Sunday, November 25, 2012

FLOATING ON THE COSMIC OCEAN: a review of "Life Of Pi"

Based upon the novel by Yann Martel
Screenplay Written by David Magee
Directed by Ang Lee
**** (four stars)

"Life Of Pi," Director Ang Lee's adaptation of Yann Martel's best selling novel is a magical, magnificent, majestic feast for the eyes and the spirit. Beyond that, I think that this film is not only one of 2012's highest achievements, it is also Ang Lee's masterpiece. Much has been said about the unfilmmable quality of the novel, a book that I have not read and one which I have picked up and placed back down over and again for many years. But, I am here to tell you that when--that's right, when--you witness and receive "Life Of Pi," you will know, without question, that you have been placed in the hands of a storytelling master working at the very peak of his powers as he has created the very type of movie that is very much of its time yet a timeless spiritual odyssey to revisit over and again. Oscar had better be paying attention because for my money, this film should be not only be nominated for Best Picture and Best Director but also in the categories for Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay and most obviously, for Best Special Effects. Any potential awards bestowed over this film are more than deserved but beyond the fanfare, "Life Of Pi" is cinematic artistry at its finest.

"Life Of Pi" is structured with the front and back framework of a conversation held between an unnamed Writer (Rafe Spall) looking for a new story to tell after an aborted project has taken the creative wind from his sails and Piscine (pronounced "pissing") Molitor Patel nicknamed "Pi" (played by the wonderful Irrfan Khan, so extraordinary on HBO's "In Treatment"), the 50ish husband and Father of two who indeed possesses the story that will alter the Writer's perceptions and overall sense of spirituality.

As the tale begins, we are introduced to Pi's family and upbringing which occurs near a French section of India and on the grounds of a zoo his Father, Santosh Patel (an excellent Adil Hussain). We learn the origin of Pi's name, his early life in school and the beginnings of his spiritual quest which leads him to embrace Hinduism, Christianity and Islam equally, much to Santosh's chagrin, an atheist who would prefer Pi to live his life through reason and logic, especially when it comes to Pi's empathetic nature towards the dangerous zoo animals  most notably a Bengalese Tiger named "Richard Parker." 

By Pi's teen years (as he is now played sensationally by Suraj Sharma), his religious devotion and openhearted worldview has been somewhat overtaken by restless teenage angst, emotions that are further complicated when Santosh declares that due to political unrest, the family will relocate to Canada from India via Japanese freighter, and they will also sell all of their zoo animals. 

Not long after their departure from India, the freighter is caught in a tremendous storm at sea and Pi is accidentally tossed from the ship into a lifeboat alongside an orangutan, a zebra, a vicious hyena and Richard Parker. The remainder of the film details Pi's struggle to survive floating at sea, the relationship he forges with the animals on board, most especially the tiger who is growing hungrier by the day and the ultimate strength of his spiritual faith which is being severely tested each moment he is adrift in an unforgiving world.

By now, I am certain that all of you have either seen commercials or trailers advertising "Life Of Pi," and from seeking just a few scant moments, it is obvious to anyone watching that the film is a visual astonishment.  Having seen the entire experience, I can assure you that Ang Lee has created one of the best visual achievements of the year. As you also know, I am dead set against the gimmick of 3D and I did see this film in 2D. That said, and as I felt with Martin Scorsese's extraordinary "Hugo" from last winter, Ang Lee is has created a film going experience that seems to lend itself to the 3D technology in a most organic, story driven and artistic way. 

As the bulk of the film exists upon the high seas, the boat and a small makeshift life raft that is tethered to the boat, the expansive nature of the story gives Lee and his creative team a tremendous amount of visual material to play with making a world that feels as if it has emerged from a  dream state or hyper-real fantasy. The world of "Life Of Pi" looks very familiar but also not quite as it also serves to represent Pi's shifting level of sanity and overall spiritual crisis. While the vistas of the skies, sun, moon, stars and ocean life are intoxicating, I have to make special mention of the animals, especially Richard Parker the tiger, as the CGI and animatronic effects are some of the finest I have had the pleasure to witness on screen. The tiger looks and feels very, very real and something that truly exists in the same physical space as Pi himself. Not for an instant did it seem that a flesh and blood Pi was on a boat with a cartoon tiger and thankfully not, as a gaffe like that would have upended the entire motion picture tragically. 

Since we are given a front row seat into the spiritual and survivalist quest of Pi, and most crucially, his relationship with the tiger, there are simply not enough words to praise the spectacular work of Suraj Sharma in the title role. Sharma possesses an incredible physicality for the role as he is constantly in and out of the water and on and off of the boat and life raft and so on over and over again. And yet, this particular trait is only surpassed by his wrenching spiritual yearning, which I would gather is designed to mirror the inner search that all of us have embarked upon in one way or another as we exist upon this Earth. Suraj Sharma's entire presence is one of invitation and empathy, the perfect combination an actor should have for a role and film like this one. I seriously hope that the unfamiliarity of his name does not stop him from being recognized for his towering work in this beautiful performance.  

I have made much of the spiritual essence of this film and I must say that Ang Lee's "Life Of Pi" belongs in the same class of recent films like Terrence Malick's "The Tree Of Life," Behn Zeitlin's outstanding "Beasts Of The Southern Wild" and even The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer's deeply ambitious, visually gorgeous, sincerely presented yet not entirely successful, "Cloud Atlas" as they all use the language of cinema to explore and address nothing less than the meaning of life. 

As with those aforementioned films, "Life Of Pi" plunges us into themes of inter-connectivity, and the symbiotic nature between humans, animals and the environment but for me, Ang Lee takes an even bolder step as this is a film that strongly wants us to witness the interlocked nature between spirituality and science, reason and logic. Yes, dear readers, you read that correctly. Despite the adult Pi's notions that his story will make the Writer believe in God, "Life Of Pi" is not a film that is designed to split us all into particular theological camps and nor is it presented as dogma. It is one meant to unite us all in thought and feeling as the story of Pi's survival rests in the complete joining of the tangible with the metaphysical. Even those of you who view yourselves as atheists should feel welcome as atheism is indeed a way one makes sense of  life and the universe. The "Life Of Pi" is representative of all of our lives. It is not a film with easy answers or Hallmark sentiments and nor should it be as the film takes on a more ambiguous quality in its final sections which essentially forces the Writer and the audience to think about everything we have witnessed and heard and decide for ourselves what to believe, even though we are presented with few unequivocal facts and so much of it cannot be ultimately proven. And yet, Ang Lee never for even one moment preaches or proselytizes. He beautifully enchants and enraptures as his hugely entertaining film also works as visual poetry.

While Ang Lee has always been a journeyman of a filmmaker as he has tackled a variety of subjects, individuals and locales with films like "The Wedding Banquet" (1993), "Eat, Drink, Man, Woman" (1994), "The Ice Storm" (1997), the extraordinary "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000), the unfairly panned "Hulk" (2003) and "Brokeback Mountain" (2005).  Yet what has nearly bound all of his films together, in one way or another, has been Lee's theme of repression and the effects of that repression upon the soul. With "Life Of Pi," I truly appreciate the willingness Lee had with relinquishing that constant theme for something even grander, even more universal and downright cosmic but not in a "hippie-dippy" fashion despite the at times psychedelic visuals on display. 

Even beyond that and at its finest, Lee with "Life Of Pi," has fashioned an ode to the act, art and artistry of storytelling, and how stories, in and of themselves, are essential forms of connective tissue that bond us to each other, all living things, the world in which we live and even our deepest inner selves. "Life Of Pi" is a remarkable, thrilling, and even monumental work of art that wishes to simultaneously dazzle the eyes, invigorate the mind and completely satiate the soul. In a year where many veteran filmmakers have been pushing themselves to create better and better films, Ang Lee has truly soared.

It may be a bit early for me to fully announce my favorite film of the year, since there are still quite a number of pictures I wish to see and especially as for most of this year, my number one pick has been Writer/Director Lorene Scafaria's "Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World." But, as I ruminate over all that I experienced and felt with Ang Lee's "Life Of Pi," I am not certain what could stand taller than this one. 

We'll just have to see...

