REVIEW: Crimson Peak

17 10 2015

Crimson Peak” presents an unfortunate irony for most reviewers like myself.  The movie is essentially what we clamor for day in and day out: the chance for a great auteur like Guillermo del Toro to work on a sprawling canvas with a large budget of $55 million.  Yet, at the end of the day, the end product feels lacking in substance.  So how to respond?

If it felt like an ambitious endeavor in pursuit of a singular vision that just never quite finds its footing, I might be inclined to judge it more kindly.  While del Toro’s exercise in merging the Gothic romance with haunted house horror is interesting, “Crimson Peak” does not derive its strength from such a union.  In fact, most of the film’s memorable moments come from well-placed homages to classics like “Psycho” and “The Shining.”

del Toro’s immaculate eye for costume and design keep “Crimson Peak” stunning to look at, even if the events that unfold in this milieu are boring enough to encourage some shut-eye.  The film shows its hand far too early as two eerily close British siblings, Thomas and Lucille Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain), arrive in Buffalo, NY, to seek a capital injection.  Thomas conveniently falls for the main financier’s daughter, Mia Wasikowska’s Edith Cushing, and takes her back to their family estate known as Allerdale Hall.

“Crimson Peak” manages to elicit the odd thrill or chill here and there, but a moment where the Sharpes are seen plotting some unknown scheme towards the beginning of the film robs the experience of suspense.  There is not nearly enough heat between Hiddleston and Wasikowska to enliven the stale romantic beats they are doomed to hit.  Only Jessica Chastain, in a delightfully demented turn, manages to really excite when the final act finally allows her to come unhinged.

She’s almost too good for the movie.  While it’s hard to fault her for wanting to collaborate with a director like Guillermo del Toro, I can’t help but wish all this wrath was channeled into a more exciting work.  C+ / 2stars

REVIEW: Maps to the Stars

28 02 2015

MapsI have spent extended periods of time in Hollywood, and I really wish I had David Cronenberg’s “Maps to the Stars” by my side then to confirm all my suspicions and misgivings.  Director David Cronenberg and writer Bruce Wagner do not merely depict the shallowness and the narcissism dominant in the local culture so much as they diagnose it.  The film pinpoints a number of endemic ills in a town built on deception with the accuracy of a pathologist.

This saga of shameless self-promoters caught in a tangled web of ego bashing may not quite cohere in its explosive third act, yet it hardly detracts from the pleasure of simply watching them exist for an hour or so.  Cronenberg gets his cast to deliver performances tuned to the perfect channel: exaggeratedly hilarious without ever veering sharply into parodic or burlesquing territory.

Nowhere does this approach find better expression than in Julianne Moore’s brilliantly demented Havana Segrand, which – all due respect to “Still Alice” –  is the kind of work that should have netted the actress her first Oscar.  Nonetheless, she has the statue now, and we have this performance to relish forever.

Havana is Moore’s Norma Desmond, the fading and aging screen icon vividly realized by Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard.”  In an obvious attempt to jumpstart her career again, Havana tries desperately to land a coveted part in a remake of a movie that originally starred her late mother.  To settle her neuroses and ease her pain in the meantime, she hires a new “chore whore” at the suggestion of Carrie Fisher (playing herself, in a brilliantly ironic insertion by Wagner) – the mysterious burn victim Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) who recently arrived in town.

Read the rest of this entry »

REVIEW: Tracks

23 09 2014

TracksLondon Film Festival, 2013

Maybe this is something I will grow out of as I get older, but I have always identified most with the wandering protagonists of the cinema.  From Benjamin Braddock in “The Graduate” to Ryan Bingham in “Up in the Air,” these perpetual seekers seemed to forge the strongest and longest-lasting connection with me.

So I seemed predisposed to click with Robyn Davidson, the protagonist of the film “Tracks” who perilously treks with camels through the Australian desert just to learn something about herself.  I found myself nodding in vigorous agreement with the film’s epigraph from Davidson, “Some nomads are at home everywhere.  Others are at home nowhere, and I was one of those.”

