Thursday, May 31, 2012

Pariahs Were Here on the Rampart

     I didn't plan the all-gay-themed installment of DVD reviews but it turned out that way with an AIDS documentary, a lesbian coming of age story, and a drama about a corrupt cop with a lesbian daughter (okay, that's a secondary theme in the last one).  Let's start with...

Rampart - After the spectacular job writer/director Oren Moverman did with his debut film The Messenger, expectations were very high for Rampart, his sophomore effort.  It may have fallen just a hair short of its predecessor, but it is a highly respectable effort filled with the kind of ensemble cast you rarely see outside of Woody Allen or Wes Anderson films (Sigourney Weaver, Steve Buscemi, Cynthia Nixon, Anne Heche, Ben Foster, Robin Wright, Ice Cube, and Ned Beatty).
     Each of the above mentioned players adds something essential to the quality acting stew that is Rampart.  The film belongs, however, to Woody Harrelson as Dave "Date Rape" Brown, a thoroughly detestable example of both a police officer and man.  Harrelson is one of those actors who continues to grow in ability as the years roll by.  In his hands Brown is hyper-intelligent but crass, lonely, sad, and agonizingly human.  You would never describe the character as sympathetic, but you have sympathy for him anyway.
     While the story of Rampart does not seem quite as cohesive or complete as The Messenger's was, it is one of the most compelling and well rounded portraits of a dirty cop that I've ever come across.  It is also an extremely well acted movie (especially by Harrelson) that should be well worth your time if it sounds at all your cup of tea.  Available on DVD.  4 of 5*

Pariah - This film tells the story of a teenage lesbian girl coming out in modern America, and it tells it beautifully.  It's all in there:  the relatives who buy her frilly clothes to try and get her out of this Tom Boy phase, the parents who push new, "more appropriate" friends at her, the ostracizing at school, the name calling, the straight girl who breaks her heart because she "just wanted to try", and the person she loves dearly who will communicate with her now only to say that she'll "be praying for" her.  Taken all together, it is no surprise that our heroine feels like the outcast or outsider that the title of the film implies.
     The credit for the quality of this story, and how emotionally and intellectually engaging it is for the audience, must be equally attributed to first time narrative feature film writer/director Dee Rees and her star Adapero Oduye, a relative newbie herself.  I've already praised the storyline of the movie, but Ms. Rees also excels as a director, pulling the absolute best out of a magnificent ensemble cast, led by Oduye.  This young lady is a powerhouse as Alike (or Lee).  She manages to mold a character who is neither victim nor untouchable superhuman in a story that could easily have led a lesser actress toward either choice.  Hers is a fully organic performance, with no detectable artifice.
     One of the interesting narrative flourishes of Pariah lies with Alike's poetry, as she is an aspiring writer.  As the film progresses, you see her work evolve and mature along with her.  We have all seen this device in a coming of age story before, but rarely with such lovely verse that actually illustrates the growth of the character writing it.  In the final poem of the film, Alike says "I am broken.  I am open.  I am broken open."  It is the perfect epilogue for this girl's story, but it also opens the story up to include us all.  Most of us can relate to the idea of a time in life that shattered us in the moment, but freed us to the possibilities to come.  If you haven't, then you have a lot of living to do.  Available on DVD.  4 1/2 of 5*.

We Were Here - This documentary of San Francisco in the days of the AIDS epidemic is told primarily through the words of five interviewees who lived through it.  You have the man who rose to prominence within the community, the lady who worked as an early researcher, the relative outsider who found his place through activism, and the local floral vendor who donated flowers for many, many funerals.  Most affecting of all, however, is the story of the long term survivor who was one of the first people officially diagnosed.  We watch as he loses two partners and most of his friends, and gets sick and better over and over with a death sentence over his head until he finally, improbably, lives to the age of HIV as a chronic, rather than terminal, diagnoses.
     The movie paints a vivid portrait of a difficult time.  It is informative, scary, touching, and heartbreaking.  Few documentaries engage the viewer emotionally to this extent, and it is a little hard to watch in places, especially if you have ever lost someone that you love to the disease.
     This is the sophomore effort for filmmaker David Weissman (The Cockettes), who so far has only made documentaries with themes that relate directly to the gay community.  With We Were Here, however, he has made a film that transcends that pigeon-hole.  Ultimately it is a film about how a community in crisis is able to come together with compassion.  It is a moving portrait about how the worst of circumstances brings out the best in people.  That is something that the world can always use more of, and that we sometimes need to be reminded is possible.  Available on DVD.  5 of 5*

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Innkeepers of Blood and Shame

     Today at The Movie Frog we shall be discussing a movie that left me truly horrified, another movie that left me completely horrified in an entirely different way, and another movie that....yeah again left me completely horrified in a wholly different manner.  Let's start with the one that left me completely horrified...

Shame - If you have ever experienced addiction, I believe you will see your former (and/or current) self somewhere in this NC-17 rated tale about a man whose vice is sex.  This is the second feature from British director Steve McQueen.  I have not seen his previous feature Hunger, but I am now convinced that I should.  Shame (and shame) is hard to watch, and impossible to turn away from.  Just like addiction.  Along with co-writer Abi Morgan (hard to believe the same woman worked on this screenplay that wrote the Iron Lady) McQueen delivered a script so full of deliberate, insightful choices that it is absolutely amazing how naturally and believably it all unfolded.  Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt must also be congratulated on rendering a film that is visually bleak and beautiful simultaneously shot by shot, where light becomes almost a character unto itself.
     But this is not a film that you leave thinking about the people behind the scenes.  You leave it thinking about its subject Brandon, and the career defining quality performance Michael Fassbender brings to the role.  As a predator, his gaze is piercing, his tongue honeyed, his need palpable.  In situations of intimacy he is skittish, angry, or ineffectual with eyes that dart more like prey.  He embodies lust, fear, desperation, longing, loneliness, and of course, shame.  Every line is delivered perfectly, but it is through watching Fassbender's face and body language that the careful viewer gets to know Brandon best. 
     Carrie Mulligan, who plays Brandon's sister Sissy and is already on a streak of great performances, gives what is probably her best effort yet.  She is just as messed up as Brandon, in wholly different ways.  Just keeping up with her co-star would be impressive, but she is definitely an entity in the film unto herself.  Her much applauded rendition of New York, New York is lovely and heartbreaking.  So is Sissy.
     I try to find something to criticize about every film, but I'm really coming up empty on this one.  It is not for children, or those with delicate sensibilities of a sexual nature.  Otherwise, you are really missing out if you don't ignore the rating and check it out.   Available on DVD. 5 of 5*