Saturday, November 24, 2012

CULTURE CLASH: a review of "2 Days In New York"

Based upon characters created by Julie Delpy
Story by Julie Delpy, Alexia Landeau and Alex Nahon
Screenplay Written by Julie Delpy and Alexia Landeau
Directed by Julie Delpy
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

The stark, raw and previously unearthed emotions that can only be unleashed through a reconnection with family is a fascinating and unrepentantly ugly beast. Believe it or not dear readers, even I, your friendly neighborhood film enthusiast, am unable to resist its' dark grip, despite my best intentions. I am a man who happens to have what is known as a "long fuse." But, truth be told, once that fuse is ignited, I do happen to harbor a particularly nasty temper. While I have been able to avoid all family calamities that might occur during the holiday season with skill and panache in the past, this Thanksgiving, I shocked myself by becoming so enraged and furiously engaged in an argument with a cousin through the most absurd medium of all: Facebook! The written messages between him and myself began with a polite contentiousness but rapidly erupted into vehement blasts filled with deep resentments that had previously been unspoken. Every time I told myself to step away from the keyboard, especially when the ridiculousness of the situation became so blindingly apparent--I mean, really, it's Facebook--a new comment would arrive and refusing to back down, I spent more time arranging my words as stinging and as brutally as I could conceive them. And really to what avail? And beyond that, what had happened to me in those moments and those increasingly expanding, virtuolic minutes where my better nature evaporated into something so vengeful?

Just think for a spell about your families and your relationships with those people and specialized community that you were born into. What is it about family that allows us to uncoil from our better selves into ones filled with rancor, resentment, recriminations and at times, crippling regrets? I had those questions firmly in mind as I sat down to view Director Julie Delpy's romantic and family comedy of manners "2 Days In New York." Within minutes I realized that I could not have asked for a better tension tamer at that time as the film was an often laugh out loud comedy that also carried extremely perceptive and precise notions about the complicated and infuriating dynamics between family members, and especially when those dynamics play out in front of an intimate bystander who may soon become a travelling member of this particular, unique circus. Before viewing this film, I discovered that "2 Days In New York" is actually a sequel to Delpy's previous directorial effort "2 Days In Paris" (2007) which I have not yet seen. But, please do not deter this tidbit to stop you from checking out "2 Days In New York" as it confidently and independently stands upon its own two cinematic feet while also providing you with a most entertaining, hilarious and sincere experience. You are in terrific hands with Julie Delpy and "2 Days In New York" is time enthusiastically well spent.

Julie Delpy portrays Marion, a Parisian photographer living in New York with her three year old son from her now ended relationship, as chronicled in "2 Days In Paris." Along with her son and cat, Marion resides with Mingus (Chris Rock), a writer for the Village Voice, radio host of a particularly lively NPR program and twice divorced Father to his own daughter from one of his previous marriages. As the film opens, Marion and Mingus are preparing for the arrival of Marion's sister Rose (Alexia Landeau) and their Father Jeannot (Albert Delpy-Julie's real life Father), who longs to see his grandchild especially after the death of his wife, Marion and Rose's Mother.

Yet, almost immediately upon arrival, tensions begin to flare as Marion and Mingus are surprised by the additional presence of Rose's loosey-goosey, overly flirtatious, racially inappropriate, pot smoking, artist boyfriend Manu (Alexandre Nahon). Life in Marion and Mingus' household continues to escalate through the Parisians' boisterous, free-wheeling nature, full of endless amounts of food and arguments, which slowly but surely perplexes and then infuriates Mingus. Additionally, Marion, who is also anxiously preparing for her photographic art show opening during which she will conceptually sell her soul to the highest bidder, grows more unhinged with each family misunderstanding and conflict which then furthers to potentially upend her love affair with Mingus.

Julie Delpy's "2 Days In New York" flies by with a zippy energy and increasing frenetic pace which never loses sights of the real emotional turmoil that exists inside of all of the film's characters. Delpy effortlessly amps up the screwball aspects of this comedy which also serves as a sexual farce as Marion and Mingus, over an again, try to have a moment of lovemaking to themselves but are always interrupted by something or another, which also increases the tension and frustration between them. Delpy has created a sharp, sophisticated comedy that works within the same neighborhood of intricate plotting, oddball interpersonal coincidences and cringe-inducing but hilariously social gaffes that made television's "Seinfeld" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" such compelling comedic gold. Yet, what Delpy also accomplishes, unlike "Seinfeld" and even the works of Woody Allen, to which this film has been compared (more on that later), is presenting a New York that contains a more realistic and wider ethnic palate of characters, an element which was indeed refreshing.

As previously stated, "2 Days In New York" is at heart a social comedy of manners or lack thereof. The bulk of the film relies upon the nature of the cultural differences that exist between Americans and Parisians. Aside from the language barrier that exists between Mingus and Marion's entire family, there is also a private and physical barrier that the guarded Mingus never desires to cross (unless it is on his own public radio show where he is more than ready to use his most private musings and tales of family life for comedic fodder). Marion's sister Rose carries an exhibitionist quality, as she is free and easy with her body and sexuality, completely unlike our puritanical Americans for whom sex. Mingus and Jeannot's relationship also provides the film with some of its most uncomfortably wonderful comedy, as Jeannot has apparently no regard for personal space or bodily decorum, as witnesses through a visit to a Thai massage parlor.

Racial perceptions also figure heavily into the plot as Manu, who proudly wears his Obama T-shirt, tries to make nice with Mingus by proclaiming how he himself, a white, Jewish Frenchmen could have also been a "cool black man." He flirts openly with Mingus' sister by stating that she looks like Beyonce but "sexier." And he even assumes that Mingus would know how and where to procure some prime marijuana and is more than a little disappointed that he does not. Yet, Manu's unintended and playful racism doesn't end there, especially as he has a chance meeting with an East Indian friend of Mingus' who works for the White House and the ensuing conversation in this scene nearly made me spit out my drink through the surprised laughter.

As Mingus, Chris Rock truly surprises. While he has his own comedic moments when he holds private "conversations" with a life sized cut out of President Obama that stands tall in a corner of his office space, Rock is fully committed with portraying a realized character that could exist in the world as we know it. Chris Rock, for all intents and purposes, functions as the film's "straight man." He serves as the audience's stand in as he reacts to all of the craziness around him and we can fully understand his boiling inner fury. he is truly a pleasure to regard as we watch his grow from cautiously polite to bemused to enraged, and his slow burn takes are truly inspired from one moment to the next. And furthermore, what truly grounds him is the sincerity and romantic ease he displays with Julie Delpy as they do have a chemistry that makes us feel as if we are watching a real, contemporary, 21st century urban couple.

Even with Chris Rock's strong work, all thanks must be laid at the feet of Julie Delpy for not only seeking him out for the role but for conceiving and helming this entire project, which she also produced and even composed the film's score to boot! Yes, the film has been compared to the works of Woody Allen and I would suppose that if you were going to feature a film set in New York around a collective of intellectuals and neurotics all consumed with deeper philosophical musings, Woody Allen would make for an easy comparison. But to me, it is also a lazy comparison as I never felt that Delpy was attempting to cash in on Allen's tried and true cinematic world and vision. Despite the increasingly harried state of her character Marion, Julie Delpy the filmmaker is is sure handed an artist as any. While the film is as light as a feather, her cinematic hand and vision is strong and clear eyed. I have only ever known of Julie Delpy through her associations with Writer/Director Richard Linklater but with "2 Days In New York," she truly makes her stamp as an artist and we are all better for having her.

While I have made mention of this before, I feel that it bears reviewing at this time. It has been truly disheartening to see the lack of women as create filmmaking forces throughout my life and I have been so pleased to see one film after another this year that featured realistic, three dimensional female characters in stories created by women that have indeed garnered national releases and attention, although for many of them, the notices have been more on the minuscule side. I truly wonder what will occur when Oscar season arrives because the overall quality of women's roles have typically been so lacking and behind the scenes, women are a sad rarity.

But, we do have, among others, a vibrant creative force with Julie Delpy, who navigated through the emotional mine field of increasing family tensions so creatively, so warmly and so beautifully comedic. So, before you happen to engage in a Facebook war of words with any relatives, take a step back and plunk this feature into the home viewing unit of your choice and just laugh and laugh your resentments away.

Friday, November 23, 2012

TRACK HIM, FIND HIM, KILL HIM: a review of "The Expendables 2"

Based upon characters created by David Callaham
Story by Ken Kaufman, David Agosto and Richard Wenk
Screenplay Written by Richard Wenk and Sylvester Stallone
Directed by Simon West
**1/2 (two and a half stars)

Two years ago, in my review of "The Expendables," I wrote the following description: "The Expendables" is a veritable feast of men for men about men and in honor of men and their excessive manliness." 

