For Your Information: Star Ratings Out Of Five (★★★★★) Stars

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol


3.5/5

I know Tom Cruise likes doing his own stunts, but that couldn’t have been him hanging off the side of Dubai’s Khalifa Tower—the tallest building on earth, standing at 2,723 feet. Halfway through Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, the leader of an elite spy unit called IMF, spider crawls up the side of the massive edifice with merely gripped boots and some faulty suction gloves for assistance. Only a mile away, a stand storm portentously forms on the horizon.

On an IMAX screen, that sequence—complete with a bird’s eye camera tilt that showcases Hunt’s vertiginous, mile-high POV—is one of the most exhilarating sequences of the entire year. The fourth film in Tom Cruise’s successful franchise based on the famous television show, Ghost Protocol is one of the only top-notch action movies of 2011—not because its story or set pieces are anything particularly brilliant, but simply because it has a story and good set pieces, and, for once, they actually seem to fit logically together. That’s more than I can say for that 2½-hour robot and car commercial called Transformers.

Directed by Pixar and Simpsons’ alum Brad Bird, the movie is instilled with much of the same adventurous and spirited methodology of his animated picaresque The Incredibles: from the highly imaginative opening credit sequence—in which a lit bomb fuse zigzags mercurially across the screen—to the plethora of futuristic gadgets Hunt has available for any precarious situation. Composer Michael Giacchino (who also did the music for Bird’s Pixar movies) interweaves the famous opening notes of the Mission: Impossible theme with The Incredibles’ blaring horn section for a truly rousing spy score.

The plot supporting all the pageantry is a serviceable Bond rehash: a madman steals nuclear launch codes from the Kremlin so he can instigate global war by firing on the United States under the guise of Russian hostility. Ethan’s team—including the foxy Jane (Paula Patton), the tech guy Benji (Simon Pegg, displaying his crack comedic timing), and the mysterious analyst Brandt (Jeremy Renner)—must stop the launch, even though the Kremlin attack has been mistakenly blamed on them, leading the president to disavow their operations and Interpol to brand them international terrorists. The mission takes them from Moscow to Dubai to Mumbai, India. Each location has some new information to obtain, new people to kill, and a new BMW to drive around in.

Behind the wheel of this spectacle, Tom Cruise, now 50, still has enough charisma and energy to keep it running smooth. And unlike Willis or Schwarzenegger, who always seemed to be both inside and outside their own movies, playing shamelessly to the audience, Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is a genuine man on a mission. There’s no irony in the performance; his focus and intensity injects the movie with pulsing adrenaline. In the movie, Hunt and his team are rogue agents; they must work under the radar and incognito. But it’s Tom Cruise, with a little help from his director and costars, who makes hanging one-handed off the side of the world’s tallest building look less meretricious than truly death-defying. Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol is an action movie without a net.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Young Adult


3.5/5

Young Adult, a not-so-Romantic Comedy starring Charlize Theron as a 35-year-old former prom queen who tries to recapture her youth by winning back her high school sweetheart, reteams writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman for the first time since Juno. The reunion isn’t cause for as much celebration as a little coldblooded high school nostalgia. The film’s an occasionally amusing, but mostly wistful character study about the lifelong wounds of adolescents.

Whether you were that awkward geek everyone picked on, that queen bee social butterfly whose best years ended at graduation, or anyone in between, high school certainly left a lingering emotional sting. Diablo Cody’s previous project, Jennifer’s Body, was a Megan Fox vixen-vehicle all the way, but Cody’s snarky Gen-Y insights were like specks of sunlight on an otherwise rainy day. She used carnivorous she-beasts devouring each other’s boyfriends as a metaphor for “mean girl” cattiness and backstabbing.

With Jennifer’s Body, Juno and now Young Adult, Cody seems fascinated with high school’s particularly cruel social mechanisms. Theron plays Mavis Gary, the most beautiful and popular girl back in the day, whose life has since become a series of disappointments. Her marriage was a bust. Her Minneapolis apartment is a pigsty and she passes out drunk every night still in her clothes. She ghost writes sassy teen-lit novels about a fictional high school called Waverly Place—essentially so she can vicariously relive her glory years through the witchy antics and egocentric stream-of-consciousness of a blonde, spoiled cheerleader named Kendall. Despite her malcontent, Mavis finds comfort in the fact that she managed to escape the anonymous hick town of her youth—Mercury, MN—and move to the big city.

When she finds out her old jock boyfriend, Buddy (Patrick Wilson), has welcomed a new baby with his young bride, Mavis spontaneously packs up and drives home to Mercury for the first time in years. Theron, a richly expressive actress of Kim Novak-type beauty, plays Mavis with a permanent sneer and arrogance that’s ironic in its self-delusion. She’s all bottled-up insecurity and lost-in-the-past dislocation. She hides from reality via never-ending episodes of Kendra, The Kardashians, and Jersey Shore—shows about overgrown high school girls—and dotes on a bouncy pocket pooch that would look perfect next to Paris Hilton. When she dolls herself up to go meet Buddy at a local restaurant, she does it with an obsession and religiosity that looks both cleansing and flagellating.

Pedicures, manicures, facials, and suffocating dresses: Mavis is a plastic princess hiding a miserable drunkard. And she’s only fooling herself. After arriving back in town, she is horrified to learn that Buddy is actually happy in his simple life. She hatches an insidious plan to steal him back. Interestingly, her only ally in town is a toy collecting moonshiner and outcast from school named Sam (Patton Oswalt), who she once knew only as “the hate crime guy”. While Mavis’s adolescent trauma causes her to neurotically pluck bald spots in her head, Sam was actually physically assaulted by classmates and left crippled for life.

The pairing of the two feels like a bit of a contrivance: why would a woman stuck in a regressive state of immature high school snobbery be caught dead with a loser like Sam? Nevertheless, it ends up being one of the film’s sharpest and most heartfelt gestures—that yesteryear’s alpha dog and runt could reconvene years after the fact and come to find that they are kindred spirits in more ways than they could ever imagine. In the film’s most astute and gratifying scene, Mavis partially redeems her past cruelties through Sam, in an impossibly fragile moment in which both are finally on the same level.

