Monday, December 31, 2012

Best & Worst of 2012

Best of 2012-

10) The Dark Knight Rises- A fitting end to a wonderful trilogy.
9) Skyfall- A return to form for Daniel Craig and the James Bond franchise. A Bond film with heart and soul.
8) Silver Linings Playbook- The genius of this film is the way it sneaks up on you and wins you over. A terrific ensemble cast.
7) The Avengers- I was worried how all these superheroes would be able to share screen time. Writer/director Joss Whedon pulls it off beautifully. 
6) Bernie- A very black comedy based on a true story. A really wonderful performance from Jack Black, not to mention his great chemistry with Shirley Maclaine.
5) Zero Dark Thirty- The most intense performance of the year by Jessica Chastain fuels the back story of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Brilliantly directed by Kathryn Bigalow and meticulously written by Mark Boal.
4) Searching For Sugarman- Amazing documentary that is part mystery, part musical and a revelatory introduction to the music of Rodriguez.
3) Django Unchained- Quentin Tarantino does it again with a film that is funny, smart, violent and always shocking. A great tribute to spaghetti westerns and black exploitation films while staying true to itself.
2) Argo- Blend an outrageous truth with an unbelievable fiction and you get a surprisingly funny and very suspenseful drama from director Ben Affleck.
1) Beasts of The Southern Wild- There is no easy way to describe this original, wonderful fairy tale of a drama that takes place in the Louisiana lowlands. I saw it in July and it's images still linger. Six year old (at the time) lead actress Quvenzhane Wallis is a revelation. 

 Honorable Mentions- Lincoln, The Master, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Life of Pi.
 Foreign Thriller Honorable Mentions- Easy Money, Headhunters, and Sleepless Night. See them before Hollywood ruins them with American remakes.

Worst of 2012 (in no particular order)-
Underworld: Awakening, One For The Money, John Carter, Dark Shadows, The Dictator, Men in Black 3, Snow White & The Huntsmen, Rock of Ages, Savages, and Trouble With The Curve.

Le Miserables

    I must admit, I'm not a big fan of screen musicals. I always believed musicals work better as live theater. "Le Miz", is a beloved show and pretty much critic proof so I approached this film cautiously. My attitude about musicals isn't changed. I don't mind the musical numbers but really can't stand it when actors have to "sing" the dialog that bridges the songs. Having got that out of way, I will admit, the film is still very entertaining.

              Hugh Jackman is excellent throughout as Jean Valijean, the poor tortured soul chased throughout the film by Inspector Javert, played with appropriate intensity by Russell Crowe. Mr. Crowe may not have the best singing voice in the cast but he does a good job with vocals that match his character. Anne Hathaway is getting plenty of accolades as Fantine, deservingly so as she knocks it out of the park with "I Dreamed A Dream". Rounding out the cast is Amanda Seyfried as Cosette, Eddie Redmayne as Marius, and Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as the comic relief, Thenardier and his wife.

               Director Tom Hooper makes a bold move by having the actors sing live and it pays off with wonderful performances (except for that annoying "singing dialog" in between). Mr. Baron Cohen and Ms. Bonham Carter are a perfect pair and pull off a rousing version of "Master of The House". Ms. Seyfried and Mr. Redmayne are well cast as the young lovers but their singing is just adequate.

                The cinematography is beautiful as are the costumes and the seamless CGI work. Mr. Hooper does an admirable job bringing the musical to the screen but with the exception of Ms. Hathaway, it still lacks the thrill and emotion of live theater.

Not Fade Away

     Writer/director David Chase (the creator of The Sopranos) turns his attention to film with this nostalgic look at growing up in the 60's when rock & roll meant everything. There will always be "coming of age" films and the trick is to find an original way to tell your story. While probably not purely biographical, Mr. Chase delivers a film that honestly recalls growing up in suburban New Jersey obsessed with music after seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and The Rolling Stones on Hollywood Palace.

      Doug (played by an excellent John Magaro) lives with his sister and parents in a pretty typical family setting. With a hard working dad, stay at home mom, but a restless urge to break out of the mold, Doug forms a band with some friends and starts to play local parties doing covers.  What happens to Doug over the course of the film and where the music takes him is the basis of the story. 

