26 December 2013

Review: The Wolf of Wall Street

Genre: Comedy

Halfway through The Wolf of Wall Street you, like I or really any theatergoer, may find yourself wondering whether you may have accidentally intruded into another theater, screening Spring Breakers instead of this new collaboration of Mr. Scorcese with Mr. DiCaprio; debauchery, I'll concisely say here and then be done with it, abounds and, in its abundance — spanning the smorgasbord of sex, drugs, and emotional outbursts — at first grounds but later undermines the skill of this new film. A story of trust among the rowdy, the film aspires to be a bit like 'Julius Caesar [Shakespeare] meets Marie Antoinette [Coppola, 2006] featuring a male protagonist circa Wall Street [Stone, 1987] and beyond ' but fails to really sew together those far-flung patches of narrative filmmaking. Odds preponderate evens and, like Virginia Madsen's character in Sideways (Payne, 2006), I have to conclude, "Too much alcohol overwhelms the fruit."

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Now, my dismay is not to say that all aspects of the film are lacking; surely, high-flying features like Sandy Powell's costuming, Jonah Hill's supporting performance, and Mindy Hall's make-up and hairstyling redeemed what otherwise may appear indifferent from a more mature and certainly more highly financed version of Project X (Nourizadeh, 2012). The verisimilitude that Ms. Powell and Ms. Hall imbue into the characters on screen takes after not only their eras and stations but also their emotional appeals in both comedic and dramatic fashions; a lavender crushed-velveteen belt on an infuriated cursing power broker cleverly snickers at the pretension of the fight that he foments, while a pristinely white polo underscores the protagonist's bid at being an upstanding, fiercely moral man. And Mr. Hill simply lives the part that he plays, with pugnacious honesty; like some of the best performances I've seen this year, his turn as the compatriotic bon homme and fuel tank to many a fire cultivates even at the wrists a thorough understanding of what in far less adroit hands could have been a meagerly sinister or even fecklessly foppish sidekick. However, these pieces alone truly shone here.

Regarding Mr. DiCaprio, whose own performance I've yet to mention here despite its being the centerpiece of this voracious enterprise, I must demur; pronouncements of excellence — though perhaps predictively accurate of his to-be-determined end-of-awards'-season accolades — feel overly generous to me. True, he does stretch his muscles over quite the range of emotional plot points and, true, he does offer some wonderful episodes in this film; yet, true also, to shout and cavort recklessly through scene after scene doesn't really press a thespian for his talents and, true also, to ride a rollercoaster doesn't make one a master engineer. Perhaps the fault, dear Leo, is not in the star but in the screenplay; perhaps the rather lumpy writing of non-film-veteran Terrence Winters ceases to allow any actor beyond adequacy in completing the realization of this quasi-real man. Even still, to lay in these shortcomings is to inhabit them and to inhabit them, to own them; falling into the potholes on the road lain before one is shoddy driving. Flirting with innocence at the film's beginning, Mr. DiCaprio doesn't really convince of what his lines suggest is his character's otherwise impeccably shiny youth and related exuberance, even though he does hammer down the awkward sheepishness of a minor public spectacle on one's first day. Stumbling through benders in the film's middle, Mr. DiCaprio doesn't really delve into the longer-term motivations of his character, even though from an script reader's perspective the character has no longer-term vision than that of the next few hours. Finally, mellowing in abnegation at the film's end, Mr. DiCaprio doesn't really exude contempt for his character's lawful remission, contempt that even a cursory script reader knows must be there. Mr. DiCaprio is here but a prince, not yet a king.

The only remaining comment that I can and will make at this time is that, to close the film with a somewhat oblique panegyric hearkening back to the earliest scenes but bestowing the spectatorship not on the audience again but rather on some extras against the audience anew is threatening storytelling at best, Mr. Scorcese. Don't misunderstand, reader; I am all for passive complicity with less than ideal characters. However, here to transform a specimen that you've until this close handled with mystified gloves into an icon of demonstrated admiration is to (attempt to) wrest opinion from the minds of your viewers and inject into its place preformulated and campaigning artifacts. Yes, we include the people whom the real-world counterpart of this fictionalized protagonist lured and deluded and, yes, we all — not simply those deludables — should be drawn to acknowledge that fact; but, no, under no circumstances is our acknowledgement to be a broad indictment of our our predictable gapishness and mawkery (both sic on purpose). The lingering question that you effectually propose is a finger in the eye of the viewer, Mr. Scorcese; I'd urge you to have reconsidered that finale. (Otherwise, your work was fine in every respect.)