As I also said in my review of the first film, while I did not think that "The Expendables" was necessarily a "good movie," Lord help me, I was undeniably entertained and even found myself willing to sit through another adventure. Now that "The Expendables 2" has arrived, and a third film must definitely be on the cinematic horizon, I can easily tell you that this specialized feast in brawn and carnage has only grown in size and bedlam. The film is an even slicker production than the first as it is now in the hands of Director Simon West, who has taken the directorial reins from Stallone, who helmed the first film, and who previously directed the hysterically wild action adventure "Con Air" (1997). As sequels go, "The Expendables 2"  certainly left no bullet sitting in the chamber unused but my level of gleeful, delirious, gobsmacked hilarity was not as enthusiastic as it had been. Perhaps, I have just reached my threshold with the hyper-violent pursuits of Barney Ross and his band of sensitive yet sadistically merry mercenaries who fly the friendly skies with "Crystal Blue Persuasion" as their personal soundtrack just before the grunting, spitting, shooting and dismembering takes over. But for those of you who need even more of what I have just described, then this movie certainly delivers the goods.

As with the first film, "The Expendables 2" begins with our anti-heroes deeply engaged in a gratuitously "splatterific" rescue mission before the main plot, such as it is, begins. We are re-introduced to the team led by the taciturn Barney Ross (Stallone) and populated by his chief sidekick and knife expert Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), demolition man Toll Road (Randy Couture), firearms master Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), the even more psychopathic live wire Gunner (Dolph Lundgren), ace sniper and Barney's new protege Billy the Kid (Liam Hemsworth) and martial arts demon Yin Yang (Jet Li), who for this film mysteriously arrives for one bracing fight sequence then parachutes from a plane never to be seen again--maybe it was just one action star too many.

Anyhow, Barney and the gang are again forcibly recruited by the enigmatic Mr. Church (Bruce Willis), to locate a downed airplane in Albania which houses a computer that contains the location of five tons of plutonium. They are also instructed to take the gorgeous yet battle trained (of course) technical expert Maggie Chang (Yu Nan) along for the ride to keep this valuable information out of the wrong hands, this time being the improbably named Jean Vilain (somebody slap me!) portrayed by the inimitable Jean-Claude Van Damme.

But, Vilain does indeed live up to his name as he not only grabs the computer and enlists his own mercenary group The Sangs to round up innocent Bulgarian civilians to dig up the plutonium from an abandoned mine, he mercilessly kills the sweet natured yet cold blooded killer Billy The Kid, who was going to retire from the mercenary life and join his Parisian girlfriend at the end of the month. And now, wracked with guilt and remorse over Billy's death, Barney and the Expendables pledge to track, find and kill Vilain while also retrieving the computer and saving the enslaved Bulgarians.

"The Expendable 2" dispenses with this simplistic plot with brutal effect and bombastic efficiency as there are never enough bullets, bombs, explosions, and two-fisted brawlings to satisfy the action film fans' bloodthirsty souls. Many times throughout, I did indeed laugh out loud as the graphic violence was presented as cartoonishly as possible as to not cross the lines of good taste. And I also appreciated the playful bantering between all of the action film stars which even includes a re-appearance by Arnold Schwarzenegger and an inevitable walk on by Chuck Norris.

Furthermore, I especially loved discovering certain gigantic plot holes and head turning nonsensical moments that peppered the film yet did nothing to derail it as you are certainly not going to see "The Expendables 2" for the tight plotting and character development. Even so, a climax set at an airport surprised me as I was truly uncertain as to when and how all of the participants arrived there. The utter and massive predictability of Billy The Kid's demise is so blatantly obvious that he should have been wearing a sign saying "I'm Not Going To Live Through The Next 15 Minutes Of the Movie." When Maggie Grace informs The Expendables that the location of the plutonium has been kept so secret that no one knows exactly where to find the abandoned mine, it dawned on me immediately that not only did they find the mine without difficulty but so did Jean Vilain and his team and everyone else within the story that needed to find it as well.

One visual element that I did enjoy tremendously and felt that it was a complete antidote to the dreaded "shaky cam" was how Simon West happens to be a director, while impersonal, who (mostly) knows how to film and shoot an action scene, especially hand to hand fight sequences. Yes, he does rely on a bit more editing than absolutely necessary, he does keep the cameras away from the participants far enough where the actual story of the fight is captured and presented fairly cleanly. Jet Li's one and only sequence in the film springs to mind right away as does another sequence where Jason Statham gets to show his stuff as he is bombarded by assailants inside of a church. The best of all was indeed the climactic mano-a-mano between Barney and Vilain as Stallone showed off the muscles and punches straight from his days as the "Italian Stallion" and Van Damme exhibited his graceful and nearly balletic moves with punishing fury. That section was a terrific pulse pounder that was sheer entertainment and high comedy all at once.

While there is no conceivable way for me to think that any potential viewer of "The Expendables 2" would ever be disappointed by the sheer massive level of testosterone and utter chaos on display, I do wonder how many more of these films can realistically be made because there's nowhere else for films of this sort to ascend to. Yes, you can bring on more action heroes from the past and from even the wrestling world and blow things up to greater cataclysm but is that really enough? I mean--why not just watch these two films repeatedly and leave it at that. Are fans really waiting for that third movie to address all of the unanswered questions from the first two entries? Hardly. But still, what can Stallone and the gang do in another adventure that hasn't already been done? What else can they shoot, maim, bludgeon, pummel, and destroy that they already haven't?

And I think that is where my sense of fatigue entered as I watched "The Expendables 2," a good "bad movie," professionally and expertly presented, but just not as entertaining of a good "bad movie" as the first one.

For the third film, I'll give you my slab of meat for the ticket price. I think I'll be sitting the next one out.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

TIM BURTON RESURRECTED...ALMOST: a review of "Dark Shadows"

Based upon the television series created by Dan Curtis
Story by John August and Seth Grahame-Smith
Screenplay Written by Seth Grahame-Smith
Directed by Tim Burton
**1/2 (two and a half stars)

Just as I was about to arrive at the point where I felt that Tim Burton and Johnny Depp's legendary cinematic partnership should perhaps take a lengthy separation, they found a way to rebound. Well...almost.

My cinematic relationship with Tim Burton did not begin well as I loathed his debut feature "Pee Wee's Big Adventure" (1985) and for the life of me, I still do not understand the insufferable hipster irony of "Beetlejuice" (1988), no matter how imaginative and visually dynamic it was. My reactions towards Burton's work began to turn much more for the better as his Gothic take on "Batman" (1989) won me over tremendously. But for my tastes and sensibilities, Burton struck cinematic gold with the stunning, devastatingly heartbreaking "Edward Scissorhands" (1990), his first collaboration with Depp, which turned out to be the beginning of a most fruitful partnership.

Now that it has been over 20 years (!) since "Edward Scissorhands," and we have all seen the greater trajectories of Burton and Depp's respective careers and artistic choices, I look back and wish my responses to their collaborations had been more uniformly enthusiastic than they have been. For quite a number of years, whenever a new project featuring the collaboration between Tim Burton and Johnny Depp was announced, I would grow very excited with the prospects of what these two very idiosyncratic artists would come up with together. But, in recent years, that excitement has dimmed considerably. Don't get me wrong, ever since "Edward Scissorhands," there have been a number of Tim Burton films that I have absolutely loved, most especially the glorious "Ed Wood" (1994), the deeply felt remembrance fantasia "Big Fish" (2003), the pitch black nightmarish musical "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street" (2007) and of course, "The Nightmare Before Christmas" (1993), his wonderful animated collaboration with Director Henry Selick. But for too often, Burton's films served as near misses of varying quality as  "Sleepy Hollow" (1999) and his remake of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" (2005) quickly spring to my mind. And on occasion, some were flat out terrible. "Planet Of the Apes" (2001) anyone? Yeah, I didn't think so.

In all of those films, while we saw Burton's trademark gift for visual aesthetics, the excellent atmospherics, set and costume design and special effects more often than not, all seemed to be in search of a movie. In regards to his work with Johnny Depp, it was beginning to become tiresome to see Depp consumed with make up effects and odd vocal dynamics that were ultimately and futily in search of a performance. By the time of Burton's soulless and shockingly impersonal adaptation of "Alice In Wonderland" (2010), which supremely wasted Depp's talents in a "sure thing" of a role as The Mad Hatter, I actually felt like giving up. Perhaps Burton and Depp, despite the fact that they obviously love working together, needed to take some considerable time away from each other, give each other some space and maybe even miss each other enough to the point where they would grow hungry for something new, thus sparking the two to deliver their absolute best.

Now, we arrive at "Dark Shadows," Tim Burton's adaptation of Dan Curtis' 1970's cult horror soap opera and I have to say that for the most part, my faith in the partnership of Burton and Depp has been a degree. Seeing "Dark Shadows" was like watching two champion athletes in peak form who then sadly repeated the same mistakes from their pasts, thus dulling the cumulative effect. That said, and for quite a large amount of its running time, Tim Burton and Johnny Depp most confidently and creatively crawled out from their artistically stagnated grave.

