Archive for the ‘Film Reviews!’ Category

Film Reviews!: I Love You Phillip Morris

January 7, 2011

I Love You Phillip Morris is so good it’s hard to remember what type of movie you are watching.  That isn’t some hyperbolic statement intended to garner curiosity or to make the author (moi) seem wiser than reality would hold true, one actually comes away from Phillip Morris in such awe of the story just told that it merits a reminder that what the audience just viewed was a comedy.  A fabulous, fully-functioning comedy, but a comedy, nonetheless.

Based on a fantastical, too-good-to-be-true story, Phillip Morris revolves around a con-man’s (Carrey) life as he continually commits insurance fraud, breaks out of jail, and pursues the man he is so wildly in love with, the titular Phillip Morris (McGregor).  Carrey and McGregor fill the screen so fully throughout the entirety of this movie that there is hardly any room for anyone else onscreen.  And the amazing outcome is that it absolutely works.  Spending over 100 minutes with the hyper-dynamic couple of McGregor and Carrey is not only feasible, it’s preferred.  Short of a select few incredibly minute supporting roles that do help to push the story along, McGregor and Carrey’s frenetic entanglement of a relationship and life together creates an environment so perfect and exciting that you need nothing more than their own excellent camerawork.

Carrey and McGregor’s performances truly are what make this endeavor the brilliant outing that it is.  Not only do they perfectly capture the comedic timing and comical minutiae that make the story work so well, they also manage to create two entirely lovable, relateable characters, also.  Carrey brings Steven Russell to life with relative ease while Ewan McGregor makes a Morris into an equally versed, yet fragile romantic foil for Carrey’s Russell.  One of the biggest accomplishments of the stars (and certainly the screenwriters as well) is their ability to produce a comedy about a homosexual love affair in prison without once making the relationship feel cheap, trite, or cliche.  While the entire movie is incredibly funny, it never gives in to any cheap material about homosexuality or even the gay community, at large.  The story evolves at the perfect pace and never has any need or space to fit any banal, pedestrian humor about the couple’s sexual orientation into the grand scheme of things.  Instead, the couple feels absolutely fitting as the hectic world that they have built around themselves speeds by them.  Carrey and McGregor are adorable together and have you rooting for them as a team from the very get-go.  The chemistry that they share and the duo that they so quickly become is what gives the film such an intense feeling of charm, without which the movie would certainly be lost.

The score and cinematography both ring true to the story at hand and guide everything along to create the perfect atmosphere for Carrey and McGregor’s basically two-man show.  The true masterpiece of Phillip Morris‘ technical expertise, however, is the script.  The writing team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa have created an airtight screenplay that never lingers or moves too expediently.  Instead, Ficarra and Requa’s screenplay moves at just the right pace to pack year’s worth of action into a movie under two hours leaving you wanting more while simultaneously tying up each and every possible loose end or tangential piece of the narrative.  And while it would be easy to credit the story’s perfect pacing to the original book it was based off of, that simply is not the case.  What Ficarra and Requa have accomplished is a story perfectly, succinctly, and genuinely told in the language of the cinema.  Their story fully utilizes the cinematic medium, utilizing brilliant quick cuts, and edits to bring everything together.  One of the best moments of the film occurs while the camera lingers on Carrey and McGregor, slow dancing in their cells while their neighbor cellmate gets beaten, offscreen, by a battalion of cops to beautiful music.  It is an absolutely brilliant moment that is perfectly encapsulated through the meeting of imagery and sound.  Something that the pages of a book simply cannot deliver.

I started this review out by stating that Phillip Morris makes the audience forget the type of movie they’re watching.  While true that the audience may forget, I want to clarify that the movie itself NEVER forgets.  I Love You Phillip Morris never stops succeeding as a superior comedy, it just ALSO succeeds as a genuine film.  Phillip Morris is funny, touching, passionate, fulfilling, exciting, and extremely well put-together.  Great acting and great writing come together to tell a great story in one of the best entries of 2010.