Adversely, Young Adult isn’t too interested in character arcs, absolutions, quick fixes or easy answers. Cody thankfully tones down the quirky dialogue and edgy characters of her normal universe; instead, she focuses on the razor fangs and protective shells of the real human animal. With leftovers of Up In The Air’s melancholic solitude, the final minutes of Reitman’s film have a bravely authentic and appropriately anti-Hollywood nihilism. Young Adult isn’t about seeking forgiveness or Amy Heckerling’s “makeovers of the soul”; it’s about 21st century cynicism transmitted through a post-grad’s distended adulthood anxiety. To a new generation of young adults who are finding it harder and harder to grow up, this smart, but acrimonious comedy-drama seems to shout out in Mavis’ own agitated inflection: Life’s Tough, So Deal!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

My Week With Marilyn


3.5/5

Portraying Marilyn Monroe, one of the most famous Hollywood stars of all time, is maybe as difficult a task as any actress could attempt. It’s not just that Monroe was—and still is—an enduring pop culture icon, it’s that her infamous persona is so defined and ingrained in the collective pop culture consciousness, that any woman attempting the role has the tricky job of playing her to a tee while never mocking her singular ticks and expressions.

In My Week With Marilyn, Michelle Williams’ splendid performance as the late cinematic demigoddess is more than just girlish giggles, sultry baby talk, hips, lips, hair and a walk like “Jell-O on springs”. The performance is a profoundly inquisitive one. Sure, Monroe was a great beauty, movie star, and icon—but was she the ditz, the floozy, or the sickly pill popper that history has condemned her as? If by the end of the film you’re not sure you quite understand who Monroe was, don’t fret. You’re not supposed to. She’s eternally an enigma, always a mystery to her colleagues, fans, and, most of all, herself.

Based on the real-life memoirs of a young 3rd Assistant Director named Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), My Week With Marilyn tells of Monroe’s eight-week film shoot in London in 1956, while making a “light comedy” called The Prince and the Showgirl. When the film begins, Colin is watching one of Monroe’s signature, ultra-glam, man-meat musical numbers on the big screen, professing in voice over his immediate admiration of the famous sex symbol. After a frenzy of anticipation for her arrival in the U.K., the star glowingly maneuvers down the airplane steps and instantly reincarnates the plasticity of her on screen character with flirtatious quips and fetching grins and giggles.

That’s the Marilyn that everyone desires and expects, but who is she really? Working on the film as well is actor, director, and Shakespeare enthusiast Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh). Branagh gives an appropriately histrionic performance as the famed British thespian, balancing awe at Monroe’s on screen radiance and frustration with her unprofessionalism. Julia Ormand plays Olivier’s lifelong love, Vivien Leigh, an aging legend dealing with her own career-twilight insecurities (as well as occasional flashes of her notorious manic depression).

Much of the story revolves around the tumultuous production of Olivier’s film—including the genial participation of Judi Dench’s patient and motherly Dame Sybil Thorndike—but for one short week, Monroe takes Colin under her wing, effectively making him her impromptu beau, pet and guardian. He spends as much time coaxing her out of medicated comas as enjoying her effervescent disposition. The narrative, ultimately, becomes one about the hard lessons of first love learned by a young man whose first love happened to be Marilyn Monroe. Not that she could possibly return the sentiment, as the cute wardrobe artist (Emma Watson) precociously warns. But the film’s tone has an air of loving remembrance, evoking the feeling that perhaps Colin, in those few short days, came closer to knowing the real Marilyn Monroe than anyone before or since.

In no time though, Marilyn is back to pleasing her public. The two take a tour of Windsor Castle and run across a cheering section of maids, butlers and cooks. Monroe sweetly whispering to Colin, “Shall I be her?” before putting on an ostentatious modeling display for her admirers. The suggestion is that the star was always playing a part. Michelle Williams does about as brilliant a job depicting the complex movie star as I could imagine. The resemblance between the two—after the hair and makeup applications—is not dead ringing, however, as is the case with any good biopic, Williams inhabits the role completely, and the audience becomes absolutely convinced that in the universe of the film: she is Marilyn Monroe. That’s the best praise I can give.

The movie itself begins to show stitching, once the initially erratic pacing slows to a halt in the third act. Still, Williams is stunning, and her performance digs at the core of Hollywood mythology. Who are the celebrities we love? There are the fictional characters they portray on screen, the characters they play for tabloids and interviews, and then there are the real human beings hidden somewhere underneath it all. In Monroe’s case, it’s melancholic to think that maybe even she wasn’t sure who that was. One of the major themes of the film—something that bugs the heck out of Mr. Olivier—is the question about whether Monroe was really an actress or just an inherently magnificent movie star. To paraphrase Ms. Williams herself: Marilyn was indeed a great actress—and the greatest character she ever played was Marilyn Monroe.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Shame


3/5

Director Steve McQueen’s sophomore effort, Shame, is an admirably bold character study that lacks the uncompromising power and indelibility of his inaugural picture, Hunger. Both movies star the brilliant Michael Fassbender (X-Men: First Class), but while 2008’s Hunger had the actor playing a political prisoner so filthy and emaciated he looked like a victim of some medieval inquisition, Shame cleans him up. His Patrick Bateman style slicked hair, yuppie scarves, and Manhattan suits make him appear more presentable, but he’s not necessarily any cleaner.

An expose of a rich, urban sex addict, Shame finds Fassbender’s Brandon staring down cuties at work, bars, and on the subway like a sexual Superman. Women melt in his very presence, and when he’s not taking them home, he’s browsing through his library of porno magazines or adding to his work computer’s already contaminated hard drive. But in his contemporary Park Avenue anomie, such magnetism and obsession is a curse. It finds him—much like Marcello of La Dolce Vita—dissatisfied and void of any meaningful human relationships.

Brandon’s vulnerable lounge-singing sister (Carey Mulligan) makes a surprise visit, starts squatting at his apartment, and becomes an all-around thorn in his side. What use is she? Their relationship must stay platonic after all. The film becomes about the bottomless, downward shame-spiral that inevitably accompanies Brandon’s perverted lifestyle. The script takes on the staples of the Drug Addict Genre as Brandon pursues stronger highs and leaves his poor, depressed baby sis teetering on the edge, alone.

