed.  A man with demons.

In "GoldenEye," best-friend-turned-enemy Alec Trevelyan pointedly asks Bond, "I might as well ask you if all those vodka martinis ever silence the screams of all the men you've killed... or if you find forgiveness in the arms of all those willing women for all the dead ones you failed to protect." Bond's former friend deconstructs a coping mechanism of alcohol and sex, a drowning of regret that orders Bond's behavior.  That same film introduces the modern M (Judi Dench) as a bureaucrat who calls Bond "a sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War" and announces to him in that same film "If you think for one moment I don't have the balls to send a man out to die, your instincts are dead wrong," a sentiment put to the test in the bang-bang motorcycle rooftop turned train chase outside of Istanbul that opens "Skyfall."  M's decisions to protect an encrypted list of embedded spy names thrust the film into the dazzling title credit sequence, a swirl of underworld imagery, with Bond being sucked into a whirlpool that dissolves into a skull, a cemetery with an open grave, Chinese red dragons swirling about, and shattering mirrors featuring Bond shooting himself.  Post credit sequence set to the incomparable Adele theme song, Mendes then cuts to M, and this film centers itself on her.  She is the Bond girl in this film, facing an imminent forced retirement from Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) as well as an oversight board for her running of MI-6.  M is seen drinking a lot in this film, and Trevelyan's words from Dench's first film regarding drinking to silence the screams could be directed at her.  Her words and actions put her agents in mortal danger, and culpability is hers.  "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown," the Bard wrote in "Henry IV, Part 2," and M struggles to relinquish hers until the job is done.

Bond returns to action after a mission gone awry with a bullet in his shoulder and grudge against M.
He returns to a subterranean M1-6 as a result of a terrorist attack on the headquarters itself.  In the tunnels underneath London, M reevaluates Bond and sends him off to China to retrieve the stolen list.  The hunt leads to a shimmering assassination sequence in a Shang-Hai skyscraper with the complex interplay of light and shadow as well as a spooky scene in a Macau casino, all reds and yellows and Komodo dragons.  Bond is shown entering the mouth of the dragon that marks the casino's front (he might as well be crossing over the river Styx with his coin for Charon), and Mendes's film embraces this image: Bond entering death, Bond entering his own past.  Komodo dragons swirl underneath the steps of Bond as he meanders into more and more trouble.  Another ship to an abandoned island.  A bad guy awaits, over one hour into the film, and Javier Bardem delivers a provocative performance filled with verve and fun, as well as pathos.  Bardem is given three powerful entrances as villain (one a long extended monologue as he approaches a captive Bond, one a Hannibal Lecter-style incarceration, and one announced by an Animals cover of John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom" as he steps off a helicopter-ride of death, automatic weapon in hand, revenge on his mind).  Bardem proves capable in all three sequences, a lethal Byronic hero who implores M to "Think of your sins" as well as proves a mirror to Bond.  Silva's tortured past implicates M, and he serves as a reminder of her own guilty conscience.  Silva is what Bond could become and also a tie back to Alec Trevelyan.  Silva is the collateral damage of the actions of both MI-6 and M.

"Skyfall" delivers a Bond film of impressive emotional heft.  Mendes has won the Academy Award for directing (and Bardem and Dench, both for acting) and seems as interested in the visual palette of the film (tunnels, abandonment, archways) as he is in letting his small cast dig into the material.  Bond is seen literally hanging on by his fingertips multiple times in the films, and in nods to "Vertigo" is seen endlessly pursuing, always heading downhill.  A shoot-out in an MI-6 hearing room is terrifying.  Overhead shots of Bond and M driving evoke the dread of the beginning of Kubrick's "The Shining," and flourishes in the score touch upon Spielberg's best films.  Mendes seems content to move patiently with his story, understanding that the upper echelon Bond films take their time.