The Innkeepers - The most horrifying things about this ghost story:
8.  It returns the horror genre to the days when the heroine of the film was a weak, dumb girl who screamed a lot and never fought back.
7.  It returns the genre to the days when the heroine of the film was a weak, dumb girl who does exactly what she is told is the most dangerous thing she can do, more than once, after she knows this is real.
6. The lead ghost looked like the an extra from a Netherworld Haunted House.
5.  She was only as scary as said extra is when you accidentally catch them on a cigarette break behind the building.
4. I was never scared once.
3. Leading lady Sara Paxton's acting.
2. People paid money to see this.
1. I paid money to see this...Available on DVD.  1 of 5*

In the Land of Blood and Honey - Sure, its a cliche that every actor wants to direct.  Sometimes, though, a respected performer actually turns out to be just as, if not more adept, behind the scenes.  It's too early to say for sure about Angelina Jolie, who makes her screenwriting and directorial debut with this movie.  However, as the Magic Eight Ball says:  "Signs point to yes".
     In the Land of Blood and Honey is the story of a love affair between a Muslim prisoner and the Serbian officer who is her captor set against the backdrop of Bosnia in the early 1990's.  It is historically relevant and emotionally charged.  Just when you think you've pretty much got the story figured it out, it teaches you another thing or two.
     The film is led by relative unknown Goran Kostic and Zana Marjanovic, who is relatively unknown even by comparison to her co-star.  Both do phenomenal jobs of managing believable chemistry in the most unlikely of romances, but the characters that they play go so much deeper than that.  These people face moral quandaries that shake their worldviews, and will make you give serious thought to your own.
     On a final note, I couldn't help thinking that ten years after the Bosnian War, the Internet would have changed the game.  Twenty years later, and every indecency perpetrated in the racial cleansing would have been on Twitter minute to minute.  As it was, many of us had to wait for Ms. Jolie's highly impressive work to enlighten us to the full scope of what went on there.  Available on DVD.  4 1/2 of 5*

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

WE Guard Rum

     Today we turn our microscope on a drunken romp through Cuba, a buddy cop movie with an Irish accent, and a film by a woman who as a director makes a great pop icon.  And away WE go!!!!!!!!!

W./E. - Oh, Madge....
     It is SO predictable to draw unflattering comparisons to a music video while reviewing Madonna's great foray into the world of directing period art pictures, but I'm going to indulge myself shamefully anyway.  Be warned.
     W./E. (Wallis & Edward) tells the story of the infamous love affair between King Edward of England and divorced American commoner Wallis Simpson and how he eventually abdicated the throne to marry her.  It is told in parallel to the story of a modern woman obsessed with her.  If the film sounds a bit derivative of Julie and Julia, you are overestimating it.  It is incredibly derivative of Julie and Julia, embarrassingly so.
     Of course, Julie and Julia had actual scenes with some degree of dramatic progression.  While it does look as if there might have been some good acting in the original footage somewhere, the movie is edited in such a sporadic onslaught of quick cuts, montages, voice overs, and flashbacks that you never get a chance to really see it.  At one point, I believed I could hear an actress being directed to stare straight at the camera for no apparent reason and vogue (I mean, mug) for all she was worth.  In a music video, techniques like this are used to mask the fact that the musicians can't act.  In a feature film it completely masks that the actors can.
     Madonna is the ultimate talent when it comes to reinventing herself as a pop star, but this newest attempt to relaunch her professional life may be a bit misguided.  Most does not always mean best in cinema.  Even the Oscar nominated costumes had antlers at one point.  I kept waiting for Kurt Loder to pop in with a news flash.  I love to be pleasantly surprised, so I officially invite Madonna to come back and prove that she can fill that little fold up chair.  W./E., however, was no one's Lucky Star.  Available on DVD.  1 of 5*

The Rum Diary - This film is the long awaited adaptation of the Hunter S Thompson novel produced and campaigned for by Johnny Depp.  In tone, it is much like Fear and Loathing, but a little less "trippy".  Depp's performance as journalist Paul Kemp (long believed to have been written as sort of an "alter ego" for author Thompson) is also very similar to his Thompson imitation in the previous film.  If you left "Fear" just craving for more of Depp playing this character, your thirst may finally be sated.
     Myself, I think I'd had just enough already.  It's not that Rum Diary is a bad film.  It is watchable, fast-paced, and quite amusing in places.  It just doesn't really go anywhere.  Other than a very minor bit of soul searching on Kemp's part over the plight of the natives, it falls sort of thematically flat as well.  If you are a Hunter S Thompson (or Johnny Depp) nut, then by all means you should see this movie.  If not, its entertaining for a night when there's nothing better in the rental kiosk.  3 of 5*

The Guard - On the surface this seems very much like the standard black partner/white partner buddy cop movie popularized in American cinema in the 80's and 90's.  Think Beverly Hills Cop with a lot of Irish accents.  And it is a little bit derivative of those films, particularly the Lethal Weapon series.  And yes, Don Cheadle's acting talents are a little wasted playing Danny Glover, Jr.  However, this film does have a couple of things going for it that elevate it beyond mere redux.
     The first is that, while writer/director Michael McDonagh's basic story premise has been done to death, his dialogue is quite witty in places, with subtle zingers you don't really catch immediately.  This is especially true in his writing of Sgt. Gerry Boyle and the three bad guys who argue over philosophy constantly.
     The other thing, the thing that really sticks with you, is Gleeson's performance as Boyle (the unconventional white buddy cop).  This is a seasoned veteran delivering his best.  Every punch line is perfect.  Not only is Gleeson not winking at his audience, but Boyle (who knows how clever he is) isn't winking at his either.  But Gleeson is not just effectively comedic.  He creates a fully realized human being, rare in both comedy and action films.  Cheadle's character Everett remarks of Boyle, "I can't tell if you are really smart or really stupid".  He's both, and completely at ease with that fact, and it's brilliant.  If only the concept of the film as a whole had been as much of an original.  Available on DVD.  3 1/2 of 5*

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Strangest Zoo Ever Bought

     In this post we take a look at the newest film by perhaps the only film maker who has been around for all of film history, a family friendly drama with animals, and the only serious documentary ever to be concerned primarily with its commercial prospects.  First up, is...