"Dark Shadows" opens with a beautifully Gothic prologue set in 1760 Liverpool, as the wealthy Collins family migrates from England to America to begin production of a fishing port in Maine. Once the family's port business grows tremendously lucrative and the 15 year construction of the family mansion has been completed, the Collins family son Barnabas (Johnny Depp) seduces Angelique Bourchard (Eva Green), the family maid as well as the woman who has nursed a profoundly deep attraction towards Barnabas since their respective childhoods. Despite their brief affair, Barnabas breaks Angelique's heart by not reciprocating her love. Yet unbeknownst to him, Angelique is a witch, long seasoned in the dark magical arts who then curses the entire Collins family, bringing about the sudden deaths of Barnabas' parents.

Angelique's rampage continues as she places a suicidal spell over Barnabas' true love Josette du Pres (Bella Heathcote), causing bar to plunge to her death from a high cliff into the stormy seas below. Despondent,  Barnabas hurls himself from the same cliff to shockingly discover that not only has he not perished as he too has been placed under Angelique's curse which has also transformed him into a vampire. Angelique then curses Barnabas' complete family, turns the entire town of Collinsport against Barnabas, and has him placed into a coffin where he is buried alive for all time.

Flash forward to 1972 as we meet the lovely, young Victoria Winters (also played by Bella Heathcote), who arrives at the cavernous Collins mansion, which is now populated by Barnabas' descendants and servants, to apply for the position as the mansion governess. Through Victoria, we meet Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer), the family matriarch; Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), her unctuous, buffoonish brother; Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz), her sullen teenage daughter; David (Gulliver McGrath), Roger's haunted 10 year old son as well as David's psychiatrist, Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) and Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley), the mansion's caretaker.

As Victoria makes her bearings alongside the family, whose fortunes and fishing empire have been nearly depleted by Angelique who is now the town's ruthless empress, strange and horrific happenings are occurring. Construction workers have accidentally freed the imprisoned Barnabas! After slaughtering the crew due to his nearly 200 year vampiric hunger, Barnabas sets out for his manor where he meets his descendants. Convincing Elizabeth of his story and identity and making her promise to not reveal the truth to the rest of the family, Barnabas assumes the role of a distant relative from London who has arrived to assist the family financially and return them to their past glories. But upon meeting Victoria, Barnabas is struck by her resemblance to his beloved Josette. And then, there is the matter of exacting his revenge upon Angelique, who is none too pleased to see him up and around again.

Dear readers, I was really not very anxious to see a new Tim Burton film after the bad taste he left in my mouth from "Alice In Wonderland" as I just didn't think that I could go through being disappointed by him on that scale again. But, as "Dark Shadows" began, I was quickly relieved and even won over as the swift and gorgeous macabre prologue entranced me. By the time time the film shifted to 1972, I was hooked and just caught up in every moment and image Burton laid upon my senses. While I have never watched the original television series, the film, somehow, someway at times, gave me the sensation of maybe having had seen a fraction of an episode of two back in my childhood as Burton concocted a film that simultaneously feels very up to date but works almost as an artifact. Visually, "Dark Shadows" is as lush and luxurious as you would expect from any film directed by Tim Burton. But, it was a great pleasure to see Burton working with real world set design and locations again after the bloated CGI disaster of "Alice In Wonderland." Beyond that, the film is a moody, unhurried, unforced experience that weaved a pleasantly dark comic spell that also confidently found a way to envelop me in its spooky 1970's vibe. All of the requisite "fish out of water" humor never felt overdone and for quite a stretch of the film's running time, any sense of suspense and terror is dolled out in a quietly menacing slow burn rather than as a propulsive shock fest.

With regards to Burton's work with Johnny Depp, I am so pleased to say that this time, and even while his portrayal of Barnabas doesn't scale the heights of his greatest Burton film performances, Johnny Depp was a qualified success and his work certainly did indeed go quite a long way in rekindling my Burton/Depp flame. This time, Depp found the soul underneath the costumes, make up effects and funny voices to unearth a real menace, melancholy and tragedy as well as sinister comedy as Barnabas. He found the proper and delicate balance of sympathy, longing and terror of this character with his hollowed out eyes and his wonderful body language which often recalled the still frightening work of Max Schreck's iconic work in the horror classic "Nosferatu" (1922). It was refreshing to see Depp capture the duality and layers of Barnabas so fully and it made his work in "Dark Shadows" so spellbinding to regard.

As Angelique, Eva Green is Depp's equal. She makes for a formidable enemy as well as a sharply comic force and, I have to say it, a scorching and dangerously sexy figure to witness. When the two are on screen together, I found my eyes battling it out to figure out who to watch more as they are each so mesmerizing. I often felt that Green would almost eat Depp alive as her sense of rage and power permeated every scene in which she appeared and I appreciated her unquestionable skill alongside a visual and emotional chameleon like Johnny Depp.

And yet, something still went wrong with "Dark Shadows" for me where I was not entirely enthused with the complete film. To date, an adherence to a strong narrative has not been Tim Burton's strongest quality, a fault even he has admitted to in past interviews. He has repeatedly struggled with maintaining his narratives  effectively time and again where a lot of his films feel like excellent set ups and bombastic pay offs that ultimately fail because we haven't had anything to bridge the two sections together. Quite a number of times, Burton's films feel as if they are movies without a middle.

In "Dark Shadows," I had that exact same feeling again as the sure handed pacing and overall tone gave way to forced humor and booming action sequences that seemed to arrive without warning. A revelation about the teenage daughter character seemed to be too abrupt and felt to solely function as a prefabricated device to make the audience cheer. By the time we reach the film's climax, the special effects completely take over with an overwrought battle between Angelique and the Collins family, that at times recalled Robert Zemeckis' "Death Becomes Her" (1992)...perhaps too much so. Frankly, where I was once completely at attention and involved, I slowly found myself becoming bored and disinterested. I realized that I didn't know as much about the family as I had wished to know or even had expected to know, especially after each member had been so well introduced. I guess that I had wanted some more character development before the blasts of shotguns and hellfire and I knew that more development would also have given a treasure like Michelle Pfeiffer something more to do other than look stunning.

While my issues with "Dark Shadows" did not derail the film as completely as it could have, it was problematic enough where that Tim Burton disappointment of the past reared its ugly head once again. I know fully well that he is a filmmaker of such unique skill and artistry that he is more than capable of hitting a cinematic home run again. I just wish that they were not so few and far between.

But, maybe "Dark Shadows" is a step in the right direction.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

JUKEBOX ZERO: a review of "Rock Of Ages"

Based upon the stage show by Chris D'Arienzo
Screenplay Written by Justin Theroux and Chris D'Arienzo and Allan Loeb
Directed by Adam Shankman
* (one star)

If rock and roll isn't dead, then this movie will surely kill it off for certain.

Director Adam Shankman has just dropped a cinematic bomb of mammoth proportions as "Rock Of Ages," his adaptation of the successful off-Broadway "jukebox musical," is, without question, one of 2012's very worst films. It is a brain dead, heart empty, plastic, shrill, over-long and soulless experience that will do nothing to elevate you and your love of rock and roll music but will conversely cause either one or all of the three following results: to make you feel guilty for ever being passionate about rock and roll in the first place, LOUDLY listen to some REAL rock and roll music to cleanse yourself from the stench left behind by this movie or just sit in utter and stunned silence. This is the kind of  movie where your palm repeatedly rises to harshly smack your own forehead in shattered disbelief and believe me, my palm is more than a bit sore as scene after scene was more chaotic than the one before as the entire film built to a conclusion that was most predictable and ear shatteringly stupid. "Rock Of Ages" is a movie made up of three brain cells and they fought among themselves violently for the entire duration. If you have already seen this movie, I share your pain. If you have not, consider yourself warned.

For a movie that boats not one, not two, but three Screenwriters yet absolutely none of them cared about anything in regards to characters, plot or storytelling, I will try to make my plot description mercifully brief. For if they did not want to waste time with such elements then why should I? "Rock Of Ages" is set during 1987 and opens on the lovely, fresh faced Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough) as she makes her bus ride from Tulsa, Oklahoma to Los Angeles, California with big dreams and Night Ranger's "Sister Christian" plus other songs from the hair metal era in her heart. Mere moments after stepping off from the bus, Sherrie's luggage is stolen and she is rescued by Drew Boley (Diego Boneta) an aspiring rock musician/singer and bartender at the legendary but financially ailing (yet always packed to the gills) Sunset Strip club The Bourbon Room, owned and operated by Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin) and Lonny Barnett (Russell Brand). Stacee takes a job as a waitress and she and Drew soon fall in love and support each other's musical dreams for fame and fortune.