The staging of the final thirty minutes of the film in Scotland at Bond's ancestral home is quite possibly the most exciting Bond action sequence ever put to film.  The less said about it, the better.  Dench is strong here, as is the supporting cast of Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Rory Kinnear, Ben Whishaw, and the great Albert Finney.  There is a sufficient amount of wry humor in the film, ably delivered by Craig; Silva asks Bond his hobby, and Bond spits out, "Resurrection."

Mendes has resurrected the character and the series from the depths of "Quantum of Solace," a nonsensical, muddled  step backwards from the character-driven "Casino Royale."  He has resurrected the notion of a Bond song being a smash hit, something entering the pop culture beyond Bond.  He has resurrected the conceit that Bond the man is infinitely more interesting than Bond the visual effect.  Pierce Brosnan left the series several years back in "Die Another Day" with an invisible car and hang-gliding while a laser sliced an iceberg behind him.  Craig and Dench have, with help from director Martin Campbell and now Sam Mendes, grounded the Bond series in a man, a man who was a child once, wounded and vulnerable by his parents' death.  Bond is a man gripping by his fingertips, yet able to pull himself up.  Bond is haunted, yet capable and confident, able to stand on a train track and ignore the approaching train.  Bond is a lone warrior, staring out from the rooftops at the end, in a nod to the recent "Batman" series, always on guard.

"Skyfall" is about the changing of the guard with the Bond series in many ways, and I am proud to place it alongside "From Russia With Love," "Goldfinger," "On Her Majesty's Secret Service," and "License To Kill" as a masterpiece.

Four stars, my highest rating.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Argo: Best American Film of the Year So Far

Movie Review: Argo

Director: Ben Affleck

Reviewed: 27 October 2012

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

"Argo" features a hidden CIA exfil, a mission into riotous 1979 Iran to rescue six American embassy workers who fled to a nearby Canadian ambassador's home to hide from certain capture and possible execution. Through an innovative introductory sequence with elements of graphic novels and newsreels, Affleck deftly summarizes the role of the US in the propping up of the Shah and his regime, as well as the rise of Ayatollah Khomeni and fundamental Islam. And then, about fifteen minutes into the film, he shows the storming of the embassy. Filmed with a breathtaking blending of news footage (or possibly just incredible attention to detail) and close-up shots of the eyes of the workers within, Affleck brings us deep into the battered embassy as the workers endure the chanting from the street outside and the rattling of the gates.

Ben Affleck is Tony Mendez, troubled CIA agent.
John Goodman is John Chambers, Hollywood make-up man.
Bryan Cranston is Jack O'Donnell, CIA higher-up, searching for options to extract the six.
Alan Arkin is a scene-stealer as a Hollywood producer.

They unite to get hostages out of Tehran in one of the most audacious plots ever concocted.

Argo has elements of "Wag the Dog" in its blending of the political and the entertainment worlds. 
This collision is never more apparent than during a blending of a table reading of the "Argo" script intercut with recitations from the Iranian and American politicians. All is theater, Affleck is saying, and his closing titles run over a panoply of "Star Wars" and "Planet of the Apes" figures.

Affleck holds the tension quite impressively, and the final sequence at the Tehran airport is perhaps the most suspenseful extended scene I've seen all year.  There are cuts back and forth between the turmoil of getting things done in Washington as well as the hostages hiding out.  A minor character, an Iranian housekeeper is not well-developed and late decisions with her have less resonance as a result.  As for Affleck's performance, he seems to be channeling a more is less approach, but the central moment of truth is remarkably boring, lacking any sort of dramatic movement.  Despite its occasional lapses, it is a rousing, pro-government, pro-American ingenuity work of art, and I think it will be the frontrunner for the Academy Award for Best Picture this winter.  

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Cabin = Effective and Fun!

