Showing posts with label 2012. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 2012. Show all posts

December 26, 2012

Capsule Reviews: Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Argo, directed by Ben Affleck

Even though I'm a serious movie fan, there's rarely enough time to check out all the films that interest me when they originally hit the theaters. I recently did a 2012 Catch-Up Marathon to fill this gap, but that only scratched the surface of the worthy choices from this year. After checking out three releases during the past week, I've decided to write short reviews to summarize my thoughts. Each movie has a lot going for it, and several will certainly be heard from during the awards season. I'm curious to hear your reactions too; let me know what you thought about these films in the comments section!

Argo (Ben Affleck)

Ben Affleck has earned great acclaim for his directing in Gone Baby Gone and The Town, but he takes a big step up with  Argo. This adaptation of the true-life experiences of six hostages trapped in Iran and the man who rescued them is a gripping thriller. Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a CIA expert at this seemingly impossible situation. His idea of using the cover of shooting a sci-fi movie is genius because it's so ridiculous. John Goodman and Alan Arkin are charming as the Hollywood guys who support the scheme and sell the picture. Considering the heavy material in Iran, the spoof on the movie industry provides a welcome respite. The tone is different but doesn't feel out of place. Affleck has good chemistry with both of the veteran actors, and their bond lifts the story beyond a typical spy movie.

The hostages include a talented group of youngsters who are virtually unrecognizable behind '70s hair and clothes. Scoot McNairy (Monsters) gets the most to do as the skeptic, but it's the stable presences of Tate Donovan and Clea DuVall that make us care about their survival. Since we already know the ultimate outcome, it's up to Affleck and Writer Chris Terrio (Heights) to keep us engaged. They certainly stretch the reality to ratchet up the tension, but it rarely feels manipulative. The set design sells the idea that we're seeing Iran in 1979 because it seems down to earth. It's clear that Affleck is trying to mirror '70s classics like All the Presidents Men while still entertaining modern audiences. While it isn't my favorite movie of the year, I wouldn't complain if Argo received a Best Picture nomination. Everyone involved gives it their all and delivers a highly engaging thriller.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin)

Released in July, Benh Zeitlin's debut feature earned tremendous acclaim and should be on many year-end lists. I hesitated to check it out because of false expectations of its content. Those assumptions were generally untrue and missed the strangely upbeat tone. The characters are living in serious poverty in the Louisiana bayou, yet it's rarely depressing. Quvenzhané Wallis is completely believable as the six-year-old Hushpuppy, who lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry). When a massive storm arrives, it devastates the "bathtub" community and nearly washes away their lives. We stick with Hushpuppy as she tries to survive with other residents while Wink suffers from an even tougher situation. Stricken with an illness that isn't going away, he battles to stay independent against poor odds.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is a challenging film to discuss because there's so much happening on screen. Beyond presenting the central plot, Zeitlin is showing the destruction of nature. This disaster is depicted symbolically through the "Aurochs", massive prehistoric creatures formerly trapped in the Arctic ice. They appear frequently and even interact with Hushpuppy, which pulls the story more into fantasy territory. While providing more depth into what Zeitlin's trying to say, it also feels less intimate than the main story. The images are gorgeous throughout the movie, even when we're trapped inside the decrepit homes. It's a striking debut from a filmmaker to watch in the next few years. Another highlight is the work of Dwight Henry, a New Orleans bakery owner discovered by chance by the crew. He never strikes a false note as Wink and brings a captivating energy to the fiery character.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (Lorene Scafaria)

The impending apocalypse isn't the typical set-up for a comedy, but most of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World plays out like a fun road movie. Steve Carell plays his stock character of the middle-aged guy disenchanted with life. His wife runs out (literally) on him when they learn that the world is ending in several weeks. By chance, he starts a journey with Penny (Keira Knightley), and they strike up a friendship. After avoiding the doom of a crazy mob, they head into the country with positive goals in mind. He's searching for an old flame, and she's looking for a plane to get back home. Carell and Knightley have great chemistry, so it isn't awkward when they strike up a romance. They probably wouldn't connect in a normal world, but they find a bond among the chaos.

The strange part of this film is the drastic tonal shift in the last act. It becomes more of a standard romance where the issues would be resolved if the characters just communicated. However, this isn't fatal because the actors sell the material. They're so likable that we're willing to take the ride and want them to be together, despite the plot contrivances. Knightley is a big surprise and so refreshing when performing in a modern setting. I just want to spend time with these characters and can mostly push aside the concerns. It isn't entirely successful, but there are enough fun moments to make it worthwhile. There's a wonderfully silly scene in an Applebees-like hotel that generates some big laughs. Those oddball highlights make it worth checking out. Lorene Scafaria adapted Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, and she brings a similar type of wit to this directorial debut.

December 3, 2012

2012 Catch-up Marathon: Red Lights (2012)

Cillian Murphy in Red Lights

I'm closing out the marathon this week by looking at a film released with little fanfare despite an impressive cast. Spanish Director Rodrigo Cortés is known mostly for Buried, the 2010 movie that put Ryan Reynolds inside a very confined space. He wrote and directed this film, which explores the world of people trying to uncover fraud behind supernatural abilities. Despite mostly negative reviews, I was interested enough in the subject matter and talented actors to give it a shot. How bad could a movie be with Robert De Niro playing a long-lost celebrity psychic returning to power? Plus, Cillian Murphy is always interesting on screen, and Sigourney Weaver has the ability to survive even weaker movies. Let's get to the questions before I get trapped in a strange hallucinatory universe!

Red Lights – Directed by Rodrigo Cortés; Starring Cillian Murphy, Sigourney Weaver, Robert De Niro, Elizabeth Olsen, Toby Jones, and Joely Richardson

So, what's this story about?
Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) and Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) are academics who investigate paranormal activity and try to debunk those claims. They seek out "red lights", which are the key clues that identify where the trickery is happening. When famous psychic Simon Silver (Robert De Niro) comes out of retirement after a 30-year absence, it changes the game. Margaret was an outspoken cynic of his work in their younger days, and she pushes Tom not to investigate Silver. Despite her best efforts, he can't stay away and starts a chain reaction that changes his life forever. Silver left the scene originally after a passionate critic died mysteriously, so there's an aura of danger around his cult-like status. Going after Silver could jeopardize Tom's life and the health of everyone around him.

Sigourney Weaver in Red Lights

What are the key themes of this film?
Red Lights is tricky to review because it leads you down a certain path and then dramatically alters course. I won't give away the twists since it's a recent movie, so I'll stick with what we know for most of the story. Tom is obsessed with going after Silver and is facing strange occurrences in his life. He dreams of floating above his own body and has crazy visions involving his nemesis. Birds keep flying into windows near him, and a creepy old woman stares him down while crossing the street. Is Silver causing these events with his powers, or are his devoted followers selling the con game? Margaret doesn't believe in Silver's powers and takes a beating in the press for being a skeptic. Even so, she isn't willing to try and take him down. Her son has been in a coma since he was a child, and she can't escape the feeling Silver was involved. Is it really that important to prove he's a fraud when the costs could be high? Their funding is minimal and few take them seriously, so what do Tom and Margaret have to gain? His reasons are even more ingrained than hers but are mostly subconscious motivations that aren't clear on the surface.

