Saturday, December 31, 2011

Sheet-y Saturday: Best Posters of 2011

 Where we take a look at the year's best posters.

10. The Ides of March
How do you get two of the handsomest men in the world in the same poster without recurring to silly face offs and awkward floating heads? You throw in a clever nod to duality via one of the most notorious magazines of our times. If only the movie had played with this duality in the same way, it would've been a real stunner.

9. One Day
This truly unbelievable picture does justice to Henri Cartier-Bresson and the iconic "The Kiss" by Alfred Eisenstaedt, in how both of them seem to really have captured something unique in time. The synergy between Annie and Jim Sturgess in this picture is sexy, romantic and aches with something that resembles nostalgia. Their feet seem to be in movement, as if this kiss can only happen in this instant, because their feet are moving them somewhere else immediately. Extra points for the exact measure of tongue to make this tasteful and not tacky.

 8. Meek's Cutoff
The poster captures the single most breathtaking moment in the entire movie, which is a lot, coming from a movie where every scene demands to be paused and examined for their sheer beauty. Gotta love the fact that the illustrator alludes to both the era during which the movie takes place (the faded palette) and is also a wink to postmodernism.

7. Albert Nobbs
Simple. Straightforward. Concise. 
Works as a more effective art piece than the actual movie.

6. Drive
The font! The hot pink! The greasy look in Ryan Gosling's face! The vertical text!
Don't you just want to drop everything and go listen to synthpop the minute you see this poster?

5. Martha Marcy May Marlene
Like the cover of a 60s LP, the images are haunting and warm. We see the juxtaposition between the women (it's the same woman actually) and are reminded of summer haziness. The semi open mouth an invitation for a kiss, maybe? A song about to come out?
Then there's that male figure in the background. A lover? A threat? No other poster summed up its movie's mood and psychological dilemma better than this.

4. Shame
The covers are both repulsive and inviting.
The simple title feels more like an ironic proposal than an accusatory statement.
Are you in?

3. Melancholia
Like Millais' Ophelia, Lars von Trier's Justine looks at us from what looks like it will be her watery grave.
Kirsten Dunst's eyes seem fixed on her beholder but then we notice there is something reflecting on the upper right. It's the title planet set to crash against our own. Justine's intention then seems to change, she is no longer looking at us announcing her fate, she's lovingly looking towards the skies, accepting her new beginning. She's marrying the night, indeed.

2. Jane Eyre 
Haunting and creepy like a 19th century cameo, this poster best captured the phantasmagoric qualities of its source material and the elegance with which the film version updated it.

1. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
The teaser is movie star power at its best and rawest. Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara look at us directly, his arm over her as if trying to conquer Lisbeth Salander's intensity. Without even smirking her hand is on top of his arm, it is she who's in control. The final one-sheet took this concept to the next level, like Jane Eyre's, this poster also has something that resembles romantic melancholy. The story after all isn't merely about a tarnished journalist and the bisexual goth hacker, it's a deep love story about people coming together when they least expect it to. The darkness that surrounds them is nothing but a misstep. Like the haunting tagline reminds us, secrets only are revealed when their time arrives.

How about you? What were your favorite posters this year?

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Short Take:"Moneyball" and "Tuesday After Christmas".

Moneyball is a good movie but its sensibility is unquestionably, perhaps exclusively, American given that it centers around the world of baseball. Screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian do a superb job of trying to sketch out the universal in the real-life story of Oakland Athletics' general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) who single-handedly tried to revolutionize the sport by recurring to mathematics and statistics.
Jonah Hill plays Peter Brand, the Yale graduate who was hired by Beane to scout players using a strange method that has them choose players who have been rejected by other teams based on their "on base percentage". The Athletics become the laughing stock of the baseball world until they suddenly begin to go on a winning streak the likes of which had never seen before in baseball history.
If you see past the baseball lingo and all the mathematics and numbers, you will discover a movie that's essentially an example of how we try our best to excel in the face of adversity. Pitt is exceptionally magnetic as Beane, finally showing some signs of rugged wisdom beyond his pretty boy looks. The rest of the cast does a wonderful job circling around him, Kerris Dorsey is particularly good as his daughter Casey, but the film can't tap into the universality to make it really work outside the American context. Sorkin and Zaillian try to make its outer layer become more accessible, but the end result is quite marred by one's own tolerance for sports, particularly because director Bennet Miller keeps everything under such precise control that you can't help but feel unwelcome. "How can you not get romantic about baseball?" asks Beane, if you agree with him, then this is the movie for you.

