Friday, October 26, 2012

The Epically Entertaining But Empty CLOUD ATLAS

(Dirs. Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, & Tom Tykwer, 2012)

Early on in this fantastical blend of seven scenarios, Tom Hanks, in probably the most ridiculous-looking get-up of all the characters he portrays here, plays a cockney gangster turned author who throws a snooty literary critic over a high-rise balcony to his death at a book release party because of a bad review.

It’s a funny gutsy scene, even though it’s so transparently saying ‘screw you haters! This is a big ass powerhouse of a cinematic experience that will throw you off a ledge whether you want to go with it or not!’

To its credit, especially with its bloated almost 3 hour running time, I did largely go with the flow. The Wachowskis, best known as the masterminds behind THE MATRIX trilogy, and Tykwer, best known for RUN LOLA RUN, have taken David Mitchell’s best-selling award-winning 2004 novel, and made it into a mega-movie for all genres.

It cuts back and forth through the various story-lines, sometimes with imagery morphing from likewise aesthetics in one shot into the other. With a cast including Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Ben Whishaw, Jim Sturgess, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, and Doona Bae playing multiple roles in cut-up centuries-spanning sequences, the film takes a gaggle of genres - i.e. dystopian sci-fi, post-apocalyptic drama, ‘70s conspiracy thrillers, British comedy, historical mystery, etc. - and puts them into a grinder, and they all come together to form epic entertainment.

Some storylines work better than others, and often the big cosmic gist of it all, you know, that everything ever is connected and that little acts of kindness can ripple through time and affect the future, didn’t really gel like I believe they were intending, but the pure visual splendor, along with the larger-than-life personalities present, still worked wonders.

Possibly Broadbent’s bits were the most likable. Whether as a fuzzy codger of a composer conniving to take credit for a supposedly brilliant piece of music called “The Cloud Atlas Sextet,” actually written by a suicidal gay musician (Whishaw, no stranger to mixed-up mashes of movies as he was one of the Dylans in Todd Haynes’ I’M NOT THERE), or as a present day heavily-in-debt publisher who gets wrongly committed to a nursing home by his brother (Grant), Broadbent’s energy and comic timing made a bigger impression on me than anyone else.

That’s not to say that there are some fine stand-out performances, as Hanks pulls off all his parts with ace acting, Berry puts in her best work since MONSTER'S BALL, and newcomer Bae has an emotional glow to her that fits right into the film’s absorbingly colorful palette.

Often in CLOUD ATLAS, the actors and actresses are unrecognizable because of intense makeup transformations that their change races, genders, and ages. Mostly the effect works, but there are instances that may provoke unintentional laughs when, say, first seeing a heavily freckled Susan Sarandon as an aging Southern Belle, or a Berry as a Blonde German woman. There were a lot of gasps at the screening I saw at the end credits montage that revealed who played what character. One thing is for certain: this film will undoubtedly get an Oscar nomination for Best Makeup.

As much as I was awed by what the Wachowskis and Tykwer put up on the screen, there was a bit of emptiness to the lavish proceedings that was hard to escape. Like in a conversation where you realize that somebody is only pretending to say something deep and meaningful when they really don’t have any new insight to share. Still, the ‘it’s all a show’ mentality makes for some spectacular movies, even if they are the equivalent of big junk food feasts.

Like many of those unhealthy feasts, CLOUD ATLAS is crammed full of empty calories, but that’s probably what makes it so undeniably delicious.

More later...

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS: An Amusingly Meta-Minded Dog Napping Caper

SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS (Dir. Martin McDonagh, 2012)

It’s not often that a film lives up to the potential of its cast and premise, but SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS does both, and it does something even rarer - it does the “meta” thing right.

Martin McDonagh’s first full length feature, 2008’s IN BRUGES, leaned a little towards meta with lines like “This is the Shootout” and it’s finale taking place on a film set, but here, in his bloody brilliant second film, the Irish writer/director really goes for the gusto in narrative deconstruction.

Colin Farrell, who also starred in IN BRUGES, plays an alcoholic Los Angeles-based writer living working on a screenplay called, you guessed it, “Seven Psychopaths.” Farrell happens to have a few questionable friends including the not-playing-with-a-full-deck Sam Rockwell who’s in the dognapping business with the eccentric ascot-wearing Christopher Walken.

Rockwell, whose fearlessly unhinged and hilarious performance steals the movie, makes the mistake of kidnapping the beloved shih tzu belonging to a ruthless gangster (Woody Harrelson), and this sets off a series of murders, conversations, and stories told through flashbacks – all of which Farrell is considering to add to his script.

