Saturday, January 28, 2012

Triple Review: Iran, Action, and Autism

A Separation:

Recently this family drama from Iran has been sweeping up a ton of awards, having been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2012 Academy Awards (and won the Golden Globe for that category as well), ranked as number one on Roger Ebert's top movies of 2011, and was featured prominently on many top critics' lists.  I have to say, I had fairly high expectations going in; while it wasn't as mind-blowingly spectacular as I would've thought, A Separation is so well made on every level and grabbed my full attention beginning to end despite the fact that it took place in a very different culture, mostly consisted of people talking, and didn't have any big glamourous set pieces or striking visuals.

The film begins with an Iranian couple, Simin and Nader, attempting to file for divorce.  Simin wants to leave the country with their 11 year old daughter so she won't have to live in the country's current turmoil-ious state.  Nader, however, wants to stay in order to take care of his elderly father struggling with Alzheimer's.  They are unable to file the divorce, so Simin moves out with her parents.  To take care of his father, Nader hires a staunchly religious woman named Razieh - and from there things slowly start to spiral out of control.  I don't want to give anything away, but what results is sort of a side-less conflict where there is no real "protagonist" and makes the film seem very realistic and interesting.  Don't be alarmed because of the fact that it takes place in Iran.  Although there are many cultural differences between ourselves, the movie plays with a universal experience we all have: the blame game.

Any fans of ethical or family dramas won't want to miss out on seeing this movie (in fact it kind of reminded me of 2008's Doubt).  The film is so well written and well directed you'll be engrossed in this plot that may not sound intriguing on paper, but is just as tense as Mission Impossible without people dangling from the world's tallest building.

Rating: A-


Steven Soderbergh originally came up with the idea for this action flick watching Gina Carano in a televised MMA fight; keeping this in mind is important with Haywire, a film which showcases some intense, high-quality action, yet has a stale story.  The film basically takes the "Kill Bill" route in which Gina Carano's character, Mallory Kane, plows through a familiar-faced cast of men set out to kill her, including Ewan McGreggor, Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum, and Antonio Banderas.  Also featured are Bill Paxton as Carano's father and Michael Douglas as a government agent also seeking the talents of Ms. Kane.

I loved most of the acting in the film, but Carano definitely doesn't seem like an "actor's actor." She kicks ass when it's time to kick ass, but every time she opens her mouth it's just too robotic and awkward.  I suppose you could liken her to a female version of Schwarzenegger or Eastwood (neither of whom have shown a wide range of emotions), but I still think it's a bad sign when Channing Tatum is out-acting you in a movie.  That being said, the action is amazing and is worth admission.  You're not going to get big and flashy "Mission Impossible" level stunt work, but I haven't seen better hand-to-hand combat in a [somewhat] mainstream movie since Kill Bill Vol. 1.  The camera doesn't move very much during these sequences and all music is cut out, leaving each punch, kick and jab feeling more brutal than the last.  This isn't "fun" action, this is "holy shit she's hurting this guy extremely badly" action.

Haywire definitely has that distinct "Soderbergh flair," and it's nice to see a genre movie handled by such an accomplished dude. The script is lacking which makes some of the slower parts of the film kind of a slog, but the action is badassery at its gloriest (not sure if those are words).  What I'm saying is go see it if you'd normally like this kind of thing (plus it has a great soundtrack!).

Rating: B

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close:

Shock and awe!  Nobody on this side of The Twilight Zone ever thought this would be one of the nominees at this year's Academy Awards, yet here we are.  This sentimental story about an autistic child coping with his father's death from 9/11 has been getting some pretty scathing reviews from critics, but that just goes to show the Academy doesn't care about popular opinions!  They do what they want, however way it pleases them (like snubbing Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender, Elizabeth Olsen, and anything having to do with 50/50).  Extremely Loud follows Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) on his journey throughout New York City to uncover one last "mission" he believes his father (Tom Hanks) sent him on.  While reminiscing about his dad by sniffing his jackets (yup, that was as awkward in the movie as you think), he clumsily breaks a randomly tucked away blue vase.  Inside the vase is a key in a small envelope with only the word 'black' written on it.  The following movie is his search, against all odds, at finding the meaning behind this key to possibly uncover something about his father (by going to each and every person named 'Black' in the city).

