Monday, April 30, 2012

April 2012 Rundown

The Help (2011) – Mark it 6.

The Help illustrates the tense racial divide in 1960’s Mississippi through the lens of Black maids who take care of the children and homes of rich White families.  Emma Stone plays Skeeter, a recent college graduate and aspiring writer who wants to tell the world a new story; the stories from the perspective of “the help.”  Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer play the maids, Aibileen and Minny, who risk dangerous backlash to share their experiences with Skeeter.  Despite its Oscar publicity, The Help sometimes feels like a Civil Rights lesson for the Hallmark Channel and many of its characters come across as one-dimensional caricatures (Bryce Dallas Howard being the most obvious example).  However, I was engaged enough by the story and liked most of the performances (especially Davis as Aibileen) to give this film a mild recommendation.

The Grey (2011) – Mark it 5.

After their plane crashes in the middle of nowhere, a rugged badass (Liam Neeson) leads his band of one-dimensional stock characters through the Alaskan wilderness.  Director Joe Carnahan does an adequate job creating suspense as a pack of extremely territorial (and fake-looking) wolves hunt them down.  The harsh landscape acts as its own compelling character from beginning to end.  However, the same cannot be said for The Grey’s actual characters.  Neeson has fun with his new action star status but everyone else in the movie a bit annoying.  Overall, I felt indifference toward these characters and sometimes even cheered for the wolves, which is not what one looks for in a survival movie.  Despite its cool action and suspenseful elements, The Grey began to lose me when its sub-par screenplay infused some emotion, and there are too many of those weaker moments.

Mysterious Skin (2004) – Mark it 8.

Never have I seen the topic of child molestation portrayed so painfully frank and powerfully effective than in Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin.  The film follows the lives of two boys, Neil and Brian, from 9 years old to 19 after sharing a traumatic experience.  For Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the abuse is almost a fond memory that led him down dangerous paths with his sexuality, as a homosexual prostitute during the height of the AIDS epidemic.  Neil’s rose-colored glasses dim as his profession’s dangers mount.  However, the five hours of abuse are a void in Brian’s (Brody Corbet) memory.  That void has prevented Brian from moving on in life until he knows what exactly had been done to him.  Brian’s search for answers and Neil’s reflections on the past eventually lead to their reunion, a haunting but beautiful scene.  Its subject matter makes Mysterious Skin a tough film to sit through, but it is one that stayed with me for hours after the credits rolled.

Happiness (1998) – Mark it 6.

Happiness is Todd Solondz’s dark indie comedy about seemingly normal family that is anything but that when one looks a little closer.  Among the giant cast of characters is a perverted prank phone caller, a child desperate to reach puberty, a lonely neighbor with a terrible dark secret, a trio of sisters who hide their depression to keep up appearances, and a father who is way too interested in his son’s friends (to put the most disgusting act imaginable nicely).  Happiness is such a weird film that is good at what it sets out to accomplish (shocking wit), but it can be difficult to spend time with these people.  I think this is a better than average film but I cannot recommend it for just anyone to watch.  It has a look of a normal family comedy, but this is very disturbing stuff so prepare yourself before seeking it out.  On a side note, it was fun to see Jared Harris (Man Man’s Lane Pryce) in a small but memorable role as a Russian cab driver who sparks an ill-fated romance with one of the main characters.

Being Elmo (2011) – Mark it 7.

As the title suggests, this documentary is about the puppeteer who gives life to a piece of fabric and foam named Elmo, Kevin Clash.  Though it does cover the puppeteering basics, Being Elmo goes further than how Clash became the childrens' icon.  It is an uplifting story of an artist who finds a passion and follows that dream to unimagined success.  Clash developed a love for the Muppets he saw on Sesame Street as a child, and spent his teen years practicing his craft.  His talents took him from a performing at Baltimore day cares and local TV stations to gigs on Captain Kangaroo and Labyrinth, until he finally joined the Jim Henson team on Sesame Street (where Elmo was born).  I loved the symmetry between Henson, and his collaborators, mentoring Clash back in the ‘70s and ‘80s with Clash now mentoring the next generation of puppeteers. Turning these inanimate objects into personalities that connect with millions of kids around the world is a beautiful thing, and Being Elmo lovingly portrays that.