McQueen’s film delivers an unflinching portrait of a disease that’s only recently caught the public’s attention (with Tiger Woods’ extramarital exploits and all). Like in his debut, McQueen must be lauded for his bravery: what other filmmaker would have the guts to put the audience through Mulligan’s entire five-minute-long, breathy rendition of Sinatra’s New York, New York? What other filmmaker would force us to endure a seven-minute-long orgy sequence that has had any and all eroticism effectively sucked from it by the scene’s sad context? The bombardment of NC-17 material and determined artfulness is indeed numbing—but perhaps that’s the ultimate intention. Shame doesn’t find the ironic beauty in the inhuman like Hunger did. In fact, it achieves the opposite, finding the ugliness and neutrality in pleasure and sex. Unlike the former film, Shame hasn’t haunted my dreams much—yet it continues a pattern of courageous, ardent and sober films from an exciting new artist.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Hugo


3.5/5

Hugo is that one near-great movie that comes around every year. It’s a film that for all intents and purposes could have—or maybe should have—been a masterpiece. Martin Scorsese’s Parisian period picture is enchanting, mesmerizing, gorgeous to look at from start to finish, makes brilliant use of 3-D, and pleas rather admirably for preservation and rediscovery of silent cinema. And somehow, it remains slightly uneven, esoteric, and self-indulgent. The result is a damn good film that can’t quite shape into a great one.

Based on Brian Selznick’s best-selling book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the story begins in 1930, and Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is the orphan fixing clocks behind the scenes at Paris’s opulent Grand Central Station. Unbeknownst to everyone, Hugo scurries around the station’s many secret rooms, tunnels, corridors, and catacombs like a mischievous mouse on the hunt for cheese. But Hugo keeps the station ticking; he’s the fulcrum, the mechanism that churns and moves the station’s many elaborate operations.

The film’s overarching visual motif—to which Scorsese’s 3-D camera gives tremendous dimension and life—is to make Hugo’s world appear as if part of one big machine. Paris itself—from fantastical starry-night cityscapes—becomes an engine, always spinning and turning with the many cars, flickering lights, and busy people that course through it. Hugo himself is a wiz with mechanical toys and gadgets, and he confidently moves around the station’s gear-shifty playground. When he’s not stealing croissants or bottles of milk—or evading orphan snatchers who round up lost kids like the Pound—he’s seeking spare parts to rebuild a broken old robot (or “automaton”) left to him by his late father (Jude Law), a museum curator.

Through the faces of the station’s copious clocks, the lonely Oliver Twist stares down at the mezzanine’s many travelers and shopkeepers. There’s the kindly flower girl (Emily Mortimer), whose romance with Sacha Baron Cohen’s vindictive station security guard (Cohen’s clownish Clouseau and his inquisitive, pointy-eared pooch provide the film with both its antagonists and comic relief) is thwarted only by his insecurity. The portly Monsieur Frick (Richard Griffith) can’t get a word in edgewise with the genial Madame Emilie (Frances De La Tour) because of her nipping little dog. Labisse (Christopher Lee) owns a very resourceful bookstore, and one can tell that the crotchety old toymaker, Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley), is hiding a secret that has something to do with Hugo’s automaton, and, possibly, the very beginning of French cinema. His goddaughter Isabel (Chloe Moretz) is an adventurous bookworm, and she and Hugo team up to solve the mystery.

A few of the scenarios play out like independent short vignettes. Hugo becomes the innocuous voyeur—in an allusion to Hitchcock and movie patronage itself—as he gazes down at the romantic exploits of strangers. Papa Georges’ secret past quickly moves front and center as Scorsese sweetly, albeit indulgently, takes time to trace the entire heritage of narrative filmmaking—from the Lumiere Brothers to Griffith to Keaton. The director has long been a proponent of lost film recovery and redistribution. The second half of Hugo provides a vehicle for him not only to peddle his belief that old movies are wonderful (which they are), but to reconfigure some of the earliest films ever made into glorious 3-D—officially linking the past and future of movies in one lovely stroke. The gesture is undeniably respectable and considerably passionate. Yet it comes at the cost of his story.

The tale of Hugo, his tragic past and his mysterious automaton is muscled out by Scorsese’s lush but overly determined cinematic harangue. The two stories just never quite link up. As the true cinema lover that I am, Scorsese’s assertion that movies are a thrilling discovery is close to my heart. When I first started exploring classic films it was like I opened a treasure chest of rare, eclectic gems. The director’s first foray into 3-D family filmmaking comes close to recreating that magic, but it is maybe a bit too reverent to become a classic in its own right. To the director’s credit, he brings that train station to vivid, pulsing life in ways unseen in movies this year. Stanley Kubrick said, “If it can be dreamt or imagined, it can be filmed.” Hugo’s mise-en-scene looks as if it was transplanted intact from Scorsese’s own subconscious. It was Jean Luc Godard who said, “Cinema is the train not the station.” Yet, the station of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo longs to capture the medium in all its wonder. The movie perhaps overreaches, but it’s a cinematic dream factory the famous cinephile can certainly be proud of.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Skin I Live In


4/5

Throughout his career, Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar has always been fascinated with gender and identity. His films often explore the differences between the outer-self—superficial, malleable—and the inner-self—the core of true human existence. His masterpiece, All About My Mother, exalted men who weren’t afraid to look like women—regardless of political or societal prejudice. The Skin I Live In, a macabre but elegant work of Spanish cinema, is the director’s most perverse and disturbing rumination yet.

With echoes of Vertigo, The Crying Game, and Frankenstein reverberating through the halls and rooms of a mad dermatologist’s isolated abode (a sumptuous Spanish villa with a private clinic), the film is like a chamber drama dreamt up by David Cronenberg. The main inhabitant is Antonio Banderas’ Robert Ledgard, a scientist looking to perfect face transplants on burn victims. His Igor is the matronly housekeeper Marilia (Marisa Paredes); the Monster is a ruby lipped, snow-white beauty named Vera (Elena Anaya). Adorning a skin-tight unitard, she’s a captive in a studio apartment at the top of the stairs.

