It seemed as if the Academy Awards "powers-that-be" finally figured out how to not make the show so lugubrious and pompously bloated with its own self-importance. It was a faster paced program, filled with a level of pageantry that felt to be just right. I especially appreciated how the performances of Best Original Song were eliminated and also how similar categories like the Editing categories and the Short Films categories for instance were collected together. That way, the show was able to move briskly. And yes, the return of Billy Crystal was a welcome one as he again showed how effortless he is with being the Master Of Ceremonies for an event as massive as this one.
For this Post Show installment of Savage Cinema, I have tried something different. I have often found it difficult to remember everything that I wanted to remark about when I have written these things in the past. So, for this year, I decided to take notes throughout the show, marking down moments that stood out for me. Sort of like a running narrative. I do have to say that these are the times where I wished that I had a laptop. That way, I could have typed all of this out during the show and it would be ready to post immediately after the end credit scroll. But, it was my trusty pen and yellow legal pad for me, dear readers. That is how I roll!
So without further adieu, here is my assessment of this year’s Oscar telecast…in “real time,” no less!
7:35 p.m. The Opening! Billy Crystal returns to his tried and true bit of inserting himself into sequences from this year’s nominated films. Despite its technical wizardry, it has been a bit that I’ve had mixed feelings about as I have never found it to be as funny as crystal may think that it is. But, it’s zippy, lasts no more than it needs to and it’s a good “ice-breaker.”
7:40 p.m. Billy Crystal always looks right at home on stage. Now, he’s performing that corny song where he sings about the Best Picture nominees, another bit that never feels as funny as he may think that it is. But, again, it’s a good “ice-breaker” and it fits in with his old-fashioned style of humor.
7:44 p.m. The first award of the night already? Now we’re talking! Let’s get on with the show!! YES!! Robert Richardson, cinematographer extraordinaire won for his glorious work with “Hugo.”
7:47 p.m. Dante Ferretti for “Hugo”!! It’s looking like Scorsese’s “band” is in for a good night.
7:49 p.m. Huh? What’s with putting Shelia E. and the house band up in the cheap balcony seats?????
7:58 p.m. Very nice. The (hopefully) first award of the night for “The Artist” as it has just won for Costume Design.
7:59 p.m. Best makeup went to “The Iron Lady”? Hmm…as my wife has just remarked, “They got an award for making Meryl Streep look like Thatcher? That’s not much of a stretch!” I agree and for me, it is the first foul award of the night.
8:00 p.m. I have to say that I am loving the interludes where movie stars are addressing the camera about their favorite movie memories. This is exactly the kind of “filler” that is highly successful because their experiences perfectly mirror the movie going experiences of all of us in the audience. I hope they do this again for future shows.
8:13 p.m. I liked Crystal’s “Super Tuesday” joke. Ah…BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS…Octavia Spencer…oh well, my first major prediction of the night has gone south. A standing ovation?! Really????
8:20 p.m. The Focus Group short, starring Christopher Guest and his band of repertory players was good and it makes me anxious to see a new film from this troupe again.
8:30 p.m. Oscar always loves a surprise and right now, I am beginning to wonder if the big surprise or surprises this year will be that Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis will both win for “The Help” and that “Hugo” takes Best Picture at this rate.
8:37 p.m. The Cirque Du Soleil performance is reason enough to eliminate the Best Original Song performances. That was great and damn right, you had better give them a standing ovation!!!
8:50 p.m. The show is zooming along and I’m not bored yet. Let’s keep this train on the track!
8:55 p.m. I am not ashamed to say…EMMA STONE!!!!!!!!!!!
9:00 p.m. BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR Christopher Plummer. My prediction worked out this time and he truly deserved it for this film. Plummer’s speech was classy and shows folks just how an acceptance should be delivered.
9:11 p.m. Crystal’s classic “What Am I Thinking?” bit—still cute, still funny and I thought Nick Nolte’s “thoughts” were the best by far.
9:13 p.m. The President of the Academy. And now, the show takes a nose dive.
9:15 p.m. Savage Cinema’s Movie Crush of the night: PENELOPE CRUZ. She’s looks amazing!!! OK…back to Earth. BEST ORIGINAL SCORE…”The Artist”!!!!!! YES!!!! I was really hoping this one would take this particular category as the score had to accomplish what no other film score of the year had to accomplish. A much deserved win.
9:20 p.m. BEST ORIGINAL SONG…It had better be “Man or Muppet” or I’m gonna stone the screen…YES!!! “Man or Muppet” rightfully takes the prize and could it have really been any other choice? (Ferrell and Galifianakis are stellar, BTW…)
9:28 p.m. Angelina Jolie. Oh boy…she really does not need to show her leg. What she really needs to do is eat a sandwich…or even five of them! OK…BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY…OK, that was a surprise too…I really thought that “Moneyball” would take this one easily but this win for “The Descendants” was extremely well deserved. In fact, it was the one that I thought should win in the first place.
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY…Woody!!!!!!
Oh man, Angelina’s elbows…ugh…with her “heroin chic” physique along with Billy Crystal’s obvious plastic “enhancements,” I’m glad I don’t have HDTV.
9:40 p.m. The technical awards always tickle me because it is the moment where Oscar sends a pretty woman to visit the tech geeks who never see sunlight…or women, for that matter (ha ha).
9:53 p.m. MICHAEL DOUGLAS!! Damn, he looks better than Billy Crystal. BEST DIRECTOR…absolutely wonderful…Michael Hazanivicius, so deserving…I really hope his film gets Best Picture.
10:05 p.m. In memoriam. The only real stumble of the night and a shame as this is not the area where you want to foul up. The images were presented much too quickly and the font was poorly designed and difficult to read. This could have been handled much, much better than it was.
10:15 p.m. Natalie Portman…sigh…BEST ACTOR…now I am still not sold on having actors address other actors in regards to the greatness of their performances. I think it feels awkward and slows the proceedings down too much. Just show the clips. YES!!!! JEAN DUJARDIN!!!!!!!!!!!! That’s RIGHT, baby!!!
10:25 p.m. BEST ACTRESS…MERYL STREEP?!?!?!?! Come on!!!!!! Yes, I am one of those people she is scoffing at for scoffing at her win. Her fake humility is insufferable especially as it is in regards to a performance that has not been that highly regarded overall. I think this was the surprise of the night that Oscar had in store for us and what would be an even greater surprise is that her win will stop her from being nominated every single year. But, I wouldn’t count on it.
10:35 p.m. BEST PICTURE…”THE ARTIST”!!!!!!!!
And that’s a wrap, dear readers. As for my predictions? Well...I correctly predicted 5 out of 8 categories. So, that's just a hair more than half. If this were a test in school, that's not so good. But this was all in fun so, no worries as I am not being graded on this.
Until next year...
Sunday, February 26, 2012
It seemed as if the Academy Awards "powers-that-be" finally figured out how to not make the show so lugubrious and pompously bloated with its own self-importance. It was a faster paced program, filled with a level of pageantry that felt to be just right. I especially appreciated how the performances of Best Original Song were eliminated and also how similar categories like the Editing categories and the Short Films categories for instance were collected together. That way, the show was able to move briskly. And yes, the return of Billy Crystal was a welcome one as he again showed how effortless he is with being the Master Of Ceremonies for an event as massive as this one.