If you find yourself thinking that the females in the cast (
Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko, and Gabourey Sidibe) are given short shrift, don’t worry, the folks in the film agree as we witness them discuss how Farrell’s female characters are weak.

The finale in the desert (at Joshua Tree National Park) may seem equally as obvious (someone even calls it “the perfect place for a shootout”), but the playful tone doesn’t feel forced and the winks at the audience didn’t make me cringe like in, say, Shane Black’s lesser equally meta-minded KISS KISS BANG BANG (2005).

In the best way possible, there are shades of Tarantino in the hitman banter and comic use of violence, and the Coen Brothers in the increasing absurdity of the situations as they pile on top of each other.

Great grizzled appearances by Harry Dean Stanton and Tom Waits, mostly appearing in the moody recollections that are intertwined with the film’s ongoing scenarios, give “Seven Psychopaths” a bit of gravitas that elevates the material above what usually passes for edgy comedy at the multiplexes these days.

Sometimes it seems as if SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS may be too much in its own comfort zone, but when it’s as cozily clever, and enjoyably in the know as it often is, McDonagh’s movie plays to its strengths more than it reveals its limitations. Or maybe, I was laughing too much to notice them.

More later...

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Tricks Not Treats In The Non-Scary SINISTER

SINISTER (Dir. Scott Derrickson, 2012)

Halloween is right around the corner, so how about an Ethan Hawke horror movie?

In Scott Derrickson’s SINISTER, which is being billed as “from the producer of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY and INSIDIOUS,” Hawke plays one of my favorite film character archetypes: the writer whose first book was a smash, but a decade or so later is struggling with the follow-up.

Here, Hawke’s genre is true crime, and he’s just moved with his wife (Juliet Rylance) and kids (Michael Hall D’Addario and Clare Foley) into a house where a family of four was found hanged from a tree in the backyard. Hawke’s plan is to re-ignite his fame by writing a book about the previous occupants’ murders, and solve the mystery of a missing fifth family member, a young girl named Stephanie.

“Sinister” opens with grainy Super 8 footage of the hanging, and Hawke finds that very film in a box of home movies in the attic, in a canister labeled “family hanging out.” Late at night, drinking whiskey, in his office covered with photos, maps, and newspaper clippings, Hawke watches the movies (other reels contain footage of the killings of other families) over and over looking for clues. His writing process mainly consists of jotting down questions on Post-it notes like “Where is Stephanie?” and “Who took the film?”

Strange, possibly supernatural, things start happening, some which are explained - the 12 year old D’Addario has night terrors and will scream for no reason, a big menacing neighborhood dog in the yard; some which are undoubtedly from a dark realm - ghosts of kids appearing here and there, images of an evil Pagan deity lurking in both Super 8 frames and around Hawke’s house.

Christopher Young’s none-too-subtle score tells us well ahead of time when the next scare is scheduled. With its constant swelling up to each attempted in-your-face jolt, it calls attention to some of the most forced instances of creepiness I’ve ever seen in a horror movie.

One ridiculous sequence has Hawke, wielding a baseball bat while scoping out his dark house, because his projector keeps coming on showing the same film of the family being hanged. Man, I got so sick of seeing that sick footage. Anyway, Hawke’s worried eyes work over time as he searches the shadows, but he misses the apparitions of dead kids that keep appearing around him, but disappear the second he turns around - you know, like in a cartoon.

A couple more clichés are present in the two local cops that show up to Hawke’s property. Fred Thompson (long-time character actor and former U.S. Senator) plays the gruff Sheriff, who’s not a fan of Hawke’s work, and James Ransone as the bumbling Deputy, who turns out to be smarter than expected. At least, there’s a welcome un-credited cameo by Vincent D'Onofrio as a professor of the occult, or some such, even if he only appears on a computer screen.

Hawke does his best to carry this macabre mess, and pulls off a few great hysterical moments, but the vain douchey nature of the character he’s embodying doesn’t cut it as one we should care about. The movie itself isn’t visually interesting - it’s too dark and dreary aesthetically, and there’s not much imagination in shot set-ups.

Derrickson’s (best known for THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE I guess) film fails to frighten so much that when its’ supposed-to-be shocking ending arrives, it pathetically falls flat.