Are the characters believable and fully drawn?
The main issues are in the Cortés script, which treats most of the characters like pawns in the plot. The actors make it work and sell the material, so the flaws aren't fatal. The prime example is Robert De Niro, who must create a mysterious guy out of very little. Even after we realize the extent of his powers, Silver's motivations still aren't very clear. Why did he wait 30 years before returning to the scene? What has drawn him back into the public eye? Elizabeth Olsen also appears as one of Margaret's students and the love interest for Tom. She does a good job and brings weight to Sally, but her impact is pretty limited. Toby Jones continues his trend of appearing in virtually every movie and does his best. It's another case where he makes this guy engaging without much to do. The main reason the story remains interesting is Cillian Murphy, who brings a lot of power to the lead role.

Robert De Niro in Red Lights

What are some of the most memorable scenes?
Red Lights opens with a strong sequence that shows Margaret and Tom identifying a fraud claiming to connect with ghosts. There's believable chicanery going on, but they have few problems discovering the trick. The explanation is simpler than you might expect and shows just easily victims are conned. The pace picks up once the weirdness starts happening as Tom goes after Silver. There are few answers given until the end, and that solution doesn't truly explain it. Right before the final showdown, Tom sneaks backstage and listens to a monologue from Silver that makes little sense. There's plenty of tension, yet something's missing. Tom is bumbling his way through the investigation, and it's clear he's in way over his head. There are several examples near the end that don't make a lot of sense. They're well-directed but need more explanation to come together.

How’s the direction? Is there an original vision?
Rodrigo Cortés creates a believable atmosphere of dread that only grows as Tom gets closer to the truth. When a main character suddenly dies, it's effective and arrives with little fanfare. While the directing is engaging, he doesn't reach the same level with the writing. Like I mentioned earlier, the characters are limited and don't live up to the material's potential. Cortés builds the momentum and delivers some tense sequences, yet I felt a bit hollow inside after the final shots. The subject matter is interesting and offers plenty of possibilities for an entertaining film. I generally enjoyed watching it, but the awkward moments and abrupt finale hold down its effectiveness.

Red Lights, starring Cillian Murphy

Looking ahead, does this movie have a chance at making my Top 10 List?
Although it's a memorable film, the inconsistency of Red Lights makes it unlikely to crack my list. I enjoyed the subject and think it's worth checking out, however. I was surprised to note just how few critics gave this movie a passing grade. Even with my reservations about certain parts, there are far worse ways to spend a few hours. If nothing else, it shows De Niro trying something a bit different and delivering a good villain through sheer force of will. While speaking to the enraptured masses in a theater, he owns the stage and makes it easy to understand why they follow him. The audience is looking for anything to believe, and this imposing guy is the most likely candidate to save their souls.

Next week, I'll check out Disney's late-'90s animation and begin with Hercules.

November 26, 2012

2012 Catch-Up Marathon: The Amazing Spider-Man

Andrew Garfield in The Amazing Spider-Man

It's easy to look at today's movie world and rant about all the remakes and reboots, particularly in the comic book genre. Batman Begins re-started that story just eight years after Batman & Robin, and there was only a five-year gap between Hulk and The Incredible Hulk. These are short breaks, but that's not a huge problem if the films bring something different to the table. We should remember that remakes are hardly a new phenomenon. Classics like John Huston's The Maltese Falcon and Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday are both not the original versions. This brings us to The Amazing Spider-Man, which arrives only five years after 2007's Spider-Man 3. This short timing feels odd because we're covering a similar origin story to what we saw with Tobey Maguire's character last time. Even so, I'm not interested in railing about why this remake is too soon. It's worthwhile to compare the two versions since they're fresh in our minds, but dismissing this new take is too easy. The comic books originated in 1963, so there have been many incarnations of the beloved hero.

The Amazing Spider-Man – Directed by Marc Webb; Starring Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Martin Sheen, and Sally Field

So, what's this story about?
Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) has lived with his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field) since his parents mysteriously left him when he was a young boy. He faces bullying at school and still is struggling with the loss of his parents. New information on his father's work leads Peter to Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans). While exploring his research in Oscorp, he's bitten by a spider that gives him super powers. While he discovers his new skills, Peter inadvertently causes the death of his Uncle. He strikes up a relationship with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) and starts acting as the vigilante Spider-Man. Meanwhile, Dr. Connors' dangerous work transforms him into a giant Lizard that threatens New York City. Peter must work to defeat this beast without losing himself in the process.

The Amazing Spider-man, directed by Marc Webb

What are the key themes of this film?
Peter's new powers can help innocent people and fight evil, but there's also a great responsibility (as the saying goes). He develops a knack for accidentally destroying things, particularly in sports facilities. Uncle Ben's voicemail reminds Peter of issues at stake beyond stopping the Lizard. We also return to the idea that anyone close to Spider-Man becomes threatened. Captain George Stacy (Denis Leary) admires what he's doing but warns of the risk to his daughter Gwen. His fate casts a shadow over the finale and reveals the personal costs even when the bad guy loses. There's also an interesting twist where Peter gives Connors the equation that creates the Lizard. While his intentions were good, there's even more weight on him. The execution falls a bit short because the monster's plans are pretty conventional. Rhys Ifans does a good job making Connors an interesting guy, but that intrigue doesn't remain when the Lizard starts wreaking havoc. He's pretty much a dull monster with a lot of strength but not much excitement.

Are the characters believable and fully drawn?
Andrew Garfield (The Social Network) is excellent and brings a warmth that fits with its more introspective style. It's clear that he takes the part seriously and isn't just hopping aboard a lucrative franchise. It's such a different guy from Tobey Maguire's wide-eyed depiction that it feels completely separate from that version. Emma Stone also creates a believable character who's immediately drawn to Parker. This isn't the case where he spends most of the movie pining for unrequited love. Another wise move  is revealing his identity as Spider-Man to her quickly. This puts them on equal footing as a couple and doesn't give him a secret to keep. Martin Sheen also makes Uncle Ben a three-dimensional guy who does more than drive the plot. We feel his loss in the story right along with Peter.

Emma Stone in The Amazing Spider-Man

What are some of the most memorable scenes?
I haven't even mentioned the action yet, and that's because it isn't that interesting. The finale at the top of Oscorp Tower is predictable because the Lizard seems out of place in this world. Having Spider-Man race against a countdown clock isn't very original given the strides made in other parts of the movie. The best fight scene against the Lizard comes inside the claustrophobic sewers because it shows the hero well out of his element against an imposing foe. Even that moment doesn't reach the excitement of the character scenes, though. Garfield and Stone have great chemistry, particularly in the rooftop scene where he reveals his identity. They seem right as a couple, and it doesn't feel like a stretch to see them together. This story also doesn't get too wrapped up in their romance as the driving force. It's important to Peter but only one aspect of what he's facing in this new life.

