Thursday, January 31, 2013

Despite Some Nice Moments, This is 40 Ultimately Underwhelms

This is 40, the latest from writer-director Judd Apatow, is a relatively amiable quasi-sequel to Knocked Up. It focuses on Debbie (Leslie Mann) and Pete (Paul Rudd), the sister and brother-in-law from the hit pregnancy comedy, as they attempt to navigate the complications of marriage during a week in which they both turn 40.
Pete and Debbie were expertly-realized secondary characters in Knocked Up, and their presence upped both the comedy and drama of the movie. They adeptly added to the hilarity, but their emotions and problems were wonderfully specific and yet entirely universal, which is probably due to being pseudo-biographical (Mann is Apatow’s wife, his real-life daughters play the couples’ kids, andPete is likely a Judd surrogate). As a result of this, I was totally on board when I heard Apatow planned to further explore these characters, because I expected a personal and insightful look at what it means to be middle aged.
In some ways, the movie meets expectations. The interplay between the two leads, and the scenes depicting their relationship are largely affecting and often ring true.  There’s a real poignancy and truth to the way Apatow contrasts moments where Debbie and Pete question how they could have wound up together with euphoric moments of love and parental cooperation.

That said, while I enjoyed it and smiled most of the way through, in the end, the movie just didn’t leave much of lasting impression. There are a few reasons for that, most glaringly the bloated 135 minute running time.  Given the almost nonexistent nature of the plot (the movie just sort of meanders around until it’s time to end), that’s just too damn long. Apatow has always made surprisingly long comedies (40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up both clock in around 2 hours), but, with his last two films, he’s really developed a bad tendency to overstay his welcome by almost half-an-hour.  
When it comes to toilet time, women just don't get it.
Parts of Funny People, which ran a whopping 145 minutes, were some of the most searing work Apatow’s ever done, but the movie spent way too much time with Mann’s character and got really bogged down as a result. And here, he falls victim to the same type of problem, dedicating far too much time to fluff subplots, specifically one involving employees at Debbie’s boutique (Megan Fox, Charlyne Yi) that could’ve been entirely excised from the film, no harm done. And although they are enjoyable comedic performers, Apatow probably gives Chris O’Dowd and Jason Segel a bit too much screen time as well.
But then, on top of that, the film also features several plot points that set off the BS alarm. The title promises a somewhat universal look at the trials and tribulations of being a 40-year-old parent, but it’s all just so aggressively upper class and inane. Financial problems and daddy issues are major hurdles for the characters, and while that makes quite a bit of sense, the developments here are just downright annoying. 
Pete is struggling financially due to his fledging record company, which he foolishly stakes on risky fringe artists. As plot points go, that’s not so bad. Actually, the idea of failing at such an ambitious dream job is fertile territory, but Apatow doesn’t really do much with it and then he muddies up the situation by giving Debbie ridiculous financial issues revolving around 13K that’s gone missing at her store. She’s worried, but obviously can’t be all that concerned since she investigates it in the most innocuous way possible. 
Judd Apatow may seem somewhat nepotistic, but
all three of his ladies come off well in This is 40.
Meanwhile, Debbie has a somewhat interesting dynamic with a father (John Lithgow) who left her behind to start a new family, but then they dilute that by giving Pete daddy issues of his own. It concerns his inability to say no to a grubby father (Albert Brooks) to whom he’s loaned 80K over the last few years. Needless to say, this plot point is especially infuriating given all the other money issues these people face. It plays as overkill and makes you think “How can these people be this crazy bad and flippant with money?” 

It’s possible this stuff won’t bother most people, and they’ll be able to enjoy the quality domestic strife going on here. Rudd and Mann are both quite good, and Maude and Iris Apatow continue to be natural in front of the camera. But for me, it just didn’t jell. I think financial issues were a perfect way to go, but maybe focus on how the kids, not your dad, are sucking all your money out of you? Or jettison all the extraneous subplots and focus more on Pete’s business failings and the whole claustrophobic feeling that accompanies being a 40-year-old with responsibilities and declining health.