Score/Soundtrack:  70/100

Performance/Direction:  94/100

Script:  93/100

Cinematography/Aesthetics:  82/100

Overall:  90/100


Film Reviews!: 127 Hours

January 4, 2011

Danny Boyle has a knack for this thing called “making films.”  He’s one of the few directors who is capable of fully integrating the “crowd-pleasing-epic” and the “critical success”.  And all my jumbled, mixed-up grammar aside, he has an incredible ability to tell a story succinctly, while packing in as much cinematic extravagance as possible.  His work stretches the boundaries of storytelling while managing to not alienate anyone in the audience.  In Boyle’s latest, 127 Hours, the director of Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire, and 28 Days Later, utilizes many of his signature techniques to keep a film that could have potentially been disastrously boring into an absolute masterpiece.

The “based-on-a-true-story” premise that 127 Hours is hinged upon gives rise to a fascinating tale.  A mountain climber, Aron Ralston, tumbles into a crevasse during a routine expedition.  His arm becomes lodged in between a boulder and a canyon wall.  Trapped between a rock and a hard place (1. I couldn’t resist, and 2. That’s actually the name of Ralston’s autobiography) Ralston is forced to ration his food and water supplies and ponder his escape/entire existence over the course of the next five days.  While the story itself is quite captivating, it doesn’t necessarily lend itself to cinematic undertakings.  The crux of the adventure takes place in a desert canyon where Ralston basically re-evaluates his life and does everything in his power to break free of his imprisonment while inflicting as little damage upon himself as possible.  While this story makes excellent fodder for a book, where the author can extrapolate and work tangentially on how he felt and where his mind would wander during moments of excruciating pain, desperation, and anxiety, it’s difficult to convey such thematic devices in the world of cinema when your protagonist cannot move a single inch from the spot he’s anchored to.  All this just to say that a lessor director would not have been able to convey half of what Danny Boyle did with this story in this medium.

It’s the inventiveness of storytelling that truly makes this film such a raving success.  Boyle takes chronological economy to an entirely different level with his distribution of time to specific aspects of the story.  He spends the first fifteen minutes of the film setting the stage for the eventual accident that would change Ralston’s life forever, while simultaneously giving us a perfect dose of insight into Ralston’s character as a thrill-seeker and a competent outdoorsman.  The last ten minutes detail Ralston’s escape and his eventual rescue at the hands of a couple from the Netherlands after he rappelled down a 65 foot drop…with one arm.  What we are left with is roughly 70 minutes in the center of the film where Ralston is left to his own devices as he attempts to free himself from his stone prison.

A combination of dream sequences, moments of reminiscence, and actual attempts to free himself make what could be an awfully dull, painful ordeal (for the audience, nyuk,nyuk, nyuk) into a thrilling stretch of cinematic brilliance.  While Boyle makes use of every cinematic technique in the book, from daydreaming, to Ralston narrating for himself, to Ralston even speaking directly to his handycam that he brought along, in a confessional-style, one-man interview, no part of the story ever feels forced, disjointed, or out of place.  Boyle seemlessly interweaves these cinematic elements without losing sight of the tale at hand and without any obvious attempt of indulgence.

The score manages to echo the sentiments of the story well, without becoming a burden.  Boyle’s use of sound brings the stark reality of Ralston’s dire situation across the gap of reality as Ralston continually drifts in and out of consciousness.  Sound, more than music, aids Boyle’s vision, with one of my favorite devices consisting of the scene in which Ralston begins to sever his arm.  While a horrifying experience to watch, regardless, hearing the static, electronic buzz whenever Ralston hit a tendon became an actual device to make the viewer physically recoil.  creating a visceral reaction with a mere sound effect, a good director does make.  Finally, the score of the movie does so much to aid the climax of the film, that by the movie’s denouement the  you realize that you are being coaxed out of the summit of the climax by the score itself.  While the visuals onscreen do plenty to celebrate the ending of this film the way it should be, the musical accompaniment is what seals the package together.