The Strange Case of Anjelica - Portuguese film maker Manoel de Oliviera is perhaps the only working director over a hundred years old in the entire world.  This is the second feature of his that I have seen, and like Eccentricities of a Blond Haired Girl, I did not particularly care for this picture.  I find the acting in his films overdone and the characters sketchily drawn.  However, he is a national treasure to the Portuguese people so I am certainly willing to concede that there may be some sort of cultural disconnect in my understanding of the man's work.
     Anjelica is about a photographer hired to take death bed photos of a young woman, who then haunts him, either in fact or in his mind, we never quite know.  I'm not sure if the Chaplin era special "ghostly" effects were supposed to be humorous, or nostalgic, or what. Like most of the film, I didn't get it.  Available on DVD and Netflix Instant Play.  2 of 5*

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold - You know, if I had to pick ten directors who are changing the game in Hollywood to have a luncheon with, I might have to pick Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) to represent the documentarians.  He just commits so totally to each project, using himself as the guinea pig in some weird experiment in search of the truth.  At the same time, he manages to be mischievously entertaining even in the handling of the most serious of topics.  While not his strongest effort, Sold still benefits from all of these strengths and was well worth watching.
     The premise was borderline brilliant and classically Spurlock.  Make a movie about advertising and product placement and learn about the these subjects by funding the film completely through advertising and product placement.  And we DO learn about the process right along with our humble narrator in the most self aware movie I think that I have ever seen.  And the film does get away with poking gentle fun at its subjects, and is very entertaining. 
     I couldn't help but feeling, however, that somewhere along the way, Spurlock's voice was a little muted by contractual obligation to his sponsors.  The experiment seemed to begin to eat its own tail at some point.  Of course, I don't really KNOW what, if anything, was left out of the film to appease who, if anybody, but...  I was left feeling a little bit like I didn't get the full story.  In a doc directed by a man who has made a career out of shameless full disclosure, even the suggestion of such concessions tarnished the shine just a bit for me.  Available on DVD. 4 of 5*

We Bought a Zoo - This film tells the true story of how reporter Benjamin Mee and his children moved into and bought a zoo as part of the process of grieving for their late wife and mother.  It is a perfectly watchable piece of family fare that suffers from a good deal of cheesiness in the script.  The title of the film was actually worked into the dialogue numerous times.  It was hoped that this would be the movie that would see director Cameron Crowe return to form.  It was not a bad effort, but certainly not on a par with past works such as Say Anything, Jerry Maguire, and Almost Famous.
     The cast is filled with talented actors but there is a lack meat here for them to chew on, resulting in a long string of respectable but mostly forgettable performances.  If there is a stand out in the cast, it would have to be Maggie Elizabeth Jones who plays little bitty Rosie Mee with intelligence, adorableness, and precociousness.  She gets all the best lines and truly makes the most of them.
     When I first heard of PETA's objections to the trailer's assertions that all it took to run a zoo was heart, I thought that maybe this well meaning but often overenthusiastic organization was over reacting a bit.  As I watched We Bought a Zoo, however, I began to think that maybe they were onto something.  I just don't understand why you would work numerous lines asserting mankind's dominion and importance over the animal kingdom into the last thirty minutes of a film that is about an institution of conservation.
    It seemed to me almost as if the film was pandering to the more conservative family friendly audience pool by avoiding any impression of environmentalism in a film about a ZOO.  It's sad that America has come to a point where wanting your great-grandchildren to someday be able to see a living tiger is considered un-family friendly.  For that to be possible, the world is going to have to start choosing the SURVIVAL of the animal over the CONVENIENCE or PROFIT of the people, at least occasionally.  There are 21 officially endangered species of frogs and toads in the US alone, so you'll have to forgive me my soapbox.  Available on DVD.  3 of 5*
(On another note:  My dog, Dakota, watches movies and television.  I'm not talking about reacting when he hears a dog bark, he watches the screen.  Everyone who has ever seen it has been flabbergasted.  Anyway, Dakota LOVED We Bought A Zoo.  Considering that the things that Dakota reacts well to are the things that young kids like (animals, babies, action, and animation), I thought it worth mentioning that while The Movie Frog only gave it a three star rating, his Movie Dog gave it...5 out of 5 paws.

Three more reviews in a day or two including the worst review I have given a film yet.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Beauty Wins Ground

     In today's bundle of DVD reviews, I cover a respected actress's directorial debut, a dramedy about high school wrestling, and an erotic drama whose title is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  You'll get it in a minute.  Forward into the breach...

