Reviews

REVIEW – CINDERELLA

REVIEW – CINDERELLA 785 510 Joel

CINDERELLA
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Written by: Chris Weitz
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Lily James, Richard Madden, Stellan Skarsgård, Holliday Grainger, Sophie McShera, Derek Jacobi, Helena Bonham Carter

Rising above one’s station and breaking away from unjust oppression is the prototypical fairy tale made famous by Charles Perrault’s CINDERELLA. In the years since the Disney animated classic arrived, many have put their own spin on it. EVER AFTER, ELLA ENCHANTED, A CINDERELLA STORY and even other rags-to-riches stories like PRETTY WOMAN and KINGSMAN have put forth the notion that everyone is capable of greatness. Now, in the post-modern feminist era where a man rescuing a woman is seen as a cinematic taboo, we’re given director Kenneth Branagh’s very traditional take, CINDERELLA. While screenwriter Chris Weitz has some fun showing that our heroine is no pushover, and the film fleshes out some things a little better than the animated iteration, this adaptation isn’t as unconventional and unique as those glass slippers on Cinderella’s feet.

Once upon a time, there lived a beautiful, happy family in a palatial countryside estate filled with sunshine, a menagerie of animals and lots of laughter. Until one day, Mom dies, leaving wide-eyed optimist Ella (played in later years by Lily James) and her merchant father (Ben Chaplin) on their own, surviving on the mantra “Have courage and be kind.” Many years down the line, their little kingdom grows when Dad marries widow Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), and she and her obnoxious daughters Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drizella (Sophie McShera) move in. Things begin okay, but quickly turn once Ella’s father dies, leaving the wicked stepmonster in charge. Forced into servitude, the newly nicknamed “Cinderella” is reaching her breaking point. But fate has something far greater in store for her. Whilst out on a protest horse ride in the forest (as one does), she meets Kit, a.k.a. Prince Charming (Richard Madden). Since she didn’t give him any information, the Prince convinces his dying father the King (Derek Jacobi) to throw a royal ball for all to attend, hoping Cinderella will come. However, Lady Tremaine and the stepsisters set out to sabotage the reunion. Never fear, as Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) creates a show stopping, swoon-worthy ensemble to help our heroine find true love – so long as she gets home before the clock strikes 12.

There are things that work in this live-action version and things that really don’t. Let’s begin with the latter. Narration is incessant; it’s wall to wall throughout the first act, then relents for a while only to maddeningly return later and continue off and on through act three. Meant to be like a storybook coming to life, all it does is infuriate with its “movies for the blind” quality. We can see Ella writing in her diary about her magical night; why does the narration have to tell us that’s what she’s doing? Though the race to beat the clock sequence is thrilling, Fairy Godmother’s magical transformation of the pumpkin and animals felt like obligatory CG mayhem. Bonham Carter (who famously said in FIGHT CLUB that “the condom is the glass slipper of our generation”) looks fantastic, but goes a little too broad with the material, which up to that point is pretty straight-forward. Also disheartening is that James singing “A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes” and Bonham Carter’s “Bibbity Bobbity Boo” are relegated to the end credits. For a film that could have used a few transportive musical numbers to break up the flat narrative, this feels like a wasted opportunity. Though the filmmakers create a magical place that’s easy to get lost in, their additions feel a little unnecessary. Do we need a third act scheme between The Captain (Stellan Skarsgård) and Lady Tremaine? Not really, but at least it’s something different.

Branagh restrains himself, eschewing his usual shenanigans of over-the-top Shakespearean dramatics and canted angles (of which there’s blessedly only one). In their place is a light-hearted, entertaining, beguiling atmosphere where actors with pathos can shine. The royal ball sequence is absolutely mesmerizing, lovely and wonderful. They say “God is in the details,” and no one seems to understand that better than CINDERELLA’s power combo of Dante Ferretti’s production design and Sandy Powell’s costume design. Locations and wardrobe come alive with their ornate details. The chinoisere that adorns the walls of Lady Tremaine’s manse oozes glamour, as does Blanchett’s wardrobe, looking like it’s borrowed from Rita Hayworth’s estate. Ella’s household feels as repressive as those corsets under those costumes. Even the way Ella’s iconic baby blue ball gown skirt twists and twirls is simply enchanting, sparkling and superb – as is James’ performance.

While I feel like the filmmakers missed a chance to put a modern twist on the old-fashioned, super girlie tale, what’s there serves as a good reminder to be nice to everyone – including your tormenters. So in that regard, this film’s blights are all forgiven.

3.5 out of 5

CINDERELLA opens on March 13.