Robert’s lair is a museum of classical and abstract portraits: nude women’s unblemished flesh, they are paragons of human formal excellence. Flat screen surveillance monitors hang among them, framing Robert’s “creation” like real-life, high-tech tableaus. Vera, whose room looks like four white halls of blank canvass, is referred to as a patient, but is less a science experiment than a twisted work of art. In many ways, the film is Almodovar’s commentary on art itself—synthetic and hand-made, Man’s feeble attempt at the divine. Stylistically, Almodovar works with longing orchestral crescendos and a miscellany of strategically placed props, chosen wardrobe articles and applied make-up touches, bold and variant hues—think the matador’s cloak or Carmen’s blouse, the grandeur of opera made cinematic.

While he doesn’t possess Polanksi or Hitchcock’s gift for tension, Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In does work in mysterious ways. In flashback, the film’s many questions get not-so-pleasant answers. Why does Vera look so much like Robert’s deceased wife? How did one night several years ago at a wedding put the whole chain of events into motion? And, most curiously, who (or what) is Vera? Part revenge saga, part mad-scientist horror movie, and part tragic love story, The Skin I Live In is about identity, sexuality, possession, obsession, fate’s cruel irony, and science’s ersatz aesthetics. Most importantly, it forces each viewer to gaze nakedly at his own perception of beauty. The film is ultimately about the masks we all wear, and the ones we oh so artfully (or perhaps—gulp—surgically) force onto others.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Like Crazy


2/5

Like Crazy is Twilight with jump cuts. That may sound a tad unfair, but let me break it down for you: two post-grad lovebirds—he’s an LA native and she’s a British exchange student—idiotically decide to disregard the girl’s expired student visa and spend an extra summer shacking up in Santa Monica. When Immigration rain on their parade—refusing to the let her return to the States, even for a visit—the two (Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones, if you were wondering) spend the rest of the film moping about being stuck on separate continents. When they’re together, like after he flies 15 hours across the Atlantic just to see her, they continue moping about the fact that his visits are so short (cue the violins). So I’m sorry to report, there are no vampires, but there’s still enough listless pining and longing for five Twilight movies.

As for the jump cuts, director Drake Doremus sprinkles so many New-Wave flourishes on the proceedings you may think you’re watching art—or possibly a Levi’s commercial made by somebody who’s really mastered that Final Cut Pro transition function. A rapid pictorial montage shows two months of bird’s eye bedroom spooning. Match cuts, time elapse sequences, Indie pop-rock piano notes, and relentless scenes of slightly overexposed youths striking poses make up the panoply for a film so low-key it’s somnambulating. Best Actress Academy Award nominee Jennifer Lawrence shows up as a blonde, Valley Girl temptress, but I hardly noticed. There’s less acting here than at an Abercrombie photo shoot. The ultimate message is one about puppy love being all facile romance and real relationships being difficult to maintain—something adults usually understand. But all I saw was a couple of irresponsible children soberly whining about the consequences of their poor decisions. This is kid’s stuff drenched in fashionably pale sunlight. At least if they were vampires they’d mercifully burn up in the UV rays.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Muppets


3.5/5

The Muppets represent something wonderful in the world: the belief that life can be silly, irreverent and carefree. In The Muppets, a reboot that doesn’t involve a genetically mutated crime fighter of any kind, Kermit and Co. have to save their studio from an evil oil baron named Tex Richman (Chris Cooper). But it becomes clear in the inevitable celebrity fundraiser climax, when a gaggle of chickens break into a spirited rendition of Cee Lo Green’s “Cluck You”, that the plot is beside the point. The Muppets take the very idea of drama (or dramatic cliché) and blow its skirt up.

A lively and hilarious musical comedy, The Muppets centers on Walter, a misplaced and starry-eyed kid (who’s really a puppet) and world-class Muppets fan. His brother Gary (Jason Segel, who also co-wrote) and Gary’s girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams, who’s in giddy, wide-eyed Enchanted mode) accompany him from their small town (literally called Small Town) to Hollywood. While touring, the three make pilgrimage to the Muppets’ studio and see it has become a ramshackle and dilapidated pile of bricks. They overhear Richman’s dastardly plan to drill on the lot for oil (followed by fits of “maniacal laughter”). With Kermit’s help, they assemble the old gang in a last gasp attempt to make 10 million dollars and avoid foreclosure.

With economic crises and changing times, the group’s popularity has declined over the years. The members have scattered like sticks in the wind. Fozzy’s headlining a tribute band in Reno called The Moopets. Animal’s in anger management therapy with Jack Black. Gonzo owns a plumbing parts company. And Miss Piggy is now a Parisian fashion mogul a la Miranda Priestly with a snooty British secretary, played in a cameo by, of course, Emily Blunt.

The pig diva and her frog prince have grown apart, but everyone reunites for the adventure. Ripping relentlessly on their own nostalgia or Hollywood clichés (traveling by map is the fastest way to travel), the movie’s chock full of absurdly clever gags. It’s self-aware to the max. A big-production musical number ends with all the studio-hired dancers collapsing from exhaustion. There’s inanity to the point of being surreal. Why exactly is Adams’ schoolteacher fixing the battery on a Volkswagen Bug in the middle of her classroom full of fourth graders? On more than one occasion, the script calls attention to important plot points and broadly parodies story setups, like that Volkswagen. (You can bet her electrical skills will come in handy later on.)

That’s the Muppets’ style. Nothing is beyond reproach or satire. Yet there’s a Simpsons-esque playfulness to every jab—no harm is meant and no offense is taken. And you have to love all the cameos: from Black and Blunt to Whoopie Goldberg and Neil Patrick Harris—even Selena Gomez and Modern Family’s Rico Rodriguez make appearances (both claim to have never heard of The Muppets in a clever bit acknowledging the troupe’s antiquity).

