Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Amour - The Losing and the Letting Go

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, a film comes along that tells a part of your story. When that happens, it means a lot. Sometimes, in one’s own quiet expressions of grief, it’s profoundly moving to know that someone somewhere understands where your journey has led, and that you are not alone in your suffering. Amour is that kind of film.

Michael Haneke has made a living out of cinematic trickery and deceit for so long that it’s shocking to see him actually try to tell the “truth,” or at least his version of it. For a filmmaker who’s spent years imposing his will on audiences by routinely confounding everything they thought they'd learned,  Amour is a surprisingly heartfelt piece.

As a story of the breakdown of a body after a life-altering moment, the film gets the details right. The blank stare, the withering hand, the agonizing attempts to walk, the way that lips are held, the helplessness felt by the loved ones of the sufferer, the way that a person is lifted and manipulated so that they can perform basic functions, the crying out, the repetitive attention to specific details, the way that the caretaker’s body begins to feel the strain of having to repeatedly exert itself in heretofore unusual ways, they’re all here. More importantly, they’re all handled with a delicate touch that shows a great deal of respect to the reality of situations like this.

Emmanuelle Riva’s performance is one of the best that I’ve seen thus far this year. If there is no respect from the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences . . . it will be a further sign of their irrelevance. Her performance doesn’t rely on histrionics or huge moments of expressed emotion. It’s in the little details that she finds a way to bring Anne to life. Her performance is a triumph by any standard, and one of the finest in recent memory.

Trintignant’s performance is good too, but it’s certainly not the equal of Riva’s. They're blessed with a wonderful chemistry. It's not difficult to believe that they've shared a lifetime's memories. There’s a moment when he’s trying to get her to drink water, and she doesn’t want to have any. He forces it into her mouth, and after she spits it back at him, he slaps her. Part of me wishes that that sequence was not in the film, but another part of me understands the kind of frustration that could lead a person to do something like that. There’s a unique pain/frustration that comes from trying to feed someone who does not want to eat. You know that, if they don’t eat, they’ll die, but, at the end of the day, there’s only so much that you can do. The human will is stronger than you realize. After the slap, she swallows. It might be one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve seen on a screen in a long time. She does it in such a defeated way, and it’s painful to see.

Isabelle Huppert, one of my favorite actors, does fine work as their daughter. She means well and wants to help, but just can’t understand. It’s hard to blame her. When she tells her father that he can’t keep doing this, he’s right to ask her the question he does. It’s so simple. “What should I do different? This is what I do when I wake up. This is what happens next. This is what happens after that. This is the exact structure of my day. This is what I have to face every single minute of every single day. What should I do differently?” It’s a scene that involves two people doing what they have to do, even though their ideas are at odds. She has to tell him what she does, and he has to respond as he does.

I know what she means about her father not continuing to face the day-to-day struggle, but he made a  promise to his wife that she’d not have to face any more hospital visits. He makes this promise even with the realization that more medical care will probably be a very necessary part of their lives. Even though a hospital can provide ten times better care than he can, he gives freely, even to his own hurt.

The love between Georges and Anne is special, born of time and common experience. The promise I mentioned is indicative of that. He gets to a point where caring for her himself is almost unbearably hard, but he promised. Simple as that. There are certain things that we owe to our loved ones that no amount of time or hardship can separate us from.

I also really liked the way that he deals with the incompetent nurse. “I hope that you have the misfortune to be treated exactly the way that you treat your patients when you are helpless.” It’s one of the most satisfying moments in the film. Prior to that, it was easy to see that this nurse wasn’t any good at her job and was causing more harm than good to the one person that she was supposed to be caring for. I just wasn’t sure if this fact was supposed to be self-evident to all. I don’t think that being gentle is difficult, particularly as I get older. There’s a strange way that certain people feel the need to belittle those that are different from their own experience. I don’t really understand it. If what my own life has taught me is to be believed, the people who matter most are rarely the people who get the best press. The quiet person who stands in the corner might be the best friend you have.

Haneke is still not entirely comfortable with the idea of a completely straightforward narrative, which might not be fair to him, as finding something you think you’re good at and sticking with it isn’t necessarily a form of weakness. However, his framing device is a gentler one than usual, and isn’t as reliant on him imposing his will upon the audience. Typically, a Haneke film ends with or is generously sprinkled with instances of his reminding the viewer that there’s someone pulling the strings and that that person doesn’t answer to anyone. Fortunately, here, it’s a bit more effective. I think that the ending most resembles Cache, but where that film was frustrating in its arbitrarily elusive turning of the screw, Amour’s ending holds up. It’s a quiet secret that’s spotted, unsurprisingly, in the details.

To say that I feel a sense of gratitude to Haneke, Riva, Trintignant, and Huppert would be an understatement. I’ve been looking forward to this film for years. I just didn’t know how much my own life would change in that period of time, or how closely my experience would be reflected in the narrative. Given how easily certain filmmakers/actors might have treated material like this in leaning toward melodrama at worst or sentimentality at best, it’s a blessing to see such restraint at work. Ultimately, the lack of sentimentality in Amour does the best service to the emotional integrity of the piece. In trying to avoid the creation of a disingenuously emotional experience, Haneke and his actors have found a way to express the most sacred of emotions with respect, conviction, and sincerity.

One of the very best films of the year.

4 1/2 stars (out of 5)

Amour was the recipient of the Palme d’Or at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, as well as a host of other prizes. I think this is looking like a sure thing for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, and would not be surprised to see it pick up additional nominations, including Best Picture. 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Podcasting: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Had enough of a Hobbit fix yet??? If the answer's no, then you'll enjoy this one. The good gentlemen of Out Now With Aaron and Abe were kind enough enough to invite me to be a part of their discussion/breakdown of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

You can listen to the entire podcast by clicking HERE to go to the episode's official page or by clicking the big ol' play button below. I've been on a lot of Out Now episodes this last year, but I felt that this turned out to be a particularly interesting discussion. 