Movie Review: The Cabin in the Woods

Director: Drew Goddard

Reviewed: 25 October 2012

jamesintexas rating--***

A reluctant 3 star rating.  Why reluctant?  I don't really know.  "The Cabin in the Woods" is fun to think about, has very funny meta-moments, and I think at another time in my life I would have loved it even more.  It has Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, as the blandly named Sitterson and Hadley, the less of which is said, the better.  A disposable cast led by the likable Chris Hemsworth as Curt takes a weekend trip to a remote cabin in the woods.  Things from the start are never on the up and up.  Goddard's focus is on deconstructing and satirizing the modern horror film and its conventions, and there are several clever plays on this idea.

It sets up an interesting twist on the genre, though at times, I feel it is too predictable or reminiscent of other films like John Carpenter's "They Live."  There are some horror freak-out sequences that are just gonzo, and I admired that, though as the CGI is thrown at me, my actual horror level decreases.  There's some nice juxtaposition at work with the two stories, as well as a violent scene playing out in the background at a party scene.  Goddard seems, rightly, to be commenting on how strange it is for a group of people to gather and be entertained by another character's intense humiliation and suffering.  The drinking in the it really any different than munching on popcorn, drinking Coke, or chowing on Buncha Crunch during a film?  There's clearly a lot to freeze frame and see, as well as references to games and monsters that I didn't get, but on a basic, visceral level, I enjoyed this movie.  I liked its breeziness and attitude.  Jenkins and Whitford are delightful; I wanted to see an entire movie about them.

Monday, October 22, 2012

We Need To Talk About We Need To Talk About Kevin

Movie Review: We Need To Talk About Kevin

Director: Lynne Ramsay

Reviewed: 3 September 2012

jamesintexas rating--***

Uncomfortable, nightmarish, unsatisfying, and prescient, "We Need To Talk About Kevin" focuses on the before and after regarding a traumatic event involving a young boy.  The narrative flows from past to future and back to the past, with mom's face sometimes blending into her young, troubled son Kevin's face.  Ramsay throws a lot of textures and colors at us: the red of La Tomatina, a Spanish tomato festival where participants throw bloody tomatoes at each other, filling the streets with a blood surrogate; red paint thrown in hatred at the mom's house by angry, grieving community members which she spends portions of the film symbolically trying to wash off; blood from a slap in the face, delivered on a sunny street by a neighbor; crushed Froot Loop cereal, pushed down into the table top by Kevin.

A deeply uncomfortable film, Ramsay crafts a tale without redemption and little release.  Oscar-winner Tilda Swinton delivers a strong performance as a mom riddled with guilt and confusion.  She doesn't know how to react to her violent, possibly-sociopathic son, and there are hints of her lack of any desire to be a mother.  How much does Ramsay point the finger at mom for what the son does?  Difficult to say.  The structure of the film delays our full understanding of the violent event, and in doing so, I was intrigued by the mystery surrounding whatever is going to happen.

Deeply upsetting and not fun to watch, "We Need To Talk About Kevin" explores darker territory than your average film, and Swinton's performance as well as Ezra Miller's striking turn as son Kevin make this worth watching.  With caution.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Movie Review: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Director: Stephen Chbosky

Reviewed: 29 September 2012

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

Dear Mr. Stephen Chbosky,

Hello. I’m James. I missed out on the craze surrounding the publication of your novel “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” in 1999. But as a high school English teacher, I simply cannot avoid it now. Your book exploded in my classroom this past month, and I have lots of juniors in AP Literature who have read or are reading it. I just finished reading it myself. With the novel’s epistolary form and its echoes of Holden Caulfield, your literary voice comes across as nakedly honest and sincere.

I saw the film based on your screenplay of your novel, and as the film’s director, you confidently explore the teenage years of the main character Charlie and how his friends save his life. You’re a first-time director, but I wouldn’t have known it from this film. Your camera moves with a sure hand, and you’re comfortable enough to let scenes play out for seven or eight minutes without breaking them. In the hands of a different director, such scenes could have been reduced to superficial montages set to splashy soundtrack music. Instead, you’ve crafted a personal and affecting film that takes its time telling the story, buoyed by music and the strength of its lead performances. It feels like the film version of a confidently made mix tape.