City Lights (1931) – Mark it 10.

Revisiting my favorite Chaplin film only proved to me that it is a complete masterpiece.  Chaplin’s Tramp character is his usual down-on-his luck self who falls in love with blind girl who sells flowers on the street.  A chance car door slam leads the girl to believe the Tramp is a millionaire.  Afraid of revealing his true self, the Tramp embarks on a series of adventures to reinforce the charade and win her heart.  This film has hilarious set pieces from beginning to end, but every sequence is integral to the plot.  The comedy make you laugh, but also resonates deeply as the innocent Tramp finds himself in all sorts of predicaments for the sake of being able help the girl he has fallen in love with.  He will put himself through anything, all in the hope that the girl will love him regardless of whether he is the millionaire he pretends to be or the Tramp he really is.  City Lights is a romantic comedy in which both elements of the genre are beautifully executed; it is a perfect film.

                                                      (I may have to revisit City Lights some time in the future for a more thorough review)

Take Shelter (2011) – Mark it 7.

Michael Shannon’s slow descent into madness in Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter is mesmerizing to watch.  Shannon’s character, Curtis, seemingly lives a good life in rural Ohio with a beautiful and loving wife (Jessica Chastain), his deaf daughter, and a job with good health benefits to get his daughter a cochlear implant.  All this is jeopardized when Curtis begins to have dreams and hallucinations of apocalyptic storms.  I appreciated the unique way that Take Shelter approaches paranoid schizophrenia, as Curtis calmly recalls his family history with the illness, researches his symptoms, and seeks medical advice.  But as his illness worsens, and almost all of his energy is given to rebuilding the storm shelter in his yard, that “good life” Curtis has in the beginning begins to disintegrate.  This is a great film that tells a unique story, includes interesting visuals, and some great performances; the scene where Curtis finally cracks at a Lions Club fish fry is worth the price of admission alone.

The Muppets (2011) – Mark it 6.

As writer and actor, Jason Segal tries his best to lead Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, and the gang on their big comeback in The Muppets.  And overall, their comeback attempt is very successful.  Like the best Muppet moments, there are plenty of laughs for the kids and the adults, a plethora of celebrity cameos, and many catchy tunes.  While the plot isn’t always the most necessary thing with the Muppets, this installment has Segal and his Muppet brother (and the world’s biggest Muppets fan), Walter, convince Kermit to reunite the troupe and save their old studio from the evil oil tycoon, Tex Richman (Chris Cooper).  I smiled a good deal from the start of The Muppets until its end and enjoyed a lot of the songs (especially “Man or Muppet,” which was in my head all day).  However, Chris Cooper’s rap was painfully bad.  Lastly, I want to recognize Bret McKenzie's great work for putting his "Flight of the Conchords stamp" on these songs (and for winning an Oscar).

Friday, April 20, 2012

A Single Man (2009)

Directed by Tom Ford
Starring Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Nicholas Hoult

Rare is it that one sees a film with the director’s fingerprints so clearly visible than those of Tom Ford’s in his debut film, A Single Man.  Ford, a famous fashion designer, definitely leaves a stylish imprint on his venture into a new medium.  His flourishes are a bit obvious but that is not meant to be overly critical; the moments where A Single Man resembles a perfume ad from the pages of Vogue manage to find a way to work.  With lesser material and lesser performances, that may have not been the case.

A Single Man follows a day in the life of George Falconer (Colin Firth), a British homosexual man living in Los Angeles and grieving the loss of his longtime partner, Jim (played by Matthew Goode in flashbacks, who is probably best known as Ozymandias in Watchmen).  However, this is not just a regular day in George’s life but rather the day in which George intends to kill himself.   This development adds weight to every observation, every conversation, every fantasy, and every memory that George experiences.

