Thursday, November 29, 2012

Anna Karenina Movie Review

The classics of Russian literature don’t tend to have definitive film versions, though it may be that Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina changes that – for a while anyway. There was a Hollywood version in 1948 starring Vivien Leigh, but it has not stood as an important work of cinematic adaptation. Generally speaking, the literary adaptations from Hollywood in the Golden Age offered little in making the works cinematic. They were so often (and still are, for that matter) like filmed stage plays with sumptuous sets and intricately patterned costumes and British actors donning an air of pomposity. These films feel stifled by a desire to be ‘true’ to the material, making for very boring viewing experiences. To read Anna Karenina should not be the same experience as it is to view it.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

It's the busy season

I'm now entering my busiest time of year for movie viewing and trips to the cinema. Back in the day I used to see between 75 and 100 films a year in the cinema, with about half of those coming between November and January. The reason for this is obvious to anyone who follows movies and the awards season: most of the best movies, or the prestigious movies anyway, are released in the final months of the year to qualify for awards and remain fresh in voters' minds. I happen to live in one of the two most important film markets in America, but even still, many awards contenders don't open in my area of Long Island until late January or even early February. I often take a trip into Manhattan to play catch up in early January or for films I simply don't want to wait for.

You see, I have made it a point since 1997 to see everything nominated at the Oscars - from Best Picture to Best Sound Editing and Best Foreign Language Film. This is mainly a way to give some focus to my viewing of new films and to remain relevant at the end of the year, but also because I just love the Oscars. It's the only award in film that I really care about, excepting passing interest in critics groups awards and the awards given at the Cannes Film Festival. Part of this project involves anticipating what I think has a chance of scoring a nomination in some category somewhere, so I end up seeing a lot of crap because maybe it will get a nod for Best Song or Best Costume Design. It also means I see lots of movies that don't get nominated.

What it really means is that by the end of November I've got an unmanageable list of movies to see. If you look at the left hand sidebar showing the last 10 movies I've watched, you'll find all of them are 2012 releases, six seen in the cinema.

So in the next six weeks, expect to see regular reviews of new films, but a relative dearth of older film reviews.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Wreck-It Ralph Movie Review

Wreck-It Ralph feels like it should have been a Pixar Animation Studios project. The premise is exactly the kind of clever idea they latch onto and develop into viable material for an animated feature film. The screenplay by Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee is from a story by Johnston, Rich Moore, and Jim Reardon. Moore, who learned his animation directing chops on “The Simpsons” and “Futurama” – where he likely learned a great deal about handling culturally relevant material – directed. It concerns a video game villain, the titular Ralph, who has grown weary of destroying a building, doing it well, and then looking on as the game’s hero is rewarded with medal upon medal. Thirty years of the same actions over and over will do that to a guy. He desires the chance to be the hero for once, but his Bad-Anon support group (featuring one of the Pac Man ghosts and King Kroopa from Mario Bros.) tell him he can’t change who he is. You see one of the film’s object lessons in the works from here.

25 Years Ago This Month: November 1987

25 years ago this month saw the release of the film that brought Denzel Washington his first Oscar nomination, a nod for Best Supporting Actor in Richard Attenborough's based-on-fact film Cry Freedom. Washington plays South Africa apartheid activist Steven Biko, who was killed under suspicious circumstances while in police custody. Kevin Kline plays his friend, journalist Donald Woods, whose books brought the case worldwide attention.

Dark Shadows Movie Review

I’ll say off the bat that I was primed to severely dislike Dark Shadows, Tim Burton’s updating of the 1960s daytime soap opera about a gothic manor in Maine with strange supernatural occurrences. I have been less than enthusiastic – to put it diplomatically – about most of Burton’s work in the last ten years. When I think back on his career as a director, what I’ve enjoyed most are his films that are straight comedies. He has a real knack for the bizarrely funny and whimsically macabre. I think of Beetlejuice, Mars Attacks!, and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure as his most enjoyable features. Recent films like Planet of the Apes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Alice in Wonderland have been simply odd, overblown and bloated. Then there was the matter of the advertising for Dark Shadows, which I thought made it look like a 1970s kitsch piece featuring yet another in a long and increasingly exhaustive series of offbeat Johnny Depp performances (his eighth in collaboration with Burton). Imagine my immense surprise to find a lighthearted homage to a TV series that Burton and Depp both claim to have loved as children.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Flight Movie Review

Most of us remember that remarkable incident of averting an air disaster when Captain “Sully” Sullenberger successfully ditched a commercial airliner in the Hudson River alongside the Manhattan skyline after losing both engines to a flock of geese on takeoff. That man, otherwise ordinary except that he was suddenly and unexpectedly elevated to hero status for saving the lives of all on board, became an overnight media sensation. The talk shows wanted him for five minutes on air. Magazines wanted to delve into his personal history to find something in his past that led to his calm during what appeared to be certain death for everyone. What if it had turned out that he was drunk or high on drugs at the time? Would that negate the good he did in saving lives? What if the hypothetical alcohol in his system actually helped him relax enough to safely land the plane on the water? How does that change our approach to him as a human being and as a pilot?