The cinematography also cannot be praised highly enough.  And while certain shots of the desert and its never-ending expanses of desolation stand alone as being breath-takingly captivating, the reason for the thumbs up is the adept utilization of the cinematography itself, not necessarily the shots that are accomplished.  Being trapped with literally no room to spare, Boyle had his work cut out for him framing a film in which all the action was to take place either in a 1 foot by 1 foot square, or in the mind of the protagonist.  But no part of 127 Hours feels stereotypical as the average memory play generally does.  To further reinforce the point, the beauty behind this offering is Boyle’s ingenuity in telling a tale, and the cinematography most notably echoes this, utilizing multiple flashbacks, differing angles and cinematic techniques, and even different cameras, as Ralston turns to his personal handycam whenever he looks to document his situation.  It’s the cycling-through of techniques, the shifting of the physical lens through which the audience views the story, that keeps the dynamism of the film alive.

And finally, James Franco must be lauded for a performance that forces the viewer to invest.  Franco does an incredible job of crafting a character who is both fully competent and fully vulnerable all at the same time.  This simple dichotomy becomes crucial to Boyle’s world-building as the audience needs to feel Ralston’s competency in order to not simply lose all hope, while at the same time feeling the exasperated desperation of the character’s seemingly inevitable demise.  Franco is able to beautifully balance these two extremes while still creating a character that is both charismatic and a delight to watch onscreen.  As with Boyle, a lessor actor would have naively rested on merely his instincts and begot a more boring alternative.

With what appears to be a largely anti-cinematic story, Danny Boyle has constructed one of the best movies of the year.  By simply entertaining multiple theatrical and cinematic constructs and from focusing on original storytelling techniques, a simple story of a trapped mountain climber manages to become an inspirational epic about perseverance and the human will.

Performance/Directing: 88/100

Score/Soundtrack: 84/100

Script: 85/100

Cinematography: 88/100

Overall: 92/100

Film Reviews!: Enter the Void

December 24, 2010

I woke up today still feeling off-kilter from the previous night’s endeavor.  After seeing Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void one can only be so lucky as to call their disposition ‘slightly off-kilter.’  While I realize that every other critic has taken the opportunity to quip something along the lines of Noe’s work being an “assault,” it’s very hard to write anything adverse to this notion or even ancillary to it.  Simply put, Noe’s recent work is a difficult watch, and not strictly for its content, but rather, its style.

Noe’s 154-minute epic chronicling the AFTER-life of a Tokyo-based drug dealer maintains an unrelenting visual and audible affront on the audience.  With a constant, nagging strobe effect, Gaspar makes the gaudy neon glare of Tokyo all the more unwavering.  For what he clearly seeks to accomplish, it works, however, the methodology behind this choice remains ambiguous.  While I cannot champion unique editing and production concepts enough, Enter the Void utilizes techniques and forms that seem to be entirely antithetical to the story being told.  The general feeling becomes that Noe is simply recycling his favorite cinematic devices from past endeavors (i.e. Irreversible) that he feels comfortable with and that he is certain set him apart.  These cinematic constructs feel tacked on, not organic in and of themselves.  The story’s methodical, reflective, contemplative pace doesn’t really lend to the persistent annoyance of the strobe effect.  The strobing, in fact, typically took away from the story’s unfolding, as the audience is continually pulled out of the action onscreen and made cognizant of the visual barrage Gaspar is clearly perpetrating.  And while it can be argued that this was his end intent, one would think that Noe went to an awful lot of work in story building and production design only to purposefully distract and detract from the piece onscreen.