Yet once the film began in earnest, I related to Davidson’s journey with mild intensity at best.  I felt distant from her the entire way, kept at arm’s length by Mia Wasikowska’s generic performance.  She and the film meander towards no particular destination, although that wouldn’t be a problem if the journey yielded any significant personal developments (and “Tracks” really doesn’t).

The film is still interesting to watch, even if it doesn’t inspire reflection at the level suggested by its opening quotation.  The cinematography by Mandy Walker captures all the sweeping beauty of the inhospitable outback, and Adam Driver (from “Girls”) makes for some amusing comic relief as Rick Smolan, a National Geographic photographer who sporadically documents her progress.  But sadly, “Tracks” never satisfyingly captures the psychology of its subject.  B2halfstars

REVIEW: Stoker

22 09 2014

When I left “Stoker,” I was not entirely sure whether I liked or loathed it.  The sentiment was distinct from the normal ambivalence that I feel about rather bland, unremarkable films.  Rarely had such conflicting emotions about a work of art seemed so passionless to me.

Chan-wook Park’s English-language debut certainly has a cool neo-Hitchcock vibe to it, particularly in its impressive editing and heavy dependence on atmosphere.  Very little happens in “Stoker,” which revolves around an odd teenager India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), once her uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) moves in to “comfort” her recently widowed mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman).  They interact in cryptic ways, which are often so vague that only the language of the camera gives any clue as to what to make of it.

At first, this indistinctness is chillingly beguiling.  But after a while, “Stoker” just starts to feel like a bunch of smoke and mirrors.  I had no idea where the movie was going until the last 30 minutes, largely because it lacked a firm narrative.  And when there is little story to follow, all attention shifts to aesthetics.  With all that extra attention, Park’s style reveals itself as rather empty.

Perhaps “Stoker” can approximate a Hitchcock thriller in terms of finesse. But Hitch had compassion for his characters, which is such a crucial X factor that has led his work to retain such a foothold in the public imagination.  Park, on the other hand, builds such a distance between us and the characters that I found myself retreating into my own imagination to think about the next movie on my agenda.  B-2stars

REVIEW: The Double

25 08 2014

The DoubleIt’s always interesting to see how two different filmmakers approach the same text and wind up with completely different interpretations.  Richard Ayode directly derives his film “The Double” from a novella of the same name by Fyodor Dostoyesvsky, while Darren Aronofsky drew heavily from it to create his Oscar-winning 2010 masterpiece “Black Swan.”

These films are not cinematic siblings, so to speak, but they are blood relatives of sorts and provide a fertile ground for analysis in tandem.  The same blood runs through their veins, but they manifest its influence in divergent fashions.  At the very least, anyone who has seen “Black Swan” will come away from watching “The Double” with an appreciation for the many choices facing the artists tasked with adapting a text.  (And I make the assumption that the majority of people interested in the latter are the kind of moviegoers who made a point to see the former.)

Aronofsky’s take on the doppelganger tale results in a horror film replete with corporal anxieties, while Ayoade finds just about the opposite in the Russian yarn.  His film is a dark comedy that often times veers into the absurd.  Its bizarre flavor regarding the humor regarding the humdrum mechanisms of the workplace  is about as far from the werewolf-swan movie as one can get.

And yet, there’s still the same underlying fear of being replaced by a better version of yourself that resonates in “The Double.”  It’s somewhat clouded by the fog of Ayoade’s peculiar funnybone, but it’s nonetheless there.  Jesse Eisenberg, essentially playing the same stammering character that won him an Oscar nomination for “The Social Network,” is an inspired choice to convey this paranoia to an audience.  He begins the film as the timid Simon James and then later appears as the supremely confident James Simon to steal all the thunder in the world of work and romance with the alluring Hannah (Mia Wasikowska).

