Monday, January 30, 2012

Newlyweds Movie Review: Presented by Director Edward Burns at Huntington Cinema Arts Centre

Edward Burns' newest film was released digitally at the end of December. It is available for digital download here and also on iTunes.

In my years away I’ve missed everything Edward Burns has written and directed in the last decade. I’ve followed his career with some interest because he’s a Long Island film maker and I like supporting my community, but he hasn’t quite lived up to the promise of his first feature The Brothers McMullen. He received a great deal of recognition for that film made on a shoestring budget at a time when I was just getting interested in cinema. His follow up She’s the One showed what he could do with a bigger budget and A-list stars, but he fell backward after that. Sidewalks of New York, released in 2001 was his last film I saw. After that nothing really made a big enough splash that I was enthused enough to seek it out. Recently he’s begun releasing his films on DVD and the Internet to avoid the hassle of distribution and striking film prints. Eschewing the offers the direct studio pictures, he’s come back to the kind of small personal films that he’s passionate about.

His newest film Newlyweds was released in late December simultaneously on DVD and various Internet outlets such as VOD and iTunes. I was lucky enough to attend an event at my local Arts Cinema where Burns was an invited guest for a Q&A and reception following the screening. As an added surprise, he brought along two of his co-stars in the film.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

We Need to Talk About Kevin Movie Review

Director Lynne Ramsay takes us on a journey through some dark places of the human condition, although it is not a story of her creation. She and Rory Kinnear co-wrote the screenplay for We Need to Talk About Kevin, an adaptation of the novel by Lionel Shriver. The story’s subject matter is how a mother copes with the aftermath of a murderous rampage conducted by her teenage son that left several people dead, his classmates among them.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Cars 2 Movie Review

The rational person in me who understands business and money-making enterprises can grasp why Pixar decided that a sequel to Cars was necessary. But the movie critic, or more aptly, the fan of cinema in me wishes that studios wouldn’t continue to make sequels to undeserving films. The first was very high-grossing, but the worst reviewed of all their films, most of which rank among the best in Hollywood cinema (animated or not) of the last 15 years. Cars is the only Pixar film with under 90 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and it’s the lowest scoring on Metacritic. But it grossed nearly $250 million domestic.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Shame Movie Review

Steve McQueen’s Shame is about a man who is compulsively addicted to sexual pleasure. Like any other kind of addict, his cravings continue to push limits and take control of his life. He takes new sexual partners (sometimes paying for it) with stunning regularity. He is also a frequent masturbator, sometimes unable to hold off while at work. His boss informs him that the IT department came across a trove of pornography on his computer’s hard drive, but assumes it must have been an intern.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

A Separation Movie Review: Best Movie of 2011

Newton’s Third Law of Motion tells us that to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Newton was referring to the physical world, but it would seem that something similar is at work in the metaphysical world as well. For every action we take as individuals, even when it’s a personal and private action that seems to only affect ourselves, somewhere someone else receives some reaction to it. Maybe that’s true. I really don’t know. But the idea that lives are intertwined with neighbors and family, that decisions have far-reaching implications beyond immediate gratification is the central theme of Asghar Farhadi’s brilliant family drama A Separation.

How Hollywood Condescends to Its Audiences

Here's a really interesting roundtable discussion with several prominent actors who have all been the recipients of year-end awards and nominations for films in 2011. Without the hindrance of a TV audience and the need to be conciliatory for the sake of promoting a film, they give honest opinions and use honest language. We don't often get to see movie stars in this light - just regular people discussing the industry they work in without the gloss. Normally we either get speeches of praise for directors and costars or the occasional YouTube video that reveals how stars sometimes fall to pieces.

Top Ten Movies of 2011

updated on 22 February after seeing Pina.

updated at 11:30 pm on 30 January after someone pointed out that I titled this post "Top Ten Movies of 2012." It only took a little more than 4 days for someone to alert me to my error.

updated at 4:30pm on 26 January to reflect the glaring oversight of having accidentally left off The Tree of Life.

updated at 10:45 am on 3 May 2014 after seeing Senna

I still have a handful of movies from 2011 to see, but nothing that is likely to make any real impression on this list. Of course these lists are arbitrary, but I like to put together a list of the films that had the strongest emotional effect on me.