Don't forget to share/post/link/tweet or whatever it is you do with things you like. Enjoy!

This episode features: 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - (or Peter Jackson's "Run Bilbo Run")

Now that all of the hullabaloo around the making of the film has finally been (mostly?) resolved, it's refreshing to be able to sit down and actually discuss The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey on its own terms.

I'll just tell you up front that I'm no Tolkienhead. Ironically enough, the only book of his that I've read, albeit rather haphazardly, is The Hobbit. There were a few abortive attempts to read The Lord of the Rings when I was younger, but I didn't get far. That always struck me as strange, considering a childhood heavily steeped in Greek mythology, Norse mythology, L. Frank Baum's Oz books, C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, and Brian Jacques' Tales of Redwall. You'd think that Tolkien would have been a natural addition to that, but, for whatever reason, I never got that far past Bilbo's eleventy-first birthday party.

That said, I love Peter Jackson's original trilogy of films, which strike me as one of the bravest and most successful of cinematic achievements. The Return of the King, in particular, is a film that I consider one of the finest of our young century. With regard to bravery, it was almost unheard of at the time to shoot an entire trilogy's worth of footage (particularly THAT trilogy) simultaneously, and then schedule back-to-back-to-back December releases. Can you imagine the hell that Peter Jackson might have endured if The Fellowship of the Ring had flopped? It's safe to assume that he might never have directed again, at least not anything not airing on Lifetime.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a solid adventure story, with swords, sorcery, and a few tiny glimpses at a dragon. In short, it's good, but not great. What you're going to get out of it will depend a great deal on the expectations that you had when you walk into the theater, but even that's a bit murky and not nearly as cut and dry as you'd think. One man I saw the film with absolutely loved it but acknowledged that he loved the material so much that it'd be difficult for him not to like the movie, while another was such a big fan of the novel that he left the theater with a heavy, heavy heart. On the other hand, the rest of us and our varying degrees of fandom liked the movie well enough but had to acknowledge a few flaws.

First, the good. . .

It felt so good to have the chance to visit Middle-Earth again. I think that anyone who fell in love with The Lord of the Rings feels exactly the same way. I don't want to beat a dead horse, but I think that that trilogy is this generation's Star Wars with the kind of collective thrall they cast over people the world over. The cast of characters is uniformly strong, with Martin Freeman's performance as Bilbo Baggins deserving particular note. He plays Bilbo as a very pragmatic kind of person, which I think is a lot easier to identify with than the eternally earnest angst that Elijah Woods brought to Frodo. There's a wonderful bit where another character tells Bilbo that he had doubted him from the start, and Bilbo says, "well, that's quite all right, I would have doubted me too." Another standout new character is Radagast the Brown, an absent-minded wizard that reminded me delightfully of a friend of mine. He's got the most wonderful way of getting around too, and I wouldn't dream of spoiling it for you. I'd anticipated the sheer number of dwarves being a bit difficult to keep track of, but am pleased to report that the script finds a happy balance between giving each character enough to do while refraining from beating the audience over the head with names, names, and more names.

I don't think that you'll be surprised to learn that perhaps the film's real standout is Andy Serkis' Gollum. He manages to seem even creepier this time around, with eyes that glow in a way that they never did in the original trilogy. The game of riddles that he plays with Bilbo is one of the film's finest sequences, and I'll be curious to see if he reappears in any of the other films in the series. I don't think that he's featured anywhere else in the novel, but I feel confident that Peter Jackson will find a way to work him back into the narrative.

Now, the not so good . . .

I think that the issue arises from a somewhat schizophrenic tonal approach. From what I understand, the source material is a lot more whimsical than the somber events of the Lord of the Rings, and while that sense of whimsy comes through at times (albeit somewhat strangely), Jackson seems committed to tying The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey to the earlier trilogy of films. That might not be an entirely good thing.

Trying to tell the beginning of the story after the fact isn't entirely unheard of, as George Lucas tried to do something similar with the Star Wars prequels. Although, to be fair, that case was a bit different, as Star Wars is an original work, rather than an adaptation, and the decision to start in the middle wasn't readily apparent. That said, Peter Jackson's conundrum is a bit different here. He's got to try and find the middle ground of appealing to fans of the book as well as fans of the films who might not have any knowledge of this part of the story.

One area in which the two different tonal approaches conflict is apparent right off the bat. The stakes just aren't as high this time around, so when characters solemnly parade around (particularly in the Rivendell sequence) it comes across as self-serious and somewhat exaggerated. The first time around, it was the fate of the whole world at stake, so please, Mr. Gandalf, take all the time you need! Additionally, there are bits that were clearly thrown in for fans of the original series, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. However, when you look at the way they're handled, it can seem a bit strange. For example, when Galadriel first appears, it's almost as though PJ is going for a near-biblical moment. Now, don't get me wrong, she's one of my favorite characters in Tolkien's universe, but it just seemed a bit silly in the way it was handled this time around, particularly with regard to the way that she's introduced in the earlier trilogy.

PJ's decision to shoot the film in 48 frames-per-second has gotten a lot of buzz, and it was interesting to finally have the chance to see it for myself. I'm notoriously opposed to high-frame rate forms of exhibition with regard to home media, as the "enhanced" experience seems, to these eyes, to remove all semblance of grace from the cinema in its reduction of even the slowest pan to a herky-jerky form of visual stuttering. I had the opportunity to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in "high frame rate 3D," and the experience was interesting, though not as groundbreaking as it might have been intended to be by any stretch. The combination of the style of 3D glasses we used and our excellent seats (square in the center) did a fine job of removing peripheral vision in such a way as to eliminate the blurriness that sometimes pops up elsewhere. The extra frame rate was readily apparent early on, but I found that I soon adapted to it. I hadn't expected that to happen, but after a certain point, I only noticed the extra frame rate when I consciously thought of it.