The film does have some great isolated moments, especially coming from Sandra Bullock playing Oskar's mom and Max Von Sydow, playing an old man who eventually accompanies him during his quest.  The main problem though is that Oskar, as mean as it may sound, is god damn annoying.  I know he's supposed to have a mental disorder but for such an unsympathetic character to try and get my sympathies is asking too much.  We're supposed to feel "cutesy" and go along with him but personally I found it taxing how he would treat other people.  I was genuinely interested in the film though, and I did in fact want to see how the "key" story resolved.  Perhaps if the Oskar character was re-handled or if the overall tone was rehandled...or maybe it's because of Thomas Horne's inexperience with acting (having only been on Jeopardy! before this)....who the hell knows.  I just know somewhere, somehow all the cogs aren't turning, but there are glimmers of a much better film in there.

Rating: C+

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Double Review: War Horse and Dragon Tattoo

These movies came out almost a month ago, so I apologize for the lateness and possible irrelevance of these reviews!

War Horse:

War Horse was one of two Steven Spielberg movies to come out this holiday (the other being the motion-captured Adventures of Tintin).  Set during WWI, the story is separated into different vignettes following a very "special" horse, raised by a teenager who looks like he's in his twenties named Albert (Jeremy Irvine).  Albert trains Joey up from a drunken auction mistake to a magical plow-pulling majestic creature.  I don't want to induce spoilers or anything, but basically Albert and Joey become separated due to the war and this 2 1/2 hour epic shows the horse's journey through the war and eventually, hopefully (but come on, you know the answer already), back into the hands of his human companion.

As good as that may sound this film was really not one of Spielberg's greatest films, even in comparison to Tintin.  First off, the main character is totally uninteresting and bland; in this sense War Horse had the same problem I had with Tintin in that the lead character was sort of a blank slate and it was only the side characters that had any real personality.  Right off the bat we see Albert peering through a fence, falling in love with the horses, but none of the bonding or affection is really earned.  As opposed to How to Train Your Dragon, although that was an animated film, I felt a much stronger connection between Hiccup and his dragon Toothless than this kid and his horse.  One complaint I see in many reviews that I'd have to agree with is the very phony and cheeseball emotionality to the movie.  Unless you're the type of person who walks into a theater prepared with tissues in hand, War Horse has far too many eye-rolling moments.  The way Albert talks to his horse, the John Williams score (which on its own is great, but maybe it's too good of a score for this movie), and the overall "safe," family-friendly tone of the film undermines its story, themes, and WWI itself - which is surprising coming from the guy who gave us Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List, both of which were unflinching portraits of their time.  In War Horse there's no blood or anything like that, in fact inside the actual trenches the characters talk about a girl back home, not seeming even remotely terrified that bombs are going off around them.  There are a handful of weird illogical moments like that throughout the film which I don't understand.

To be fair, this was based off of a children's story, so I guess the whole "fairy tale" approach is somewhat appropriate (having not read the original book I can't make any comments about that), but still something just felt very disingenuous about it.  That's not to say I hated the film; aside from the lead actor I thought the cast was very good.  I also liked the episodic nature of the movie - the different places, people, and scenarios that play out centering around the horse are somewhat entertaining, even though in the end all the pieces don't fit perfectly together.  By far the best aspect of the movie has to be the cinematography by Janusz Kaminski, who has shot most of Spielberg's movies including Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan.  Kaminski gives the film a very classic Hollywood epic feel, and especially towards the end and during some of the battle scenes I couldn't help but think of Gone With the Wind.  Also, the sheer madness it must have taken to train and "direct" the horses must have been incredibly difficult.  There are a few moments where you can tell a CGI horse was used, but for the most part I'm assuming it's real horse action you're getting.  So if you cry easily you may enjoy this overly-sappy flick, but otherwise all you're getting is a well-shot, polished horse turd.

Rating: C

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo:

At this point I'm really starting to get sick of this story.  I read the book a little while back, I saw the Swedish movie in theaters not even a year ago: I'm a little burned out on this thriller which isn't exactly uplifting or the type of thing you want to repeatedly revisit.  However, this film had one of the best movie trailers of last year and I was wondering what the second team up between David Fincher and composers Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross would bring to the table.  The story is basically about a reporter named Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) who is accused of libel against some corrupt businessman Hans-Erik Wennerström (but that's apparently not super important according to this adaptation because it's only briefly mentioned in a segment so fast paced if you're not fully focused you'll have missed it).  Eventually Blomkvist is summoned to a remote part of Sweden in an attempt to solve a 40-year mystery involving a girl, Harriet Vanger, who went missing.  While this is happening we're introduced to Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a mohawk-sporting computer hacker who eventually begins to work on the case alongside Blomkvist.  That's Dragon Tattoo in a nutshell.