Colin Firth is powerfully restrained as a man who is trying to cope with a traumatic loss.  Life in the early 1960’s dictated that men (and women) who loved human beings of the same sex were not to be accepted.  George’s rich and loving relationship with Jim had to be kept hidden from most of the world for 16 years, and only adding to the tragedy of Jim’s death, so must his grief.  George hides his identity, and his grief, behind the perfect presentation of a “normal” man: white shirt, black tie, dark suit, polished shoes, and perfectly combed hair.  From the first scene on, we know that this perfect presentation is just a front for a distraught human being, highlighted by the pain seen in Firth’s face and heard in his narration.  Even those who know the real George and Jim cannot understand how real their love was.  His best friend, Charley (Julianne Moore), is divorced, lonely, and longing to have had a “real relationship” with George, the worst kind of insult to what George and Jim had.  The flashbacks that show George and Jim before the accident show that their relationship was about as "real" as can be.

Jim’s family is even worse, not even inviting George to the “family only” funeral.  Watching George hear that news and the news of Jim’s car accident in the same phone call from Jim’s cousin (Mad Man’s Jon Hamm in a voice-only cameo) was one of the most heartbreaking scenes in recent memory.  In the eight months since that phone call, every single day has become a struggle.  A struggle that makes suicide inviting until the final decision actually comes and the little things that make life worth living become more apparent.  A Single Man is about George struggling to balance the urge to end his pain and the promise that life always presents during that one day.

Tom Ford’s stylized flourishes that I mentioned earlier are effectively used to amplify that pain and promise dichotomy.  When George’s pain is palpable, he seems to move through life in a haze.  He appears utterly alone, such as in the great shot of him walking against a crowd of people or floating naked underwater.  Life passes him by in slow motion and his thoughts are drowned out by the mundane sounds of ticking clocks and ringing phones.  Reminders of his past life surround him that only adds to his pain.  The director’s touches demonstrate that George has lost his grasp on the world in front of him.  Even the Cuban Missile Crisis, and impending nuclear annihilation, is only a peripheral issue left in the background.  Whatever has given George’s life meaning and joy has been taken.

Color acts as the greatest trick up Ford’s directorial sleeve.  We meet George when his depression has reached its tipping point and the palette of A Single Man is noticeably dull.  Life’s vibrancy has been sucked from George’s life, as have the vibrant colors been sucked from the film.  However, in the day that George plans to fade his life to black, he begins to take notice of the beauty in world around him again.  When he sees an athletic man playing tennis, pets a Smooth Fox Terrier, or has an innocent conversation with a young girl from his neighborhood, Ford floods the screen with brilliant and saturated color.  These bursts of color come and go as George contemplates his suicide, but become more sustained during the more meaningful conversations he has.

The most meaningful of the “colorful” conversations occur between George and one of his most interesting students, Kenny, played by Nicholas Hoult who is unrecognizable from his breakout role as the little kid in About a Boy (he is probably more recognized as Beast in last summer’s X-Men: First Class).  Kenny is intrigued by his professor, and quietly sizes him up with talk of experimentation with drugs and complimenting the day’s lecture.  During the course of A Single Man, this intrigue eventually offers the promise of new friendship (whether it is of a sexual or plutonic nature is somewhat irrelevant) and new meaning in life.  It just takes the specter of life’s end to show the value of that promise for some.

At times, A Single Man has the feel of a poem put to film.  Tom Ford is clearly an artist and has chosen to show it off with all its bells and whistles.  Yet it avoids pretention and indulgence, which is quite a feat.  There is emotional substance to back up its style, and an excellent performance by Firth carrying each and every scene.  I appreciated the director’s ambition and admired the star’s performance. This is a really good film that got even better on a subsequent viewing (I think my re-watch even bumped it up one “mark”).

