Tuesday, July 31, 2012

July 2012 Rundown

Adventureland (2008) – Mark it 7.

Greg Mottola’s Adventureland is a sweet little movie about a recent graduate, James (Jesse Eisenberg), whose post-grad plans of European travel and a move to New York City suddenly fall apart.  He is left in a dull summer job in his hometown working in the games booths at a local amusement park.  A pretty standard coming of age story follows as James makes new friends with Joel (Freaks and Geeks’ Martin Starr) and finds love with Em (Twilight’s Kristin Stewart).  Mistakes are made by everyone to add a bit of drama.  Adventureland is not a movie that will blow you away but one that I enjoy quite a great deal.  Its comedic aspects enlist a lot of chuckles, its sentimental aspects hit their mark, and the performances are pretty solid all around (with the possible exception of Stewart).  The film’s setting must also be recognized as we are completely transformed, from the clothes and music to sets and references, into its small town 1980s world.

Step Brothers (2008) – Mark it 8.

I was initially going to “mark” this Will Farrell and John C. Reilly vehicle lower out of some film snob urge that didn’t want to see an admittedly “dumb” comedy rated so highly.  In discussing Step Brothers later, I was reminded exactly how much I laughed, from the belly with a few snorts and tears sprinkled, from beginning to end.  This story of two 40-something losers still living at home and adjusting to their newfound familial ties is about as good as a comedy can get.  As the two leads, Farrell and Reilly, match wits in games of one-upmanship then find common ground, you will be going hysterical at every silly and raunchy gag.  These are two comedy giants and Step Brothers is right in their wheelhouse.  Also, the supporting cast is just as strong.  Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins have their share of good laughs as the parents, and Parks & Recreation’s Adam Scott is especially good in a surprising turn as Will Farrell’s complete asshole of a brother.

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) – Mark it 3.

Rebooting the Spider Man franchise after just ten years isn’t a sin; the sin comes from rebooting it without adding anything new, interesting, or necessary.  Director Marc Webb’s (500 Days of Summer) version of the web-slinger is a victim of terrible script.  Gone is the character development and comedic touches seen in Sam Raimi’s 2002 film.  Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker is not the dweeb I liked so much in earlier films, but an angsty emo whiner (who is kind of a jerk).  Emma Stone and Rhys Ifans, as Parker’s girlfriend and Spider-Man’s villain, respectively, are painfully underdeveloped leaving all the drama involving the three leads in its climactic battle feel empty.  So many times the script seemed to take the easy way out, inducing many rolled eyes (Gwen Stacey, a genius intern at a billion dollar laboratory... as a high school student?!).  Everything about this film was done 10 years before and done much better.  Just rewatch Raimi’s first two Spider-Man films; it’ll be much more enjoyable.

Note:  I saw The Amazing Spider-Man in 3D and have never seen the gimmick so poorly utilized.  The majority of the film appears 2D anyway, so you are paying a surcharge to dim the colors.  When the 3D is noticeable, I was not emerged in the environment like in great 3D presentations like Avatar or Hugo.  Rather, the 3D use merely gave the feel of a cheesy optical illusion; taking me out of the picture mentally and damaging the experience.

Part of my Dark Knight Rises anticipation...

Batman Begins (2005) – Mark it 9.

It took an auteur director such as Christopher Nolan to lift the Batman franchise from the depths that Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin sunk it to.  Batman Begins is Nolan’s dark and realistic telling of the Batman origin story; a story never told before on screen.  Bruce Wayne’s mysterious path from young boy orphaned on the streets of Gotham to the Caped Crusader perched upon rooftops is beautifully explained.  It is fascinating to watch the League of Shadows train Wayne to turn his guilt into a vigilance that instills fear in his enemies.  This training takes the necessary steps toward a new persona, Batman.  The excitement reaches amazing levels when the Batcave. Batsuit, and all the other parts of the Batman legend are slowly introduced.  Batman Begins has great style, great action, great performances, and great fun; it is an excellent blockbuster.  And the final shot only hints at the even greater things to come.

The Dark Knight (2008) – Mark it 10.

Quite simply, this is the most perfect superhero movie ever made (note: written before The Dark Knight Rises’ release, so we’ll see how it stacks up).  So much can be said about this film that further discussion will be reserved for another post in Mark it 8, Dude’s future.  I will end by just saying that The Dark Knight is one of my favorite films.  See the “Zack’s Hall of Film Fame” list on this page’s right-hand side for proof.

Hausu (1977) – Mark it 2.

Nobuhiko Obayashi’s campy horror film, Hausu (English translation, House), is one of the oddest things I’ve ever seen.  Hausu has developed a fairly large cult following due to its trippy surrealism (large enough to warrant a Criterion Collection release).  With its look of a 1970s after school special and cheesy scares á la The Evil Dead, with the comically amateurish editing of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job, describing this film is very difficult.  Seven schoolgirls, each defined by a singular character trait, visit an aunt’s house and fall victim one by one.  Hausu is obviously your standard haunted house movie (with many insanely weird elements).  These elements are undoubtedly the reason for its cult following, such as terrible acting, obvious sets, stilted dialogue, nonsensical plot, psychedelic animation, and unnecessary nudity.  However, not enough was original or interesting about the story itself to hook me beyond the cult film elements.  It was a struggle to just see Hausu to the end despite its 88-minute running time.

Shotgun Stories (2007) – Mark it 9.