LA FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW – ECHO PARK (2014)

LA FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW – ECHO PARK (2014) 615 346 Joel

ECHO PARK (2014)
Directed by: Amanda Marsalis
Written by: Catalina Aguilar Mastretta
Starring: Mamie Gummer, Anthony Okungbowa, Maurice Compte, Ricky Rico, Helen Slater, Gale Harold

We’ve all thought of moments left unlived. You know, where we drift off and imagine living elsewhere – like in a dream-like bubble where happiness is valued above all, where “follow your bliss” is gospel and escapism is key. But not many of you actually take the plunge and live out your dreams in real life. That’s where director Amanda Marsalis’ ECHO PARK begins.

Sophie (Mamie Gummer) is a rich, WASPy twenty-something who’s feeling bored with her life – what with the endless uptight cocktail parties and the insufferable personalities who populate them. Rather abruptly (somewhere during the opening credits, I suppose), she uproots her life and moves all the way across town to Los Angeles’ hipster enclave, Echo Park. Her life magically changes upon answering an ad to buy a couch when she meets Alex (Anthony Okungbowa, who’s best known for being ELLEN’s DJ Tony), a jingle writer who’s moving to London in two weeks. Theirs is a sweet, pure relationship that blossoms quickly. But all isn’t bliss as Sophie’s past – in the form of her harried mom (Helen Slater, doing her best Sally Field impression) and her smug, narcissist ex Simon (Gale Harold) – returns to haunt her.

Much like the neighborhood it stands to immortalize, ECHO PARK has a sweet sincerity with a relaxed, embraceable vibe. Marsalis’ beautiful lens, working in tandem with Jason McCormick’s ethereal cinematography, captures the area elegantly. Marsalis’ style is akin to Sofia Coppola’s SOMEWHERE and LOST IN TRANSLATION, but without any pretentious meandering. She’s got a refreshing vision and voice that I’d like to see more of in the future. Music, culled by music supervisor Simone Rubi, is integral to this film as well; it helps get a flavor of the city and also acts as a siren call for Alex and his best friend Mateo (Maurice Compte). Christopher H. Knight’s smoothed out electro-pop score – similar to that of an upscale Pan-Asian bistro during happy hour – complements and augments the narrative. Around act two, it actually surpasses the rudimentary plotline. Traditionally-speaking, audiences aren’t really even supposed to notice the score, but the fact we do here shouldn’t be considered a weakness.

Gummer (daughter of Meryl Streep) is incandescent – think an approachable version of Gwyneth Paltrow. Though her performance is enchantment incarnate, her character wasn’t as fleshed out as I would have liked. Besides oscillating between two male goalposts, what’s her motor? What’s her agency? She’s got a job as a hipster handbag designer (which I presume is both vegan leather – a.k.a. plastic – and sold at a huge mark-up), but she seems to spend a majority of her time fretting about men, and not her own personal journey towards happiness. Romdramy predictabilities set in with Catalina Aguilar Mastretta’s script, where the main dramatic conflict is whether or not Alex will stay in LA or leave for London. Their “excuse” to not be together is a little flimsy, even by romdramcom standards – LIKE CRAZY and THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT are prime examples of this maddening contrivance. If they want to be together, be together! Another unfortunate strike against it is that despite being written by and directed by females, this film doesn’t pass the Bechdel test. Sophie almost exclusively discusses men with her overbearing, off-color mother and the new next-door neighbor.

While some elements seem very film school-y, there are also a few unexpected surprises in this film. Though I don’t think it  will take the world by storm, I do think the director and her resplendent star should work together again on something more cohesive.

 3 out of 5

ECHO PARK played LA Film Fest on June 14 and 17.

SCREAMFEST REVIEW – THE HUNTED (2013)

SCREAMFEST REVIEW – THE HUNTED (2013) 615 346 Joel

THE HUNTED
Written and Directed by: Josh Stewart
Starring: Josh Stewart, Nikki Deloach, Skipp Suddath, Ronnie Gene Blevins

By now, we’ve seen tons of found footage horror films flood our cinematic landscape. From 1999’s THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT to the latest PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, there’s no place the cinematic subgenre hasn’t gone. Triple threat Josh Stewart writes, directs, and stars in THE HUNTED, a chilling found footage thriller set in the West Virginian woods. Though it doesn’t exactly blaze new territory within the genre (and comparisons to THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT will be inevitable), it is 88 minutes of unrelenting terror – and the third act will have you holding your breath and hiding behind the person next to you.

Based on Stewart’s own personal harrowing adventure, the film follows hunting enthusiasts Jake (Stewart) and Stevie (Ronnie Gene Blevins) as they head deep into the West Virginia woods to shoot a pilot for the Outdoor Channel. Outfitted with a bow, a knife, and multiple cameras placed throughout the wilderness, the two have given themselves three days to capture and kill “Movie Star,” a monster buck that’s been haunting the area. But guess what?! Something else has been haunting those woods too. Before they can even catch sight of their prey, a much more malevolent force crashes their party – and it seeks revenge.