Your characters Charlie (Logan Lerman), Patrick (Ezra Miller), and Sam (Emma Watson) form a makeshift family. You brilliantly capture the awkwardness of freshman year when Charlie looks for a place to sit in the cafeteria and at Friday night football games. When I was in high school, a senior knowing a freshman’s name was epic, and your film is about that importance: the power of simply being noticed. Charlie’s acceptance by the older kids changes his life. Charlie’s decision to restart his life and stop being a wallflower lead to his catharsis. By leaving the wall, he takes risks and puts himself out there to be hurt and to be loved. Charlie’s journey is not always in a linear path, and his participation in the lives around him involves potential pain.

The character of Sam jolts Charlie. In the opening scenes, you film Watson in close-ups with a nimbus of ethereal light to give Charlie’s perspective on this beautiful, troubled older girl. On a stylishly shot trip through the tunnels before emerging magnificently in the center of Pittsburgh, Charlie finds himself falling for Sam as she dances in the back seat of the truck, wind flying through her hair. College looms for the seniors. Relationships come together and fall apart. “Nightswimming” might as well be playing, with Michael Stipe crooning, “September is coming soon.”

A high school film that avoids the stale and condescending trappings of the genre, your film shows Charlie’s sensitive connection with a well-meaning English teacher, Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd), the allure of attending a party with older kids (and maybe getting into some trouble), and the emotional complications of a world without cell phones and instant communication. “Where did you go last night?” one character asks. “I couldn’t find you!” You’re effectively reminding me of the tremulousness of connection and the headache of fitting everything in its right place. A fight in a cafeteria has scary power because it’s a fight in a public arena with hundreds of peers as witnesses. A first break-up conversation goes poorly and puts a character’s heart on display for everyone to see. A holiday gift-giving moment has monumental significance, as gifts for friends have untold emotional weight with graduation on the horizon. You have picked small incandescent moments and made an entire film of them.

There are a few moments where your film struggles in its handling of Charlie’s family, and two serious revelations about Charlie’s character are handled clumsily. A relationship between Patrick and another main character never reaches a satisfying resolution. You missed the opportunity to make Charlie’s family life more richly developed; Dylan McDermott and Kate Walsh underplay his parents, and he has two loving older siblings who are nearly nonexistent in the film. The soundtrack does not layer the typical early nineties fare, but the film sounds like what I heard on the radio during that time. Overall, despite its occasional stumble, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” delivers an intimate portrait of these young people in a time of change.

In the first minute, Emma Watson proves that she’s more than just a typecast Hermione Granger. Her performance is a highlight; she projects a melancholy and world-weariness to Sam, as well as a sense of unease that Watson shows through her body language and the way that she listens. You have helped her craft a subtle and compelling character. Also, Ezra Miller shows remarkable range in this role, especially considering his recent chilling turn in the drama “We Need To Talk About Kevin.” The casting in general is on the mark, and Logan Lerman carries the film solidly as Charlie.

Mr. Chbosky, I can tell that you care tremendously about your story and have created a film of great power and humor. Watching “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” felt like listening to an intimate mix tape with its sense of balance and emotion. It got me thinking of mix tapes and parties and football bleachers. I think that my mix tape for you would include fall and winter kinds of songs from 1994-1996, my sophomore through senior year. Amidst Nirvana and U2, Tears for Fears and Stealers Wheel, Alanis Morissette and Oasis, I would close my mix with the song “Find the River” by R.E.M. from “Automatic for the People.” The lyrics “Leave the road and memorize/ This life that pass before your eyes/ Nothing is going my way…Pick up here and chase the ride/ The river empties to the tide/ All of this is coming your way” echo Charlie’s journey in your book, and now your film, as he navigates through life. I want to thank you for filling your film with quiet moments and strong performances. Charlie’s life stops and starts, and he meanders towards friendship and peace with nothing and everything going his way, concurrently.