It’s too bad we’re used to seeing Eisenberg play this character because “The Double” comes off as a bit old hat for the actor.  Either James or Simon could pop up in any of Eisenberg’s other movies as a doppelganger to induce a similar identity crisis in the native character.  He’s really doubled down, so to pun-nily speak, on this bumbling neurotic everyman.  Once or twice more, and he may very well veer into the perilous grounds of self-parody.  B-2stars

REVIEW: Only Lovers Left Alive

18 08 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive posterCannes Film Festival – Official Selection, 2013

I’ve listened to countless interviews with James Gray about his film “The Immigrant,” so many that I can’t pair a quote with a particular interview and thus cite it correctly.  But in one talk about filmmaking in general, Gray talked about how great directors are effective at conveying mood.

I haven’t seen enough of Jim Jarmusch’s filmography to make a definitive statement about whether or not he is a great director.  But I have seen his latest film, “Only Lovers Left Alive,” and I can say that simply because it has control of mood does not make it a great film.  Jarmusch favors ambiance over story development to a fault in his film that probably had its proper title, “Modern Vampires of the City,” stolen by Vampire Weekend’s latest album.

The film comes from an original screenplay by the director, and it certainly earns points for being clever.  “Only Lovers Left Alive” runs in a different direction with the current vampire fad,  portraying the bloodsuckers as hipsters hiding out in the latest haunt.  When we catch up with Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton’s immortal lovers, wittily named Adam and Eve, he has shacked up in Detroit while she’s hanging in Tangiers.

It’s undeniably entertaining to get immersed in the distinctive universe Jarmusch has them inhabiting.  Watching them figure out how to get the blood they need to survive is cheeky fun, as is the creative ways they choose to consume it.  Not to mention, their demeanors and attitudes are so unexpected that it can’t help but be attention-grabbing.  (Hearing them name-drop some of their famous friends makes for a good chuckle, too.)

Read the rest of this entry »

REVIEW: Jane Eyre

2 09 2013

Jane Eyre” is not a movie in my wheelhouse, I’ll just go ahead and declare.  I am generally not a fan of Victorian-era literature adapted to film, even the ones that people think are good like “Pride and Prejudice.”  In general, I find period pieces and costume dramas to be stuffy and boring.

This “Jane Eyre” is a movie I was predisposed to hate, and while I wouldn’t go that far in my dismissal of it, I certainly didn’t enjoy watching it.  Cary Joji Fukunanga’s latest reincarnation of Charlotte Bronte’s heroine is at least a step up from the unwatchable “Sin Nombre,” but that’s about the brightest praise I can bestow upon it.

“Jane Eyre” is dull and low-energy from the start; I could feel my limited interest evaporating quickly within the first ten minutes of the film.  I kept watching mainly out of my own stubborn reluctance, but I should have stopped myself out of common sense.  I was hoping it might redeem itself (or my $2 on Amazon Instant Video), or perchance I could get a more thorough review out of it.

However, I saw everything I needed to see within a few scenes.  The costumes and sets are well-crafted, sure, but that’s to be expected.  Everyone would balk if the production values weren’t impeccable because that’s practically why these movies are made.  Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre and Michael Fassbender as her Mr. Rochester are suitably poised but as melodramatic and unentertaining as the rest of the film.

This “Jane Eyre” was a flat, boring experience for me … but again, this is not my kind of movie.  It wasn’t made to please people like me, so maybe it’s better that it did nothing for me at all.  C2stars

REVIEW: Albert Nobbs

3 01 2013

If a movie is someone’s passion project, shouldn’t you feel – well, passion oozing out of every frame?

Don’t answer that rhetorical question because it’s what sounds the death knells for Glenn Close’s “Albert Nobbs,” a movie she fought for 30 years to get to screen.  You might notice that I attributed the movie to Close herself and not to Rodrigo Garcia, its director.  That was not an accident.  He doesn’t seem to have much of a vision for the movie, nor does he seem to care half as much as Close.