Monday, February 20, 2012
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Nominees: Berenice Bejo (“The Artist”); Jessica Chastain (“The Help”); Melissa McCarthy (“Bridesmaids”); Janet McTeer (“Albert Nobbs”); Octavia Spencer (“The Help”)
Should Win: Melissa McCarthy
Will Win: Melissa McCarthy
Usually, this is the first award given and I have to say that this category does represent something of a challenge or handicap as “The Help” seems to be the one obstacle in this category as well as the Best Actress category (which I will from now on refer to as “Meryl Streep And Four Other Women"). Now, for this category Octavia Spencer is nominated for her turn as the long-suffering, tart tongued Southern maid with a skill at making vengeful pies with mysterious ingredients and especially after her win at the Golden Globes, victory for her seems to be inevitable. But there is the matter of Viola Davis’ nomination in the Meryl Streep And Four Other Women category as the best friend and highly noble maid from the same film. There is absolutely no way that Oscar will award two African American women, and from the same film no less, in the same evening. Also, the Academy Awards does tend to have one surprise up its sleeve as well. Now, I have been going back and forth over this one but I have to take my risky move at this moment. Despite my love for Berenice Bejo’s beguiling performance, I am announcing that I think that Melissa McCarthy just may pull an upset victory over Octavia Spencer. If this occurs, this would be a more than deserved win for McCarthy as she was a comedic force of nature with her fearless performance that was as character driven and purposeful as it was riotously funny.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Nominees: Kenneth Branagh (“My Week With Marilyn”); Jonah Hill (“Moneyball”); Nick Nolte (“Warrior”); Christopher Plummer (“Beginners”); Max von Sydow (“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”)
Should Win: Christopher Plummer
Will Win: Christopher Plummer
Oscar loves a veteran so this category is essentially a showdown between Plummer and von Sydow, both of whom are aged 82 and neither of them have ever received an Academy Award. While von Sydow’s mute performance in “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” seems to be one of the few elements that have been regarded positively for that film, I just think that this is Plummer’s category to lose, especially as he is riding a wave of celebration for his wonderful performance. In my eyes, it would be a fitting win for Christopher Plummer as he was so playful, vibrant, as well as mournful and sorrowful without ever becoming showy or maudlin. His performance was crucially a rare example of witnessing great Fatherhood on screen as the excellent “Beginners” was partially about the story of a man instilling crucial life lessons to his adult son (played by Ewan McGregor) by example and in the face of his impending death from cancer.
MERYL STREEP AND FOUR OTHER WOMEN
Nominees: Glenn Close (“Albert Nobbs”); Viola Davis (“The Help”); Rooney Mara (“The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”); Meryl Streep (“The Iron Lady”); Michelle Williams (“My Week With Marilyn”)
Should Win: Rooney Mara
Will Win: Viola Davis
For me, this is undeniably the weakest category out of the entire bunch as the tradition of nominating Meryl Streep for absolutely any performance she gives regardless of quality has long grown to be so tiresome. Beyond that, and aside from Rooney Mara’s blistering work in “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” I felt that this category overlooked some of the best leading female performances of the year (most notably Kirsten Dunst in “Melancholia”), in favor of performances that were generally not that well regarded critically or even widely seen, for that matter. When I first heard the nominees, I figured that Michelle Williams would just extend her Golden Globe win into the Oscars. But then, there is Viola Davis, an excellent actress whom I feel has yet to find that GREAT role to knock out of the park and I’m sorry, her work in “The Help” just didn’t cut it for me. But to so many viewers, her work touched a deep nerve and out of what was nominated, this will be the category where Oscar will significantly award the box office smash “The Help.”
Nominees: Demian Bechir (“A Better Life”); George Clooney (“The Descendants”); Jean Dujardin (“The Artist”); Gary Oldman (“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”); Brad Pitt (“Moneyball”)
Should Win: Jean Dujardin
Will Win: Jean Dujardin
Now this is a tough category! Even with some key omissions like Michael Shannon for “Take Shelter” or Michael Fassbender for “Shame” (which I have not seen as of yet), there was no shortage of strong leading male performances in 2011 especially featuring some of Brad Pitt’s best work and George Clooney’s finest performance to date. Yet, for me, Jean Dujardin is the clearest winner as he had to deliver a performance unlike any other throughout the entire year. In “The Artist,” we were able to fully experience a world of emotions, in a richly performed three dimensional character and completely without the usage of the sound of Dujardin’s voice. He was elegant, hilarious, despairing, magnetic and impossible to take your eyes off of. He was 2011’s ultimate leading man to me and I am deeply rooting for his victory.
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Nominees: Woody Allen (“Midnight In Paris”); J.C. Chandor (“Margin Call”); Asghar Farhadi (“A Separation”); Michel Hazanavicius (“The Artist”); Annie Mumolo & Kristen Wiig (“Bridesmaids”)
Should Win: Woody Allen
Will Win: Woody Allen
Despite the fact that Woody Allen typically does not attend the Oscars and his desire for the recognition is essentially non-existent, I cannot help but to think that for his 41st film and the highest box office grossing film of his long career, Allen will be awarded handsomely once again (and deservedly so) for his beautiful, magical Parisian odyssey.
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Nominees: George Clooney, Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon (“The Ides Of March”); John Logan (“Hugo”); Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan (“Tinker Tailor Solider Spy”); Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (“The Descendants”); Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zallian (“Moneyball”)
Should Win: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash “The Descendants”
Will Win: Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zallian “Moneyball”
I think that this is the category where the highly acclaimed “Moneyball” will earn a prize. With all of this film’s enormously high regard, including from those who feel that this was the best film of 2011, I just think that films like “The Artist,” “Hugo” and “The Help” are the ones destined to grab the bulk of the glory. That said, this category, feels right to throw “Moneyball” a bone, especially as it was written by two of Hollywood most gifted screenwriters.
Nominees: Woody Allen (“Midnight In Paris”); Michel Hazanavicius (“The Artist”); Terrence Malick (“The Tree Of Life”); Alexander Payne (“The Descendents”); Martin Scorsese (“Hugo”)
Should Win: Michel Hazanavicius
Will Win: Michel Hazanavicius
To me this is the program’s most difficult category as all five of the nominated films represented some of the highest artistic achievements 2011 had to offer. But for me, the honor feels simple enough. Whichever film I think deserves the top honor of Best Picture, that film’s director should earn the top prize for him or herself as well. So, Michel Hazanavicius’s gloriously helmed ode to the silent era is the clear winner for me.
Nominees: "The Artist," "The Descendants," 'Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," "The Help," "Hugo," "Midnight In Paris," "Moneyball," "The Tree Of Life," "War Horse"
Should Win: “THE ARTIST”
Will Win: “THE ARTIST”
If you were to have asked me this past summer if a black and white silent movie had the chances of taking home the grand prize at the Academy Awards, I would not have believed you for an instant. But after having seen the film for myself, having gauged the responses of people that have seen it where I live in addition to the general critical response, I think this gorgeously executed piece will be the night’s big winner. “The Artist” was 2011’s tallest artistic achievement for me as it completely represented exactly why we all go to the movies in the first place by celebrating the history of film through a beautifully simplistic story to such a joyously, exuberant, supremely emotional and absorbing degree.