If you’ve never had the urge to go hunting, you definitely never will after seeing this film. It’s sadistically fun to see how the duo initially looks at the woods as a place of creative freedom, but once their creation sours, it morphs into a place of imprisonment where trees appear to be prison cages. Tension, tone and atmosphere build at a brisk pace and then explode into fireworks during the final act. While you (and possibly PETA) may worry at the outset for the buck’s safety, never fear, as there are only a few moments where that type of anxiety comes into play. There’s also an adequate (and very necessary) amount of tension release humor peppered throughout. Blevins and Stewart do a terrific job acting as both hunters and the hunted. Both characters represent the two opposing types of people in their audience – those, like Stevie, who’s can’t handle the scares and those, like Jake, who are much braver souls.

Walter Werzowa (who also composed the music) and John Luker’s stellar sound design comes to the forefront of this terrifying campfire tale. Snapping branches and footsteps on crackling leaves have never been more ominous and foreboding. Screams seem to travel through and, at times, surround the audience, making the forest feel inescapable. It will have you sinking deep into your seat, praying for the relief of daytime to come quickly. William Yeh’s crisp cuts also help sustain the picture’s fluidity and energy.

For a self-confessed wuss like me, THE HUNTED grabbed me by the throat and wouldn’t let go. Even avid horror enthusiasts are bound to find favor with this. A pickup for distribution by Blumhouse will hopefully be a no-brainer as this is tailor-made for that company’s oeuvre and audience.

4.5 out of 5

THE HUNTED played Screamfest on October 10. For more information on Screamfest, go here.

DVD Review – WILFRED: THE COMPLETE ORIGINAL SERIES

DVD Review – WILFRED: THE COMPLETE ORIGINAL SERIES 662 935 Joel

WILFRED: THE COMPLETE ORIGINAL SERIES
Rating: The US version usually rates TV-MA and the original is no different.
Studio: Shout Factory
MSRP: $29.93 but Amazon has it for $22.83.
Running Time: 400 mins

What’s Going On?

Adam is invited home by Sarah after a concert. When he meets her dog, Wilfred, he can’t believe what he sees: a man in a dog suit. Wilfred is determined to undermine and sabotage his relationship with Sarah, leaving Adam questioning his sanity.

Who’s In It:

Jason Gann and Adam Zwar, who created the show, also star along with Cindy Waddingham.

If You Like…:

The American remake of the series, in which Gann also stars, then you’ll definitely enjoy comparing it to the original.

Special Features:

Each of the season has its own chunk of special features. The first has a behind the scenes featurette, a trailer and a crew montage and the second has a making-of featurette, outtakes and bloopers.

The Technical Gist

Solid.

The Verdict

The biggest difference between the original version and the American is that this one isn’t quite as dark as I would have expected. While Elijah Wood’s character Ryan in the American version is suffering from depression and it’s arguable that Ryan sees Wilfred because he’s died or because he overdosed on drugs, Adam is brought into Sarah’s home and there’s no particular event that would lead to him seeing Wilfred. For me, that made things a bit less credible.

However, Gann is still great and the show is still utterly charming and quite funny. Fans of the series should definitely QUEUE IT and the uninitiated can watch the first season of the American version on Netflix Watch Instantly.

AFI FEST REVIEW – THE IMPOSSIBLE

AFI FEST REVIEW – THE IMPOSSIBLE 600 421 Joel

THE IMPOSSIBLE
Directed by: J.A. Bayona
Written by: Sergio G. Sánchez
Starring: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast, Johan Sundberg, and Geraldine Chaplin

Both Hollywood and audiences love a good, real-life tear-jerker. After all, it allows us to work out our pent-up emotions whilst plunking down our hard earned cash to see these intensely felt stories play out on the silver screen. This is the sentiment behind director J.A. Bayona’s tsunami of emotions, THE IMPOSSIBLE. While it does a fantastic job portraying the emotional and physical devastation from 2004’s tsunami in South East Asia, it also suffers from a few cuts and bruises due to the film’s trite, lazy, and maddening third act. When all is said and done, this film is visceral, thrilling, and heartbreaking – although not entirely for the right reasons.

We first meet British married couple Maria (Naomi Watts) and Henry (Ewan McGregor) and their young children Lucas (Tom Holland), Simon (Oaklee Pendergast), and Thomas (Samuel Joslin) en route to their Christmas getaway on one of Thailand’s luxurious beach resorts. Setting up each of their personalities (and the traits they’ll have to overcome in order to survive later), this is a well executed precursor to the harrowing horrors that await. Things are going perfectly at the Orchid resort until the day after Christmas, when a pressing (and frightening) powerful wave floods the shores – not just once but twice! Unrelenting terror kicks in when our hero family becomes separated. Lucas and a badly hurt Maria band together to seek help after being swept away by the current, and Henry and the young boys hang at the hotel until he decides to go look for Maria and Lucas.