First, some honorable mentions. These are movies that I really admired, but I like to stick to the tradition of a top ten: 50/50ContagionMartha Marcy May Marlene; MoneyballRangoWarriorWe Need to Talk About Kevin.

11. Take Shelter dir. Jeff Nichols - A disturbing portrait of a man succumbing to severe mental illness and the effect it has on his wife and child. Michael Shannon gives a brave performance that isn't afraid to go to some very dark human places. (3 May 2014 update: the addition of Senna to this Top Ten effectively bumps Take Shelter off, but for historical purposes I'm leaving it in 11th position.)

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

X-Men: First Class Movie Review

Superhero movies used to mercifully few and far between. Now they’re ubiquitous along with their various sequels, prequels and spinoffs. I understand why Hollywood studios continue to return to the same source material. It’s guaranteed box office receipts without having to do the heavy lifting of crafting new character. And basically the stories are ready-made clotheslines that have basic garments that always hang on them and the hired writers just have to decide on the occasional undergarment or accent to place alongside the old and familiar. So it is with X-Men: First Class, the fifth iteration of the X-Men franchise, this time going back to the origins of Professor Charles Xavier, Magneto née Erik Lenscherr, and the special school established by Charles to nurture and guide other mutants to learn to control their abilities.

From My Collection: State and Main Movie Review

Robert Altman’s brilliant 1992 return to form The Player gets all the ink when it comes to Hollywood satire. It is a fantastic piece of work – suspenseful and darkly comic. But re-watching State and Main, David Mamet’s comedy about a Hollywood production that tears apart a small New England town, I realized this has to be ranked as one of the great satirical films. What makes it more remarkable is that Mamet was primarily known for his thrillers, set up as complex confidence games. Although it was not nearly as much a departure as his 1999 film The Winslow Boy, a G-rated period piece family drama about a boy accused of theft at his school. State and Main is as biting and funny as his great screenplay for Wag the Dog, a satire of the political process.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

How Did I Do (2012 Edition)

So let's take a look at my predictions against the actual nominees and round up my score and make some comments along the way.

In the top 8 categories my score is 34/44 (77%) compared to last year's 39/45 (87%).
If I include Animated Feature (which I did last year) in top categories then I drop to 36/49 (73%).

Total score: 63/94 (67%) possibly my worst ever. A big letdown after my possibly best ever last year.

There was little chance I was going to equal my 10/10 from last year's predictions, but I'm pretty satisfied with my result. I said there would be 8 nominees and there were 9, but I'm not holding that against myself. Here's the list:

The Artist
The Descendants
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (not predicted)
The Help
Midnight in Paris
The Tree of Life
War Horse
predicted but not nominated: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
score: 8/9

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close Movie Review

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is one hundred percent Oscar bait and shamelessly so. It co-stars two Oscar-winning actors as the parents of a precocious child who sets out on a journey of discovery after the death of his father. There’s an international screen legend (once Oscar nominated) cast an elderly man who doesn’t speak. It’s penned by Eric Roth, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Forrest Gump, and directed by Stephen Daldry, the only person ever nominated for the Best Director Oscar for each of his first three feature films. To top it all off it’s a post 9/11 drama that centers on the breakdown of a family after a tragic loss on that day.

Monday, January 23, 2012

War Horse Movie Review

Having plumbed the depths of WWII era stories, I suppose it was just a matter of time before Steven Spielberg worked his way to World War I. The source material for War Horse seems almost destined for Spielberg territory. Originally a 1982 children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo its themes include childhood dreams and lost innocence as seen through the prism of violence and the torment of war.