Jeff Nichols’ directorial debut (of Take Shelter fame) is a gritty and fascinating revenge tale set in a dirt poor Arkansas town.  Michael Shannon stars as Son, the older brother of Boy (Douglas Ligon) and Kid (Barlow Jacobs).  The three were united by the hatred of their drunken father, who ran out on them, and their half-brothers, born after their father got sober, found God, and forgot his old family ever existed.  When the three crash the old man’s funeral and Son gives a hate-filled speech, the feud between each set of brothers starts going down its darkest paths.  Nichols devotes so much time developing the relationships between these three brothers that each blow in the feud is all the more painful to witness.  Son, Boy, and Kid grew up angry, barely make ends’ meat, and have settled for less.  The pain that these circumstances created overpowers every instinct telling them to let bygones be bygones.  The performances in Shotgun Stories are quietly intense and the story is riveting; this little known film blew me away.

Urbanized (2011) – Mark it 6.

Gary Hustwit, who somehow made a good documentary about a font (Helvetica), continues his “design” series with a far more appealing topic:  cities.  Urbanized is your standard talking head documentary involving architects, policy makers, and community members from around the world.  However, I love cities and found this topic very interesting (plus it is filled with beautiful cityscapes).  The 21st century will present urban designer everywhere with an incredible challenge.  As the world population continues to balloon, 75% of these people will be living in cities.   Urbanized stresses how this challenge must be viewed as an opportunity to innovate and revitalize our various metropolises.  Sprawl that divided communities and stretched resources will not work anymore.  But I was left hopeful that there are intelligent people up for the challenge and willing to involve the community when rethinking the old dogmas of urban design.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

Directed by Benh Zeitlin
Starring Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry

Since Beasts of the Southern Wild debuted at the festival circuit a few months back, there has been a swell of critical acclaim surrounding it.  From all that I had heard, Benh Zeitlin’s first full-length film was going to be a completely unique experience, centered with a mesmerizing performance by a 6-year-old girl.  It is needless to say that I couldn’t wait for Beasts of the Southern Wild to get a wider release and find its way to Milwaukee.  Apparently many others were just as anxious to see what all this critical chatter was about as well; it had the biggest opening weekend of the year at the little theater where I viewed it, according to its manager.  Shortly into the film, I was completely fascinated by the life portrayed in this forgotten but vibrant region of Louisiana’s lowlands, the Bathtub.  Zeitlin’s distinctive artistic flair and the intense lead performances (by unseasoned actors) made it a film far more memorable than your standard indie darling.

Told mostly through Hushpuppy’s narration, Beasts of the Southern Wild tells the story of a little girl and her troubled father as they try to survive in a world made inhospitable by a Hurricane Katrina-like natural disaster.  But before the survival tale comes to play, Zeitlin spends a considerable amount of time getting into the psyche of the young Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and showing us the world she must grow up in.

Hushpuppy and all her neighbors endure rough conditions to survive in the Bathtub even before the storm hits.  People in the Bathtub live among garbage in their one-room shacks, eat the animals they catch (or sometimes old cans of cat food), and quickly become hardened by their circumstances.  This world, on the wrong side of the levees, is so geographically close to a civilization we are more accustomed to (with oil rigs off in the distance), but culturally, the Bathtub might as well be another planet.  Which is exactly how its inhabitants like it.  Beasts of the Southern Wild is beautiful when the community comes together for an early celebration, inspiring when the people unite to move on after the flood, and terrifying when the outside world tries to interfere.  It seems that life in the Bathtub requires a special sort of person, but once you are strong enough to survive, the sense of togetherness that comes along is appealing.  
I loved watching this world unfold, get torn down and then rebuilt before my eyes.

The heart of the film lies in the performances by Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry, as her father, Wink (especially Wallis).  This 6 year-old is the focus of nearly every scene and carries the film admirably.  Having a mother who ran away from the Bathtub (and her family) and a father who, when he’s not missing, yells more than loves has forced Hushpuppy to grow up faster than a little girl ought to.  Wallis strikes an amazing balance to show that Hushpuppy is stronger and fiercer than most girls her age, but still views this harsh reality with a childlike innocence.  She wants her parents’ love more than anything and uses her imagination to explain the ways of the world.  Nothing changes the fact that she is a just small child, as much as Wink wants Hushpuppy to grow up quickly, for fear that he may not always be there to protect her.  By approaching the story from Hushpuppy’s point of view, we see how disastrous situations are interpreted through the lens of a child’s imagination.  This perspective adds a fantastical element to the drama of Beasts of the Southern Wild that enriches the overall experience.

The film integrates fantastical elements from Hushpuppy’s imagination in the reality in the Bathtub throughout the film.  The most obvious example, and one that isn’t always 100 percent effective, is the presence of the “aurochs,” a prehistoric predator.  In Hushpuppy’s mind, the danger of global warming is that a terrible monster, the aurochs, will be released from the ice to hunt down the people of the Bathtub.  As Hushpuppy faces more and more hardships, the metaphorical beasts charge their way closer and closer to the Bathtub.  While I love the idea of a child interpreting a global issue like climate change in such a visceral manner, Zeitlin’s execution may lose some viewers.  I preferred when the film’s fantastical elements were less direct, when intuited through her words/actions and the almost surreal camerawork.  However, this is a minor issue.

Acting as co-writer of the screenplay and writer of the score, Benh Zeitlin emerges as a great new talent in his directorial debut.  The character of Hushpuppy and the world of the Bathtub are hard to shake after watching Beasts of the Southern Wild and the bombastic score (that works well within the film) is memorable.  His film looks and feels unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.  Such a jarringly unique experience may not be for everyone, but I was on board with Zeitlin and Beasts of the Southern Wild.  