Love always,


Sunday, September 16, 2012

Campaign, emphasis on the pain.

Movie Review: The Campaign

Director: Jay Roach

Reviewed: 22 August 2012

jamesintexas rating--**

The Campaign is a comedy with one uncontrollably funny scene.  The pairing of Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis proves to be all sizzle and no beef, though some winning segments and silly satirical moments try to carry it to some sort of importance.  Watching these two performers at the top of their game square off against each other is part of the appeal of The Campaign.  Director Jay Roach, beloved for Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery and Meet The Parents seems content to let the film remain on autopilot, guiding itself to its inevitable conclusion with a little danger, a little savagery and anarchy thrown in, but it's never enough to rock the boat.

Roach fails to set up Galifianakis's Marty Huggins as a real character, a true eccentric, a small-town busybody with passion or straight up weirdness before diving into an underdeveloped relationship with his spiteful father (Brian Cox) and aforementioned scene of hilarity at the dinner table with his wife and kids.  Ferrell's Cam Brady doesn't fare much better, though his foul-mouthed hilarity on an answering machine is quite fun, as is his smooth command of the politician's lingo.  Brady's numbers drop when his filthy answering machine message gets national play.  As a result, Huggins is the challenger with greatness thrust upon him by two wealthy political operators (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow, playing the Coke Brothers) who desire to turn the North Carolina district into a Chinese sweatshop of insourcing.  Huggins challenges Brady, and things degenerate into vicious television ads, ridiculous debates, and outrageous stunt after outrageous stunt as each man tries to one up the other.

Both main characters have wives who are sadly underwritten and children that disappear for most of the film.  What an interesting and possibly funny film this could have been if those supporting players would have been given something to do.  Or, if a stronger actress, like a Melissa McCarthy or Olivia Spencer got to play one of the spouses or even the candidates?  And, Aykroyd and Lithgow could have been utilized more and with more hilarity; it was so good to see them both, yet they had little to do besides look nefarious.  A maid with a penchant for accents is quite funny, as are sequences involving baby-punching, dog-punching, and Ferrell spouting his typical jibberish.  Yet, it feels lacking of the danger or inspiration of the best performances from each main actor.  There's no Hangover-ish air of 'What the heck is he gonna do next?' hanging over Galifianakis's scenes, though the accent is funny; there's no full-tilt madness here from Farrell that was there in, say, Old School, Anchorman, or even his turn as Ricky Bobby.  The whole enterprise feels rote, routine, and stale, despite attempts to make some sort of social commentary in an election year.

We All Scream For...

Movie Review: Scream 4

Director: Wes Craven

Reviewed: 16 September 2012

jamesintexas rating--1/2 *

A phone rings.

"Who is this?" a girl utters.

"Not an App," a dark, deep voice answers.

Aside from cheeky dialogue that really, really tries to reflect our times and seem deep, I want to open my review for Scream 4 with a question of my own.

Why would anyone want to be friends with Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell)?

After an unsettling and unsatisfying opening, Wes Craven's newest addition to the Scream franchise welcomes back Deputy-turned-Sheriff Dewey (David Arquette) and his wife journalist Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox), as well as survivor-turned-author Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), though I have difficulty believing Sidney's book can consist of more than a list of directions to evade would-be killers: kick them in the face, lock doors, swing off roofs, luck out with your multiple stab wounds to your stomach, glare intensely, continue to put yourself in situations with very little cell phone reception, few weapons, and cavernous houses where the killer's tactic is coming up behind you and grabbing you.  Killings follow Sidney's return to Woodsboro, and Ghostface killer returns in parking garages, dark hallways, bedrooms, and local parties, wrecking havoc and causing carnage with the iconic glinty knife.

Things fall apart.  The center cannot hold.