How’s the direction? Is there an original vision?
This is only Marc Webb's second feature after (500) Days of Summer, but he shows plenty of confidence as a filmmaker. He uses James Horner's score well to sell the fun of the movie without pushing it too hard. The shots of Spider-Man flying over the streets of New York City are interesting, and Webb uses some cool devices to keep them from going stale. He employs the physical locations well, which makes it even more jarring when the CGI takes over near the end. Some of the first-person shots aren't as effective because they feel purposely designed for the 3D format. Watching them at home, they seem a bit out of place among the rest of the material. It's still an attractive-looking movie that doesn't rely too much on CGI, but there a few exceptions that take us out of the movie.

The Lizard in The Amazing Spider-Man

Looking ahead, does this movie have a chance at making my Top 10 List?
The Amazing Spider-Man doesn't feel like an embarrassing money grab and provides an entertaining take on the famous character. I'm thinking that it will fall outside of my Top 10 List, but it's still worth checking out if you're one of the few who skipped it among the crowded summer fare. It doesn't reach the heights of Spider-Man 2, but the potential exists for a sequel to reach that level. Sam Raimi did a lot of great things with his trilogy (particularly the first two movies), and this version doesn't make you forget that success. It's a departure but retains a lot of the core elements of the story. This makes it a worthy follow-up that doesn't surpass the previous take but stands alongside it as yet another decent comic-book adaptation. I'm interested to see where it goes with the 2014 sequel.

Next week, I'll close out this marathon with the unexplained phenomena of Red Lights.

November 19, 2012

2012 Catch-Up Marathon: Ruby Sparks

When writers talk about their characters becoming alive, they usually mean it in a metaphorical way. They can feel the essence of the creations, which often come from their own personalities. That intimate connection can blur the line between reality and fiction. Does the mouthpiece of the author truly represent his or her thoughts? This is often a trivial discussion that doesn't give enough credit to this person's abilities. Of course, there are exceptions. Taking this issue a step further is Ruby Sparks, a modern fantasy that brings an imaginary character into our world. When Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) sits down to write his new novel, he's shaping actual events in his life. This removal of the line between writer and subject has been handled in movies like Marc Forster's Stranger Than Fiction. That movie showed how the author was unknowingly shaping a guy's life. This film goes beyond that approach and offers a less optimistic view of the creative process.

Ruby Sparks – Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris; Starring Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Chris Messina, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, and Steve Coogan

So, what's this story about?
Calvin wrote a successful book at a young age, but he's facing a serious case of writer's block. Living an isolated existence has brought him few life experiences, but he gets inspiration from a dream. He sees a beautiful young woman named Ruby (Zoe Kazan) and quickly writes many pages about her. While plugging away at his typewriter, Calvin isn't just making his book; he's creating a real-life character. Ruby materializes at his house and doesn't realize she isn't normal. Having a cool and stunning girlfriend is great for Calvin, but even this constructed romance can only stay rosy for so long. When her behavior starts getting too realistic, he wonders how far he should go to shape this living character.

What are the key themes of this film?
The big question in this story asks how much of Ruby comes directly from Calvin's personality. Her energetic attitude seems like the opposite of his standoffish demeanor. She originally acts just like the character in the story but has the ability to adapt. It's similar to Arnold Schwarzenegger's "learning computer" robot in T2.   Calvin is the perfect boyfriend at the start, but doubts appear when she notices his isolated existence. He's dealing with his father's death, but that loss hasn't affected his brother Harry (Chris Messina) in the same way. Calvin is a textbook case of the tortured writer so wrapped up in his own mind that he doesn't see much beyond himself. His relationship with Ruby matches the struggles of any real-life couple. Even though she isn't a normal human, her unwillingness to remain one-dimensional starts pulling them apart. Calvin's ability to change the game and re-wire her may bring them together, but the moral implications are something else entirely.

Are the characters believable and fully drawn?
Calvin occupies much of the screen time, so we have a pretty good idea of how he ticks. Paul Dano is the right choice to play this self-centered intellectual and makes he believable even when we dislike him. We spend limited time with his family, so it's hard to say if there's more behind his very upbeat mom (Annette Bening) and her boyfriend (Antonio Banderas). Bening is playing a pretty standard hippie character, yet she finds subtle ways to avoid making her a caricature. Harry is a typical young guy and pushes his brother to get into the dating game. Chris Messina does solid work to keep him from becoming tiring. The trickiest and most effective performances comes from Zoe Kazan, who also wrote this movie. She plays Ruby in all different emotional states and has to sell the dramatic shifts. It's mostly played for comedy, but there's a pretty dark undercurrent to every change.

What are some of the most memorable scenes?
When Ruby arrives in Calvin's life, the scenes are played for comedy and show them having a great time. He's the type of guy who makes regular visits to a psychologist (Elliott Gould) and has mental issues; has he now lost it completely? Instead of simply taking her around and seeing if people interact, Calvin puts together an overly complicated method for figuring it out. He calls up an obsessive groupie and asks her to lunch, which is excessive. It's this type of social miscue that hints at his problems going forward. Ruby and Calvin's relationship culminates in a shocking moment where he treats her like a puppet. Sitting at his typewriter, he keeps changing her personality and treats her terribly. We realize she isn't a "normal" human, but this is just cruel behavior. Even when Calvin recognizes the problem and changes his tune, the damage is done to both Ruby and our feelings about him.

How’s the direction? Is there an original vision?
Husband-and-wife directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Feris bring a similar mix of humor and angst that they used well in their first movie Little Miss Sunshine. They use bright colors to show the excitement of Calvin's romance with Ruby, but there's a serious darkness lurking in his heart. The movie's final scene is shot with such light that it feels like he must be dreaming. There are some tonal issues that aren't completely resolved, particularly with the positive resolution. Even so, Dayton and Feris create an attractive look. They shoot Kazan like an angel who seems out of place in this difficult world. When she starts changing after spending more time with humans, it's a jarring adjustment. Ruby lays curled up in her bed feeling miserable and is missing the upbeat look of her earlier appearances.

Looking ahead, does this movie have a chance at making my Top 10 List?
Ruby Sparks has an intriguing concept and executes it well, especially in the first hour. Even so, there's an element missing to truly push it into the upper tier. One issue may be the difficulty in connecting with Calvin, who embodies the self-indulgent artists who can barely communicate with the outside world. The idea of having this type of writer bring a character to life is great, and Kazan's script covers interesting territory. It's not a huge surprise to note that she's in a real-life relationship with Dano. The nastiness on screen probably wasn't easy to film, but they didn't need to stretch to deliver a believable romance. I wonder how much of Kazan's own experiences as a young actress affected what she wrote into this film. It may be a fantasy, but the idea of having an author create an idealized female character likely isn't too far from the realm of the Hollywood dream machine.