I remember seeing The Muppet Christmas Carol as a small child in 1992. It was the first Muppets film made after creator Jim Henson’s passing, and the shtick felt a bit dusty even then. These days—with CGI movies, XBOX video games, and Smart Phones giving people moment-to-moment stimulation—The Muppets’ hand stitched charisma is starting to feel more and more like a thing of the past. Admirably, Jason Segel and director James Bobin sought to give the loveable characters another—long overdue—big-screen hurrah.

Thank goodness they did, because The Muppets is a joyful celebration of what was, is, and, hopefully, will eternally remain: the idea that laughter, as the movie proclaims, is the third greatest thing on earth after babies and ice cream. Amen to that! Or should I say—Mahna Mahna.

Arthur Christmas


3/5

It seems there are innumerable different ways to spin a Santa Claus movie. The story of Jolly Old Saint Nick has been told straight up (Santa Clause Is Coming To Town), been grounded in courtroom realism (Miracle on 34th Street), been rehashed into holiday hybrid (The Nightmare Before Christmas), been R-rated (Bad Santa), and been turned into boardroom pun (The Santa Clause, get it?). What can Arthur Christmas, an animated “the night before…” globetrot with the big guy’s klutzy but loveable son Arthur, have that’s new and different? It turns out, just enough.

On Christmas Eve, Operation Christmas commences with an army of ninja-quick elves lowered from a stealth, Enterprise-looking airship onto sleepy gentile neighborhoods. Commanding the vessel is Santa’s oldest son Steve Claus, a militaristic head-honcho and next in line to wear the hat. Christmas has been given a twenty-first century boost with technological gizmos and gadgets (naughty and nice body scanners, for instance) and digitized information (elves sit at the North Pole watching the progress of gift delivery like NASA guiding a mission to Mars). Santa himself is now merely a figurehead, a brand name, a face fronting an empire run with robotic efficiency, but depersonalized detachment.

Sure, the gifts get delivered faster than ever before—but where’s the sleigh, the rain deer, the ho-ho-ho’s? Where’s the heart? Gleefully sitting in the basement of the North Pole’s underground command post is where; Arthur Claus is the letter handler, spending his days reading Christmas wishes and writing replies to kids worldwide. He’s got an innocent’s mirth and a black sheep’s clumsiness yet is so dedicated to his job that he remembers every child and every letter to the word. When an ambivalent little Brit named Gwen gets forgotten during the night’s speedy hullabaloo, Arthur along with his retired grandfather (called Grandsanta) and a gift wrapping virtuoso elf named Bryony bust out the old sleigh—now considered a relic—in order to get the tot her bicycle before sunrise.

Interestingly, most other films of this sort would choose to make Gwen somehow unique, pitiable even, worthy of the effort—maybe an orphan or a deployed troop’s lonely daughter. In Arthur Christmas, the point is that she’s perfectly average, a stand-in for all kid kind. Because Arthur’s a fervent believer in that pesky old cliché—you know, “the spirit of Christmas”—no child can be overlooked. His holiday optimism is assuredly wholesome and sweet, and will probably knock some sense into his feckless pap and glory-hogging brother as well.

Part of me understands that Christmas movies are expected to have that kind of humdrum conflict and some very sappy messages. And yet, the curmudgeon in me still wishes the stakes were a little higher. So what if the bike never makes it under the tree? Gwen’s parents will buy her one anyway and stamp Santa’s name on it. An orphan doesn’t get that kind of insurance claim (hence the sympathy gimmicks); the present would have importance beyond Arthur’s devotion. Yet, Arthur Christmas has charming enough characters and inventive enough ideas—especially the one about Christmas becoming so corporatized and technology reliant that even Santa has grown impersonal—to overcome its genre predictability and a lack of the compelling drama we’ve come to expect from animated films since the emergence of Pixar’s gold standard.

I guess it’s silly of me to criticize a Christmas movie for being too, I don’t know, Christmassy. But I wasn’t held throughout by the film’s festive weightlessness. During certain stretches, my eyes began to droop. Of course, I’d be a real Grinch if I didn’t have fun watching sleighs fly faster than the speed of sound, elves wrap presents while suspended in air, and a coot Grandsanta rave about the good old days, when he didn’t need GPS navigation—just magic. Arthur Christmas delivers just enough of it, gift-wrapped and on time.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Descendants


3.5/5

George Clooney is one of the most prolific Hollywood stars. As either director or actor, his films come quick and fast, and are never uninteresting. The Descendants, however, Indie auteur Alexander Payne’s slice-of-life picture that stars Clooney as a stressed out Hawaii lawyer, is more than merely interesting. With a few acting revelations, a perfect tonal blend of comedy and drama, and some sprightly island flavor, Clooney and Payne’s collaboration is always entertaining, often wise, and sincerely heartfelt.

The first shot is a close up of a pretty blonde woman. Accompanied by ocean spray and motor noises, she sits pleasurably on a speedboat. The shot fades too soon to see how the ride turns out. Alas, in the next scene she’s lying in a hospital bed, pale as a ghost, mouth ajar, lips cracked—in a coma (I guess it didn’t go so well). Her husband Matt King (Clooney) sits by her side. In voice over he explains that his wife, Elizabeth, had an accident, and although he lives in Hawaii, his life is not a permanent vacation. On top of Elizabeth’s condition, Matt is the trustee to a large, unspoiled plot of beachfront property that’s been in his family all the way back to King Kamehameha. The land’s worth millions, and it is his responsibility to choose a worthy buyer.

Matt and Elizabeth have two daughters, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller). The former’s a surly adolescent who was shipped off to boarding school. The latter’s a toilet mouthed pre-pubescent who can’t seem to stay out of trouble at school. Someone I saw The Descendants with pointed out that George Clooney was playing Steve Carell. There are apparent Dan In Real Life similarities—mostly in the outnumbered-dad scenario as well as Matt’s deer in headlights expressions and middle-aged-schlub dorkiness. But the major difference, though, is that Carell is about as commanding on screen as a lamb. Clooney, when need be, has a lion’s fangs. Upon hearing that his wife was two-timing him with some unknown chump, those fangs come out gleaming. But Clooney is too seasoned a pro to play any emotion too forcefully; he uses the anger against his wife and her lover as a way of covering up his devastation over her betrayal. Matt and the kids, along with Alexandra’s surfer-dude “friend” Sid, go on an expedition, searching for this mysterious other man.