Full disclosure: I saw Scream during my freshman year in college in 1996-1997, and it was riveting and a formative experience for me.  I was terrified at the film's iconic mask, captivated by its construction and post-modern angle, as well as moved by the performances of Campbell, Arquette, Cox, and the rest of the cast.  Scream hit a nerve for me, amplifying the killer-in-the-house genre to scary, hilarious levels, and feeling dark and resonant, playing on fears of being alone in the house, of getting a phone call from someone that you don't know, of masks, silent killers, and someone who wants to do you massive harm.  Beyond a statue bust of Henry Winkler, the slain principal from the first film, in a throwaway shot as disposable characters walk down pristine hallways of Woodsboro High School, there is simply nothing that resembles that first film's greatness.  Even musically that original film introduced me to Nick Cave and Moby, to some pretty haunting moments and sequences which felt fresh in their exploration of the genre and commenting on it as it unfolded.  And, after a series of sequels offering diminishing returns, it has come to this: Scream 4.

I'm going to construct this review as a series of questions.

Does Neve Campbell realize how underwritten her role as Sidney is?

Does she care?

Can David Arquette carry a scene anymore as tired Sheriff Dewey?

Could he ever?

Does Courtney Cox realize the ridiculousness of watching her Gale character set up web camera in a bizarre Stab-Fest party in an abandoned farmhouse?

Does it get frustrating for Kevin Williamson to write a screenplay which consists of multiple characters who exist only to be flayed after teasing us as possible suspects?

Does that construction mean that we simply see less, care less about Sidney, her cousin, Sheriff Dewey, Gale, as well as the rest of the cast?  I think he's destroyed his own franchise by taking the focus off of the central characters.  There simply isn't enough time for us to connect with them.

Why can't cops parked out front of houses, presumably watching them, keep creepers from entering second story windows?

Why does the Ghostface killer continue to slowly, strangely cock his head to the side while watching his victims squirm and try to wheedle their ways out of imminent death?

Why are there never any parents in any of the houses in this town?

Also, why are there no motion-sensor lights to foil a creeping killer?

Would I have enjoyed this film more if the famous actors from opening scenes had been the ones doing the heavy lifting in the film instead of a cast with few names and (more importantly) less emotional connection?

Yes, I have to think so.  I mean, we have Julia Roberts' niece Emma Roberts, a Culkin, a Jaime Kennedy wannabee, Hayden Panettiere, as well as a series of forgettable faces and performances.  Alison Brie from Community and Mad Men is wasted here in a ridiculous role as Sidney's publicist who should know better than to park in a dark parking garage.  Anthony Anderson, a very funny and good actor, is wasted as a throwaway police officer.  As this film progresses, I found myself caring less and less for all of the characters.


Why not have the heroes carry guns, mace, or tasers to protect themselves in 2011?  Any single modern weapon would have leveled the playing field immensely and made standing their ground more of an option.  

Why do the police take over twenty minutes to get anywhere in this city?  How big is this city?  How much traffic is there in the middle of the night?

Why, Ghostface killer, are you so intent on grabbing people's ankles instead of using that shiny knife whenever you are close to them?

To sum up, Scream 4 is completely unsatisfying and unworthy of the Scream name.

Also, filmed in Michigan.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Then It Fell Apart: Bored of The Bourne Legacy.

Movie Review: The Bourne Legacy

Director: Tony Gilroy

Reviewed: 2 September 2012

jamesintexas rating--*1/2

"Extreme ways are back again / Extreme places I didn't know / I broke everything new again / Everything that I'd owned" (Moby, "Extreme Ways" from the album 18, the unofficial theme song of the Jason Bourne films.)

