Monday, January 28, 2013
The popular 1985 musical written by Claude-Michel Schönberg & Alain Boublil with English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer (based on Victor Hugo’s gigantic 1862 novel) makes its long-awaited transition to the big screen, care of screenwriter William Nicholson and director Tom Hooper. Fans of this particular musical will likely rejoice; however, fans of movie musicals will likely cringe. Following the bombastic braying of horns the film opens with French prisoner Jean Valjean (an earnest Hugh Jackman) learning of his parole from guard Javert (a banal Russell Crowe). Valjean breaks parole but vows to be a better man. Flash forward several years. Unwed mother Fantine (a committed Anne Hathaway) works in a factory owned by the now legitimate (and aliased) Valjean. The manager fires her while a distracted Valjean allays the suspicions of (now) Inspector Javert. Fantine turns to prostitution, is mutilated and nearly arrested before Valjean intercedes and vows at Fantine’s deathbed to look after her young daughter. With his identity revealed to Javert, Valjean flees with Cosette in tow. Flash forward to the June Rebellion of 1832. Marius (a tepid Eddie Redmayne) is torn between his commitment to rebel Enjolras (a charismatic Aaron Tveit) and his infatuation with beautiful adult Cosette (a fragile Amanda Seyfried). Valjean, realizing that Marius is his young ward’s best chance to escape his (Valjean’s) tainted past, joins the front line to protect him. Javert, meanwhile, converges on the barricades to smash the rebellion. Amidst this cavalcade are unsavory innkeeper Thénardier (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his even less savory wife (Helena Bonham Carter), both clumsily executed, their daughter Eponine (an affecting Samantha Barks), and rebel boy Gavroche (a rousing Daniel Huttlestone). This subject clearly deserves epic treatment. However, rather than use the widescreen spectacle to best advantage, director Hooper pedantically focuses on actors’ faces in close up. This conceit telegraphs “emotion” but fails to create an interesting or cogent visual palate. Rather than sweep you up in the characters’ passions, the film crushes you with them.
Wednesday, January 23, 2013
In 2003 writer/director Quentin Tarantino released the first of his two KILL BILL volumes and began his cinematic preoccupation with violent revenge. He continued down this road with the “Death Proof” segment of GRINDHOUSE and the muddled World War II fantasia, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. Now Tarantino’s fascination culminates in this enormously entertaining, blood-soaked western set in the antebellum South. Bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) executes rough justice for the courts, gunning down wanted men and hauling back the corpses for cash. In his search for three outlaw brothers Schultz enlists (and frees) slave Django (Jamie Foxx), who knows them by sight. An expert marksman, Django proves a natural for the bounty hunting business, so Schultz hires him for the winter. After the thaw he agrees to help Django locate and rescue his beloved wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who had been sold after a failed escape attempt. The trail leads to Candyland, a plantation owned by ruthless Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), and Schultz must fashion an elaborate ruse so he and Django can gain access. Ornately constructed dialogue and sudden violence are Tarantino trademarks, and here he codes his carnage to elicit varying responses. He films violent acts directed at oppressed black slaves with realism, causing viewers to recoil from the screen. When white oppressors meet their ignominious ends, however, the deaths are accompanied by cartoonish gouts of blood, undermining the horror and inviting viewer amusement instead. But Tarantino’s racial politics are not cut-and-dried, as evidenced by Candie’s house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), a malignant Uncle Tom who sells out his race for power and comfort, and becomes the film’s most complex villain. Waltz captivates as the amoral but enlightened Schultz, while DiCaprio clearly relishes his diabolical turn and scores his finest performance in two decades. Thanks to Foxx’s solid, centering presence, the film keeps in sight the operatic love stories at its sanguine heart: that of Django and Broomhilda, and that of Tarantino and the movies.
