Tuesday, December 20, 2011

"Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows"

Directed by Guy Ritchie, written by Michele Mulroney & Kieran Mulroney, based on characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, starring Robert Downey, Jr., Jude Law, Noomi Rapace, and Jared Harris - Rated PG-13

A little light on the mystery, but the action more than makes up for it.

Sherlock Holmes as an action star seemed to be a strange idea before director Guy Ritchie teamed up with Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law to make Sherlock Holmes a couple years ago.  Now, with Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Ritchie solidifies Downey and Law as a bona fide buddy-action duo.  Granted, this sequel isn’t high art, but in a season filled with high profile releases and Oscar hopefuls, it makes for fun escapism. 

A Game of Shadows (which is an unfortunately bland subtitle) picks up where the original left off with Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) aiding the evil Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris) while Holmes tries to stop them.  In the last film, the devastation was aimed solely at England; this time, all of Europe is at stake as Moriarty attempts to start a world war.  Basically, the stakes are higher and much more violent. 
While this film is primarily an action adventure there is still a bit of mystery to it.  Much like the first film, most of the characters, and the audience, are left in the dark for most of the running time.  There are clues scattered within the film, but it’s not like there is a mystery that the audience can solve on its own.  That’s kind of the point, of course, as Holmes is the only one who should be able to piece everything together.  It’s still a bit fun to keep your eyes on every inch of the screen, hoping to figure things out. 
Sherlock Holmes isn’t really a mystery film, though.  Guy Ritchie keeps the franchise in stylized-action mode and the film is more memorable for it.  There’s something to be said for a director who is willing to show action in a continuous take rather than edit it to the point of incoherence.  Not only does Ritchie keep the action in single shots, but he also slows things down to a crawl and has Holmes narrate what is happening.  Those predictive fight scenes seemed a little gimmicky in the first film, but the gimmick is played with enough times to make it amusing throughout in the sequel.  Aside from the fight scenes, other action set pieces are bigger and better than the original as well.  A lengthy mortar attack/shootout in a wooded area is among one of the best action sequences of the year.  It is an audio/visual attack on the senses, and that is a compliment. 
Action cannot completely carry a movie like this, however.  The core of the film rests on the chemistry between Downey, Jr. and Law.  As Holmes and Watson, they seem entirely natural bickering at each other like an old married couple, a dynamic that is not lost on the filmmakers as they put Holmes and Watson in plenty of thinly veiled homoerotic situations.  The joke does get a bit tiring by the end, but the actors make it work and, more importantly, they make the film fun.  Although the film does venture a bit too far on the goofy side here and there.
 In fact, the tone of the movie is decidedly lighter than the first film, even though the stakes are so dire.  The first film dealt with black magic and took place entirely in gloomy London.  A Game of Shadows features a bit more globe-trotting and there’s no magic, just artillery.  Jared Harris’s performance as Moriarty keeps things sinister enough, though.  Moriarty won’t go down as an iconic villain or anything, but Harris does make for a creepy, cold, methodical bad guy. 
A Game of Shadows could have surpassed the original film if the scope hadn’t been enlarged to include so many new characters.  Noomi Rapace is almost completely unnecessary as a gypsy fortune teller searching for her missing anarchist brother.  And Stephen Fry makes a painfully unfunny appearance as Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s boring, cartoonish brother.  If more characters were needed to join the journey, why not just go with McAdams and Eddie Marsan from the original?  Better yet, just make it a Holmes/Watson adventure.  The third wheel is not needed and it makes the film a bit too long. 
Faults aside, Sherlock Holmes is still a very entertaining film and more sequels would be a welcome experience around the holidays every couple of years.  The film doesn’t aspire to be anything more than a good time with some impressive action sequences.  Holmes and Watson don’t solve an amazing mystery for the ages, but they are a lot of fun for a couple hours.
Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

The infusion of technology gives the film an interesting style, even though it sometimes seems like the film takes place in an alternate reality rather than the past.  Who cares, though? 
The gypsy stuff was kind of unnecessary.  Scratch that, it was completely unnecessary.  Ritchie mined all the laughs there were to get from gypsies in Snatch.  Really wish they would have just had McAdams go along on the journey.  That way the whole gypsy subplot could be removed and the film could be a bit shorter. 
Is it just me, or was Rapace's only noticeable because she seemed to be eating in nearly every scene?  I found it distracting and odd.
Kind of wished they would have left Holmes dead at the end, though that would go against the light tone of the film.  It would be nice for a series to have a definitive end before it wears out its welcome and/or is rebooted.  I suppose there's always hope that Nolan kills off Batman next summer... 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

"Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Directed by Tomas Alfredson, written by Bridget O'Connor & Peter Straughan, based on the novel by John le Carré, starring Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Colin Firth - Rated R

A completely solid and amazingly atmospheric spy film.  One of the best films of the year overall.

A good Cold War movie is hard to come by. Sure, plenty of great, cheesy action movies are products of the capitalist/communist conflict, but movies about the actual spying business of the conflict are few and far between, especially truly good films (although I consider the underrated The Good Shepherd, the justly lauded The Lives of Others, and the criminally under-watched Confessions of a Dangerous Mind recent examples of how these films should be done). Based on the novel by John le Carré, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (just Tinker from here on out) not only covers the Cold War in a realistic, interesting way, but is also quite possibly the best spy film of all time.

Now, hyperbole like that is likely to raise doubt and cause one to begin nitpicking Tinker and decrying all of its “faults.” A classification of what makes a movie a “spy” movie must be made before anyone cries foul of my bold statement. First, there is a difference between spy movies and action movies featuring spies. The vast majority of “spy” films (including all of the James Bond movies) are really just action movies. And anyhow, these action movies don’t attempt to portray spying in a realistic manner. Other films, like the above-mentioned Shepherd, Lives, and Confessions, are about realistic spying. The action is limited to a few gunshots and there are almost no explosions. Oh, and the plot is extremely hard to follow.

