Monday, January 30, 2012
In 1927 silent movie actor George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) has reached his zenith. He’s beloved by fans for his charm and by studio boss Al Zimmer (a perfectly cast John Goodman) for his marquee value. Aspiring actress Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) stumbles onto a photo opportunity with Valentin and secures an extra position on the star’s next film, which fails to please his wife, Doris (Penelope Ann Miller). But the movie business is about to change with the advent of sound. Valentin adamantly refuses to make a talking picture and leaves the studio to produce and star in his next silent vehicle. Meanwhile Peppy works her way up the cast tier and by embracing the new medium becomes a rising star. As fate would have it the latest films of each open on the same day, with disastrous results for Valentin and instant stardom for Peppy. The former star’s world collapses. His wife leaves him, and only his chauffer (James Cromwell) and loyal dog (Uggie) remain. After browbeating Zimmer with her freshly attained clout, Peppy proposes Valentin accept a role opposite her. But the prideful Valentin refuses her charity and begins his downward spiral. Shot in gorgeous black-and-white by Guillaume Schiffman, writer/director Michel Hazanavicius’ mostly silent film succeeds as a loving re-creation of the era. His sharp, economic visual style and the expressive performances of his exquisite cast minimize the need for title cards. Dujardin exudes the requisite charisma and finds moments of vulnerability beneath the façade. Likewise Bejo hits all the right silent notes as a star who doesn’t forget her roots. For the film’s first hour Hazanavicius fires on all cylinders, reveling in the nostalgic conceits of the period, and concocts a dream sequence that captures the film’s heart and soul. But it misfires when the light tone turns tragic and Ludovic Bource’s quirky score becomes subsumed by that of Bernard Herrmann’s VERTIGO. Valentin’s transformation into a self-pitying and self-destructive wretch diminishes his appeal nearly past caring. But the film’s final scene brings us back from the abyss with an exuberant, redemptive dance number.
Friday, January 27, 2012
Writer/director Asghar Farhadi’s riveting Iranian melodrama opens with husband Nader (Peyman Moadi) and wife Simin (Leila Hatami) pleading their case to an unseen judge (from whose point of view we watch the entire scene). Simin has filed for divorce because she believes the family should move abroad to provide more opportunities for daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) and Nader refuses because he must care for his elderly father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. The two snipe at each other, childish in their respective intransigence, so we commiserate with the judge when he dismisses the case due to a lack of seriousness. Simin moves out, so Nader hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to care for his father. Razieh, a devout Muslim and four months pregnant, needs the job to help her hotheaded husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) pay his debts. Nader and Termeh arrive home one afternoon to find the old man tied to his bed and money missing, so Nader presumes the worst. Razieh returns and vehemently denies that she stole, but Nader throws her out. She collapses on the stairway and lands in hospital. After Razieh miscarries, legal recriminations fly, throwing both households into further turmoil. Farhadi elicits uniformly strong performances from his exceptional cast, and his generous script remains empathetic while refusing to excuse. As we come to identify with a character Farhadi upends our expectations, and we question our allegiance. His scenes feel messy, random, true to life. We are never quite sure where the film is going and subsequently never feel settled. By the time the film reaches its heartbreaking conclusion, however, Farhadi’s method becomes apparent. We are back in the judge’s chamber from the first scene, and we no longer find the situation lacking in seriousness. The overlooked Termeh provides our point of view now. The stunning final shot matches the first. In it Nader and Simin sit facing but not looking at each other. This time they are silent. Farhadi’s film about the ties that bind and unravel is a compassionate wonder.