But Zeitlin’s greatest success might be the discovery of Quvenzhané Wallis.  At only 6, Wallis has an intense presence on screen when necessary, but also can show sweet side or a sad side.  This isn’t a great performance for a child, but a great performance for an actor.  It is amazing to think that she could accomplish something so good at such a young age.  As much as Benh Zeitlin pounds his directorial touch home, Wallis’ Hushpuppy will be the greatest part of Beasts of the Southern Wild.

As Beasts of the Southern Wild’s credits rolled, I was filled with a sense of joy over whatever was this work of art I just witnessed.  I was given a great cinematic character in Hushpuppy and a stylized feast for the eyes.  There is sadness in the story no doubt, but I left the theater optimistic over whatever Hushpuppy’s next steps may be regardless.  While it probably won’t be until its blu-ray release (in time for Oscar season, I’m sure), I cannot wait until I get another chance to revisit it.  There was a good deal of hype surrounding this film when I entered the theater, and Beasts of the Southern Wild affirmed that hype in the end.

Mark it 8.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Hugo - My Favorite Film of 2011

#1) Hugo

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Starring Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Sasha Baron Cohen, Helen McCrory, Michael Stuhlbarg, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee, Jude Law

Trailers can do terrible things.  One only needs to remember the trailer for Martin Scorsese’s Hugo for proof.  I remember groaning at the thought of what was seemingly a standard childhood adventure about a boy and his robot in a train station – and in 3D!  I thought how could the man who made Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, GoodFellas, and The Departed make what seems like a lame little kids movie?  And I’m willing to bet that a lot of Scorsese fanboys thought similarly.  Just as one should not judge books by their covers, it is important to not judge films by their trailers.  This lesson is in full effect with Hugo, for it is a magical tale that, under the guise of a family film, brilliantly uses cutting edge technology to celebrate film’s rich history and tell a sincerely sentimental story.

I sensed something special right from the beginning.  Martin Scorsese's amazing filmmaking skills are evident with Hugo’s first shot of the gears in a clock dissolving into the streets of Paris, followed by the camera’s swoop through the train station to reveal the young boy hidden behind its clocks.  Without a line of dialogue, we become transported into the world inside this 1930s train station.  Every aspect of this life is introduced, such as a crotchety old toyshop owner (Ben Kingsley), a tyrannical station inspector with an injured leg (Sasha Baron Cohen), a sweet and beautiful florist (Emily Mortimer), and generous librarian (Christopher Lee).  The lives of these characters, and other supporting characters, will intersect with the boy behind the clocks throughout the course of the film.

That boy is the Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), and since the death of his father (Jude Law), the train station has become his home.  Having been his father’s apprentice, Hugo is a skilled clockmaker.  By secretly keeping all of the station’s clocks on time, and avoiding the grasp of the station inspector, Hugo is able to avoid the dreaded orphanage and work toward fixing the last relic left from his past life, an automaton he was renovating with his father.  Stealing parts from the toymaker and befriending the toymaker’s goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), allows Hugo to uncover the automaton’s secret message, one hopefully sent from his departed dad.

Hugo would likely remain a sweet little film if the narrative thread ended there, but through the automaton’s message, Scorsese opens the story up to a transcendent new path.  Once the most iconic image of the silent era is revealed to Hugo and Isabelle, Hugo is no longer just the story of a misfortunate boy seeking a home, but also the story of an influential artist’s return to relevance and a celebration of cinema itself.  It is in this second plotline, one completely absent from its terrible trailer, where the magic of Hugo is truly revealed.

Hugo says at one point, the movies are “our special place” where we can see our dreams in the middle of the day.  The friendship that blossoms between Hugo and Isabelle, and the adventure that follows, is built upon the wonders of the movies.   Hugo, a lover of cinema, and Isabelle, a lover of books, unite their passions in one of the film’s best sequences when their adventure takes them to the library to read about the forefathers of film in The Invention of Dreams by Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlberg) .  Along with the kids, the audience learns about the greats of the silent era from Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin to Buster Keaton and Georges Mélièse through this book.

I can only imagine the smile on Scorsese’s face as he sneaks in an valuable history lesson about his own passion to the countless of families who sought out a nice film to see last holiday season.  He even takes us inside the studio of one of film’s earliest and most influential works, Mélièse’s La Voyage dans le Lune (1902).  The black-and-white and old-fashioned images of our earliest films have life breathed into them like never before.  A unique and magical artistry by these film pioneers was needed to bring dreams to the screen.  Unfortunately, their artistry has been nearly forgotten.  Like it is Hugo and Isabelle’s mission is to remind one artist that his gifts are recognized and cherished, I believe it is Scorsese’s mission to remind 21st century audiences about these often overlooked works of art.

Yet Hugo has more going for it than having a lot of cinephile candy.  All of its pieces are excellent.  First and foremost, each member of the giant cast, full of highly respected actors, gives great performances (no matter how big or small their roles are).  Scorsese gives each character moments to shine, which becomes quite the balancing act.  As the old toy maker, Ben Kingsley subtly portrays the deep and bitter sadness of a genius who has wasted away his talents.  Helen McCrory’s (whom readers may recognize as Narcissa Malfoy in the Harry Potter films) tears of joy while reminiscing of happier times when she was part of a groundbreaking artistic movement is one of Hugo’s most moving scenes.  As the film historian, Rene Tabard, Michael Stuhlbarg (from the Coen Brothers’ disturbingly underrated A Serious Man) effectively shows how cinema can inspire.  There is even great comedy in Hugo provided by Sasha Baron Cohen (abandoning his Borat and company schtick) as the authoritative, but pathetic, station inspector who may deserve more sympathy than initially expected.  I feel like I could continue this list with every character, but special attention is needed for the two leads.