Tinker is so complicated that it cannot be truly enjoyed with just one viewing. This is not a fault. This makes Tinker a great spy film as you watch it twice or a third time to get all the details of the intricate plot hammered down and you start to pick up on all the details that blurred past the first time through. You notice that the film requires you to spy on the characters since so little is directly stated. Flashbacks that seemed slightly superfluous the first time through now contain the meat of the story just through showing characters interact with each other at a party.

In essence, as you watch and, for lack of a better word, study Tinker, you become like the main character, George Smiley (Gary Oldman). Smiley has recently been forced out of the “Circus” (a nickname for the British intelligence agency) along with his boss, Control (John Hurt). Control and Smiley were forced out after a mission gone wrong in which Control hoped to find out the identity of a KGB mole planted at a high level within the Circus. Once in retirement, and after Control dies, it turns out that there really is a mole and Smiley is tasked to find out who it is. There’s much, much more to the plot of Tinker but the simple fact that Smiley is searching for a mole is enough info to give you a basic idea of the plot.

A plot involving spies, much less double spies, naturally leads to paranoia and tension. Tinker certainly contains both, but those are not the film’s strongest elements. Don’t be put off by that, though. There is a constant element of paranoia since both the viewer and the main characters have no idea who they can trust and there are quite a few tense scenes. In fact, this film contains two of the tensest scenes of the year (I’ll elaborate in the spoiler section). It’s just that Tinker is one of best films in recent memory not for paranoia and tension, but for acting and atmosphere.

From the first scene, director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) sets up Tinker as a deadly serious, quiet film. The piano-heavy score instantly and perfectly establishes a constant mysterious mood. The locations, the 70s-ness of it all, the slow, pervasive zooms, and the excellent performances come together to make this a film that you’ll wish never ends. If all of that isn’t enough, Tinker also features one of the most impressive casts in recent memory.

Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Mark Strong, Toby Jones, Tom Hardy, Colin Firth, Ciarán Hinds, Stephen Graham, Simon McBurney, Benedict Cumberbatch, and David Dencik. It’s like a who’s who of the best working British actors of the moment; kind of a New Year’s Eve or Valentine’s Day, but with integrity and actual entertainment value. Jokes aside, this cast is great and if there is a downside to it, it’s that some of these actors are too good to be relegated to such small roles. Hinds gets the short end of the stick, but everyone can’t be onscreen all at once. Everyone does a fine job, though. Hardy is the only one who gets to have a bit of fun as he seems to be one of the only characters with a slight sense of humor. Toby Jones plays smug to perfection. Cumberbatch gets a few emotionally charged moments. Strong gets a nice subplot as a schoolteacher. And John Hurt shines in his short scenes (I could listen to him yell the phone book and be entertained). But this is Oldman’s show.

Gary Oldman has made a name for himself over the years as an over-the-top villain and he is great at it, but Tinker allows him to simply act. Smiley is not a character that allows big, showy emotional scenes. Oldman only gets to show emotion a couple of times, but those instances are great. What is truly great about his performance is the presence behind it. Smiley doesn’t talk much and he doesn’t have to. Oldman’s performance is one of reaction as he spends most of the film learning new information. It is not a performance that can be expressed in a clip during an awards show (as you’ll surely see it in the next few months); it is a full bodied performance for a complex film. Like Tinker itself, Oldman is more impressive with each viewing.

All hyperbolic praise aside, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is still a film that many will dismiss. It cannot be understated just how difficult this film can be. Some may tune out after the first half hour simply because they can’t keep track of who everybody is and when everything is happening. But if you are a patient viewer with a hankering for a great spy (not action) film, then you need to watch this…twice. If you’re Cold War/spy junkie (like me), then watch it over and over and over.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

My review was already on the long side, but I still want to gush over this one a bit more.  First off, I absolutely loved this movie not only because of its quality as a film, but also because of the subject matter.  I just find the Cold War fascinating.

Those tense scenes mentioned above: Mark Strong's meet in Budapest at the beginning.  Great spy stuff in that scene as everyone looks suspect.  The other scene is when Benedict Cumberbatch has to steal a file from the Circus.  Do yourself a favor and watch that scene a few times to see every great element.

Oldman doesn't get to emote much in this, but I thought his discovery of his cheating wife and his outburst to Firth in the end, "Well, then what are you, Bill?!" was done quite well. 

Oldman's monologue about Karla was pretty great as well.  Somehow it was better as a monologue than a flashback.  Plus, the film had enough flashback as it was.

Loved the ending of Oldman sitting down to applause, what a great way to end the film.  Here's hoping they get a sequel made.

Enough's enough, so I'll finish with this: I haven't even scratched the surface of some of the elements of this film.  I could go on with the character of Karla, the lighter, the fact that we never really see Ann, the relationship between Firth and Strong, etc.  The point is, this movie doesn't give you all the answers.  It respects the intelligence of the viewer enough to figure it out and it leaves something to talk about once it's over.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Indiana Film Journalists Association 2011 Awards

Here are the results from the IFJA's 2011 Awards.  I figured I'd throw in my two cents for most of these.  For Best Picture, I was glad to see a diverse group of films make the final list.  I thought Drive was the best of the year thus far and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was amazing (a full review is coming soon).  I voted for Nicolas Winding Refn for Best Director, though I'm fine with the results as The Artist certainly took skill to make.  In the acting category, my main issue was the exclusion of Michael Fassbender, which I thought was the performance of the year.  It's hard to root against Paul Giamatti, though.  Anyway, that's all I've got.  I'll be releasing my personal Top Ten films early 2012.

Indiana Film Journalists Association announces 2011 Awards

The Indiana Film Journalists Association, an organization of journalists dedicated to promoting quality film criticism in the Hoosier State, is pleased to announce its annual film awards for 2011.
The Artist took top honors, winning Best Film as well as Best Director (Michel Hazanavicius) and Best Musical Score (Ludovic Bource).
Win Win earned two prizes, Paul Giamatti for Best Actor and Thomas McCarthy for Best Original Screenplay.