      Doug's dad is played convincingly by James Gandolfini, a blue collar "every" dad who finds solace in his evening ice cream (much like his TV mobster counterpart). His mom is played by Molly Price, also perfect in house coat and curlers usually behind an ironing board. His younger sister, Evelyn narrates the film and offers significant insight and thoughtful questions throughout. The other major characters are Wells, played by Will Brill, the lead guitarist of the band and Grace Deitz, played by Bella Heathcote, the object of John's affections.

               What really sets the film apart is the fantastic soundtrack and attention to detail of every musical aspect. Mr. Chase gave the reins to Steve Van Zandt as musical director and supervisor. As a true historian of rock & roll as well as a wonderful musician in his own right, Mr. Van Zandt is the perfect choice to oversee this important aspect of the film. From his Cuban heels to the way he positions his wrist while playing drums, Doug's got the look and sound just right, as does the rest of the band. Apparently Mr. Chase hired actors first and then Mr. Van Zandt took them to a sort of "rock & roll boot camp" to prepare them for playing musicians. A lot of the instrumental work is actually done by members of the E Street band and fellow guitarist, Bobby Bandiera. The song selection is an eclectic mix of hits and rarities from the 60's.

              "Not Fade Away" is made with love and respect. It's a fresh look at an amazing era, seen through the eyes and actions of a very talented cast. Not to mention, a great musical history lesson for today's teens.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Hobbit; An Unexpected Journey

        It's great fun to return to Middle Earth but the awe and magic of "The Lord of The Rings" trilogy is gone. Director Peter Jackson and his team of writers, so anxious to film the prequel and satisfy millions of fans have overstuffed a wonderful tale with unnecessary sound and fury. They have super-sized the enchanting story so much that it was necessary to split it into three films. Be warned that "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is only part one and part two is coming next holiday season.

          The CGI work and the New Zealand landscapes are remarkable. At times, it's hard to tell the real actors from the computer images...and that's not a good thing. Only Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf, and Thorin, the dwarf King have any personality. Oh and of course, Gollum, who doesn't show up until late in the film. Hopefully characters will be better defined as we move through parts two and three but for now, it's all a noisy set up for what's to come. It's basically run, fight, repeat.

          Ian McKellen returns as Gandalf the Wizard and he hasn't missed a beat. He wears his wizard hat proudly. Thorin is played by Richard Armitage and he smolders beautifully. Our reluctant Hobbit hero, Bilbo is played by Martin Freeman and he is perfectly cast in the role (although he is basically playing the same part he played in "The Hitchhiker's Guide to The Galaxy" albeit with bigger feet). Mr. Jackson offers a tasty treat  in bringing back Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett and Christopher Lee for one scene and it will have to satisfy until the trilogy continues. The scene when Bilbo first encounters Gollum (the always terrific Andy Serkis) is well worth the wait as it's the only one with any real depth and emotional resonance.

           As a side note, the film is available for viewing in multiple formats. I did not see the new High Frame Rate process but I did see it in Imax 3D and it looked and sounded great. As for the overall film, you can't really review this as a finished work since we are only a third into the story but if this is the appetizer, I expect a lot more for the entrĂ©e and Mr. Jackson better blow us away with the dessert.

Life of Pi

   Director Ang Lee and screenwriter David Magee pull off an amazing task with this wonderful adaptation of the best selling novel. Many said the book was impossible to film but Mr. Magee keeps the screenplay incredibly close to the original narrative and Mr. Lee, choosing 3D as his playground delivers a visual stunner of a film.

       Using 3D to enhance his colorful palette, Mr. Lee doesn't waste a shot. From the beautiful opening sequence to the horrific storm at sea and everything that follows, the screen is filled with unforgettable images. The digital creation of many of the animals is flawless and also given an upgrade by the use of the 3D cameras. It is the best use of 3D since "Hugo".