Over the summer, I got really into the TV show “Damages,” a superb drama starring Glenn Close.  I recommend it far more than I do “Albert Nobbs” as I would finish seasons in a matter of days.  And in the more recent ones, it was clear that she was masculinizing herself to prepare to play Albert Nobbs, the Irish woman disguised as a male butler in order to buy a tobacco shop and some freedom.

As I watched “Albert Nobbs,” I found myself wondering what about this story and this character was so appealing and enticing to Close.  It’s not as showy as some of her famous roles, although that’s not always a bad thing.  All movies don’t need to give their star the hypothetical “Oscar scene,” and this one sure does not.

But “Albert Nobbs” has no drama to entice us in, no multidimensional characters to gain our curiosity.  We mainly watch because we expect something big to happen, and it just doesn’t.  The most surprising revelation comes in the first act when the new butler, the large Hubert Page, pulls Albert into a side room and reveals what lies underneath her shirt: Janet McTeer’s breasts.

The movie moves along at the pace of the molasses that Close’s Cruella DeVille falls into in “101 Dalmatians.”  It’s brutally boring and a tedious watch, one that results in no ultimate emotional or intellectual payoff.  If it was some sort of commentary on the oppression of women, it was hidden far beneath the film’s self-constructed cocoon of miserable understatement.  C2stars

“The Kids Are All Right” Poll Results

31 07 2010

As “The Kids Are All Right” rolls into over 800 theaters this weekend, including many that are very much in the mainstream, it seems as good a time as ever to check out the results of the poll I ran along with the Oscar Moment on the movie.

The poll was a little bit different than any other one I’ve run before (at least with an Oscar Moment).  Rather than answer a simple “yes/no” question, I asked readers to pick ALL the contenders from Lisa Cholodenko’s film that they expected to wind up nominated at the big dance.

So there might have been some confusion, and I apologize for that.  The results seem normal now, but at first, they didn’t seem … well, all right.

There was a clear favorite candidate: Annette Bening.  With six votes, readers clearly think she is going to be a major threat in the Best Actress race.  (Although I will say, after having seen the movie, I think Bening should be supporting and Moore should be lead.)

Then things got a little more interesting.  Four people think that the movie will be nominated for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay.  That’s a nice number, but it shows that not everyone is convinced this is the real deal.  Only one person thinks Lisa Cholodenko will receive a nomination for Best Director, which isn’t too shocking given that the movie isn’t the type where the director gets a lot of credit.  But in 2007, Jason Reitman sneaked in for “Juno” when no one expected it, so you never know.

Among other actors, Julianne Moore received the next highest votes of confidence with four.  In my review, I singled her out as my favorite, and I sincerely hope she wins.  Hopefully no category fraud issues spell her doom.

Surprisingly, Mia Wasikowska wound up with more votes than the elder statesman Mark Ruffalo – two to one, in fact.  Many people consider Ruffalo very overdue for a nomination, particularly after being snubbed for 2000’s “You Can Count on Me.”  But if the field is weak enough, Wasikowska could sneak in if love for the movie is strong.  It wouldn’t be the first time that two actresses from the same movie were nominated in the category; it’s happened the past two years.

Also worth a mention, Josh Hutcherson received a vote, which I sure liked to see.  Represent 17-year-olds!  (Fun fact: he’s two days older than I am.)

REVIEW: The Kids Are All Right

18 07 2010

Lisa Choldenko’s “The Kids Are All Right” may not have everything right, but it’s most certainly better than just alright. Her witty and insightful script is enormously entertaining, finding that perfect median between comedy and drama that so many filmmakers struggle to achieve.

Perhaps the most impressive facet of the film is how effortlessly it nails family dynamics. Nic and Jules (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) are a married lesbian couple with two children, Joni and Laser (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson), whom they have raised to success in academics and athletics, respectively. No matter what your take is on Proposition 8, you have to admire how much this family can be any family. They hug, they kiss, they laugh, they banter, they bicker, they argue, and they love just like any other family. And it’s also incredible how Cholodenko manages to tranquilize any sort of awkwardness that might ensue from the whole “two moms” situation.