That said, it doesn't really make that positive of a contribution to the entire experience. During the film's introductory segment, the high frame rate renders the action sequences nearly incomprehensible from a visual standpoint, and I'm told it was that much worse in standard 3D. While the 3D was much more vivid than any other film I've seen in that format, the enhanced image actually seems to make the "extra dimension" that much less noticeable. Once the film got going, I tended to forget that it was even in 3D at all, unless some kind of flying object did the stereotypical "pop out" or my nose started to rebel from having two sets of glasses double-parked on it.

Additionally, the visual effects don't seem as strong this time around. I'm not sure if that's due to the higher frame rate, but there are multiple characters that look rather fake. The film's primary antagonist (who's apparently a completely original character), in particular, has that stereotypical "CG" look to him.

Another point of curiosity stems from the decision to make The Hobbit a trilogy, instead of telling the story in two parts. To me, it seems like a blatant cash grab by a team that knows that their audience will see anything that they do with any kind of Tolkien stamp on it. Personally, I think that the trilogy was born from the realization that the Extended Editions of the previous trilogy were such a success that they could easily release the new films in their extended forms, shoot a little more footage, and voila! Three films! I'm sure that they've rationalized it in their own minds, and there's probably no small nostalgic influence on this decision. After all, what other stories can they set in Middle-Earth once they've finished here? I already feel a bit dubious about the decision to populate the third film with content from The Simarillion, appendices, and Unfinished Tales.  

Ultimately, where The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey falls short for me is in not being a true part of The Lord of the Rings, but that's not the fault of the material. After having the bar set so high with the original trilogy, I wish that Peter Jackson had taken a stronger stance in either making a film that was more faithful to Tolkien's source material or making a direct extension to his own past work.

On its own, it's a solid adventure film, but seen as part of a larger whole, things tend to get a bit murky. That said, my reservations don't exactly have teeth. I'll be there opening weekend for each of The Desolation of Smaug and There and Back Again.

I'm not fooling anybody.

3 1/2 stars (out of 5)

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Podcasting: Lincoln

As happens from time to time, I was fortunate enough to be included on this week's discussion/breakdown of Lincoln on Out Now With Aaron and Abe. After our review of the film, the conversation moved to post-2000 Spielberg films, and let's just say that I was a bit surprised to realize exactly how much I love that period of his work.

You can listen to the entire podcast by clicking HERE to go to the episode's official page or by clicking the big ol' play button below.

Don't forget to share/post/link/tweet or whatever it is you do with things you like. Enjoy!

This episode features: 

Monday, November 19, 2012


If I told you that Disney was distributing a Steven Spielberg film about Abraham Lincoln, and that that film would star Daniel Day-Lewis, you’d probably have a certain set of expectations as to what that film would be like. From a tonal perspective, Lincoln is very much the film that you’d expect it to be.

The costumes are immaculate, Tony Kushner’s dialogue is filled with the witty turns of phrase that seem to have gone out of the popular idiom in 1960, and the music swells exactly when you’d expect it to during certain speeches. There’s a bit of a PBS vibe to the film, but, fortunately, it manages to avoid being too heavily sanctimonious, mostly thanks to Kushner and Day-Lewis. The only significant difference from what one might expect from this project is in its narrow focus on a specific period of time. Rather than tell the story of Lincoln’s life, the film zeroes in on the period surrounding the attempt to abolish slavery in the United States through the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

Where Lincoln succeeds best is in humanizing the man and in making the political conflict of the time seem relevant to the 21st century. All too often, Americans of this day and age seem to think that the current level of political vitriol and unwillingness to compromise are unique to our time, when that’s been anything but the case. Lincoln details the tightrope that Lincoln was forced to walk every single day. If he wanted to gain the full support of his own party for the Amendment, he had to agree to secret peace negotiations with the Confederacy. However, if word got out that he’d agreed to negotiate, he’d be labeled a liar and opportunist for trying to divide the country further by pushing for legislation that was divisive enough for “free states,” to say nothing of the potential contentious reintegration into the Union of the thousands of people who’d committed to fighting to protect their rights to own slaves.

There’s a tendency to idolize certain events and people long since relegated to the annals of historic heroism, and, insofar as American history is concerned, Abraham Lincoln is probably victim to that more than many. I can still recall the opening line of his entry in the first set of encyclopedias that my parents ever purchased for my sister and I. “Abraham Lincoln is one of the greatest men who has ever lived.” That’s a remarkably subjective statement for a text trying to establish a factual record. I could understand “most important” or “most influential,” but “greatest” implies a value judgment that you’d think has little-to-no place in an encyclopedia. Nevertheless, there it stands.

Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance is masterful. It’s all too easy to forget the actor and simply see . . . him. Given the time he lived in, Lincoln is not someone whom we’ve watched on television for years, as is the case with contemporary historical figures. That said, this portrayal is pretty much the embodiment of everything that one would expect of what Lincoln would be like. He’s funny and charming in a rustic way, but possesses a keen insight into the law and the delicate things that affect the political machine of the time turn one way or the other. Something that I hadn't expected was for him to be as warm of a person as Day-Lewis portrays him. He cracks jokes to lighten the mood, swears when things aren't going his way, and above all, has a deep and abiding love for his family. One of my favorite scenes features him asking two telegraph operators what they think about something in a display of simple candor.