Next week, I'll grab my webs and hit the rooftops with The Amazing Spider-Man.

November 14, 2012

Skyfall (2012)

Daniel Craig in Skyfall

Arriving on the 50th anniversary of the first Bond film, Skyfall contains more in-jokes and references than we’ve ever seen in the series. Even so, it’s also a major departure and shifts into a pure battle for survival for the hero and his mother figure M (Judi Dench). Following the energetic but cold action of Quantum of Solace, the right move for Sam Mendes is shifting to a more personal story. He’s an established craftsman who gracefully directs the action, but the intimate moments bring life to this story. Daniel Craig is known for playing Bond as a tough and hardened killer, and that ruthless determination remains here. However, he reveals the vulnerability at the center of the character with each successive role. Nobody does it better when it comes to catching a villain, yet he’s damaged enough to avoid becoming a superhero. Like Christian Bale’s Batman in The Dark Knight Rises, this Bond falls (literally) to his apparent death but returns to London when duty calls. He is wounded and has lost his faith, but that isn’t enough to keep him from working to protect his mentor.

The movie begins with an extended action sequence with Bond and Eve (Naomie Harris) pursuing a capable enemy (Ola Rapace) who’s stolen crucial information. He uses all types of vehicles to continue the chase, and it’s a spectacular sequence. The CGI meshes well with the practical effects to deliver a thrilling opening. Bond ends up fighting hand-to-hand on board a moving train, and the end result proves that even he can fall short. This failure puts M in hot water with her superior Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) and gives the upper hand to a mysterious super villain. His identity is kept a secret for a long time and raises our anticipation for the big reveal. When Javier Bardem finally appears as Silva, it’s clear we’re in much different territory than with other recent villains. Sporting ridiculous blond hair and other deformities, he has more in common with old-school baddies than modern terrorists. Even so, his abilities as a hacker and former spy keep him grounded in reality. His power is virtually unchecked, but Silva’s more interested in gaining personal revenge for a past wrong.

Bérénice Marlohe in Skyfall

Although it’s one of the longest Bond films at 145 minutes, Skyfall really moves and doesn’t feel bloated. One of the main reasons is the stunning cinematography from Roger Deakins, who’s worked with Mendes in the past on Jarhead and Revolutionary Road. The gorgeous images bring an epic scale to the production in attractive locations like the modern skyscrapers of Shanghai and the vast landscapes of Scotland. The first half sends Bond on a spy mission to locate Silva, and we’re intrigued to find out more about the man behind the curtain. His desolate island fortress brings an Old West feeling to their meeting despite the technology. That tone returns for the concluding siege, which has more in common with Rio Bravo than any Bond film. Screenwriters Neil Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan throw in so many references to other movies that it’s nearly impossible to catch them all. Looking specifically at the franchise’s past, there’s a throwaway line about the exploding pen from Goldeneye, a lizard scene reminiscent of alligators in Live and Let Die, and the return of the Aston Martin DB5 from Goldfinger. While comments about the ejector seat in that car are basically fan service, they’re subtle enough to avoid feeling out of place. We also have a new Q, played with just the right nerdy sarcasm by Ben Whishaw. His art museum meeting with Bond is one of the most enjoyable scenes.

There’s so much to like about this film that it’s easy to dismiss the few elements that don’t work so well. First of all, the female characters are mostly pushed aside in favor of the main conflict. While both actresses do solid work (especially Harris), their screen time is limited. The striking Bérénice Marlohe is playing a conventional Bond archetype as Sévérine, but her fate makes an impact. Harris disappears for a long time, but the final revelations about her role make sense. There are a few awkward moments with Eve, but the issues come from the writing. My other concerns come from the eerie similarities between this movie and Nolan’s popular trilogy, most notably The Dark Knight. The scene with Silva trapped at MI6 yet confidently holding all the cards feels too familiar for the intelligent film. The personal revelations about Bond’s past are also very Bruce Wayne-like. They are much worse places to go for inspiration, but a few connections pulled me out of the movie. That said, Craig and Bardem sell the material and keep it from drifting too much into recognizable territory.

Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Skyfall delivers top-notch entertainment because there’s so much talent involved in the cast and crew. When Ralph Fiennes and Albert Finney are playing small parts, you know this is an excellent group. Mendes is clearly one of the best directors to ever shoot a Bond film, and he delivers a stunning visual product. Considering this film in terms of the overall franchise, I’m not ready to give it an ultimate ranking. There’s so much to consider after one viewing that it will take a while before my final verdict. It’s that surprising complexity that shows just how far the series has evolved from the Brosnan days. Mendes finds a way to have some fun while still delivering serious drama. That delicate balance is tricky to pull off yet feels just right in this very entertaining movie. Craig can stand confidently with the past Bonds and has made the character his own with this third feature. It stands alone as a complete film while building solid groundwork for future installments.

November 12, 2012

2012 Catch-Up Marathon: Shut Up and Play the Hits

James Murphy in Shut Up and Play the Hits

In the past few years, we've seen numerous popular bands get back together and tour after breaking up years earlier. While I loved seeing a group like Guided by Voices again, the general trend is getting a bit ridiculous. A band like The Who has been playing farewell tours since the early '80s! On the other hand, there's James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem. They've continued to build a larger following with each album since the first singles in 2002. In February 2011, Murphy posted a statement on their website that the show at Madison Square Garden on April 2 would be their last. It was a stunning move by the 41-year-old who was ready to quit the life of touring. While his choice is admirable, it also raises questions about why he'd step away from the game at the height of the band's popularity. I'm hardly an expert on LCD Soundsystem and really only got into them after the release of their 2010 studio album This is Happening. In a strange way, their final concert was an introduction to Murphy and the band right as they're leaving the spotlight.

Shut Up and Play the Hits – Directed by Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern; Starring James Murphy, Nancy Whang, Chuck Klosterman, Gunnar Bjerk, and Al Doyle

What's this story about?
This film chronicles the final concert for LCD Soundsystem at Madison Square Garden. The long show lasts more than four hours and includes special guests like The Arcade Fire. There are plenty of excellent songs presented, but that's only part of the story. We spend time with Murphy before and after the big night to learn why he decided to stop the band. Chuck Klosterman interviews him a week earlier and tries to delve into the issues, but here's no easy answer. We also join Murphy the day after the show as he tries to figure out the next steps. It's a nearly silent change from the party that lasted well into the night.