Friday, January 18, 2013
Yann Martel’s beloved 2002 novel about a teenage Indian boy adrift in a lifeboat with a tiger is highly problematic as source material for a film. Against long odds screenwriter David Magee and director Ang Lee have fashioned a faithful and mostly successful screen adaptation, thanks in no small part to exceptional CG tiger effects, David Gropman’s gorgeous production design and ravishing 3-D cinematography by Claudio Miranda. (Here this now-overused technology feels organic and integral.) We first meet Pi as a middle-aged man (played with warmth and quiet gravitas by Irrfan Khan) as he recounts his remarkable story to a Writer (Rafe Spall). The tale begins in Pondicherry, India, where teen Pi (Suraj Sharma) lives with his family and spends much of his time at his father’s zoo, when he isn’t experimenting with every religious faith available to him. His parents (Adil Hussain and Tabu) decide to sell the zoo and transport family and animals (the latter for future sale) via freighter to Canada. During a violent storm the ship sinks, and Pi escapes on a lifeboat with an injured zebra, a vicious hyena, a seasick orangutan, and an adult Bengal tiger whimsically named Richard Parker. Once the storm abates animal instinct takes over, and before long the hyena dispatches the zebra and orangutan then is summarily devoured by the tiger. Pi spends much of the film’s middle section negotiating his survival and co-existence with Richard Parker without becoming tiger or shark food. Lee and his design team use every tool at their disposal to create the movie equivalent of magical realism, from the star-filled night sky reflected in the glass of the vast Pacific Ocean to exotic sea life above and just beneath the water’s surface, leaving the viewer to determine what is real and what is the product of Pi’s fevered imagination. In the central role Sharma is merely adequate, too often overshadowed by his CG companions, and the film never quite achieves transcendence. However, the filmmakers have conjured an often powerful reminder of the life-sustaining and transformative power of a good story. And that itself is a rare enough feat.
Thursday, January 17, 2013
Painfully shy 15-year-old Charlie (Logan Lerman) dreads the new school year because his old friends no longer hang out with or even acknowledge him. We sense from the eggshell walking of his parents (Dylan McDermott and Kate Walsh) that some trauma scarred this young man into social disability. Even his understanding English literature teacher Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd) struggles to pull budding writer Charlie out of his reticence. Enter flamboyant Patrick (Ezra Miller) and stepsister Sam (Emma Watson), two outcast seniors who seem comfortable with their station in high school society. They welcome Charlie into their inner circle, which includes aggressive Buddhist Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman), and soon he’s attending parties, eating pot-laced brownies, and participating in Rocky Horror Picture Show events. But as with any close-knit group, romantic entanglements begin to cause friction. Charlie is hopelessly smitten with Sam, but she has a college age boyfriend. So when Mary Elizabeth asks Charlie to a dance, he agrees, despite his feelings for Sam, because he fears ejection from the group. Meanwhile Patrick hides his ongoing romance with closeted football jock Brad (Johnny Simmons). During this social awakening Charlie continues to struggle with recurring memories, most involving his beloved Aunt Helen (Melanie Lynskey), who died years earlier. Her loss, we gradually infer, may have led to this withdrawal. Or perhaps it was his best friend’s suicide last May. Stephen Chbosky adapted his own young adult novel for the screen and displays an acute sense of how teens relate to and speak with each other. However, Chbosky comes up short as director. The episodic story never coalesces completely, and the reveal of Charlie’s trauma feels abrupt and insufficiently set up. Perhaps a more objective eye would have provided more story cohesion and have sharpened significant moments. Still the film has much to recommend, particularly Miller’s vibrant performance, a significant departure from his skin-crawling turn as a young sociopath in last year’s WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN.