Higher Ground - This is the directorial debut for Oscar nominated actress Vera Farmiga, and you can add her to the growing list of female directors breaking new ground in Hollywood.  First off, she is one of only two directors that I saw starring in their own movies this year (George Clooney being the other) where I did not find the choice to be ill advised.  She managed to fill both pairs of shoes splendidly.
     Higher Ground is the story of a woman and her quest for the divine, both earthly and heavenly.  It follows her from her childhood through her lost adolescence, her new spiritual life in a non-traditional but very dogmatic church, and the challenges she presents this church with regards to the role of women within it.
     The script is by newcomer Carolyn S. Briggs and Tim Metcalf (whose writing credits are as disparate as Revenge of the Nerds and The Haunting in Connecticut) and is really very well put together.  Rarely does one see topics of religion and spirituality addressed in a serious and thoughtful manner with so little judgement or propaganda involved.
     The cast (aside from the always delightful John Hawkes) is made up of little known or unknown players, but Farmiga manages to pull nuanced, believable performances out of each and every one of them. 
     I don't know what else to say, except that I highly recommend this film.  I fully expect this to be the beginning of an exciting new chapter in Ms. Farmiga's career.  Available on DVD.  4 1/2 of 5*

Sleeping Beauty - After that rousing review of Higher Ground I would love to say that writer/director Julia Leigh's debut Sleeping Beauty is another example of the Renaissance of women directors that has been going on for the last few years, but it didn't quite make it out of the Dark Ages.  Maybe there is some deep feminist subtext that as a man (and a frog) I am left completely out of the loop on.  Maybe, but I'm a bit beyond the benefit of the doubt on this one.
      This movie tells the story of a young girl who rents her chemically induced comatose body out for old men to grope and fondle while she lies insensate.  That's it.  That's basically the whole plot.
      Maybe they should market the film as Sleeping Buddy, like the friend who cures your insomnia.  I drifted off at least three times trying to get through the first half.  Luckily, by the middle of the film so much of the screen time was taken up by footage of her doing her job that I was repeatedly throwing up in my mouth a little bit enough of the time to stay alert.  Full frontal octogenarian nudity:  Why, oh why was this film not more of a hit?
      I would recommend that you just skip this one, unless you need a Sleeping Buddy, in which case set your sleep timer to cut out before the first WWII vet starts to strip.  Available on DVD and Netflix Instant Play.  1 1/2 of 5*

Win Win - The dramedy starring Paul Giamatti as some lovable schlub of an everyman has almost become a brand unto itself.  This is completely to the man's credit both for cranking out performances of a consistently high quality and for having the wisdom (or good counsel, or fortune, or all of the above) to pick scripts worth making that are conducive to him doing his thing.  Not an easy thing to accomplish with regularity no matter how talented of an actor you are (Just ask Amanda Seyfried, er...).  I have not seen either of director/co-writer Thomas McCarthy's previous films, but I was for the most part duly impressed with the little modern day morality fable he weaves in Win Win.
     In this film, Giamatti plays a volunteer high school wrestling coach (Mike) who is also a lawyer, and has taken on the guardianship Leo, one of his clients (Burt Young). He does this under slightly false pretense with ulterior motives.  Leo's previously unknown of sixteen-year-old grandson Kyle ( Alex Schaffer) shows up after running away from home and turns out to be an all star wrestler.  Unable to reach Kyle's mother (Melanie Lynsky) in rehab, Mike and his wife Jackie (played brilliantly by Amy Ryan) take Kyle in...until his mom shows up.  The ensemble cast was almost unanimously marvelous with wonderful small appearances by Margo Martindale and Jeffrey Tambor.  I must, however, single out debut actor Alex Schaffer, who actually held his own capably opposite Giamatti.
     I hate to single an actor out like this, but both Bobby Cannavale's performance and the character (Terry) that he played as written in the script were by far my least favorite parts of the movie.  He seemed to have wandered onto the set by mistake on the way to play the best friend in a Will Ferrell movie.  I'm being a little undeservedly snarky (my apologies, Mr. Cannavale), but the entire tone of the character seemed better suited for a broader comedy setting.  It probably cost the film half a star here.  Available on DVD.  4 of 5*

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Restless Nostalgia is the Key

     This time around we cover a very cosmic documentary, a dark yet surprisingly not too depressing teen dramedy, and a French Holocaust film...sort of.  It's a stronger mix of films than it sounds like.  Let's start at the bottom and work our way up to best in show:

Sarah's Key - I found this movie to be very uneven.  It tells the story of a contemporary reporter doing an article who stumbles upon a mystery centered around a Jewish family who was rounded up in occupied France.  The film is almost half told in flashback, however, showing us said family living out the story as the modern day reporter uncovers it.  Good, solid premise.
     There was actually some buzz about Kristen Scott Thomas getting an Oscar campaign for this movie.  Watching the movie, this blew my mind because it was the modern day segments of the film that I found losing my interest time and again.  I won't say that she did a bad job, but I spent most of my time watching her waiting to get back to the family.
     The star of Sarah's Key, to me, was Melusine Mayance, the young girl who played the title role.  She is captivating. She runs through a tremendous array of emotions over the course of this movie and never wavers, never lacks in believability.
     The appearance of Niels Arestrup is a supporting role is welcome, as always, but his performance is more War Horse than A Prophet (which translates as charming and well acted, but not mind blowing).
     The movie is worth watching to see Mayance play Sarah. And to solve the mystery.  It's a good one.  Available on DVD and Netflix Instant Play.  3 1/2 of 5*

Restless - Let me admit at the outset that I am a fan of director Gus Van Sant.  I've followed him since before I knew the identities or filmographies of many directors who were not household names, since I first put together that Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho were directed by the same man.  His newest, Restless, is not one his best, but it does have many redeeming features.
     Its best feature, by a mile, is lead actress Mia Wasikowska, who had a great year in 2011 between this film, Jayne Eyre, and Albert Nobbs.  She got less notice for Restless, but she shines in it.  There is a certain radiance to her acting, a blend of likability and vulnerability that is hard to look away from.  She is quickly carving out a niche as one of the most talented new young actresses in Hollywood.
     Unfortunately, her co-star (relative new comer Henry Hopper) pales a bit in comparison.  He does appear to have potential, and there is some chemistry between the two on-screen, but he is ill prepared to hold his own opposite Wasikowska, and the film suffers for it.
     This is the freshman script from screenwriter Jason Lew, and it is conceptually interesting:  Boy (obsessed with death) meets girl (fighting cancer) and they fall in love.  Somewhere in the progression of things the story gets a little lost.  But I liked the film a lot better than most critics did.  Maybe its because I'm just a fan of Gus Van Sant.  Available on DVD.  3 1/2 of 5*