The performances are interesting from a technical standpoint as two of the three main characters are not actors in a traditional sense, and this film is their actual onscreen debut.  Oscar, through whom the entire story is told, presents almost no persona to grasp any semblance of character off of.   And while it can both be argued that he is constantly in a d drug-induced mental fog OR that NOE wanted the audience to be able to implant themselves as the main character, there are far too many personal moments in the film’s reflective story that require some sort of response from Oscar.  Big, ridiculous moments that deal with incest, loyalty, personal, psychological trauma, separation, loss, and love make this film far too intimate and individualized to argue that the audience should be able to implant as the character.  Oscar has far too much baggage and emotional investment in the story to merely serve as an empty canister for the audience.  Further, even if that was his goal, the audience cannot function well as their own hero when every element of their story is so sincerely drawn up for them.

Meanwhile, Alex, the other non-actor played by Cyril Roy, does a well-enough job to not merit any harsh criticism on his performance.  His point of view and desires are typically clear and without confusion, and he actually comes across making stronger decisions than Linda, (played by Paz de la Huerta) the single ‘formal’ actor in the entirety of the cast of main characters.  Much about de la Huerta’s performance leaves a great deal to be desired.  The audience knows next to nothing about her adolescence (roughly ages 5-18) and when she stops off the plane in Tokyo she seems very well-disciplined and put-together.  Within the course of what then seems like two days, she divulges into a train wreck of a human being.  And it’s very hard to find any semblance of compassion or care for the character.  Her constant disaffected countenance (whether supposedly elicited by a drug-induced stupor or by her now defunct sense of self-worth) never really amounts to any sort of tangible character progression or regression or even digression.  More or less, the character of Linda functionally becomes more of an object to be desired or cared for or missed by Oscar than she ever was an actual character.

The score is something else entirely as its pulsating, rhythmic undulations constantly underline the visual effects of Gaspar’s never-ending strobe.  Its entire goal is to further herald the sickeningly methodical pace of the film, and for that it certainly accomplishes what it needs.  The problem, again, is that this never seems to coincide with the STORY of the film.  At no point during the story’s evolution does it seem to fit to have a droning, cattywampus score playing alongside the action onscreen.  It acts as a deterrent to anything meshing onscreen and seems to be an element brought in from the past that acts more as a device than any sort of cinematic complement or even addition.

If there’s one thing that doesn’t seem entirely counter-intuitive to the entirety of the production it’s the cinematography.  Noe has an incredible eye for telling the most breath-taking story possible through multiple lens’, cranes, cameras, and angles.  The midnight Tokyo cityscape is simply electric through Gaspar’s lens with all its neon glory.  While the multiple crane shots do begin to become old hat in the film’s third hour, they do provide an incredible, sweeping sensation that adds to the post-mortem crux of the story.

One of the most incredible aspects of the camerawork, however, would have to be Gaspar’s mobilization of the audience’s gaze.  When Oscar is alive, the audience sees everything through his eyes…literally.  In a first-person format, Oscar IS the camera.  What he sees, we see directly, and nothing else.  Oscar’s blinks even register and play into the equation.  After Oscar’s demise, flashbacks are generally taken in third person, over Oscar’s shoulders.  And when not in flashback, we are back to what is most likely first person, riding with Oscar’s disembodied spirit through space and time, sans blinks.  It really is a fascinating technique and works well for what Noe seeks out of his screenplay.

Despite the incredible visuals, however, Noe simply can’t seem to get a hold on the feel of the movie.  One of the best examples I can think of is the very introduction to the film itself.  The flick opens with an incredibly fast-paced, manic, epic title sequence that readies the viewer for something so grand, so crazed, so frenzied, so berserk that the audience simply cannot wait to see what’s next.  This state of hyper-stimulation and aggressive display are then transitioned into an incredibly lax, languid moment in the script that does little to ever appropriately amp up.  And that’s the entirety of this effort, visuals and audio that tells the audience one thing while the story tells it another.

Score/Sound: 57/100

Screenplay/Story: 54/100

Performance/Direction: 32/100

Cinematography: 70/100

Overall: 50/100

Film Reviews! Hereafter

December 22, 2010

Clint Eastwood has a long and storied professional history that spans across half a century and includes some of the most prolific titles of all time as well as some of the most memorable Oscar contenders of the last ten years.  His latest flick, Hereafter, is certainly not one of those aforementioned movies.