The Descendants, which was named runner-up for Best Film, won Best Adapted Screenplay for Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.

Elizabeth Olsen took the Best Actress prize for Martha Marcy May Marlene, while Viola Davis was named Best Supporting Actress for The Help. Christopher Plummer took Best Supporting Actor for Beginners.

Winners were declared in 14 categories, with a runner-up in 13 categories. In addition, a total of 10 movies (including the winner and runner-up) were recognized as Finalists for the top prize, Best Film of the Year.
Rango was named Best Animated Film, Project Nim Best Documentary and The Skin I Live In Best Foreign Language Film. The Tree of Life was given the Original Vision Award.

Lindsay Goffman was honored with The Hoosier Award as the producer of Dumbstruck, a documentary about ventriloquists that was released nationally by Magnolia Pictures.

A word of explanation about the last two categories:

The Original Vision Award is meant to recognize a film that is especially innovative or groundbreaking.

The Hoosier Award recognizes a significant cinematic contribution by a person or persons with Indiana roots. As a special award, no runner-up is declared.

The following is a complete list of honored films:

Best Film of the Year

Winner: The Artist

Runner-up: The Descendants

Other Finalists: Coriolanus, Drive, Hugo, Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Muppets, The Skin I Live In, Super 8, The Tree of Life.

Best Animated Film

Winner: Rango

Runner-up: Winnie the Pooh

Best Foreign Language Film

Winner: The Skin I Live In

Runner-up: 13 Assassins

Best Documentary

Winner: Project Nim

Runner-up: Into the Abyss

Best Original Screenplay

Winner: Thomas McCarthy, Win Win

Runner-up: J.C. Chandor, Margin Call

Best Adapted Screenplay

Winner: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, The Descendants

Runner-up: Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, Moneyball

Best Director

Winner: Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist

Runner-up: Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life

Best Actress

Winner: Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene

Runner-up: Tilda Swinton, We Need To Talk About Kevin

Best Supporting Actress

Winner: Viola Davis, The Help

Runner-up: Amy Ryan, Win Win

Best Actor

Winner: Paul Giamatti, Win Win

Runner-up: Ralph Fiennes, Coriolanus

Best Supporting Actor

Winner: Christopher Plummer, Beginners

Runner-up: Albert Brooks, Drive

Best Musical Score

Winner: Ludovic Bource, The Artist

Runner-up: Howard Shore, Hugo

Original Vision Award

Winner: The Tree of Life

Runner-up: The Artist

The Hoosier Award

Winner: Lindsay Goffman, producer of Dumbstruck

About IFJA: The Indiana Film Journalists Association was established in February 2009 with six founding members, and has since expanded its roster to 11. Members must reside in the Hoosier State and produce consistent, quality film criticism or commentary in any medium.


Bob Bloom, Lafayette Journal & Courier
Caine Gardner, Greencastle Banner-Graphic, The Film Yap.com
Eric Harris, Canneltoncritic.com, The Perry County News
Lou Harry, Indianapolis Business Journal, ibj.com
Ed Johnson-Ott, NUVO Newsweekly
Christopher Lloyd, The Film Yap.com, The Current
Richard Propes, The Independent Critic.com
Nick Rogers, The Film Yap.com, Suite101.com
Joe Shearer, The Film Yap.com
Matthew Socey, WFYI
Gina Wagner, IndyMojo.com / HauntedFlower.com 

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


Shame - Directed by Steve McQueen, written by McQueen and Abi Morgan, starring Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, and James Badge Dale - Rated NC-17

Seriously digging Fassbender right now.  After Basterds, Hunger, First Class, and now Shame, the guy can do no wrong.  Bring on A Dangerous Method.

Addiction movies are never exactly fun, but they can be great vehicles for an actor and Shame certainly fits that description as Michael Fassbender gives a great performance, quite possibly the best of the year. Even with that performance, Shame does not exactly transcend the addiction genre, but it is still an interesting and beautiful film.

Shame is a character piece about sex addict Brandon (Fassbender), a man who doesn’t necessarily struggle with a sex addiction so much as he struggles to make real connections with people. He’s managed to keep things slightly under control until his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) shows up and throws his life into disarray. It’s not so much that his sister is troubled (she is a bit sporadic, though); it’s more about complications being thrown into Brandon’s very solitary life.

Solitary is the key word of Shame. Brandon is utterly alone, no matter how many sexual encounters he has. You don’t see this from the narrative necessarily; you see it in Fassbender’s eyes. It’s almost cliché to call a great performance “understated,” but it’s hard to describe this quiet performance in other terms. Fassbender gives a performance of the eyes…it’s Clooney-esque (which is a good thing, in my opinion). There are plenty of scenes in which Fassbender gets to be bold, but for the most part he is most impressive while staring. Some of the most powerful scenes consist of Fassbender staring his way through New York. His scenes on the subway are non-verbal yet contain the emotional core of the film.

Fassbender is easily the highlight of the film, but it is not his film alone. Writer/director Steve McQueen (he also directed Fassbender in his breakout role in Hunger) impresses in this sophomore effort through color, lighting, music, and camerawork. The montage sequences have an art that makes them seem like their own short films. The diverse color scheme and dimly lit scenes shroud the film in beautiful darkness. McQueen also knows when to have the camera follow Fassbender (who is in nearly every frame of the film) and when to stay behind and let him go.

Shame is still quite a simple movie, however, in that it is an addiction movie and we see Brandon hit his low points and hurt people around him. So at times it gets almost melodramatic. There is also the possibility that some would argue that sex addiction isn’t a “real” addiction. Regardless of your opinion, this movie should at least make you think about it. For one thing, sex addiction doesn’t get a lot of respect since it is a relatively modern diagnosis. This isn’t because it’s made up or new or anything, but because of how society has changed. Because of the internet, access to sexually explicit material is exponentially easier than it was decades ago. Shame addresses this and that is what makes it a bit more interesting than being saddled as the “sex addiction movie.”