THE IMPOSSIBLE’s script by Sergio G. Sánchez makes it impossible not to cry – or at the very least tear up – during the breathtaking and immersive second act. It puts viewers right in the epicenter of the tsunami. How do you go about finding your loved ones in a disaster? Would you take the same measures? Where does strength come from? Through the mouth of Geraldine Chaplin, death is explained in an elegant, non-condescending fashion. Brilliantly executed, Bayona and Sánchez find many moments of staggering beauty throughout much of the devastation. Whether it be toddler Daniel (Johan Sundberg), who represents the hope that can spring after complete ruin or a stranger’s kind act of handing over a cell phone to call home, it’s these tiny genuine moments that visually speak volumes – much more than any dialogue could ever do.

The film brims with standout performances from the entire cast – not just from leads Watts and McGregor. While they add the gravitas a piece like this needs, Holland is tasked with one of the most difficult jobs here. He equals his more seasoned co-stars’ determination and ferocity without ever being precocious or losing one beat with the audience. Sound design by Oriol Tarragó and his crew also plays a large part, as it’s the sound of the massive wave that makes us feel it to our core (and what notably starts us on our harrowing journey). Plus the visual and special effects departments earn a hat tip for adding the correlating visuals. Cinematography by Óscar Faura gives the film a polished, slick sheen that both complements and contrasts the narrative.

That’s why it’s so utterly disappointing that the third act stands in such jarring juxtaposition to what we’ve seen prior. Relying on a cheap flashback device manipulates viewers and insults their intelligence. We’ve already seen the nightmare of what happened to Maria, and we understand this will haunt her for the rest of her life; why must we experience it again?! Plus the film ends on a maddening note, as this rich, insured, white family leaves safely on a private jumbo jet, casually comptemplating the real losses of other less fortunate people. It seems very insincere. There’s also no post-script about how the real life family this film is based on is doing today, which also leaves viewers hanging.

THE IMPOSSIBLE is a testament to the human will, a force that can get us through even the most dire of circumstances. Unfortunately, it can’t overcome all insurmountable obstacles, such as third act contrivance.

THE IMPOSSIBLE played at AFI Fest on November 4 and 8 and opens on Christmas Day.

Mel’s Top Ten Films of 2011

Mel’s Top Ten Films of 2011 560 323 Joel

It’s that time of the year again. That time of the year when movie critics left, right, high, and low post their year-end favorite lists. Any year-end list is, by definition, subjective, a list that reflects the writer’s biases, prejudices, and real/reel-world experiences, but we can also agree that our choices in film reflect certain agreed-upon elements that, together or in part, signify quality filmmaking. In addition, a year-end list can be seen as a contribution to the ongoing conversation and dialogue between critics, cineastes, and filmgoers. Herewith, forthwith, and heretofore are the films that resonated the strongest with me (in reverse order). As with any list, your mileage may (and probably will) vary. Feel free to chime in with your thoughts, positive, negative, or even neutral, in the comments field below.

10. INTO THE ABYSS: The seemingly tireless Werner Herzog released not one, but two well-received documentaries this year, CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS, a literal and metaphorical exploration of the oldest cave drawings known to science, in the spring, and INTO THE ABYSS, a difficult, thought-provoking, and unsurprisingly given the subject matter, heart-wrenching documentary that explores a single death penalty case from every practical angle (e.g., the murder itself, the perpetrators, the victims, and the death house workers) in the state of Texas. A staunch death penalty opponent, Herzog stays offscreen, respectfully giving everyone the opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings about the death penalty or, in the case of a death-row inmate, his impending mortality.

9. MEEK’S CUTOFF: Kelly Reichardt’s minimalist, arthouse Western (in the loosest definition of that term), follows an increasingly desperate group of pioneers headed for the Promised Land become literally and metaphorically lost in the Oregon High Desert. Using a full, box-like frame that subtly contributes to a sense of unease and oppression while eschewing close-ups, Reichardt and her collaborators, including writer Jonathan Raymond and a stellar cast led by Michelle Williams (in yet another award-worthy role), crafts a uniquely unforgettable existential, historical drama. It’s also a carefully calibrated examination of gender and gender roles, far more fluid than otherwise assumed, circa 1845.

8. SHAME: Steven McQueen and Michael Fassbender’s second collaboration (after HUNGER three years ago), SHAME, received an “NC-17” rating from the MPAA for its ample male nudity and (joyless) sex scenes, but SHAME is far more than just, as someone semi-cleverly put it, “full frontal Fassbender,” it’s also a deeply affecting character study of a damaged, tortured sex addict and his dysfunctional relationship with his younger, unstable sister played by a career-best Carey Mulligan. It’s their troubled relationship that elevates SHAME above addiction narrative tropes and into an uncompromising, raw, authentic near-masterpiece.