It may be slim pickings for quality horror movies this Halloween, what with a fourth PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, and something called SILENT HILL: REVELATION 3D coming out, but that doesn’t mean one should settle for the embarrassingly non-scary SINISTER.

More later...

Friday, October 12, 2012

Ben Affleck's Über-Arresting ARGO

ARGO (Dir. Ben Affleck, 2012)

Actor/director Ben Affleck more than tops THE TOWN (which topped GONE BABY GONE) in his splendid third thriller, ARGO, a sure-fire Oscar contender that boasts a stellar cast, and an über-arresting story.

Based on a previously little known story about the rescue of six Americans from Tehran during the Iran hostage crisis in 1979, Affleck’s film casts its way back machine spell in the first few minutes starting with the use of Saul Bass’s classic ‘70s Warner Brothers logo (also used this year in Steven Soderbergh’s MAGIC MIKE). A few minutes later, we see authentic looking footage of the storming of the American Embassy in Tehran.

After burning and shredding every document they can, a group of U.S. Diplomats flea the embassy and take shelter at the Canadian ambassador's home nearby.

As CIA technical operations officer Tony Mendez, Affleck brainstorms a plan involving disguising the escapees as a film crew visiting Iran to scout locations for a sci-fi flick named “Argo” so they leave the country under cover.

It’s a plan so crazy, it just might work, or as Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston as a CIA higher-up says to an even higher-up Philip Baker Hall (see what I mean by a stellar cast?): “This is the best bad idea we have, sir. By far.”

To make a fake movie, they need a real producer so Affleck gets Alan Arkin as the fictional Hollywood mogul Lester Siegel, who has some of the best lines as well as the film’s catch-phrase, if you will. John Goodman as make-up artist John Chambers (not fictional) is also on hand, and also good for a few choice lines.

We spend a little quality time with the frightened Americans (Tate Donovan, Scoot McNairy, Clea DuVall, Rory Cochrane, Kerry Bishé, and Christopher Denham) holed up at the Canuck’s makeshift safehouse hoping to avoid detection. They understandably are skeptical of Affleck’s idea, but what choice do they have?

Chris Terrio’s no-nonsense screenplay, based in part on Joshuah Bearman’s 2007 Wired article “How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran,” doesn’t strain as it keeps each point of the well-crafted narrative in check.

At first, it might amusingly look like ANCHORMAN, with the Jimmy Carter-era hairstyles and fashions, but that quickly fades into the great grainy look of the film in which cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, BABEL) suitably evokes ‘70s cinema.

Affleck’s film only falters when the mission is almost aborted before the third act, and our leading man sulks until he gets his mojo back. Throughout ARGO, close-ups of Affleck’s bearded mug dominate the screen, but during this bit they are overly omnipresent.

Otherwise, Affleck has made a great movie that could be seen as a salute to the American can-do spirit, as cheesy as that sounds. But primarily it's a movie made by a guy who really loves movies, and really knows how to sell a story. 

Watching this guy, with his cast and crew succeeding in selling this story makes for one of the most intensely entertaining movies of the year. And not only is ARGO is Ben Affleck's best movie as director, it's his best work as an actor. By far.

More later...

Friday, October 05, 2012

TAKEN 2: The Film Babble Blog Review

TAKEN 2 (Dir. Olivier Megaton, 2012) 

I saw the original TAKEN (2008) for the first time last week, and I found it to be an entertaining yet typical formulaic thriller. It was like a Jason Statham movie, in which an indestructible badass takes out waves of attacking thugs on a quest to track down somebody or something, except that it has Liam Neeson in the Statham role.

In TAKEN, Neeson, as a highly-trained killing machine of a former CIA agent and an obsessively overprotective father, dealt with the kidnapping of his daughter (Maggie Grace) in Paris, France. In TAKEN 2, opening today in the Triangle at a multiplex near you, Neeson and his ex-wife (Famke Janssen reprising her role from the first one) are abducted on a trip in Istanbul, and it’s up to the daughter (Grace also returning) to save them. 

Or rather, assist her father to save the whole family via implausible cell phone instructions, and questionable directions to throw grenades at particular points.

The evil mastermind behind the kidnapping is Rade Šerbedžija, previously a Soviet villain on the popular Fox show 24, plays an Albanian Mafia Chief who wants revenge for the death of his son (killed in the first one by Neeson).

Neeson is able to escape but inexplicably leaves ex-wife Janssen behind, and we’re off to a bunch of action set-pieces sequences in which Neeson barks orders at daughter Grace, especially when she’s behind the wheel in an extended car chase that seemingly tries to jam in every single car chase cliché imaginable - even throwing in the overused oncoming train ploy. 