Nostalgia For The Light - This is my first exposure to the work of documentarian Patricio Guzman, and I was duly impressed by this film.  It is a wholly unique creation, very ethereal in tone and abstract in nature.  More than once while watching it, I thought, "It's the Tree of Life of documentaries."  It really kind of is, and that makes it a difficult beast to explain.
     What is "Nostalgia"'s topic or subject?  Well, it's about astronomy, archaeology, the past, the origins of man and the universe, the Atacama desert, the victims of Pinochet's regime and their families' need to put them to rest, the Chilean people, the whole world, and the interconnectedness of all things.  It sounds all over the place, and it is, but ingeniously focused at the same time.  The sundry topics that the film addresses are only indirectly related, but by the film's end, you feel that they are all connected.  You see the interconnectedness of all things, in a way.
     It is also well worth noting the cinematography in this film as interviews are interspersed with stark but powerful shots of the Atacama landscape and stunning photos from light years away.
     It is hard for me to tell you much more beyond that I highly recommend this picture.  I found it very affecting in a way that crept up behind my consciousness.  It is a little "cosmic" in tone, but highly rewarding if you give it a moment to lull you into Guzman's worldview.  Available on DVD.  4 1/2 of 5*

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

On the eve of Cannes

     Tomorrow begins the Cannes Film Festival, which marks the true beginning of the new Oscar race.  Many of this year's most highly anticipated films will be screening for the first time at Cannes, and their reception here will have a definite (sometimes defining) effect upon their prospects in the coming year.
Last year's festival saw the launch of eventual Best Picture winner The Artist as well as its fellow nominees Midnight in Paris and The Tree of Life.  It also launched eventual Foreign Language contender Footnote and quality films like Drive, Melancholia, and We Need to Talk About Kevin. 
   Some films of note at this year's festival include:
1.  Amour - Michael Haneke's follow up to Foreign Film nominee The White Ribbon starring Isabelle Huppert (White Material, I Heart Huckabees), Jean-Louis Trintignant (Three Colors: Red, The Conformist), and William Shimell (Certified Copy).
2.  Cosmopolis - Director David Cronenberg's (The Fly, A History of Violence) newest starring Robert Pattinson (yes, that one), Jay Baruchel (How To Train Your Dragon, Million Dollar Baby), Juliette Binoche, and Paul Giamatti.
3. Killing Them Softly - Andrew Dominick (The Assassination of Jesse James) reteams with Brad Pitt in this gangland adventure co-starring James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta and Richard Jenkins.
4.  Lawless - This Depression era crime drama is being backed by Harvey Weinstein so it's gonna be pushed for something.  The cast is full of acting possibilities with Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain, and Mia Wasikowska (oh, and Shia LaBeouf).  John Hillcoat (The Road) directs.
5. Moonrise Kingdom - The lastest film from Wes Anderson (Royal Tennenbaums, Rushmore) is a tale of star crossed young lovers and the town that tears itself apart searching for them.  Stars Norton, Willis, Murray, Swinton, Keitel, and McDormand, so...
6. Mud - Take Shelter was one of my favorite 2011 movies so I can't wait to see director Jeff Nichols follow up, Mud.  Stars Reese Witherspoon, Matthew McConaughey, Michael Shannon, and Sarah Paulson.
7. On the Road - Director Walter Salles (Central Station, The Motorcycle Diaries) finally brings his adaptation of the classic Jack Kerouac book to the screen.  Cast includes Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst, Amy Adams, Viggo Mortensen, Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, Steve Buscemi, and Terrence Howard.
8.  The Paperboy - This is director Lee Daniel's long awaited follow up to Precious starring Zac Efron, John Cusack, Nichole Kidman, Matthew McConaughey, and Scott Glenn.
9. Rust and Bone - It may be Audiard (The Prophet) vrs. Haneke in the foreign film competition again this year.  My money is on Audiard's Rust and Bone (especially with star Marion Cotillard in tow, LOVE her).
10. Beasts of the Southern Wild - Will its post Sundance trajectory be more Precious or Martha Marcy Mae Marlene?  This will be the first indicator.

     All of that said, The Artist probably would not have even been on the ten most anticipated list so anything is possible.  We'll do some state of the buzz type columns after we see how these films are received.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Another Young Project

      This time around we will be covering one of 2011's best sci-fi offerings, a very dark comedy, and a documentary that is essential viewing for any animal lovers.  No need to delay....

Project Nim - Director James Marsh is best known for 2008's Man On A Wire, considered by many to be one of the best documentaries of all time.  His follow up documentary feature, Project Nim may well have been the best documentary of 2011 and its exclusion from even a nomination at this year's academy awards was considered an ill advised snub by the majority of critics.  In fact, critics circles awarded it documentary of the year almost unanimously.  Which is an awful lot for a little ape to live up to:  unless it is one extraordinary chimpanzee. 
     This film tells the story of Nim, the first chimp taught sign language in order to communicate with humans, and the teachers, scientists, and other people who played significant parts in his life.  Nim is shuttled from one living situation to another: living as a sibling in a human family, as the center of attention at an estate surrounded by a "family" of volunteers living in the house in order to teach him, and finally sent to live with others of his own kind.  Marsh does an excellent job of remaining dispassionate as he tells the story.  If you can remain detached watching it, you are made of MUCH sterner stuff than this little Movie Frog.
     Project Nim is rich in subtext, and leaves you with much to ponder.  How much of who we are is inherent nature compared to the nurture of experience?  What is the nature of true language versus more rudimentary forms of communication?  What is the nature of cruelty?  How much IS humanity set apart from the rest of Kingdom Animalia?  Leading of course to....What is the true nature of humanity?
     This movie is captivating to watch, no real lulls.  I found it educational and thought provoking.  Most impressive of all (for a doc), it engaged me emotionally without even advocating.  Those are pretty much all the things that I look for in a documentary, so of course I'm giving it...Available on DVD.  5 of 5*