James Murphy in Shut Up and Play the Hits

What are the key themes of this film?
Although it's primarily a concert film, the tone feels different because the directors are clearly interested in discovering why Murphy would stop the band. The performances are magnetic, and they present a sharp contrast with the quiet moments before and after the show. Murphy stands in his empty offices and seems ready to cry if he thinks too much what he's set aside. Logically, the decision makes sense when you consider the physical and emotional toll of touring. On the other hand, it's difficult to give up something that he obviously loves. He's built a devoted following for LCD Soundsystem, and their success is very rare. Even when Murphy goes through his legitimate reasons for stopping, there are clear doubts visible on his face that he wonders inside if it might be a terrible decision.

LCD Soundsystem in Shut Up and Play the Hits

Are the characters believable and fully drawn?
This question isn't as suitable for a concert film, but it fits when you consider Murphy and the band. Looking first at the supporting players, we don't get to know much about them beyond a few quick lines. Even so, they have an interesting dynamic offstage while saying little. It's clear that they've spent a lot of time together and have a close bond. The most engaging on-stage performer is Nancy Whang, who plays keyboards and sings. She's front and center right behind Murphy and plays a big role in their stage presence. The other energetic force is Al Doyle, who brings the power to the show. They're a cool group but never feel aloof from the audience, which isn't an easy combination to have on stage.

The Arcade Fire in Shut Up and Play the Hits

What are some of the most memorable scenes?
It's impossible to list one highlight in a show filled with them. The performance of "North American Scum" with members of The Arcade Fire singing back-up is a classic moment. Win Butler throws out the movie's title right before the rousing number. Comedian Reggie Watts (Comedy Bang Bang) also appears and shows off quite a melodic singing voice during another tune. My favorites include the powerful rendition of Murphy's first single "Losing My Edge" and the sing-along "Us vs. Them", which gets everyone dancing into a frenzy. The show ends on a somber note with "New York, I Love Your But You're Bringing Me Down". While fans mourn about the loss (the camera catches one particularly upset young guy), others are clearly blown away by the incredible show. It takes a special level of devotion from fans to generate this type of reaction after a farewell show.

James Murphy in Shut Up and Play the Hits

How’s the direction? Is there an original vision?
There have been so many concert films that take us behind the scenes, so it's easy to think that it's impossible to be original. That isn't the case here. Directors Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern make the performances electric without using standard tropes. Employing talented individuals like Spike Jonze as camera operators doesn't hurt. We get the "you are there" feeling of being in the audience and sharing the communal experience of the last show. This contrasts sharply with the bright, yet eerily quiet feeling of the other scenes. Away from the stage, they create a clear feeling that something wonderful has been lost. There are many future possibilities, but will anything compare to this ultimate concert? That question won't be answered for a long time, but it hangs over everything in this film.

Shut Up and Play the Hits

Looking ahead, does this movie have a chance at making my Top 10 List?
I had a blast watching this movie, so there's a chance it will slide into the back of the top 10. This depends on the strength of the next few months. If the big art-house films match the high expectations, they may push Shut Up and Play the Hits out of the group. Even so, this is a great concert film with excellent performances and interesting background footage. We learn about Murphy's life away from the crowds and then get an up-close look at just how damn good they are. While LCD Soundsystem is over, I expect this isn't the last that we've heard from James Murphy. He wrote the score for Greenberg back in 2009, so it's possible he'll head into that realm. His future is wide open, and I'm still discovering how much amazing music he's put out in the past 10 years.

Next week, I'll join Paul Dano once again as he creates Zoe Kazan in Ruby Sparks.

November 5, 2012

2012 Catch-up Marathon: Being Flynn

Paul Dano in Being Flynn

When you consider all the options, it's easier than ever to check out new movies. Even so, I still haven't caught nearly as many films as I'd like this year. It's time to get serious, so I'm setting aside the next month to catch up with 2012. There are more interesting options than I can possibly see in this time, but it will be a good start. The choices will include both small indies and blockbusters across a variety of genres. My first post is about Being Flynn, Paul Weitz's adaptation of Nick Flynn's 2005 memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. The reviews by critics were mixed, but the star power involved made it worth the time. It's refreshing to see Robert De Niro involved in dramatic material worthy of his talent. The question to answer is whether the rest of the film matches his performance.

Being Flynn – Directed by Paul Weitz; Starring Robert De Niro, Paul Dano, Julianne Moore, Olivia Thirlby, Eddie Rouse, Steve Cirbus, and Lili Taylor

So, what's this story about?
Nick Flynn (Paul Dano) wants to be a writer, but he drifts aimlessly between jobs and girlfriends. He starts working in a homeless shelter and finds the work rewarding. He also starts dating Denise (Olivia Thirlby), a new friend who suggested that he get the job. This positive experience is short-lived when his father Jonathan (Robert De Niro) returns after an 18-year absence. Although he claims to be a great writer, Nick's dad is actually a cab driver who's recently become homeless. He's an alcoholic who's pretty much crazy, so his presence at the shelter raises problems for his son. While his father moves closer to his end, Nick struggles with drug abuse and seems destined for the same nasty situation.

Robert De Niro in Being Flynn

What are the key themes of this film?
The story centers on the father-son relationship and the negative effects Jonathan's absence had on Nick's childhood. We see his mother (Julianne Moore) in flashbacks as she grows more dis-engaged and eventually commits suicide. He's never recovered from the blow, and his father's presence just re-ignites the pain. Jonathan puts up a wall and acts like everything is great, but he's a mess. He gets evicted from his apartment, loses his job, and is rejected by friends. Will Nick follow this path, or can he avoid the same mistakes? He's mentally competent, but that only takes you so far when drugs enter the picture. There's no way to forget the past, but Nick's only chance for survival is to find a way to live with it.

Olivia Thirlby in Being Flynn

Are the characters believable and fully drawn?
This is a personal story based on a real-life memoir, so it only works if we connect with the characters. De Niro inches close to going over the top, but he reins in the scenery chewing right before it goes too far. Jonathan has moments of clarity where he talks a lot of sense, but he's just a few inches from reaching insanity. De Niro does an excellent job making those shifts believable even while his behavior is unsettled. In one of his best moments, he stares in the mirror and is stunned to notice how old he's become. Paul Dano is an actor who often uses oddball quirks that alienate us from his characters. He has the trickier role where we need to care for Nick while he becomes self-destructive. Thankfully, Dano plays it straight and gives one of his strongest performances. Olivia Thirlby has less to do as Denise, but it's a key part to show how Nick has changed for the worse.

Robert De Niro in Being Flynn

What are some of the most memorable scenes?
The big scenes mostly involve De Niro, and he doesn't pull back in showing Jonathan's mania. He gives dramatic speeches in the shelter, drinks himself towards oblivion, and battles with everyone. It becomes a bit much to take at times, but this isn't an easy ride. An important scene for Nick is more low-key and has him testing his writing skills on other employees. It's difficult to depict this type of writing on screen and not make it ridiculous. Weitz is trying to show that Nick has talent, but the results are pretty mixed. It mostly makes him look like a self-indulgent goofball, which might be the idea. It's wise to not show too much of his words. Weitz stays focused on the main relationship and doesn't expand the world too far.