One of the film’s most fascinating dramatic propellants is the question of what Matt will do if he ever finds this guy. Will he give him a bloody nose? Will he ruin his life by exposing the affair? Or will he just give him the lowdown on Elizabeth and move on? Clooney plays Matt with such a complexity of personality that it’s hard to pin him down. He’s too nice of a guy to do anything sinister yet too hurt to just whip up some daiquiris and make amends.

Because the film is highly character driven, Payne understands that the camera’s most essential utility is to frame the actors and let them act. Clooney usually plays well-dressed studs; here he’s kind of a square (even Emmett in O Brother, Where Art Thou? couldn’t get enough Palmade). It’s the closest he’ll come to playing an everyman, I presume. But the performance goes beyond dressing down. It’s about finding the vulnerable in the everyday—about dealing with life’s tough situations as best you can. The most surprisingly great performance is that of Shailene Woodley (TV’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager). She may be playing the typical angst-ridden teenage daughter, but she gives the character tremendous emotional depth. Alexandra’s the one who caught her mom red handed in the first place. She’s the one who confronted her about it. She’s the one who’s had to keep such a terrible secret. In many ways, her mother betrayed her as well. Woodley, precociously, delivers these intricacies from the inside out. Under Payne’s guidance, she understands that those skeletons are the forces driving her character’s intolerable behavior. It’s a mature and nuanced turn from a novice screen actress.

And to battle the stagnancy that hampers many character studies, Payne keeps the plot moving, adding new layers and exposing new information. The story is set up like a mystery. The plot keeps getting thicker and the stakes keep getting higher. Does this hidden adulterer have something to do with Matt’s land deal? What if Elizabeth never wakes up? Should Matt and Alexandra let Scottie know the truth about her mother? One of the film’s most brilliant gestures is giving personality, and indeed treachery, to someone sleeping in a hospital bed hooked up to life support. How can someone so harmless be causing so much harm?

And it all goes down in Hawaii no less—a supposed paradise, the land of surfing, Piňa Coladas, snazzy hotels, and no worries. Scored to a number of spirited island tunes, the film has a contrapuntal kick: paradise is a grand illusion. An elegiac, but still incredibly funny stroll through Hawaii’s breathtaking locales, The Descendants, in all its charm and heartbreak, emphasizes forgiveness, family bonds and the idea that new beginnings are never easy—even in Hawaii. Mahalo!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Melancholia


4.5/5

Melancholia is the first Lars Von Trier movie I’ve ever seen. The film is a doomsday melodrama that follows two sisters—one a depressed newlywed (Kirsten Dunst) and the other a loving wife and mother (Charlotte Gainsbourg)—as a rogue planet, with the titular appellation, hurls toward earth on a course to obliterate humanity. The film is a gorgeous work of Art Cinema that features expert and eclectic cinematography and a brilliant performance from Kirsten Dunst.

In the wordless opening sequence a prologue of silent slow motion images operatically fill the frame with a sense of elegant, melodic dread. On what looks like a country club golf course, Dunst stands, Jazz hands up, with electricity curiously oozing from her fingertips. Another woman (Gainsbourg) runs in fright with a small child in her arms, but her feet sink deep into the bucolic fairway grass. A beautiful black stallion slumps plaintively—but proudly—to the ground. Every shot is crosscut with celestial vistas of a small planet making its determined way toward earth. Lastly, a bride, Dunst again, holds a bouquet and floats serenely on her back through a stream filled with phosphorescent vegetation. The sequence feels like a dream, but it might be, gulp, a premonition.

Our first hint at its potential realism comes when the very same bride (Dunst) arrives with her new hubby (Alexander Skarsgard) at their wedding reception. The party is at the very same seaside golf course estate (another hint); the bride’s name is Justine, and she’s none too happy about the idea of marriage. She puts on a plastic smile for her beau, her father (John Hurt), her brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland), her boss (Stellan Skarsgaard), and her sister Claire (Gainsbourg), who triples as hostess and wedding planner. Justine is far from the blushing bride, but her misery comes not from jitters or surliness—she’s swimming in a depression so deep she’s drowning. This wedding feels like the end of her world.

Dunst is marvelous in the role. She has the ability to perk up at times when Justine feels like she can weather the storm. The actress’s bright eyes, sweet smile, and golden hair remind us of her attainable, approachable beauty. Since her beginnings as a child star, she has carried that adorableness into an adult career (like in Spider-Man). In Melancholia, she uses it to façade a more perverse layer of unreachable despondency. When her shift into isolated headspace arrives, Dunst’s eyes droop, her head hangs loose—she appears as if drugged, unaffected, dead to the world. But the greatness of the performance comes not from the extremes, but from the middle ground where she’s clearly fighting the sorrow. In the second half of the film Justine reaches an impasse, and destruction appears to be her only possible solace.

Convenient since the strange red dot in the night sky, which she puzzles over continuously at her wedding, turns out to be a planet called Melancholia headed right for ours. Act II of Von Trier’s spaced-out opera switches the focus to Claire, but takes place at the same golf course mansion several months (or years?) after Justine’s nuptials. Claire’s husband, John (Sutherland), claims the renegade orb will pass peaceably by. At least, that’s what the scientists say. Claire frets anyhow, for the safety of herself, her sister, and, mostly, her young son Leo. The film comes to a heart-pounding conclusion as the dreaded sphere barrels toward their upper crust, pastoral home.

Like in The Shining or Alien, the setting itself becomes a character. The protagonists can never seem to escape it: Justine’s horse always stops on the first bridge off the property; Claire’s golf cart dies in the very same spot. Looking over the water, just off their back garden as the planet encroaches on the horizon, the viewer feels as if this place is the edge of the world, or perhaps existence entire. The setting caters to the film’s dream logic, with which everything seems slightly askew. Like the Garden of Eden as designed by a country club architect, the place is a bourgeois rapture carved from dreamscape imagery.