As expected, this adaptation of the Stieg Larsson book is definitely the more flashy and fast-paced version of the two.  Right off the bat there is a very Bond-like opening credits sequence that is a little jarring, happening not a millisecond after the first dialogue exchange, but still very cool.  The film is very well-made and the pace is extremely fast, even for a 2 1/2 hour movie.  For some reason I did not think the score for this movie, although it was very atmospheric, added as much to the total experience as The Social Network's; maybe it's just because we're not used to seeing people programming set to hard electronic music.  But speaking of The Social Network, Fincher's Dragon Tattoo also manages to somehow make computer-work interesting.  I don't know what it is, but the way Lisbeth and Blomkvist are captured researching and discovering new things never managed to break my interest, and I liked how the computer technicalities seemed very rooted in reality (for instance Lisbeth uses keyboard shortcuts, etc - it's just those little details that I appreciate).  But b
y far the best thing about this film is Rooney Mara's performance.  She brought the right amount of "female power" to the role, while also adding a subtle layer of vulnerability.  

That being said, I really couldn't get myself to care about this story anymore.  I knew exactly what was going to happen so I don't know if it's even appropriate that I review it.  Although it strays farther from the book than the Swedish film, this is much more stylish and some of the changes that were made actually make more sense than what's in the novel.  I don't know what to tell you - I don't even know if this is still in theaters so go ahead and check it out on DVD or Blu-ray, or whatever.  Fuck it, do what you want.

Rating : B

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Pwaters' Top Ten Films of 2011

2012 is here and it's time to look back at the past...unfortunately if you look at 2011's movies you'll reach a bit of a dry spell.  I picked these ten flicks out and put them in order because that's just what is expected out of a movie review blog, but besides the top few movies, none of the films on my list came to me as "obvious" choices.  Unlike the past few years I didn't have "the one" jump right out at me.  But anyway, here it is, my favorite films of 2011 (and I emphasize my because I'm betting some people will cry about the exclusion of Hugo and Drive, both of which I find fine and dandy, but also to be highly overrated). And keep in mind I'm not perfect and I haven't seen every single movie that came out this year (who knows, maybe Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star could have been a brilliant piece of artistry).  So without further bullshitting, here's #10:

10.  Hanna
(Dir. Joe Wright)

Atonement director Joe Wright reunites with Saoirse Ronan (aka The Lovely Bones' rape victim) for this action thriller framed as a kind of modern fairy tale.  Ronan plays the titular character, who, trained by her father (Eric Bana) in isolation for years in the wilderness of Finland, is now being sought after by the government.  What results is more or less an hour-and-a-half cat and mouse chase filled with some great action and a perfectly electric soundtrack from The Chemical Brothers.  Told from the perspective of this sheltered little girl (granted, a little girl with the killer instincts of an assassin), Wright does a solid job conveying her naivety and how she is experiencing the outside world for the first time.

9.  Contagion
(Dir. Steven Soderbergh)

Any germophobes out there will want to stay far away from this clinically-told doomsday story.  We've seen so many end of the world movies that are either really flashy or are extremely grungy and depressing, but Contagion is not super cinematic in that way: it's an almost textbook depiction of how a deadly global virus would spread and how that would affect us.  Through an ensemble cast and a stylish (or in this case almost anti-stylish) vision from Steven Soderbergh, this is an unsettling portrait of an epidemic that seems all too real.

8.  Source Code
(Dir. Duncan Jones)

Ok, so I've re-watched this film a few times, and after many attempts to logically work through the plot I found that there's no way the film can possibly make sense with the details we are given - that being said it's still a great movie considering I cared enough to go through all that trouble just to figure that out (please debate me if you "found" the formula that makes it work).  Much in the same vein as last year's Inception, Source Code is somewhat of a thinking man's action/sci-fi flick starring Jake Gyllenhaal, aka Heath Ledger's butt buddy from Brokeback Mountain.  Essentially, Donnie Darko wakes up in this metal contraption and being a soldier, must follow orders and repeatedly go back in time in an attempt to stop a train from blowing up.  I found this movie to be very Hitchcock-ian and seemed heavily influenced by The Twilight Zone, having a simple "hook" but with complex results.