Wednesday, January 25, 2012
George Clooney’s latest directorial effort plunges its audience into a fierce battle for the Democratic presidential nomination during the lead up to the Ohio primary. While Governor Mike Morris (Clooney) and his rival Senator Pullman (Michael Mantell) spar, Morris’ campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his right hand man Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) work behind the scenes to shore up the pledged delegates of sanctimonious South Carolina Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright), which could all but sow up the nomination. Though Meyers believes in and idealizes Morris’ policy goals, he’s a pragmatist in the mechanics of electoral politics. At an off-the-record meeting with Pullman’s campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), Meyers is made to doubt the Morris/Thompson alliance and is offered a chance to switch teams. The rising star demurs. Meanwhile Meyers has been having a fling with young intern Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood) but discovers that she had a carnal encounter with the Governor that left her in a predicament. The script by Clooney & Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon, based on Willimon’s play “Farragut North”, works best when it focuses on election strategy and back door machinations. There the writing and directing feel honest and on sure footing. The film stumbles when it introduces the promiscuous intern and unfaithful politician storyline, which quickly devolves into credulity-straining melodrama. Wood suffers for this, wasting her affecting work on a thinly written role. Hoffman and Giamatti provide solid support but are shunted to the film’s edges, and Clooney seems curiously disengaged. While Gosling’s natural charm serves his character well, the script tells us that Meyers is both a dreamer and shrewd political player. Yet he is duped too often to be convincing as a savvy campaign manager, and he compromises his ideals too readily to make a believable idealist. We have no clear idea of who Meyers is, which proves to be the film’s central problem. And while that may be the point, it makes for an unsatisfying movie.
Monday, January 23, 2012
This terrific new adaptation of John le Carré’s classic novel immerses the viewer in a palpable Cold War paranoia of the early 1970s yet attains a vibrant immediacy that precludes its delegation to the nostalgia archive. After a botched operation that takes down agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) British Intelligence head Control (John Hurt) is asked to leave the Circus (as the agency is known) along with protégé George Smiley (Gary Oldman). But government minister Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney) coaxes the forcibly retired protégé into investigating the possibility that there’s a mole (double-agent) at the top of the Circus. The list of suspects consists of the organization’s current leadership – current head Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik). Smiley enlists the help of junior agent Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), whose rogue agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) claims to have a contact that can identify the Soviet mole. Screenwriters Bridget O’Connor & Peter Straughan distil le Carré’s labyrinthine plot without the need to spoon-feed. More importantly, they find the film’s dramatic key, as any reputable spy would, by locating and exploiting the characters’ blind spots to brilliant effect. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s subtle cinematography follows this lead with a classical approach, using slow pans for the important reveals. Maria Djurkovic’s sharply conceived production design captures the look of the period but never feels like a museum piece. Composer Alberto Iglesias and music supervisor Nick Angel bookend the film with surprising choices that feel just right. The ensemble of first-rate character actors is impeccable, from the muted Oldman to the live wire Hardy to the charming Firth to the endearing Cumberbatch. Tomas Alfredson’s directorial alchemy brings all these elements together cohesively and matches the design with a pace and tone that harkens back to a bygone era. This emotionally and intellectually satisfying film draws favorable comparison to Arthur Penn and Francis Ford Coppola in their heyday and heralds an exciting new directing talent.
Friday, January 20, 2012
The audience first glimpses Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) in the immediate aftermath of a downsizing bloodbath at the investment firm where he currently manages the now-decimated sales team. He’s slumped at his desk on the verge of tears because his dog is dying. At the prompting of subordinate Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) Rogers gives a vacuous pep talk to the survivors, among them risk analyst Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) and junior analyst Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley). Their immediate supervisor, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), was not so lucky. Before being escorted out of the building, however, the risk manager hands Peter an unfinished project and admonishes the young man to be careful. After work hours, while his team carouses at a club, Peter finishes the project but sees a disturbing trend in the matrix. He calls Seth at the bar to urge Will (now his supervisor) back to the office. Will calls in Sam, who calls in Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore) and Jared Cohen (Simon Baker), who, despite the early hour, calls the firm’s head John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), who calls an emergency senior management meeting. The market’s current volatility, Peter explains, has caused the firm’s extensive mortgage-backed securities portfolio to lose its value. Unless you’ve lived under a rock since 2008, you will recognize that writer/director J.C. Chandor loosely based his fictional firm on Lehman Brothers, the failure of which led to the financial market crash, followed by international economic devastation. This efficient boardroom thriller is less interested in the outcome (we know how it ends) than in the thought process and decision-making that leads to it. The appealing Quinto draws us into this alien world of self-serving, ethically challenged characters, and the stellar ensemble serves the material well, especially the vampirish Irons and the versatile Bettany, who uncovers fascinating layers without succumbing to likability. Chandor’s spare dialogue streamlines the action nicely, but his otherwise sharp script tries too hard (as does Spacey) to give Sam moral absolution.