Wednesday, January 16, 2013
In 1962 James Bond made his film debut in the persona of Sean Connery. Fifty years, twenty-two films and several iterations later, Daniel Craig, now in his third appearance as the iconic character, has made it his own and of its time. Connery was the epitome of 1960s cool as he romanced women and killed Cold War thugs while barely breaking a sweat. Craig is the 007 for our anxious age in which terrorists are the enemy and harder to spot. Although he’s as adept as his predecessors at sex and death, the burden weighs on him. In this film’s opening set piece Bond and fellow agent Eve (Naomie Harris) are in hot pursuit of a stolen list with the names of embedded spies. M (Judi Dench), monitoring the action back at MI6, makes a judgment call that results in the loss of the list and the near death of 007. In the aftermath of that failed operation bureaucrat Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) questions Bond’s fitness for duty and informs M that she must offer her resignation in two months’ time. A cyber-attack on MI6, coordinated with the release of several agents’ names, however, compels M to put a chastened Bond back in the field to locate the thief. The dangerous trail leads him to a remote island and the effete but deadly Silva (Javier Bardem), a former agent and M’s disenchanted protégé, who has a personal vendetta against his previous employer. At first Sam Mendes, a director best known for such self-important fare as AMERICAN BEAUTY and REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, seems an odd choice for a Bond film. Yet the franchise’s popcorn sensibilities and its requisite outlandish action seem to have freed him from his more turgid instincts. The script by Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and John Logan sets a darker tone, almost elegiac, which gives Craig, Bardem and Dench some meat to chew on while allowing Mendes to venture into more familiar emotional territory. The film’s thematic preoccupation with nostalgia, however, leads to a near stumble at the end by circling back to 007’s beginnings. But this is first and foremost a Bond picture, and a terrific one at that, with high stakes, a great villain, and thrilling set pieces.
Tuesday, January 15, 2013
In this off-kilter romantic comedy Bradley Cooper stars as Pat, a diagnosed bipolar who spent eight months in a mental institution as part of a plea-bargain for attacking the man he discovered showering with his wife. Released into the home and care of parents Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) and Dolores (Jacki Weaver) Pat remains convinced that, despite the evidence and a restraining order, he can win back wife Nikki, his house, and his old job. At a dinner party hosted by Ronnie (John Ortiz) and controlling wife Veronica (Julia Stiles), Pat meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a widow after three years of marriage who has her own issues with depression and inappropriate behavior. Faced with this attractive, interested woman Pat nevertheless persists in following his reconciliation plan. Tiffany offers to courier a covert letter from Pat to Nikki in exchange for him partnering with her in a dance competition. He reluctantly agrees, and his unwitting courtship of Tiffany commences during the tentative rehearsal process. Writer/director David O. Russell has a penchant for messy family life, as evidenced in his adaptation of THE FIGHTER two years earlier. This script, which he based on Matthew Quick’s novel, is beautifully structured, yet the scenes are loose and unruly. The characters feel as if they might spill from the frame, and the dialogue flies like water from a burst pipe. This barely controlled chaos is intoxicating. De Niro, as a father striving to reconnect with his obsessed son through his own Eagles football obsession, gives his most sensitive performance in years. Weaver is wonderful as the low-key matriarch holding the family together with snack preparation and behind-the-scenes machinations, and Cooper shows surprising range as a man whose wheels turn so fast he laps himself. Standing out in a standout cast, however, is the luminescent Lawrence, whose face registers toughness and vulnerability, humor and deep hurt, often in the same scene. Russell’s scruffy bear hug of a movie undercuts the conventions of romantic comedy and eagerly embraces moments when the best-laid plans go gloriously astray.
Thursday, January 10, 2013
Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal follow up THE HURT LOCKER, their harrowing drama about a bomb defuse squad during Operation Iraqi Freedom, with this sprawling, ambitious story of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the September 11, 2001, attacks. The film begins in 2003 with CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) joining field operative Dan (Jason Clarke) at a black site in Pakistan for an enhanced interrogation. As she pours through detainee interviews, she begins to fixate on a courier that several informants claim runs messages between Abu Faraj al-Libbi, believed to be a high level member of al Qaeda, and bin Laden. In the face of deep skepticism from Dan, co-worker Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), and supervisor Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), Maya becomes convinced that if she can locate this courier, she can locate bin Laden. Boal’s script, based on first-hand accounts, chronicles Maya’s single-minded quest, incorporating significant attacks along its timeline: the 2004 Al-Khobar massacre in Saudi Arabia, the 2005 London transport bombings, and the 2008 Islamabad Marriott Hotel bombing, to name a few. These horrific world events add to the film’s urgency and provide historical touchstones within the unfolding story. After Maya finds the courier in a heavily fortified installation near Abbottabad, Pakistan, it still takes months before she’s able to convince the CIA Director (James Gandolfini) and the National Security Advisor (Stephen Dillane) to recommend an attack. Bigelow stages the assault on the compound, and the gripping two hours that precede it, with matter-of-fact bravura, finding in the climactic sequence a tense balance between catharsis and unease. The torture scenes are shocking; more so because the filmmakers neither condemn nor condone the tactic. They merely acknowledge the well-documented fact and leave it to our own collective conscience to pass judgment. The film asks us to face the moral cost of revenge, no matter how just. And, as the final quiet shot of Maya’s tear-streaked face reminds us, vengeance leaves a dark mark.