I don’t want to be unfair. In the end, this is a decent movie that ambles along with two likeable leads, giving them some funny people to bounce off of and some real emotions to play. I see the value in that. I just think this one misses the mark a bit. B-

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Les Mis Mixes Acting and Singing, Does It the Right Way

The one thing I disliked most about doing musical theater in high school was the fact that people’s opinions about certain shows – especially the more popular ones – were usually so biased or so stacked in the favor of professional versions they had seen or their original Broadway cast album that our paltry pubescent performances seemed like a kindergarten play. Of course, opinions about movies can also go in a similar direction.

So, obviously, this was the first thing I thought about as I was watching Les Misérables in the theater. I’ve purposely avoided reviews of the movie not originating from top film critics because Les Misérables is one of those shows that so many people feel some sort of personal relationship with, for some reason or another. As a result, I imagine most people familiar with the show will or have had difficulty viewing the movie objectively. In other words, for a theater diehard, this movie is probably a cruel mixture of a wet dream and terrible nightmare realized.

Trying to be objective as possible,* I thought the movie was a well-conceptualized, well-cast, well-shot and well-adapted musical movie. Instead of simply taking the most beloved musical of all time by every woman a well-known musical and shooting it with a camera, director Tom Hooper makes what feels like an original movie. Of course, anybody who is remotely familiar with the show, or simply the music, will know the whole thing. However, the brilliance of what Hooper does is he makes the movie easily digestible for those not familiar with it and gives the diehards enough nostalgia to hug and enough new and interesting material to chew on.

What Hooper does for those not familiar with the show is he rearranges the order of some of the songs, changes occasional lyrics and injects some extra wording so that Les Mis newbies know exactly what the heck is going on. One example is changing around some of the lyrics so that the audience knows who General Lamarque is and why his death is important to the student rebels (it drives them to fight). Another is injecting the name of Enjolras, the rebel leader, more than it appears in the play – once or twice max, which I always thought was weird for one of the story’s most influential characters. Additionally, the movie is played as a movie, filled with beautiful cinematography and not just an opportunity to shoot singing soliloquies, which I am assuming many fans of the musical might expect.

For the Les Mis fans out there, it stays faithful to the musical in that it only eliminates two not-entirely-necessary songs in “Dog Eats Dog” and “I Saw Him Once,” only cuts the lyrical fat when it makes sense (e.g. Gavroche’s “Little People,” a song that sounds so anachronistic to the feel of the movie and the emotion of the scenes surrounding it that cutting out most of it seems like a blessing). In terms of bringing in something original, the song “Suddenly” fits in well to the tone, although its sound is a little different from the rest of the score, and helps to strengthen the audience’s understanding of where Jean Valjean is emotionally at the point in the film when he buys Cosette from the Thernadiers to raise her as his own. The movie also brings back stars from the original theater productions in smaller roles, such as Valjean-originator Colm Wilkinson as the bishop.

And, of course, my favorite part of the movie that I think helps to draw in both newbies and fans alike is the fact that (most, I assume, and not all) vocals were recorded live on set as opposed to being recorded previously and receiving the lip synch treatment. Fans can appreciate the “live,” non-produced quality of the singing while unfamiliar moviegoers can view it as a movie with calculated acting decisions and emotional heart stitched within every note. This isn’t the first musical movie to ever utilize this post-talkies, but it’s definitely the most high-profile and one that makes amazing use of it.

If this were Taylor Swift being held, the internet would have
stormed so many barricades and brought this film to its knees.
Les Misérables deserves most of the accolades it has received, and that is without even touching upon individual acting and singing performances. When the movie was in the midst of casting decisions, fans filled the internet with angry words about their thoughts on Anne Hathaway and Fantine and seemingly pubescent uproar about the possibilities of Taylor Swift and other well-know actresses possibly being cast as Eponine, the girl every woman ever high school girl thinks defines her.
However, in my humble (and probably incorrect) opinion, this movie truly benefits – in some way or another – from the casting of each of the main characters. And, yes, that includes Russell Crowe, too, angry internet people.

Although you could argue that the musical itself features an ensemble of characters, the story is essentially the story of Jean Valjean, a prisoner jailed for stealing bread for his sister’s family, who eventually breaks parole in an attempt to change his life for the good of himself and others and stop living with the anger against the world that he believes has done him wrong all these years. It his emotional journey that lays the foundation for the entire story. And it is Hugh Jackman’s ability to harness that emotion, tie that into every lyric he sings, sing it well and give the audience the opportunity to see such a distinctive, remarkable change in such an amazing character that lays the foundation for the rest of the actors’ performances.