Mark it 7.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Great Dictator (1940)

Directed by Charlie Chaplin
Starring Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Jack Oakie

In 1940, as Adolf Hitler was sucking the world into a devastating war, Charlie Chaplin brought out his iconic mustache (one that resembled that of the F├╝hrer’s) to produce a daring piece of satire.  When many in the world chose to appease Hitler, Chaplin fully realized the evil that the Nazi regime represented and attacked it with what a filmmaker's greatest weapon, a major motion picture.  In fact, The Great Dictator was Chaplin’s first “talkie.”  And when the most iconic comedic figure of the silent era finally embraces sound, people will take notice no matter the topic.  When that first foray is sharply satirizing the world’s most dangerous man, during the height of his power, it is all the more inspiring.

The three Chaplin films I have seen (City Lights, The Gold Rush, and Modern Times) confirmed all the claims of Chaplin’s genius that I always heard about.  His famous Tramp character, with his black moustache, bowler hat, cane, and the odd hitch in his strut, is legendary.  I couldn’t wait to see how his silent era genius translated into the era of sound, especially when that transition marks the most controversial and daring film of his career.

Being a “talkie,” a part of The Great Dictator I looked forward to, before the sharp satire and hilarious set pieces, was the sheer curiosity about finally hearing Chaplin’s voice (aside from the silly Italian-gibberish song and dance that found its way into Modern Times).  With such an expressive face full of awkward smiles and antics that always found him in crazy predicaments, it is exciting to see his character open the movie in the trenches of World War I.  The Great Dictator begins with a silent movie feel, marked by giant malfunctioning cannons and a misplaced live grenade, but soon we get to hear his voice.  Surprisingly, he is a soft-spoken and polite man, which adds an interesting dynamic to the performance in this new era of Chaplin films (that quiet speaking voice does disappear when he must embody a Hitler figure rousing a nation).  While Chaplin does speak throughout the film and dialogue is used to push the plot forward, you can still see his love for the silent era.  With exaggerated and expressive performances from everyone in the cast, I think that The Great Dictator would be on par with some of his silent era classics if watched on mute.  However, this would diminish the power behind Chaplin’s hilarious aping of Hitler’s fanatical speeches.

In The Great Dictator, Chaplin takes on dual roles.  The timid and naive soldier we see in the early scenes is this film’s version of Chaplin’s famous Tramp character, the Jewish Barber.  A comically unrealistic plane crash leads to a case of amnesia that makes the Barber unaware that he is returning home to a Jewish ghetto created by the tyrannical rule of Adenoid Hynkel, dictator of the fictitious Tomania (Chaplin's other role).  This sets up the parallels between Hynkel’s regime and Hitler’s, as well as the plights of the Barber and his neighbors and that of the Jewish people in Europe, which continue throughout the rest of the film.

The plot of The Great Dictator loosely follows the rise of Germany up until 1940.  Chaplin’s Hynkel vehemently promotes his anti-Semitic agenda, oppressing the Jews in ghettos (there are whispers of sending people to concentration camps, but I don’t know if Chaplin, or the rest of the world, were aware of the horrors that went on there yet).  Behind his false bravado, Hynkel is something a lightweight who follows the his influential advisor, Herr Garbitsch. Many times it is Garbitsch shaping Hynkel’s policies, urging further war in Europe, a tightened grip on the Jews and a strategic alliance with Napaloni, the dictator of Bacteria (Jack Oakie).  Napolani is obviously Chaplin’s satirical dig at Mussolini. 

In the ghetto, the Jewish Barber begins to find some sense of normalcy and starts a promising relationship with his spunky neighbor, Hanna (Paulette Goddard).  Eventually, Hynkel’s war machine revs up and life in the ghetto becomes much harsher for the poor Barber leading to Chaplin’s two characters finally crossing paths in the third act.

While I have used numerous lines to summarize the plot, it is really of little significance in the film.  The Great Dictator is better characterized as a series of great moments.  From beginning to end, it is the individual scenes that stuck with me and showed off Chaplin’s comedic genius.  None are more memorable than when Hynkel contemplates world domination by gracefully bouncing the globe in the air like a beach ball.  There are fantastic elements such as Chaplin’s aforementioned World War I bumblings, a paint-filled scuffle with local stormtroopers, and the constant one-upmanship between Hynkel and Napaloni (among so many others).  These four scenes work well with sound or silently, but being a “talkie,” it is important to mention The Great Dictator’s great moments that rely on Chaplin’s experimentation with sound.