It is often a dangerous move to give your lead roles to children, but with Asa Butterfield and Chloë Grace Moretz, the gamble pays off in Hugo.  Our heart continually breaks for poor Hugo during his hardships and there is a sincere interest in his well-being and happiness in the end.  These emotions I felt are a testament to Butterfield’s performance.  Scorsese found a winner in casting this unknown.  As Isabelle, Chloë Grace Moretz is less of an unknown.  She was the highlight of Kick-Ass, cracks me up in 30 Rock cameos as Alec Baldwin’s nemesis, and received high acclaim in the vampire horror remake, Let Me In.  As the precocious and adventurous Isabelle, Moretz continues her solid string of performances in Hugo.  These two kids are the centerpieces of Hugo as we follow them through the train station and into the wonders of cinema.

As impressive as the storytelling is, the technical achievements in Hugo are equally impressive.  The opening shot I mentioned earlier (the swoop through the station) is virtuosic, but sequences like that abound.  With costumes and a set design that is well integrated with CGI renderings, the world in this train station of a bygone era is perfectly realized.  Whether we are flying over Paris, gliding along the tracks, or climbing ladders among the gears in the clock tower, the visuals are always top of the line.  There are moments of beauty, moments of wonder, and moments of terror that all had me on the edge of my seat for different reasons.  Every filmmaking trick at Scorsese’s disposal, including the use of a memorable score that feels at home in this world, was not only used during Hugo but also mastered.

It is clear that I loved pretty much everything about Hugo, and it deservedly claimed the top spot on my prestigious “Best of 2011” list.  Looking at my list of the year’s best films (in my July 13th post), I am impressed by the diverse array of excellent films.  Yet the one that stood out from the rest was the 3D family film adapted from a children’s book (The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick).  However, when the person making that adaptation is one of the greatest filmmakers of all-time, something special could result.  I should have ignored the terrible trailer and trusted Martin Scorsese, because his venture into the family film genre is about as good as it gets.

One final thought...

I am admittedly a 3D skeptic, usually finding it either pointless or distracting and always a waste of money.  But there are times when the tactic is used effectively and I am willing to recognize that fact.  Hugo was one of those times.  It is clear that Scorsese took great care to effectively use this new tool in moviemaking.  The camera swoops in and around this world, and things fly by you in the stereotypical “3D fashion” but it always has a different feel.  I believe that this is because its main use is to provide great depth to the scene and fully immerse you in the environment, rather than just show off a few gimmicky “wow” moments.  How the subtlest moments, such as a head ever so slowly leaning forward or the specks of snow floating in the air, become the most memorable shows just how well 3D was used. 

But most importantly, the use of 3D doesn’t detract from the 2D experience.  Having seen Hugo in 3D at the theaters and in 2D on bluray, it is safe to say that this film is equally as strong in both versions.  Hugo is great because of its wonderful story first and its state-of-the-art presentation second.  When that is the priority, the film will hold up no matter how one watches it.

Mark it 9.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Mark It 2011 - The Top Ten List

In most movie websites, the annual top ten lists are rolled out in January or February (in preparation for the Academy Award debates that often coincide).  However, the people making these lists and having these debates do such things for a living; or at least have the means and time to see many films near their release date.  Not being one of those people, it has obviously taken me some time to see enough films from last year to feel comfortable making my definitive “best of 2011” list (as of July 2012).  Having had many of the prestige movies in critic circles and major commercial successes work their way up my Netflix queue, I am ready to unveil my favorites.  It was difficult to sift through all the great films I saw and limit it to the top ten – let alone rank those pictures after I made my decision.  There were many worthy of consideration, but I am quite pleased by how things have turned out with my favorites representing a variety of genres and mixing well-established filmmakers with exciting up-and-comers.  

With this post, I would like to begin a new feature on Mark It 8, Dude.  Every few months, I plan to begin counting down the years, toward the beginning of time, and sharing my top ten lists for each year (obviously, another idea I have lifted from the Filmspotting podcast).  “Mark it 2010” may appear come autumn with “Mark it 2009” following in winter, and so on.  I assume that it will take a similar time period to catch up with 2012’s year in film, so “Mark it 2012” will most likely be dropped in somewhere in the middle of the countdown next summer. 

This will be the beginning of a fun project on Mark It 8, Dude that I hope my readers will enjoy.  I look forward to hearing your responses to my favorites of 2011 and perhaps even reading some of your own top ten lists – please share.

Honorable Mentions:  50/50Attack the Block, The Girl With the Dragon TattooHarry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two, Rango, Take Shelter, The Tree of Life

#10)  Rise of the Planet of the Apes – Mark it 7.

Rarely are summer blockbusters better made than Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  Taking on the origin story of the Planet of the Apes saga in a realistic way (by movie standards), the trip from testing chimpanzees to find the cure for Alzheimer’s to an army of super-intelligent apes taking over San Francisco is a wild 90-minute ride.  So much is crammed into its running time, but every major character feels well developed and none of the major plot points feel rushed.  In a fast-paced action film, that is quite the achievement.  However, there is more to Rise of the Planet of the Apes that its exciting story and amazing action sequences (though the battle on the Golden Gate Bridge is about as cool as battles can get).  Andy Serkis (of Lord of the Rings’ Gollum fame) is back in a CGI-rendered role, as Caesar, the smartest of the apes that leads the rebellion.  The work Serkis does, and the animators who interpret his performance, is fantastic.  He perfectly matches the mannerisms of a chimpanzee but also allows for the subtlest of human emotions to break through.  Serkis’ Caesar gives the film its heart, helping lift it above most stereotypical blockbuster fare.

