Sunday, July 29, 2012

To Rome With Love

   Using the amazing city of Rome as his background, writer/director Woody Allen weaves four separate stories creating a humorous and charming tapestry of human foibles. As with most Woody Allen films, he directs an all star cast and for the first time in quite a while, plays one of the characters himself. The film may lack the magic of "Midnight in Paris" but it contains a wonderful flavor of it's own.

      Alex Baldwin, Jesse Eisenberg, Ellen Pace, and Greta Gerwig star in an interesting love triangle with a very possible magical element that Mr. Allen will leave the viewer to decide. Roberto Benigni is an everyman who suddenly becomes famous for no apparent reason and Mr. Allen gets a chance to ruminate on the fleeting nature of fame. Penelope Cruz is a prostitute who enters the life of a young newlywed in a most unexpected circumstance. And the remaining tale stars Mr. Allen himself (costarring with Judy Davis and Allison Pill) as a retired opera director who discovers a new talent in a very unusual way. Mr. Allen cuts back and forth between all four stories rather than film them in a linear fashion and that serves to keep the viewer very engaged.

     As he has done with recent films set in other European cities, Mr. Allen and his cinematographer, Darius Khondji incorporate the beauty of Rome into his various plots to the point it becomes a character itself. Mr. Allen also uses many international stars who may not be well known to American audiences but they add authentic flavor to the film.

      As Mr. Allen continues his love affair with Europe, we can only guess which city will serve as his next backdrop. It's clear that filming overseas has recharged his creative batteries and I look forward to his next film with great anticipation.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

Like it's partial inspiration, "A Tale of Two Cities", the last part of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy is a tale of two movies. After an exciting opening sequence, the first half of the film bogs down in exposition and red herrings but the second half has enough action, suspense, fun and surprises to more than make up for slogging through the first hour.

             Much of the ongoing cast returns including the outstanding Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman, Michael Caine as faithful butler/surrogate father, Alfred, Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox and Gary Oldman as stoic Commissioner Gordon. Mr. Nolan introduces some new actors who perform very admirable amidst all the CGI chaos. Tom Hardy is the villain, "Bane", who, with his mouth covered by a breathing apparatus, conveys much through his eyes and his actions (although he's a bit hard to understand at times). Marion Cotillard is a mysterious woman in Bruce Wayne's life. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (a favorite of Mr. Nolan's) is police office/detective, John Blake and Ann Hathaway is the best Catwoman of any of the numerous Batman films. Ms. Hathaway has captured the essence of the comic character perfectly. Tough, sexy, and dangerous, she takes the part very seriously and yet has fun with it without going over the top. 

            Early on, the complex plot takes time to unravel but at the same time it does bring us up to date eight years after the end of "The Dark Knight". The film comes full circle to "Batman Begins" and features some surprise cameos. The CGI is outstanding and yet the humanity of the characters takes center stage, especially early scenes between Mr. Bale and Mr. Caine. Once the story reveals it's true intentions, the film heads down it's now linear path and the action doesn't let up. It all leads to a very exciting and satisfying finale, even saving a last surprise for fans (although some may see it coming).

           Trilogies more often than not, don't satisfy in the third film but Mr. Nolan ultimately gets it right. Unfortunately one can't help but feel terrible sorrow for the real life tragedy that occurred in Colorado during the midnight showing of the film and that will mar it's legacy. However, the films themselves, taken as a complete work should still be considered a masterpiece.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Intouchables

        This new foreign film was a smash hit in it's native France and it's easy to see why. It's an unusual story about a relationship that would seem utterly impossible except that it's based in truth.

         Francois Cluzet plays Phillipe, a wealthy but paralyzed man looking for a new aide. When street punk Driss, played by Omar Sy, shows up just to get a signature for unemployment, an unexpected bond begins between the two men.  Coming from completely different worlds, you would think this could never happen in real life but apparently it did and formed the basis for the film.

         The relationship between the men is joyful, frustrating, dramatic and at times very amusing as each learns from the other and become better men for it. Omar Sy is very charismatic, with a charming smile that can melt hearts. Mr.Cluzet manages to convey a wide range with just head movements and facial expressions. 

          The film never gets dark, even though it deals with a serious subject. There are moments that hint of danger but the film is directed with a deliberate light touch and you can't help but leave the theater in a good mood. During the credits, we get to see the real Phillipe and Driss which makes a lovely coda for a remarkable story. 

Saturday, July 07, 2012


       Director Oliver Stone has made many memorable films over the years. Sadly, Savages is not one of them. Mr. Stone is at his best when dealing with weighter subject matter. This is a violent throwaway thriller that could have been directed by anyone. There are no heroes here. It's a story of drug dealers versus a drug cartel and just to remind you of the title, characters repeatedly call each other savages.

          Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson are Chon and Ben, two Marijuana producers and distributors who live a peaceful life getting rich off their product. They are both involved with "O", played by Blake Lively. When a Mexican drug Cartel led by Salma Hayek force them to do business together by kidnapping O, the pair must find a way to get her back and stay alive in the process.

          Benicio Del Toro plays the Cartel enforcer, and "phones in" his performance. John Travolta also co-stars as a double dealing DEA agent and he too, adds nothing to his character. Ms. Hayek, to her credit, actually gives more than a one note performance. As for Mr. Kitsch, he redeems himself nicely here after the horrific "John Carter" playing a hot headed ex-soldier who will do anything to get Ms. Lively back. However, there is really nothing likable about the Chon, Ben or O characters. We're meant to sympathize with them as they want out of the drug business that has already made them millions but the lengths they go to get the vapid O back are ridiculous. 

          The film is violent and oozes sleeze. It left me wanting to shower off the dirt after watching it. By the end, everyone has acted savagely, including Mr. Stone, who pulls a fast one on the audience.

           If a crime thriller about drug dealers appeals to you, you can find a much better written, directed and acted story on television. It's called "Breaking Bad" and creator Vince Gillian can teach Mr. Stone a thing or two about how to get it right.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

The Amazing Spiderman

      A very entertaining but totally unnecessary reboot of the Spiderman franchise. Toby Maguire wore the suit 10 years ago and made a terrific Spiderman. The series lost steam with the forgettable Spiderman 3 but Sony and Columbia have found a way to keep this cash cow alive by starting fresh with a new cast, new villain and tweaks to the origin story.

      For those familiar with the comic, the earlier films or even the Broadway play, the first hour drags on as these fans (including myself) know Spiderman's origin by heart. Neither this version or the earlier film completely get it right, changing certain events to suit the script. Maybe the 3rd reboot in the next decade will finally get it right. Now there's an idea, a new Spiderman for each generation.

      What works very well here is the great chemistry between Andrew Garfield's "Peter Parker/Spiderman" and Emma Stone's "Gwen Stacy. Unlike Mary Jane Watson in the original, Gwen Stacy was Peter's real first love. It's refreshing that the writers acknowledge that. Mr. Garfield makes a very credible teen superhero and the film spends a great deal of time on the human element and not just CGI and special effects. A nice touch (true to the original) are the mechanical web shooters and not organic webs.

            There is a great deal of early bonding between Mr. Garfield and his Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen).  Rhys Ifans brings gravitas to the tortured Dr. Curt Conners /Lizard and Denis Leary plays it straight as Police Captain Stacy (Gwen's father). One character I really missed was J.J. Jameson, the cigar chomping editor of The Daily Bugle and Spiderman's biggest critic. Mr. Leary's "Captain Stacy" is given that role here and without J.J. Jameson, there's a gaping hole in the Spiderman universe.

           Once the menace of "The Lizard" is introduced, the action is pretty much non-stop and there are some great fight sequences and wonderful web swinging through Manhattan.  The camera work, in particular, is wonderful with unusual angles and beautiful wide shots of New York City as a backdrop. The film makers are obviously proud of their work as they include two long scenes of web swinging that are pretty amazing and really "pop" in 3-D. I didn't see the IMAX version but I would imagine that one sends audiences out dizzy from the effects.

            If you were completely satisfied with Mr. Maguire performance and Sam Raimi's direction ten years ago, there is really no need to sit through this new version unless you are a huge fan of Andrew Garfield. If you've been living in the dark for the last ten years and never saw the earlier versions, this one will be a thrill ride.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Beasts of The Southern Wild

          A remarkable film that transports you to another world...the Louisiana tidal basin. "The Bathtub" as it's know by it's inhabitants is filled with fascinating characters, in particular, six year old "Hushpuppy" and her harsh but loving father "Wink". The film is filled with beautiful imagery and incredible acting, especially Quvenzane Wallis as "Hushpuppy". Words just can't describe the depth and maturity of this little girl's performance.

            It's heartbreaking to realize people truly live like this but from their perspective, it's the only life they know and they make the best of it, through the good times and bad. "Wink" is an obvious drunk who borders on child abuse and yet, there are moments of such tenderness between father and daughter that it takes the viewer on an emotional roller-coaster ride. When a major storm threatens along with more personal tragedy, "Hushpuppy" must learn to face her demons (yes, this six year old has demons) and become stronger for it. 

             The cinematography is beautiful and at times, it's as if you are watching a documentary rather than a scripted film. The characters are real, the location is real but there is such a magical quality to everything, it's like nothing you've seen before. This is very much an "Indie" film that will probably never play wide so seek it out and spend some quality time in "The Bathtub".