29 December 2011

Poster: The Paperboy

Review: The Artist

Genre: Comedy

Writer and director Michel Hazanavicius presents polished work in his The Artist. Though his story and dramatic device are somewhat contrived (in a way that calls to mind the similar method of contrivance in The Reader [2008]), his ability to shape his narrative into a charming film, particularly one so dependent on nonverbal storytelling, is clear and strong. Jean Dujardin, as the eponymous character of the film, delivers through his director's ability a key performance, unlocking the depth and emotional resonance of the narrative that otherwise would have remained closed in the lesser acting of another. Beautiful make-up and, most important, an exemplary score round the portrait of a man in conflict with himself, to make a tale akin to the Beauty and the Beast tale in both content and effect. With greater depth only in the conflict itself could this self-assured, concerted film have improved on its comedic drama.

Grade: A-

26 December 2011

Review: Young Adult

Genre: Comedy

As Cate Blanchett so quippingly said playing the great Kate Hepburn, "Follow through is everything in golf, just like life. [Chuckles] Don't'ya find?" (The Aviator, 2004). Screenwriter and second-time collaborator with director Mr. Reitman, Ms. Cody should have paid closer heed to the line, one that she seemed to know so well in her earlier work for the screen (see Juno, 2007); for here, in Young Adult (an almost nonetheless enthralling adaptation of the popular version of the Snow White fairy tale, told in the cunning guile of a contemporary like Gregory Maguire [i.e., in the person of the traditional villain]), she loses the tight and controlled momentum that she sets barrelling toward inevitable splinters. True, the barrel does still reach a splintery end, but that end is far more a disintegration than a fraction: The rigor of the imposed endogenous drama loses its stiffness, sloshing back somewhat dilute into its glass instead of spraying forcedly over broken shards.

This type of restraint may be purposeful, indeed; the sacrificial lamb climbs onto its altar in fully willful ignorance of its own known demise. Yet, portraying such ignoble and blatant masochism, such quasi-psychotic self-administered anesthesia as what does happen to Ms. Theron's character, is a hard slip to let slide. Though unlike so many other scenarios in which the same criticism could be made, in this scenario the storyline nor its heroine becomes any less plausible than it or she had been previously. Rather, here the two lose their respective trajectories, meant to take them full arch (i.e., from preening Queen through haggard witch to ephemeral spirit, villainy vanquished). Shucking back into her isolated castle, content to shut out the world and self-caress in front of her magical mirror (however funhouse crazy), she swerves from effort and real growth and ceases her transformation cold, only to enable her regression to her original self. While arguably this path may be more "realistic" to both her character's true nature and people in general, can such post-modern realism manifest itself completely in a non-nihilistic way? If not, then - more pressingly - how can one critically evaluate the abandonment of classical tropes for nihilism: certainly not as the logical progression of the tale throughout the history of surrounding perceptions, but perhaps as the voguish overlay onto the conventional perception?

What more, then, do you have to say Ms. Cody than to throw your hands up at the state of certain parts of contemporary culture? Worse than suggesting that you no longer possess a stronger gift of storytelling than one could otherwise believe, you've suggested that you no longer see value in even wishing to attempt a recommendation of improvement. Do you believe that it's time for us all to throw in our towels and concede, or did you really have more to communicate that still went unsaid?

While Ms. Cody struggled to keep her rather brilliant first act vibrant and alert throughout the play's latter two acts, Ms. Theron and Mr. Reitman I must say were there contributing hugely to the cause. Mr. Reitman's distinct directive fingerprints are all over the symbols and the structure of the film, made all the smarter by his strict and consistent editorial choices. Mr. Theron then thrived within this constrained stylistic environment and found that her timing as well her ability to act facially only - an incredibly hard skill - can be extremely resolute under glass; she delivered a wonderful performance, embodying a difficult role (part Queen, part hag, part beauty, party beautician) with balance, strength, and control.

These impressive shows by the creative team as a whole made Young Adult the nearly quite enjoyable film that it was. Despite lost words (which one can hope were mistakenly retracted just this one time from a finished product by Ms. Cody), the film still remains one of the finest original works this year: No one else could surprise me with Snow White so plainly.