Broken is the appropriate image to leave the theater with after enduring this quasi-sequel, messy spin-off of the very successful Jason Bourne trilogy.  I'm still angry after seeing this movie over six days ago.  Angry.  Not at Jeremy Renner or Rachel Weisz who do credible jobs with their underwritten characters as super-assassin and PhD chemist, respectively.  Not at cinematographer Robert Elswit who films pristine snow white scenes alongside blindingly white research labs, infusing this action film with atypical grace.  Not at Moby who wrote such a terrific coda song "Extreme Ways" to cap the ending of each Bourne film (it's on my workout mix).  Not the terrific sense of place in this film: Alaska survival camp, a pill factory in the Phillipines, a terrifying sequence in a laboratory.  I guess I'm just angry at the unrealized potential here, the squandered possibilities, the choppiness and, at times, laziness, of Tony Gilroy, the director of the great Michael Clayton, trying to show us the story behind the stories told in three previous films about amnesiac-laden assassin Jason Bourne.  However, it ends up looking like an amalgamation of out takes and afterthoughts from three previous films, bonus footage or unused scenes being rushed together, like a sixth grade science project with pages of printed out Internet research just stapled to the trifold display board.

It just does not work.

To paraphrase Yoda, "There is another [Bourne]!" and this film picks up on the assumption that the programs with vaguely menacing names run by the intelligence czars in D.C. are using blue and red colored pills and extreme training to build and monitor super spies capable of withstanding extreme amounts of pain, quickening reaction time, and becoming perfect weapons.  When the fallout from Jason Bourne's exploits in the previous films begins to damage the cache of the intelligence community, retired Admiral Turso (Stacy Keach) and retired Colonel Byer (Edward Norton) implement protocols with far-reaching effects for spy in training Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) who is doing his best Liam Neeson in The Grey impression by fighting wolves off with torches in Alaska and Doctor Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a chemist at the forefront of exciting developments in human capability who talks vaguely about "advancing science" as justification for her involvement with genetic engineering.  A chase film, the heroes outwit and outmaneuver their enemies, making their way to Manilla to a pill factory, I think.

I cannot remember a time when a movie worked so hard to actively remind me of its far superior predecessors.  Every shot of Matt Damon's stock face on his Jason Bourne passport reminded me of how much I would rather be watching any of those three films: The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy, and The Bourne Ultimatum.  Any time there was a cutaway to Pam Landy (the wonderful Joan Allen) I wished that she were really featured in this film instead of basically a cameo that may have just been recycled footage from a previous film.  As much fun as it is to see Edward Norton and Stacy Keach go all bleary-eyed and intense as CIA/NSA Cheney-esque puppet masters, playing God in conference rooms, poring over data about super secret spy programs, they drop out of the film and cannot equal Joan Allen, David Strathairn, Albert Finney, Chris Cooper from the first film, Julia Stiles...  It is fun to see Edward Norton again.  Why has it been so long since he's done good work?  Unfortunately, his role does not build towards anything in this film.

Gilroy and Elswit construct several intense action sequences, and early scenes in Alaska are brutal with the weather and wolves.  A terrifying highlight is a ten-minute nightmarish set piece inside of a lab involving a violent act, and the tight confines, the unforeseen parallels to recent shootings inside of a Colorado movie theater, and the sense of slowly unfolding horror.  The film never again reaches the intensity of that sequence, and other scenes pale behind other Bourne action sequences (I mean really, why put someone on a bike after seeing Matt Damon dart through and over the streets and roofs of Tangiers?).  And Damon's films handle the quiet, devastating moments of Bourne's realizations better; a denouement of the second film involves a quiet, guilt-ridden, emotionally powerful conversation between spy and unintended victim of his violence.

With The Bourne Legacy, I haven't been as surprised at an ending to a film in years.  Not surprised in an "I didn't see that coming! Wow!" kind of way.  But, every instinct that I have as a moviegoer told me that The Bourne Legacy was building towards something more giant in the showdown, something more profound, something more intense.  Maybe a villain introduced in Act 3 doesn't carry enough screen time.  A fight scene on motorbikes, admirably filmed and sufficiently dangerous yet curiously inert and uninvolving for me, culminates in the Moby music playing as the credits roll and my general confusion.  The movie is over?  Where does this leave us?  Where do we go from here?