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Take This Waltz Movie Review

“New things get old.” So says an older woman to a group of younger women in Sarah Polley’s second directorial feature, Take This Waltz. The scene has three younger women showering, their bodies in full view of the camera, alongside a group of older women for whom time has quite clearly caught up with their bodies, wrinkled and sagging as they are. Yes, new things get old, whether we’re talking about the supple physical beauty of youth or a husband after five years of marriage. One of those young women needs to keep this refrain in mind as she considers an affair with a neighbor.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Lincoln Movie Review

2300 years ago Euclid proclaimed as one of his common notions that things equal to the same thing are also equal to each other. This is a founding principle of geometry and necessary for the beginnings of modern engineering. It seems self-evident, doesn’t it? Of course Thomas Jefferson held it self-evident that all men are created equal and endowed with unalienable rights such as liberty, yet he was himself a slave owner. In Steven Spielberg’s masterful biopic Lincoln, the 16th President and drafter of the Emancipation Proclamation tries to rely on Euclid’s notion to help him in his decisions regarding slavery that will impact the United States and the terrible Civil War that was entering its fifth bloody year.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Cloud Atlas Movie Review

As a film critic I would love to have the luxury of seeing every new film and writing about it. As this is not a paying job for me, I have to pick and choose what I see, mostly based on personal preference, but often choosing films that are popular or important benchmarks. The subject matter of Cloud Atlas hardly interested me, although the filmmakers involved certainly did. The Wachowski siblings, Andy and Lana (formerly Larry) brought us The Matrix trilogy, the first installment of which I think is filled with wonderful vision, a great story, and brilliant use of visual effects. I found Tom Tykwer deeply intriguing as a filmmaker with both Run, Lola, Run and The Princess and the Warrior, although admittedly I know nothing of his work in the past decade. Together these three directors decided to bring David Mitchell’s complicated 2004 novel which involves six stories in different time periods and characters that exist as alternate versions of themselves across time and space.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Skyfall Movie Review: Bond 23

The idea that the James Bond film series needs to be rebooted doesn’t make a lot of sense. Nearly every film is a reboot because there’s virtually no continuity between films. Daniel Craig’s first outing as the superspy 007 in Casino Royale was a reboot of sorts in the sense that many of the things the Bond series had been known for were ousted. Neither Miss Moneypenny nor Q made appearances. With Skyfall, Craig’s third turn as Bond, it becomes clearer that the new series is something akin to a reboot because many of the old comforts have returned.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Sessions Movie Review

One of the universalities of being human, one important thing that sets us clearly apart from the rest of the animals, is the pleasure, both physical and emotional, derived from sex. To make that physical connection with another person is a rite of passage we set for ourselves early on. It’s a mark that nearly every teenager desperately wants to reach. What if you were stricken with polio as a boy, your body left stiffened by a disease that wreaks havoc on your muscles? You’re not exactly paralyzed in the way most of us understand that condition because you have normal sensory perception throughout your body. You just can move anything. What if you reached middle age never having felt the exultation joining together sexually with another person? This is the beginning of the story in The Sessions, a true story about poet and journalist Mark O’Brien, who was also the subject of an Oscar-winning short documentary called Breathing Lessons in the late 90s. O’Brien documented his quest to lose his virginity in an article titled, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate.”

Monday, November 12, 2012

From My Collection - The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring Movie Review

More than anything, I want movies to surprise me. I want to see something that I haven’t seen before, or see an old story presented in a unique way. I want my expectations to be exceeded. I never read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I wasn’t interested as a child. To this day, the genre of fantasy fiction doesn’t particularly appeal to me. In December 2001 I went to see The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring because it was expected to be one of the biggest movies of the year. It was the subject of countless magazine and newspaper articles about the 15 month shooting schedule in New Zealand with Peter Jackson painstakingly creating a world on film that was already known to millions of loyal fans of the novels. I walked out of the theater both exceedingly surprised and deeply moved by both the story and the unbelievable craftsmanship involved in the making of the film.