Those are my predictions, dear readers. So, I’ll check in with you again when the show is complete and let’s see how well I guessed the results!
Sunday, February 12, 2012
Based upon the novel by Stephanie Meyer
Screenplay Written by Melissa Rosenberg
Directed by Bill Condon
½ * (one half of one star)
Without question and please do not even try to debate me or convince me otherwise, “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn-Part 1” is by far and away the worst film of this entire overwrought series. For that matter, please feel free and mentally add it to my recently released listings of the worst films of 2011. It is as pretentious as it is stupid. As numbingly portentous as it is asinine. Its awfulness is as epic as its spinelessness, hopelessness, and brainlessness. Frankly, this movie just sucks. So much so, that I would think that even actual vampires would stay far, far away from this brutally insipid, bombastic tripe.
Look, dear readers, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again with feeling. I know very well that I am not the intended audience for this series. These are films that are not in any way, shape or form designed for me and my particular sensibilities. But all of that being said, I did give Director Catherine Hardwicke’s earnest “Twilight” (2008), the series’ first installment, a pass and I will concede that the series reached new heights, albeit extremely sleight ones, with Director David Slade’s stylish third film, “Eclipse” (2010). But, Director Chris Weitz’s “New Moon” (2009), the abominably dirge like second film in the series, was the extreme low point as it transformed the exquisite pain of teenage heartbreak and subsequent depression into an almost unwatchable (and terribly acted) cauldron of self-pity that it became parody. With “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn-Part 1,” now arrives a film so dreadful, that it makes “New Moon” appear to be high drama. My God, once this film completed, I sat staring slack jawed and mystified at the screen, wondering more than ever how this story could possibly be the very one that has captured the hearts and well earned dollars of millions upon millions. How could anyone take this story remotely seriously enough to buy the fantasy? How are Edward, Bella and Jacob remotely compelling characters to follow anywhere? My reaction towards “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn-Part 1” is not one meant to be self-consciously snarky or trollish. No. I just think that this film is the very definition of what constitutes a bad movie and this movie is unforgivably bad.
“The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn-Part 1” opens with our collective of now familiar characters each receiving an invitation to the culminating event of this series so far: the wedding of the pale skinned and well coiffed vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) to human dish rag Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart). Excitement, anticipation, parental nervousness and some amount of prurient teenage curiosity are fully abound amongst the guests, all except for teenage werewolf and eternally unrequited Jacob (Taylor Lautner) who responds to the news so distraughtly that he promptly rips off his shirt to allow his abs to do all of the emoting.
Despite some dark, pre-wedding dreams, the wedding goes off without a hitch and the happy couple begins to prepare for their anticipatory honeymoon where Bella and Edward will, at long last, consummate their long standing and sexually abstinent love affair once and for all. But, of course, Jacob (now clothed) happens by to express his discomfort with the fact that she will very soon be intimate with someone who may just be…ahem… too much man for her to handle. Regardless, Edward and Bella travel to a secluded island, swim around waterfalls, play chess, endure the endlessly terrible alternative rock songs that litter the soundtrack, continuously stare into each other’s eyes some more and finally, FINALLY, the two end up in bed where the bedposts shake, the walls tremble and then the film fades to black.
A mere 14 days later, Bella discovers that she is pregnant and her offspring is growing at an alarming rate. But since the baby is obviously not human, her body is not designed to support the gestation, thus placing her own life in mortal danger as well as potentially upending a long standing peace treaty between the Cullen vampire clan and Jacob’s werewolf family.
From here, the film turns to nothing more than a brain melting collage of hand-wringing concerning the potential fates of the increasingly emaciated Bella and the rapidly growing baby, which of course leads to the grisly birth sequence and ultimately, Bella’s wish-fulfillment fully realized as she dies to only be reborn as a vampire.
In many respects, it would not be entirely fair to compare and contrast this particular series with the recently concluded “Harry Potter" film series as the storylines for both are drastically different from each other. But, as both series, based on gargantuan best selling books, feature teenage characters caught in a growing mythology set partially within the fantasy world of magic and creatures, the comparisons cannot be overlooked. In regards to the film versions of both series, the comparisons also cannot be overlooked as we arrive at their respective finales. With Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I truly felt that Hollywood made the right decision by cleaving the final book into two films as it supported the story, the fans and the “Harry Potter business” in tandem. Obviously, Hollywood wants to remain in the “Twilight business” for as long as possible as well. But unfortunately and despite the guiding hand of Oscar nominated Screenwriter (2002’s “Chicago”) and Director (1998’s “Gods And Monsters,” 2004’s “Kinsey” and 2006’s “Dreamgirls”) Bill Condon, who was hired to raise the pedigree and give the final films in this series a certain heft and panache it is all for naught. There is just absolutely nothing to recommend in this movie.
First of all, the pacing of the film is disastrously monotonous, falling into that soapy melodrama but without any of necessary passion or even campiness to make the material sing. “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn-Part 1” is definitely a film in which absolutely NOTHING happens!! And worst of all, throughout the nearly two hour film, you can feel every single minute dully drift by. So much time is spent watching the Cullen family plus Jacob sitting around watching Bella, worrying about Bella, talking about Bella and all of this whining and crying for this self-absorbed, selfish, narcissistic girl who cares for no one but herself and her own wishes was insufferable. If that is all there is to this story, it makes me firmly question if there was any reason to cleave the final book into two films for any creative reasons at all.
The actual performances have always been a major problem for the “Twilight” films and “Breaking Dawn-Part 1” is no exception, especially as it features the threesome of Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner at their most monosyllabic and emotionally vacant, just inexcusable considering the events of this installment. I have hit Ms. Stewart pretty harshly throughout this series and again, I have to question as passionately as I am able, would it kill Kristen Stewart to elicit or better yet, try to learn even one new expression????? I mean—here she is being eaten from the inside by her vampire baby and she looks as if she is suffering from indigestion, the very same vapid, non-committed gaze she has utilized for every scene in every single one of these films. Honestly, dear readers, just please try to imagine what this series could be like if they powers that be just cast people who could act. Good actors go a long, long way, especially for a series that really needs strong actors in order for the fantasy to work but no, we’re stuck with these three attractive and painfully shallow leads.
Beyond the appalling performances, “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn-Part 1” is saddled with indefensibly bad special effects, a kiss of death in our technically savvy age. Is it any coincidence that almost all of the major effects sequences occur in the dark of night? Perhaps that way, Condon and his team could potentially mask how amateurish and/or rushed the effects actually are. But, none was worse than the film’s gigantic howler (pun firmly intended) of all of the film’s scenes, which is unquestionably not the reportedly seizure inducing birth sequence but the “talking wolves” sequence where Jacob asserts his independence through a voice that still seems to have not even cracked puberty yet. I dare you to not give yourself a hernia through extreme laughter during this atrocious scene.
Good Lord, even the film score was painful as veteran composer Carter Burwell delivered a treacly, saccharine, pseudo-romantic and shockingly wall to wall score that was profoundly beneath his immense talents.