7. THE SKIN I LIVE IN: Showing little or no sign of slowing down, Pedro Almodóvar, the crown prince of subversive, melodramatic excess returned this year with THE SKIN I LIVE IN, his first collaboration in twenty years with one-time muse Antonio Banderas as a supremely deranged, surprisingly sympathetic, Frankenstein-inspired “mad doctor” who decides to play God remakes one, not-so-innocent woman (played by Elena Anaya) in the image of his long-dead, adulterous wife. A seeming ode or homage to Georges Franju’s EYES WITHOUT A FACE, THE SKIN I LIVE IN take a sudden, unexpected turn into polymorphous perversity (among many other perversities) and never looks back. At times blackly comic, at other times blackly horrific, and sometimes both at once, THE SKIN I LIVE IN must be seen and experienced to be disbelieved (and then seen and experienced again).

6. RANGO: Best known for THE PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN trilogy that made Johnny Depp into one of, if not the, biggest international box office draws, Gore Verbinski wisely passed on directing another entry in the franchise, instead focusing his not-inconsiderable visual and storytelling talents to his first animated feature, RANGO, a Spaghetti Western-flavored, CHINATOWN-influenced comedy that starred Depp as the title character, a one-time pet chameleon and aspiring thespian who finds himself embroiled in a dying town’s politics and a nefarious plan to control the town’s ever-diminishing water supply. With creatures no Pixar animator would love, let alone draw, and stunning, eye-catching cinematography thanks, in part, to an assist from ace cinematographer/frequent Coen Brothers’ collaborator Roger Deakins, RANGO isn’t just the best animated film of the year; it’s one of the year’s best films in this or any other category.

5. DRIVE: Call it neo-noir, call it neon-noir, or call it an exercise of style (over substance, presumably) if you prefer, but Danish filmmaker Nicholas Winding Refn’s adaptation of James Sallis’ crime novel, DRIVE, a collaboration with, among others, Ryan Gosling as the loner anti-hero, Carey Mulligan as the obligatory romantic interest/object of desire, and Albert Brooks as a sociopathic gangster, offered semi-adventurous moviegoers a singular experience. Admittedly, Winding Refn’s mix of visual poetry and ultra-violence left some moviegoers and even some critics queasy and disquieted, but moviegoers with strong stomachs willing to look past the violence or accept it on its own uncompromising terms saw a film that respected the genre and elevated at the same time.

4. MELANCHOLIA: Provocateur-extraordinaire Lars von Trier caused an outcry at this year’s Cannes Film Festival that resulted in his banishment over ill-conceived, ill-timed comments but with time comes perspective (and forgetfulness). More importantly, critics and moviegoers could evaluate von Trier’s latest film, MELANCHOLIA, explores, among other things, the deleterious effects clinical depression has on Justine (a career-best Kirsten Dunst), her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and their respective families as a rogue planet, dubbed “Melancholia” (a massive, perhaps over-obvious, metaphor), heads on a collision course for Earth. The world ends, not with a whimper, but with a bang, a huge, explosive bang that destroys all life (no, that’s not a spoiler). More importantly for von Trier, the impending apocalypse gives him (and us) the opportunity to explore two lives under incredible duress. A surreal, lyrical, poetic prologue edited to Richard Wagner’s ‘Tristan und Isolde,” and MELANCHOLIA emerges as one of von Trier’s strongest films (one of his most accessible too).

3. MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE: A remarkable feature-length debut from writer-director Sean Durkin and actress Elizabeth Olsen (the younger, more talented sister to the Olsen Twins, Mary-Kate and Ashley), MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE shifts and slips between genres and categories (e.g., psychological thriller, psychological horror, cult expose, family drama, etc.). Durkin likes to keep his audience guessing and, more importantly, thinking. Employing a time-shifting narrative to disquieting, disturbing effect, a simulation of the lead characters troubled state of mind. Through carefully doled out exposition, Martha’s experiences in a repressive cult led by a charismatic leader, Patrick (John Hawkes), shed light on why she joined and why, ultimately, she left. Not one to limit his critique to cults, Durkin takes aim at conspicuous consumption and materialism as well through Martha’s older sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy).

2. TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY: Swedish director Tomas Alfredson (LET THE RIGHT ONE IN) and an award-worthy Gary Oldman (the first among equals in an all-star cast that includes John Hurt, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Tom Hardy, and Benedict Cumberbatch) bring John le Carré’s dense, convoluted 1974 novel to the big screen with complex, layered thematics and subtext (duplicity, betrayal, etc.) intact. In interviews, Alfredson said he wanted to recreate the smell of “damp tweed” with his period-specific adaptation of le Carré’s Cold War novel. He, along with his production designer, Maria Djurkovic, and cinematographer, Hoyte Van Hoytema, succeeded admirably. Oldman gives a layered, nuanced performance as George Smiley (a role originated by Alec Guinness in the 1979 BBC miniseries), a taciturn, reserved retired/unretired spymaster searching for a Soviet mole inside the British Secret Intelligence Service, MI6.

1. THE TREE OF LIFE: Terence Malick’s fifth film in four decades and his first in four decades, THE TREE OF LIFE was nothing less (and much, much more) than a treatise on life, the universe, and everything. Malick explores universal themes and ideas about the relationships between fathers and sons, mothers and sons, brothers and brothers, morality, and religion through the prism of Texas-based family in the late 1950s. Bookending THE TREE OF LIFE with present-day search for reconciliation, Malick segues into nothing less than the birth of the cosmos, the origin of organic life on earth, evolution, and the birth of THE TREE OF LIFE’s central character, Jack (Hunter McCracken as a boy, Sean Penn as an adult). A collage of golden-hued impressions and sense-memories, often delivered with minimal dialogue or whispered interior narration, THE TREE OF LIFE offers a visceral, emotional, and intellectual experience unlike anything else moviegoers will see and hear this or any year.

The Next Ten:

11. JANE EYRE, 12. NOSTALGIA FOR THE LIGHT, 13. YOUNG ADULT, 14. TABLOID, 15.  RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, 16. THE ARTIST, 17. WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, 18. CERTIFIED COPY, 19. PROJECT NIM, 20. SENNA.

The Spielberg Award for Mawkish, Maudlin Sentimentality (a.k.a. Schmaltz): Three-way tie between Steven Spielberg for WAR HORSE, Stephen Daldry for EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE, and Martin Scorsese for HUGO.

The ‘Male Weepie’ Award: WARRIOR by a landslide of sweaty, grunting men working out their dysfunctional family issues in an ultra-contrived mixed-martial arts competition.

REVIEW – MONEYBALL

REVIEW – MONEYBALL 565 312 Joel

MONEYBALL
Directed by: Bennett Miller
Written by: Steven Zaillian, Aaron Sorkin and Stan Chervin
Starring: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Chris Pratt

Not every movie has to be an Oscar darling. Sometimes a picture can be successful just by achieving its goals and telling its story well. MONEYBALL is one of those movies. It’s not going to be a Best Picture winner but that doesn’t deny its greatness.

MONEYBALL is the story of Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) and his attempt to change the game. One year after a painful loss to The Yankees, Beane is looking for a new path to victory. His minimal team budget can’t compete with the big boys in New York or Boston so Beane is hoping to do a lot more with a lot less. When he meets numbers cruncher Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), Beane finds his new way. Brand is an economics major who truly understands the numbers of baseball. With Brand’s advice and analysis, Beane decides to invest his slim budget in the players other teams don’t want. Brand describes these athletes as “the island of misfit toys”. They consist of unorthodox, unattractive and past-their-prime guys. But they can hit the ball and make runs and that’s all that matters. They are Beane’s only hope. They’re his last hope.

MONEYBALL is an underdog story set against the backdrop of major league baseball. However, there’s a lot of talk about numbers and strategy in the film and that’s one of its strongest aspects. A brilliant scene with Beane trying to sell and buy players flows magically, Brand’s description of his method feels natural and enticing, chart after chart of RBI and hit percentages aren’t boring but engaging.

But it’s not only the inside baseball business that plays well in MONEYBALL. Several strong performances from Pitt, Hill, Hoffman and Pratt elevate the material and give you more of a reason to give a damn about the characters. Pitt especially delivers, playing Beane with brilliant, charming leading man quality. He makes some fabulous choices with the character. Instead of portraying Beane as an angry, unhinged guy, he plays him an exhausted, desperate and somewhat flippant employee out of money and ideas. When he’s trying to sell his new method of baseball, he’s doing it because it’s all he’s got, he’s at the end of his rope. There are several scenes when Beane is trying to convince the old timers that Brand’s path is the way to a championship. His demeanor, body language and overall attitude are pitch perfect. Anyone who has ever been sick of losing will relate with Beane. This is Pitt at his best.

There are a minor missteps in MONEYBALL. I feel like the film was this close to exploring some very fascinating character elements. Beane was a promising baseball player before his career fell apart. This collapse leads him to hate and fear failure. While this part of his personality is touched upon, I feel as though there is a little missing. We get to spend time with Beane and his adorable daughter (Kerris Dorsey) but these scenes don’t illuminate Beane aside from showing him as a good dad. More time devoted to Beane’s fear of rejection and failure would have been time well spent. As for Brand, we don’t get to know him at all. I wondered about him, about his love of baseball and his decision to enter the sport after studying economics at Yale. While exploring him would have added several extra minutes to the film I think it would have been fascinating.