The Romanian New Wave might just be the singular, most exciting film current to have occurred in decades! Every film coming from the formerly troubled country, feels like a breath of fresh air in the midst of all these pre-produced, highly disposable works done all over the world. What results so strange about these movies is that they're essentially telling us stories we've heard a million times before; even the fact that they often seek to portray the social angle makes us wonder what makes them superior to similar schools of thought. Can it be maybe, that having been repressed for so long gave these young filmmakers the ability to see the world with fresh eyes? To find uniqueness in what's become so ordinary and unnoticeable to others?
Take Tuesday After Christmas for example, an exercise in Bergmanian restraint that's as dark and strangely humorous as the master's best works. The film opens with a naked couple engaging in post-coital conversation. Raluca (Maria Popistașu) teases her lover Paul (Mimi Brănescu) about his stamina, the size of his penis and then wonders when she will see him again. Paul it turns out, has a wife (Mirela Oprişor) waiting for him back home.
The film, which takes place in the days leading to Christmas Eve, has none of the usual twists we'd expect from plots in which infidelity is a major theme, perhaps precisely because the film isn't about cheating. It's a carefully constructed slice of life that gives us access to lives that could very well resemble ours. Watching Paul and his wife arguing about what to get their daughter for Christmas makes for a slightly disturbing nod to what we might see every day at the mall. These people, we are constantly told, are not special or unique, they are pieces of a larger universe.
Perhaps director Radu Muntean is emphasizing the blasé fascination with others' lives as a way to encourage us to empathize with others. The film isn't even "interesting" in strictly superficial terms; there are no insane plot twists, sudden shocks or scenes that alter the main landscape, yet somehow watching these parents take  their daughter to the dentist becomes more thrilling than watching alien-robots fight each other, watching the wife cut her husband's hair as he stands naked, rings with more urgent humanity than a dozen activist documentaries and the camera's stillness throughout the film is a perfect reminder that cinema might be the ultimate window to the soul.

Moneyball **
Tuesday After Christmas ***½

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Like Crazy ***½

Director: Drake Doremus
Cast: Anton Yelchin, Felicity Jones, Jennifer Lawrence
Charlie Bewley, Alex Kingston, Oliver Muirhead, Chris Messina

Why is it that the most romantic films always have to tear through your soul, grab your heart from your chest and then smash it to pieces? Like Crazy does this and more, yet even with the eventual feeling of devastation that remains, one can't help but fall in love with it.
Call it masochism, call it hope, or call it plain insanity, but the movie proves just how humans seem drawn to misery and pain in the search for a larger truth, proof, perhaps, that we are not alone.
Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones play Jacob and Anna, star-crossed lovers who must battle the evil forces of immigration to be together. Anna is a British student who overstays her US visa to be with Jacob over a languorous summer in Los Angeles. When she tries to return to the US, after attending a family thing in the UK, she is denied entrance and sent back to England, creating an obstacle for their blossoming relationship.
The rest of the film then divides itself between the two countries, as we see the young lovers trying to remain together even if they're apart.
Despite the Victorian sounding nature of the plot twist, the film is far from being an exercise in forced romance, instead it goes to the heart of love and wonders out loud, what makes one commit such inhuman acts in order to fulfill a romantic longing. Is love really that important in the face of emotional destruction and practical living?
Watching Jacob and Anna try to survive without one another is often more painful than inspiring, which makes the movie ring true in a universal manner. Yelchin once more brings his down-to-earth ease to Jacob, providing him with a stoicism that works as a perfect reflection of his heartbreak and Jones is just astonishing as Anna. She breathes violent life into the movie, making her character's actions ring true in a way that's both extremely cinematical and hurtfully realistic. She can be compared to Kate Winslet's delicious Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in how you can see how flawed they are, but still can't help but fall for them. The supporting cast is also great, including Lawrence as a girl in love with Jacob and Muirhead and Kingston as Anna's supportive parents.
It doesn't require much film knowledge to realize that Like Crazy draws deep from its writer's personal experience. In fact Doremus, who co-wrote the screenplay with Ben York Jones, has revealed that the film was inspired by one of his relationships; however do not look into his biography further if you want to have your own idea of what happens after the uncathartic finale in the movie.
With all of its pain and bitterness, Like Crazy somehow escapes pure tragedy by drawing from the power of humanity to remind us that our most important love affair is the one we have with ourselves.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Tree of Life ****

Director: Terrence Malick
Cast: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain
Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan, Fiona Shaw