Brandon is constantly on his laptop on pornographic sites and there is a subplot involving his work computer. We see it being carted away in an early scene in which we hear Brandon’s boss (out of context) say, “I found you disgusting,” as Brandon looks nervously at the IT guy. On top of the technological era Brandon lives in, he is also in New York and is never far away from anonymous sex. A pivotal moment in the film finds Brandon staring up at an apartment building where he instantly notices a couple having sex, he then looks to the window of a restaurant where his date awaits. What to do?

Brandon’s choices aren’t nearly as telling as the reason behind his options. When faced with the prospect of anonymous sex or a potentially emotionally rewarding relationship, most would hopefully (or at least eventually) choose the actual relationship. Brandon tries to go with a typical relationship and those scenes show his true addiction. He may show desperation and, yes, shame during the sex scenes, but it’s the regular date scenes that are telling. Everything is so awkward and boring and there is no gratification. If this was a drug movie, Brandon would find a dealer and shoot up as soon as he left the date.

Shame may come across as an overly serious addiction movie, but if you give it a chance, you’ll see that it is actually a beautiful, depressing portrait of man who happens to be an addict. Addiction (sex or otherwise) should not be the focus here, though. All eyes should be on Michael Fassbender (insert comical reference to NC-17 rating here) because he makes a beautiful, if slightly plain, addiction film one of the year’s best.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

The NC-17 rating is not that big of a deal, but Shame certainly earns it more than Blue Valentine did last year.  Don't focus on the rating, though.  It's about a sex addict, it kind of has to be NC-17.

The subway train as a metaphor for Brandon's addiction worked for me.  The ambiguous ending of whether or not he stays on the train is interesting and makes all the subway scenes before it more interesting.  Using a train might feel heavy-handed to some, though.  Referring to one's life as a trainwreck or going off the rails is pretty common so equating addiction with a train might diminish it for some.  But I dug it.
I didn't really mention the supporting cast, but James Badge Dale makes for a convincing douchebag.  And Carey Mulligan is fine against Fassbender in some tense, strange scenes.  I would have no problem with her getting a nomination for supporting actress for this.  But this is still Fassbender's movie.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

"The Descendants"

The Descendants - Directed by Alexander Payne, written by Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash, based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, starring George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Nick Krause, and Robert Forster - Rated R

An excellent drama that doesn't try to force tears from you.  And it has Clooney at his best.

The Descendants has all of the elements to potentially be one of those miserable tear-jerking dramas begging for an Oscar: a dysfunctional family, a cuckolded husband, a wife in a coma, etc. But the film rises above mere Oscar bait because it paints a realistic portrait of a troubled family. Sure, there are plenty of scenes in which characters sob, but the majority of the film is about how a family, the father in particular, deals with tragedy and, thankfully, they don’t deal with it through quiet desperation.

Writer-director Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt) is no stranger to films about main characters in miserable situations. He is also no stranger to making those films surprisingly watchable and even funny at times. Payne continues to impress with The Descendants and, as with previous films, strong performances elevate the already great material.

George Clooney stars as Matt King, a Hawaiian lawyer/land baron whose wife has recently fallen into a coma after a boating accident. Matt has plenty to deal with. On top of his wife being in a coma, he is in the middle of completing a deal to sell his family’s land holdings (which date back to the mid 1800s), he has no idea how to deal with his two daughters, and it turns out his wife had been cheating on him in a marriage that was running on fumes. That would normally be the set up for a quiet, depressing film. Perhaps it’s the tropical setting, Clooney’s performance, or simply the writing (or all of these things, of course), but The Descendants is a surprisingly light-hearted film. Sure, there are bouts of sobbing as expected but this is not a movie in which everyone sobs hysterically. Nothing against tearjerkers, but a film is much more interesting (and entertaining) if grief is only a small portion of the plot.

The Descendants has enough subplots going on that the wife in a coma doesn’t take center stage. Instead, the film is part comedic detective story as Matt searches the islands for his wife’s lover. A portion of the film is about fatherhood as Matt tries to deal with daughters Scottie (foul mouthed and acting out) and Alex (rebellious with a partying streak). There’s the part about the land of Hawaii, as well, which adds a much different element to a typical drama.

The plot is interesting and varied enough to keep things moving at a fine pace, but the acting makes this film memorable. Clooney is in absolute top form and at this point (after great turns in The American, Michael Clayton, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Up in the Air) is easily one of the best actors working today. This role could easily have been one of those “staring” roles that Clooney has perfected in films like Solaris and Michael Clayton, in which he conveys a multitude of emotions in a glance or eye twitch. That element is there, but this is a role that requires Clooney to be open about his feelings. He shows true range in The Descendants as he deals with his daughters very frankly. It is very refreshing to see a troubled Clooney actually tell someone he is troubled. More importantly, though, you believe him.

Clooney’s performance has a bit of help. Shailene Woodley is the standout as older daughter Alex. She has to share the most scenes with Clooney and she handles herself quite well. Amara Miller is convincing as Scottie in a role that could’ve easily become annoying and/or cutesy. Instead, it’s realistic and touching. Nick Krause gets to provide most of the comedic relief as Alex’s stoner boyfriend Sid, but he also gets to share some important scenes with Clooney and their unlikely pairing provides some of the film’s best moments. And Robert Forster provides some surprisingly emotional scenes as Clooney’s father-in-law.

