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

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol


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


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


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



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 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


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.