Jackman, a Tony winner, is obviously a skilled singer and displays his range prominently. Even his rendition of “Bring Him Home,” a reflective song that serves as a pause during the action-packed battle sequences and challenges the actor to spend a lengthy amount of time in the higher registers, sounds appropriate coming from his mouth.


Calm down, internet. He's not that bad.

As an actor, he meets his match in Russell Crowe, who has the brooding down to a science with his characterization of Javert. Now Crowe has been getting a lot of flak for his singing in this movie. It is obvious he doesn’t have the same singing chops as most of the other actors. However, he’s not really all that bad of a singer (see here for a pretty good defense). He hits all the notes after all. The problem is he can’t hold all the notes, and he’s not on the superior level one would assume from an actor cast in the movie version of Les Misérables.Here’s why it doesn’t bother me though. I’ve heard renditions of the character where Javert’s songs are almost talk-sung. Of course, this is not really the case with the solo numbers “Stars” and “Javert’s Suicide.” All in all, Crowe did best when his singing could be blended into his excellent acting, such as during “The Confrontation.”

Anne Hathaway is adequate as Fantine – nothing out-of-this-world amazing but also pretty good at the same time. I’ve heard a few criticisms saying she doesn’t really sing “I Dreamed a Dream,” that she more breathily pants the words. A lot of that has to do with the live-on-set singing. But Hathaway is also playing a broken person, a woman whose life is being quickly destroyed as she tries to do everything she can to make sure her daughter’s life does not follow the same path. Similarly, Amanda Seyfried does well as Cosette, acting and singing well in the limited screen time she has.
No, every girl in the world. You are not Eponine. Samantha
Barks is, and she's pretty fantastic in this movie.
The female standout, in my mind, is Samantha Barks as Eponine. The smartest thing the people behind this movie did was cast her in the role that – along with possibly Fantine – was going to be the most scrutinized, a role that almost caused the internet to shut down when it was rumored that Taylor Swift might be inhabiting it. Barks brings a likable and subtle freshness that makes her friendship with Marius believable and sings with an innocent sweetness that helps the audience empathize with her and make the emotions Barks displays seem genuine.
Eddie Redmayne and Aaron Tveit are both very good as Marius and Enjolras, respectively. Redmayne is definitely a good singer with an operatic voice and a boyish charm. His handling of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” is impeccable, aided by the static camera and the choice to focus on the emptiness of the café room. And the role of Enjolras is a powerful but ultimately thankless role – partially due to the lack of name recognition throughout the play – that Tveit ably powerhouses.

As the Thernadiers, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter (or Tom Hooper or a combination of the two) made the decision to play the innkeepers in a way that mixes the lighthearted comedy of the roles with their dark ruthlessness and indifference toward humanity. What was most enjoyable was the affection the two characters showed for each other; in many renditions of the play, they are often portrayed as reluctant comrades. In the movie, they do their misdeeds literally with a wink and a nod.

Colm Wilkinson has always looked like an elderly clergyman. He's finally
won the role of his lifetime. Hugh Jackman, eat your heart out.
My favorite casting of the whole movie, though, is Colm Wilkinson, the original Jean Valjean on the West End and Broadway, as the Bishop of Digne. Wilkinson’s voice has always had an older and patriarchal tone to it. That tone worked well for Valjean all those years ago but is spot on for the bishop in this movie. Wilkinson’s acting and singing are both solid. And in both a nod to his – that is, both Wilkinson and the Bishop of Digne character – importance to the evolution of the telling of Les Misérables and a brilliant directorial decision, we see Valjean spiritually comforted by both Fantine and the bishop, instead of the Fantine-and-Eponine duo seen in the play.