Thursday, January 19, 2012
Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling book becomes a highly anticipated feature film which falters in its feel-good approach to a troubled period in history. I have not read the novel, but I have reasonable assurance from one who has that writer/director Tate Taylor’s adaptation is a faithful one. In pre-civil rights Mississippi recent college graduate Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) returns to Jackson to pursue a career as a writer. Her newfound political awareness leads to friction with her peers, particularly Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), a proponent of segregation who fires her maid Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) for using the family commode. Minny plots her revenge in part by going to work for Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), a housewife shut out of Hilly’s social gatherings. While working at the local newspaper Skeeter pitches to publisher Elain Stein (Mary Steenburgen) her idea for a book written from the perspective of the black women who care for well-to-do families in the South. Persuading the help (as these women are called) to grant interviews becomes Skeeter’s biggest challenge. With reluctance Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) agrees, to the initial consternation, and eventual cooperation, of her fellow domestics. Davis gives a subtle and nuanced performance, but her character may as well wear a halo. Chastain charms as the guileless Celia, and her chemistry with Spencer’s brassy Minny provides what spark the film has. Yet neither overcomes the simplistic writing. Stone is strangely subdued, while Howard gamely attacks her one-note character with gusto. The early 1960s were a volatile time filled with societal upheaval. Yet Taylor’s film feels too tidy for its time. Although the violent deaths of Medgar Evers (an outspoken black civil rights activist) and John F. Kennedy get their mention, the events’ societal shock waves get relegated to the periphery. Taylor’s film (and, I suspect, Stockett’s novel) are eager for the audience to congratulate itself on how far race relations have come (and they have). But to have that self-satisfaction permeate a film set predominately in 1963 Mississippi strikes a frustratingly false note.
Wednesday, January 18, 2012
In the early 20th century Sigmund Freud’s ideas about sexual desire and repression had gained reluctant traction in the treatment of mental disorders. At his Zurich clinic Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), a student of Freud’s methods, attempts his mentor’s controversial talking cure on hysterical patient Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley). Over time the treatment, termed psychoanalysis by Freud (Viggo Mortensen), tempers Spielrein’s disorder but ignites her passion both to become a therapist in her own right and for her married doctor. She enters the university to the former end and begins an affair with the repressed Jung for the latter. Meanwhile the Vienna-based Freud begins a correspondence with Jung in which the colleagues discuss how their theories have begun to diverge. The staid Freud believes in a more rigid academic approach, whereas Jung is open to broader explorations. Freud terms Jung’s divergences “mysticism” and fears they will undermine the credibility of the vocation he has worked hard to legitimize. The film teems with seduction and betrayal, though not of the body but of the mind. When they’re not attempting to seduce each other to their theoretical cause, Jung and Freud compete for Spielrein’s intellectual soul, and she theirs. Give credit to screenwriter Christopher Hampton for this effective transference from the carnal to the cerebral. He adapts his play “The Talking Cure”, which was based on John Kerr’s book A Most Dangerous Method, and fashions a lively drama of ideas. Fassbender fascinates as the outwardly proper but inwardly tumultuous Jung, torn between clinical objectivity and subjective stimulation. Mortensen brings wily bemusement to the role of Freud, with a knowing twinkle behind his watchful eyes. The real surprise here is Knightley, who takes the physicality of Spielrein’s neurosis to a daring yet never overwrought level without losing the underlying humanity. Though the film retains an appropriate verbosity, director David Cronenberg energizes the frame with both visual and dramatic rigor, releasing it from the confines of its stodgy period trappings.