Grade: B-.

18 December 2013

Review: Philomena

Genre: Drama


Director Stephen Frears seems to hit well when featuring the grand dames in his films. Three films are certainly only scant evidence of a pattern, but the salience of his The Queen (2007) and Mrs. Henderson Presents (2005) when it be allowed to be coupled with the quality of their younger American siblings Dangerous Liaïsons (1988; featuring Glenn Close) and The Grifters (1990; featuring Anjelica Huston) admits a winking trend toward artfulness within this particular dramatic plane. Better than their past collaboration, (I'll call it) Mr. Frears and Dame Dench's Philomena is a wonderfully coaxed description of a classic dialogue: that between commanded virtue and cured ethicality.

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To say that the pairing here breaks new ground would, not surprisingly, be an overstatement; the film walks no lines that have not seen considered — carefully even — elsewhere (see this year's Hannah Arendt for example). However, the film does shine in the same way as, though not to the same extent, as, say, The Tree of Life (2011) did; it hums a new vibrancy into the old bones that it resurrects (in good condition) and invests passion, fortitude, and accessibility where there may not have been before in describing its exchange. That the unfolding of the narrative envelopes not merely history personal and social, emotions on screen and behind it, and contentions political and theological but moreover comedy honest and quotidian, taxes interpersonal and individual, and a thorough thread of intertemporal disconnection speaks to its intelligence. The film thus understands that the dialogue in instances lives and may be investigated, changed, and resolved within actual people and their interactions (or lacks thereof). We see, for example, the simplicity of its eponymous character's ways, heaping in one scene croutons from a salad bar upon her plate for her delight, counterpoised by her wiles, frankly and coolly acknowledging bi-curiosity or clitoral stimulation in another scene. Such an artful counterposition is revealing; the character upends expectations yet breaks no lines, at once encompasses social change and (at least at one time and in one place) highly contended moral issues and submits under minimal delectations and elementary cues. She is Shakespearean in this way — the play is; it makes no pardons for its academic aspirations (though it may smart them on the side of their conscientious head at times) but also connives to jibe with the common crowd — explicitly sometimes. The film therefore succeeds most excellently where it began: in its screenplay itself. Writers Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope — and not surprisingly actress Judi Dench — are to be most congratulated for expressing most clearly a complex conceit. 

Ultimately, while we as the audience know that this conceit can never achieve a resounding or clear resolution — an issue that the screenplay in passing itself points out to comic effect — we nevertheless arrive farther along than where we began, armed with more intellectual substance for our own positions than we'd possessed at our independent starts. Learning then is the stuff of film-making here.

Grade: A-/B+, well done.

31 August 2013

Review: Blue Jasmine

Genre: Drama

Mr. Allen breaks new ground with this dense dense screenplay, following a character almost impossibly rich and perfectly played by Ms. Blanchett. Both appear to be at the heights of their crafts, he wielder of dialogue and interactions so complexly woven and steeped in the traditions of great intimate writing (e.g., Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, 1974; his own Hannah and Her Sisters, 1986) that to misplace any piece would be to fumble a glass chalice and she a paragon of control and expressiveness, furnishing even the smallest clip or aside with just buckets of depth and feeling. They are a wonder together and form what may be the tightest pairing of character with actor that I've seen in years.

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Ms. Hawkins also provides an excellent foil to her character's sister (Ms. Blanchett's role); her quirk and winsomeness are a sincere match to Jasmine's pressure and poise. Mr. Canavale does his role due justice, though falls well short of spectacle, as similarly do Mr. Baldwin, Mr. Stuhlbarg, and Mr. Sarsgaard — all fine in their own respects but rough and unfinished in comparison with the women.

Beyond the actors and the writer/director, the film was dressed beautifully and so communicated that strong sense of place (that a film with this storyline needs) through variations of noise over signal — noise in terms of size, shape, and population of each space. Never did sparsity vs. affective clutter play so well alongside characters in strife.

I'll conclude this brief and glowing review with two final thoughts: (1) The film, while excellent, seemed a tad unsure of its ending, as I had thought that Midnight in Paris (Allen, 2011) had also; and (2) one can't see this clip and not see parallels.