#9)  The Interrupters – Mark it 8.

Living in any major American city, one becomes all too familiar with the tragic stories of violence and murder that arise everyday.  It is easy to become numb to such horrors, but that reaction is dangerous for a society; we should never be numbed to violence and murder.  In Steve James’ powerful documentary, The Interrupters, we get to witness how one group in Chicago rejects acceptance of this violence.  Following a group of heroic individuals, CeaseFire’s “Violence Interrupters,” we get to meet many charismatic and passionate people, often with dark histories of their own, who have put violence behind them and now help others find solutions to their problems that don’t involve bloodshed.  It takes a courageous group of special individuals to do this work as they enter numerous hostile situations throughout the city.  Once the “Interrupters” can gain someone’s respect, it is amazing to watch them work.  They show love and respect to people who rarely receive enough of it rather than lecture from a soapbox.  If their message gets through and one murder is prevented, the work is worthwhile. There is so much potential in every person that is continually wasted via the needless homicides in our cities.

#8)  Martha Marcy May Marlene – Mark it 8.

Sean Durkin’s debut, Martha Marcy May Marlene, is probably the creepiest film I saw all year.  Through Durkin’s masterful editing, the audience is bounced back an forth between the days that Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) becomes indoctrinated by a rural cult in upstate New York and the days after her escape to her sister’s lake house in Connecticut.  As she is brainwashed by the charming, but evil, cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes), the lasting effects that this experience had becomes more apparent at her sister’s house.  This idyllic rural lifestyle has horrifying secrets slowly revealed throughout the film.  Through these secrets, we sense how real and intense that the paranoia felt by Martha after she leaves is.  Our own grasp on the reality in the picture also begins to disintegrate by the end of the film, and its brilliantly ambiguous ending will leave you shaking.  However, Martha Marcy May Marlene can only be as good as Olsen’s performance and she delivers on every level.   She powerfully portrays the rebellious but naive young girl who makes easy prey for the cult leader, the devout follower who helps indoctrinate others, and the tortured soul who realizes the dark path her life is taken.  

#7)   The Artist  - Mark it 8.

Far more than a novelty act, Michel Hazanavicious’ ode to the silent era is a great film worthy of the many accolades it received during Hollywood’s awards season.  The Artist captures, to a “T,” the look and feel of the silent films that dominated the screen until 1930s.  And the simple story it tells is both touching and exhilarating.  You feel simultaneously sad and happy to see the fall of an aging star of silent movies, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) alongside the rise of his protégé and love interest, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo).  These two French actors sparkle on screen with big gestures, bigger smiles, loads of energy, and great onscreen chemistry.  Watching them take on the unique personas that silent stars had to have is a joy to watch.  Any audience, from the most learned film historians to Joe Popcorn at the multiplex, will be won over by The Artist.  Whether you see it as a loving tribute to a bygone era or something weird and new, it is worthy of a viewing.  Not liking The Artist is something I cannot understand (the debate arises over the degree in which one likes it).

#6)  Hanna – Mark it 8.

There are many great films in the “girls kicking ass” genre, and when I watched Hanna, it quickly emerged as one of the best (though Kill Bill still reigns supremely).  With its pulsating Chemical Brothers score, excellent direction from Joe Wright (stepping outside his Pride and Prejudice and Atonement comfort zone), and standout performance by Saoirse Ronan, Hanna is such a fun cinema experience.  In the early scenes in the Scandinavian wilderness where we see Hanna trained to be a killer super-spy by her father (Eric Bana) it became clear that this would feature a unique heroine.  Once her quest to kill the evil CIA agent, Marissa Weigler (Cate Blanchett) begins, Hanna turns into a wild ride across a continent.  Hanna must navigate an outside world she’s never seen before (hearing her first piece of music and making her first friends) while facing countless dangers.  It is a joy to watch her rigorous training put to use against these dangers and see the interesting mystery behind her life unfold.  This film is action done right, with a touch of artfulness that sets it apart from its contemporaries in the genre.

#5)  Melancholia – Mark it 8.

Melancholia is a film about depression and the end of the world by a controversial filmmaker, Lars von Trier, known for challenging his artists.  But it is nowhere near as dire as it sounds.  From the 8-minute opening sequence of slow motion shots set to an epic Wagner soundtrack on, this film had me hooked.  In the beginning we know Earth’s tragic fate (being engulfed by the titular giant gaseous planet), but through getting to know a pair of sisters (Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg), the emotions felt at the end of the world are intense.  One sister, Justine (Dunst) is severely depressed, as shown in the most uncomfortable wedding reception ever, which enables her to cope with the doom on its way.  The other sister, Claire (Gainsbourg), has a happy life to lose so the world’s end brings about painful panic.  This is a sincere portrait of depression and anxiety through the lens of a catastrophe.  Melancholia’s two great lead performances had me deeply invested in these sisters’ relationship and their fate.  Von Trier has made a beautiful and accessible film (by his standards), with a climactic ending that is amazing to behold (and listen to, loudly).

#4)  Midnight in Paris Mark it 8.

One of the world’s greatest filmmakers, Woody Allen, made his best piece of work in years with Midnight in Paris.  Taking on the classic “Woody” role is Owen Wilson as Gil, a semi-successful writer who dreams of producing more profound work.  Poor Gil is stuck on a vacation in a beautifully shot Paris with his superficial fiancé (Rachel McAdams), future in-laws, and her painfully pretentious – and hilarious – professor friend (Michael Sheen).  All he wants is to be inspired by the sights and sounds that literature’s greats were influenced by generations before.  This is an amusing little comedy as is, but Allen adds a bit of magic that takes Midnight in Paris to another level.  A mysterious cab ride at midnight takes Gil to another era completely.  Mingling with his heroes, such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, and finding his muse (the gorgeous Marion Cotillard) allows him to follow his passion and transform his perspective on his present situation.  Yet Woody Allen does not allow one to just bask in the memories of long ago.  While celebrating the great art of our past, Midnight in Paris teaches us to also appreciate life that’s occurring before our eyes instead of always waxing nostalgic. 