The Descendants isn’t Oscar bait, but that doesn’t mean you won’t hear about this film in the next few months as awards season kicks in. It is a great film and if you get the chance, you should definitely check it out. The Descendants is a complex film in that it is a complete portrait of a man and his family rather than a singly focused snapshot. Put the story in the interesting setting of Hawaii (shown in a realistic rather than fantastical light) with some great performances and you have a film that is worthy of being mentioned come Oscar time, even if it isn’t demanding it.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)
How great was it when Robert Forster punched Sid?  Oddly enough, my only complaint was that this film needed a few more punches.  It would have been great to see Clooney punch Sid once or twice and Matthew Lilliard has a face ripe for punching.
Speaking of Lilliard, not sure if it was his acting or just his character but I detested that character much more than I sympathized with him.  Judy Greer was great in her one emotional scene as his wife, though. 
Beau Bridges definitely looks and acts like a dude who grew up in Hawaii.  (This coming from an expert on Hawaiian culture as I type this in southern Indiana.)
I thought Alex's underwater crying scene was the most emotional part of the film (with Forster's goodbye to his daughter a close second).  Those scenes also show what is great about this movie since subtle comedy surrounds both.  With Alex, her question about why Clooney felt the need to tell her about her mom while she was in the pool added a bit of humor as it showed just how clueless Clooney was when it comes to dealing with stuff like this.  As for the Forster scene, we see this as Clooney, Alex, and Sid peek through the hospital door like children.  A couple of fine examples of how you can be dramatic but a bit on the light side as well.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


Immortals - Directed by Tarsem Singh, written by Charley Parlapanides and Vlas Parlapanides, starring Henry Cavill, Mickey Rourke, and Freida Pinto - Rated R

Shocking that this got a Kurgan, I know...

Some may have seen the preview for Immortals and been excited to see the next 300 since the previews boasted that it was from the producer of that stylized, violent Greek action film. Viewers going in for a movie like 300 will likely be pleased by elements of this film, but “Immortals” is trying for something a bit different. Immortals may be produced by someone involved with 300, but, more importantly, it is directed by Tarsem Singh.

Tarsem Singh’s previous two films, 2000’s The Cell and 2006’s The Fall, are known for their interesting visuals, especially the latter film. So the bar is already set for Immortals to at least be a striking film. On top of that, the director has stated that he set out to make a film that looks like Caravaggio paintings. (Don’t feel bad if you need to look up Caravaggio paintings; I certainly had to.) Tarsem Singh has certainly succeeded with Immortals as far as the visuals go. The movie looks great. The design and color of the film makes it one of the more interesting films of the year. If anything, though, the visual style of the film could stand to be stranger. Those who are familiar with Tarsem’s work will see this film as his most normal film by far. Don’t worry, though, there are plenty of out-there visuals in the film.

Of course, a film about Greek mythology is very open to strange visuals. Immortals is loosely based on Greek mythology. I say loosely because the film features plenty of figures from Greek mythology like Theseus, Zeus, Athena, Aries, Hyperion, the Titans, etc. but it doesn’t really stick to any set myth. That is actually a strong point for the film since it can be its own story set to the backdrop of mythology. Theseus (Henry Cavill) is a warrior who lives only to protect his mother. King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke), meanwhile, is on the warpath throughout all of Greece, searching for the Epirus Bow, which will allow him to release the Titans and start an all out war with the Gods. Of course, Theseus gets wrapped up in it and there are plenty of epic battles.

Immortals has a great style to it, but it is still primarily an action film. The action is great and never gets old. By that, I mean that each action sequence is different from the previous one. There are slow motion elements, sped up moments, traditional battles, hand to hand combat, and absolute chaos at times. It all looks great, especially in 3D. It’s rare that a film is actually worth seeing in 3D, but because of the action, Immortals is a film that benefits from the third dimension. This is a gory, brutal film, and the 3D really adds to the brutality of it all. The scenes featuring the Gods in action in 3D are some of the best moments of the year, action-wise.

This is an action film with a point, though. Immortals attempts to say something about belief, destiny, heroism, and duty and while nothing profound or surprising happens in the film, it’s nice when an action film strives to be more than just an excuse to spill blood. What elevate the themes of the film are the performances. Cavill makes an impressive debut as a leading man and fits into the hero role perfectly. Superman fans should breathe a sigh of relief as Cavill should do just fine as the Man of Steel in that series. Rourke is an excellent counterweight as the evil King Hyperion. He mumbles creepily through every scene. He seems to be constantly indifferent and that somehow adds to his menacing character. Stephen Dorff gives a surprisingly fun performance in a supporting role. Freida Pinto holds the fort down as one of the only substantial females in the film (though one could argue that this film is a bit sexist since only men make any difference in the world of the film). John Hurt easily inhabits a grandfatherly role. And Luke Evans is a commanding presence as Zeus. Anytime he shows up in the film, you can’t help but pay attention.

Unfortunately, the Gods are not prevalent in the film. Their few action scenes will likely leave viewers wishing the film had been told from their point of view. But then again, watching the Gods lay waste to mortals for two hours could get tiresome. Either way, their scenes were jaw dropping at times.

Immortals is a nice diversion full of mythology and violence as Hollywood gears up for the awards season. This film would have fit perfectly in the middle of summer, but thankfully it dropped in during November to break up the boredom. Don’t expect a lesson in mythology, though; just sit back and enjoy some beautiful, brutal action.

Friday, November 11, 2011

"The Tree of Life"

The Tree of Life - Written and directed by Terrence Malick, starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, and Jessica Chastain - Rated PG-13

A few years ago I would have given this film a "Bruce Banner's Dad," but now it gets a "Vader."  I have no explanation.

Terrence Malick. That name is very divisive in the cinematic world. Some people are transfixed by his melodic films, which almost always focus on nature and feature whispered, poetic narration. Others find him terribly pretentious to the point that no beauty on screen can make up for it. Oddly enough, I fit into both camps. You can read my full transformation here, but to keep it short, I started off absolutely hating all of Malick’s work and I now consider him one of my favorite filmmakers. The Tree of Life fits right into Malick’s canon so it is definitely a “love it or hate it” movie. I loved it.

The Tree of Life is certainly Malick’s most difficult film. It is very disjointed and lacks any semblance of a normal narrative structure. Anyone watching just to see Brad Pitt or Sean Penn’s latest will likely turn it off in less than an hour. Those who go in knowing it is Malick are much more likely to enjoy it, though that isn’t a guarantee. While the film isn’t told in a typical, straightforward way, it is still quite easy to pick up on the themes of the film. (Stop reading if you want to know absolutely nothing about the plot of this film, but, to be honest, who is reading this that hasn’t watched the film?) With a title like The Tree of Life, this film obviously deals with life and death, but also with the importance of one’s childhood. One (me, for example) could claim that Malick is comparing childhood in 1950s Texas with the birth of the universe. That’s where some could start to scoff and the word “pretentious” might show up. It’s hard to argue with anyone who calls this film pretentious because…it really is. Since the childhood moments in Texas supposedly mirror Malick’s own childhood it’s easy to condemn the film as pompous when twenty minutes or so into an autobiographical childhood film we are shown the birth of our universe.