Young Adult - The reunion of the writer/director team behind Juno (Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman respectively) was likely to be a little bit of a dark comedy. This was NOT a LITTLE bit of a dark comedy.  It was funny, and very entertaining for the vast majority of the picture.  I was gearing up to really love this film, but somehow in the last few minutes it...well...I still really liked the film.
     The problem, for me, lies with the main character, Mavis.  She is the divorced ghost writer of a cancelled Young Adult book series who returns to her home town for the first time in years to resque her high school boyfriend from the life of being a new husband and father.  This is all set up.  I LOVED to hate her at this point, and for most of  rest of the running time.  By the end of the film, I hated her.  Just hated her.  Was glad the movie was over so I didn't have to spend any more time with her.
     Which should in no way tarnish the flawless acting job done by Charlize Theron.  She was magnificent at making me unable to resist seeing what this deplorable human being was going to say or do next.  Playing a character like this in a comedy would have been an invitation to "wink" at the audience for a lesser actress.  Miss Theron fully commits, playing it so straight, never for a second indicating that Mavis has any idea just how self-centered she really is.  She is backed up capably by Patton Oswalt (who I know best from the excellent television show The United States of Tara) who proves himself more than able to hold his own with such a talented co-star.
     I didn't want a happy ending.  That would have invalidated the movie.  Just a glimmer of hope somewhere. One moment where Mavis took someone else's feelings into the slightest account.  I left the film feeling a little dirty for having been so entranced with her.  I'm not sure how repeat viewings of the film would affect my opinion here.  Available on DVD.  4 of 5*

Another Earth - This film is an unusual blend of science fiction and drama in which a mysterious new planet reveals itself that appears to be identitcal to the earth, down to other versions of every man, woman and child living on it.  A young student of astronomy, Rhoda, becomes distracted looking for it in the night sky and makes a mistake that will change and define her young life.  The movie is short on lengthy psuedo-scientific explanations that make fan boys salivate which will probably hurt its reception with some members of that community.  As a human drama, however, it works very well, exploring themes of identity, loss, and atonement with great sensitivity and insight.
     Another Earth is director Mike Cahill's debut narrative feature and he handles the chair impressively.  The film flows well and the acting (particularly Brett Marling's) is subtle but strong.  The characters ring true.  The film's greatest asset, however, is the creative script (which must also be credited to the young Miss Marling).  I will be anxious to see what the future holds for this writer/director team. 
     This movie was well worth my time.  It should appeal to both fans of serious dramas that don't mind a hint of fantasy and sci-fi enthusiasts who don't need a lot of explosions.  Available on DVD. 4 of 5*

     Three very good movies this time around.  I've gotten a little behind my viewing in my reviews.  To catch up, I should be posting a little more frequently in the next week or so.  I'm rushing to finish out the last handfull of 2011 films by the end of the month, so we can be ready to tackle 2012 in earnest come June.  So we'll be seeing a lot of each other the next couple of months.  I hope you are ready. 

Friday, May 11, 2012

3 Future Adventures of Tin Tin

Today's reviews include an unlikely German love story, an animated mystery adventure suitable for the whole family, and an experimental indie drama.  And awaaaay we go...

The Future - The Future tells the story of a couple in their thirties who contemplate adopting a cat and end up throwing away everything they actually have in their lives in an effort to grasp some illusory life they fear they are missing.  Writer/director/star Miranda July fills the movie with numerous twists and interesting storytelling flourishes, but sometimes comes off as trying to be weird just for weirdness's sake.  The bigger problem, however, lies in the acting performances.  Both July and co-star Hamish Linklater (best known for TV's The New Adventures of Old Christine) seem to almost be sleepwalking through their lives at times.  I'm all for subtlety in acting, but they almost seem bored.  Linklater is perhaps better suited for comedy.  July (as I've said of another young writer/director/actor recently) would perhaps benefit from working under someone else's direction a bit more before she tries to direct herself.
     That being said, the film does have a certain charm and is not without some great moments:  all the voice-over narration by the cat, the stretch garment dance (you'll know it when you see it), and the scene where Linklater has to restart the tides to name just a few.  Ultimately, however, July's sophomore feature film shows a lot of promise and creativity, but fails to quite come together, largely due to the actor's dispassionate displays of passion.  Available on DVD. 3 1/2 of 5*

The Adventures of Tin Tin:  The Secret of the Unicorn - Steven Spielberg had a busy year in 2011. He produced Super 8, and directed both War Horse and this, his first ever animated feature.  Super 8 was a mixed bag for me, and War Horse a mild disappointment, but I definitely saved the best for last with Tin Tin. 
     How do you make a cartoon about a boy and his dog capture more of the excitement of Raiders of the Lost Ark than the last Indiana Jones movie did?  If I knew, I'D be Spielberg, but somehow he did it.  This mystery/adventure spans the globe and is filled with excitement and suspense.  Classic source material doesn't hurt.  I must admit to being unfamiliar with the original Tin Tin comics, but this movie has certainly piqued my interest in them.  I hope that so-so domestic box office doesn't prevent this franchise from continuing.  There were a couple of silly, kid-toonish moments, but overall I think that adults will enjoy this film just as much as kids.
     The motion capture animation is perhaps the best that I have seen.  It is almost creepily realistic.  It is a shame that the Academy's reticence to embrace new technologies kept Tin Tin out of the animated feature race this year as it is the only 2011 animated film I have seen that could have given Rango a real run for its money.
     I can't end this review without tipping my hat to the excellent acting work done by the entire cast, particularly Jamie Bell and the master of mo-cap, Andy Serkis.  It is high time that the Oscars add a fifth acting category to reward work done in motion capture and voice over work.  Bell and Serkis for this film, Depp for Rango, and Serkis again for Rise of the Planet of the Apes would have made for strong competition this past year, and made all Serkis's fans who petitioned for a Best Supporting Actor nod put down their pitchforks and torches. 
     I highly recommend that you watch Tin Tin and share it with any kids in your life.  Available on DVD.  4 1/2 of 5*

3 - NOT a film for kids, but still quite a good one, 3 is the story of a (well, mostly) heterosexual couple in in their 40's who unknowingly both begin an affair with the same thirtysomething man.  Both the level of coincidence at play here and aspects of how the film end (I'm not saying anymore) challenge plausibility a bit, but the script and the acting are strong enough to overcome this minor complaint for the most part.
     American audiences are most familiar with writer/director Tom Twyker from his excellent 1998 film: Run Lola Run.  3 creates an atmosphere that is quirky but captivating like Lola, but slowed down a bit, given a moment to marinate here and there.  It also relies far less upon showy directorial flourishes than the earlier film, perhaps a sign of maturation on Twyker's part.  This year, we will see this film maker's first English language feature:  Cloud Atlas.  I for one can't wait.
     I am not really familiar with the careers of any of the principle actors prior to this film, but it would be unfair of me not to complement the work that they do here.  All three are completely believable, breathing life into a story that would be hard to swallow in the hands of lesser performers.  Available on DVD and Netflix Instant Play 4 of 5*

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Muppet Impossible: Life and Death Protocol

     Today we look at a revival of a classic family institution, a gritty war epic, and part 4 of an action franchise.  Hint, the one that sounds like I'll like it the least was my favorite.  I was just as surprised as you.