Paul Dano in Being Flynn

How’s the direction? Is there an original vision?
This material is a departure for Weitz, who's career includes comedies like American Pie and Little Fockers. He also directed About a Boy, which is lighter but had more realistic characters. The relationships in that film were believable and connect to this movie in a unconventional way. His style is pretty straightforward, but it works because it doesn't distract us from the characters. We shift between Nick and Jonathan's perspectives (and narration), and it gets us inside each guy's mindset.  Weitz lets De Niro take center stage, and this approach is the right move. The most interesting facet is the way he depicts the shelter. He creates a down-to-earth atmosphere that avoids the easy clichés and simply depicts the unfortunate residents living out there final days there.

Looking ahead, does this movie have a chance at making my Top 10 List?
Probably not. It's a good movie with strong acting but missing the extra touches to make it a favorite. I was interested in Nick's story and pulling for him to make it. The subject matter is tricky, but everyone handles it well. There are no major negatives that bring down the quality. That said, it's the not the type of movie that sticks with you for a long period of time. The end arrives quickly after a slow build-up, which removes some of the impact of the positive final scenes. The most resonant part is De Niro's convincing performance, which reminds me just how great he can be in the right role.

Next week, I'll join Mark Murphy for his band's final concert in Shut Up and Play the Hits.

October 8, 2012

My Year of Flops Marathon: John Carter (2012)

John Carter

Ever since I picked up Nathan Rabin's book My Year of Flops last year, I've been itching to do a marathon looking at some of the most notorious box-office busts in movie history. Rabin's series for the A.V. Club delves into obvious picks like Battlefield Earth and secret successes like Joe Versus the Volcano. The rest  of the choices will be films spotlighted in the book, but I decided to start with the obvious pick from 2012. Adapted from the 1917 book The Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Carter tells an ambitious tale of a Confederate soldier who journeys to a far-off world. Would this viewing confirm its status as one of the huge misfires of the year? Did a hidden gem lurk beneath all the baggage of the financial disaster? It's difficult to approach this type of movie without preconceived notions, but I tried to keep an open mind while catching up with such a derided film.

What's this story about?
After attending the funeral of his uncle, John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) reads his journal and uncovers a remarkable tale. The former Confederate captain describes his inadvertent discovery of a cave in the Arizona Territory. He finds a medallion that transports him to the land of Barsoom, known to us as Mars. This world is embroiled in a struggle between the forces of the nasty Sab Than of Zodanga (Dominic West) and the friendly people of Helium. This war may end with the marriage of their princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) and Sab Than. However, there's a plot behind the scenes from the Therns and their leader Matai Shang (Mark Strong). Carter can jump long distances because of his bone density, and he could be a key player. However, he's just looking for a way home. Saved by the Thark emperor Tars Tarkas (Willem Defoe), Carter must decide where he stands and if he'll to stick his neck out for his new friends.

Mark Strong in John Carter

How bad was the box office? What factors were involved in the failure?
John Carter has generated a domestic gross of $73 million, so it's played to a significant audience. The catch is that its reported production budget is around $250 million. It did slightly exceed that amount in its worldwide numbers, but that's deceptive because of the marketing costs. This is such an interesting case because of the extremely negative attention prior to the release. It felt like everyone was just itching to take down this expensive blockbuster. One of the reasons is Disney, which always brings out some haters. The bland title also did the film no favors. The phrase "of Mars" was removed from the end because previous movies involving Mars have flopped. That concern is understandable, but the alternative is even worse. Another issue was the promotional strategy, which focused almost solely on the otherworldly creatures and felt a lot like Avatar. Disney needed to a do a better job explaining what the story was and pushing it as a classic adventure.

Taylor Kitsch in John Carter

Looking at it today, what aspects of this movie really don't work?
It's easy to play armchair quarterback and dig into the ways John Carter fell flat. When you look at the movie itself, it's actually not that bad. The main issue is that the story's overly complicated. There's a confusing prologue that introduces the warring factions on Barsoom but doesn't make a lot of sense. By the time we get back to them, it's hard to remember exactly what we learned at the start. There is also some CGI that doesn't look believable. Even with the massive budget, Director Andrew Stanton's ambitions were so great that certain shots don't look realistic. When Carter is leaping hundreds of feet in the air from ship to ship, it's nearly impossible for it not to look like a video game. If viewers enter this film ready to hate it, this isn't the type of movie that immediately grabs you. It takes a while to get engaged in the story, and its strongest part is the final act. The plot also feels pretty familiar because many writers and directors used elements of Burroughs' work. You only need to look at a movie at Star Wars to see the similarities.

Lynn Collins in John Carter

Are there parts of this movie that actually work?
When you consider all the negative press, I'm surprised that it's actually a decent film. Once we get into the meat of the story, it's an engaging adventure with exciting scenes. Taylor Kitsch isn't an overly charismatic lead, but he does fine in a straightforward part. John Carter is a very reluctant hero, and his inability to take a stand becomes almost comical at times. Even so, watching him take charge works for me and sells the oddball material. The striking Lynn Collins is also solid in the princess role and makes her interesting. Neither are the types of characters you'll remember forever, but they work in the confines of this story. The strongest part is the final act, which brings everything together and makes you forget about the confusing opening. By the time we've returned to Burroughs for a final surprise, it's actually too bad there's little chance for a sequel.

Disney's John Carter

What are some of the most memorable scenes?
John Carter functions better as a collection of fun scenes that a complete movie. The highlight is the battle in the gladiator arena, which pits a chained Carter against two massive creatures with blood on the mind. It's a a silly fight but has just the right sense of adventure. Compared to the laughable arena battles in Attack of the Clones, this scene gets the moment right. When you're dealing with massive CGI beings, there's a fine line between keeping us engaged and creating monsters that are obviously green-screen creations. The framing story of Burroughs reading Carter's journal is an obvious trope, but it works surprisingly well. By the time we reach the end and understand the sad journey, it's surprisingly effective to see the resolution. It takes a while to get moving, but I felt the suspense when Burroughs discovers the truth. Even when you consider the messy elements, this success of the conclusion shows that the ride is worth it.

Dominic West in John Carter

In his book My Year of Flops, Nathan Rabin rated each movie as a Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success. Using that system, where would I rate this flop?
I wouldn't have expected it after the first half hour, but John Carter ranks as a secret success for me. It's an old-school adventure movie that doesn't take itself too seriously. While its quality doesn't match the original Pirates of the Caribbean film, they share a sense of excitement. Plus, you get the see the great Mark Strong playing yet another villain. Solid voice acting from Willem Defoe, Samantha Morton, and Thomas Haden Church makes the creatures feel like more than CGI inventions. It's too bad that all the negative press eclipsed any discussion of the story's actual merit. Dismissing this movie as a bloated mess is just too easy and doesn't give it the proper chance that any movie deserves. The budget shouldn't be a key factor in the success of a film.