       The central story of teenage Pi's survival at sea is bookended by the adult Pi relating his story to a character known only as "The Writer".  While acted with conviction by Irfan Khan as the adult Pi, these scenes come off a bit clumsy serving as a bridge to the moral and spiritual center of the tale. If you have read the book, seen the trailer or even a poster, you know that a Bengal tiger is a major character in the story. The how and why he's important I will leave for you to discover. God's plan and man's place in the universe are central themes explored in the book as well as the film. It is is the teenage Pi and that Bengal tiger that take us on the emotional and spiritual journey to explore those themes. Teenage Pi is played by Suraj Sharma and he is well up to the physically demanding and emotional draining task.

        The film is long, running over two hours. Mr. Lee definitely could have tightened up his editing with a little cutting now and then. Instead, he choose to put it all out there and let the outstanding visuals and suspenseful plot keep you engaged. The revelations at film's end should have you deep in discussion well after the final credits.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Django Unchained

       Quentin Tarantino is a craftsman. He knows exactly what he wants and never compromises. The man has made only eight films in twenty years. There is no mistaking a "Tarantino" film, regardless of the genre. And now he takes his camera to the wild west and south for a mash up of spaghetti western meets black explotation. "Django" clocks in at almost three hours and there is entertainment in every frame. If you are easily offended by over the top violence and foul language (especially liberal use of a particular "N" word), this is not the movie for you but if you are a fan of Mr. Tarantino's work, you will certainly not be disappointed.

          Mr. Tarantino has found the perfect muse for his dialog in Christoph Waltz. While Jamie Foxx may play the title character, the film truly belongs to Mr. Waltz's character, Dr. King Schultz. He is brilliantly written and Mr. Waltz is Oscar caliber in the role. Mr. Foxx is also excellent but Django is a man of action, not words and you appreciate him in an entirely different way. When Dr. Schultz frees Django and the two men become partners in the bounty hunting business, a true "bromance" is formed. Both actors play off each other so well and so naturally, it's a beautiful thing to watch.

           Heroes have to have their villains to balance any good story and who would expect Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson to sign up as two of the most vile characters to ever appear on screen? Both are so good at being bad, its scary. It's a toss up for which is the more despicable of the two.

           As a well documented student of film, Mr. Tarantino fills the screen with lots of movie references, some more subtle than others, and pulls character actors out of his bag of tricks that haven't appeared on screen in years. Victoria Thomas, the casting director, must have had a blast filling parts with with the likes of Don Stroud and Russ Tamblyn. James Remar is so good, Mr. Tarantino uses him twice. Robert Richarson's cinematography is wonderful and I believe he captures on film exactly what Mr. Tarantino has visualized in his head. Complimenting the visuals is a perfectly eclectic choice of songs and score. A sequence I especially liked is a montage set to Jim Croce's "I've Got A Name". 

           Early in the film, there is a scene with hooded riders that while amusing, comes off like an outtake from "Blazing Saddles", complete with stunt casting. It's an unnecessary cheap laugh. I forgive the stumble, however, because what follows is such a rich blend of smart movie-making on both sides of the camera.  Mr. Tarantino can take all the time between films he likes as long as the end product is worth the wait.

            "Django Unchained" was worth the wait.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Zero Dark Thirty

     Director Kathryn Bigalow and screenwriter Mark Boal  pull off an amazing achievement. Based on real accounts, they have taken a ten year manhunt and condensed it into a riveting two and a half hour film. "Zero Dark Thirty", if you don't know by now is the story of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden and even though we all know the outcome, it is fascinating to watch how it all came together (taking a leap of faith that the real events are just that). 

     Credit Mark Boal for a script that compresses ten years worth of material into a film that flows smoothly and keeps the audience involved throughout. Credit Kathryn Bigalow for her taut, precise direction of the actors and the faithful recreation of actual events. And credit most of all, Jessica Chastain for her lead role of Maya, the CIA analyst who devotes 12 years of her life to one goal, find and kill Osama Bin Ladin. It is Ms. Chastain's performance that is the heart and soul of the film. Her devotion to her character, her driving dedication to her mission is what anchors the film and propels the story forward like a bullet. She is on screen for almost the entire film and never permits herself time to breath until her goal has been reached.

      Besides Ms. Chastain, the film enlists a large cast with many speaking roles but most are flashes of dialogue and short scenes to connect the dots. James Gandolfini, Mark Strong, Harold Perrineau Jr. and Joel Edgerton all do admirable work, each with a key scene or two but they will not be the ones you will remember. Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Edgar Ramirez and Jason Clarke rise above the others and are all outstanding. Mr. Clarke continues a star making trajectory started way back on Showtime's short lived but excellent series, "Brotherhood".