#3)  Drive – Mark it 8.

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is perfectly summed up in one word, “cool.”  From the moment its '80s-sounding electronic music plays and the hot pink font appears over downtown Los Angeles, there is no doubt that you are immersed in a unique film.  In the first 10 minutes (worthy of top ten consideration on its own), Ryan Gosling’s Driver is in complete control behind the wheel as he leads the getaway in a heist, but the mystery behind his character is overpowering.  That mystery will play a huge role throughout the film as he falls in love with a neighbor down the hall (my girl, Carey Mulligan), and gets swept up in the dirtiest side of the crime world.  Drive absolutely drips with style, but style is not all it has going for it.  Despite its simplicity, you are fascinated by the Driver’s ability to surprise us all by meeting his adversaries head on, with shocking instances of ultra-violence.  With a great supporting cast (Bryan Cranston, Oscar Isaac, Ron Pearlman, and Albert Brooks), unique style, exciting music, and fantastic direction, Drive put Refn on my map of directors to be excited about in the future.

#2)  The Descendants – Mark it 9.

Few films of 2011 affected more than Alexander Payne’s The Descendants.  The sentimentality of a father connecting with his two troubled daughters over a tragic event that turns their world upside down worked me over wonderfully.  George Clooney, one of my favorite actors, gives what I think is his best performance to date.  He is able to keep his incredible coolness (relatively) in check as an average dad who is juggling so many huge pressures such as the impending death of his wife, the reveal of his wife’s infidelity, getting to really know his daughters for the first time, and making a decision on his extended family’s multi-million dollar real estate deal.  The performances make this movie with Clooney and his two daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) taking the lead, with a great supporting performance from Robert Forester right behind.  After a string of great films (Election, About Schmidt, Sideways), Payne’s emotionally touching and darkly funny style has never been better.  Pardon the cliché, but I laughed and I cried during The Descendants.  And when I rewatched it, the film only got better, which is always a good sign.

Look for my favorite film of 2011 in the next post...

**You can also read about these films in past Mark It 8, Dude posts:
The InterruptersMartha Marcy May Marlene, The ArtistHannaMelancholiaThe Descendants

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Artist (2011)

Directed by Michel Hazanavicious
Starring Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman

I must admit that when The Artist became the award season darling last winter, I became a little suspicious that it was a case of Hollywood showing how cutting edge it was by recognizing something as novel as a modern-era silent film.  It felt to me like that wave of momentum allowed the film to sweep its way to the Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor Oscars.  Nevertheless, I wanted to check out The Artist myself to see if it was the gimmick I was suspicious of or the sincere homage that I hoped it could be.  While my experience in silent film is not extensive, I have been watching them here and there since high school.  The silent era is a fascinating segment in cinematic history, and within the first few minutes of The Artist my doubts were alleviated by the filmmakers’ genuine fondness for this past era.

The narrative thread within The Artist is neither complex nor original, the fall of aging star coupled with the rise of his young protégé.  But its simple story is so well executed that it does not matter that we familiar with the theme.  Academy Award winning Jean Dujardin is a scene-stealing figure as George Valentin.  Arrogant but likable, Valentin is the world’s biggest movie star whose smile in your presence (when there are photographers around) is enough to lift an aspiring actress out of irrelevance.  This kind of encounter with the plucky Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) sparks the rise of a protégé.  Stuck in the ways of the past, the advent of “talkies” precipitates the old star’s fall.  Through the course of The Artist, we root for the lovely Peppy to reach her dreams and help poor George regain his happiness.

With a French director and two French leads at the helm, The Artist unexpectedly hits every note right in its tribute to Hollywood’s earliest golden age.  Dujardin and Bejo perfectly embody the performances of the silent era.  Without words to express themselves, a silent performance relies so much on exaggerated body language and facial expressions to get their points across.  The leads accomplish this feat, as do many familiar faces in supporting roles (such as John Goodman and James Cromwell).  There were even some sequences where Dujardin evoked Charlie Chaplin or Douglas Fairbanks, which is quite the compliment.  His performance is more than an impression of screen legends but is filled with great weight and powerful emotion as George's world begins crumbling around him.  But there is a lot of refreshing lightness to his performance as well.  When George is on the silver screen or interacting with The Artist's adorable Jack Russell Terrier, Dujardin proves to be a great comedian.  It is a performance worthy of the accolades it received.

Bérénice Bejo’s performance is just as strong.  With every big wink, shining smile, and fun-loving dance, you will fall in love with her Peppy Miller just as the audiences in the film did.  She rides the wave to the top but never forgets the person who gave her the first break, George Valentin.  The connection that George and Peppy make gives The Artist its love story.  Their love plants a grain of hope even when circumstances seem their most dire and swells to amazing highs when they can share the spotlight.

Director Michel Hazanavicious carefully crafted The Artist to resemble the films of our past.  From the opening credits on, its sincere sense of loving nostalgia washed over me.  Ludovic Bource’s Oscar winning  score and the sights of old Hollywood with its glittering marquees transports you into an era long-gone.  These were the first people to master a new technology then reinvent themselves to accommodate further innovation.  It was an exciting time to be in the movies, but one where you must have been adaptable to successfully make the transition to "talking" pictures.  When you are on top of the world, it is always difficult to face the unknown challenges that threaten your success.  Through George Valentin, The Artist captures the struggle that artists of the silent era had to deal with and it is an interesting story.