Interestingly, the central viewpoint is through the eyes of a thoroughbred named Joey. There is a principal human character, a teenager named Albert Narracott and played with unending earnestness and wonderment by Jeremy Irvine. The early scenes are through Albert’s eyes as he sees the foal born and follows him growing up until he’s brought to auction, where his father (Peter Mullan), a veteran of the Boer War with a bum leg and a drinking problem, overbids on him as a plough horse just to spite his wealthy landlord (David Thewlis). Emily Watson is Albert’s stalwart and sensible mother. Their livelihood in jeopardy if they can’t make their rent, Albert sets his sights on breaking Joey and having him plough a new field. And goshdarnit, wouldn’t you guess that he breaks that horse, and that horse defies the odds and miraculously ploughs that field. But bad luck strikes again and Albert’s father sells Joey to the army, readying themselves for war with Germany.

Oscar Nomination Predictions

Just my predictions for the nominations which will be announced tomorrow morning. After the announcement I'll be back with commentary.

A difficult category to accurately predict given the fluidity in the number of nominees (there can be as few as 5 and as many as 10). I've listed my predictions in my personal order of likelihood. So the first five I would consider locks. I'm going with a field of 8 nominees, but putting money on a possible 9th and 10th spot as well.

5 for sure...
The Artist
The Descendants
The Help
Midnight in Paris
the 6th, 7th and 8th...
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
War Horse
if there's 9...
The Tree of Life
if there's 10...

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Rango Movie Review

I think Gore Verbinski has found his true calling as a director. I don’t know why I didn’t see it from the Pirate of the Caribbean movies, but he is most suited to directing animated adventures. After all, the exploits of Captain Jack Sparrow are nothing but cartoon action using live actors amid a whole bunch of CGI. But last year’s Rango, Verbinski’s first stab at an animated feature, is a marvelous little gem of a movie.

Johnny Depp gives full life and voice to the title character, a chameleon who gets lost in the desert and unwittingly becomes sheriff to a dying town replete with rats, muskrats, lizards, tortoises and other desert vermin. It begins with Rango staging heroic plays and tableaux with literally lifeless supporting characters. This is because he’s a pet in a diorama being transported by car along the highway. It suddenly occurs to him that in order for his stories to be more interesting, to give his eponymous hero more depth of character, there needs to be an ironic twist that flings his protagonist into an unexpected situation. Then what do you know? His cubicle home gets flung from the car and smashes on the highway leaving him to fend for himself in the desert.

Carnage Movie Review

Carnage is an interesting choice for director Roman Polanski. It’s been 25 years since his last comedy, Pirates, and that was a complete flop. He tends toward dramatic thrillers more than anything. Perhaps after the recent troubles he’s had with his arrest in Switzerland and near extradition back to the United States he needed some light-hearted fare to ease the stress. In the French stage farce God of Carnage by playwright Yasmina Reza, who co-wrote the screenplay with Polanski, he found material for his next movie. Among the themes that tie his movies together is an often nihilistic view of a Godless world. The personal tragedies of his life may or may not have contributed to his being drawn to such subject matter, but being stripped of his parents in the Holocaust and losing his wife and unborn child to the murderous Manson family are events that can hardly be ignored when evaluating his work. Though Carnage is a comedic farce, it retains some of the motifs we find in his other work.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo Movie Review

David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, adapted from Stieg Larsson’s book by screenwriter Steven Zaillian, is the second such adaptation of the novel, the first being a Swedish production from two years ago. It represents the growing trend in Hollywood of taking popular and well-crafted films from overseas and reshaping them for American audiences. Fincher’s version, which should really be considered an alternative adaptation of the book more than a remake, is an expertly made, great looking, moody and atmospheric yet totally conventional thriller. Which is sort of like having the New York Philharmonic perform a composition by a middle-schooler with mediocre musical ability. The conductor is brilliant and his orchestra top-notch, but the music itself insists that we ask why such talents were wasted in pursuit of something so pedestrian.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Tree of Life Movie Review