When thinking about the use of sound in this film, my mind goes straight to the two great speeches.  The first belongs to Adenoid Hynkel angrily rousing his crowd with his attacks on democracy, liberty, and the Jewish people.  The brilliance of this speech stems from the way Chaplin presents it.  It was with exaggeration and vehemence that Hitler was able to mesmerize his crowd into following his evil lead; if one actually listened to the content seriously, they would realize that they were following a mad man (I would hope).  To convey this, Chaplin gives his Hynkel speeches in German-gibberish that sounds utterly ridiculous yet is perfectly understandable without ever using real words.  This speech is in sharp contrast to the one given by the Jewish Barber at the end of the film.  Here Chaplin’s politics come through, as do his motivations for exposing the evil behind the Nazi regime.  There is no nuance in this closing scene, just raw emotion, and a call for the free world to put an end to tyranny and oppression.  Chaplin hammers his point home bluntly, but it didn’t bother me when the cause he was campaigning for is so righteous.

What Charlie Chaplin accomplished in The Great Dictator was both daring and admirable.  I look forward to learning more about its reaction around the world at that time.  A big part of me wants to know if Hitler actually watched the film, but the bigger question is probably how the German people reacted to it.  Though I’m not naive enough to think that the film actually found its way into the cinemas under the Nazi regime, but the thought still intrigues me. 

Beyond its fascinating backstory, The Great Dictator is also a great film, filled with so many scenes that plastered a big smile to my face (the same smile that comes with every Chaplin movie).  However, holding my rating back a bit is that the story that threads these great scenes together isn’t quite as strong.  Great thought was put into exposing the atrocities of the Nazi regime (by finding comedy in them), but the thought that it takes to also create a compelling story was lacking.  But lacking only slightly.

Mark it 8.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Hunger Games (2012)

Directed by Gary Ross
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson

A few months back, my Dad was telling me about a trilogy of books he was reading called The Hunger Games, and my initial reaction was, “that sounds like a watered down Battle Royale,” the brutally violent Japanese film from 2001.  Having hated Battle Royale, I was not too interested in a new addition in the kids fight to the death genre.  With the film’s wave of hype and my Dad’s continued rave reviews of the books, my interest in The Hunger Games was finally piqued.  Also, it was somewhat ridiculous for me to make any judgments on The Hunger Games based on my reaction to an entirely different piece of work just because they share some similarities.  Leading up to the film, I read the first book of the trilogy in less than five days.  The book was an easy and fun read, and The Hunger Games had officially won me over; I couldn’t wait to head to the theaters to see the film (side note, this is the first Mark It 8, Dude review of a film I saw on the big screen).

The Hunger Games is set in a futuristic dystopia after the nation of Panem has replaced the collapsed United States.  To keep control over the population, the evil Capitol hosts the “Hunger Games” every year, a contest that pits 24 boys and girls in a televised fight to the death, as punishment for a past attempt at rebellion.  These games are the ultimate reality show for the people of the Capitol and the ultimate nightmare for everyone else.  The film opens as Katniss Everdeen and her sister, Prim, prepare for the annual Reaping, when one boy and one girl from each district is selected to enter the Games.   Once Katniss and Peeta Mellark become District 12’s two Tributes, they are whisked away to the Capitol to become instant celebrities in the run-up to the Games, where their very likely demise acts as the entertainment event of the year.

Gary Ross, who hasn’t directed a film since 2003’s Seabiscuit, has adapted another highly acclaimed novel in a successful film, with the help of a budding superstar lead actress, Jennifer Lawrence (who was also amazing in her Oscar-nominated role in Winter’s Bone).  Some of the film’s harshest criticisms that I’ve read come from Ross actually being too faithful to the book.  While I agree that the screen sticks close to the page, I did not have any problems with most of Ross’ choices – though some of the early shaky cam use did feel unnecessary.  While Katniss’ internal monologue is missing, the visuals alone effectively explain her motivations as she volunteers to be a Tribute, experiences the spectacle in the Capitol, and plots her survival during the Games.  I credit Gary Ross for trusting the audience to fill in those blanks rather than rely on a lot of wordy plot summary or narration.  