A few additional notes:
  • Anybody familiar with the play was probably expecting to see the rebels’ barricade as a huge mountain, as it is depicted in the musical, stationed upon a rotating stage. In this movie, however, the students have only built a small hill of furniture and various wares they have found in the neighboring buildings. I really liked this for the reality of it all. When it comes down to it, these kids were…kids, students whose opinions did not permeate beyond their own heads. They were small in number, didn’t have a huge army and didn’t have a lot of time (or engineering and architectural know-how) to build a monster of a barricade. And I thought it greatly captured that they were isolated in their attempts to revolt, ignored and left to die by the rest of the citizens.
  • Accents. It’s always funny to me that whenever an English-speaking movie takes place in a foreign-language country, the base accent used is always British. Of course, Australians Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe and Irish Colm Wilkinson keep their respective accents. But Americans Anne Hathaway and Amanda Seyfried switched over to Bristish singing accents for this movie. This isn’t a criticism, but more of an amused observation.
  • One thing I’ve noticed in hearing the soundtrack played during award shows or via audio clips is that one really needs to be watching the film to truly appreciate the quality of the singing. Due to the live, on-set singing, the singing isn’t as polished or produced. In a way, that might stop people from purchasing the soundtrack. But it also, in my mind, helps to bolster the quality of the acting performances and the singing, combined as they were meant to be.

*I actually was in Les Misérables in high school right when they first released the rights for schools to perform it (I was Marius). My school was one of, I believe, the first 10 schools to get the rights. As a result of the familiarity, I’ve always appreciated the show. I’ve also seen it performed on the West End and on national tour. I’ve also read (most of) the source material by Victor Hugo.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The CIA Goes Hollywood: Reviewing Argo and Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty and Argo both focus on persistent CIA operatives.
The CIA is getting some time in the limelight this awards season, as two of 2012’s nine Best Picture nominees – Argo and Zero Dark Thirty – focus specifically on real-life, Middle Eastern missions and the organizational maneuvering that went into pulling them off.
Given this, it’s hard not to compare the films, especially since both share a composer (Alexander Desplat) and editor (William Goldenberg), contain a bevy of authentic supporting performances, and feature protagonists who essentially push for a Hail Mary pass to complete their assignments.
 In Argo, director (and producer… and star) Ben Affleck details how the organization extracted six Americans from a hostile Tehran during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis by going with their “best bad plan,” which involved pretending the group was a Canadian scouting crew for a cheesy, science fiction movie called Argo.
Meanwhile, in Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s follow-up to the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, the director-writer duo examines the decade-long hunt for Osama Bin Laden in the wake of 9/11 through the eyes of Maya (Jessica Chastain), a key operative who identified Osama Bin Laden’s compound hideout and eventually succeeded in convincing her superiors to infiltrate it, despite a 60% probability that Bin Laden was actually there.
The end of both films is a foregone conclusion. Nevertheless, Affleck and Bigelow each do excellent work in amping up the tension to the point that each film is an edge-of-your-seat thriller. That said, a fair share of credit should go to Goldenberg, who is Oscar nominated for his work on both films (he shares the credit with Dylan Tchenor on Zero Dark). With this impressive one-two punch, it’s hard to imagine the four-time nominee won’t steamroll his way to his first Oscar.
Despite a lack of strong characterization, Argo emerges
as a tense nail-biter.
Beyond those factors, comparisons between the two do Argo little favors. The film has proven to be a money-making crowd pleaser, which is a tremendous feat for a film set in the Middle East, and it’s also quite good within the limited parameters it sets for itself.
Affleck continues to grow as a filmmaker, and handles the period detail, pacing and constant tonal shifts (the film manages to be equal parts somber, light-hearted, and tense) with aplomb. I also enjoyed the creative use of storyboards during the establishing epilogue, particularly once I realized how it played off the film’s climactic scene.
But, when you boil it down, Argo’s mostly a feel-good, nuts-and-bolts procedural with the added hizzah factor of “Can you believe we pulled this shit off?” There are some interesting implications around the edges about America’s global responsibility, but the film’s more or less a dramatic riff on the capper genre.
There’s also almost nothing in the way of characterization. The Hollywood stuff with Alan Arkin* and John Goodman is played broadly for laughs, and, outside of Scoot McNairy’s nonbeliever, the bulk of the trapped Americans aren’t even given one stock trait. Meanwhile, although Affleck does nice understated work in the lead role, the development of the Mendez character left me wanting more. The fact that such a brazen plan worked is fascinating, but even more interesting (conceivably) should be the man with the audacity to come up with it and then the balls to carry it out. However, except for some sparks in a scene where he shoots down the lame-brained options his CIA associates have come up with, Mendez is largely a muted enigma. Part of me is impressed that Affleck restrained from making his character overly heroic, but it just seems a missed opportunity.
* Although it was largely expected, I still can’t believe the Academy nominated Arkin for this. He’s solid, but there’s almost nothing to the role and there were a bevy of more deserving performances out there. I’m partial to Javier Bardem in Skyfall and Matthew McConaughey in Magic Mike, but there are a multitude of other great turns out there as well. I mean, hell, a strong point could be made that Arkin gives the third best supporting turn in his own film (coming in behind McNairy and Bryan Cranston as Mendez’s boss).
Zero Dark Thirty has no such problem. Even though Maya is given absolutely no background (unlike the perfunctory marital/father baggage Affleck’s Mendez gets), Chastain is utterly riveting as the strong-willed, uncompromising field agent, who remains resolutely convinced that Bin Laden is not holed away in some cave as popular opinion suggests, but rather hidden in a major city with access to comfort and technology. As she puts it, “You can't run a global network of interconnected cells from a cave.”