Yet, most of all are the story’s concepts and themes, which present a slapdash morality and are sloppily presented. I have said more than enough in past reviews about how I feel concerning the character of Bella Swan and how ineffective of a teenage heroine she actually is but I do really have to put into question of the message Stephanie Meyer is presenting concerning sexual discussion as well as intercourse. For characters who are just consumed with thoughts of sex, the dialogue is ridiculously chaste, especially when so much of the film deals with the concept of abortion. Bella, Edward and Jacob can have the thoughts but they cannot speak any of the words, I guess for fear the pre-teenage/teenage girls in the audience are just too young to hear them.
But then, there is the actual visual presentation of sex which does not extended anything further than what we’ve seen in the previous installments. Yet, when Bella and Edward do begin to go further, the film fades to black. But when it returns, we have images of Bella covered in bruises that she is unable to fully remember receiving. What kind of a message is that to present to those same pre-teenage/teenage girls whose ears are too delicate to hear words like “sex,” “penis” and “abortion”? That the only worthwhile sex there is in the type where you cannot remember how exactly your boudoir was destroyed or how those bruises appeared on your body?! Ah romance…
Look, if the theme of the series is abstinence and furthermore, pro-life, that is fine but please present the material with some sort of honest conviction and not through this nonsense about the sanctity of vampire/werewolf treaties merged with an abhorrently clumsy and painful abortion/pro-life metaphor. The fantasy felt false and the “reality” was even worse as its preachiness was condescending to say the least.
How was this movie not completely laughed off of the screen? Even from the series’ die-hard fans, how was a film this awful tolerated let alone a massive box office smash hit? And yet, I have a larger question to ask. What is happening is our current movie going culture that some audience members demanded their money back from a film like “The Tree Of Life” for being too esoteric or from even “The Artist” for not having dialogue and yet absolutely no one demanded their money back from a film that was just flat out abysmal?
“The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn-Part 1” is a film that offered not one solitary shred of romance, excitement, intelligence or artistry whatsoever and I am anxious for the whole damn enterprise to just be mercifully over.
Based upon characters and situations created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Screenplay Written by Michele Mulroney & Kieran Mulroney
Directed by Guy Ritchie
** ½ (two and a half stars)
A peculiar thing has happened between Guy Ritchie’s first and second installment of his adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle “Sherlock Holmes” series. What began as an aggressive, adrenaline fueled, innovative, expertly inventive series has already and surprisingly grown perfunctory, leaden and tired.
Dear readers, if you look back within the Savage Cinema archives, you will find that I enjoyed Guy Ritchie’s more two-fisted revisionist take on Sherlock Holmes thoroughly. Despite the generally negative critical reaction to that 2009 film, the complaints of which tended to revolve around the action film theatrics, I found “Sherlock Holmes” to be thrilling, engaging entertainment which provided a completely fresh take on material that I had typically found to be stiff and archaic. Most of all, I felt that Robert Downey Jr. in the titular role and Jude Law as his trusty sidekick Dr. John Watson to be nothing less than a dream team. They were meant to work together and we, the audience, were supremely rewarded as a result.
While “Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows” is not a bad movie by any stretch, I was taken aback at how bored I was throughout the proceedings. For a film series that has arrived at the very point where it should have taken off for even higher grounds, this second installment just sat there, albeit gorgeously so, and simply spun its wheels, as it just showcased the glories of the first film ad nauseam. Essentially, “Sherlock Holmes: A Games Of Shadows” felt like the exhausted fifth or sixth film in the series as opposed to the second.
When we last saw the intrepid and half-mad Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.), he had been alerted to the insidious presence of a mysterious Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris), who is described as being equally brilliant as Holmes yet decidedly more devious.
As “Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows” opens in the year 1891, London has become plagued with a series of random and anonymously placed bombings. As Watson is set to depart for his wedding and subsequent honeymoon to his long-suffering fiancée Mary (Kelly Reilly), Holmes confesses that he has been covertly investigating not only the bombings but also a series of supposedly unrelated murders and business acquisitions and through his calculations, he has deduced that Moriarty is the mastermind behind all of the events.
As Watson reluctantly becomes involved with yet another dangerous caper with the brilliant yet unhinged Holmes, the twosome enlist the welcome aid of Simza (Noomi Rapace), a Gypsy fortune teller with connections to an anarchist group as well as Holmes’ equally eccentric brother Mycroft (Stephen Fry). Yet, despite their collective smarts and tenacity, it seems as if Sherlock Holmes may have finally met his match in Moriarty, whom the group soon discovers is attempting to instigate a war between France and Germany solely in order to gain tremendous financial profit from the fallout.
Although my reaction to the film as a whole was lukewarm at best, there is much that I really enjoyed about “Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows.” As with the first film the entire production, cinematography and set design is absolutely exquisite! I was again enthralled with how Ritchie and his team were committed to creating a 19th century London that really created the feeling of being authentic in look and lived in feel while also existing as a transportive fantasy world. The excellent special effects also remained first rate. And I was again extremely impressed with composer Hans Zimmer’s innovatively elegant and propulsive music score.
Most of all, Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law unquestionably remain the dream team as their flawless chemistry completely carries this not as sturdy second film. I think that Downey Jr. especially has even improved in the role as he has dialed down the madness just a hair, so as to make his interpretation of this classic character more understandable and verbally comprehensible than the first go around. I know that I have stated this before on this site, but I am always so amazed with Downey Jr.’s collective of performances mostly because he just has this uncanny ability to make dialogue sound so effortlessly natural as if these are the exact thoughts that pop from his own brain and not from a screenwriter. His interpretation of Sherlock Holmes is also no exception, aided greatly by his wonderfully executed English accent. His work showcases a newfound physicality that feels tailor made for him and I do just love how he can make this classic character feel so much of its time period yet somewhat contemporary as well. With Sherlock’s impeccable mind, process of deductions, whip-crack fighting physique combined with his diet of caffeine, tobacco, cocoa leaves and glasses of formaldehyde, Robert Downey Jr. has again made this more unhinged presentation completely his own.
Jude Law again is Downey Jr.’s equal as his Dr. John Watson remains the long-suffering confidant as well as the brother in arms who understands him best. I have always loved Law’s rouge-ish charm and that element truly adds a provocative layer to this character who has usually been depicted as a bumbling sidekick. But as wonderful as both of these actors are in their roles and with each other, this particular film just didn’t live up to their respective levels for me.
The problem is not within the performances or even the style of “Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows,” but within the screenplay and Guy Ritchie’s interpretation of that screenplay, which unfortunately does not offer any new shadings to the characters and situations at all. While the welcome arrival of Professor James Moriarty as the antagonist conceptually raises the stakes more than effectively, it is a shame that Ritchie didn’t allow his storytelling canvas to broaden and grow as formidable as the two extraordinary minds of Moriarty and Holmes deserve. Frankly, it is the film’s overall repetitiveness that bogs everything down. Did we really have to have another film where Holmes and Watson bicker endlessly about the virtues and suffocatings of marriage? Wasn’t all of that sufficiently worked over in the first film and if so, why did we have to hear it all over again? Additionally, Holmes penchant for dressing up in all manner of disguises was also tiring as it all felt like sub-par Inspector Clouseau costumes and none of which were remotely funny (the “Holmes in drag” outfit was a sad mistake).