Do yourself a favor if you’re going to watch The Tree of Life: set aside a block of time during which you won’t be interrupted. This is a movie that needs to be experienced in its entirety as single entity. It is not a traditional narrative film. Containing experimental elements, it is more a philosophical exploration of life’s origins and the binary nature of the world we live in. If you’re open to new experiences and ready for a thought-provoking movie, then by all means give it a shot. If, on the other hand, this doesn’t sound like your cup of tea or you read some kind of plot description somewhere that sounded like it’s a good story, then turn back now. This isn’t for you.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Artist Movie Review

They just don’t make ‘em like they used to. So goes the lament of the traditionalist, the old curmudgeon, the aging aficionado who, like me, thinks the state of commercial filmmaking these days is severely lacking in skilled craftsmen to write a screenplay and cut together a coherent film. Perhaps that’s why French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius’s silent drama The Artist has garnered so much attention and accolades. It’s not just a film shot without dialogue in a contemporary style. It’s a complete throwback to classical storytelling techniques used from the 20’s through the 50’s.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Movie Review

If you find yourself asking “What happened?” at the end of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, don’t assume you’re alone. This is not because it’s confounding to the point of being indecipherable, but rather for its insistence on avoiding the clichés of spy thrillers that we’ve grown so accustomed to.

To summarize the plot could take all day. Based on the John le Carré novel, the story is set at the upper echelons of British Intelligence in the thick of the Cold War, when Britain and Russia each had spies working to subvert the other and each likely had moles working in the other’s foreign office. Le Carré knows something about British Intelligence, having worked there for many years before retiring and devoting himself full time to writing spy thrillers. His work is the antithesis to Ian Fleming’s James Bond series, which rely heavily on action and thrills, where Bond’s moral clarity is rarely, if ever, questioned. The characters that le Carré creates live in a world of moral ambiguity. Their conflicts are within their own offices and directed internally much more than toward any foreign power. That this story involves the presence of a well-placed mole at the top of British Intelligence is just par for the course.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

25 Years Ago Movie Review: Woody Allen's Radio Days

This review was originally posted on 20 May 2010. I am re-posting in recognition of its 25th anniversary this month. This year I would like to add one review per month as part of my "25 Years Ago This Month Series" in which Radio Days was featured this month. All the other options from January 1987 are not worth my time.

Whereas watching The Purple Rose of Cairo 12 years on allowed me to bring a new perspective that allowed my appreciation to deepen, the intervening years have not been quite as generous with Woody Allen’s Radio Days from 1987.

Each film is a manifestation of Allen’s deep appreciation for two very different media: film and radio. While the earlier film focuses on the ability of cinema to transport individuals to a fantasy world (or as in the reversal that his film does so brilliantly – to move a fictional character from screen to reality) and has a single central character, the latter has the radio itself as the central figure including the ways it carries information to people, affects individuals in different ways (including the performers), and brings people together emotionally and socially.

Having been born in 1935, Allen would have spent much of his childhood listening to radio programs, either actively or passively. That makes this his most autobiographical film. He doesn’t appear in the film, but provides a voiceover narration for the events depicted and the connections between them. There’s no single main character, but the film centers on the narrator’s family with himself as a child (a young Seth Green) figuring in the occasional scene.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Sherlock Holmes - A Game of Shadows Movie Review

I wish I could remember more than a few vague details about Guy Ritchie’s first Sherlock Holmes so that I could make some kind of pithy comparison between it and its sequel Sherlock Holmes – A Game of Shadows. Unfortunately the first was a mostly forgettable exercise in style over substance. Ritchie’s films have always tended toward a strong emphasis on camera tricks, bits of slow motion spliced together with regular speed action and a cacophony of thudding and popping sound effects to conduct a symphonic overload of the senses. It worked for his first two outings but now grows tiresome.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

We Bought a Zoo Movie Review

Oh Cameron Crowe! Where, oh where did you go? Once upon a time you made movies I really enjoyed. now I have to return to my copies of Say Anything and Almost Famous for a taste of your past glory. Maybe it’s me who’s changed and I no longer fall for the genial affability of your characters wrapped up in kitschy sentiment. Crowe’s latest serving of pop sentimentality is based on a memoir by Benjamin Mee. That the film is “based on a true story” makes me dislike it even more as that’s generally a red flag that it’s trying to absolve itself of criticism by virtue of the fact that it really happened.