For reasons that are never quite fully explained, Laser and Joni decided to make contact with their biological father, the ungrounded Paul (Mark Ruffalo). He’s more put together than the trainwreck Ruffalo played in “You Can Count On Me” but not by much. A college drop-out who gave his seed to the sperm bank mainly for the money, he’s coasted by on casual relationships to get by. When the kids enter his life, he feels a sort of connection that taps into a longing for something more significant in life. At first, Paul meets the kids in secret, just coming to the reality that his own seed could produce something living. But looking to forge something deeper, he finds that there’s just no way around meeting Nic and Jules. He becomes a presence in the life of the family, not always welcome, and definitely causing dramatic changes for everyone.

Read the rest of this entry »

Oscar Moment: “The Kids Are All Right”

22 06 2010

Everyone loves a summer indie comedy, even the Oscars. “Little Miss Sunshine” charmed audiences at the Sundance Film Festival, then slowly won over an audience, expanded that audience on video, and then received four Oscar nominations including Best Picture as well as wins for Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor.

“The Kids Are All Right” seems to have the first part of the “Little Miss Sunshine” formula in place after it became the anointed indie comedy at Sundance.  Written and directed by Lisa Cholodenko, the movie follows Nic and Jules (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) and their children Joni and Laser (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson), living comfortably in Los Angeles.  That is, until the kids decided to introduce Paul (Mark Ruffalo), the sperm donor that made them possible, into their lives.

The film appears to depoliticize a lesbian couple to a certain degree, normally a subject to cause a pretty big stir, and opens the movie up to a newer crowd. We are still awaiting release, but from what I’ve gathered, Focus is going to push the movie very mainstream. I’m anticipating the usual extremist backlash, but I don’t think this is a propaganda piece designed to shove homosexuality down anyone’s throat. It may very well be like any comedy where kids meet their long lost biological father; there’s just one more mother in the mix.

I think the movie’s surest bet for a nomination – and maybe even a win – is Best Original Screenplay.  The category is one of very few that is friendly to comedies; in fact, six of the ten winners of the past decades have been comedic scripts (although I’ll argue with you that “Lost in Translation” isn’t really a comedy).  If the movie proves to be original and funny with a beating heart inside, it’s going to be a formidable foe in the category.

But the actors are going to be another big Academy selling point for the movie.  The two leading ladies, Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, are incredibly overdue for the big prize.  Bening has three nominations, and she really should have won for “American Beauty.”  Her turn as Carolyn Burnham is absolutely one of my favorite roles ever, and she absolutely nailed it.  At the time, it appears that Focus will push her as the film’s leading actress where she could end up facing Hilary Swank again.  It’s been since 1998 that an actress won the category for a comedic role, but Bening is the kind of actress they might reverse a trend for.

Julianne Moore has even more nominations than Bening at a whopping four, and she is coming fresh off a snub for “A Single Man.” She’s one of the few actors who have pulled off dual nominations in a single year, and that’s a feat in itself.  It appears that she will be competing in the Best Supporting Actress category, which doesn’t seem to feature any big names right now (save maybe Keira Knightley and Dianne Wiest).  We saw how the Academy bent over backwards to give Kate Winslet an Oscar after five missed opportunities; it could be Moore’s time.

Mark Ruffalo is on the hunt for his first nomination with “The Kids Are All Right,” and it’s about time he got one.  He deserved a nomination for “You Can Count on Me” a decade ago, but he hasn’t exactly amassed an Academy-friendly resume since.  He has a spotty track record with some corny romantic comedies littered among a few smaller indies.  Overdue for a nomination may be a bit of a stretch to say, yet few can argue that Ruffalo is a great actor.  Perhaps an Oscar nomination might steer him away from the rom-coms and back to good, solid movies.

If the Academy really goes gaga for this movie, Wasikowska and Hutcherson may find themselves in the mix for a nomination. But a nomination is the best case scenario for them because Moore and Ruffalo have much more respect and longer careers. The need is much less pressing to anoint these young stars as Hollywood royalty.