From a special effects standpoint, as terrifically executed as all of the sequences are, they are just over-done. The inner visions of Sherlock Holmes anticipating the fighting moves of his opponents and how he will vanquish them was an absolute highlight of the first film yet for this second film, Ritchie unwisely decides to utilize the technique over and over and over and over and over again. Yes, for the first fight in the film, I was happy to see it again and I will say that during the climactic battle of wits between Holmes and Moriarty, the technique was also well performed. But, for the other five to seven times in the film, it just wore out its welcome and then some. It was as if this was the only trick up Ritchie’s sleeve and he just over-padded the film with it. Now, I do have to say that there was one sequence where I felt Ritchie’s visual razzle dazzle served the story beautifully while also providing something very fresh and exciting. This was during a forest sequence where Holmes, Watson, Simza and their compatriots are attempting to escape from the massive artillery fire from Moriarty’s right hand man, the coolly efficient marksman, Sebastian Moran (Paul Anderson). That one sequence, with bullets flying dangerous close to our heroes as they shattered everything from clothing to branches and trees in conversely accelerated and slowed imagery, made me sit straight up in my theater seat! I just wish there had been more of this level of creativity on display overall.
Yet, I felt that the film made probably its biggest cinematic crime with the under-utilization of the incredible Noomi Rapace from the Swedish versions of “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” and its two sequels. I will just never understand the process of hiring extremely talented actors and then, giving them absolutely nothing to do. Rapace was completely wasted in her role and she ultimately served the film absolutely no function other than to just exist as “the girl.” The original and inimitable Lisbeth Salander deserves infinitely better!
“Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows” was a film that just fell short for me. It was nothing that derailed the series but it was more of a seat shifter than an edge-of-your-seat experience. And while there is more than enough room for improvement in the inevitable third installment, this second film just felt to be more than a little ho-hum, certainly not what Ritchie had intended to be sure.
Sunday, February 5, 2012
Based upon the television series “Mission: Impossible” created by Bruce Gellar
Screenplay Written by Andre Nemo and Josh Applebaum
Directed by Brad Bird
*** ½ (three and a half stars)
Tom Cruise is hungry again. Very hungry.
Now I don’t want for any of you to think that I have soured on Tom Cruise like so many others have…perhaps some of you as well. Despite his global fame and immense star wattage, I happen to think that Tom Cruise is a seriously underrated actor who deserves much more artistic respect than he is given. Honestly, this is a man who has commanded the respect of his peers in the filmmaking community. His joy for the art and craft of moviemaking is unquestionable. This is a man who has worked with no less than Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, Barry Levinson, Michael Mann, Paul Thomas Anderson and two times each with Cameron Crowe and Steven Spielberg. In his “Mission: Impossible” franchise alone, he has worked with Brian De Palma, John Woo and J.J. Abrams. No hack of an actor would ever have been able to claim those cinema giants as filmmaking collaborators at all. As an actor, I have always appreciated Tom Cruise’s passionate level of commitment. Whether you like, love or hate one of his films, I do not believe for an instant that his creative drive is less than visible upon the screen. And to date, I do not believe that he has ever given a lazy performance, or sat back and made a “paycheck movie” at the audience’s expense.
All of that being said, I still think that its sad that after jumping upon a couch and being the subject of tabloid fodder, audiences has grown to have a vitriolic aversion towards Cruise. Certainly, that terrible 2005 interview with Matt Lauer didn’t do him any favors. But please, did Tom Cruise really do anything approaching the level of what Mel Gibson did? Even so, his screen presence has suffered for several years now. Despite some good work in Robert Redford’s otherwise uneven and preachy “Lions For Lambs” (2007), where Cruise more than held his own against Meryl Streep, his most notable performance was the one where he was unrecognizable and covered in mountains of latex as the hysterical, profane and grotesque Hollywood agent Len Grossman in Ben Stiller’s wild satire “Tropic Thunder” (2007). It seemed obvious to anyone paying attention that Tom Cruise’s star was tarnished and beginning to dim.
With the release of “Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol,” the fourth installment in the series where he portrays super-spy Ethan Hunt, Tom Cruise is ready to make a grand return with a vengeance. To me, he seemed like the beleaguered prize fighter on the ropes but not down for the count just yet. He’s taken his hits. He’s licked his wounds. And now, Tom Cruise is coming out swinging with a performance of surprising aggressiveness. With this film, it feels as if Tom Cruise has something to prove. His fists are clenched and he is ready to rumble. While my favorite installment in the series still remains Director J.J. Abrams underseen (at the time of release) “Mission: Impossible III” (2006), this new chapter, the vibrant, triumphant, insanely creative first live action feature from Director Brad Bird (who helmed 2004’s “The Incredibles” and 2007’s “Ratatouille” for Pixar) comes pretty damn close.
As “Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol” opens, IMF secret agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is captive inside of a Russian prison and is soon rescued during a prison riot by IMF field agents Jane Carter (Paula Patton) and the newly promoted technical expert Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg). Once on the Moscow streets, Ethan is given his latest mission. He and is team are to covertly enter the archives inside of the Kremlin to gather the identity and whereabouts of Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), the nuclear strategist known as “Cobalt”, a sinister figure who believes that a nuclear holocaust, which he plans to unleash, will ultimately save humanity by providing the next evolutionary step in human kind. Of course, even the most impossible plans for the IMF team are made even more impossible to execute as the trio is discovered and narrowly escape the Kremlin, which is destroyed by a bomb.
As the Russian government calls the attack upon the Kremlin an act of war, Ethan and his team are informed that the President of the United States has enacted “Ghost Protocol,” a top secret operation which completely disavows the entire IMF team and holds them entirely responsible for the Kremlin’s destruction. Yet, the team, now joined by IMF analyst William Brand (Jeremy Renner) are allowed to flee the Russian government so they can still pursue “Cobalt” entirely on their own.
“Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol” firmly aligns itself with the previous three installments, as well as the classic television series, by placing our heroes in all manner of increasingly impossible situations and predicaments where duplicitous behavior, double crosses, disguises, globe trotting, wild futuristic gadgets, high speed chases and the fate of the world are all par for the course and presented in high style in this first rate production. What has made the “Mission: Impossible” film series stand out from the massive amount of action films that are released each year as well as the James Bond and Jason Bourne series is how Tom Cruise has fashioned the franchise to exist as a “Director’s Series.” Where Brian De Palma created a more classic Hollywood film noir with the debut episode, John Woo delivered something akin to a bullet opera for the second. As I previously stated, my favorite was the third installment helmed by J.J. Abrams as it made the story and adventures of Ethan Hunt more personal and emotional, which increased the overall tension and excitement during all of the action sequence pyrotechnics.
As Abrams serves as a Producer alongside Cruise for this fourth episode, some of that human element thankfully remains but it is in short supply to the grandly designed, gorgeously filmed, expertly staged, choreographed and presented set pieces that Brad Bird has devised for Ethan and his team to get themselves into and out of. What results is Bird’s furiously paced film that contains one white-knuckle event after another and believe it or not, there were a few points where the intensity and velocity of the action made me recall the classic one-two punch of the airplane fight sequence and subsequent truck chase from Steven Spielberg’s “Raiders Of The Lost Ark” (1981)! No joke, dear readers. Brad Bird has shown so confidently that he is indeed as madly inventive with live actors and real world settings as he is with animation and I am happy to say that he has essentially created some of the very best sequences in the entire “Mission: Impossible” series.