Something that I really admire about Lincoln is its refusal to polish the pedestal too brightly. Lincoln was, by contemporary standards, a racist, even as he worked tirelessly to abolish what he considered to be a scourge upon American identity. There’s a pivotal scene where he discusses the implications of freedom with his wife’s black attendant and he tells her that he doesn’t really know her or members of her race but, he supposes that he will “get used to you.” It’s a moment of surprising nuance. Furthermore, Lincoln’s family life is given a pretty complex treatment in his relationship with his wife and their (not so) different responses to the grief of losing their son William. There’s a wrenching moment where he describes for the first time the pain he deals with on a daily basis.

Additionally, Tommy Lee Jones’ turn as Thaddeus Stevens pretty much steals every scene he’s in. There’s a wonderful moment where he’s forced to choose his words very carefully to support the Amendment without betraying his principles, and the balance he strikes is enough to make you pump your fist with a little theatrical celebration. The other performances are mostly fine too, with small parts for a ton of big names, but Day-Lewis and Jones are a cut above the rest. I’ll be up front. Daniel Day-Lewis deserves an Academy Award nomination at the very least. The only thing that’s keeping me from saying that he should win is that I want to wait until I’ve seen the other performances that might compete against him.

One of the emotions I felt most strongly in experiencing the film was sadness. In America today, the Republican Party is undergoing an identity crisis, as factions that want the party’s principles to adapt to changing times struggle against another faction that wants to take the GOP into ever more conservative territory. It’s sobering to remember that the Republican Party was once the party of emancipation and personal liberty, where it now seems committed to rewarding the wealthy and only affording equal rights to those groups, genders, and people that it approves of. It’s my sincere hope that the GOP finds a way to reclaim itself from those that would try to limit personal freedom and engage in exclusion.

Ultimately, Lincoln is the kind of film that one likes for sentimental reasons. There were a few occasions where the film choked me up, which seems to happen more and more as I get older. It’s not trying to reinvent the wheel or do anything that’s drastically different, opting to use a tried-and-true formula to tell the story of one remarkable man and the extraordinary times in which he found himself. After beginning the 21st century with a period of astonishingly prolific creativity, Spielberg has not crafted a masterpiece with Lincoln, nor has he made one of his more interesting films, but the film is comforting in the way that it offers rewards you just as you think it should. I’m grateful for that. 

4 stars (out of 5)


If you're in the mood for more Spielberg, here's a look at one of my favorites. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001): Look Again

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Lana Wachowski Speaks

As the double-edged sword that is the social media machine simultaneously unites and divides our current (I hesitate to say "modern") civilization, it's become more and more customary to know what just about everyone who is anyone is thinking, feeling, or doing on any given day. As such, it's a rare thing to witness a major artist that maintains a commitment to privacy, much less anonymity. For years, the Wachowskis (of The Matrix Trilogy and V for Vendetta fame)  have been reluctant to make public appearances in support of their own films. Fortunately for them, their films typically do the kind of business that guarantees their success with or without the support of the director(s). 

However, with the release of Cloud Atlas, (which I'll be reviewing here very soon!) Andy and Lana decided to break their self-imposed embargo on the press and put themselves out there in support of the film. The introduction that they recorded with co-director Tom Tykwer for their mega-trailer was fun, breezy, and insightful, but it marked so much more than a long-awaited public appearance. This was the first time that Lana (formerly Larry) had appeared in public at all

Rather than use this space to tell you what I think this means, I've attached a video of a speech that she gave in accepting the Human Rights Campaign's Visibility Award. It's a very honest, often funny look at the way that her personal and professional lives have been defined by different opinions on how she should behave. 

More than that, it's deeply human. It meant a lot to me to hear these words. I thought you might appreciate them too.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Some Quick Thoughts on Looper

So, Looper is a really solid piece of work. It's rare that a modern film tackles sci-fi with anything resembling grit, but this is that flick. What's more, the time travel gimmick actually WORKS! My chief objection, namely that sending someone back in time to knock them off made a lot less sense than popping them a few in a back alley before going Fargo on the clean-up, was put to rest in the first 30 seconds. One of the main problems with time travel as a narrative convention lies in the inherent confusion that comes with playing with what happens to the future when the building blocks get re-arranged. The way that Looper handles things on that front is remarkably level-headed and above all, effective. As a huge Trekkie, I'm no time travel novice, but it was terrific to see a filmmaker worry less about tying his audience's head in knots and more about making sure that everything that happened as a result of Bruce Willis' trip down the rabbit hole makes sense. Little Pierce Gagnon is one to keep your eye on. I'm usually pretty tough on child actors, because there's only one Justin Henry, but this kid is pretty fantastic. He manages to handle the dichotomous part of an old soul in a vulnerable little boy's body to wonderful effect. Favorite line in the film: "Pass me the Phillips."

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Master - Here We Go 'Round the Mulberry Bush

I've been indirectly anticipating Paul Thomas Anderson's next film since the release of There Will Be Blood in late 2007. That film is perhaps the greatest single piece of work in the career of one of cinema's greatest contemporary talents. Part American epic, part fever dream, it's a true tour de force from Anderson, Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano that deserves its own place in the cinematic canon.

As such, The Master seems to have a lot going for it. Anderson's star has never been higher, and Joaquin Phoenix is finally back to acting after his lost weekend with Casey Affleck. The rest of the cast includes such fine actors as Phillip Seymour Hoffman and the delightful Amy Adams. Master musician Jonny Greenwood (of Radiohead fame) is back to score the film . . . and the whole thing is a look at what leads a person to join a cult. This is a potentially devastating combo.

And it just doesn't work out in the end.