Next week, I'll check out all the fuss about the notorious flop Howard the Duck.

August 17, 2012

Top 5 Most Anticipated Movies in the Rest of 2012

2012 is shaping up to be one of the top movie years of this young century. It's already provided great blockbusters like The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises plus excellent smaller work like Damsels in Distress and Moonrise Kingdom. The second half includes a score of releases from big-name filmmakers along with up-and-coming directors. This list easily could be expanded to cover 25 choices, so narrowing it down was no easy task. The placements are very subjective, and I could easily flip them around and still feel confident that they're the right picks. I'm not a big trailer fiend, so checking those out could also have a dramatic effect on the order. Regardless, the next four months should be heaven for any movie lover. Let's check out the list and see which films landed in my must-see group!

Honorable Mentions: Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik)Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino)
Both of these picks have the potential to reach my Top 10 list by the end of the year. New Zealand's Andrew Dominik has directed only two films but remains a growing talent. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford has stuck with me and become more intriguing since the viewing. Brad Pitt re-teams with Dominik for Killing Them Softly, a crime thriller that also stars Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins, and James Gandolfini. I'm in solely based on this group. I have the same feeling about Tarantino's latest epic, which has a brilliant cast. Along with stars like Jamie Foxx and Leonardo Dicaprio, we have Don Johnson, Bruce Dern, Walton Goggins, and Zoe Bell. Why isn't this higher on my list, you ask? I can't pinpoint the reason, but I'm experiencing a bit of Tarantino fatigue. I know it's crazy and will likely disappear when I see Django Unchained, but it's enough to just push it down the scale.

5. Seven Psychopaths (Martin McDonagh)
Martin McDonagh has only directed one movie, but it was the remarkable dark comedy In Bruges in 2008. He's returning in October with another offbeat look at the criminal underworld. This story takes place in Los Angeles and involves the kidnapping of a gangster's Shih Tzu. I'm on board with McDonagh for anything, but it helps to have a cast of over-the-top figures. Tom Waits, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell should chew every inch of scenery on the screen. These guys seem perfect for the British filmmaker's style and make this sophomore effort a highly anticipated choice.

4. Skyfall (Sam Mendes)
Even after the slight disappointment of Quantum of Solace, I can't wait to see the next chapter in Daniel Craig's run as James Bond. The plot is intriguing and centers around Judi Dench as M, which can't be a bad thing. Javier Bardem plays the heavy and brings even greater credibility to a franchise with plenty to spare. I've seen all the Bond movies and would be excited regardless, but the presence of Bardem and Ralph Fiennes raises my expectations. I might not love all of Sam Mendes' work, but he's an accomplished filmmaker who brings serious credibility to the job. Reports are that Skyfall won't connect as much to the first two movies, but I'm hoping that the revelations about the Quantum group still come into play. Craig has brought a professionalism to the franchise that was lacking during the latter Brosnan films. All the cards are in place for one of the great Bond movies.

3. Lincoln (Steven Spielberg)
Considering the tremendous interest in the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln, it's surprising that we haven't seen more stories about that time period. This trend is starting to change, and the most prominent example is Steven Spielberg's upcoming biopic about the 16th president. Once I heard that Daniel Day-Lewis would play the title role, this moved near the top of my list. Adapted from Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals, the screenplay is written by Tony Kushner (Munich, Angels in America). The strong cast includes Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant, David Strathairn as William Seward, and Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln. I have high hopes that Spielberg can avoid the pitfalls of the biopic and deliver a great film.

2. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson)
All I really need to say about this film is the name of its director. Paul Thomas Anderson hasn't missed yet with his five features, and this is one of his most intriguing concepts. The fictional depiction of a L. Ron Hubbard-like religious leader named Lancaster Dodd is primed to be one of the year's signature movies. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays "The Master" and has had great success with Anderson in the past. Joaquin Phoenix returns to the screen for the first time in four years (not counting I'm Still Here) as a drifter who joins up with Dodd. The teaser trailer gives away little about the plot, but that makes it even more compelling.

1. Looper (Rian Johnson)
I'm a sucker for time-travel movies, especially those that involve multiple variations of the same character. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a younger version of Bruce Willis' Joe who closely resembles him thanks to some clever make-up effects. Joe is a "looper" who travels through time to kill people for the mob. It's a stunning concept that only scratches the surface of where the story seems to be heading. Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels, and Garret Dillahunt co-star in this mind-bender. I haven't even mentioned that Looper is directed by Rian Johnson, whose other two movies are Brick and The Brothers Bloom. This September release will be here before I know it, and I can't wait to see how it lives up to expectations.

These five movies also just missed this list:
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
The Man with the Iron Fists

I'd love to hear your thoughts about this list. What upcoming films are you looking forward to the most? You should also check out past Top 5 Lists if you've missed them.

August 3, 2012

Top 5 Surprises from the Sight & Sound 2012 Poll

On August 1, the British film magazine Sight & Sound released the results of their critics poll listing the 50 best films of all time. This project occurs every 10 years and generates serious hand-wringing from movie lovers everywhere. The 2012 poll is the first one to arrive since the massive rise of film blogs, so we've entered a new era of chatter about the list. To be clear, this isn't just a post complaining about the selections. I've decided instead to look at five particular rankings that surprised me (positively or negatively). The top 10 has remained fairly static over the years, but there were some big moves this time. Back in February, I caught up with the three movies from the 2002 list that I'd missed so far: Sunrise, Tokyo Story, and Rules of the Game. All three remain in the current top group, but there's a new blind spot for me in the top 10, Dziga Vertov's Man with the Movie Camera. I'm planning to catch that surprise addition in the near future. Let's check out the list!

5. Vertigo Overtakes Citizen Kane at #1
Let's get the obvious pick out of the way first. It's not a surprise to me that Citizen Kane was replaced at #1. It's been there for 50 years, and there's a growing backlash from younger viewers. The shock is that it was replaced by Vertigo, which is considered a classic but not on the same scale. I have mixed feelings about the film despite a great performance from Jimmy Stewart. It's not one of my favorite Hitchcock movies, but I understand the acclaim. Even so, it's still a stunning move to see it topping the entire list.

4. A Rule Change Pushes The Godfather Down to #22
In previous polls, votes for multiple films in a series were combined into one entry. I'm not sure this is best, but it helped to place The Godfather and its sequel at #4 in 2002. While it remained on the Director's Poll at #7, Francis Ford Coppola's epic slipped to #22 for the critics with its sequel at #31. This is quite a tumble and places it behind many European art films like Persona and The Mirror. I'm not saying it's better than all of those choices, but it's still quite a change to see such an acclaimed film down that far.