Much has already been written about the Dubai section of the film, which includes a truly edge-of-your-seat and vertigo inducing sequence where Ethan Hunt is scaling the side of the Burj Khalifa tower (the world’s tallest building, of course) only with a pair of technically faulty electronic suction gloves. It is an astonishing piece of film, masterfully executed with drama, excitement, tension and well placed humor. I also loved the film’s opening prison riot sequence, which is simply pounding. A visual slight of hand moment as Ethan Hunt and Benji enter the Kremlin is a delight. A ferocious chase through a Dubai sandstorm is another stunning highlight. And the climax, which features Hunt and Hendricks battling, scraping, kicking, pummeling, beating, rising and falling throughout a multi-level garage as they each try to retrieve a briefcase that contains the launch codes that with either initialize or cancel an impending nuclear holocaust of epic proportions is fantastically breathless.
Yet, what makes all of those sequences plus so many other fight sections work are the rich tapestry of performances that keeps everything grounded with a certain gravity while also acknowledging how wild and preposterous some of their situations happen to be. Jeremy Renner makes for an excellent addition to the IMF team as he almost functions as a audience stand-in as he has the chance to marvel in disbelief at all of the absurdly outrageous adventures the team finds themselves engaged in. Thankfully, he also is able to weave in a level of self-doubt, dark mystery and sorrow which enriches the material and the relationship between himself and Ethan Hunt.
Paula Patton showcases her obvious attractiveness of course, but unlike someone like Angelina Jolie, a veteran of action films but who increasingly does not appear to have the body strength to hold a gun or run a block, Patton is completely convincing as a field agent ready to strike within a split-second notice. Simon Pegg, provides the requisite comic relief but also showcases his talents as someone who could realistically exist within this crazy spy thriller universe. And then, there’s Tom Cruise, who is seemingly weaving in the turbulence of his personal and professional battle scars into the mythical history of Ethan Hunt, a tactic that provides the hero with new, darker, tougher, more difficult layers.
With “Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol,” the image of Ethan Hunt as the thrill seeking, cocky Boy Scout is nowhere to be found. That trademark smile of his is barely seen. This time around, Hunt is a full-blooded adult hardened by internal tragedies, wrestling with personal demons and is filled with ferocious, tenacious, relentless rage. That brightness in his eyes has been replaced by a haunted coldness, combined with a clenched jaw and wiry frame ready to strike, pummel and punish. Ethan Hunt’s attitude is one of impatient frustration, and a near lack of compassion towards faulty technology, the duplicitous world in which he exists, an increasingly insane criminal element that forever returns like seasonal garden weeds, and even, at times, towards his team mates.
While he has presented a certain laser focused intensity to his work throughout his career, with “Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol,” I can say that I have never seen Tom Cruise quite like this before. It is a performance of raw, tightly coiled, and incredibly unforgiving physicality. He is a lone wolf who happens to be saddled with a team, which he, of course, will grow to appreciate but for the bulk of the film, they are brutally tested to keep up with him. (In fact, the movie feels as if it has to keep up with him too!) As Ethan Hunt famously stated in the first film to a former ally turned adversary, “You haven’t seen me very upset!” Well, in this fourth installment, we do and the uncompromising and almost machine like fury is exhilarating.
If I had even one quibble with the film is that perhaps there are maybe a few too many scenes of exposition that tended to dial down that personal quality I loved so much in the third film. Plus, it also tended to slow the film’s momentum a bit and just at the points the film needed to keep pushing further. But, those feelings were so minor once that stakes of the spy game kept growing higher and higher.
As I stated at the beginning of this review, I think that Mr. Cruise is hungry again. And based upon reports that this installment, which has received stellar critical acclaim, the best box office of the entire “Mission: Impossible” series and finally, even Tom Cruise’s entire career, that hunger has served him and all of us extremely well.
“Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol” is sensational entertainment, a perfect popcorn movie that more than delivers the goods. Based upon this episode, I am already anxious for the next one!
Saturday, February 4, 2012
Just as with the other three installments in this annual series, full reviews for all of the films are housed on this site and I will gladly point you in the right direction if you wish to read any of them. So, without any further hesitation...
MY TOP TEN FAVORITE FILMS OF 2011
10. “HANNA” Directed by Joe Wright
This was my favorite action thriller of the year and sadly, just as with his 2009 drama “The Soloist,” Director Joe Wright’s latest film was ignored at the box office this past Spring. What a shame, dear readers, what a shame, as this film was a hallucinogenic, kinetic, brutal, scary, surreal blast to the senses which at times, recalled the visionary works of Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch and Ken Russell yet stood firmly as a Joe Wright experience. Saoirse Ronan gave a spectacular performance as the titular heroine, an isolated teenage girl raised to be an assassin by her ex-CIA agent Father (Eric Bana), who ventures for the very first time into the world and is relentlessly hunted by a hungrily tenacious, flame haired CIA analyst (a truly spooky Cate Blanchett). While “Drive” received all of the praise last year, I felt that this film was superior on all counts. Like “Drive,” ”Hanna” emulated the tone and visual aesthetics of a European styled thriller, but unlike “Drive,” this film completely transcended the genre and gave me an experience unlike any I have had before. From Wright’s endlessly creative cinematography, vivid collective of characters, fluid and furiously paced actions sequences set to a purely innovative, percussive, pulsing score by The Chemical Brothers, “Hanna” is already ahead of the curve. Yet what was most surprising and enthralling for me was how much I loved how the story’s symbols, structure and iconography all filtered from fairy tales, a bold texture that gave this film a rich, unique layer that set it apart from every other action film of the year. For me and my sensibilities, Joe Wright’s “Hanna” was a perfect example of how to take tried and true ingredients and serve them in an exhilaratingly fresh and boldly creative way.
9. “BEATS, RHYMES AND LIFE: THE TRAVELS OF A TRIBE CALLED QUEST” Directed by Michael Rapaport
Out of all of the wonderful music documentaries I saw in 2011, this was, far and away, the very best, all the more impressive as this film was the directorial debut of actor Michael Rapaport. You can tell from every single frame of this film that this documentary, which chronicles and celebrates the music and legacy of the untouchable rap group A Tribe Called Quest was a labor of love. Just as Martin Scorsese and Cameron Crowe accomplished with their music documentary films (“George Harrison: Living In the Material World” and “Pearl Jam Twenty” respectively) I appreciated how Rapaport elevated his film to reach beyond the standards of a typical music documentary and again, transcend the genre. This film provided me with a musical and social education into the history, legacy and community of hip-hop music, especially during the era in which the music and its listeners and fans were striving for a newfound ancestral consciousness and self–respect. Additionally, Rapaport delivered a film that possessed not one, not two but all four members of the band as individual subjects so profoundly interesting and compelling that Rapaport could have easily made four different films which solely focused upon each member! To that end, the beautiful core of the film captures the strained lifelong friendship and creative relationship between the band’s yin-yang lead rappers, the dapper and more esoteric Q-Tip and the streetwise, down-to-Earth and diabetic Phife Dawg. The film’s greatest sense of irony just fascinated me. That these two men, so loquacious, so magnetic, so gifted with words, within their lyrics as well as interview subjects, being able to communicate so freely and easily, seemingly with everyone except each other. And yes, the excellent soundtrack, which grandly features all of A Tribe Called Quest’s landmark songs, booms with sonic euphoria.