But there’s little to complain about with MONEYBALL. The movie performs flawlessly, like a prime baseball team coached to perfection. There’s a solid script, a wonderful plot, terrific performances and direction that doesn’t overwhelm the story. And it’s an underdog story, one that everyone can get behind and cheer for. MONEYBALL isn’t the movie of the year, it isn’t this year’s THE SOCIAL NETWORK, but it’s a damn fine film.

REVIEW – TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON

REVIEW – TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON 300 168 Joel

TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON
Directed by: Michael Bay
Written by: Ehren Krueger
Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Josh Duhamel, John Turturro, Tyrese Gibson, Patrick Dempsey, Francis McDormand, Kevin Dunn, Julie White, Alan Tudyk

The words “awful,” “atrocious,” and “abysmal” don’t come close to describing TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON, the third and, for now anyway, last entry (let’s not call it a “trilogy”) in the toys-to-animated-series-to-summer-blockbuster franchise directed by Michael Bay (BAD BOYS I and II, ARMAGEDDON, THE ROCK) with the usual mix of offensive ethnic-based humor, complete disregard for the barest semblance of character or coherent storytelling, and, of course, the best visual effects a generous $200 million-dollar budget can provide. Those same visual effects, seamlessly blended with live-action and practical effects will be more than enough to offset DARK OF THE MOON otherwise crippling deficiencies, deficiencies amply shared by the third entry’s predecessor, TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN, but that’s nothing general moviegoers don’t already know (or know, but choose to ignore).

Apparently aiming for the ADD-challenged demographic, Bay once again gives us not one, but two prologues, one an exposition-heavy voiceover narration by Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), the noble leader of the freedom-loving Autobots as he takes us through the last, dying days of his homeworld, Cybertron, due to the cataclysmic war with the tyranny-loving Decepticons, and, in the second, the crash landing of an alien spacecraft, Cybertronian in origin, on the dark side of Earth’s moon. In a retcon typical of long-running comic books in the Marvel or DC universes, Bay and screenwriter Ehren Krueger posit a decades-long government conspiracy tied to the discovery of the Cybertronian spacecraft, initially by NASA, later by the Soviet Space Agency, making the U.S./U.S.S.R. space race nothing more than an attempt to reach the alien spacecraft and retrieve advanced Cybertronian technology first.

Twenty minutes into an incredibly overlong. over-indulgent 154-minute running time, TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON finally catches up with human hero-protoganist Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) in Washington, D.C. Three months out of college and jobless, Sam takes  whatever comfort he can from his new romantic interest, Carly (former Victoria’s Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, giving the non-performance of the year), a former British Embassy employee Sam met on a visit to the White House to receive a medal for his efforts in defeating the Decepticons. Carly now runs a classic car museum for Dylan (Patrick Dempsey), an ultra-wealthy businessman who Sam rightly sees as a threat to his monogamous, if still unserious, relationship with Carly. With his parents, Ron Witwicky (Kevin Dunn) and Judy Witwicky (Julie White), in town for a visit, Sam scrambles for gainful employment.

All that, unsurprisingly, is mostly superfluous, but definitely secondary, to the seemingly endless war between the Autobots and the Decepticons. The Autobots have allied themselves primarily with the United States and with the Decepticons lying low, the Autobots help the U.S. military take down Middle Eastern terrorists (or at least that’s what it looks like they’re doing). The discovery of a part from the Cybertronian spacecraft alerts Optimus Prime of the ship’s presence on the dark side of the moon. Once again, a race erupts between the Autobots and the Decepticons to retrieve something or other on the alien spacecraft that can finally turn the war in favor of whichever side obtains said alien object (or objects).

Between Sam’s personal and professional travails, the latter of which leads to a tangential connection to the Autobot-Decepticon, and Bay’s inability to edit down exposition-heavy, redundant scenes or restrain his penchant for ethnic-based humor (the latest batch of Autobots have nonsensically picked up a variety of accents), it takes the better part of 90 minutes to slide the human, Autobot, and Decepticon pieces into place for the final robot-on-robot and sometimes robot-on-human battle (until the next final battle), this time moving the epic-length battle to Chicago from Egypt in the last film and Los Angeles in the first. From there, it’s Bay at his best (or his worst, depending on your perspective): massive mayhem meant to top not just the second film’s climax, but also every other blockbuster in recent memory.