Of course, this is just my interpretation and everyone is free to take from this film what they will. I found the film pretentious. I find most of Malick’s films pretentious, but I love them anyway, mainly because Malick makes absolutely beautiful films and this may be his most beautiful yet. The scenes detailing the origin of the universe and planet Earth are obviously the standout scenes especially since Malick, much like Darren Aronofsky did with The Fountain, used practical effects for most of these scenes. The violence of nature and creation has never looked better. But the scenes that take place in modern world are just as beautiful. The modern scenes have that Malick style, as the camera meanders around and with the characters, but what makes this film stand out is Malick’s ability to find beauty in nature and civilization. The present day scenes with Sean Penn are just as, if not more, impressive than the more natural shots during Brad Pitt’s segments.

The Tree of Life is beautiful not just visually, but atmospherically. At times, you may feel like you’re in the middle of a strange dream. After watching the film it can feel like you’ve just woken up and can’t quite put your finger on what the dream was about, you just know you want to go back to it. The disjointed nature of the film adds to the dream-like quality and yes, there are also elements and images that make no sense in almost any interpretation (much like how dreams contain random elements). That could be seen as problematic but it is very likely that it is all intentional. Who doesn’t look back on their childhood as if it was some distant dream? In that regard, Malick really captured the emotions of a childhood. Everyone cannot exactly identify with growing up in Texas in the 50s, of course, but most can identify with the feelings they had during their childhood.

As a dream, The Tree of Life works very well, but it is still a film and acting is a part of it. Thankfully, this film was cast perfectly. The child actors, mainly Hunter McCracken, are great. They are not professional actors and that is a good thing because they seemed very natural on screen. Jessica Chastain (who is currently attached to every single movie coming out in the next two years…) gives an equal parts happy and melancholic performance. Sean Penn (who has stated that he had no idea what he was supposed to be doing in the movie) is absolutely fantastic. Malick most likely didn’t tell Penn exactly what he was supposed to be doing because the character himself is lost. Whatever the circumstances were, they worked. Finally, Brad Pitt is very convincing as the complicated, overly stern father. Pitt has been on an absolute roll lately, opting for challenging roles. He continues to impress.

The Tree of Life can be enjoyed just by focusing on visuals and performance, but the narrative may disappoint and even infuriate some viewers. If you let yourself be taken in by the film, though, it can be an extremely rewarding experience. It’s all a matter of deciding if the film is worth thinking and reflecting about. If you decide it is worth your time, you won’t be disappointed. If there’s one thing you can say about Malick, it’s that he doesn’t disappoint his fans.

Monday, November 7, 2011


Melancholia - Written and directed by Lars von Trier, starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander Skarsgard, and Kiefer Sutherland - Rated R

Melancholia might seem boring at first, but if you let it sink in you may come to love it, as I did.

Lars von Trier is a bit of an egomaniac and it can be hard to separate the filmmaker’s comments from his films. It’s hard not to mention the director since he makes his name as big as the title in Melancholia and even goes so far as to include that name on the title card…above the title. He is certainly a gifted enough filmmaker to warrant attention, but von Trier’s more outrageous statements should be ignored while the actual films should be scrutinized.

Those well-versed in von Trier’s work know that his films are not always easy to sit through. That was certainly true of Antichrist, and while Melancholia lacks the complete shock value of his previous film, there are still elements that make this a difficult watch.

Melancholia is mainly a film about the relationship between two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Much of the film is set during Justine’s wedding reception and it is a fairly basic drama about these two women and their problems. But there is one other plot element: a planet is moving past Earth and could possibly destroy it in the coming days. That certainly ups the interest factor in a sibling drama.

The planet, Melancholia, adds a sense of foreboding to the film that becomes its saving grace. This is a film that is all about atmosphere and what creates a greater, darker mood for a film than Earth’s potential destruction? Too often end of the world movies have been about the scientists trying to stop it and all the action that entails. It’s refreshing, and a bit depressing, to see a film that just accepts it and uses it as a backdrop for a troubled familial relationship.

The relationship is the main point of this film, though. At no point does this actually feel like a film that is focused on the sci-fi element. Melancholia is completely about Justine and Claire. That might cause a problem for some viewers as the destruction of Earth is a bit more interesting than two bickering sisters, yet if you allow yourself to be drawn in by the film then the sisters should completely hold your interest and that planet that may or may not destroy Earth can stay where it belongs: in the background.

Justine and Claire are just as interesting as Melancholia because of their mental problems. Justine suffers from immense depression and Claire seems to be in a constant state of anxiety. Their problems can be of the infuriating kind as there are so many scenes of unspoken issues. You may find yourself urging them on to just cut the crap and yell at each other. Aside from that, though, it is quite clear that something is wrong and most of their scenes are compelling, especially when the rest of the family is involved.

Melancholia also works because of the insanely talented cast. Dunst (who took home Best Actress at Cannes) gives a great performance that completely embodies depression. Gainsbourg gets the less showy role but handles it with impressive understatement. The rest of the cast has their moments as well: Alexander Skarsgard, Kiefer Sutherland, John Hurt, Charlotte Rampling, Udo Kier, and Stellan Skarsgard all keep the film moving nicely in their supporting roles.