The way Ross portrayed the Games as a huge reality TV event is especially effective.  Watching Katniss try to outlast the other Tributes would have had enough drama in itself, but balancing her survival with the Gamemakers’ (who are like The Hunger Games’ producers) orchestrations of the “show” and the various reactions the Panem people have with what they are watching adds another fascinating dynamic.  To the pampered population of the Capital, these games are an event of frenzied jubilation and unbridled gambling opportunities while the poor proletariats of the outlying districts watch in sheer horror and restrained, but powerful, anger.  Stanley Tucci gives a great performance as the Hunger Games’ emcee, Caesar Flickerman, building the bridge between the terrified underclass and the merrily sadistic elite by interviewing each Tribute and commentating on the action.  It is clear that Katniss cannot rely on her ability to hunt and kill alone to become the victor; she has to learn how to be a compelling personality.  The Hunger Games spends a lot of time showing how Katniss must be able to win over her audience during the show, with the help of her handlers:  Haymitch, her mentor (Woody Harrelson), Cinna, her stylist (Lenny Kravitz), and Effie, her escort (Elizabeth Banks).

It has taken me awhile to focus on what is The Hunger Games’ greatest asset, the performance given by Jennifer Lawrence.  She brings both physical and emotional strength to the screen.  Lawrence’s Katniss is completely believable as the hunter who is extremely lethal with a bow, the protective and loving big sister, and the quiet rebel who learns how to navigate through the Capitol’s expectations and the Gamemakers’ meddling.  I love that The Hunger Games is becoming such a phenomenon because the literary Katniss is such an admirable heroine and through Lawrence’s star-making performance, the film Katniss is just as smart, righteous, and independent.  These traits remain strong even when the Capitol wants her to become a blood-lusting killer like some of the other Tributes.  Whether Lawrence is in a big budget blockbuster like The Hunger Games or X-Men: First Class or a small independent thriller like Winter’s Bone, you simply cannot take your eyes off of her.  And at only 21 years old, it will be exciting to continue to watch her skills continue to develop.

There is also a compelling, and complex, love story in The Hunger Games.  Katniss is unsure if she’s ever been in love, but thoughts of love begin to enter her mind she struggles to comprehend her fate after the Reaping.  There is her longtime friend back home, Gale, who understands the everyday fight for survival in District 12 and her District 12 counterpart, Peeta, who has a good heart but cannot return home from the Games with her.   I must say that the Gale side of the love triangle is better covered in the book and the Peeta side feels a little simplified for the film, but they are effective nonetheless.  Josh Hutcherson, as Peeta, is really good as a guy who doesn’t quite have Katniss’ physical talents to win, but has the personality that the audience falls for.  Peeta knows you need a fully developed strategy to win, so Katniss must struggle decide if the love he proclaims toward her is real or a piece of artifice to help him get support.  Likewise, she must figure out if her feelings toward Peeta are also true or part of the show.  A lot of these complexities are best explained in the book’s internal monologues, but the strong performances by Lawrence and Hutcherson help convey them to those in the audience who haven’t read the book.

In both book and film form, The Hunger Games is filled with great fun and powerful emotion.  The futuristic world of Panem is fully realized and interesting, the characters are memorable and multi-dimensional, and the action will keep you guessing from beginning to end.  This story has won over the masses with good reason and Gary Ross’ adaptation is just as successful.  Since reading the first book, I’ve gone out and purchased the final two books in the trilogy, Catching Fire and Mockingjay.  I cannot wait to continue my reading to see how life in Panem after the Games unfolds.  Anticipation will reach great heights as I patiently wait for more Katniss, and more Jennifer Lawrence, in the sequels.

Mark it 8.