They say that before you die, you see your entire life flash by before your eyes. Those who have "come back" tell how in a second, their whole earthly experiences appear in a sequence, as if to remind them of how they did during their time here. Most speak of receiving a taste of heavenly bliss: a certainty that there is much more to life than we think, always has, always will.
Regardless of one's own personal spiritual beliefs, near-death experiences all have one thing in common: they are the closest to creating cinematic moments, that non-filmmakers ever come to.
In The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick has done something even more impressive, he has captured that all-encompassing feeling within a single piece of art. It's not common to have physical reactions to movies but The Tree of Life has the ability to move you, to take you to places you never knew existed within you.
It is the closest cinema has come, in a very long time, to recreating the feeling once conveyed by religious artists, who with a single stroke of the brush, could encompass entire universes.
The film feels more like a visual poem than a movie, with every single cut, every single frame perfectly placed, evoking the cadence and rhythm of verse. Shot with delicate authority by the amazing Emmanuel Lubezki, every scene becomes a play of light and camera movements. The camera, like life on the planet (as we are told in a stunning sequence), never stops moving. It approaches its subjects, it explores its surroundings, it gets so close to them that we think it'll cut right through them, then it ascends towards the skies trying to get nearer to whoever inhabits it.
"That is where god lives", says a mother (Chastain) to her baby, as she points towards the skies. His father (Pitt) meanwhile holds on to him lying on the grass, as if trying to keep him closer to the ground, to earthly existence. It makes sense that when the baby grows up, he has troubled recollections about his upbringing. "Father, mother, always you wrestle inside me, always you will" says the grownup Jack (Penn) as he revisits his memories (or is the whole movie the flash before he dies?). Growing up in Texas, the young Jack and his brothers deal with the different thought currents in their house. Their mother is a sweet woman who urges them to always do good, their father is an authoritative figure who constantly reminds them that in order to succeed you can't be too good.
She takes on the shape of grace, he takes on the shape of nature; both aspects of life then become the center battle in the movie. What will the children choose?
It might be easy to say that Malick has made his choice, after all one of the first lines in the movie tells us that "no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end", but instead of delivering an obtuse sermon, Malick explores how those who choose grace must live in a world that's so heavily ruled by nature.
The film then works as a harrowing coming-of-age story and as a spiritual exploration of how we got to where we are. As with any piece of art, the film can be approached from endless levels succeeding in addressing each and all.
Besides the obvious Christian undertones that permeate the film, the family dynamics also make for a fascinating take on Freudian theories of castration. What results breathtaking is watching Malick create a synergy between both currents, as we see Jack seemingly overcome his father's brutality but never finding peace with the god he turns into a father figure.
All through the film he wonders how god could go on creating, while he was suffering and we understand that in his narrow world view as a child, he transferred his father's duties to a being he wasn't even sure existed in the first place. The whole movie then plays with the idea of free will as both a burden and a gift.
The only movie that resembles The Tree of Life, in terms of scope and ambition is Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, both of them explore creation, evolution and "what's next", but while Kubrick's work remained on the purely cerebral, Malick's tries to capture what a soul - if they exist - might be like. Does god exist? Does god exist if he makes us suffer? Malick addresses these questions looking for answers. Kubrick explored them with more accusatory tones. Both movies end on a similar note, but only one is able to convey a deep sense of humanity by giving us the power of choice. Malick might just be our greatest living optimist. 

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Style Sunday.

The girl with the mod coat? Rooney Mara makes for a true winter wonder in this beautiful Carven overcoat. With the Christmas chills, don't you just want to go hug Rooney?

Friday, December 23, 2011

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol **

Director: Brad Bird
Cast: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton, Simon Pegg
Michael Nyqvist, Vladimir Mashkov, Samuli Edelmann, Léa Seydoux
Anil Kapoor, Josh Holloway, Tom Wilkinson

To say plot is unimportant in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol would be like saying that Tom Cruise isn't trying too hard to prove he still matters. The film pretty much is an altar to why the 49-year old is as relevant as 20somethings who spend entire movies running to-and-from explosions showing their toned pecs and virile grins.
Cruise is back to play Ethan Hunt, in the fourth movie in the Mission: Impossible series -which have always suffered from a lack of homogeneity in terms of artistic vision - this time around he faces a crazy Russian scientist Hendricks (Nyqvist) who has decided to single-handedly start a nuclear holocaust.
Hunt and his team, conformed by tech genius Benji Dunn (Pegg who's here just for comedic relief), kick-ass agent Jane Carter (Patton) and the mysterious William Brandt (Renner), trek all over the world trying to stop Hendricks.
From skyscraper climbing in Dubai, to seducing loony lotharios in India, the film's major concern seems to be just how crazier and over the top can the situations get. At first, watching Cruise jump from Russian hospitals and survive explosions is a bit fun, but in a movie where even the title credits are too much, you have to wonder if they will ever stop and smell the flowers.
The action gets to be so much that the film can't help but end feeling like a live action version of Spy vs. Spy (wait, that already exists, right?) or a parody of an action movie.
When the team figure out they have to hack a server room in Dubai, Brandt reminds them that it's located in "the tallest building in the world", and you can't help but think "of course", before rolling your eyes and sipping on your diet soda.
For all its insanity which is unarguably well choreographed by the brilliant Brad Bird, the film can't help but feel utterly joyless at times. It's easy, and perhaps right, to blame Cruise for this feeling, given that this is his show and he must've been in control of everything that went on in it.
The supporting cast is quite good but more often than not you feel that they are just in it because they want to fit in with the popular kid. Patton for example, shows she has superb action heroine skills, but the story reduces her to being a "woman", meaning an agent with a brilliant future who can't help but fail because she gets her period. Renner similarly gets stuck with a shady character just so he won't be able to steal the movie from Cruise. Even if he's poorly written, the wonderful actor still plays Brandt with a wink.
It's slightly pleasant to see Cruise in top form, trying to atone for his lunacy period by doing what he always did best: entertain. Too bad he is so eager that he decided to employ every single trick in his hat. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol could've been an action landmark, instead it satisfies itself with being distracting.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Short Take: New Year's Eve

New Year's Resolutions for the Cast and Crew of New Year's Eve

Sarah Jessica Parker: quit romantic comedies where you aren't playing Carrie Bradshaw.

Ashton Kutcher: quit playing the know-it-all slacker.

Lea Michele: quit using your wonderful voice as an excuse to portray shrill control freaks.

Jessica Biel and Katherine Heigl: just quit.