Most of all, a person just has a lot of fun while watching The Artist.  Whether you are a film buff who likes to dig through the archives of cinema history or a casual moviegoer who normally runs away from a lack of color (let alone color and sound), it will be easy to get caught up in the story.  It is a sweet, funny, and touching tribute to the silent era with excellent performances and memorable scenes throughout.

With all the love that The Artist universally received, I hope the audiences become inspired to check out the silent films that inspired Hazanavicious in the first place.  Obviously, masters like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton are good places to start but the well is way deeper than those two icons; so deep that I will not even pretend to be an expert.  But I now want to make a conscious effort to become a better-educated cinephile on that front.

Mark it 8.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Tree of Life (2011)

Directed by Terrence Malick
Starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken

Averaging one film every ten years, new Terrence Malick (Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World) is always highly anticipated.  His most recent effort, The Tree of Life, was probably the most polarizing film of 2011. Many filmgoers heralded it as one of the year’s best for its ambition and its beauty, and just as many despised it for its complexity and pretension.  One theater even posted warning signs to inform guests that The Tree of Life is a “uniquely visionary and deeply philosophical film from an auteur director.  It does not follow a traditional, linear narrative approach to storytelling.  [The theater] encourages patrons to read up on the film before choosing to see it... and know that the [theater] has a NO-REFUND policy.”   I guess there were a lot of folks who base their film choices on the celebrity of its star (they should blame Brad Pitt for their bad experience, I suppose).  When I was one of those theatergoers last summer, I fell somewhere in the middle; it had me perplexed, no doubt, but it was such an amazing achievement that I couldn’t help but be impressed.  Its naysayers’ critiques had some validity, but its champions also made fair points.  A year after my first Tree of Life experience, I was ready to give it another look to see how it grew on me.  Surprisingly, most of my initial opinion remained intact upon a second viewing.

Giving The Tree of Life a quick plot summary is a difficult task but I shall try.  The film revolves around the memories of a middle-aged man (Sean Penn), as he reflects upon his life growing up in the 1950s on the anniversary of his younger brother’s death in Vietnam.  This reflection leads him to also think about life’s origins (from the Big Bang and Earth’s cooling crust to single-cell organisms and dinosaurs, until his very own birth) and what the afterlife will look like.  Malick weaves these heavy themes through ethereal whispers and images of family and majestic scenes of nature, with the links connecting the narrative hard to distinguish.  

Clearly The Tree of Life sets out to accomplish a lot, and parts of it work great while others feel gratuitous.  That was the feeling I had after both viewing of this film.  When the film narrows its focus to the family, with Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain as the parents of three young boys, The Tree of Life truly shines.  Hunter McCracken portrays Jack, the oldest son (Sean Penn’s character in the film’s more modern times).  These scenes of childhood are so engrossing, with the camera moving around in a dreamlike quality providing only snapshots of a time long gone.  Every formative moment in young Jack’s life is included.  Malick beautifully and artfully visualizes growing up, with innocuous moments often providing the most significance.  But the words are mere whispers and the images feel surreal.  One cannot help but reflect on their own past while they watch The Tree of Life, thinking of their own personal snapshots of childhood.  It is an enriching experience.

As Jack gets older and develops further, the film’s opening line gains great significance.  The film dissects life into two perspectives, the “way of grace” and the “way of nature.”  Throughout the film we see how Jack’s two parents symbolize each approach.  Living through grace involves the acceptance of being slighted and acceptance of insults and injury, like the mother character.  However, one living in the “way of grace” will always be loved.  On the other hand, nature only wants to please itself and have others please them, finding reasons to be unhappy.  With the father’s ambitions falling short, he is living the “way of nature” and utterly unhappy, resulting in a stern parenting style that leaves him unloved.  Hunter McCracken’s performance shows a boy who wants to live in grace but is stuck with too much nature in his soul.  Perhaps it was the younger brother killed in Vietnam with the grace that the world lost out on.  Through Jack’s memories of adolescence, we can see what led him toward the way of nature and sadness he feels as an adult, when Penn takes over the role.

Unfortunately, Terrence Malick has more on his mind than the process of growing up into the adult you will become.  The Tree of Life tackles even larger issues, which is where I took issue with the film.  Most memorably, Malick chronicles life on Earth in an extended 20-minute section.  As life transforms from the Big Bang to dinosaurs to babies, we are awed by his craftsmanship and ambition.  This sequence is incredible filmmaking, but takes you out of the film.  I went from being engrossed in the film to just thinking about the director’s technical capabilities.  It is impressive, but hurts the film.  Malick also turns his attention to the afterlife with Sean Penn meeting the people of his past on a rocky beach.  This sequence fits in which the aesthetics of the larger picture a little better but still feels awkward.  When we are watching the kids interact and the parents figure out how to raise them, The Tree of Life nears masterpiece status.  Holding it back from that pedestal are the times it reaches to be more important, leaving it cold and difficult.

I cannot stress enough how much I love the childhood scenes (which admittedly is the majority of the film).  Malick captures being a little boy in way that is timeless and mesmerizing. He is able to highlight the certain sounds and images that stick out in a child’s memories.  The music of the film, often the classical pieces loved by the parents, provides a wonderful soundtrack weaving these memories together.  The Tree of Life is no doubt a display of virtuosic filmmaking, and Malick's achievement is  admirable.  If only the scope was narrowed slightly, Malick’s achievement could be event greater.