Thursday, January 12, 2012
In the beginning, graphic artist Oliver Fields (Ewan McGregor) optimistically observes, sadness did not yet exist. We first meet Oliver as he wanders through the barren home of his deceased father Hal (Christopher Plummer), packing up boxes and throwing out bags, and he is very sad. Four years earlier, shortly after the death of wife Georgia (Mary Page Keller), Hal admitted to Oliver that he was and is gay. Even as a boy Oliver knew there were problems with his parents’ marriage but could never get answers from his depressed mother or absent father. To console himself in grief Oliver begins confiding in Hal’s Jack Russell terrier Arthur (the wonderful Cosmo), who at times replies in discrete subtitles. Arthur responds to separation anxiety by whining and crying, so Oliver feels compelled to bring the dog with him everywhere, including a costume party. At this party Oliver (dressed as Sigmund Freud) meets French actress Anna (Mélanie Laurent), who’s dressed as a mute (actually she has laryngitis). They spend a chaste night together during which they remove their costumes and finally reveal themselves. A fragile courtship commences. Writer/director Mike Mills’ sublime new film explores the ways in which we hide our true selves from each other and, often, from ourselves; but his touch is delicate and his tone whimsical. Mills tells his story with fragments of memory, moving back and forth in time from Oliver’s childhood with his mother, to his growing acceptance of his now openly gay father, to the film’s present, as Oliver navigates a relationship with Anna while grappling with his fear of commitment. McGregor’s understatement works beautifully here, as does his unaffected interplay with Cosmo. With her open face and soulful eyes Laurent expresses Anna’s every hope and fear with subtle glances. And Plummer continues to astound with his playfulness and in his refusal to indulge in sentiment. Likewise Mills avoids easy answers or pat resolution. But his film still provides comfort, because it’s wise enough to know that, when it comes to understanding even those closest to us, we all are beginners.
Wednesday, January 11, 2012
In 1956 confident Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) heads to London to work on THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL, a film to be directed by and starring Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) and featuring Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams). Though his official title is 3rd Assistant Director, Colin acts as glorified gofer and becomes our fly on the wall. The production gets off to a rocky start when Marilyn arrives late on set, leaning heavily on her Method coach Paula Strasberg (a wonderful Zoe Wanamaker) for guidance. Just as the meticulous director and free-spirited starlet find an uneasy working relationship, her new husband, playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), leaves for America upsetting the fragile actress and the shoot’s tenuous momentum. Fearing abandonment, Marilyn turns to lowly Colin for companionship for much of the tumultuous production. Adrian Hodges based his episodic screenplay on Clark’s memoirs, My Week with Marilyn and The Prince, the Showgirl and Me. He conjures wistful scenes but never finds a cohesive story to tell. Likewise director Simon Curtis, with the help of able designers, captures the period’s look and feel but fails to fashion a compelling movie beyond that of romantic nostalgia. Redmayne’s casting as the thinly written Clark is the film’s fatal flaw. The charmless narrator comes off as an ingratiating hanger-on with a demeanor more suited to an agent or production executive and is unbelievable as the object of the reclusive star’s affection. However, the film’s chief pleasures derive from several memorable performances (Redmayne’s notwithstanding). Judi Dench is delicious as Dame Sybil Thorndike but spends little time on screen, and Emma Watson (HARRY POTTER’s Hermione) shines briefly in the thankless role of Clark’s non-Marilyn romantic interest. Branagh nicely evokes both ego and vulnerability, while Julia Ormond as Olivier’s wife Vivien Leigh barely registers. But the luminous Williams nearly salvages the movie by capturing Monroe’s spark and sadness so seamlessly you forget you’re not watching the real thing. It’s a shame she hasn’t a better vehicle to showcase her considerable talents.