Despite commercials that suggest an action-packed Navy Seal story, the first two hours of the movie are all about Maya’s painstaking search. And that was almost definitely the way to go with a story like this. Since we all lived through these events, a pure “this is what happened” account would’ve been a little redundant. Instead, what they’ve done here is give us a riveting story of obsession.

Jessica Chastain's forceful lead turn elevates Zero Dark
Late in the film, Maya is asked, “What other cases have you done besides Bin Laden?” and she responds by saying “Nothing … I’ve done nothing else, sir.” She’s a modern day Captain Ahab, except she actually succeeds in her mission, and is forced to live in the aftermath of her completed objective. As the Navy Seal team celebrates their victory, she stands apart, silent and alone. And in a closing scene that evokes the final tone of The Hurt Locker, Maya sits by herself in a cavernous air carrier with tears flowing down her face, unable to answer the question “Where do you want to go?” We’re left with the implication that the victory is bittersweet and hollow, that this woman has been robbed of her purpose and now faces a future of uncertainty and crippling emptiness.
A great deal has been made about the torture scenes in the film, with many suggesting the film is pro torture. That, of course, is total nonsense. Yes the film shows torture, and implies a kernel of information was obtained via such methods, but it makes no overt attempt to support such practices. Instead, the film remains morally ambiguous, and, it allows the viewer a peek at the inhumanity used in an attempt to keep the world safe. Not including these scenes would be a total whitewashing of the facts, and it would’ve made the film seem like some sort of propaganda. That’s all I’ll say on the topic, but for those interested, I’d recommend reading the piece author Mark Bowden (Black Hawk Down and The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden) wrote for The Atlantic.

The film orbits around Chastain’s Maya, but there are plenty of other interesting performances laced throughout as well. Jason Clarke makes a strong impression as Dan, who is shown to be an intelligent and sensitive at times, but does not shy away from getting information by any means necessary, whether it’s greasing foreign businessmen or using torture tactics like water boarding.  An interesting choice was made to have Clarke clean cut in all of his D.C. scenes and to be sporting scraggily hair and a beard when working abroad. It’s as if he puts on a new face, and maybe even jumps into an entirely different mindset, when segueing into a far more amoral role in the fight against terrorism.

Jennifer Ehle and Mark Strong also stand out in the uniformly impressive cast. Ehle projects the same authenticity, humanity and sensitivity she brought to Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, and after entering the film in a wonderfully blustery rant at the midway point, Strong brings a great deal of nuance to Maya’s stern, yet ultimately supportive boss.

Ultimately, both films are excellent additions to the thriller genre, and I’m happy they’ve been so successful, since they typify the intelligent, well-crafted mainstream films the movie business needs more of. Argo B+, Zero Dark Thirty A

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Cheeky Approach Makes Gangster Squad a Worthwhile Ride

The titular squad is filled with interesting actors.
On paper, Gangster Squad is a movie that’s right up my alley. It plays in the same LA-set noir sandbox as personal favorites like LA Confidential, Chinatown, and Sunset Boulevard. It’s directed by Ruben Fleischer, who, even after the misstep of 30 Minutes Or Less (check out my review here), is still a director worth watching due to the style and finesse he displayed with Zombieland. And it features a slew of talented actors – Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin, Sean Penn, Emma Stone and Anthony Mackie to name a few – who consistently bring their A-games.

By nuts-and-bolts description, Gangster Squad is a film I should hate. It’s utterly predictable and paint-by-the-numbers, most of the characters are one or two-trait animals at best, and it consistently indulges in nonsensical “movie moments” (like a climatic moment where the protagonist tosses his gun aside to box with the bad guy or a scene where the gunslinger throws a can in the air and keeps hitting it to prove his bona fides) that would normally get under my skin.