Michelle Pfeiffer: stop hitting on younger men who aren't half as hot, or talented, as you (i.e. Zac Efron, Rupert Friend in Cheri etc.)

Halle Berry: prove what an amazing actress you can be! Your little scenes were the most touching in the entire movie!

Robert de Niro: stop playing possessive fathers who die, get sick or are related to Ben Stiller.

Abigail Breslin: please stop growing up *sad face*

Seth Meyers: keep your day, err night job.

Sarah Paulson: get someone to hire you in an awesome indie where you're the lead. You've got the chops ma'am! (this year you were fantastic in American Horror Story and Martha Marcy May Marlene)

Héctor Elizondo: since Garry Marshall loves you and listens to you, threaten not to be in his next movie unless it's as brilliant as Pretty Woman or as entertaining as The Princess Diaries.

Hollywood: make it your new year's resolution to stop making movies like New Year's Eve!

Grade: *

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Sheet-y Saturday.

Where we take a look at posters for upcoming features.

While not a big fan of the Alien series myself (feel free to burn me at the stake...) I find myself all sorts of excited about the upcoming Prometheus. The first teaser, of course, says absolutely nothing more than "I am a dark moody sci-fi flick that might haunt your nightmares for years to come", but they got themselves one killer tagline!

Are all teasers for 2012 going to be shadows against blueish spotlights? (See above!) Unlike Prometheus though, Rock of Ages is all about flaunting that cast. Is it me or are all of you excited to see CZJ in another musical? A Tony and an Oscar prove these might be the only thing she should be working in...

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Short Takes: "One Day" and "The Debt".

Even if it never makes justice to the book it's based on (the eponymous novel written by David Nicholls), One Day is an often delightful romance powered by pure star wattage and a great - albeit slightly gimmicky - concept. The film follows the relationship between Emma (Anne Hathaway) and Dexter (Jim Sturgess) over the course of two decades, but does so by showing what they do on the exact date they met. We see them grow from awkward college graduates to decently rounded adults; they survive destructive relationships, family tragedies, divorces, career and country changes etc. and the one thing that remains constant throughout is their love for one another.
Perhaps the novel's reach is a bit too ample to turn it into a small romantic comedy (it certainly would've been wonderful as a miniseries that took longer to flesh out Em and Dex better) because as it is, we often have a hard time knowing why the characters do what they do. Even if they never become mere archetypes - he of the fun-loving lothario and she of the obsessive control freak - we feel cheated, like we could've benefited more from knowing what they do on the dates we don't get to see.
Directed with a precise hand by Lone Scherfig (who follows the joyful style she used in An Education) the film has moments of marvel as well as scenes that seem to drag forever. Fortunately most flaws can be overlooked because of the performers. Sturgess is unusually passive, almost lacking in the exuberance needed to turn Dexter into a character we could hate and then fall in love with, however his quiet performance reveals that Dexter is a man who never knows himself fully (his scenes with Patricia Clarkson, who plays his mom, are violently delicate).
Hathaway - who sadly never mastered the required British accent - is all smiles and wide eyed contempt as Emma. As usual, Hathaway grabs a simple character and layers it with the kind of star quality few performers can add (only Julia Roberts lights up the screen with the same ease) while keeping a deep humanity that reaches to you beyond the screen. The film is by no means perfect (although the ending might just leave you weeping) but it works because of its utter sincerity. Few films nowadays are so straightforward about breaking your heart.

You gotta give it to John Madden: he's one versatile filmmaker! His constant traveling of genre to genre (he directed Shakespeare in Love and Proof) have turned him into the equivalent of a studio era director, who worked under producers and got little input to create his own authorial signature. With that said, he doesn't hit the mark in his espionage thriller The Debt, a decade spanning film that follows the lives of three former Mossad agents from their first big mission, to the fame it eventually brings them.
The spies are played by Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington as young agents trying to catch a deranged Nazi surgeon in the 1970s. Their mature versions are played by Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciarán Hinds respectively (in a quite good casting decision). They all come together in their old age to settle a secret they've been living with for decades, the film then uses flashbacks to show us what marked and bonded them forever.
The main issue with the film is how Madden tries to trick us, only to then reveal how entire scenes are nothing but lies. This never works because in the film's context - which most certainly isn't an artistic exercise a la Antonioni - all the scenes seem to be fact based. His idea of toying with perception is indeed respectable but the execution is sloppy and often causes confusion (did we see right or were we dozing off mid-screening?).
Mirren is fantastic as usual but the best in show honor goes to Chastain who plays her character with an angsty vitality one would only attribute to someone like, well, Mirren. She conveys such a damaged past that we only have to see in her eyes to understand where she's coming from and why she's doing what she does. Few performances are this magnetic and exciting, anyone looking for a new action heroine, take note.