And if the answer to that question is a super hybrid action film which combines Matt Damon and Jeremy Renner, I'm all in as long as Paul Greengrass returns at the helm as director or the script finds some sort of logic amidst the chaos as well as recommits to using its deep supporting cast in real ways.  As an attentive audience member, I just shouldn't feel like Jason Bourne in a Bourne movie: Who is that guy?  Why are they fighting?  Where are they now?  Why is it over?  Where are they going?  What happened to Edward Norton?

Moby's song "Extreme Ways" culminates in these lines: "I would stand in line for this / It's always good in life for this / Oh baby, oh baby / Then it fell apart, it fell apart...Like it always does."  I guess I did stand in line for this, but the concept of The Bourne Legacy, for me, fell apart completely.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Phelps, Lochte, Bolt, Fraser-Pryce, Manzano, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt?

Movie Review: Premium Rush

Director: David Koepp

Reviewed: 25 August 2012

jamesintexas rating--***

A bike messenger who pedals the streets of Manhattan with no brakes clashes with a gambling-addicted scumbag psychopath in need of cash who similarly lives his life without restraint.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Wilee (as in Coyote), the recently broken-up protagonist who careens through the alleyways, traffic jams, and crushing cabs of NYC with maniacal fervor.  He picks up a delivery that is wanted by Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon) who starts out reasonably asking for the message and ends up raising the stakes dramatically.  Without giving too much away, let me say this: Premium Rush is a virtual nonstop chase movie, and a quite good one, with Levitt riding his bike like it is a contact sport.  Koepp tips his hat to video game influenced films like Run Lola Run and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World by imbuing Wilee with an almost supernatural ability to read traffic patterns, play out scenarios in a split second, decide which route to take when all others will involve probable accidents and possible death.  Dania Ramirez is Vanessa, Wilee's ex who becomes wrapped up in the chase as well, and there's a potential new biker interested in her who is named Manny (Wole Parks) and might be an even stronger cyclist than Wilee.

Shannon's Monday is bug-eyed, maniacal, and scenery-chewing, but I liked decisions that were made to go smaller with his character than is usually seen with a bad guy in a New York City action movie.  Instead of feeling like there is a Keyser Soze type mastermind at work pulling all strings or a Hannibal Lecter of infinite foresight and intelligent, Bobby Monday is a mess, careening off the wrong choices he makes into the lives of others, and skidding up against multiple other characters.  The star of Boardwalk Empire and criminally under seen Take Shelter, Shannon is such a strong actor with such genuinely interesting choices that I kept wanting him to have even more to do.  He plays well off of Levitt here who has a credible bike presence and arrogance.

Koepp plays for laughs, at times, with a relentless biking cop always chasing Wilee's heels and Aasif Mandiv as the home base operator of the bike messenger system.  There are some clunky moments involving what Wilee's carrying and why he's got to deliver it, as well as some leaps of logic especially regarding Bobby Monday's degenerate character and Wilee's anti-corporate principles (as he delivers for the corporations, sans suit), but I feel like Koepp has striven to portray a subculture of astonishing speed and daring (the bike messengers who possess skills and talents still necessary in our email, internet-obsessed age) with accuracy and reverence.  There is something fun about seeing two actors bike through Central Park, pedaling at top speed, making some jumps that I would never dare on my bike.  It's the same draw and appeal of seeing Lochte best Phelps in the pool, seeing Manzano stretch from 6th to 2nd in the 1500 meter final, seeing Bolt pull away from Blake and Gatlin in the 100, or watching Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce take down Carmelita Jeter.  The thrill of speed and pushing to the limit exists in this film, despite some of its weaknesses.

In a summer of CGI that explodes space ships over alien planets, detonates nuclear weapons, and has a superhero fly bombs into portals through outer space, it was refreshing and charming to see such Premium Rush's technology implemented to simulate traffic accidents, tight squeezes between buses, cabs and their omnipresent opening doors (kinda terrifying!), and some good old fashioned bike moves.  

It's kinda sweet.