And yet, in practice, Gangster Squad is a movie I’m ultimately quite taken with. The key, I think, is in the eye-popping style and glib tone that make it far more Dick Tracy than LA Confidential.

It’s essentially a sensationalized cartoon noir that makes no bones about being an overt riff on Brian DePalma’s The Untouchables, liberally lifting many of the same archetypes – scenery chewing mob head, climatic shootout on steps, and a rogue unit of cops that includes a dogged leader, a sharpshooter, and a dweeby bookish type. It actually would make for a great LA companion piece to DePalma’s Chicago-set classic.

Set in 1949, the film focuses on the battle between the mob-connected Mickey Cohen (Penn) and the titular gangster squad lead by “bull in a china shop” John O’Mara (Brolin), who is introduced single-handedly taking down one of Cohen’s brothels.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling continue to showcase 
fantastic chemistry in their second pairing together.
At the film’s outset, Cohen already supplies prostitutes and drugs in LA, and is in the process of making a play to have his hands in every wire bet placed west of Chicago. He’s got most of the important cops, politicians, and judges in his pocket, excluding Chief of Police Bill Parker (Nick Nolte), who sees Cohen’s reign as enemy occupation. Impressed by O’Mara, Parker recruits the former WWII vet to assemble an off-the-books team and wage guerilla warfare on Cohen in a battle for the “soul of Los Angeles.”

At the suggestion of his crafty and very pregnant wife (Mireille Enos), John avoids recruiting top of their class cops (most of whom are likely targets to be on Cohen’s payroll), and instead assembles a rogues gallery, including a knife-wielding, black beat cop (Mackie), a wary, technology expert (Giovanni Ribisi), and an old celebrity sharpshooter  (Robert Patrick) and his rookie Latino sidekick (Michael Pena). Eventually, the disengaged Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Gosling), who is bedding Cohen’s top moll (Emma Stone), finds his own reasons to join on as well.

The well-paced film clocks in at a lean 113 minutes, leaving little room for full-rounded characterizations. It’s just as well, because much more would seem incongruous with the tone of the piece.

Nevertheless, the principles find admirable ways into their characters. Brolin is a solid anchor, giving a mostly straight (but always interesting), performance that plays well off of his more stylized costars. Impressively equipped with a prosthetic nose and droopy eyelids, Penn is a frothing-at-the-mouth live wire, and his Cohen is a close cousin to Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro’s performances in Tracy and Untouchables.

A climatic fight scene between Sean Penn and Josh Brolin
is one of the many trite"movie moments" that Gangster 
Squad manages to get away with.
But the true scene-stealer is Gosling, whose character is a combination of his charming cad from Crazy, Stupid, Love and ferocious id from Drive. With a stylized higher octave, Gosling creates a creampuff character who is initially pure charisma, and he has a palpable chemistry with everyone he shares the screen with, particularly Brolin and Stone (with whom he also sizzled in Crazy, Stupid, Love). His Jerry is called a “lamb in wolves clothing,” but there are moments where the madness seeps through, and Jerry ultimately comes across as the most deceptively dangerous player in the ensemble.

Stone has the husky voice and right look for her part, but she's an incredibly modern presence and gets little to do beyond her well-played tête-à-têtes with Gosling. Meanwhile, Ribisi and Enos provide a certain degree of pathos and conscience, while Mackie, Patrick and Pena offer up ace comic relief.

The trailers aren’t really selling the inherent humor of the film, but they are focusing on the action, and that’s not a misleading a smoke screen as it has been in the promos for Zero Dark Thirty. There’s plenty of action throughout, and it’s all top notch, particularly a CG-enhanced car chase midway through the film. The violence is prevalent and often indulgent, particularly in the gruesome ways Cohen has people killed.