One Day ***
The Debt **½

Monday, December 12, 2011

Tyrannosaur ***

Director: Paddy Considine
Cast: Peter Mullan, Olivia Colman, Eddie Marsan
Samuel Bottomley, Paul Popplewell, Sian Breckin, Ned Dennehy

Paddy Considine's directorial debut is a gripping account of loss and redemption, elevated by two masterful performances from Olivia Colman and Peter Mullan. The film opens with a bang as we see Joseph (Mullan) completely inebriated kill his dog in a moment of rage. The scene's immeasurable cruelty becomes only more poignant when we see its immediate bookend, as Joseph digs a grave and buries his pet.
This event sends him down the path of sorrow as he actively tries to find a way to become a better person. If you're thinking Happy-Go-Lucky think again.
Joseph's path isn't sunshine and rainbows, given that he harbors a dark past that involved his dead wife and his alcoholism. The film's miserabilism seems to find an absolution when Joseph meets Hannah (Colman) a kind thrift-shop owner who speaks of god and offers him a helping hand.
At first Joseph is repelled by Hannah's goodness but soon they become forever linked by a shattering event that gives the film a new meaning.
Tyrannosaur isn't merely about finding forgiveness, it's a sad tale about how life pushes people to situations that make them forget who they are. Considine expertly highlights each of the characters' traits only to pull the rug from under us and reveal that they in fact are not as contrasting as we think, they are not some sort of "opposites attracting" situation; they are but different sides of the same coin.
The film is marked by its use of extreme, often unexpected, violence but the director doesn't seem to be trying to coerce us into states of complete shock or disgust. His use of violence, as gimmicky as it looks sometimes, is but a comparative layer to his story because the characters' inner life is sometimes even more upsetting than what they do.
For instance just as we think we're getting an idea of who Hannah is we discover she lives with an abusive husband (Marsan), who not only forces himself on her sexually but greets her by urinating all over her (the following scene where she cleans up the urine is devastating).
Regardless of what the plot suggests, Tyrannosaur never turns into a pity fest. We gain certain sympathy for the characters but they are so damaged that we try hard never to empathize with them. Mullan in particular turns in a performance that could've easily fallen into caricature, instead he turns Joseph into a brokenhearted man who has lost all power over his wrath.
Colman inversely has a face you want to see smile, her sad Hannah often makes us wish she would toughen up a bit and become more like Joseph. This is where Considine's movie grabs us making us wish we never have to experience what we're seeing onscreen.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Style Sunday.

I have resented Rachel McAdams throughout most of the year for being so detestable in the glorious Midnight in Paris, however I had to put my grudge aside to commend just how absolutely stunning she looks in this silver, embroidered Marchesa gown. The back is perfection, the draping is long enough to be elegant and her hair and makeup are goddess-like. This must be one of this year's greatest fashion moments!

Oh Diane Kruger, people will start thinking you pay me to flatter your style so much...All I have to say is you are ravishing in this Emilio Pucci dress. (PS: deliver my check to the regular address, XOXO)

Do you resent any actors for the awful characters they've played?

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Sheet-y Saturday.

Where we take a look at posters for upcoming features.

You mean Madge means serious business when her name isn't mentioned in huge, glittery letters anywhere in the poster for W.E. Gotta love the tasteful Tiffany blue and the beautiful still of Andrea and James (who knew the king was so buff?). However the tagline sounds so forced and almost catastrophic, gotta give kudos of sorts to the designer who decided that people would be too stupid to get the title and highlighted the W and E in the characters' names. Really people, most of the ad campaign for this movie has worried about the title and what it means. Wouldn't it have been easier to change it?

The look on Fassy's face! The hand going to his Fassboner! The other hand showing the emptiness next to him! This poster fulfills on the promise made by every other wonderful piece of advertising done for this movie. It's truly breathtaking!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Fashion Gasp!

Nathaniel and I discuss fashion and for the first time ever I find myself admiring Lea Michele. Gasp!
Click here to read more.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Short Takes: "The Ides of March" and "Rampart".

Oren Moverman was clever enough to cast his The Messenger star Woody Harrelson in Rampart: a character study that seems more obsessed with turning Woody's character into an iconic movie villain, than to actually study his character...
Set in 1999, just after the Rampart controversy sent the LAPD down a hole, the film has Harrelson play Dave Brown; a corrupt cop who has his way regardless of who he has to step on. This makes him a true movie monster and presents Harrelson with the difficult task of adding a human layer to a character that could easily become caricature. This he does beautifully; whether he's sucking on a woman's foot, beating a handicapped man or stealing from thieves, he adds a certain something that gives us a better idea of who this man might be and why he's struggling so much to preserve his decadent lifestyle.
What he doesn't give us, and this might be the screenplay's fault, is a look at what might've turned him into such a despicable creature. It's obviously not necessary to have something like this spelled out to you in a movie, but every character in Rampart feels like it was created specifically for the scenes they're in.
Woody does his best to elevate the movie from being a scenery-chewing fest but the truth is that all the rage in Dave results more frustrating than compelling.