3. Impressive Showings for Mulholland Drive and In the Mood for Love
Looking on the positive side, I was surprised by the positive results for two excellent films released at the start of this millennium. David Lynch's Mulholland Drive is a divisive movie and can be confusing, but it's hard to deny its visceral power. Its placement at #28 is remarkable and a reflection of the impact of younger voters. Sitting four spots higher at #24 is Wong Kar Wai's In the Mood for Love, a stunning look at romance and depression in the 1960s. While it's not a shock to see it on the list, it's great to see it this high. I expect that appreciation for this visual masterpiece will only grow in the upcoming years.

2. City Lights Is the Only Chaplin Entry at #50
While I understand that some critics believe Charlie Chaplin is overrated, it's remarkable to see him almost completely shut out from the list. It's clear that the voters appreciate silent films, but their tastes veer more towards dramatic work like The Passion of Joan of Arc than comedies. Even Buster Keaton's The General only checked in at #34. While I wouldn't dispute the placement of those silent films, it's a surprise to see a dismissal of Chaplin and Keaton. They made frequent appearances during the early polls, but newer releases have pushed them further and further down the rankings with each poll.

1. La Jetée Slides into the List and Ties for #50
There are plenty more head-scratching appearances on this list, but I'm going to close my thoughts by spotlighting a fun inclusion. Even though it's tied for the last spot, I still think it's pretty damn cool that Chris Marker's short film La Jetée made an appearance. Although it's mostly known for inspiring Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys, there's plenty to like with this 28-minute picture. It's shot in black-and-white and composed almost entirely of still photographs, yet the story completely works. Amazingly, Marker finds a way to make us care about the relationship a lot more than we expect. Even just getting a mention on this list should help to boost the growing popularity of this excellent short film.

I'd love to hear your thoughts about this list. What were your biggest surprises from the Sight & Sound list? Do you think that Vertigo deserves its top spot? Are your favorites up there? You should also check out the archive of past Top 5 Lists if you've missed them.

February 6, 2012

Soderbegh Marathon: Haywire (2012)

Back in November and December, I watched six movies by Steven Soderbergh and tackled some of his lesser-known titles like Gray's Anatomy and King of the Hill. It was an intriguing marathon that revealed a few big surprises, most notably the remarkable two Che pictures. Now that he's released Haywire in theaters, I figured it was only fitting to extend the marathon to cover his latest film. Like most of Soderbergh's work, it sidesteps preconceived notions and provides a different experience than you might expect. Once again, he's chosen an unknown for the lead role in MMA star Gina Carano. She'll likely do fine in the fight scenes, but does she portray a believable character? Let's check out the questions to find the answers to this and other important aspects of this movie.

What's this story about?
Mallory (Gina Carano) is on the run from both the government and her former employers at a private military company. Someone has double-crossed her, and she'll do anything to find out who's behind this mess. Her former lover and boss Kenneth (Ewan McGregor) is a likely culprit, but someone else is pulling the strings. Brutal killers like the hulking Aaron (Channing Tatum) and the smooth Paul (Michael Fassbender) have the green light to take her out, but Mallory is no ordinary target. She's intelligent and extremely skilled in hand-to-hand combat, so these guys had best be wary. Underestimating Mallory could lead them to a quick end.

Does this film show more of "indie Soderbergh" or "mainstream Soderbergh"?
I've found that few Soderbergh films easily fit into a single choice, and Haywire is no exception. On one hand, it's a straightforward action story with a recognizable cast and exciting scenes. However, the script from Lem Dobbs (The Limey) avoids the conventional approach and keeps us in the dark. The narrative shifts around time periods and only slowly reveals who's set up Mallory. Soderbergh also shoots the events from unique perspectives as the cinematographer. The camera sits in odd locations, which keeps us on edge about the next moment. He plants obstacles between us and Mallory, even when important events are taking place. The focus is also off-balance and places the characters away from the middle of the frame. The action is clear enough to avoid confusion, but Soderbergh's clever approach keeps the story moving even when little is happening.

What are the key themes of this film?
Haywire works as a fun thriller with incredible hand-to-hand fight scenes. I won't even try to dig into larger themes that aren't there. Soderbergh and Dobbs aim to deliver a spare, energetic chase film and succeed. Working with Gershon's fighting skills, they give Mallory plenty of chances to beat the stuffing out of anyone who stands in her way. She's not sadistic, but her professional manner of dispatching the enemies is surprisingly direct. One of the best sequences is a brutal hotel room fight with Paul (Michael Fassbender), a smooth but effective killer. When Mallory gets the upper hand, she's doesn't hesitate. Soderbergh delivers a brisk, 93-minute film that contrasts sharply with the overblown blockbusters that dominate multiplexes. Although he's working from a $25 million budget, it feels like a low-budget experiment to take back the action film from Michael Bay and his cohorts.

Are the characters believable and fully drawn?
Along with the fights, the big draw is the cast, which includes supporting turns from Bill Paxton, Michael Douglas, and Antonio Banderas. None of these guys has much screen time, but each creates a believable character. Paxton is excellent as Mallory's father and conveys his trust in her with just a few glances. During the most recent stage of his career, he's shown a depth that wasn't evident in crazier early roles. Even with the strong ensemble, this movie only works if Carano proves that she can act. Her role doesn't require much emotion, but it's still impressive to watch her match the acting heavyweights. Carano is attractive but still convincing as a killing machine. This movie should provide a springboard to a solid career. I should also mention Ewen McGregor, whose character is most notable for his awful haircut. He plays a key role in the plot but doesn't give one of his better performances.

What are some of the most memorable scenes?
The story opens at a diner and gives us almost no information about the two characters that are meeting. Aaron and Mallory appear to be having a fairly sane conversation, and it quickly escalates into nasty battle that involves coffee in the face and serious damage. This scene immediately creates the atmosphere for the rest of the story. Talk is cheap, and the wrong answer can lead to a deadly resolution. All the fight scenes are top-notch and differ greatly from the quick-cutting of the Bourne sequels. It's usually clear what's happening, even when Carano is performing her major acrobatic feats. There also are some interesting scenes that don't involve punching. Mallory's tense meeting with Douglas' government official reveals a possible way out but unspoken menace behind the promises. Paxton's scenes with Carano also work better than you might expect for this type of movie.

How does this movie fall within Soderbergh's career?
Haywire falls short of the top tier (Out of Sight, The Limey) of Soderbergh's work but still provides an entertaining ride. There are plenty of examples from his career where he takes a possibly generic story (Erin Brockovich, The Informant!) and makes it a lot more. A perfect example is the abrupt ending, which is almost certain to frustrate many viewers. I can't think of a better way to close out this type of story. The next events are obvious and aren't going to exceed our expectations. It's a risky move for a film that's playing multiplexes, but the people who hate the choice probably won't like the rest of the movie. There's less danger for such a modest budget, and Soderbergh has the pedigree to take the shot. Dropped into the morass of January releases, I expect this film to find a larger audience at home. It's a gem to check out if you're not doing back flips for the Underworld sequel.