If one knows what they are in store for, I would highly recommend The Tree of Life, if only for just the new filmic experience.  The direction is amazing, the performances are great, and it is so beautiful to look at.  If you can get past the sequences that take you out of the experience, the reflections on childhood alone are worthy of viewing.  Healthy and intelligent debate will surely arise after you watch, and that is always a good result.

Mark it 7.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Directed by Wes Anderson
Starring Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Edward Norton

There is no filmmaker in the business with a distinct and personal style quite like Wes Anderson.  From frame one, there is no doubt you are in a Wes Anderson film, and that fact is often exciting (but sometimes annoying, depending on the one’s personal tastes).  For myself, a new Wes Anderson film will always be exciting even though I have found his career thus far to have both considerable highs and lows.  His debut, Bottle Rocket, is one of my all-time favorite comedies, and the two follow-ups, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums rank close behind.  While The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited had that undeniable “Anderson-flair,” his touches did not make up for what I thought were a lack of compelling stories (though I am interested in revisiting both films).  However, his stop-motion animation film, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, was the step back in the right direction that made me once again excited to see what he was capable of next.  I couldn’t wait to find out if Moonrise Kingdom would be Anderson’s full-fledged return to glory or a continuance of his mid-2000s lull.

Moonrise Kingdom takes place during the 1960s in the fictional island of New Penzance.  We quickly learn a lot about this island in true Wes Anderson fashion from the town historian (Bob Balaban) who lays out its history, geography, and culture.  New Penzance is an odd little community where everyone knows each other and the town rallies to make things return to the status quo.  Two young people, Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), interrupt that status quo by fleeing their respective homes to follow their hearts and reunite.  Obviously, in such a tight-knit community, there are people quickly on their trail.

In setting up the situations that Sam and Suzy are leaving, Anderson is given an opportunity to showcase his visual style.  Sam is an orphan whose strange tendencies have labeled him as “troubled” and without any friends at the Khaki Scout camp where he is spending the summer.  Suzy is another friendless loner, receiving that “troubled” label, who is stuck in a giant home amidst her loveless family.  The film begins with classical music playing on Suzy’s record player as she walks around her giant dollhouse of a home in complete boredom, with her only solace coming books and binoculars.  When we are (almost) introduced to Sam, it is through Edward Norton’s Scout Master Ward’s thorough and hilarious check-in at every station of the camp, until we learn that Sam has left to put his scouting skills to use in the wilderness as he reunites with Suzy (she escaped from home with her books and binoculars packed for the adventure).

In the world of New Penzance, Wes Anderson’s unique touches always work perfectly.  The camera slides from room to room in Moonrise Kingdom’s opening, following Suzy around her architecturally impossible homestead.  Life in the Khacki Scout camp similarly defies logic, but that poses no problem in a Wes Anderson film.  His characters and settings always feel like they are from an alternate universe, and if its story is interesting, that Anderson universe is somewhere I want to be.  Moonrise Kingdom’s story of two kids doing anything for love and the community uniting to find them worked on every level for me.

Moonrise Kingdom’s success largely hinges on its two first-time actors playing the kids, Gilman and Hayward.  Under Anderson’s careful direction, their performances work so well as they match the many cinema greats in supporting roles (such as Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Bruce Willis, Tilda Swinton) when delivering Anderson’s trademark dialogue that is so stilted and deadpan.   Sam and Suzy bring a lot of laughs to the film, and most importantly, the love story between the two is very beliebable.  From the set up of their love through a series of letters and reunion in the meadow to the culmination of their love as they awkwardly dance and kiss on the beach, every beat in this relationship is fun to watch.  Moonrise Kingdom has a lot of experienced talent in its cast, but it remains at its best when the two most inexperienced actors take center stage.

Though the stars of Moonrise Kingdom are the kids, its supporting characters are all strong as well.  As Suzy’s lawyer parents, Bill Murray and Frances McDormand, are excellent as two people whose love has soured and lives have become dull.  In the beginning, they are under the same roof but very distant until Suzy’s disappearance forces them to awkwardly reconnect.  Murray is especially funny every time he appears on screen.  Two actors new to Wes Anderson, Edward Norton and Bruce Willis, also shine as lonely men who are given the opportunity to show their worth in the search for the missing children.  Both men, Scout Master Ward (Norton) and Captain Sharp (Willis), love their jobs and are great at what they do until Sam’s plan throws a wrench in their lives.   Throughout the search, their capabilities are questioned and reaffirmed and their lives improve in the process.  They will make you laugh a lot during that time too.

All the characters in smaller roles are also really good:  Tilda Swinton’s Social Services, Jason Schwartzman and Harvey Keitel as two Scout Masters at a rival Khacki Scout camp, Bob Balaban’s town historian, and all the other young scouts who help chase down Sam and Suzy.  The scope and skill of Moonrise Kingdom’s ensemble cast is on par with Anderson’s great film, The Royal Tenenbaums.

I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of Moonrise Kingdom’s whimsical and sometimes impossible story.  Anderson’s direction and his cast were excellent, the cinematography was appealing (mimicking an old 16mm print), and his musical choices were, as always, perfect.  I cannot wait to reemerge myself in the world of New Penzance and notice even more riches it has to offer.  With Moonrise Kingdom, it is clear that Wes Anderson has returned to his earlier days of glory, which is great news to film buffs everywhere.

When thinking about how I would “mark” this film, I initially thought it would be an easy 8.  But it has stuck with me more and more in the days since seeing it.  I cannot wait to watch it again and truly believe that it will be one of those films that get better and better with every viewing.  Therefore, it’s getting bumped up to the next level...

Mark it 9.