To Bay’s credit, filming in 3D (some scenes were shot using native 3D cameras, others post-converted) has added a smoothness and calmness to his usually frenetic, impossible to follow visual style. Bay keeps the shaky cam action and zip pans to only a few shots, usually to heighten or underscore a particular effect or emotion. As a result, spatial relations between human characters, their environments, and the robots, are significantly easier to follow than in TRANSFORMERS or TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN. Visual effects, specifically the Autobots and the Decepticons, have been honed over the last five years into near-perfection. Add to that a near-seamless blending of live-action, practical effects, and computer animation, and the result is nothing if not immersive, if only on the most basic visceral level.

Based on just the TRANSFORMERS franchise, Bay’s callous disregard, even outright hostility toward the basics of storytelling, compelling characters, compelling storylines compellingly told, not to mention acting (even from name actors like Francis McDormand, John Turturro, John Malkovich, and Alan Tudyk in superfluous supporting roles), can’t be denied. While not completely accepting the harsh criticisms that made TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN a favorite example among critics and bloggers on how not to make an enduring tentpole, Bay argued that the ’08 writers’ strike forced him to go into production with an unpolished, if not unfinished, script. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have that excuse this time out. In fact, he has no excuse at all. And neither does screenwriter Ehren Krueger. But just because they don’t care doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care (we should).

1 out of 5

KILL BILL: THE WHOLE BLOODY AFFAIR Details!

KILL BILL: THE WHOLE BLOODY AFFAIR Details! 332 412 Joel

When I heard the Quentin Tarantino was guest programming the whole month long at Los Angeles’ New Beverly Cinema, I just about passed out.  Come to find out a few days later he was going to be showing the assembled version of KILL BILL – the print of much speculation and lore – needless to say I freaked out and scored tickets immediately.  Good thing I did as tickets for its two week run, March 27- April 7, have entirely sold out.

Tarantino fans have been holding their collective breath for years now waiting for KILL BILL: THE WHOLE BLOOD AFFAIR to be released.  Since there are still no plans or dates the combined version will be coming to DVD anytime soon, this was the “Holy Grail” of screenings. Oh, and did I mention, it was Tarantino’s birthday yesterday and he intro’d our screening?! That’s right.  The director of one of my top five favorite films introduced his film, a cut that had only been shown twice before (once at Cannes and once at the Alamo Drafthouse).  Forget about it!  I can die happy now.

The unrated 247 minute cut of the film played twice on Sunday to sold out crowds.  Prior to the show starting, they were selling limited edition posters by Tyler Stout (see poster below) at $50 a pop.  My afternoon screening treated Tarantino, the cinema’s benefactor, to a rousing sing-a-long of “Happy Birthday” before he got up to introduce the film.

So onto information about the KILL BILL print that was screened.  If you are seeing the special screening and want to be surprised, obviously you should stop reading here.  There will be spoilers ahead!

KILL BILL: THE WHOLE BLOODY AFFAIR was the same print that was shown in 2004 in Cannes complete with French subtitles and intermission intact.  The variations from the originals range from the subtle (alternate takes used) to the impactful (no revelation “The Brides” child had lived).  Most of the changes came during Volume 1 although there was a subtle change I noticed in Volume 2 where The Bride arrives in Acuna to talk with Estaban (More shots of the whores are shown).

Highlights of the Volume 1 changes include the “House of the Blue Leaves” fight sequence when the Crazy 88’s arrive is shown in full beautiful color (vs. the American version when it turns to black and white). O-Ren Ishii’s anime origin story contains more gore with Boss Motsumoto getting disemboweled.  Sofie Fatale looses her other arm during a car trunk interrogation.  There may have been more changes, but I haven’t see the original US version in years so it was hard for me to remember the overwhelming differences.

Most notably absent was the revelation the Bride’s child has survived, which serves as the “teaser line” in the first film to set up the second film (that premiered months later).  If you hadn’t seen the films before, I would imagine this would have led for a much more dramatic impact when you see B.B. later at the Hacienda alive and being raised by Bill.

If you are a die hard fan of the film like me, you probably already own the Japanese cut on DVD and have noticed these changes are essentially what’s on that disc.  Not much was altered from this cut but little things, here and there.  That said, if you are a die hard fan, you will want to see and notice those differences.

If you can’t make it to LA and want to experience THE WHOLE BLOODY AFFAIR at home for yourself, here is what I recommend.  Buy the Japanese disc of volume one, stop the disc after the Brides’ instructions to Sofie (after the line “Soon they will all be as dead as….”), insert volume 2 fast forwarding past the prologue and that’s basically it. 

If you are a fan of the film and are in LA, I do recommend taking in a screening of this at the New Beverly.  Also worth noting, sometimes special guests will show up and talk about the film so there might be a chance your screening will have a surprise.  As I mentioned before the run is sold out but don’t let that dissuade you from taking your chances in the stand-by line.  The odds you might get in are pretty good as they let in quite a few from that line during the show I attended.

Thanks Slash Film for the poster pic!