In Contention, Kris Tapley’s highly regarded Oscars site, has “The Kids Are All Right” getting a whole lot of nominations. Five, to be specific – acting nominations for Bening, Moore, and Ruffalo plus Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture. Let’s face it, we all need a comedy in the Best Picture mix, so I’m going to agree with Tapley at least until the movie is released. But a nomination for each one of the main actors is a little more suspect.

The poll for this Oscar Moment will be a little different. Rather than asking a simple “pick one out of these answers,” I’m going to give you the option of picking multiple answers.  The question: “What Oscar nominations will ‘The Kids Are All Right’ receive?” Pick the ones you think will.

BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Picture, Best Actress (Bening), Best Supporting Actress (Moore), Best Supporting Actor (Ruffalo), Best Original Screenplay

OTHER POTENTIAL NOMINATIONS: Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Wasikowska), Best Supporting Actor (Hutcherson)

REVIEW: Alice in Wonderland

21 03 2010

No matter your opinion on director Tim Burton, it can’t be denied that the man has some true creativity.  This spark is what gained him notoriety in the late ’80s and early ’90s with hits like “Beetlejuice,” “Edward Scissorhands,” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”  Recently, however, Burton has seemed to have found that creativity isn’t always synonymous with originality, and has mainly spent the past five years retooling other people’s work.

But while Burton puts his own unique spin on these projects, I have felt that each of them has lost a very distinct part of their original identity.  With his remake of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” the movie lost most of its original charm and fun.  His film adaptation of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” dropped a sizable portion of Stephen Sondheim’s songs, and the story lost a great deal of character development.

Unfortunately, “Alice in Wonderland” falls into the same pattern.  This time, Burton has stripped the movie of a lot of its sense.  Granted, this is a fairly non-sensical story, so this isn’t the worst movie to receive this treatment.  But Burton makes it lose even the most basic coherency, and no movie can be excused for that.

It’s hard to describe what exactly Burton’s take on “Alice in Wonderland” actually is.  It is not a remake of the Disney animated classic like I assumed it would be.  But it is not any sort of sequel, prequel, revamping, or modernizing of anything we have ever seen.  This version is just off in its own little world, reminding us of our favorite characters but never giving us any reason to fall in love with them again.

The story follows Alice (Mia Wasikowska) at the age of 19, once again drawn by the white rabbit into the magical world where the impossible is very possible.  The land is now being ruled by the ruthless Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), whose reign of terror is enforced by the fearsome Jabberwocky.  Alice becomes public enemy #1 whenever it is foreseen that she will slay the beast.  To ensure that her head stays on her shoulders, Alice enlists the help of the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) along with a few other oddballs including the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp).

Burton said that his intention was to “try and make Alice feel more like a story as opposed to a series of events” because he never felt an emotional connection between the characters in the original.  In this respect, his version is an utter disaster.  I saw exactly the opposite of what he intended: Alice wandering from place to place with absolutely no plot building.

On the acting side of things, this is obviously Mia Wasikowska’s big moment, and this movie is obviously going to get her noticed.  I’m sure this is only the beginning of many movies that we see this young talent in.  As for the old pros, the only person that seems to be having any fun is Helena Bonham Carter.  She makes the character her own, and it works.  Not to mention, she made me chuckle every time she spat out the Red Queen’s trademark phrase “off with her head!”  Johnny Depp can’t seem to make any more sense out of the Mad Hatter than we can, and in Anne Hathaway’s brief moments on screen, she seems to be fascinated only with twirling around the set like a ballerina.

In fact, the only thing about “Alice in Wonderland” that was executed exceptionally well was the mischievous Cheshire Cat, voiced by British comedian Stephen Fry.  Striking the perfect balance between cute and dastardly, I found myself consistently begging for the blue smoke to materialize into the devilish kitty.  But most of my wishing was not rewarded, much like my wishing for the movie to become something other than a mess.  However, it is a mess that is distinctly Tim Burton – whether that’s good or not is up to you.  C /