The Muppets - I grew up watching the Muppets and Sesame Street.  The Jim Henson studios and their creations will always hold a special place in my heart.  When I first heard that this film was going to be made in an effort to relaunch the characters for a new generation I winced a little.  I kept thinking of other efforts to relaunch the heroes of my youth in recent years and prepared myself for the worst (Batman doesn't count, he was also a hero of my grandfather's youth).  Now that I've seen the was definitely better than I feared, but not really all that I'd hoped.
     I have mad respect for Jason Segal as a comedic actor, and I think he shows promise as a writer, but perhaps making his hand the most accomplished in a three man writing/directing team was a poor choice when trying to revive iconic characters.  Somehow along the way, the movie became more about Segal's character (Gary), his girlfriend (Mary, played by Amy Adams), and a new Muppet named Walt (whose personality was a little too much of a general everyman by Muppet standards) than it was about the Muppets.  I did not object to these cast additions or find them poorly executed, but a movie called The Muppets should star Kermit and Miss Piggy. 
     The film attempted to pay homage to the first Muppet Movie but should have gone even farther making it about Kermit traveling around the country gathering the old gang in greater detail.  Show more of how the individual characters were coping in the modern world.  The original show was such a classic that appealed to kids and adults because it had puppets and silly humor coupled with subtle social satire presented in a "family friendly" manner without being condescending.  So, if you are going to try and relaunch the concept to the modern era, you need new characters and elements that make the Muppets current enough to offer the same sort of commentary and insight into the world of today.  A new member of the Electric Mayhem based on a more modern artist?  Sam the Eagle reborn as an AM talk radio pundit?  A celebutante Muppet?
     All that said, once the theme song rang in the actual revival of "The Muppet Show" I was seven years old at my grandparents house for a few minutes.  My nostalgia was the source of both my frustration and joy with this film.  I actually did enjoy it, I just wanted so badly to love it.  Available on DVD.  3 1/2 of 5*

Mission Impossible:  Ghost Protocol - I really had no great interest in watching this when I first heard about it.  The inclusion of Hurt Locker star Jeremy Renner made it a tad more interesting, but still a fence straddler.  Then it came out and actually got a lot of positive attention (even talk of tech Oscars) and I decided I might as well check it out.  I'm really glad I did because it was a smart, exciting action movie with a real plot.  The performances and script were slightly campy, but only in the manner that the MI brand requires.  The action sequences were well orchestrated, the FX believable, and the super spy tech dazzling. I mean, there was no deep, thematic subtext, but it was definitely one of the best part fours I've ever seen, completely exceeding my expectations on all fronts. Available on DVD.  4 of 5*

City of Life and Death - I cannot claim any personal knowledge about the previous works of director/writer Chuan Lu, as this film was my first exposure either first hand or second hand.  I found myself impressed but with reservations.
     City of Life and death tells the story of the Japanese conquest and occupation of Nanjing, China in 1937.  It is a brutally realistic (by all accounts and my impressions, but I'm certainly not an expert on early 20th century Chinese history) film that does not shy away from any of the horrors of war.  It is also an impressively well rounded representation, that plays an array of interlocking stories, involving a large and diverse cast of characters.  The script is well planned out, and leaves none of the various plots and subplots hanging.  It is very well shot, and is technically a very tight package all around.
     I only have two criticisms.  First, there were so many characters that it was difficult to develop them too far beyond the archetypes they represented.  There was the native Chinese university professor, who was accustomed to having an elevated status but eventually found herself to be just another Chinese woman to the invaders when her foreign colleagues were all recalled home.  Or the native attache to a German diplomatic official who betrays everything and everyone to try and protect his family.  I will give Lu credit that these characters are at least in conflicting situations that allow for drama, but we never really get to see who any of them are outside of these extraordinary circumstances.  Similarly structured films such as Magnolia and Short Cuts have benefited greatly by expanded running times.  Maybe that would have helped here.
     My only other complaint is that some of the acting is a little overblown and melodramatic, even given the extremely emotional circumstances that the characters found themselves in.  I was most impressed, acting-wise, was rising star Ye Liu, who said more with silence and stoicism than most of the cast could manage with histrionics.
     This film has a lot to say about both the best and the worst in human nature.  Loyalty, honor, sacrifice, cruelty, lust, and betrayal are all laid unapologetically bare over the course of this tale.  Available on DVD and Netflix Instant Play  4 of 5*

And that's it for today.  Please feel free to post comments, good and bad, after any of my articles.  I want to know what people do and don't like about The Movie Frog so that I can make it as enjoyable and informative as possible.  Also, for more abbreviated versions of reviews, check me out on Twitter @themoviefrog.
                                                                                Till next we meet,

