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.