The majestic cinematography (by Manuel Alberto Claro) reiterates the film’s visionary grand design. While much of it employs Von Trier’s trademark shaky cam (made famous during the Dogme-95 movement), other moments show an astute propensity for Renaissance compositions. At what point, Justine bathes nude in the glow of Melancholia’s approaching atmosphere, appearing like a model in a Botticelli painting.

Though, it’s not allusion for its own sake—Justine is in harmony with the planet, basking in its literal gravity while she feels it relatively, internalized. Rumors have surfaced that Dunst battled depression herself. Von Trier is infamous for his phobias. Melancholia must be a deeply personal film for both star and auteur. Attempting to realize strong and complex human emotions on film can be tricky business. Von Trier does it here like a master. And, surprisingly, his film doesn’t leave viewers feeling depressed, but transcended. For one sister, marriage was catastrophic. For the other, the end of the world is the only way she could possibly understand. In either case, they face them together. The result is a kind of ineffable spiritual equilibrium, a sense that life and love are ephemeral, but peace is possible and eternal. Other than Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, Melancholia is the most ambitious, singular and downright magnificent cinematic experience of 2011 so far.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Puss In Boots


3/5

With the two most recent disappointing sequels, the "Shrek" ship appears to be floundering -- the leap to Puss In Boots' more easygoing, Leone-meets-Zorro universe is rather welcome. Unlike its parent series, "Puss" doesn't have a lot on its mind. But what it lacks in subversion or intelligence it makes up for in wit, charm and consistent, fun-loving breeziness.

The feline Don Juan -- voiced again with effortless Latin-lover exuberance by Antonio Banderas -- is a wanted bandit and spends his nights incognito, kitty bed-hopping. He runs across an old acquaintance, Humpty "Alexander" Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis), and the two, along with the fetching cat burglar Kitty Soft-Paws (Salma Hayak), attempt to steal magic beans from Jack and Jill (as in "went up the hill") in order to summit the beanstalk and snatch the giant's golden goose.

In the tradition of "Shrek", the plot takes liberties with its characters, lifting them from the Grimm/Fairy/Folk tale stratosphere and transplanting them to 19th century Mexico. That Jack and Jill -- who I always assumed were siblings -- are a couple of married redneck outlaws is at least fitting with the Western theme; I have to say. And the film's swashbuckling spirit and tone of playful aplomb make those stretches in genealogy feel less strained.

"Puss In Boots" is mostly a series of perfectly delivered punch lines (Puss orders "leche" at a bar like it's whiskey then laps it up adorably with his tongue) supported by an adequate storyline. The cat puns and innocuous innuendos come thick and fast, as do the Western homages. Beautifully animated in sandy umbers and vistas of vibrant horizon oranges, it's a great looking cartoon that never reaches for Pixar's substantive artfulness, and consequently never comes close to achieving it. Yet, when Puss walked into a literal cathouse with a neon sign reading The Glitter Box, I knew I got my money's worth.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

J. Edgar


1.5/5

Clint Eastwood's greatest films obliterate genre strictures and challenge audiences. "Unforgiven", a revisionist Western about a retired gunslinger resurrecting and reaffirming his own mythology, turned every trope on its head. "Mystic River", a police procedural, continued the assault with a climax so devastating it was damn near Shakespearean. And "Million Dollar Baby" took the typical underdog boxing drama and gave it spiritual transcendence in the face of bitter defeat.

His latest, "J. Edgar", a biopic starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the notorious founder of the FBI, doesn't sit with the best of Eastwood's work; instead, it falls below even the director's recent succession of mediocre projects: "Changling", "Grande Torino", "Invictus" and "Hereafter" ranged from curiously dumb and implausible to lamely soft and spiritual. Still, the saddest part is not that Eastwood has lost his knack for bringing new life to old tales, but that he's lost even the ability to convey coherent drama.

Written by "Milk" scribe Dustin Lance Black, "J. Edgar" is sloppily structured from its first minutes. J. Edgar Hoover (DiCaprio), old, fat and balding (looking suspiciously like an aged Charles Foster Kane), recounts his life with a biographer in his lowly lit, brown oak, Washington office. He tells of his appointment to head of the Bureau of Investigation at 24, his purge of communist radicals, his pursuit and conviction of the Lindbergh kidnapping culprit, his hunt for infamous bandits, and his wire tapping of everyone from FDR to Martin Luther King Jr.

Eventually, the film becomes so lost in its non-linearity that the viewer gets stranded in time, confused about when and where the action on screen is taking place. As consequence, the important details of Hoover's life get lost in the shuffle. His relationships remain hollow and skimmed over: Edgar's close bond with his mother (Judy Dench) remains mysteriously superficial. In a shockingly underwritten role, Naomi Watts plays his longtime secretary Helen Grandy. Present from the beginning to the end, her insights were probably plentiful, if only the screenwriter had put some words in her mouth.

The secret, repressed love affair between Edgar and his assistant Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) is the only relationship of any interest to Black (he is a gay man, and Hoover was rumored to be gay). So, what could have been an examination of patriotism turned corruptive or a psychological study of a brilliant, but conflicted individual (like DiCaprio's other, far superior biopic "The Aviator") instead becomes a bloodless and boring love story about two old men who, because of their intolerant times, couldn't act on their deepest desires.

"J. Edgar" is ashamedly under-dramatized, thrill-less, style-less, indeterminably long, and features an alarming performance from DiCaprio. He deserves little to no blame for this disaster (who wouldn't want to play J. Edgar Hoover in a film directed by Clint Eastwood?), but it is a humorless, caricaturist's turn that extends a string of brooding, depressing performances from an actor who was once quite charming (let's not forget "Catch Me If You Can"). Has he become so concerned with Oscar gold and "serious-actor" recognition that he's forgotten how to be a movie star? With an indulgent screenplay and uncontrolled direction from a typically reliable traditionalist (Eastwood favors careful framing, tight editing and clear drama, usually), the actors wander around clueless -- no one seems sure what story they're trying to tell.