7.  Moneyball
(Dir.  Bennett Miller)

I would have never thought that this would be on my list, but Moneyball resonated with me and somehow managed to make baseball nerdy (in a cool way).  Written by Aaron Sorkin, the film definitely has a "Social Network" vibe going on, with plenty of smart dialogue.  Brad Pitt co-stars with Jonah Hill, who surprisingly turns out a performance on par with the Award Winning super-hunk.  This movie is really about how Pitt's character, Billy Bean, changed the game of baseball forever and I, someone who typically finds sports to be uninteresting, was completely fascinated by this story.

6.  The Muppets
(Dir. James Bobin)

This is a film made for Muppets fans everywhere.  Harking back to the glorious moments of the past while creating new Muppets memories for a future generation: I think the difficult balancing act was pulled off by all involved and I hope this paves the way for future Muppet projects.  Don't know what else to say about this film - it's got it all: great music, humor, and Chris Cooper rapping like a jackass.

5.  50/50
(Dir. Jonathan Levine)

Loosely based upon the real life story of 50/50's screenwriter Will Reiser, the film stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a young twenty-something who is suddenly diagnosed with cancer.  With the help of his best friend and his inexperienced therapist (played by Seth Rogen and Anna Kendrick), he has to learn to cope with the shit hand life has dealt him.  This film stands out to me because I've never seen a picture like this told from the perspective of young adults.  The movie is touching, funny, and heartfelt in all the right places and was probably the closest I came to crying at a movie this year.  Based on box office dollar signs this movie did pretty poorly, so for whatever reason you decided not to check it out, do yourself a favor and scout out this flick.

4.  Young Adult
(Dir. Jason Reitman)

Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody's second team-up is my favorite of either of their works so far.  Charlize Theron's character in Young Adult, Mavis Gary, is one of the most fascinating of the year, and Patton Oswalt acts as a mirror image to her in another strong performance I never saw coming.  Mavis is the ghost-writer of a popular young adult series that is nearing its end.  She returns home in an effort to win back her high school sweetheart (Patrick Wilson), even though he is married with a baby.  Theron is playing a real sociopath here, and the way the script slowly reveals her "scars" is thoughtful and very true-to-life.  The film may not be the flashiest on my list and might be a tough sell to a mass audience, but in terms of character-driven storytelling, I found this to be a fantastic film.

3.  Rango
(Dir. Gore Verbinski)

Not only is Rango a great animated film, but it's also a solid western, live-action or otherwise.  The story follows a nameless chameleon who incidentally claims the role of sheriff in a dusty, critter-laden western town.  Taking odes from Chinatown and old cowboy flicks a la Leone and Ford, Rango is exciting in all the right ways.  The characters are not the smiling, happy animals found in Dreamworks or Pixar pictures - these are unusual looking, butt-ugly creatures.  The story is typical but with the combination of a unique setting, a fine performance by Johnny Depp (who "acted out" the entirety of the movie on a set, for animators to animate later), cool characters, and an action scene involving bats with gatling guns, this is a kids film you can leave the kids at home to see.

2.  Rise of the Planet of the Apes
(Dir. Rupert Wyatt)

I, along with many others, was excepting this film to be the biggest bomb of the summer.  The Planet of the Apes was not exactly the franchise we all were hoping to be reinvigorated, but surprisingly this prequel/re-invention of the Apes mythos was genuinely one of the best sci-fi/action experiences this summer season had to offer.  Currently Andy Serkis's motion-captured performance of Caesar is garnering whispers of a possible Oscar-nod, and I seriously think he should be recognized; the man makes a good monkey.  The movie limits most of the humans to "side character" status, which places the apes front and center.  Because of this, "Rise" is a very visual film relying on Caesar and the other monkeys' body language to communicate.  Also, the final action set piece on the Golden Gate Bridge might be my favorite action scene of the year (with a close second being the Burj Khalifa scene in Ghost Protocol).