In the end, Gangster Squad is a predictable movie that pays little more than token lip service to three dimensionality and any sort of self-reflection about the methods of such a deadly task force. However, it’s all done with an eye toward making the most enjoyable movie possible, and the effort is made noteworthy by a distinctively cheeky tone and a game cast. B

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

For the 50th Anniversary of the Series, Skyfall Offers an Excellent, Meta Take on James Bond

Skyfall focuses on Bond's relevance and his place in the shadows.
Six years ago, Casino Royale relaunched the Bond franchise amid questions of whether or not James Bond was still relevant in the Post-Bourn world. With a more realistic tone and Daniel Craig’s altered take on the super spy, the film was well received, both commercially and critically (I wrote highly of it and ultimately included it in my top 5 of 2006), seemingly putting that talking point to bed.

For Bond’s 50th year on the silver screen, Craig returns for a third go around in the tux (following the successful, but unfairly-maligned Quantum of Solace), and this time the decision has been made to go meta, as the film itself focuses on the relevancy of Bond, as well as the entirety of MI6.

It’s an interesting direction for the series to take in the current international landscape, and the film sees Bond’s boss M (Judi Dench) comes under fire in a public inquiry after being told by bureaucrat Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) “This is a democracy. We're responsible to the people we're supposed to defend! We can't walk in the shadows anymore. There are no more shadows!” She responds with an impassioned speech in which she claims villains are attacking us from the shadows and expresses the need for an agency adept in that realm.

Judi Dench is front and center in her seventh outing as
M, and takes full advantage of the extra screen time.
It’s a great scene for Dench, whose prominence has grown throughout the last seven Bond films. Here, she’s a second lead character, and although it’s not a sexual relationship, and there are a few traditional babes on hand here, she is Skyfall’s Bond girl. M’s relationship with Bond, as well as with the villain Silva (Javier Bardem), forms the backbone of the film.

For his part, Bond too is being questioned. An early assignment gone wrong leaves Bond shot and left for dead, and after he resurfaces, he is required to prove he is fit for duty. Although M forces him through, he actually fails his exam, proving a shoddy marksman and, worse, a psychological mess.

Throughout his tenure as Bond, Craig and the filmmakers have made atypical choices in their interpretation of Bond, making him a bit of a brute and yet entirely vulnerable. Shortly after being introduced in Royale, Craig ran through a wall, and despite the cultured sense of style, he’s consistently rough around the edges with a chip on his shoulders that love interest Vesper Lynd suggested was due to his status as an orphan (a plot point that gets a lot more development here and is the origin of the film’s title).

Although he now takes his martini shaken not stirred (as opposed to not giving a damn in Royale), he has still yet to become the detached, indestructible Bond we’re used to. Skyfall marks only the second time in the 23-film series that the super spy has been shot, and it continues to show Bond having tender, real connections with women (here it’s M, but the love and pain he felt for Vesper were integral to both Royale and Quantum).

Bond’s presented as being a lesser specimen than Silva, M’s former protégée, who was cut loose for being a loose cannon and is now seeking revenge against the woman he calls “mommy.” He’s an interesting counterpart to Bond, who himself is determined to be dispensable by M during the opening reel.

For his part, Bardem proves one of the most memorable Bond villains in the series’ long history. From his bombastic entrance over halfway through the film to his painfully raw last scene, it’s hard to take your eyes off of him. Silva is an evil mastermind, but he’s also understandable, and Bardem does a good job showing just how a Bond-like agent could morph into an unstable Bond baddie. Bardem has received some awards attention for the role, and I’m hoping he garners the first acting Oscar nod for a Bond film. If Anton Chigurh wasn’t already proof enough, Silva proves nobody plays a bad guy quite like Bardem.

Javier Bardem submits a bad guy performance that can 
stand toe-to-toe with his own Anton Chigurh, Heath 
Ledger's Joker, and Christoph Waltz's Hans Landa.
Silva may be better, but the one thing going for Bond is highlighted in the last words of M’s speech during her inquiry, a quotation from Ulyssess: “Though much is taken, much abides, and though we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are... One equal temper of heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” In fact, when asked by Silva what his hobby is, Bond’s one word answer is “resurrection.”

I realize now, I’ve come very far into this review and have merely scratched the surface of the film. It’s worth noting just how prestigious the crew is. Oscar winner Sam Mendes (American Beauty) was convinced to direct the film by Craig, who starred in the director’s Road to Perdition, and he brought along his regular cinematographer, living-legend Roger Deakins (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). Oscar-nominee John Logan (Hugo) also joined the writing crew this time out, and Adele contributes the main theme song.