Grade: A

07 August 2013

Trailer: Her

21 July 2013

Trailer: The Counselor

23 May 2013

Trailer: Don Jon

15 March 2013

Trailer: Something in the Air

14 March 2013

Trailer: Reality


04 March 2013

23 February 2013

Winners: The SpyGlasses Full (2012)

Best Live-Action Film (Feature-Length) 
The Master

Best Director
Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master 

Best Actor
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln

Best Actress
Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty 

Best Supporting Actor
Robert DeNiro, Silver Linings Playbook 

Best Supporting Actress
Sally Field, Lincoln


Best Art Direction 
Rick Carter & Jim Erickson, Lincoln 

Best Cinematography 
Janusz Kaminski, Lincoln 

Best Costuming
Jacqueline Durran, Anna Karenina 

Best Make-Up 
Bernard Floch, Holy Motors 

Best Visual Effects 
Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan De Boer, & Donald R. Elliott; Life of Pi


Best Original Score 
Ennio Morricone, Django Unchained 

Best Original Song 
"Pi's Lullaby" by Mychael Danna & Bombay Jayashri, Life of Pi

Best Sound Editing 
Wylie Stateman, Django Unchained

Best Sound Mixing 
Paul N. J. Ottosson, Zero Dark Thirty 


Best Editing 
Leslie Jones & Peter McNulty, The Master

Best Screenplay (Original) 
Mark Boal, Zero Dark Thirty

Best Screenplay (Adapted) 
Tony Kushner, Lincoln 

Best Animated Film (Feature-Length) 
The Lorax

Best Animated Film (Short)

Best Documentary Film (Feature-Length or Short)
Jiro Dreams of Sushi 

Best Foreign-Language Film (Live Action or Animated, Feature-Length or Short)
Holy Motors

Top 11 Films of the Year (in Alphabetical Order)
Anna Karenina
The Dark Knight Rises
Django Unchained
Holy Motors
Hope Springs
Life of Pi
Lincoln
The Master
Moonrise Kingdom
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty

17 January 2013

Featurette: Lincoln

A wonderful featurette on the making of Lincoln, one of this year's best films:

10 January 2013

Nominees: The SpyGlasses Full (2012)

Click to show full list

Best Live-Action Film (Feature-Length)
Holy Motors
Lincoln
The Master
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty


Best Director
Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master
Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty
Ang Lee, Life of Pi
David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
Steven Spielberg, Lincoln


Best Actor
Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Denis Lavant, Holy Motors
Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained


Best Actress
Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Ann Dowd, Compliance
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Meryl Streep, Hope Springs
Rachel Weisz, The Deep Blue Sea


Best Supporting Actor
Jason Clarke, Zero Dark Thirty
Robert DeNiro, Silver Linings Playbook
Phillip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Samuel L. Jackson, Django Unchained
Eddie Redmayne, Les Misérables


Best Supporting Actress
Isabelle Allen, Les Misérables
Sally Field, Lincoln
Anne Hathaway, The Dark Knight Rises
Helen Hunt, The Sessions
Maggie Smith, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel



Best Art Direction
Rick Carter & Jim Erickson, Lincoln
David Crank & Jack Fisk, The Master
Sarah Greenwood & Katie Spencer, Anna Karenina
David Gropman & Anna Pinnock, Life of Pi
Arthur Max, Prometheus


Best Cinematography
Greig Fraser, Zero Dark Thirty
Eric Gautier, On the Road
Janusz Kaminski, Lincoln
Mihai Malaimare, Jr.; The Master
Robert D. Yeoman, Moonrise Kingdom


Best Costuming
Bob Buck, Ann Maskrey, & Richard Taylor; The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Sharen Davis, Django Unchained
Paco Delgado, Les Misérables
Jacqueline Durran, Anna Karenina
Joanna Johnston, Lincoln


Best Make-Up
Tina Earnshaw & Nina Fischer, Prometheus
Bernard Floch, Holy Motors
Peter Swords King, Rick Findlater, & Tami Lane; The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Lincoln
Lisa Westcott & Julie Dartnell, Les Misérables


Best Visual Effects
Cloud Atlas
Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton, & R. Christopher White; The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Janek Sirrs, Jeff White, Guy Williams, & Dan Sudick; Marvel's The Avengers
Richard Stammers, Trevor Wood, Charley Henley, & Martin Hill; Prometheus
Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan De Boer, & Donald R. Elliott; Life of Pi