It’s such a cringe-worthy moment when Neeson, who just knows his daughter (who failed the driver’s test twice) can cross the tracks in time, that it feels like a cheesy parody when the bad guys’ black SUV collides with the train explosively, like we’ve seen so many times before.

Although there are unintentional laughs here and there in this badly shot, horribly edited definition of “unnecessary sequel,” they weren’t enough to keep me from yawning throughout. There are no surprises, or interesting ideas whatsoever in TAKEN 2; it exists only because the first one was a huge hit and its only goal is to try to repeat the formula and hope it pays off again.

To get an idea about how interchangeable these action movie franchise entries are, consider that the first TAKEN was directed by Pierre Morel, who was the cinematographer of THE TRANSPORTER, and worked as a first unit camera operator on TRANSPORTER 2 - actual Jason Statham movies! TAKEN 2 director Olivier Megaton (is that his real name? Awesome if it is) directed TRANSPORTER 3. See what I mean?

Even rabid fans of the first one will find TAKEN 2 to be a big fail of a followup. With hope, maybe now the 60 year old Neeson can finally get over wanting to be a big action star, and go back to, you know, acting?

More later...

Tim Burton Gets Back To Basics In FRANKENWEENIE

FRANKENWEENIE (Dir. Tim Burton, 2012)

Tim Burton’s new full-length animated remake of one of his earliest works, the 1984 live-action short of the same name, is one of his best films in ages. I know, as many cynical cinéastes will undoubtedly think, that’s not saying much, what with all the wretched Johnny Depp re-imaginings that have been cluttering Burton’s career in the last decade, but still FRANKENWEENIE is a demented delight.

In the same black and white stop-motion style and character aesthetics as Burton’s THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS and THE CORPSE BRIDE, we get the tale of a New Holland boy named Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan), whose beloved bull terrier gets hit by a car. Inspired by his intense science teacher (voiced by Martin Landau), Victor rigs his attic so that he can harness the power of lightning to bring his dog, the aptly named Sparky, back to life.

It works, except that Sparky’s stitched together body parts occasionally fall off and he leaks when he drinks water. Victor hides his walking dead dog from his parents (wonderfully voiced by Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara) and the rest of the town, but the secret gets out, and the other kids in the neighborhood start conducting their own life-regenerating experiments.

This results in a finale filled with lovingly placed and witty nods to classics like GODZILLA (a monstrous fire-breathing turtle terrorizes the town walking upright on its back legs), and GREMLINS (wild oversized sea-monkeys), all with the backdrop of the sterile suburbia of Burton’s own EDWARD SCISSORHANDS.

That’s not the only self reference to Burton’s past - Winona Ryder voices the girl next door (whose name happens to be Elsa Van Helsing), the before-mentioned Landau does what he did for Bela Lugosi in ED WOOD in his handling of the very Vincent Price-ish Mr. Rzykruski, the science teacher, and O’Hara, in her first Burton movie since 1988’s BEETLEJUICE, voices three characters, including the ginormous eyed ‘Weird Girl.’

Although I like that the funny and frightening (in a family-friendly way) FRANKENWEENIE is the first black and white (and first stop-motion film) to be released in IMAX 3D, as usual the 3D did nothing for me. But the new fangled presentation doesn’t diminish the charge I got from seeing Burton getting back to basics, and finding his old fire in the process.

More later...

PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER: The Film Babble Blog Review

(Dir. Stephen Chbosky, 2012) 

I related to this film a little, my wife related to it A LOT. 

You see, she went to high school in the same era that the film is set (early ‘90s), cherished the same music (The Smiths, New Order, Cocteau Twins) that the central characters cherished, and went to the ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW repeatedly, again, just like these kids.

Adapted and directed by Stephen Chbosky, from his 1999 young adult novel, PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, concerns the coming of age of a high school freshman in Pittsburgh named Charlie (a well cast Logan Lerman). Charlie partly tells the story through letters he’s writing to an anonymous friend, in which we learn that he’s badly in need of friends.

Our shy protagonist soon finds them in the form of a couple of seniors: the quick-witted and openly gay Patrick (Ezra Miller, so showing a different side than in WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN), and the shorthaired Sam (Emma Watson), who will surely be labeled a “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” by many critics.