Monday, January 9, 2012
Although I have not read the best-selling novel by Stieg Larsson upon which this film is based, I have seen the 2009 Swedish version. And because the new English-language adaptation (written by Steven Zaillian and directed by David Fincher) tracks its foreign predecessor nearly to the letter, I feel confident proclaiming that both versions closely hew to the popular source material. Wealthy entrepreneur Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) hires disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) to determine what happened to his niece Harriet, who vanished from the family’s island compound 40 years earlier and is believed to have been murdered. When his investigation puts him on the trail of a serial killer predating the girl’s disappearance by several years, Blomkvist requests a research assistant. He receives Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), the tattooed and pierced cyber savant sociopath who performed Blomqvist’s background check for Vanger. The film only alludes to past events which turned Lisbeth into an androgynous grotesque, but she has adequate present day problems. As a 20-something ward of the state, Lisbeth must report to (and get access to her own funds from) sleazy social worker Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen), who isn’t above sexual blackmail. With the reluctant assistant of Vanger’s nephew Martin (Stellan Skarsgard) and estranged niece Anita (Joely Richardson), Blomkvist and Lisbeth delve deeper into the family’s sordid history until the corruption and depravity threaten to consume them. The performances are uniformly excellent. Craig makes for an appealing if ethically questionable hero, while Mara hints at the wounded child underneath Lisbeth’s feral exterior. Zaillian’s efficient yet atmospheric script clarifies Larsson’s lumbering plot but sets up the next film with a confusing, overlong epilogue. Fincher’s elegant direction evokes the bleakness of character and setting, while creating a growing sense of dread. That said, the film’s subject matter is unsavory to the point of moral rot, and one can’t help but wonder who besides fans of the book would find this enjoyable. And I even wonder about them.
Thursday, January 5, 2012
I normally avoid the “man-child” comedy, the subgenre in which a 30- or 40-something fellow or group of fellows makes irresponsible decisions and/or behaves immaturely, and the wives and/or girlfriends (and the audience) are expected to smile, shake their collective heads, and find the man-child’s emotionally stunted behavior endearing and/or life affirming before the end credits roll. See just about any Will Ferrell or Adam Sandler movie, if you’re still unclear. Meet Tim Lippe (the wonderful Ed Helms), a 30-something fellow who lives alone in the fictional burg of Brown Valley, who carries on with his former high school teacher (Sigourney Weaver), works for a boutique insurance firm owned by Bill Krogstad (Stephen Root), and has never set foot outside his small town. After the firm’s top salesman dies under unsavory circumstances Krogstad sends guileless Lippe to a Cedar Rapids convention, hoping to attain the prestigious Two Diamonds award given by sanctimonious host Oren Helgesson (Kurtwood Smith). Quickly seduced by air travel and hotel amenities, Lippe finds himself drawn to more seasoned conventioneers, the gregarious Dean Ziegler (a terrific John C. Reilly) and the flirtatious Joan (an unexpected Anne Heche). In the course of the film Lippe learns, and at times provides, valuable lessons about loyalty, friendship and integrity. Phil Johnston’s screenplay contains all the elements of a man-child comedy, and it’s easy to see where, in less compassionate hands, the film could have devolved into generic nonsense. But somewhere from page to screen director Miguel Arteta and the cast wisely chose to take the characters and situations seriously, rather than as cause for comforting derision. Reilly is both buffoonish and sympathetic, while Heche finds the desperation beneath her character’s firecracker exterior. Helms, in turn, gives the child-like Lippe a dignity both surprising and moving. This more honest approach makes for a less gut-busting comedy, but what laughs there are feel earned. While Arteta’s film never completely transcends the dreaded man-child subgenre, it proves that all is not yet lost.