One has to wonder why did George Clooney decide to direct and star in The Ides of March when he could've easily just ran for office. This film adaptation of Beau Willimon's Farragut North (which itself had been loosely inspired by Howard Dean's 200a campaign) works on an almost superficial level because it has a clear agenda, which doesn't allow its viewers to "think".
Clooney stars as Mike Morris, a Democratic candidate in the middle of a primary election that could have him become the next presidential candidate. Ryan Gosling plays Stephen Meyers, his loyal and cinematically idealistic junior campaign manager. When Meyers learns that Morris has a dark secret involving - of all things - an intern (played by Evan Rachel Wood) he has to decide whether to be loyal to his employer or to his morality. Which one wins isn't really important as much as it is to see Clooney execute a fine campaign ad for himself by reminding us that he will be the kind of man who, as his character says, believes in the religion of the US constitution.
By making his "villain" a Democrat, Clooney reassures us that no political affiliations will stand in the way of the common good and it's obvious that he feels best identified with Meyers (if he'd been younger he probably would've played him). Even if the film is extremely dull, Clooney has some truly inspired directorial moments (stylistic bookends, clever visual tricks, superb casting, you must see Marisa Tomei giving a delicious star turn here!) but more often than not he foregoes them to chase clichés that would work best in the insipid All the King's Men remake from a few years back, too bad he let his political interest come between him and the religion of filmmaking.

Rampart **
The Ides of March **

Monday, December 5, 2011

Arthur Christmas ***½

Director: Sarah Smith

Leave it to the Brits to make a film so good and unique that Americans almost had to spoil by way of terrible marketing. The ad campaign and trailers for Arthur Christmas made it seem like it would be one of those "hip" animated comedies that rely on cheap jokes about modern issues to attract the masses, but then are all but remembered three hours after they've over. The truth is in fact, that Arthur Christmas has all the elements of a timeless classic in the making.
Few movies feel the need to feel audiences with joy - they're usually more concerned about pleasing themselves - this one however reaches out to you with such sincerity that you have to wonder how Pixar didn't make it.
The simple answer is because it was made by Aardman Animations (in collaboration with Sony Pictures Animation), the people responsible for Wallace & Gromit.  
Arthur Christmas might not be claymation, but its computer generated images contain such beauty that you might want to revisit it just to admire the great detail with which the animators created every single character and setting.
The film opens with a gorgeous vista of a small English town, where a little girl carefully deposits a letter for Santa Claus in the mailbox. When Christmas arrives we see how the once quaint and rustic North Pole, has become almost militarized and Santa's big mission is a task worthy of an army.
Thousands of elves behind computers check and see that nothing goes wrong, while Santa's older son Steve, supervises the entire operation. We see how Santa's sleigh has been replaced by a modern spaceship that can camouflage itself in the night sky to help the delivery.
The elves enter people's houses using all sorts of spy techniques and we are told, more than once, how important it is that nobody discovers them. Back in the North Pole, Santa's younger son, Arthur, watches the entire operation with admiration and a deep desire to be part of it all. His job is less important, nobody thinks he'll amount to much.
When Santa returns, Arthur realizes one present wasn't delivered and he makes it his mission to deliver it himself. After this setup, we are treated with a lovely take on the "black sheep" story as the courageous Arthur overcomes all obstacles - including genre stereotypes - to become a man and gain his father's respect.
The superb screenplay (written by director Smith and Peter Baynham) could've easily relied on complicated setpieces to keep us entertained, instead they devote such care to developing every character that we could see entire movies dedicated to each of them.
From Arthur's own brand of meek heroism, to Steve's brand of creepy perfectionism (there's a Margaret Thatcher book in his room!), the film is more interested in reveling in these characters' humanity than in their comedic skills. A feisty elf named Bryony and a scene-stealing Grandsanta, round up the film's most memorable characters.
Best of all must be the joy that emanates from every single scene in the movie. Where it could've been moralizing and trite, instead it delivers a unique brand of existentialist thinking, leading us to wonder whether we've corrupted the spirit of Christmas or if it has corrupted us in a way.
The film thrives with clever dialogues, stunning action sequences and pierces your heart in the most unexpected of ways. It will move you to tears and leave you yearning for the times when you too believed Santa was real.
Kudos to director Smith for finding the perfect balance between originality and homage (there are several sequences that can only be called Spielberg-ian, a la E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters, mind you...) don't let phony advertising fool you, Arthur Christmas is truly a present you'll love to unwrap.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Style Sunday.

Today we have two regular style icons in Louis Vuitton's newest line. When exactly did the house of LV begin designing such angelical gowns? First up we have my beloved SJP looking playful and girlier than she's even been. Love how she went all white and kept the hair down, as opposed to an uptight chignon.

Notice how Cate Blanchett went for the same kind of shoes as SJP and how in a parallel world they both would be playing in a 60s go-go ladies loop film.

What do you think of these two beauties in white? Heavenly or dull?