Now, the film's paced well, moves briskly, and never feels like it's sinking under its almost 2 1/2 hour length. The performances are solid, with particular kudos belonging to Joaquin Phoenix for a strong turn as a mentally unstable man at the mercy of Hoffman's brand of quack science. It's a physical performance that requires him to give the impression that an angular, disjointed body is at the mercy of a tormented mind. Amy Adams is really good. Hoffman's all right, even if his "Uncle Snappy" routine doesn't really stretch him in any direction that's particularly groundbreaking. Mihai Malaimare Jr.'s photography is lovely, and Anderson's direction is strong, which shouldn't surprise anyone.

But The Master doesn't go anywhere, and that's a big problem. Now, I'm a vocal opponent of the Church of $cientology, and I'm thrilled that an artist of Anderson's stature was inspired to use that particularly nefarious organization as dramatic fodder. Make no mistake. That's exactly what's happened. Despite assurances from the team that this is not directly related to L. Ron Hubbard's soul-crushing, life-destroying moneymaking machine, The Master is clearly intended to be an attack on $cientology. Terms may be changed, and names might be different, but if you know what to look for, it's there in spades. 

Despite its good intentions, I felt cheated when the film ended. There's just no real resolution to the story. I don't know what Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd wanted from Phoenix's Freddie Quell. I don't know if he honestly thought that he could help Freddie, if he was preying on a weak mind, or if some strange combination of the two was at work. I don't know why Freddie didn't see through the pseudo-scientific psychobabble he was constantly exposed to. I don't know why the last interaction the two have is so strange. There are those who feel that the final act of There Will Be Blood is at complete odds with the rest of the picture. I've never been one of those people, but here, I do not understand what's supposed to be gained from the truly bizarre series of final events that roll around.

Even despite the fine casting, the performances don't really allow for much emotional engagement with the characters, which is a curious thing. Even the performance I liked most (Phoenix) relies on a certain level of physical gimmickry to be effective. It's difficult to avoid the obvious comparisons with Daniel Day-Lewis, but I'm also reminded, strangely enough, of the female leads in 2010's Never Let Me Go. Keira Knightley seems to need quirky characteristics to make Ruth tick. Carey Mulligan just is. There's not a note of falsity in her performance. She's (in a relatively short time) found a way to perform in a state of being that's immediate, affecting, and remarkably genuine. I'm not suggesting that Phoenix's work isn't strong, only that it's not good enough to transcend the material and fully engross the viewer. You keep noticing the little things that the performer's bringing to the performance, instead of allowing the performance to sink into a larger cohesive experience.
I'm right on the fence here. I can't deny that the film's fairly absorbing for much of its running time, but I found myself waiting for a knockout punch that just never came. The Master provides for an interesting experience that proves ultimately thankless, and that's a really frustrating thing. If you love Paul Thomas Anderson, you'll want to see this for that reason alone, but otherwise? I can't really recommend the film beyond that.

3 stars (out of 5)


With the noble aspirations of a film attempting to tackle a large problem in mind, I respectfully ask you to Google the name "Lisa McPherson."

Friday, July 27, 2012

Podcasting: The Dark Knight Rises, Part 2

With the arrival of The Dark Knight Rises, a film that's transcended the simplicity of the calendar year to become a bonafide event, the good gentlemen at Out Now With Aaron and Abe decided that one episode wasn't enough. While Part 1 was designed from the outset to be completely spoiler-free, the crew really wanted to delve into the particulars of the plot and speak off the cuff, without fear of ruining the experience for the uninitiated. 

Part 2 is that conversation/breakdown/marathon. It's chock FULL of spoilers, so if you haven't seen the film, you've been warned. Don't be an idiot. 

You can listen to the entire podcast by clicking HERE to go to the episode's official page or by clicking the big ol' play button below.

Personally, I think this one might be one the show's finest hours yet. Enjoy!

This episode features: 

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Podcasting: The Dark Knight Rises, Part 1

Just about everybody affiliated with Out Now With Aaron and Abe has had The Dark Knight Rises at or near the top of their most anticipated list for 2012, so it's no surprise that we've taped not one but TWO episodes devoted to the film. You can listen to the entire podcast by clicking HERE to go to the episode's official page or by clicking the big ol' play button below. 

FYI, this episode is spoiler-free. Part 2 (with an abundance of spoilers!) is coming soon, so keep a weather eye out. . .

This episode features: 

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises - Batman Fall Down Go Boom

I’m going to do something that I’d never have imagined doing, and compare Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy to Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather Trilogy. Sure, it’s not an exact correlation, as The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II are widely considered to be two of the finest films ever made, and I don’t think that many would suggest that even the finest of the most recent Batman films come anywhere close to equaling them. What I do think, however, is that an examination of the overall arc of each respective trilogy proves a bit more telling than you might think. If The Godfather/Batman Begins serve as the origin story, then The Godfather, Part II/The Dark Knight illustrates what happens when the established order of things comes crashing down and must be re-structured. With the first two Godfather films and Nolan’s first two Batman films, there’s a strong sense of time and place that come together beautifully. They just feel right. They belong together.

It’s not exactly a fair comparison, and I acknowledge that. Even at their best, Nolan’s Batman films are still about a guy who dresses up like a bat to go swinging from rooftop to rooftop, fighting crime with the aid of a motley crew of supporters, and, as such, there’s a fair level of far-fetched content that comes with the territory. Additionally, there’s a substantial backstory that’s got to be done justice here, with even minor characters needing to be handled just so.

Unfortunately, that also means that The Dark Knight Rises is this trilogy’s The Godfather, Part III.

This is one of the more disappointing films in recent memory, and it’s truly unfortunate, particularly after the goods that came before. Even though I have my issues with both of the series’ previous entries, I can’t deny that The Dark Knight is easily one of the finest superhero films of all, with a final 90 minutes that moves like freight train to a thoroughly unexpected and almost entirely satisfying conclusion. That said, The Dark Knight Rises has a simplistic script that relies on a fairly generous level of convenience and a lot of old-fashioned youvetakenthisasteptoofar-ism.