Hoping to clear their large debts, Dennis and Lonny book the final gig of the band Arsenal featuring the lead vocals and guitar heroics of the perpetually wasted rock star Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), a move which entices the rage of Patricia Whitmore (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the religiously pious wife of Los Angeles Mayor Mike Whitmore (Bryan Cranston), to have the club shut down once and for all. And throughout, the love story of Sherrie and Drew plays on and on as misunderstandings, break-ups and (almost) broken dreams) threaten to keep them apart. But will true love and rock and roll save the day?

Dear readers, I have to inform you that I have absolutely nothing against the movie musical. Not one bit. In fact, some of my favorite movies and movie going experiences have all been musicals, and the rock musical in particular. Films like Director Ken Russell's "Tommy" (1975) and Director Milos Forman's "Hair" (1979) for instance, rank as two of the finest films I have ever seen. And I will forever carry the torch for the Director Michael Schultz's universally maligned Beatles inspired fairy tale musical fantasy "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (1978), a film I was deeply obsessed with as a child and could never understand why no one in the world liked it other than myself.

That said, I am not one for forced merriment. It is something that I have always tended to carry a natural resistance towards. If I am ever caught up within any story of any sort that is essentially blaring into my face that WE'RE ALL JUST GONNA GET UP AND HAVE A GOOD TIME, I am more than ready to seek out an escape hatch because if I cannot be swept away naturally then I just want nothing to do with it at all. "Rock Of Ages" is indeed one of those movies that is nothing more than forced merriment as it works itself into a completely inorganic frenzy fueled by the songs that graced and/or littered our radio airwaves for a spell. Adam Shankman is like the Michael Bay of musicals and comedies as he is a director without a shred of subtlety, nuance or even good taste as he just bludgeons you with sight and sound, trying to make you feel entertained by sheer force of will and without any understanding with how and why the very best musicals work successfully at all. Catherine Zeta-Jones, for instance, and so wonderful in Director Rob Marshall's "Chicago" (2002), performs to near spontaneous combustion in one dance sequence that never felt authentic, exhilarating or even as ferociously funny as Shankman obviously thought it was. It felt like a wrestling match and not in a remotely good way.

So, why does a film like Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge!" (2001), a film that no one could describe as "subtle," work so thrillingly while "Rock Of Ages" fails? Well, just think back to "Moulin Rouge!" and the emotional wallop it packed. For all of its' flash, style and barrage of sounds and imagery, there was not a dry eye in the house once it concluded and you knew that Luhrmann was a filmmaker who truly had an intense methodology to his cinematic madness where every moment had meaning and served to tell his story. The very best musicals are sumptuous dream worlds where life itself is a song and you are so lost inside of the music that you can not help yourself but to express yourself through song, dance or any sense of musical performance. The very best movie musicals are the ones that present the act of being swept away, where music becomes emotion. The very best movie musicals can transport us into a place of sheer emotion, either of fanciful flight or crippling despair. Yet all "Rock Of Ages" accomplishes is the desire to plug your ears and never ever desire to hear a sung note again. The film is just one thousand neon signs in your face telling you how to feel at every conceivable moment that there's no room to breathe. And without any real characters or any real story to latch onto, all you have are the songs themselves and let's face it, those tracks by the likes of Poison and Whitesnake sucked back in 1987 and they are no better now.

"Rock Of Ages" is also a strangely conceived piece. While it proudly claims to be set within the year of 1987, it is a film that creates what is essentially a fun house mirror version of 1987, where all of the pop cultural touchstones of the decade seem to exist all at the same time. Additionally, "Rock Of Ages" suffers the same fate that plagued Director Julie Taymor's ambitious but sluggish and wildly uneven Beatles pastiche "Across The Universe" (2007). Where that film tried to present a very real world 1960's but it was a 1960's where The Beatles seemed to never exist, "Rock Of Ages" gives us a 1987 where the bands that made these songs famous (or infamous) also seemed to have never existed and we are to believe that the bland and barely drawn character of Drew is the composer of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'."

Beyond that, and also like "Across The Universe,' Shankman has crammed so many songs from the era into the film regardless if they make any narrative sense whatsoever that the experience feels more like "Name That Tune" than a musical as several songs are just smashed together as ADD medleys. Remember, this film boats three Screenwriters, yet the dialogue is reduced to its most painfully basic, insipid and perfunctory that its only purpose is to get the audience to the next song that has been shoehorned into the plot which introduces, drops and monkey wrenches back into the film characters and story threads without rhyme or reason (a ballad between Baldwin and Brand set to REO Speedwagon's "Can't Fight This Feeling" was an especially WTF?! moment). And for a musical, it was amazing to see (or hear, as the case may be) so much singing that felt to be so canned to the point that it all felt to be hermetically sealed in a cavernous studio rather than singing that felt to be lived and expressed to the heavens. Julianne Hough suffers the most as she represents the type of singing that is much to prevalent these days, as her chirpy, helium voice sounds studio processed within an inch of its life that I was unsure if I was hearing her voice at all.

Even worse, Shankman makes a cardinal sin of a cinematic error with his music choices as Extreme's top charting ballad "More Than Words" plays a crucial role in the love story of Drew and Sherrie but unfortunately, that song did not even exist in 1987, as it really entered the world and music charts in ...1990!!!! If you can't even get those sorts of details correct, then you are definitely not the one meant to make a movie like this.

So, why even give this movie even one star, you ask? I am able to easily explain that reasoning in two short words: Tom. Cruise. Yes, dear readers, as the long in the tooth, washed up and booze stenched Stacee Jaxx, Tom Cruise appears in "Rock Of Ages" as if he is acting in a completely different movie, one that is actually populated with real characters and a real story. Cruise, in his few scenes in the film, injects some real danger and a sharp satirical edge to the proceedings as he stalks the screen in his inebriated, lopsided prowl and speaks in a voice that sounds as if it is emerging from deep inside the bottom of a bottle. And once it is his time to sing and perform his rock God moves, Cruise succeeds wonderfully. He is easily and far and away the very best thing in this miserable movie and I had only wished that there was a movie equal to what he delivered.

However, even the greatness provided by Tom Cruise is nowhere near enough to even recommend this film as a curiosity or a potential guilty pleasure. Yes, it is that bad. Yes, it is that unwatchable. But hey, if sitting through this two hour and change mess of a movie with its poorly the prospect of finally, at long last, hearing Paul Giamatti and Alec Baldwin sing piques your interest, then this movie is for you.

But as I said earlier, you have been warned.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

BLOODY WELL DONE, 007!!: a review of "Skyfall"

Based upon characters and situations created by Ian Fleming
Screenplay Written by Neal Purvis & Robert wade and John Logan
Directed by Sam Mendes
**** (four stars)

If James Bond needs four years away from the silver screen in order to return this masterfully, then take all the time you need before the next installment!

My overall history with the cinematic adventures of Her Majesty's Secret Service's best agent 007, otherwise known as Bond, James Bond, has been relatively lukewarm at best. Now don't get me wrong, dear readers, it is not that I have ever had a dislike for the man. I have seen nearly all of the films (surprisingly, the original Sean Connery installments are the ones I have barely seen) and have willingly found myself standing in the theater queues ready to see each new chapter time and again. but, that said, I was feeling a bit of weariness with the whole production. It just seemed to me that for all of the sound and fury, James Bond, as a character  never really interested me that much as he seemed to not have much else going on other than the superficial aspects of him that have made him more archetype than human. I don't know about you, but for me, I just never really cared that much abut what would happen because there rarely seemed to be any real risk involved for the character. Yes, there were many death defying thrills and spills but since you always knew that he would escape unharmed and with his traditional shaken not stirred alcoholic beverage on the nightstand and comely female waiting for him under the sheets, the element of danger and risk was therefore eliminated. There are several films in the series that I have enjoyed very, very much including "Live And Let Die" (1973), "For Your Eyes Only" (1981), and "Tomorrow Never Dies" (1997) as personal favorites but that said, after all of the gadgets, stunts, explosions, sexy girls and double entendres, is that all there is? It just seemed that there was no real impetus to even make a new James Bond film other than it was just time to make one and for me, that is just not good enough to make a film about anything let alone someone as formidable as 007. 

And then, in 2006, "Casino Royale" was released.