We Bought a Zoo is about a thrill-seeking journalist played by Matt Damon who, in the wake of his wife’s death, quits his job and uses his dad’s inheritance money to buy an 18 acre farm that is home to a defunct and dilapidated zoo. His older brother (Thomas Hayden Church, channeling his character from Sideways), drawing on his own experiences, warns Benjamin not to engage in simple escapism. But there wouldn’t be much of a story if he didn’t forge ahead with a project that would ultimately become life-affirming and self-actualizing. And by the way, it will also help his teenage son Dylan (Colin Ford) in the end, a youth whose social troubles are signaled, with no sense of irony whatsoever, by his propensity for creating art that is morbid in nature. “Why can’t he express himself with less disturbing images,” his obtuse art teacher laments. I’m not making this up. This is Crowe’s idea of how to depict a teenager with issues.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Important Cinema Anniversaries Marked in 2012

* The Oscar winners noted are those that received the award in the given year, but were released the previous year

10 Years Ago (2002)

The beginning of Sam Raimi's Spider Man trilogy starring Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst. The film had the biggest opening weekend box office in history to that point and was the only film to gross $100 million in its opening weekend.

Another trilogy also began with Matt Damon in The Bourne Identity.

The year is also notable for seeing the last feature film appearance by Paul Newman in Road to Perdition.

Top grossing film for the year: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or winner: The Pianist
Academy Awards Best Picture winner*: A Beautiful Mind

Notable deaths: directors Billy Wilder and John Frankenheimer; actors Richard Harris and James Coburn

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Adventures of Tintin Movie Review: Tintin, We Welcome You to America

The opening credits of Steven Spielberg’s motion capture animation The Adventures of Tintin is probably the most exciting opening credits since the same director’s Catch Me If You Can. The title designs are similar, both based on the classic Hollywood work of Saul Bass with spritely jazz compositions by the great film composer John Williams. His Tintin opening theme highlights such instruments as are not often heard in orchestras, but which lend themselves credibly to the time period (1930s) and setting (Europe) of the “Tintin” stories. Amid the fluttering flutes, dancing clarinets and staccato brass we hear accordion, harpsichord and bells all featured prominently. It’s a sequence that offers the promise of excitement and adventure to come. It’s been a long time since I had that feeling in the first moments of a movie. Unfortunately, what followed turned out to be a slight letdown.

Monday, January 2, 2012

25 Years Ago This Month: January 1987

The January doldrums. Studios traditionally hold back their best films for December to qualify for year end awards season and then dump their garbage in the first month of the year. It seems 25 years ago was hardly any different. The most surprising thing is that Woody Allen's Radio Days saw a January release and then managed to earn two Oscar nominations a full year later. Apart from the Allen highbrow fare there was a cheap comedy, a cheap teen comedy, two cheap horror/thrillers, and a cheap adventure film desperately trying to capitalize on the success of Indiana Jones.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol Movie Review

With the exception the second (because John Woo is an exceptional action director), I’ve generally been less than impressed by the Mission: Impossible series of films. They tend to be keyed up James Bond knock-offs employing high-tech non-existent gadgets, but going a few steps beyond 007 by staging spectacular stunt and action sequences. What has generally impressed me most is Tom Cruise’s tremendous physicality and propensity for doing nearly all his own stunts. That he is willing to dive in head first (sometimes literally) lends the series a bit of authenticity. It allows the action sequences to be shot at distances that simultaneously reveal the actor’s face and the sheer danger involved. Seldom do I notice use of green screen in these films, a fact I attribute to Cruise’s hands-on control as a producer of the series.