It’s ironic, because certain things that I didn’t think would play all that well ended up playing far better than I’d anticipated, and other things that I thought would be handled masterfully came across like lead balloons.

First, the good. I was very surprised to find that Anne Hathaway is a really solid Catwoman! Who knew? I’ve been in the “it should have been Angelina” camp since they started accepting members, but I was really pleased at how well Hathaway fills the ears and high heels. The character manages to maintain a fair sense of ambiguity with relation to her motives, and has some twists and turns that are really surprising. Just when you think you have her pegged, you realize that you really don’t. I’m also very happy that she’s never verbally referred to as "Catwoman." There was no need to take it in that direction, and the brothers Nolan didn’t. Her interplay with Batman provides for some of the most entertaining bits in the film.

Michael Caine’s turn as Alfred is his finest of the series. With the arrival of 2005’s Batman Begins, it took me a while to get used to him in the role, particularly after Michael Gough’s fine work in the Burton/Schumacher series. Wow. Caine’s work in The Dark Knight Rises is something else. While there’s still a bit of him filling one of Nolan’s pet parts as the character who rattles off long bits of exposition to fill the audience in on stuff, he’s wonderfully emotional at key points and serves as the film’s heart. He cares so much more about the young man that he’s loved since birth than he does the fate of a city, and it’s wonderfully moving.  I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to see Michael Caine end up with an Academy Award nomination. It might be a long shot, but I’d really like this to happen.

Also, with the entire narrative revolving around Batman’s fall and eventual rise (a few times over!), there are some genuinely spine-tingling moments when he gets back in the saddle again and comes around to save the day.

Now for the troubling bits . . .

There’s just far too much here that doesn’t really work. The idea of the series finishing off with Batman/Bane faceoff was one that filled me with an endless amount of excitement. He’s one of the single best villains in the Batman universe, but he’s just not that scary here, and his grand plot to reduce Gotham City to anarchy before it ends up in ashes works a lot better conceptually than it does on the silver screen. I think that the large shadow of the Joker is a bit of the problem here. The unstoppable combination of Heath Ledger’s masterful performance and a wonderfully written character provided for one of modern cinema’s finest villains in The Dark Knight. He had no limits, no fear, and no rules, and that made him ridiculously scary. From moment to moment, the viewer has no idea what he’ll do, and, what’s more, Batman has no way of controlling someone who’s not afraid of him. He’s the true anarchist of this trilogy. Bane, sadly, just doesn’t live up. He’s a “terrorist” who has an interesting connection to the League of Shadows, which provides for an endless amount of possibilities that just don’t really do that much. Additionally, the film has a way of giving you things and then jerking them right back. I’d say more (and will later), but cannot go into much detail here at the risk of spoiling things.

Furthermore, there are other things that JUST DON’T WORK. For example, did you know that now Batman sees visions? I didn’t either. It’s a foolish idea. If what he’d seen had been real, it’d have easily been one of the best moments in the film. Instead, its inclusion in the film makes no logical sense at all, aside from being a narrative device/old Nolan standby to give Batman (and subsequently the viewer) more information. What else? Bruce Wayne apparently suffered a severe leg injury that leaves him walking around with a cane throughout the early going, but is that explained? No, it’s not. The majority of the Dark Knight Trilogy takes place in the evening/twilight/night because that’s where Batman works best, right? Well, not here. Once the nuclear bomb subplot takes precedent, we end up in a whole lotta daylight, and that’s a strange thing from a visual standpoint, because Batman WORKS AT NIGHT. Take, for example, the mid-film sequence where Batman makes his first appearance in Gotham in 8 years. It’s a fantastic nighttime bit on the Batpod with Batman swooping in to clean up after the Gotham PD (again) that ends up with every police car in the city on his trail. It makes full use of the palate of nighttime colors, particularly those lovely flashing police lights, to put the Batman back where he belongs. Conversely, the final battle in the film takes place in broad daylight, and it’s just tougher to buy into the whole thing when you’ve got a dude running around dressed up like a bat at 2:00 in the afternoon.

Also, what’s the single greatest thing that Batman has going for him? His anonymity. Well, the number of people who seem to know who he is in The Dark Knight Rises is unprecedented. What’s more, even when a key character clearly HAS to know that it’s Bruce Wayne underneath the cowl, that person still seems shocked to finally learn the news for the “first” time.  

The single biggest problem that I have with The Dark Knight Rises is the ending, which is surprising. Going in, I was most excited to see what would happen at the film’s conclusion, because I really felt that all bets were off insomuch as to where the character might end up and what he might have to do to fulfill his destiny. Unfortunately, all it amounts to is one big cheat. Certain things are asked (and given willingly) by the viewer only to have them tossed back in the lap in a way that seems cloying and shallow. I would think that Nolan would be a smart enough guy to know that once you give someone a slice of chocolate cake, they’re going to be a bit angry to find out that it’s tofu about three bites in. Unfortunately, I guess he doesn’t, but I suppose that I ought to have been prepared for that, given Inception’s lackluster limp across the finish line.

Ultimately, I end up back at The Godfather, Part III. On its own, it’s not bad. It’s in the comparison with what came before that it suffers so badly. It’s a decent film, but a terrible Godfather film.

By the same token, The Dark Knight Rises isn’t a bad movie, but when you compare it to the previous films in the trilogy, it just doesn’t hold water.

Oh, what might have been. . .