Director Martin Campbell's "Casino Royale" was the first James Bond adventure to truly take me by surprise. Yes, the arrival of Daniel Craig as Bond was a terrific move but what really captured my attention was how the filmmakers made the conscious decision to take James Bond back to his basics, not simply in terms of his origins as the 007 we all know and love, but to rebuild him as a human being. By showing James Bond as a man who could make reckless mistakes, have dark flaws and even fall in love didn't lessen the action one bit but it did give the series something it had sorely lacked for far too long: a soul. While the follow up, Director Marc Forster's "Quantum Of Solace" (2008) has been uniformly disregarded, I actually enjoyed that one very much as well. Yes, it was incoherent (like a lot of Bond films) and yes, it did serve as more of a footnote than as a complete statement. But what I appreciated most was how Forster decided to make his James Bond film one that was more visually stylistic and therefore more cinematic than many of its predecessors. The relentless action contained throughout, for me, served only to continue to inform Bond's grim interior life as the fury of the action illustrated the soul of a man desperately trying to outrun his demons as well as the deep emotional wounds he suffered by the conclusion of "Casino Royale." 

Four years later, Bond returns with "Skyfall," and for my money, this James Bond adventure is the very best I have seen to date. While it confirms Daniel Craig's status as a towering 007, "Skyfall" fulfills the promise of "Casino Royale" in spades by making this the most intensely felt Bond film as it is filled with a humanistic urgency and personal quality that sets it miles apart from bond saving the world once again. Perhaps, having an Oscar winning filmmaker at the helm, and one not known for action at that, is one of the keys to this film's grand success. Who would have imagined that Sam Mendes, who gave us the devastating suburban drams "American Beauty" (1999) and "Revolutionary Road" (2008) would be a perfect fit for Bond? Whomever floated that idea, we owe that individual our eternal thanks and this James Bond has re-set the bar for what these films can actually achieve to be. 

"Skyfall" opens, as all Bond films, with James Bond (Daniel Craig) deep in the throes of his latest international adventure as he and secret MI6 agent Eve (Naomie Harris) are in feverish pursuit of a computer hard drive that contains the identities of almost all undercover agents hiding in terrorist organizations. The chase lands Bond and his adversary on top of a speeding train and during the battle, Eve, under orders from MI6 head commander M (Judi Dench), fires a shot that accidentally hits Bond, forcing him from the train top into the waters below where he is ultimately presumed dead.

What brings James Bond back to life (now, you knew he wasn't really dead) is the assassination attempt upon M's life, an act that murdered several MI6 agents and forces the agency to locate to a new underground London hideout. Bond's search for the terrorist leads him to a Shanghai casino, the gorgeous Severine (Berenice Lim Marlohe) and finally, an island owned and operated by her employer and cyberterrorist Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem).

And that is where I shall leave the plot description as I want for you to enter "Skyfall" as cleanly as possible and exit as much in awe as I was. Stylistically, and with the enormous aid of veteran Cinematographer Roger Deakins, Sam Mendes gives us a Bond film that is a veritable feast for the eyes, beginning with a tremendous pre-credit action sequence, continuing with the BEST opening credits sequence (kudos to Adele for delivering a great Bond song) I have seen in any film this year, and onwards throughout as scene after scene shows a remarkable usage of colors, lighting and shadows to always inform the motivations of all of the film's characters. Every performance is top flight throughout the film and I greatly appreciated the work performed by Ralph Finnes, Ben Whishaw and how happy I was to see the great Albert Finney, the veritable "lion in Winter" once again. But what Mendes accomplished most of all was presenting this latest entry in the long running series with oodles of everything we already know and love about James Bond, but he has infused an unprecedented sense of humanity therefore making "Skyfall" a film that just pulsates with energy and honest emotion as we are given a James Bond, who can get physically hurt, who deals with the aging process and is ultimately a flesh and blood man with riveting foibles and failings. 

The relationship between Bond and M has been a welcome new arena to explore in the revamped Bond series and with "Skyfall," their "Mother/Son" dynamics positively crackle with newfound energy and urgency as both characters are consumed with their individual secrets and demons that are contained in the lives they have chosen to lead in honor of and of service to their country. Craig and Dench make for a perfect pairing as their jibes and overt prickliness belies the deep affection and devotion they obviously hold for each other...and would never for an instant utter a word. 

Beyond Bond and M's relationship to each other, "Skyfall," thoughtfully expands its canvas to have these two characters marching valiantly or foolishly against irrelevancy in light of the technological advances of the world. And what we are ultimately given is not two people attempting to outrun their inner turmoil but also mortality itself, which is, of course, inevitable. While we get even more glimpses into Bond's earlier life, much is made of Bond's advancing age, his weakening abilities and even his and M's own sense of relevancy in the world throughout "Skyfall." Mendes, and his screenwriters, also very cleverly and gently mock the Bond films of the past by scoffing at the very gadgets that audiences have salivated over for many years. Even further, Mendes propels the momentum of "Skyfall" forwards by visually moving backwards. The film's climax nearly eschews 21st century technology and espionage all together by creating a scenario that owes so much to Fred Zinnemann's "High Noon" (1952) and even a dash of Orson Welles' "The Lady From Shanghai" (1947). The state of the art superspy's blistering climax essentially becomes a Western. With all of these elements, Mendes has created a work that looks squarely at the specter of death as finality looms over the entirety of "Skyfall" like a grim shroud, which again gives the world of James Bond a greater purpose than just having stop a new villain hellbent on taking over the world. 

But, that said, every hero is only as good as his villain and while I refuse to say much about the character, once Javier Bardem arrives on screen, the already excellent "Skyfall" skyrockets to a whole new level! With his effete manner of speech, platinum blonde hair, and a disposition that seems to be dismissive to the point of near disinterest, Bardem's Silva would already be a formidable foe. But, then Bardem's performance, much like his chilling work in The Coen brothers' "No Country For Old Men" (2007) or even the late Heath Ledger's iconic work in Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" (2008), makes Silva a horrifying embodiment of evil itself. Silva is eerily patient yet always relentless, ever present and all encompassing, qualities which force an actor as skilled as Craig to find new notes to play as Bond, and man does he find them. With Bardem's ferocious fortitude as a catalyst, Sam Mendes is able to take one of the greatest action film cliches, "This time, it's personal!" and make it, for once, actually mean something! Javier Bardem is absolutely mesmerizing yet disturbingly queasy. I have rarely felt such unease at the sheer sight of a villain and however Bardem is able to channel this dark energy, which borders on the demonic, it is to our benefit as filmgoers as he makes Silva one to remember and to forever fear.

I just cannot say enough great things about Sam Mendes' "Skyfall," a film that excites and surprises over and again in ways most major studio releases have forgotten to do. James Bond has been supremely rejuvenated is high, glorious style certainly. But it is through the emotional underpinnings that makes "Skyfall" the Bond film I wish to see again and again and again.

Maybe, I should head back out to the theater right now!!!! 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

I'VE GOT CONTROL: a review of "Flight"

Screenplay Written by John Gatins
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
**** (four stars)

Welcome back, Mr. Washington! Welcome back, Mr. Zemeckis!

Earlier this year, in my review of the tepid action thriller "Safe House," I voiced my concerns about the career trajectory of Denzel Washington as I have been feeling a sense of repetitive fatigue in his acting choices  Certainly, Washington is one of our greatest acting treasures as he is completely incapable of delivering a performance that could ever be considered "bad." But I have grown fatigued with the films he has chosen to make in recent years which are littered with the kind of performances Washington could sleepwalk through to the point where he has become the source of a wicked parody by Jay Pharoah of "Saturday Night Live." I have been waiting and waiting and waiting for him to deliver exactly what I know he is more than able to do for so long now yet my worries that I would just have to live within my movie memories of him were sadly mounting.