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Skin I Live In ***½

Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Jan Cornet, Marisa Paredes
Roberto Álamo, Eduard Fernández, José Luis Gómez, Blanca Suárez

The Skin I Live In is a movie that demands to be seen more than once. The first time, you'll be seduced by Pedro Almodóvar's own kind of trashiness, the one reminiscent of films like Matador and Kika, that has the iconoclastic director revel in shocking his audience with usually outrageous twists and turns.
The second time, after you've received a figurative punch in the gut from the secrets in the plot, you'll be enthralled by Pedro's abilities as a maverick storyteller, by his capacity to rape our minds and make us enjoy it.
Inspired by macabre horror tales like Frankenstein, Eyes Without a Face and exploitation films, The Skin I Live In tells the strange tale of Dr. Robert Ledgard (Banderas), a handsome plastic surgeon, who became obsessed with creating a thicker human skin after his wife and daughter die.
Pedro, as usual, has no care whatsoever for symbolic subtleties and from the start we understand that Robert's intention to make "skin thicker" is a self-preservation matter: he's trying to stop others from breaking his heart again.
However this doesn't mean he's a saint, in fact he's far from it, as he runs all his experiments on Vera (Anaya), a mysterious woman he's keeping captive in his house.
Vera spends her days inside a locked room, where she practices yoga and reads while wearing a body-length suit to keep her recently implanted skin from damage. Anaya grabs on to this role ferociously and develops the moves of a trapped panther, slightly reminding us of Cat People's Simone Simon (in what might be another of Pedro's winks).
The camera seems to be in love with her sensuous movements - even more so than with her naked body which is usually shown in scenes of extreme brutality or as an art object to inspire our darkest voyeurism - and we soon learn that Vera hides some secrets too: her past connects her directly with Robert's greatest misfortune.
As is norm in all of his works, Pedro weaves a tale that combines melodrama and tragedy with dark humor and deep sexual insight, as well as flashbacks and meticulous recreations of previous events. Marisa Paredes is brilliant as Robert's maid who, you guessed it, harbors some secrets of her own as well, and Jan Cornet brings just the right amount of sleaze to a character that eventually becomes the movie's moral centerpiece.
Once again we meet characters that go beyond the notions of heroes and villains and while Pedro has never been particularly known for his realism, he never fully goes for archetypes either. He's a master at creating characters whose humanity thrives despite their caricaturesque features.
Therefore we see a Robert who on the surface could very well be Dr. Delambre, from Kurt Neumann's The Fly, but in the end reaches the tragic crescendo of a film noir antihero who has been inspired by a Shakespearean drama. Banderas - who has never been a particularly gifted actor - brings to the table what might be his best quality: his ridiculous good looks.
By making Robert someone with weathered beauty, we understand that we shouldn't judge him for his current actions, for he once was like the rest of us. That is perhaps the central theme in the film: the situations that lead ordinary people to become monstrous.

Sheet-y Saturday.

Where we take a look at posters for upcoming features.

It wasn't until I read an article on it in The New Yorker, that I was even remotely interested in watching John Carter. However the fact that it's directed by the same guy who gave us WALL-E makes me all sorts of excited. Reading about his creative process makes this poster work in all different kinds of ways. He gives us the star, the monsters and tops it all with a beautifully subdued font that somehow doesn't feel completely at home in the strange intergalactic scene. Isn't that what his movie is supposed to be about?

Angelina Jolie has never really been a particularly exciting or versatile actress yet somehow I'm very curious about what she might bring to the table as a director. The fact that this poster doesn't make her name the biggest thing about it makes me think she's trying to show the world she's more than a pair of luscious lips and Mrs. Pitt.

Excited about either of these?

Friday, December 2, 2011

Short Takes: "50/50" and "Habemus Papam".

Let's get one thing out of the way: disliking a movie where someone has cancer isn't the same as supporting cancer (whatever that would entail...), with that said 50/50 isn't really a great or outstanding movie, what it does - and it does it efficiently- is deliver a story about beating the odds without extreme corniness.
Movies about terminal patients can be done beautifully and with just the right amount of feeling (Terms of Endearment for example, which is even mentioned here) or they can be ludicrous weepfests that aim to move you even if you know the creative team could do better.
50/50, despite being based on real events, feels like another Judd Apatow-lite movie in which men-children grow up because life pretty much forces them to. Here it's Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Kyle (Seth Rogen) whose lives turn upside down when the former is diagnosed with stage three cancer. Even if the sick one should be the most "important" character in the film, most of the attention is divided into how Kyle deals with the disease. He uses it to his advantage and convinces women to have sex with him because he's sad. Perhaps this film would've resulted a bit more interesting if the casting had been more creative. Aren't you sick of Rogen always playing the adorable man-child who learns his lesson in the end? Aren't you tired of Gordon-Levitt always playing the sensitive young man who gets his ass kicked by life? To continue its lazy, stereotypical casting the movie has Bryce Dallas Howard play Adam's bitchy, control freak girlfriend and Anna Kendrick as his cool-but-way-too-eager shrink. The only one who dazzles in the cast is Anjelica Huston who could give Shirley MacLaine a run for her money in the "imposing mamas with sick children" department. She makes all of her scenes thrive with the kind of life nothing else in the movie has. 