2 ½ stars (out of 5)

Tragedy strikes

I'd like to offer my condolences to those affected by the shooting at the midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Colorado this morning. That anyone should be hurt for any reason is a terrible thing, but for a demented individual to use a moment that should have been a joyous one for people around the world for such evil purposes is horrifying. I'll be going to see the film in about 2 hours, and it's so sad that a great day's been marred by such horrible events.

Shantih shantih shantih.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

In Memory: Nora Ephron (1941-2012)

Nora Ephron died today. Hers was a private struggle. There was no weekly update in the entertainment columns about her condition, no prolonged battle with a longstanding disease playing out in the public spectrum. I am grateful that she was able to face this time without the intrusive cloud of public perception watching her every move. I hope that she was able to meet the end of her life with only those people around her that she wanted to be there. 

In a Nora Ephron film, there's a generosity of spirit that prevails. Regardless of it being a film she wrote for someone else or one that she wrote for herself to direct, there's a kindness and good-natured optimism present. Regardless of how many times one of her characters might get knocked down or how many times he or she might make the wrong decision, there's a pervasive sense that everything's going to turn out all right in the end, that the world will turn for the best. In many ways, you see yourself in her films. Maybe not yourself as you are now, but the way that your life might turn out to be, that maybe, just maybe, there might be a sense of order to the universe and everything's going to turn out all right for you too. I find it difficult to believe that this kind heart that beat so strongly through her life's work was something that only appeared in Nora Ephron, the artist.

More than anything else, my heart is heavy tonight because her family has lost her. There is no more difficult task than picking up the pieces of a life without a person that has filled so much of it. 

Love and respect to her memory and her family tonight and always.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Brave - An old, familiar tune

Brave is a somewhat unique entry to the Pixar pantheon in that it's not about talking toys, talking bugs, talking monsters, talking superheroes, talking cars, or talking animals (well, the last one's not entirely true, but is close enough). Ironically enough, a studio who's made bank time and time again by setting familiar stories in dazzlingly original settings is taking the up-til-now unfamiliar approach of setting a familiar story in a familiar setting. 

Borrowing more than a bit from The Little Mermaid, Brave is the story of Merida, a Scottish princess who'd rather ride around on horseback all day than live up to what her mother thinks a princess ought to be. When her parents invite the leaders of the realm's other 3 clans to present their sons in a competition for Merida's hand, things go a bit amok when she tries to take hold of her own fate.

Simply put, this is a good film, but not one of the great films that Pixar's proven capable of so many times in the past. That said, Brave is a perfectly fine, highly entertaining experience. So, it this bad thing? Not really. While I'd certainly love to have another instant classic on my hands, I can't deny that I had a good time with this one. While it might not hit the stunning heights of Finding Nemo, The Incredibles or Toy Story 3, it certainly doesn't come anywhere close to plumbing the dregs of last year's dead-on-arrival Cars 2.

Unsurprisingly, the animation is stunning. Merida's hair, in particular, is ridiculously lifelike. Much in the way that the wispy wonder that was Sully's body carpet amazed in 2001's Monsters, Inc., Merida's curly red mane flows, bounces, and goes in every direction at once with ease. In the past, the look of each new Pixar film resulted in a noticeable leap forward for CG animation. While that's certainly slowed down in recent times, as technology's kinda hit a plateau, there's usually one (at least!) standout element each time around, and this time, it's those pretty remarkable scarlet locks.

Brave is also wonderfully funny. In each Pixar film, there's usually a character or group of characters that are explicit comic relief, for better or worse. Let's just say that Merida has triplet brothers that are much too smart for their age, and I loved every second of screen time that they got. There are other ways that the film successfully subverts the traditional fairytale, often for comedic effect, but I won't go into detail for risk of spoiling anything.

Somewhat surprisingly, there's a fair bit of action that justify the MPAA's PG rating. While Pixar's films aren't necessarily all sunshine and rainbows, I was a bit taken aback at just how physical some of the film's battle sequences are. 

Speaking of spoilers, this is the first Pixar film I can think of with a genuine plot twist. In an age of trailers that reveal everything of interest about a film with the exception of those clearly labeled "THIS IS A FILM WITH A MAJOR TWIST. STAY OFF THE INTERNET," the direction that Brave takes truly surprised me. I'll just suggest that the film's original title, The Bear and the Bow, was perfectly fitting and shouldn't have been abandoned in the first place. 

So, why the hesitation? It's all about emotional investment. With Pixar's best films, there's an immediate hook that engages the viewer immediately that can come from a variety of places, be it a quirky character, ingenious setup, or beautiful moment. Then, when the conclusion rolls around, it hits like a hammer to the heart, because there's so much riding on the narrative from the viewer's perspective. To that point, Brave just isn't that creative from a narrative standpoint.

There's been a lot of hoopla about the fact that this is Pixar's first film with a female main protagonist, but I wonder if that's actually what's tipped the creative team toward a tried-and-true formula. If you're going to tell a story about a young woman, why not frame it in some way that's a bit different from the atypical freedom narrative? How about actually embracing her femininity by making her a typical young woman of the time, stranding her in the wilderness and forcing her to learn how to survive? It's a bit reductive to always play the "I'm a girl, but I'd rather be free like a boy!" card.

Simply put, this is a story you've heard before. It's a good story, and you'll probably like it. 

But you've heard it before.

3 1/2 stars (out of 5)

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Podcasting: Prometheus

A few days ago, the good folks over at Out Now With Aaron and Abe invited me to be a part of their discussion of Prometheus. You can listen to the entire podcast by clicking HERE to go to the episode's official page or by clicking the ol' play button below. FYI: there is a spoiler section at the end of the episode, so proceed with caution. . .

This episode features: 

Friday, June 8, 2012

Prometheus - Be careful what you look for . . .