1.  The Skin I Live In
(Dir. Pedro Almodovar)

There were next to no good horror films in 2011, but The Skin I Live In is probably as close as it gets (besides maybe Contagion).  The film can be squeamish at times, but it's told with great style and direction by Pedro Almodovar, and is probably the best work Antonio Banderas has been involved in recently (besides voicing the Nasonex bee of course).  To delve into the plot would be a disservice to the film so I'll spare you the details; it's really best to go in fresh and be shocked and appalled at the twists and turns.  Just know going in that if you can't appreciate fucked up psycho-sexual quasi-horror stories stay away, but otherwise this is a must-see for all film fans.


I hope you enjoyed reading this top ten at least a little bit -- and please feel free to chime in with your thoughts and opinions!  Is there a movie that I criminally didn't check out this year, or is there a pick of mine that you are completely disgusted with?  I welcome any comments and/or debates to be had!  Have a happy new year - we can all only hope 2012 doesn't suck as hard (I think I'm gonna stick around John Cusack in the latter portion of the year).

And here's a quick list of the films that I repeatedly keep seeing on "top" lists but I was not able to check out (* at my house via Netflix):  ShameThe GuardWin Win*Another Earth*BeginnersA SeparationMelancholiaTinker Tailor Soldier SpyWe Need to Talk About KevinWar Horse, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo...and probably many others.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Double Review: Tintin and The Artist, or 2011's Best Dog Performances

The Adventures of Tintin:

Although the character of Tintin is popular and well-revered around the world, for one reason or another the United States never picked up on the phenomena.  To catch you Yanks up to speed, Tintin is a young reporter always on the lookout for a new story (with his dog Snowy always by his side) and goes on various Scooby Doo-esque adventures, solving mysteries, etc.  Released here as part of the holiday movie season, the first motion-captured film by Steven Spielberg has already been shown in every other country: we were dead last to get it.  I myself wasn't too enthused by the trailer, but with the talent involved, including Edgar Wright as a writer and Daniel Craig, Andy Serkis, and Simon Pegg/Nick Frost providing voice work I should have known better - turns out Tintin is actually a pretty good all-ages action adventurer (maybe not on the same level as Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it'd probably give any of the recent Pirates films a run for their money).

The plot isn't exactly strong and some of the characters are flat (even Tintin himself can get tiresome quickly, with his constant stream-of-conciousness exclamations of clues he finds) - but it's the action and the style with which Spielberg envelops around the picture that make it always interesting to watch.  Even the transitions in this movie are incredible, especially one involving a flashback in a desert which transforms the sand dunes into huge crashing waves supporting a big-ass pirate ship.  With Tintin we're seeing a master work with a new set of tools, and in a way Spielberg takes many more creative liberties with this freeing method of animation than James Cameron did with his self-proclaimed "masterpiece" Avatar.  Watching an "impossible" camera move along with Tintin's dog, or seeing a continuous shot of a chase scene that seamlessly moves from one character to another all while keeping the momentum, ratcheting tension, and not dizzying the audience - I couldn't help but be a little awestruck.  The action set pieces and nearly photo-realistic animation were stunning.  Supposedly this is the first of three films, I honestly am now excited to see where this series goes; I just hope the plot and characters are livened up a bit in future entries.

Rating: B

The Artist:

The Artist: a modern day silent film.  That's all you really need to know about it and all you're really given in this interesting experiment that has been garnering a lot of praise and awards as of late.  I'm really glad I got to see a movie like this in a packed theater because it was a truly unique filmgoing experience.  The two lead actors, Juan Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, I've never seen or heard of before, but give perfect "silent film" performances.  The two have some real chemistry and it's through their heightened actions that the entire movie rests on (because obviously they can't rely on snappy dialogue), and they give the film its heart.  I also have to give a shout-out to the dog, who should have a diverse and lucrative career after his fine performance here.

My problem with the film is that it merely copies what has come before, relying mostly on nostalgia, and I was hoping for a few more "modern" creative touches and a more involved story.  I appreciate that it at least "got" the formula, even adhering to the original aspect ratio used in 20's silent pictures, but for me the novelty only went so far.  This might be a great introduction to the old days of Hollywood to a contemporary audience, but the story was too light for my taste and is more concerned about being an ode to a specific era of filmmaking than creating a strong, self-serving narrative.  It's almost as if it trips under its own weight: seeing as the movies The Artist is emulating didn't have weighty themes or plots, it can't either. That being said, it's very entertaining, and for what it is I enjoyed its whimsy and creativeness - I don't think that this should (though it very well may) be the frontrunner for the Oscars, but a solid film nonetheless.

Rating: B
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