Best Original Score
Mychael Danna, Life of Pi
Jonny Greenwood, The Master
Dario Marianelli, Anna Karenina
Ennio Morricone, Django Unchained
John Williams, Lincoln


Best Original Song
"100 Black Coffins" by Rick Ross, Django Unchained
"Pi's Lullaby" by Mychael Danna & Bombay Jayashri, Life of Pi
"Song of the Lonely Mountain" by Neil Finn, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
"Touch the Sky" by Julie Fowlis, Brave
"Who Were We?" by Kylie Minogue, Holy Motors


Best Sound Editing
Karen Baker & Per Hallberg, Skyfall
Christopher Boyes, Marvel's The Avengers
Paul N. J. Ottosson, Zero Dark Thirty
Ann Scibelli, Prometheus
Wylie Stateman, Django Unchained


Best Sound Mixing
Ron Bartlett & Doug Hemphill, Prometheus
Ron Bartlett, D.M. Hemphill, & Drew Kunin; Life of Pi
Andy Nelson, Gary Rydstrom, & Ronald Judkins; Lincoln
Paul N. J. Ottosson, Zero Dark Thirty



Best Editing
François Gédigier, On the Road
William Goldenberg & Dylan Tichenor, Zero Dark Thirty
Leslie Jones & Peter McNulty, The Master
Michael Kahn, Lincoln
Tim Squyres, Life of Pi


Best Screenplay (Original)
Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master
Mark Boal, Zero Dark Thirty
Leos Carax, Holy Motors
John Gatins, Flight
Jonathan Lisecki, Gayby


Best Screenplay (Adapted)
Michael Bacall & Jonah Hill, 21 Jump Street
Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Tony Kushner, Lincoln
David Magee, Life of Pi
David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook


Best Animated Film (Feature-Length)
Brave
The Lorax
Paranorman


Best Animated Film (Short)


Best Documentary Film (Feature-Length or Short)
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
The Queen of Versailles


Best Foreign-Language Film (Live Action or Animated, Feature-Length or Short)
Amour (Love)
Holy Motors
L'Intouchables (The Untouchables)
A Royal Affair

02 January 2013

Article: "Pain and Nourishment: Kirin Kiki in Still Walking"

Michael Koresky of the Criterion Current presents a complimentary piece on the performance of Kiki Kirin, a 2009 Best Supporting Actress nominee from the Best Live-Action Film (Feature-Length) and Best Foreign-Language Film (Live Action or Animated, Feature-Length or Short) that year, 歩いても 歩いても (Still Walking).

01 January 2013

Review: Django Unchained

Genre: Comedy

Mr. Tarantino's Django Unchained is not, as many people would have it, a racially charged epithet against the progress made by proponents of abolition and equality among men but is rather, as it was written to be and as Inglourious Basterds (2009) was, a clever send-up of those who would speak up to protect the so-called sacrosanctity of the relevant topics in social and cultural discourse both polite and casual. As it is, the result is brilliant. Under Mr. Tarantino's glowing hand, the characters spring to life in a charming, mostly well-paced and even jaunty, literally and figuratively explosive, and cacklingly comical adventure into, cleverly, what is again the new old frontier. Mr. Waltz delivers a popping performance, in key locked tight with Mr. Tarantino's audiovision - audio vision, indeed, for music unsurprisingly figures as importantly and proudly as image in his cinematic work. To this end, Mr. Morricone's work is perfect. Not in any way neglecting to mention Mr. Jackson's tremendous [and though the expression be cliché] scene stealing performance or Mr. DiCaprio's own able acting, I must conclude by mentioning how the curious sound mixing and the slightly lumpy pacing in places defected the figure of the film. The bursts and shudders of the soundtrack veered unwittingly into erraticism, betraying the zany but ultimately controlled plan spiriting forward the action of the film, and the bowing out of the plot midstream - particularly when the protagonists are busy socially entangling themselves with Calvin Candie, Mr. DiCaprio's character - weighs down an otherwise lithe and quippy body. Yet, the film eventually rights itself and finishes with aplomb in a bang - for real.

Grade: A-.