Friday, January 4, 2013
In 1996 writer Kevin Williamson and director Wes Craven coined the self-referential slasher picture and turned it into pulp art with SCREAM. Yet, despite the best efforts of these and other filmmakers, no similar movie since has matched its perfect blend of humor and fear. Now writer-turned-director Drew Goddard joins Joss Whedon (who co-writes with Goddard and produces) to fashion what wants to be the last word in self-aware horror. In an underground installation Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford) prepare for an important, highly sensitive project. Meanwhile five college students prepare for a weekend at a remote cabin. Each student falls into a generic horror movie type: studious and somewhat naïve Dana (Kristen Connolly), athletic and libidinous Curt (Chris Hemsworth), alluring party girl Jules (Anna Hutchison), smart but sensitive Holden (Jesse Williams), and drug-addled wiseacre Marty (Fran Kranz). We soon learn that our project managers have lured our stereotypes to a ritual sacrifice in which the students will be the offering. The method of sacrifice varies depending on how the victims choose to transgress, but all potential methods involve well-established horror tropes. The unseen string-pullers put the beautiful victims through their paces, picking them off one by one, until the plan goes terribly awry and threatens the world as we know it. The scares are regular and effective in the film’s first half, thanks to a game cast and a smart script that provides clever and resourceful characters. Once the cabin recedes and the manipulative, results-oriented managers emerge as the real villains, however, the jolts become more cerebral and less fun. Craven and company clearly took joy in scaring the pants off viewers, eliciting laughs and screams in equal measure. Goddard and Whedon, on the other hand, work too hard to savor their own creation, and the effort begins to show in the second half. As the film grinds to its gruesome, outlandish conclusion, the audience will likely feel as exhausted and battered as the bloodied survivors.
Thursday, January 3, 2013
Director Richard Linklater’s films range from rambling, well-observed teen comedies such as the sublime DAZED AND CONFUSED to more reflective character studies, like BEFORE SUNRISE and its follow-up, to the crowd-pleasing THE SCHOOL OF ROCK, which gave Jack Black his best roles to date – until now. Here Black stars as the titular Bernie Tiede, a cherubic man who moves to the small town of Carthage, Texas, and takes a job at the local funeral home, where his attentive, considerate manner makes him popular with widows. Initially the widow Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) proves harder to charm. Wealthy and abrasive, she’s respected but not well-liked. Underneath the prickly surface, however, Marjorie is lonely and recognizes that Bernie’s solicitous nature may be used to her benefit. She acquiesces to his friendly overtures, and they begin spending much of their time together, including taking expensive vacations. But she is a possessive woman and jealous of his other pillar-of-the-community activities, which include singing in the church choir, directing the school play, and coaching a little league team, just to name a few. Her demands on Bernie soon increase, and she makes him her full-time personal assistant. She insists he quit his mortuary job, and thus he becomes her financial dependent. When Marjorie begins restricting his extra-curricular activities as well, Bernie finally cracks, the results of which lead district attorney Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey) to open a criminal investigation. Black channels his charisma sans his usual antics, and MacLaine shows the vulnerability that underlies Marjorie’s misanthropic behavior. The script by Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth, upon whose Texas Monthly article the film is based, attains its quirky docudrama style by interspersing interviews with townspeople (some played by actors, others by actual residents) between scenes and vignettes. Linklater keeps the film’s tone light but allows a shadow to ripple just beneath the surface. Bernie’s actions are both relatable and unthinkable, and Linklater lets both views co-exist, albeit uneasily.