Even more concerning to me has been the career of Director Robert Zemeckis who has nothing less than enthralled me ever since I was 15 years old and saw the wonderful "Romancing The Stone" (1984). My love for Zemeckis was completely solidified when I saw "Back To The Future" (1985), on the afternoon of its opening day, completely alone (Yes, it's true!) in the movie theater. When I exited that film, I felt that I was the sole keeper of one of the world's most incredible movie going secrets. Yet, very shortly thereafter, generations have embraced what I felt to be a secret and it also gave birth to one of the classiest film trilogies I have ever seen with its timeless marriage of heart, humor  pulsating emotions, terrific thrills and cliffhangers and extraordinary special effects that were always story and character driven and consistently amazed. Zemeckis blew my mind again and again with the stellar "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" (1988), the ruthless vanity satire "Death Becomes Her" (1992) and of course, the magical, masterful, kaleidoscopic fable of "Forrest Gump" (1994)

What I loved about all of Zemeckis' work up to that point, among many attributes, was how conceptually air tight those films were. Everything felt to be so supremely thought out that not even one element was out of place, thus ensuring the worlds Zemeckis conjured would be as complete as possible. But, post "Forrest Gump," storytelling frays within Zemeckis' films began to show themselves to me and the ground breaking technology began to overshadow the characters. "Contact" (1997) was well intentioned and intelligent but suffered from a torpid pacing and some storytelling bumps in the road that disrupted the cumulative effect. But even worse was the odious thriller "What Lies Beneath" (2000) and the less said about that terrible picture the better. Only the excellent "Cast Away" (2000) seemed to show the Zemeckis I had known and loved for so many years but this time with a newfound filmmaking maturity and more adult driven storytelling ambiguity. But, this was not to last as Zemeckis lost himself in the weeds of special effects technology for many years.

Dear readers, believe me when I say that I would never begrudge an artist to follow the creative path of their choice but for me, my interest with Zemeckis' pioneering journeys into motion capture technology seemed to be for technology's sake only. I could not understand the hows or whys involved that he would want to spend years and years on projects without the essence of reality and real human beings so much so that I entirely lost interest in whatever he wanted to do and had to slowly resign myself to the possible fact that Robert Zemeckis was just not making movies for me anymore.

And now, we arrive with "Flight," Robert Zemeckis' first foray into live action filmmaking in 12 years, and it is as if he had never left as his cinematic storytelling has returned in full force. To that end, I am so deeply excited to announce that Denzel Washington has also returned in powerful fighting form as his performance as an alcoholic airline pilot is as riveting and as upending as any of his greatest performances. "Flight" is the combined effort of two men ready to work and work hard and their collaboration makes this film one of the most powerful efforts I have seen during this most impressive movie going year and I urge you to purchase a ticket as this film is not to be missed. 

Denzel Washington stars as Captain William "Whip" Whitaker  veteran commercial airline pilot and massive abuser of alcohol and drugs. On the fateful day which opens the film, Whip is introduced on the early morning after his latest tryst with Flight Attendant Katerina Marquez (Nadine Valezquez), after they have enjoyed and indulged in yet another long night of copious amounts of sex, booze and cocaine. After two more shots of cocaine, Whip reports for work to pilot a flight to Atlanta. As he ingratiates himself to his crew, all propped up on his narcotic fueled pride, Whip then ingests caffeine and aspirins as well as covertly imbibing two small bottles of vodka inside of his orange juice. 

What should be a simple excursion lasting around only one hour becomes a horrific aerial nightmare as a malfunction sends the airplane containing "102 souls" on board into a dive. Whip miraculously is able to land the plane with minimal fatalities into an open field, losing consciousness upon impact.

After awakening in a hospital, Whip begins the even more perilous inner journey of navigating through his demons, regrets and addictions while simultaneously attempting to survive the National Transportation Safety Board investigation and hearing which threatens to reveal everything he has struggled to keep hidden for so much of his life. 

Without question, Robert Zemeckis' "Flight"' was one of the most powerfully stirring films I have had the pleasure to sit through during this year and the pleasure I felt with seeing Zemeckis returning to and working with human beings with real human emotions, foibles and failings in such a sure handed, confident, challenging, skillfully intense, blisteringly comic and even a mostly unpredictable fashion made me feel as if I was spending time with an old friend after a lengthy silence. "Flight" easily soars to standing proudly alongside Zemeckis's previous work that has been a combination of the sensational, the electrifying and the iconic.

Much notice is already being given to the plane crash sequence which occurs in the early stages of the film and believe me, the sequence is a jaw dropper as well as a stomach flip-flopper! This sequence reminds all of us how much of a storytelling expert Zemeckis has always been and how he is one of the masters at merging special effects and the most humane aspects of the characters. Yet, this sequence is not presented as  a crowd pleasing thrill ride. It is also not histrionic or gratuitous. It is deeply horrific, terrifying and completely the very type of scene that would make anyone (I imagine) second guess travelling by air ever again. 

But, "Flight" is not a movie about a plane crash. It is the catalyst for a much deeper, more internal story. I wholeheartedly disagree with those critics who feel that "Flight" loses considerable altitude after that harrowing plane crash sequence. While the film grows appropriately quieter for its remainder, "Flight" loses none of its intensity as we are placed front and center into the maelstrom that surrounds Whip's alcohol and drug fueled internal life. Whip may have survived the plane crash and he may be considered a hero to many, but will he survive the endless crash his life has become due to his addictions? 

As for Denzel Washington's performance, this is exactly what I have been just waiting for from him as the character of Whip allows him to give to full, rich, ferociously driven performances that we love him for. Just think of the work Washington delivered in films like Edward Zwick's "Glory" (1989), Jonathan Demme's "Philadelphia" (1993), Tony Scott's "Crimson Tide" (1995) and "Man On Fire" (2004), Antoine Fuqua's "Training Day" (2001) or any of the performances he delivered in the four films on which he worked with Spike Lee, with "Malcolm X" (1992) being the finest performance of his career. As far as I am concerned, his wrenching portrayal as the alcohol and drug addicted Whip Whitaker stands as tall as his finest work very easily..and I will elaborate a bit more shortly... 

While "Flight" is undoubtedly Denzel Washington's film to carry, which he does brilliantly, he does not walk away with it entirely  In fact, several of his acting colleagues almost steal the film right from under him as they all match Washington beat for beat and step for step with equal intensity. "Flight" is one of those rare Hollywood films that actually has a sharply written screenplay and Screenwriter John Gatins has certainly given the actors copious amounts of material to chomp upon with crisp dialogue and gripping motivations that allows the film to veer down some unconventional paths.  

In addition to the terrific work from John Goodman, as Whip's longtime dealer and Don Cheadle as an attorney who just may match Whip in terms of cockiness, "Flight" boats one wonderful performance after another. I loved Bruce Greenwood as Whip's longtime friend, Navy buddy and unfortunate enabler, who has possibly reached the end of the excuses he is willing to give for Whip's behavior. Tamara Tunie also hits every right note as Margaret, a Flight Attendant, also exhausted with Whip. Veteran character actors Peter Gerety and Melissa Leo work wonders in their respective scant screen-times. But, I promise that you will be riveted by the work of James Badge Dale, who has only one scene in the entire film as a cancer patient Whip meets in a hospital stairwell. He was so mesmerizing, so magnetic, that once he left the scene, I wanted to follow him and see his story for a considerable spell before returning to Whip!  

Even with all of this praise, I am certain that some of you may be a tad unconvinced and wonder if "Flight" is just another "addiction to sobriety" story, the kind of which we have all seen over and again. Well, to that, i offer the words of the great Roger Ebert who has always expressed the sentiment that a movie is typically never about what it is about. But it is how it is about what it is about. The success of the story is all in the telling and Zemeckis, Gatins and Washington all find ways to tell this familiar story in fresh and most importantly, honest ways where everything feels authentic. I especially loved how one of the greatest questions that embodies the film is actually one that is never mentioned but indeed implied. The question regards the status of Whip as a celebrated hero, in public opinion as well as in his own mind, due to his quick thinking during the doomed flight. But, how much of Whip's actions came through him as a human being and his vast scientific knowledge of how air crafts work and respond or how much of his actions arrived from being under the supreme influence of a variety of narcotics, all of which only inflated his sense of hubris? Great stuff to mull over as you watch.

At its core, "Flight" could be viewed as a companion piece to Zemeckis' "Cast Away," from both films having titles with double meanings and also as both films begin with a transformative plane crash that alters the lives of two men obsessed with control and places them into situations where they desperately discover how much they are at the mercy of the uncontrollable. For Tom Hanks' character in "Cast Away," it was not only the environment of the island but also the unforgiving nature of time itself. For Whip, it is the full nature of his addictions and no matter how many times Whip proclaims variations of "I'm in control" or "I've got control," we see how tragically he is unable to convince himself of this platitude. And this slow realization brings out an element I found to be especially bold in today's climate of Hollywood films where strong opinions over politics or religion are almost never uttered.

The overall and at times, overt, spiritual/religious essence of "Flight" is a risky move and even a brave one. I think it is just as brave as even Ridley Scott's "Prometheus" which argued for the non-existence of God and a meaningless, brutal, unforgiving, unsympathetic universe. By contrast, "Flight" argues for a universe in which we, as human beings, are not in control of anything because a higher plan is already at work and all we are able to do is to surrender to that plan. While Whip does not reach that sense of divine revelation himself during the course of "Flight," it is the message that continues to be rested at his feet through several characters and situations. Trust me, this is not an overly preachy, sanctimonious "Touched By An Angel" episode for if it were, I would have rejected it outright. I appreciated how unafraid "Flight" was with addressing the nature of God and what we are ultimately given is a difficult, and thankfully ambiguous, message that moves to the core of free will vs. destiny, a classic Zemeckis theme, which Denzel Washington portrays with fury and conviction.