Grade: B+

23 December 2011

Review: Shame

Genre: Drama

Moving from visceral state (see Hunger, 2008) to self-conscious emotion, writer director Steve McQueen again deals us a blow through fortitudinous actor Mr. Fassbender, no stranger to A Year in Film (see the 2008 nominees for Best Actor here). Invoking parts of Mr. Bale's American Psycho (American Psycho, 2000) and of Mr. Wilson's baleful Mormon (Angels in America, 2003) and supplying a palpable tension of his own, Mr. Fassbender owns this film and is heartbreaking in it. His struggle is in turns arresting for its fealty and moving for its commonness, and it is the tension that results from these extremes, that allows him the strength to support the weighty material well.

Mr. McQueen's touch here seems a lot lighter than it was onto Hunger. Whether the change have derived from a complete confidence within one's actor now or from a sensitivity to the much greater proximity of the present material to its audience, the effect is understatement. Strings of minimalism run through the film, voiding color and connection unless when absolutely necessary. So reticulated a set of pieces, the film at times becomes formalistic, though never formulaic; it presses itself occasionally uncomfortably against the tight glass that it chooses as its container. This pressing is its only detractor. A loosening of the reigns, an allowance of penetration by the outside world, may have helped digest the isolation into devastation that Brandon, Mr. Fassbender's lead, experiences.

I give these comments with the greatest care, not sacrificing honesty, because I do admire the work - very much so. I only wish that it could have sustained the transcendence it did achieve, when the outside world was allowed inside in its climactic sequence of red and Goldberg.

Grade: B+

Review: Melancholia

Genre: Drama

Playing the imploding black star at the epicenter of this operatic tale, Ms. Dunst moves with an ethereal solemnness and severity beautiful for its tranquility and disquieting for its tenor throughout Mr. von Trier's aptly named Melancholia, she a fragile disconnected form constantly pulling pulling on the other actors like a gaping mouth, certain of its prey's demise but not hurrying to achieve it. She is the veritable closing of day, the fading out of light from the world, and the sapping of all energy from nature. She is the terrible and wondrous, the physical and sublime, the corporeal and mythical, the fragrant and fragranceless; to drink from her cup is to touch tongues with ice that burns and never releases. She is intoxication born for naught but ending. She is complete, entire, perfect.

Into her it was the wisest choice for Mr. von Trier to invest the grave embryo of his idea, "a beautiful film about the end of the world" (http://www.melancholiathemovie.com). Her transcendent portrait of a woman broken and shattering at a snail's pace is captivating, and the characters that surround her in the film reflect and prod at her obsolescence with giddy unknowingness and plaint. Mr. von Trier was right then, to establish around her a solar system of planets self-absorbed and only weakly touching, playing a dangerous game with naïveté and ignorance, fixated all on the spit on which roasts plainly but hotly their would-be feast subtly poisoning them with every bite. Wagner's elegiac music completes the picture with god-fearing power in chords: the gathering predator in wait.

O, how slowly does she burn, how pressingly and how hard. The hyperphotographs of her and the cast and the setting and the sun and moon above the forest rain over the entire viewing. By the end your skin is soaked, your tongue inflamed, and your vision obliterated by the climax; solipsism never shone so brightly.

Grade: A

Review: Carnage

Genre: Comedy

Alexandre Desplat's picaresque score opens Roman Polanski's newest work, an adaptation of a Tony-award winning play, Carnage with serious aplomb. The characters, like their staged predecessors, are the equivalents of pressure-cooked quarters: enslaved by the whimsical machinations of their offspring, constricted by the formalistic pretenses of their ideals, and driven by the hot-plate sears of constant application to aught else but themselves.