8. “WAR HORSE” Directed by Steven Spielberg
A magnificent, beauteous, proudly old-fashioned and unapologetically emotional film about a young man’s unshakable bond with the horse of the iron will during World War 1. Steven Spielberg, the visual storytelling master that he is, has always been able to amazingly, powerfully reduce viewers to their most basic and even most primal emotions. For some viewers, this particular feat could be seen as nothing more than a shameless form of manipulation designed to make you have an experience the film has not legitimately earned. I can understand that sentiment completely, but Steven Spielberg is always one to know exactly when to push, when to hold back and most importantly, he always understands precisely what each film he makes happens to be and what it needs. This film in particular needs to race past intellect and plunge uncompromisingly into the deep of emotion and Spielberg delivers the goods and then some. “War Horse” is essentially a fable and a folktale as filtered through the westerns, war films and tear jerkers of Hollywood’s past and the experience as a whole is sumptuous, visually resplendent, beautifully acted and yes, it reduced me to a puddle of tears…and I am not ashamed to admit it either.
7. “BRIDESMAIDS” Directed by Paul Feig
This was the year’s very best comedy and a triumph for Kristin Wiig, who co-wrote the film and gave a stellar starring performance as Annie Walker, a women in early middle age caught in a downward spiral in the trajectory of her life. Her beloved bakery business has failed, forcing her to take a dead end job at a mall jewelry store and co-habitate with two bizarre, stingy, corpulent siblings. She is unromantically involved with a callous, rich weasel. Even her car seems to be barely holding onto existence, as evidenced mostly by a pesky, broken tail-light. Making matters worse is her lifelong best friend’s (Maya Rudolph) engagement, which consumes Annie with tremendous fears that her friend’s bright future may spell the beginning of the end of their friendship. “Bridesmaids” was the one comedy this year that understood better than any other, that comedies are not always about the jokes, and comedies as vulgar as this one know that there needs to be a pure context for the nasty words and actions to work at their best. Wiig, Peig, Producer Judd Apatow and the entire cast work overtime to ensure that “Bridesmaids” is first and foremost about a story and characters and that both elements are rooted in reality, sometimes a painful reality, thus making the outrageousness that ensures honestly funny. For all of the talk about the now infamous bridal shop/explosive gastrointestinal disaster sequence, for me, the film’s tour de force was the extended comedy section set during the ladies’ failed plane trip to Las Vegas. It was a sequence where all of the social cues were stretched to their most hysterically uncomfortable lengths and all of the actresses, especially the wonderful Melissa McCarthy, broadened and deepened their characters in the process. “Bridesmaids” is a film about failure, class warfare, envy, jealousy, self-loathing, depression, and the difficulty of maintaining a treasured friendship bond as we age. And it was all so riotously funny and truthfully romantic to boot!
6. “THE DESCENDANTS” Directed by Alexander Payne
After seven years away from filmmaking, Alexander Payne delivered his finest film to date with this emotionally overwhelming comedy drama. George Clooney stars, in the best performance of his career, as Matt King, a Hawaiian attorney and self-described parental “understudy,” who is forced to take the family reigns as his wife lies in a coma after a boating accident. Confounding matters profusely is the discovery that Matt’s wife was not exactly who she seemed to be. This revelation twists his feelings of remorse, guilt, anger, grief and love into uncharted territories as he gradually makes the round to family and most crucially, during his relationships with his two daughters, a 10 year old and a belligerent, ferociously foul-mouthed 17 year old (Shailene Woodley, in a surprisingly excellent and pitch perfect performance). What made this film earn a spot of this list is, again, the attention to making this story go that extra mile and transcend everything we have seen and know about family drama films. I greatly appreciated the attention devoted to the concept of personal paradise and the elusive nature of truth and how that relates to our perceptions of the people we love. Yes, those perceptions can alter once secrets are revealed but, Payne questions, do those unearthed realizations truly change who the person in question happens to be? Clooney delivers his inner struggle with that exact quandary with gravity, and a nuanced, unforced humanism that anchored the film beautifully. “The Descendants” is a film about real people in real situations behaving realistically and with the full three dimensional canvas of real life. Every single character in the film is allowed to breathe in this luxuriously paced film. Once you think you have a particular character completely figured out, Payne surprises you by having those characters slowly emerge and reveal layers of their personalities, which ultimately enriches the experience as a whole by allowing the audience to walk in their shoes for a while and question what you would do if placed in their situations. “The Descendants” is a film of mourning and profound elegiac sadness yet it is not a depressing film, as it allows much space for great blasts of sharp humor and stinging dialogue. And the final scene is one of the very best final scenes in any film I saw in 2011.
5. “MIDNIGHT IN PARIS” Directed by Woody Allen
This film was Woody Allen’s most entertaining, flat out wonderful film in several years. While it is a tired cliché to make that statement, especially for someone as prolific as Allen, who still releases a new film nearly every year, “Midnight In Paris” spoke directly to my love of literature, my status as a former English major and like his splendid “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” (2008), it inspired travel and damn near made me want to race from the theater and get myself a passport! Owen Wilson stars in a most charming performance as Gil, a successful yet creatively unfulfilled Hollywood screenwriter who stumbles upon a wealth of enchantment in the beaming, lustrous, sublime City of Lights. What I loved so much about this film was how Allen, a realist and neurotic nihilist, created a film that was so unabashedly romantic. The love for writing coupled with the sights, architecture, culture and style of Paris was infectious to say the least. Yet, I appreciated how Allen balanced that romance about Paris and eras gone by with a certain realism, making a cautionary tale about finding oneself beholden to perceptions that simply are not entirely real and at the expense of the lives in front of us. Yet, despite that dark truth, “Midnight In Paris” was exuberantly joyful and playful as it illustrates that there are always things in our precarious world to discover, to marvel, to find supreme enlightenment, enchantment and elation from and with, especially under a starry, moonlight, rainy Parisian sky.
4. “HUGO” Directed by Martin Scorsese
This astounding film was my favorite from Martin Scorsese in nearly 25 years, a period during which he released no less than films like “Casino” (1995), “Gangs Of New York” (2002), “The Aviator” (2004) and the extraordinary crime epic “The Departed” (2007). The beauty of “Hugo” is unquestionable. Its artistry is undeniable. Its craft is impeccable and its vision, innocence and grace is rapturous. The story of an orphaned young boy (Asa Butterfield) who lives behinds the clocks and walls of a massive Parisian train station who is befriended by a literate young girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) as he explores an intensely personal mystery, which involves the girl’s Godfather (the excellent Ben Kinglsey), the mean old man who runs and operates the station’s toy store. It is a tale that begins simply within the glow of solitary melancholy and builds to an incredible emotional crescendo that magnificently encompasses the history and beginnings of motion pictures. I have stated repeatedly upon this site that “Hugo” represents exactly what films designed for families can achieve to be when filmmakers actually respect their audiences and do not treat them as soulless consumers. Films, especially those presented to children, can be artistic to the highest order, sophisticated, intelligent and emotional while also serving heaps of wonderful entertainment. “Hugo” accomplishes all of those feats and then some with Scorsese working at his creative peak once again. The visual palate Scorsese and his band of collaborators have created is so visually glistening and enrapturing that even though I saw this film in the 2D format, I would think that if one were to view a film in 3D, this film, even more than “Avatar” (2009), would be the very one to see. With his particular filmography, Martin Scorsese is definitely not the most obvious or logical choice to helm a PG rated fantasy, family film but once the film reached its conclusion, it was obvious to me that Martin Scorsese was the only filmmaker to helm this material.