All make their mark here. Mendes shepherds everything nicely, while Deakins submits several beautiful sequences, particularly a fight that takes place entirely in silhouette against the backdrop of an LCD building in Shanghai (not only does it look great, but the scene is one of many images that plays off of all the talk of fighting in the shadows). Meanwhile, Logan has already been tasked with writing the next two entries in the series (this is the swan song for Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, who have worked on each of the last five Bond films), and Adele submits the best Bond song in years.

Before closing, I should mention, Skyfall serves as a caper to what could be called the Bond origin trilogy, resetting everything in the mold of the early Sean Connery films. It introduces us to Q (quirkily played by Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (an enticing Naomie Harris), and much of the film is a loving homage to those early films. The gadgets are retro, the iconic Aston Martin plays a key role, and the film proves the least Bourn-infused of the Craig era. Albert Finney even fills an important last act role that one imagines may have been originally intended for Connery (at the very least, the decision to make the character Scottish plays as a tribute to the actor). At one point in the film, Moneypenny says, “sometimes, the old ways are best” and, if Skyfall is any indication, she has an excellent point. A

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Beasts of the Southern Wild Provides a Riveting and Distinctive Experience

It won't get much accolades, but the set design in this movie
is flat-out amazing.

This past weekend, I caught up with Beasts of the Southern Wild, the independent film that lit up Sundance last year and has been garnering mentions on quite a few top 10 lists. I found it to be a quality effort and admired it greatly, despite an overreaching scope.
The film focuses on six-year old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), and the complicated and combustible relationship she has with her sometimes rough, sometimes tender alcoholic father Wink (Dwight Henry). The two reside in the Bathtub, an impoverished offshore marshland isolated by the levees from the far more industrialized ports of New Orleans. With the melting of the icecaps looming large, flooding is an impending threat and so many in the community have taken to converting their ramshackled houses into arcs that might possibly weather the storm.

The takeaway from the film is just how distinctive the setting and characters are. It’s rare to see any movie, let alone a feature debut, this soaked in atmosphere, and there’s a certain joy to the way director Benh Zeitlin immerses the viewer into the majestic naturalism of the lowland marsh. From the euphoric revelry of holiday celebrations (Hushpuppy says the Bathtub has “more holidays than the whole rest of the world”) to the simple image of Hushpuppy floating on a fishing boat cobbled together from the bed of a pickup truck, the film is awash with beautiful imagery. Use of a handheld camera enhances the raw and spontaneous nature of what’s on screen, and the excellent score (which Zeitlin apparently co-composed) augments the visuals perfectly.

Even more arresting are the performance by the amateur leads. Wallis has justly been praised for her wide-eyed and spirited performance. She is a total force of nature here, so authentically particular and in the moment at all times. Henry, a father of five who has made his living as a baker, takes a backseat to Wallis, but is also revelatory in a very tricky role. Wink is ill-fit to be the sole caregiver of a little girl. He’s mostly a drunk brute, prone to outbursts of anger and cruel distancing. But, he also has moments of immense tenderness, and proves to be a proud protector and encouraging teacher. During the film he claims “my only purpose in life is to teach her how to make it” and his attempts to do so lead to the most emotional, tense and affecting scenes in the piece.

I wasn't a fan of the inclusion of the aurochs, but the effects
are impressively done for such a low budget effort.
Zeitlin does misstep slightly by taking a Malicky approach and attempting to set the story as a small piece of a far more ambitious tapestry. In voiceover, Hushpuppy repeatedly makes comments like “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece... the whole universe will get busted” and “I see that I am a little piece of a big, big universe, and that makes it right,” but they seem to be grand claims that stand separate and unconnected from the narrative we’re actually watching. Yes, this is a film about a little girl who comes face-to-face with death, loss and the fragility of existence, but the universality of it all might have been better left implied.

A strained magical element concerning the approaching aurochs, giant extinct cattle released when icy imprisonment when the icecaps melted, never really clicks either. I’m sure more ardent fans will claim metaphorical association, but it’s all just a little too on-the-nose and works against the subtle beauty of the core story.

Despite these grievances, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a riveting, poetic and original experience that deserves to be labeled as one of the year’s best films. Due to his work here, Zeitlin has understandably become a hot name, and I’m glad for it. A director/writer/composer who can coax such unique naturalistic performances out of amateurs and expertly transport viewers to an unknown world is a director whose next film is worth getting excited about. B+