Wednesday, January 4, 2012
With reluctance I admit that Brad Bird’s first live-action film, the fourth installment in the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE franchise, is the best of the series and delivers all one could want from a popcorn picture. So it may be some time before Bird returns to his animation roots, if ever; hence my conflicted emotions. Bird directed (and wrote or co-wrote) three of my favorite animated films: THE IRON GIANT (which, if you haven’t seen, please rent immediately), THE INCREDIBLES, and RATATOUILLE. With those masterpieces he achieved the rare alchemy of rich characterizations, elegant storytelling and gorgeous imagery. M:I4 does not hit those heights. The characters are flat but functional, and the storytelling crisp but not particularly surprising. Yet the visuals are spectacular and the film consistently excites despite, and sometimes because of, its familiarity. After Russian missile launch codes are stolen, IMF agents Jane Carter (Paula Patton) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) break Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) out of a Serbian prison to reacquire them and prevent nuclear war. But after an attack at the Kremlin, during which anarchist Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist) acquires a nuclear device, the IMF is implicated in the terrorist act and disavowed. Ethan’s boss (an uncredited Tom Wilkinson) initiates Ghost Protocol (authorizing operations without official sanction) to keep the team together. William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) joins the group, and they travel to Dubai where a Hendricks operative intends to purchase the launch codes. There follows a thrilling action centerpiece involving a 100-plus-story skyscraper and a sandstorm. Cruise appears more relaxed than he has in years (though his intense, jaw-clenched running is still laughable), and Nyqvist is a remorseless villain. Patton exudes both proficiency and sex appeal, while Pegg’s brilliant comic timing salvages somewhat clumsy dialogue. Renner, appealing though he may be, however, never entirely convinces. Much of the blame must fall on screenwriters Josh Appelbaum & André Nemec, who saddle the actor with an awkward back-story involving Ethan’s absent wife. Nevertheless Bird’s confident direction carries the day. Let’s hope he returns for the inevitable sequel.
Tuesday, January 3, 2012
Steven Spielberg’s first animated directorial effort is a fast-paced and visually sophisticated adaptation of the comic book series by Hergé. When we first meet intrepid investigative boy reporter Tintin (voiced by Jamie Bell) he’s purchasing a meticulously rendered replica of the Unicorn, a ship scuttled during a pirate attack over 300 years ago by its captain, Sir Francis Haddock. But sinister Mr. Sakharine (Daniel Craig) wants the model for himself because it contains a clue to the Unicorn’s sunken treasure. When Tintin refuses to sell, Sakharine kidnaps the boy and stows him aboard a cargo ship bound for Morocco that he has stolen from its drunken Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), descendent of Sir Francis, who is also held prisoner. Tintin and his loyal, resourceful dog Snowy must rescue Haddock, escape the ship, and find the remaining clues to the treasure before Sakharine does. Writers Steven Moffat and Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish embrace the source material’s serial nature, and Spielberg attacks the story with a zest and playfulness too often absent post RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, his kindred film from thirty years ago. The motion-capture animation technique the movie employs can be difficult to appreciate, as it often renders movement stilted and alien, preventing immersion in story and character (see THE POLAR EXPRESS as the most aggravating example). However, with minor exception, directorial verve and breathless tempo overcome that obstacle here. Spielberg and the screenwriters also take full advantage of animation’s mutability with one of the most imaginative and economical back-story sequences in recent memory. The vocal performances by the surprising Craig and the reliable Serkis are elegant and devoid of ego, a refreshing change from the stunt cast work in far too many non-Pixar animated films of the past decade. In addition Nick Frost and Simon Pegg provide delicious comic relief as bumbling detectives Thomson and Thompson. Though some of the action sequences become overly frantic, Spielberg and company have crafted a satisfying, old-fashioned adventure with excitement and heart to spare.