Then there’s the last star of the film: Lars von Trier. As usual, he has made an absolutely beautiful film. The first ten minutes of the film are like watching slowly moving paintings. The rest of the film never lives up to those first images but the camerawork still makes the film interesting on a visual level. And since this is von Trier there are plenty of ways to look at the film. Just scan the message boards for some wild theories. While most of the theories as to what Melancholia represents and what some of Justine’s actions really mean are quite ridiculous, it’s still fun (or perhaps interesting is the better word since fun and von Trier occurring together just seems wrong) to look deeper into a film. Theories can be applied to absolutely any movie out there, sure, but von Trier’s work earns a closer, deeper look.

Whenever theories are thrown around about movies like Melancholia there is the backlash that viewers are looking for things that are not there because the movie taken at face value is simply boring. I certainly felt that way after my initial viewing and I can completely accept anyone condemning Melancholia as boring, pretentious crap. You’ll hear no argument from me because that is a completely valid opinion. What saved the film for me was the intense atmosphere of the film. After I finished it my response was along the lines of, “What the hell was that, von Trier?” I didn’t think it was a bad film so much as a disappointingly boring film. But the next day I couldn’t stop thinking about the film and had an intense need to watch it again (I couldn’t, though, because of those damned 24-hour On Demand rental time limits). And as I thought back on the film I realized that those “boring” moments (the wedding reception that goes on nearly as long as the notorious celebration in The Deer Hunter) were actually captivating because of everything that wasn’t happening. It’s a strange way to explain a film, I know, and it’s definitely a pretentious “critic”-type way of looking at it, but it is what it is.

In short, Melancholia is not a film for most people. I can’t imagine von Trier ever making a film for most people, anyway. In fact, I wasn’t one of those people this film was for after my initial viewing. It just grew on me. And perhaps all films should be taken at face value, but when you watch hundreds of movies a year, something as different as Melancholia deserves a second thought. Casual filmgoers should probably skip this one, but the more obsessive watchers should give Melancholia a close look.

"In Time"

In Time - Written, produced, and directed by Andrew Niccol, starring Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, and Cillian Murphy - Rated PG-13

In Time has an interesting world and premise, it just isn't deep enough.

Sci-fi movies usually contain some kind of commentary on present day affairs, and In Time is no different. With the Occupy Wall Street movement going on it is impossible not to notice the similarities between the sci-fi world created in writer/producer/director Andrew Niccol’s film and our own. Commentary aside, “In Time” is a serviceable thriller that proves, if nothing else, that Justin Timberlake can handle a leading role.

In Time takes place in an alternate reality in which humans are genetically engineered to stop aging at 25. Once they turn 25, a clock on their forearm starts counting down from 1 year; once it runs out, they die. So the people work not for money, but for more time. Basically, it’s like our world, but time is literally money. Since time is money that means there are the poor people, living day to day and there are the rich people who are, barring an accident, immortal. The world is divided up into “time zones” which keep the rich separated from the poor.

The concept of In Time is easily comparable to present times as people are protesting the financial sector as they struggle to make ends meet while a small percentage of the population owns the majority of the wealth. This film is an exaggeration of that scenario in that the poor masses are dying because of the rich few. Some timely social commentary is fine in a sci-fi film, but this one stretched imagination. The world of In Time isn’t controlled by the military or anything yet the people just shuffle along like sheep, struggling to earn a few hours each day. It just seems like this world couldn’t sustain itself because the poor should be rebelling. We are talking about a country that once rebelled because of taxation. Are we supposed to believe that this same group of people wouldn’t rebel when their lives were at risk on a daily basis? But this is a sci-fi movie and suspension of disbelief is required for enjoyment, but a good film should have more answers.

Will Salas (Timberlake) is one of the people scraping by, trying to provide for himself and also keep his mother (an underused Olivia Wilde) alive. Things change for Will when a bored immortal decides to die and leaves Will over a century worth of life. This allows Will to mix it up with the rich crowd and he decides to change the world, one minute at a time. Giving time to the poor, however, doesn’t sit well with the bankers and Will is forced to spend his time on the run with Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried), the daughter of one of the richest men in the world.

In Time is essentially a chase film with most of the characters constantly on the run, by foot and car. As far as that goes, the film is mediocre. The chase sequences aren’t that interesting or suspenseful. A couple of the car chases have some flair, but as an action film, there isn’t much here, although Timberlake does get a pretty decent hero moment.

This is a film that strives more on the world of the film. Niccol has made some films that have very defined worlds in Lord of War and Gattaca. The setting of In Time is just as interesting as those worlds; it is not as clearly defined, though. Aside from a bit of opening narration, the how and why of the world is left up to the audience to figure out. That’s fine, as it is nice to let the audience think about something on occasion rather than just be told about it. The problem with In Time is that there isn’t enough info to let the audience figure it out. For example, here are some questions you might have leaving the theatre: So all diseases have been wiped out? What’s the policy concerning pregnancy? Where does the time come from? Who is in charge of the government? Why are electric cars around but people still use pay phones?

In other words, In Time doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. With a high concept sci-fi movie, that’s not a terrible issue for a film to have, but it is an issue nonetheless. The world is still very interesting and is the highlight of the film, but it’s not fully realized. Some of the questions are just too hard to ignore. Take the time keeper (policeman) Raymond (Cillian Murphy). He is much more interesting than Will, but he’s relegated to a slightly villainous role. We never get to know who he answers to, though. The bank owners don’t control him because he threatens to arrest one of them, yet he still has an unseen boss. Plus, he seems like a conflicted man, yet we never see what he does off duty. Just like the setting, you’re left wanting more.

In Time is a harmless enough movie that should entertain. The gimmick of the concept is interesting enough to sustain the running time of the film, even if it is kind of flimsy once you start to think about it. It’s really a shame. In Time is a decent movie that could have been something special if it left the viewer with more answers than questions.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

Amanda Seyfried was apparently hired just for her wide-eyed stare. She spends her first dozen scenes just staring lustily at Timberlake. I can understand one, maybe two scenes like that, but this movie goes into overkill with it.

Why even cast Olivia Wilde? It’s not as if she’s an unsubstantial actress these days since she’s had some major roles. Why relegate her to what is essentially a cameo role, especially when 90% of her scenes are shown in the trailer?