3. “MELANCHOLIA” Directed by Lars von Trier
Now we arrive at the big three. In my mind, I see this film existing as sort of a “dark twin” to the film that sits in the number 2 position upon this list as both films possessed an artistic reach that extended the furthest out of every film I have seen this year or even in most years, to be honest. Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” is a brazenly risky film in a time when most films have forgotten to take artistic risks anymore. Kirsten Dunst gives the performance of her career as Justine, a young woman gripped within the throes of a crippling depression, who destroys her own oppressive opulent, idyllic wedding day and eventually comes to her sister Claire’s (Charlotte Gainsbourg) home for convalescence. At the same time, a strange newly discovered blue planet named Melancholia is heading straight towards the Earth, presumably for a glorious astronomical event. While Claire, the caretaker of the two sisters, becomes increasingly unhinged with Melancholia’s arrival, a meeting she is convinced with destroy Earth, Justine grows calmer, expectant and filled with a disturbingly peaceful resolution concerning the inevitable end of all things. Certainly, “Melancholia” is not a film for everyone, especially as the subject matter is as devastating as it can possibly be. But, Lars von Trier’s uncompromising artistic vision, which is presented through a collection of grotesquely stunning apocalyptic imagery (the wordless, Wagner scored eight minute prologue and the film’s final images are truly some of the best sequences of the year), chilling performances, and a precise and intimate exploration of humanity’s downfall made this film a must-see experience and its greatness cannot be ignored. Best of all, “Melancholia” works grandly as a film that can be read literally and figuratively. Yes, we can take von Trier’s presentation of the end of existence at face value. But the film also works as a metaphor for depression and how depression can feel like a planet crashing into you, scattering every atom to the four winds forever. Perhaps, the destruction of the Earth is nothing more than Justine’s suicidal wish fulfillment for herself. “Melancholia” is an unforgettable experience that will stick with you and haunt you long after the theater house lights have begun to glow brightly again.
2. “THE TREE OF LIFE” Directed by Terrence Malick
Where “Melancholia” may exist solely within the mental state of one young woman, Terrence Malick’s “The Tree Of Life” stretches its conceptual reaches even further. While the bulk of the film focuses on snapshot moments that traces the birth, evolution, tension and destruction of a Texas family in the 1950’s, Malick encompasses that story of piercing intimacy with the bold strokes of imagining the beginning of the entire universe. While the film, which even features the sight of dinosaurs, monumentally confounded many patrons, I really felt that this soul stirring experience utilized the backdrop of the universe to illustrate that the interpersonal story is representative of the life cycle that is inherent within EVERY story of EVERY living thing. Brad Pitt gave a performance of towering strength as the family patriarch or the representative force of nature while Jessica Chastain elicited equal power in her nearly wordless performance as the matriarch or the fragile state of grace itself. Yet, Malick’s visual palate is the true star of this film as every single frame could serve as the most meticulously and gorgeously designed still photograph. The spiritual nature of the film is also completely palpable through the visuals as even the many streaks of sunlight in the film felt to be the visual representation of the touch of God. Yes, this film is mysterious, cryptic, and obtuse. Yes, this film is demanding and presents a challenge for any audience, especially as you are required to perform some heavy mental lifting. Yes, this is an art film with a capital “A,” “R,” “T.” And yes, yes, yes, “The Tree Of Life” is also a primal experience that was intensely moving and inspiring. “The Tree Of Life” is not a passive experience and for all of its profundity and some would say, pretentiousness, this is a film that sincerely wants to communicate and engage with you. I actually have a friend who works at my local Sundance theater, where the film was screened throughout the summer, who expressed to me how much she appreciated its beauty but was put off because she felt that Terrence Malick’s arrogance with the creation of such beauty was oft-putting. To that, I stated that if I were a filmmaker talented enough to pull off an experience like this one, I’d be proudly arrogant too! For much of 2011, “The Tree Of Life” was my favorite film of the year. But that was until…
1. “THE ARTIST” Directed by Michel Hazanavicius
There was no other film released in 2011 that filled me with exhilaration more than this film, a legitimate black and white silent movie conceived and executed to absolute perfection. What made this one-of-a-kind film stand tallest for me was that “The Artist” is indeed representative of the very reason any of us ever view movies in the first place, as well as the very types of film that allowed all subsequent film styles and genre to exist. The experience of “The Artist” perfectly illustrates the emotional power that is conveyed through a collection of images. It is an example of the art and artistry of visual storytelling as its finest and Hazanavicius shows us all that great visual storytelling is all you need for a film such as this one. The incredible Jean Dujardin stars as a rich and famous silent film star whose entire world crumbles with the advent of sound technology. As he falls into crushing despair as he fears complete irrelevancy, he is watched over and ultimately saved by the absolutely beguiling Berenice Bejo, his once adoring fan and now rich and famous talkie film star.
I am finding it more than a little hilarious and more than a little disappointing that some people who have tried to view this film have had no idea that “The Artist” is a silent movie, so much so that some patrons have demanded their money back due to the lack of dialogue and all other sound effects to which we have all grown accustomed. But part of the beauty of “The Artist” is how Hazanavicius toys with our perceptions of movie sound to the point where we not only don’t miss the sound but the visual storytelling is so effective, we think we are hearing every thing anyway. We are blissfully lost within the story and the images.
“The Artist” is no mere throwback confection, or cutesy yet forgettable folly. It is not a hipster exercise of self-congratulatory style. This is a magical film. A joyous film that celebrates the glory found when making an unexpected yet tremendous discovery. I was enraptured, amazed, and rapturously entertained. My heart was not filled with affection for any other film in 2011 more than this one.
And there you have it. My review of 2011 is complete. What will 2012 bring? I cannot wait to find out!
Wednesday, February 1, 2012
All of that will certainly keep me busy enough, especially as life has really clenched its jaws as of late. But I do have some plans to watch a few documentaries that are eagerly awaiting me to view.
1. On HBO this month, the channel will air the premiere of Cameron Crowe's documentary "The Union," starring Elton John and Leon Russell as they compose and create their hit album together.
2. I am also looking forward to viewing "Everyday Sunshine: The Story Of Fishbone," a band I have loved since my teen years and have always felt never received their full due.
3. Also awaiting me is the documentary "The Black Power Mixtape: 1967-1975," which I have been very anxious to watch.
4. And then, there is Davis Guggenheim's U2 documentary "From The Sky Down," which chronicles the band's creative process during the making of their landmark album, "Achtung Baby!"
5. If I have time, I just may make a new Stanley Kubrick themed edition of "Savage Cinema Revisits" as well.
If there are any surprises, you will all be the very first to know. But until then, I'll see you when the house lights go down...