If I had anything to quibble about, and it is a slight one, it would have to be the film's conclusion, which from a storytelling aspect felt to be a tad to clean. but, from a character driven standpoint, "Flight" concludes on a most satisfactory note of a man still sitting at a personal crossroads unsure of which direction his life will proceed. Robert Zemeckis' "Flight" is a heroic, and very adult piece of work that I believe that so many of you will find much to be rewarded by.

When you have this many creative people bringing their "A"' game to a project, how can you possibly miss seeing it? "Flight" is not to be missed!!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

IT'S A MESS: a review of "The Campaign"

Story by Adam McKay & Chris Henchy & Shawn Harwell
Screenplay Written by Chris Henchy & Shawn Harwell
Directed by Jay Roach
* 1/2 (one and a half stars)

By this point in 2012, I am more than certain that we are all, regardless of our political affiliations and individualistic world views, fatigued with the current election cycle. For me, I have to admit to having been increasingly filled with mounting anxiety as election day approaches and that inner tension is something that I am more than ready to release...and hopefully not trade my current tension for just different tension. There are points where we all have to unplug, take a step backwards and breathe of course. And most of all, we could all use some big laughs. Most unfortunately, Director Jay Roach's political satire "The Campaign" starring Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis as dueling North Carolina congressional candidates was not that movie as it just did not provide the laughs I needed by a long shot. How pathetic this is considering that we are living within an era where modern day politics, from the candidates, the 24 hour cable news industry, the consequences of the Citizen's United Supreme Court decision and even the apathy, complacency and surprising ease with which the wind of public opinion will shift, are truly screaming for brutal satirical comedy. Ferrell, Galifianakis and Roach all know better and have all performed better. So, why didn't they just do better?!

Will Ferrell stars as incumbent Democratic congressman Cam Brady, currently running unopposed for his fifth term. Yet, his hard charging ways may have finally caught up to him as a highly sexually explicit phone call is recorded on the very wrong answering machine and thus, the recording is released to the media, making his polling numbers plunge. Seizing upon an opportunity, the Koch brother stand-ins, corrupt billionaire businessmen, Glen and Wade Motch (John Lithgow and Dan Akyroyd) decide to enter their own candidate on the Republican ticket as a challenger to Brady and to subversively make illegal profits from their covert dealings with Chinese companies.

The Motch Brothers reach out to one of their associates, Raymond Huggins (Brian Cox) to gain his assistance in convincing his son, the mild mannered, effeminate, family man and Hammond, North Carolina historical tour guide Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), to be the candidate to run against Brady. Marty excitedly agrees and is then thrust into the unforgiving world of politics with all manner of mud slinging, attack advertisements, rigorous and uninformative debates and most certainly, an attraction to the media attention, and the potential glory that arrives with attained power.

Of course, this plot structure, which allows Ferrell and Galifianakis to just go at each other mercilessly, is ripe for political comedy and satire that could have stood shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Barry Levinson's masterful "Wag The Dog" (1997) and Warren Beatty's dark, and extremely risky high wire act, "Bulworth" (1998). For my tastes, those two films are the ones that have set the bar for political satire during the last twenty years and to date, they have been unmatched in terms of their pitch perfect tonality which grounded the politics and characters in reality while also unrepentantly depicting the "through the looking glass" absurdity of our political landscape. What bothered me so tremendously about "The Campaign" is that any sense of tonality was hurled through the cinematic window and what we are left with is a comedy that is truly all over the map and nearly drowns itself in a morass of vulgarities that exist in the place of any sense of political flame throwing so as not to really offend the audience.     

Look, I will concede that both Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis perform their parts well, seem to be fully invested and are giving their roles all they got. Ferrell's Cam Brady seems to be cut from the same cloth as his celebrated George W. Bush impersonation as well as his beloved 1970s era newscaster Ron Burgundy from "Anchorman" (2004). This tactic actually does serve Ferrell well in his performance as Cam Brady because this character suffers from the same dangerously inflated sense of ego and bluster that always threatens to upend him. While this is a most familiar persona for Ferrell, it still works because of whom he is lampooning, a John Edwards type stupidly convinced of his own sexual irresistibility and even moreso, his seemingly impenetrable political status.

As for Galifianakis, I actually thought that his work as Marty Huggins was perhaps his most successful on screen performance that I have seen from him so far. Galifianakis is a defiantly idiosyncratic performer whom I felt has not been utilized very well by filmmakers as his comedic style is so oddball, he is difficult to really pin down and know exactly where he is coming from. But, for "The Campaign," Galifianakis channels all of his energy to create a convincing character and give him an emotional gravity that at last, made a Galifianakis creation feel as if it is off the world in which we all live.

Yes, I did laugh here and there during "The Campaign," and quite loudly as well. Jay Roach did seem to occasionally tap into areas of our current political climate that feel to exist upon the sheer plane of insanity. The film plays smartly when riffing on the media spin cycle or the mass ignorance that occurs when it comes to the more than questionable antics of candidates and even more pointedly about how we, as a society, are entirely complicit in how these candidates are able to get away with whatever shenanigans they either stumble into or perpetually cause. Here is where Roach had a grand opportunity to take "The Campaign" into the satirical stratosphere but he wasted it all by painting nearly every moment with the broadest brush possible as forcefully as possible making everything feel as realistic as a cartoon...and not a very good cartoon at that. It just pained me that "The Campaign" never attempted to show any real subtlety, cleverness or even any real carnivorousness teeth. It was just another R rated comedy that struck its comedy right down the middle of the market tested road and again, substituting vulgarity for anything truly compelling or potentially politically sharp and even offensive. 

Dear readers, as I have stated many times before, I do not offend easily. But I have to say that in regards to "The Campaign," vulgarity is not comedic sharpness and I just grew so tired with all of the intensely scatological humor and obsessions with gastrointestinal turns of phrases that it all felt to be so wrong. Like several R rated comedies in recent years, "The Campaign" has all of the notes but does not know how to play the music to keep the politics and comedy consistent with each other. And it just felt so obvious to me that in lieu of forcing audiences to really be confronted with and think about our political structure and the way that it operates in the 21st century for fear of offending anyone, let's just throw a barrage of dirty words at them to giggle at and be "offended" by.

By contrast, the HBO series "Veep," starring Julia Louis-Dreyfuss as an unhinged Vice President has mastered the tonality of teeth baring political satire merged with foul language and R rated situations beautifully. This particular creative comedic marriage has been accomplished before and can be again and such a shame for the failure of "The Campaign" as Jay Roach is a director who has shown such sharpness with the political satires he has helmed for HBO, most recently his film "Game Change," which details the 2008 Presidential campaign of John McCain and how it was all derailed by Sarah Palin (a smashing Julianne Moore). As I think about that movie, I am hit by the bizarre state we seem to exist inside of at this point in time regarding the tenor of films, audiences, and the fact that some of the more nuanced and challenging material can be seen on cable television rather than the movie theaters.

Everything in "The Campaign" felt to be too easy, too simplistic, too facile and too obvious when it needed to be tougher, more uncompromising, more uncomfortable and hey, much, much more savage!! I have seen Will Ferrell's "You're Welcome America. A Final Night With George W. Bush," his terrific (nearly) one man show that wonderfully lampooned the former President while also striking a certain humane balance. I think that Zach Galifianakis has shown his true comedic gifts during his "Saturday Night Live" monologues which have been more consistently funny that any movie in which he has appeared. Ferrell, Galifianakis and Roach are three very smart and talented individuals and I just found it to be so curious that they could not see how much they are just spinning their wheels with "The Campaign." Or maybe they could...

"The Campaign" often feels like a beast with two heads in regards to the kind of comedy it wants to attack its subject with. Maybe Roach, Ferrell and Galifianakis did indeed want to create something less tame and more brutal and maybe the studio kept veering them back to an area where they felt that their bottom line would not be adversely affected. We'll never know but that is indeed what "The Campaign" felt like, a comedy that wanted to stretch its wings but found itself bashing and thrashing itself around a much too confined comedic box.

And besides, how can you open your movie with a 1988 quotation from then Presidential candidate Ross Perot about politics having no discernible rules and then have your full movie play everything so safely?