There’s been so much said about what Prometheus would be like that it’s a bit of a relief to finally have the film OUT. First, it’s Ridley Scott making an Alien prequel! Then, it’s Ridley Scott saying that (while he meant to at first) now he’s not making an Alien prequel! Then, the trailers hit and this thing looked all the world like the first chapter in one of cinema’s biggest science-fiction franchises.

I am pleased to report that Prometheus is, despite what Mr. Scott would have us believe, CLEARLY an Alien prequel (albeit one that goes reaches back a bit sideways), while it’s certainly a standalone story and can easily be enjoyed on its own merits. While you don’t have to know the Alien mythology to enjoy/understand this film, I’ll be the first to admit that it certainly helps. Ridley Scott hasn’t worked in science fiction since the early 1980’s and the prospect of him returning to a genre where I feel he’s done his best work is endlessly exciting.

Here’s the story. After discovering the same pictograph in numerous digs around the world, two archeologists convince a wealthy corporate head to send an expedition to a distant planet to respond to a supposed invitation from what they believe are the creators of all life on earth. Upon arrival, the crew finds a lot more than they bargained for and must fight for their lives against forces from without and within.

I hadn’t quite expected Prometheus to be such a beautiful film from a strictly visual perspective. From the opening sequence of a gorgeous earthlike planet in which intelligent life is about to be planted to the introduction of the alien world, the coloration is so much more lush than anything I’ve ever seen in an Alien film up to this point. There are oranges and purples and blues that really stand out, particularly when the action moves inside the dome, where it’s all grays and blacks. There are some shots here that would make lovely wall hangings, particularly moments where the little dune buggies/big truck are racing away from or toward the Prometheus. There’s a shot of the away team trying to make it back to the ship before a storm hits that’s just remarkable.

The performances are uniformly good, particularly Michael Fassbender’s turn as David, the android always at the center of the intrigue in Prometheus. David seems to have a completely different agenda than just about anyone else in the film, and I’m really not sure what’s going through his head. These androids that Weyland Corp. uses tend to be really cagey fellows with a way of hedging their bets and keeping you guessing as to what their true motives really are. At first, he seems to be working for Vickers (Charlize Theron), but then it’s apparent that he’s still getting instructions from some unnamed man. When we later learn who that person is, it’s not made much easier. As stranger and stranger things start to happen, it makes one wonder why David is taking matters into his own hands so drastically. I could go on and on about this, but then this would morph into a discussion more than a review. Let’s just say that I’m left to wonder if, on some level, David might be even more sinister than the ominous creatures the crew encounters.

I do think that the film would have benefited from being a bit longer. Certain themes  are presented and examined in such a perfunctory way that it shortchanges the film from becoming as compelling emotionally as it is visually. For example, Shaw (a strong Noomi Rapace) is a person of faith who comes to the planet fully believing that she’s going to have a chance to answer an invitation to converse with the beings that created intelligent life on earth. She’s on the verge of the most important scientific breakthrough in human history and she approaches it with the simple faith that it’s going to happen, and happen a certain way. When circumstances on the planet surface turn out to be drastically different than she’d anticipated, I wanted more. Let’s delve deep into what it means for Shaw to be a person of faith that’s being challenged by such an unexpectedly evil place. Let’s give her an extended scene where she really talks with someone (probably David) about what it means to her.

Think about it. It’d be perfect. Being an android, he does not understand what conviction of this kind is really like, and she would be able to explain what her faith means to her and how she reconciles it in the face of what seems closer and closer to certain doom. I think it would have really fleshed out the narrative more effectively, but, unfortunately, it’s not what we get. I think this might be a weakness of Scott’s in general. We tend to arrive at certain scenes thinking of how they might have affected us, instead of how they have affected us.

Much like the Nostromo in Alien, the crew of the Prometheus is mostly made up of working/middle class folks, which is a welcome change from the usual conventions of science fiction. They certainly haven’t got the endless poise of the crew of the Enterprise. They’re just a bunch of people that want to earn a paycheck without having to suddenly deal with a bunch of strange alien creatures that want to do all kinds of terrible things. I really like that about them, even if they’re sometimes saddled with pedestrian dialogue that’s clearly there because there’s a camera watching and witty things must be said.

Prometheus is also not as frightening as I’d expected, but that's not a bad thing. While I was prepared for the worst, and an almost immediate body count, the film takes its time to set things up in such a way that you stay on your toes when the punches start hitting. That said, the film’s single most effective sequence is terrifying. It’s the scariest do-it-yourself surgical procedure this side of 127 Hours that I’ve seen in a movie in a long, long time, and just about had me holding my breath. 

The subversion of expectation is one of this film’s strongest suits. Given where the franchise has been before, there are a few directions that you’d expect the film to head in that it neatly sidesteps. Even when there are nods to what’s come before, they’re done in surprisingly innovative ways. There are several narrative bombshells present here, and part of what makes some of them so effective comes with a knowledge of the franchise. “Well, he’s the same as THAT was, so THIS can’t happen.” Then, when it does happen and the rug is pulled out, you’re left to figure out what that means now.

Having seen the film in 3D, I’d argue that you’d do better stick to 2D and save the extra money. Personally, I don’t really have much of an interest in 3D unless it’s the work of an artist using the format with specific intentions, like Cameron’s Avatar or Scorsese’s Hugo, in which case 3D is a necessity. With Prometheus, the pedigree’s certainly there, but it didn’t take long for me to almost forget entirely that the film was in 3D at all. If it’s not enhancing the viewing experience, then it can be done without.

A lush, engaging look at a familiar mythos through new eyes, Prometheus is a strong piece that I’m almost positive will benefit from repeated viewings, and I'm certainly looking forward to trying to put the pieces together again. For a notorious one-and-done guy, that’s one of the highest compliments I’ve got. 

This one deserves it.

4 stars (out of 5)