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Cabin with the Goods

     I was texting with a friend as I left this movie and he asked me how it was.  I told him to wait for the Frog and he told me that he didn't think the Frog covered horror movies.  Let's get this straight:  I try to cover movies worth watching of ALL genres and I actually LOVE good horror movies:  The Shining, Rosemary's Baby, Psycho, all GREAT films.  Do I expect a Final Destination part 15, or Saw 87 to live up to Whales's Bride of Frankenstein?  No, so most of the time I don't bother.  Even horror movies that do well with many critics, such as last year's Insidious, often seem too formulaic and predictable to me (I gave it 2 of 5*).  All that being said, The Cabin in the Woods did not disappoint AT ALL.
      I'm a huge fan of Joss Whedon's work: Buffy, Angel, and Doll's House were all great series that I thoroughly enjoyed watching.  Co-writer/director Drew Goddard worked with Whedon before on several episodes of those series as well as being the mind behind the film Cloverfield.  Together they have created a film with both the serious no holds barred horror of Cloverfield and the ironic tongue-in-cheek sensibilities of Whedon's oeuvre.  Amazingly, it totally works.
     The film starts off with a familiar enough premise:  five college age kids go off for a weekend at an isolated cabin in the middle of nowhere.  But where a film like Insidious falls into the genre's conventions and cliches, Cabin in the Woods dives in head first, tackling these plot points, grabbing them by the throat and forging self-aware explanations for them all.  I can't say a lot more about that without spoiling some of the best surprises and twists of the film (and there are many), but there is a parallel plot line with "puppet masters" and a finale where the two plot lines converge that is just spectacular.  So many horror films start out strong and fall apart near the end.  Not here.  Cabin's climax is one of the most exciting and impressive twenty minutes that I have seen in a film in a long time.  Even in these violent final moments, Whedon's snarky brand of funny shines effectively through the cracks without spoiling the mood.  Not easy.
      Because of said humor, the cast gets a lot more chance to show off their acting chops than is usually available to performers in this type of movie.  They do an excellent job of balancing these elements. 
It is a diverse group made up of old Whedon production standbys (Fran Kranz, Amy Acker, Tom Lenk), other actors best known for television (Kristen Connolly, Jesse Williams, Bradley Whitford), a practical unknown (Anna Hutchison), a rising movie star (Chris Hemsworth) and a two film vets who've done almost everything (Richard Jenkins and Sigourney Weaver).  It's an ensemble effort, making it difficult to pick a stand out, although Connolly certainly gets the most material to work with.
      It is also worth noting that the visual effects were most impressive, especially in the last half hour.  I know there had to be a ton of CGI involved, but it meshed into the live action footage pretty seamlessly.  Of course a film like this can't work effectively without flawless sound work and editing.
     I wish this movie had come out in October;  it is so unlikely that we'll have a better movie for the Halloween season.  However, it was good to see something in the pre-Summer Tent Pole/Blockbuster part of the year exceed expectations so greatly.  Makes me even more anxious to see how Whedon handled The Avengers.  4 1/2 of 5 stars

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Would You Whistle Carnage For a Buck?

     I just want to apologize for the title of this article, but what would you have done with these three titles?
Sometimes it's not easy being a movie frog.
     Today's reviews include a screen adaptation of a highly regarded stage play, a thriller set in post war Bosnia, and a bio-doc about a man who may be the world's greatest living horse trainer.  A diverse group of films, let's start with...

Buck - I really liked this picture, despite the fact that the premise did not grab my interest the first time I heard about it.  It was one of the most celebrated documentaries in the critics' circles last year, yet failed to garner an Oscar nomination.  Buck tells the story of celebrated real life "horse whisperer" Buck Brannaman: his childhood of parental abuse and fame as a child "celebrity roper" on the rodeo circuit, through his years as a young horse trainer, to his current life traveling the country teaching others his methods.  First time director Cindy Meehl does an admirable job, largely by getting out of the way and letting her subject tell his own story.
     It helps that Buck himself is very charming and engaging, with a simple straightforward way of talking that is comfortable yet interesting, with a healthy ability to laugh at himself.  Where this documentary really shines, however, is in the footage of Buck's modern day clinics.  His way of establishing true communication with the horses is captivating, almost magical to watch.  If you have ever had that kind of a relationship with an animal, where you really understand and trust each other, I think it enhances the experience.  However, I dare even the most jaded non-pet owner to not be mesmerized watching how quickly this man can get a horse he has never met before to understand everything he asks of it.
     I have to say, I think the Academy was a little crazy to leave this one out of the running this year.  I can't imagine it won't end up being one of my five favorite 2011 documentaries.  Available on DVD and Netflix Instant Play.  4 1/2 of 5*

Carnage - In a good stage production of the play God of Carnage, the audience is woven into a feeling of being trapped and claustrophobic brought on by the characters' inability to leave the room.  This feeling is enhanced greatly by actually being in a room with the actors and some of that element is lost in the translation to film.  I think that this movie actually suffers from the same ailment as A Dangerous Method in that it does not take enough liberties with the source material to take advantage of the different medium.  With Roman Polanski at the helm, I would not have expected this but the movie feels a little...well...stagy.  I love live theatre but it only really works if you see it live.
     The acting is pretty uneven.  Waltz is fantastic and Winslet is also very good.  Foster has some great moments, and some that seem a little overblown.  Reilly is a little weak by comparisons, sounding at times more like an actor reading lines than a character speaking spontaneously.
     It's not a bad movie.  It has some great dialogue and Winslet and Waltz are very entertaining.  I won't say I don't recommend it, just that I had higher hopes for Polanski and company.  Available on DVD.  3 1/2 of 5*

The Whistleblower - Like the first film in this post, Buck, The Whistleblower is the debut feature length film for director Larysa Kondracki.  Unfortunately, it does not show nearly as much promise.  I will say that star Rachel Weisz gives a respectable performance (and Vanessa Redgrave is delightful as always in a smaller part), but most of the rest of the cast is kind of meh...
      This film would have made a great Lifetime TV movie.  It has a tough as nails woman struggling in a man's world.  She's a single mother fighting to regain custody of her children.  Its principle villains are subjugating and taking advantage of women.  It gives the heroine a taste of romance, but her mission comes first.  It's almost too specifically aimed at its target demographic, and fails to transcend that purpose and appeal to a wider audience.  Oh, and so many repetitive shots of dirty young girls huddling in corners and crying.  The first one was horrifying.  The eighth one was horrifying in an entirely unintended manner.
     If you are a big fan of Weisz this might be worth a look.  Otherwise....  Available on DVD.  2 1/2 of 5*

     Next time up it's time to play the music before this message self destructs...hehehe.