In successfully bottling this volatility within the fragile lens of the camera Mr. Polanski has succeeded; however, not only he but also his actors, who deliver fine performances all around, do honor to the original screenwriter's, Ms. Reza's, words and nuances. Of the four, Ms. Foster reads the most engaged; her performance is honestly the best work that I have seen from her in many years. She is the epitome of what the play means to tender: the raw-exposed figure beneath the slick veneer, one wild and untamed, frothing and bubbling even in moments of quietude and appealing to any emotion that may cross her path for relief from the intense selflessness that she must experience - must. She is simply beautiful to watch. Ms. Winslet, her second, is also startling good, shaking like the ice in her almost constantly held cocktail glass, while the men play supportive turns feeding the fire (and frequently being scalded by it too, though on them it shows less clearly). Truly, this ensemble is strong; and Mr. Polanski's success is in allowing its members the berths to do what they do best and in stepping in, to help conquer the limited space of the pressure-cooker, whenever necessary. In this task he is not, therefore, unlike the attendant cook, making sure the contents of his lidded pot do not blow over before they've finished being seared; though it sounds like a diminutive task, it from my perspective at least is surely not.

For all mentioned, even the tiniest misstep could set the whole thing asunder.

Grade: B

Reviews: The Descendants and The Ides of March

It hasn't been since 2005, when George Clooney thrilled us both with his performance in Syriana and with his directing and producing of Good Night, and Good Luck, that Mr. Clooney has given us such a powerful double-feature. This year, when Mr. Clooney acts in Alexander Payne's The Descendants and directs and produces (and acts) in his own The Ides of March, he allows us to see the advanced yet fledgling auteur that he means himself to be.

The Descendants - Genre: Drama

In his own span since his even earlier previous feature, Alexander Payne too is maturing as an auteur. His focus shifts from his previous work Sideways (2004) to this new film, from the tribulations of finding romanticism in middle age to the tribulations of maintaining it into the future. His The Descendants is thus at once a loaded and valedictive film, simultaneously a paean to the absolute and dauntless sunshine of rich rich entanglement as a dirge for the opaque and fading glower of richesse lost. In short, his screenplay is a tender and personal story that is certainly one of the year's most explorative narratives penned. Yet, for this explorative nature, the film suffers for a lack of polish, or for the certain ruggedness onto which it holds much like its lead character, deftly quietly played by Mr. Clooney, holds onto his rustic garb and principled ways. The interweaving of the storyline tracing his family's legal embattlement at times ripples with artifice, while the pacing in general moves in flashes and starts. Most importantly, the tone of the film is as if its writer and director couldn't decide whether to wholly embrace its potentially comedic nature or to abandon it for pure earnestness; the dilute mixture that is the result of this ambiguity leaves one at a hazy distance from the action, when frames push or pull too far or too near to the characters in passion and when glimpses of the broader spectrum of the characters lives intercede piquedness (as it is wont to do) between otherwise consecutive moments of joviality. Yet, while not always perfect, the film nevertheless retains, much like its characters, the redolent romanticism of usefulness and usedness that make it charming; the well-worn treads of the minds of the characters in the film - with nary an exception - show what they intend to show: strife in nominal paradise.

Grade: B+


The Ides of March - Genre: Drama

Surpassing Mr Payne's work in artfulness and fluidity as well as in patent savoir-faire, Mr. Clooney's own The Ides of March is a classically assembled piece of solid drama. Impossible to mistake itself for anything else, the film strides confidently through its motions, which despite their best description are not idle procedures but rather living tableaux of tension within the political arena (both as it may appear inside and outside the bedroom). In this way Mr. Papamichael's cinematography operates coherently, displaying only the hard angles and half-lights that capture the tenor and the distress of the film's action. Filling this space, Mr. Gosling, Mr. Hoffman, Mr. Clooney himself, and Mr. Giamatti (a close cousin by Payne-association) deliver excellent performances that are both as tense as ivory teeth clenching down on steel and as troubled as towers of kelp, barely clinging with but few roots to the ocean floor. The current of the film tests their mettle by pulling and shuffling them, occasionally bound up in one another, and then sets them apart as if in clean observance of their differences for the audience even if the internal spectators inside the film cannot too witness them. Though perhaps a bit more systematic than Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), The Ides of March is nevertheless a strong presentation of the polished and cerebral work that Mr. Clooney favors doing. I only hope that it will be recognized for this strength by others than myself.

Grade: A-

16 December 2011

Trailer: Jack the Giant Killer