Vincent Kartheiser is perfectly cast. I know he’s just doing his “Mad Men” thing here, but it’s exactly what is needed for the role.

The Johnny Galecki subplot was laughable. So Timberlake gives him a decade, fine. Then he looks at the bar after Timberlake leaves. Ha ha, he gets time and the first thing he does is start partying; what a wacky friend! Then we find out later that he went on a bender that killed him? What? I can kind of see why they killed the character off, but why kill him off after his last scene was slightly comedic. And if that last scene he was in wasn’t meant to be comedic, then the filmmakers should’ve gone to greater lengths to show that the guy had a serious problem. If they still needed him dead, just point out the fact that having a decade in that part of town will get you mugged/killed.

Finally, isn’t Weis right about the world when he says they can only mess it up for a generation or two? I think so. Ultimately this is a pointless film because the change they bring is fleeting. Even if they do somehow topple the time system, guess what comes next? A currency system and then they’ll be in the same boat all over again. This film is a borderline Communist fantasy that didn’t attempt to realistically look at what might happen to the world it takes place in. Of course, all of this could have been avoided had they just explained who was in charge of it all. Maybe they were afraid to go the Matrix route and peek behind the curtain. But why create a world if you don’t plan on fully investigating it?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

"The Thing"

The Thing - Directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., written by Eric Heisserer, starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Eric Christian Olsen, and Joel Edgerton - Rated R

This is the first "wind from The Happening" I have given in a long time.  I just hate everything about this movie.  Even if I didn't count the original film as one of my favorites of all time, I would still give this film a Nolte at best.

John Carpenter’s The Thing is a classic sci-fi film that many would argue shouldn’t be messed with, either as a remake or a prequel. But John Carpenter’s film is itself a remake of The Thing from Another World. You can hardly fault Hollywood for giving the prequel/remake treatment to a remake. So fans shouldn’t be angry simply because the new version of The Thing exists; they should be angry because it is pointless, CG-filled garbage.

The Thing has a very similar plot to the 1982 film. Researchers in Antarctica come across an alien life form that can replicate humans and things go badly for all involved. The original film is remembered for it’s incredibly gory sequences featuring practical special effects that still hold up to this day (seriously, check that film out on blu-ray, it looks amazing…and horrifying). More than that, though, the film was about paranoia as everyone suspected each other of being the Thing. There is a little of that paranoia in this prequel, but overall it is your basic monster movie.

The focus from paranoia to simple jump scares is a bit infuriating since it’s so lazy, but if handled in an interesting way it would be okay. But there is nothing new here and the CG monster effects are not even that well done. The alien from the original film wasn’t trying to just run around and kill everything in sight. It was trying to survive and leave Antarctica. Now, if it had to kill some humans to do that, it would. It wasn’t bloodthirsty, though. The Thing in this new film seems angry and just wants to kill. The concept of that is absolutely ridiculous. So the alien wants to get home, yet it makes a point to morph into a hideous creature and stalk around killing every living thing before it takes off? Wouldn’t it make a bit more sense if an alien that could replicate humans actually replicated a human, waited until things were calm, then snuck off? What is the point of being able to copy a regular human being if the Thing just wants to skulk around as a two-headed, screeching monster? The original Thing only turned monstrous when it was threatened or discovered. This new Thing seems to look for trouble. That would be fine if this was a flat out remake, but it’s meant to be about what happened before the original film. Since that’s the case the Thing is entirely inconsistent. An argument could be made that the alien has learned from its mistakes by the time the original film starts, but that’s stretching it.

There are just so many issues with the film simply because the filmmakers could not decide if they really wanted to remake the film or just make a prequel. So they did both and both attempts are weak. As a remake, The Thing fails to live up to the original and when it does try to do anything different it becomes laughable. As a prequel, things get even goofier as the film tries to shoehorn in elements to bridge the two films together that feels completely forced. It just makes no sense to even make this film. Aside from the problems in The Thing it’s also unnecessary since the original film gave viewers a pretty good idea of what happened anyway.

The Thing isn’t redeemed by any characters or acting, either. For one thing, there are way too many characters for any connection to be made. Then they just start getting wiped out. Acting isn’t really going to save one note characters in a monster movie, so they can’t be blamed for anything but taking a paycheck and not reading the script.

The setting could have made up for lack of character since it is such an extreme location. How hard is it to make Antarctica a character in the film? The Thing messes that up, too, since the station is so populated it never feels isolated and the cold is never really acknowledged in any meaningful way. Sure, they mention that a storm is coming in or whatever a few times, but no one ever seems to be struggling when they are outside. In fact, at one point characters are seen just hanging out on the steps outside a building without so much as a sock hat on. Who takes a coffee break outside in Antarctica?

There are literally dozens of issues still to be covered, but what’s the point? The Thing is an unnecessary, crappy mess of a film that should not exist. It has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Avoid it at all costs and just watch the original. Hell, the 1982 film actually looks better than this “modern” one anyway.

Random Thoughts/Complaints (SPOILERS)
Why go into the spaceship if you have no intention of trying to figure out what the alien wants? By that I mean why take the film inside the spaceship. Just because it’s there? If the spaceship worked why did the alien ever leave it? It’s just nonsense.

What was with that Tetris game going on inside the ship? Was that their attempt to add something interesting to the inside of the ship? If so, it was stupid. It was strange and looked very fake and cartoonish.

Instead of a blood test they change it up and have them check for cavity fillings. That might be the dumbest thing I’ve seen in a movie this year. And yes, the ridiculousness of it is slightly acknowledged but that doesn’t excuse it.

Even the score sucked for this movie. They tried to incorporate the original score, but also tried to spice it up with drums and crap whenever something “big” was happening. It felt like Independence Day or something.

I wanted to walk out of this movie. I was tired of it after a half hour and just wanted it to end. Completely disappointing and even infuriating when compared to the original. But let me be clear, this crappy movie in no way ruins the original for me. The original will always be there and it will continue to gain new fans. Thankfully, this garbage will be forgotten by most people by the end of the month.