      The film may be too intense for some, too technical for others but I found it well balanced and an exciting glimpse inside the shadowy world of international espionage and intelligence where occasionally the good guys win (even if they have to get their hands dirty to do it).  

Monday, December 17, 2012

Rust And Bone

         The new French film from director/screenwriter Jacques Audiard (A Prophet) is a story of mismatched lovers ala Beauty & The Beast. The beauty in this case is Marion Cotillard who stars as Stephanie, a trainer of killer whales. Her "beast" is Ali, played by Matthais Schoenaerts.  They meet when Stephanie is involved in a brawl at a nightclub where Ali is a bouncer but their relationship takes off only after a tragic accident. 

         CGI plays an important part in the film and it is flawless. Suffice to say, one of the characters becomes physically handicapped while the other is emotionally handicapped. They feed an urge in each other and an unlikely relationship develops. The story avoids melodrama although there is a an scene near the end that too easily serves to redeem a character and draw on audience sympathies.

         The film doesn't have the depth of "A Prophet" but it does have an original way of getting to it's obvious conclusion. Ms. Cotillard is wonderful in the complex role of Stephanie and there is a scene between her and a killer whale that is worth the price of admission alone.


        Anthony Hopkins in a dead on portrayal of famed director Alfred Hitchcock is genius. Helen Mirren also stars as his wife, Alma and it's a blast to watch them recreate the period in Hitchcock's life during the making of "Psycho". The style and tone of the film is light-hearted and fun.

          Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Biel co-star respectively as Janet Leigh and Vera Miles and James D'Arcy plays the role of Anthony Perkins.  Other co-stars include Danny Houston, Toni Colette, Michael Wincott, Micheal Stuhlbarg, Kurtwood Smith, and Ralph Macchio. The film is very well cast and even the actors seem to really be enjoying themselves. 

           Movies about Hollywood's past don't always get it right but based on a book about Mr. Hitchcock, screenwriter John McLaughlin introduces us to a Hitchcock most people never knew as well as a detailed period in time. It's a fun look behind the camera with some standout moments that I won't spoil here.

            Mr. Hopkins and Ms. Mirren should be given serious Oscar consideration. And at the same time, serious consideration should be given to Mr. Hopkins's makeup. It's remarkable, even in closeup. I highly recommend the film for Hitchcock fans and film buffs in general.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Silver Linings Playbook

         Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in this new dramatic comedy from director David O. Russell. Mr. Cooper is Pat, a bi-polar and depressed man who has been in a hospital for eight months when we first meet him. His mother, played by Jackie Weaver (so good in Animal Kingdom) brings him home to finish his healing process. There we meet his father, Pat Sr. played by Robert DeNiro. Pat's parents try their best to help him readjust to the world. 

           Ms. Lawrence is Tiffany, a young woman struggling with her own issues after the death of her husband. Tiffany and Pat are introduced at a dinner and the rest of the film centers on their growing relationship. Ms. Lawrence continues down a path of acting excellence since her debut in "Winter's Bone". While she may find herself in comedic situations, she plays Tiffany not for laughs or sympathy but rather very realistically. Mr. Cooper also shows much more depth than his recent string of comedies playing Pat as a very complex and damaged individual.

            Chris Tucker, as Pat's friend with his own mental issues and Mr. DeNiro, with his bookie subplot add comic relief. Mr. DeNiro and Ms. Weaver play a very believable couple and should do more work together. Unlike his parent roles in films like "Meet The Fockers", Mr. DeNiro dials down the broad comedy and gives one of his best performances in years.

             I found Mr. Russell's direction to be somewhat claustrophobic as much of the film is shot in closeup. This  seems to be a deliberate choice I presume, to focus more completely on the characters.  He wrote the screenplay as well, which has its flaws but the solid acting by his cast overcome the cracks. During the course of the film, I was disappointed with some disturbing scenes that are played for laughs albeit with a touch of sensitivity. In the end, the film does sneaks up on you, growing more likable as it goes and will eventually win you over.