With Charlie, there’s more going on than just his desire to be accepted and fit in. Casually, at his first party ever, Charlie mentions to Sam that his best friend shot himself. There’s also haunting memories of an Aunt who died (Melanie Lynskey), so we see that Charlie’s development has been sorely stunted.

Charlie pines for Sam, but she’s seeing a pretentious art student douche (Reece Thompson). Charlie finds himself in an unwanted relationship with another fellow outcast student (Mae Whitman from Parenthood), which amounts to some amusingly awkard (and truthful feeling) scenes, while Patrick deals with a secret romance with the quarterback of the football team (Johnny Simmons).

Paul Rudd has a nice turn as a sympathetic teacher who gives Charlie books to encourage his interest in writing, as do Dylan McDermott and Kate Walsh as Charlie’s concerned but clueless parents.

Although at times it feels like a big screen after school special (props to it totally owning up to that in a throwaway line), or a self conscious homage to the films of John Hughes, Chbosky’s finely tuned drama doesn’t shy away from darkness as it nails a time before cell phones and iPods, when teenagers actually talked to each other. 

They made mix-tapes for each other of what they passionately proclaimed to be “good music,” and bonded through songs on the radio that if they didn’t catch the title or artist they couldn’t easily Google.

My wife said that it was like seeing her high school years made into a movie. It resonated with me too, albeit not as strongly, but it struck me as funny, touching, and sincere in its depiction of friendship. 

Despite the technological advances, the themes of PERKS are universal, and should resonate with the kids today too. That is, if they can tear themselves away from texting.

PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER opens today in the Triangle at the Colony Theater in North Raleigh, and at Crossroads 20 in Cary.

More later...

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

SAMSARA: The Film Babble Blog Review

Now playing in the Triangle at the Colony Theater in Raleigh, the Galaxy Cinema in Cary, and the Chelsea Theatre in Chapel Hill:

SAMSARA (Dir. Ron Fricke, 2011)

For the first twenty minutes or so, I was entranced by the visual power of this new documentary by director and cinematographer Ron Fricke, best known for BARAKA (1992). 

With no narration, and no titles, it felt ideal to be alone with my thoughts being engulfed into sweeping shots of exotic locales, intense close-ups of people and historic art, and the infinite horizons of endless landscapes. From footage filmed all over the world (twenty-five countries on five continents) over five years, Fricke was weaving together a lyrical look at our world right now, a sort of cinematic status update, and I was digging it.

But then it cuts to a French performance artist (Olivier de Sagazan) sitting at a desk in suit and tie. Sagazan smothers his face in grey clay, applies red and black makeup, then wiping all the gunk away into his hair, and repeating the process crazily over and over. It’s disturbing, and didn’t appeal to me, yet I get how it’s supposed to fit - Sagazan’s piece is called “Transfiguration,” and samsara means the ‘eternal cycle of life’ so it shows that Fricke’s splices of life can be beautiful, but can also be very messy.

Many of the locations are instantly recognizable - some might take a minute, some may have to be looked up later. When taking in the lavish photography of such iconic landmarks as the Pyramids of Giza, the Vatican, and Dubai's Burj Khalifa (the tallest building in the world, which was heavily featured in the last MISSION IMPOSSIBLE), I thought of how many films use these same locations, but only in establishing shots - they don’t explore them and make them wash over you the way SAMSARA does.

And then there’s some more disturbing stuff – a sequence that takes us from a food processing plant where we see chickens getting slaughtered by a combine harvester, to the flow of shoppers at a Costco, and we visit a Burger King with fat Americans stuffing their faces. Again, yes, the cycle of life is often disgusting, but can we please get back to the sweeping shots of gorgeous scenery, please?

I’m only kidding, because much of the material dealing with ugliness is moving and honest. I just preferred seeing Buddhist monks making a sand mandala, or the close to concluding time lapse aerial footage of thousands of Muslim pilgrims circling the holiest shrine in Islam, the Qaaba. As the camera pulls back the sped-up swirl of humanity that can be seen from a great distance is staggering and somewhat surreal.

The accompanying soundtrack by Michael Stearns, Lisa Gerrard, and Marcello de Francisci really gives Fricke’s collection of immaculate imagery a pulse and a heartbeat, which made my feet tap at times.

The vividly colorful SAMSARA is a movie I'd soon see again on the big screen, but only under two conditions: 1. If I could see it in 70mm, the way it’s supposed to seen. 2. If I could sit it a big comfy recliner so that I could lean forward during the pretty parts, and lean back to get some distance during the parts that are hard to watch.

More later...