Review: Zero Dark Thirty

Genre: Drama

Ms. Bigelow bulwarks against cinema's ever effacing superfice with her own quasi-documentary brand of drama narrative filmmaking - a brand now manifest in a captivating Zero Dark Thirty. A purposefully naturalistic film, the piece is smartly edited and even better written, a vision of not simply the plan executed for apprehending and eliminating the terrorist Osama bin Laden but generally the effort expended in cultivating and asserting a political face over one's personal one. In this craft, the film mirrors truly Ms. Bigelow's own filmmaker's story and thus becomes itself a political face to a personal toil rich and sweaty and gritty and male (in the most loaded social sense of the word).
As her Galatea (of sorts), Ms. Chastain exuberates her dampened passions, frustrations and joys, in the thoroughness of her body. She affronts her surroundings across the spectrum in concert with the growth of her character in the film, until as a perfect last note the façade breaks and she cries to close the film. Her tears moisten the desert landscape that she inhabits, hoping for greenery where there is hardly cause to expect one. Like Galatea, she transforms.
The only serious critique I can lob at the film is, surprisingly, at its score's composer, Mr. Desplat, whose work for other films (see here for example) notably has been among my favorite musical compositions in memory. Here, however, there is none of his keen observation of rhythm and depth as there has been in the past; his notes and, indeed, his chosen motif miss the nature of the film and sound classical where they should sound spite and severe. I wanted a kind of Messrs. Reznor and Ross' bubbling spirit from The Social Network (2010) but I continually found a kind of Mr. Desplat's terpsichorean cues from Birth (2004). Would that the score had been as en pointe as was Mr. Morricone's for this year's Django Unchained, this work would approximate ultimate excellence.

Grade: A.

Review: Les Misérables

Genre: Drama (Musical)

It saddens me to have to write that summarily Mr. Hooper's new film may - far more than its predecessor, a technically apt portrait - be best characterized by the simplistic adjective "weak". Weak acting cum singing, weak writing, weak editing, and - above all - weak cinematography undermine what could have been an even more compelling film than The King's Speech (2010).
Now, perhaps the weak writing could be excused by weakness in the source material; perhaps, for example, Javert as a character could be proven by the original text to be a spare, unidimensional automaton by nature. (Whether he be truly I cannot say, for I have not read that original text. I can say:) Still, the rest of the listed weaknesses cannot be similarly excused. In fact, by contrast, all the other weaknesses hinge on the final one; the abominable cinematography of this film makes for such difficult story-telling that the spectating audience is almost entirely reliant on the snippets of the background behind the singing actors' faces for gaining any sense of the action's location and is entirely reliant on those faces for gaining all sense of the action's emotion and direction. As I've mentioned on this blog before [though at present I can't find the post for citation], it's just too hard for actors to carry thus, via such tight bust shots alone, a whole film successfully. Success in such acting is akin to success in neurosurgery; delicate, fine-grained articulations make all the difference. With such a heaping swath of tight framing, the likelihood that each needed articulation is executed smoothly is terribly low; the story is visually too closely told to have a realistic chance at being quite good. Therefore, expectedly, it falters. It trips over its own breaks in pacing, in tone, in coherence.... Even Ms. Hathaway, whose performance in this year's The Dark Knight Rises I lauded and whose performance in this film I had eagerly anticipated, only shoddily delivered.
But two actors really stood apart from the rest and made their soliloquys' scenes entrancing and powerful: Mr. Redmayne and Ms. Allen. Mr. Redmayne, playing the young buck Marius, infuses into his role the ripe honesty and fraternity that personify Marius' embodiment of the spirit of the Revolution. It is forward thinking, forward thrusting, and forthright, and it weeps as he does well for the fellow champions of the cause who have fallen for it at his side. Singing his unique song "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables," Mr. Redmayne is in full command of his character and evidences why he already has a Tony award. Ms. Allen, a much younger member of the cast, hums with the same accuracy and cohesion of person with place. Though only a girl, she is the frontispiece of not only the Revolution in spirit but also of the show in explicit visage. Thus, she must too carry in her bearing the resilience beneath weight that speaks to the hearts of the crowd, around both the French red, white, and blue and the English silver (screen). That she sweeps and trips with anything less is as a judgement unfair. These actors, plus only Mr. Delgado's costumes and Ms. Wetcott's make-up and somehow the magical coincidence of comedy within the "Master of the House" sequence, redeem in part this cinematic effort. Would that redemption held more.

Grade: C.