All the imagery, rituals and traditions of Catholicism should result fascinating even to non-believers (or people of different faiths) which is why Nanni Moretti's Habemus Papam hooks you from its opening scene. We see a group of cardinals walking towards a room where they will vote for who is to become the next Pope. As the old men in red cassocks go towards their room, reporters shout at them trying to get an interview. This moment, perhaps because of its strange mix of realism and postmodernism, hints at the delicious way in which Fellini dealt with the church. When a Pope is finally elected (after a hilarious scene in which we realize all of them are praying not to be chosen) he has a problem: he doesn't think he's ready to do this job.
Therefore elected Pope, Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli) is set to receive help from a psychiatrist (Moretti) until he decides it's better to escape and see what he's missing in the outer world. The movie then becomes a severely existentialist version of Roman Holiday as the old man meets new people, goes to therapy (Margherita Buy plays his chosen shrink) and relives one of his youth dreams improvising Chekhov in a hotel lobby.
Even if the ending feels a bit too facile and Moretti doesn't dig too deep into Melville's motivations or tries to deliver a political or spiritual punch, the film is the perfect mix of clever comedy and melancholic drama, with some scenes that are absolutely haunting (a setpiece accompanied by Mercedes Sosa's "Todo Cambia" results absolutely breathtaking).
Best in show might be Piccoli's performance filled with lovely nuances. His ability to evoke deep nostalgia with nothing but a sigh makes for quite a treat and the way in which he delivers his speeches will break your heart. Moretti might have the last laugh but Piccoli delivers the soul.

Grades: 50/50 **
Habemus Papam ***

Albert Nobbs *½

Director: Rodrigo García
Cast: Glenn Close, Mia Wasikowska, Aaron Johnson
Janet McTeer, Pauline Collins, Brenda Fricker, Jonathan Rhys Meyers
Brendan Gleeson, Maria Doyle Kennedy

Scene after scene, Albert Nobbs plays out like a Masterpiece Theatre production of Mr. Dullfire (in honor of that other, actually quite funny, drag event Mrs. Doubtfire).
It makes perfect sense to bring up Robin Williams' performance in that film, because Glenn Close in drag actually looks like him. In both cases we were fully aware that we were watching major film stars playing cross-dressers, the difference is that absolutely nothing in Albert Nobbs makes us care to see what lies underneath the facade.
Set in 19th century Dublin, the film opens with images of a hotel's staff preparing for work. Like most period films, this one too wants us to understand the time setting and become familiarized with the characters we will meet; therefore we are initially wowed by meticulous production design and the golden cinematography we've come to expect. 
Among these workers we spot butler Albert Nobbs, who puts extra effort into his work and smiles like a satisfied fool while pleasing others around him. We also meet hotel owner Mrs. Baker (Collins), slutty maid Helen (Wasikowska) and the charismatic Dr. Holloran (Gleeson) who is somehow presented to us with a tinge of menace. 
Soon we learn that Albert's quiet demeanor is because he harbors a secret: he is actually a woman and has pretended to be one for three decades in order to have a job. Once this is revealed, the film instantly falls down because neither the screenplay nor the director can make a point of where they want to take it next.
Is the secret the film's biggest twist or are we supposed to care about whether other characters will discover it or not. Considering how the screenplay makes the characters either completely under/over-written, it's a shame that Close tries to invest so much into a character that's merely a hollow vessel for the director, actress and writer to show off.
Where Close tries to infuse him with a private inner life by shutting everyone else out - including the audience - (and perhaps to cover for how badly written Albert is) the director practically ignores him and turns him into a part of the decoration. Instead García focuses his attention on truly preposterous characters and situations, like Helen (who Wasikowska tries and fails to turn into a character Angela Lansbury might've played in the 1940s) and her affair with do-no-gooder Joe (Johnson). 
Time and time again it seems that nobody in the movie wants to deal with Albert...Even the spark in Close's eye when she plays him, seems to be more about the fact that she finally got to play him than about the character itself. This project has been notorious for being Close's pet cause for at least twenty-five years and by finally getting to do it, she might've become too reverential and cautious (Close is listed as a co-writer), completely forgetting to let Albert have a life of his own.
Things in the plot get more complicated with the appearance of Mr. Hubert Page (McTeer) a strange painter who not only discovers Albert's secret but reveals one of his own: he is also a woman!
We never truly understand why the film is about Albert and not about Mr. Page, considering how McTeer plays him as the only believable character in the movie. It doesn't help that it's obvious from the start that he's also a she, it forces one to wonder whether the character would've been more successful if played by an unknown actress or to just be thankful for McTeer's humanistic work.
The worst thing in the film might be how time and time again it misleads us by trying to turn Albert into a mystery based on ludicrous twists and events. For example when Hubert suggests that Albert should open up a shop, Albert imagines himself married to Helen and being a successful businessman.
However at no point are we to understand that Albert is gay and has any sexual desire for Helen, or even that he is so complexly damaged that he has come to believe that he can only attain success as a man. We are teased in a similar way when we see Albert longingly looking at a picture of a young woman. When we discover who she is, we realize that even within its faux-class attire, García is merely using Albert as a morbid circus attraction. The fact that Albert remains in character even when he delivers ridiculous monologues in his room, make it obvious that nobody in the production team had any real conscience of who Albert would be.
By thinking we're often wondering "is he or isn't he", the director loses all purpose and turns the movie into a claustrophobic tabloid-esque story. All of his characters become either too hermetic or too stereotypical for us to take any interest in and he makes no comment whatsoever on either sexual identity, Victorian repression or anything that might've interested an intelligent adult. By the time the film is over (after an overblown, melodramatic succession of events) we realize that Albert might've had a knob but the artistic team behind him lacked the balls.

One Film to Rule Them All.

I have dared to review Citizen Kane...Go read my humble take on it over at PopMatters.