J. Edgar Hoover was one of the most mysterious men in American history, a Machiavellian protector who innovated so many things (like fingerprints and card catalogues), but whose reputation became marred by rumors of trampled civil liberties and gender confusion. "J. Edgar" defends neither the man nor the myth; rather, it seems afraid of its own subject, too unfocused and thematically disjointed to "print the legend" or the facts. The film's only real challenge to audiences is this: Endure all 137 minutes -- if you can.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Chasing Amy (1997)


★★★★

Kevin Smith's third feature, "Chasing Amy", is successful despite being, well, a Kevin Smith movie. It's rife with his typically self-indulgent pseudo-sophisto babbling, "Star Wars" references, shamelessly graphic sex-talk, and underlying homoeroticism. But what makes it interesting, and worth watching, is that it explores the emotional underbelly of topics Smith often equivocates, but is usually too self-conscious to confront.

To Smith what "Liberty Valance" was to Ford, the film finds the auteur digging for something pregnant amongst his own perverted brand of comedy. It's no surprise Smith himself -- as his alter ego Silent Bob -- delivers the eponymous anecdote about the girl that got away, perhaps as a means of venting something personal and true. "Chasing Amy" shows a side of Smith we'd never seen before -- or since.

A romcom love triangle with a 90's-hipster twist, the movie finds Holden (Ben Affleck) and Banky (Jason Lee), creators of a popular comic book called Bluntman and Chronic, signing issues at a convention when Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams), a nerd's goddess with a girlish rasp and a wit like a razor, drops between them. Holden falls in love with what he thinks is the perfect girl. The twist: she's a lesbian.

But the sexual boundaries in Smith's world are highly malleable. Even after Alyssa goes "straight" just for him, Holden finds himself chasing a dream, an ideal Alyssa can't possibly live up to. She's a sexual enchantress, but also unspoiled, virginal. When her high school promiscuity comes to light it challenges Holden's buried feelings of emasculation. To the side of their tumultuous relationship sits Banky, angrily jealous, not of Holden, but of Alyssa.

His obsession with his best friend -- not to mention his rampant homophobia -- rings the obvious alarm bells, but Smith's concept suggests that when we love the individual not the gender, the purest connections often take shape. But human beings are, ultimately, fragile and self-destructive creatures that can't see the forest for the trees. Furthermore, Smith uses the comic book trope of secret identities as a device for his characters to hide from their own sexual regrets and insecurities. To call his film tolerant, progressive, and even profound would not be an overstatement.

"Chasing Amy" finds the chinks in our sexual armor, the ubiquitous kryptonite that can destroy even the most perfect of relationships. Smith doesn't just probe into sexual conducts and gender roles, turn a tired genre on its head, or expose the 90's-dating scene equivalent of Fitzgerald's unattainable dream, he peers with confidence into the churning mechanism that drives his own interests. It proves that behind the snarky, "Star Wars"-geek facade, there is a born romantic fighting to save the lovelorn from relationship peril.

The Toxic Avenger (1984)


★★

If a comic book uber-geek and a B-movie fanboy had a lovechild, and then that lovechild fell into a vat of radioactive chemicals, "The Toxic Avenger" would emerge dripping in slimy, campy ooze. A midnight-screening cult classic, "The Toxic Avenger" is such a broad and hyperbolic horror/comedy that only the most adolescent of gore-hounds could find its mix of locker room raunch and latex entrails tantalizing.

Swimming somewhere amongst the puerility is a nerd's revenge fantasy. Tromaville is the "Toxic Waste Capital of the World", according to its welcome sign. Melvin's the shrimpy janitor at a proto-Globo Gym full of juicers and leotarded floozies. In a prank he's accidentally dumped into barrel of toxic waste, and then mutates into a tutu adorning elephant man with a knack for crime fighting.

The town's a cesspool -- and I don't just mean the leftover plutonium and battery acid: a surplus of crazed criminals rule the streets, a quartet of meatheads -- who look like 70's-porno actors -- run over pedestrians for fun. The town mayor sells drugs, and even a nice old lady runs a sweatshop. You'd think it was Dodge City. Melvin starts to mop up the scum and wins the heart of a blind damsel in distress.

"The Toxic Avenger" is sporadically nauseating, often sadistic, and not nearly as sickly-funny as it thinks it is. Tongue-in-cheek irreverence never works when it's this labored over; it's funnier when the self-knowingness is smoothly woven in (like in "The Evil Dead 2"). Any political or environmental subtext drowns in a pool of organ puree and dick jokes. If diverting carnage is your cup o' tea, you might find this playfully disgusting. I found it airheaded, gross and, frankly, boring.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Dolls (1987)


★★★½

Of all the decade's derivative and disposable slashers, somehow even possessed toys found their way into the spotlight. Glory hog Chucky, the ginger-haired hellion with a demonic preschooler's grin and a voice like a New York City construction worker, is the most well known of the bunch. Consequently, people overlooked this minor-gem; Stuart Gordon's scary-sweet horror film was manufactured like a pipsqueak's nightmare-scape.

Out of Roald Dahl (or "The Night of the Hunter"), we find Judy -- a pigtailed tot -- traveling the backroads on a stormy night with her short-tempered father and wicked stepmother. After stalling in the mud, they take shelter in a life-sized dollhouse buried in the woods. The owners are an elderly toymaker and his wife; their home is a haunted palace of ominous lightning strikes, smothering shadows, and shifty-eyed figurines. Judy remarks, "I'm not afraid of the dark. I'm afraid of what's in it."

Naturally, the dolls aren't just for decoration. They come to life at night and attack by biting, stabbing, sawing, swarming, firing off little rifles and even using human battering rams... it's all devilish fun. But "Dolls" is surprisingly gentle for a slasher film. In from the storm stumbles Ralph, Judy's kindred spirit, a hefty boob with a fondness for childish things -- the two thieving, punk-princess hitchhikers he brings along are merely fresh meat. Because one is a child and the other is a child at heart, neither Judy nor Ralph is a target for the enchanted playthings.

"Dolls" is a creepy, campy and hilarious little 80's monster movie. It's also a cautionary tale to parents who ought to be nicer to their kids, and a celebration of childhood itself, in all its innocent optimisms and trepidations. Judy frightfully warns, "What if this is the longest night in the world?" Anyone who hasn't lied awake in the dark with that same thought has never been young. Like the gimmicky army of homicidal marionettes at the core, this film gives those fears splendid life.