Hereafter is the story of a retired psychic (Matt Damon) recently laid off of his  job in construction, just looking to find his place in the world while being hounded with a what he considers a psychic ‘curse’ that keeps him withdrawn and alone.  His brother (played by an alarmingly aged Jay Mohr) looks to drag him back into the psychic reading game in order to best ‘help people’ (see: make money).  Auxiliary stories revolve around a twin who desperately wants to reconnect with his deceased brother and a news anchor who experiences a touch of the afterlife after surviving a near-death experience.

The synopsis above does a good job of translating precisely what the major errors are within the film.  A lot technically happens, in Hereafter, but very little actually comes of any of it and said outcomes that do come to fruition feel forced, juxtaposed, and flaccid.  Eastwood has chosen a story that really has very little to tell, with three central characters who do little more than awkwardly bounce against one another.  By film’s end, you are left feeling unsatisfied, wishing that simply ONE of the three stories had some sort of substance to dig into.  Sadly, though, each character truly does have the propensity to tell their own, individual, 90-minute story, this is just a classic case of a screenwriter with too much to say ultimately saying nothing.

Matt Damon’s George Lonegan is the kind of tortured, hapless hero that knows the extent of his own abilities and simply cannot overcome the fears that he has associated with them.  While he’s certainly knowledgeable enough to know the positive aspects of his psychic craft, he also has clearly broken his fair share of human beings down by bringing up the past in ways they simply were not ready for.  The first girl that we see him get close to simply leaves in an emotional whirlwind after George relates a message sent to her from a relative who was too “touchy” in her past.  And while much is done to address Damon’s character’s clearly solitary, lone existence, it is the only piece of substantial acting in the entirety of the piece.  The other two main characters, young, now lone twin, Jason, played by twins Frankie and George McLaren and French newscaster, Marie, played by Cecile De France give two of the weakest performances I have seen in a theatrical release in quite some time.  They come to their roles without almost zero emotional investment and very little, if any sincere point of view.  Either the editing left out insurmountable chunks of dialogue which better flesh out these characters, or Clint Eastwood really knows how to sink a movie through a miserable supporting cast.

The score is another point of incredible weakness that merits speaking to.  Every single note that is played to underscore an action, mood, or tone in the film actually managed to bristle me out of my seat and call attention to itself.  I could not come across a single moment when I felt that the tone of the score even mirrored, let alone added to, the tone of the film.  The underlying trend seemed to be to actually put in musical underscores that were antithetical to the production progressing onscreen.  Horrible, cheesy, elevator muzak-ish guitar solos would wail as though an 80’s hair metal band was coming to the middle of their hit love ballad during the few poignant moments of the movie.  Casual outdoor establishing shots would be sprinkled with upbeat, strange, artificial musical musings that have ZERO correlation to one another.  The fact that any money was spent on this arrangement at all and it wasn’t simply composed using ten minutes before the first screening is a testament to Hollywood’s oftentimes incompetence.

As mentioned before, the screenplay to this mess is equally frightful, and I assume acts as the cornerstone to the rest of the mess that this film becomes.  I can only assume that Eastwood and Damon both saw the potential for a sweeping character piece in this little movie.  Of course, that’s me being positive.  What probably happened was that Eastwood saw an easy paycheck and after a twenty minute read-through of the script decided that he may even be able to milk some critical acclaim out of this cow with his directing magic.  Damon, not even reading the script, but seeing Eastwood’s name attached, signed on blind, and we were given this mess.  I think the best word to sum up this movie would have to be “jilted.”  Yeah.  “Jilted.”

Score/Sound: 32/100

Screenplay/Story: 45/100

Performance/Direction: 48/100

Cinematography: 55/100

Overall: 39/100

Film Reviews!: Bronson

December 17, 2010

Bronson tries to do everything a biopic should do, and then some.  It looks to portray its subject’s life in a unique, personal fashion toying with conventions, tone, and pacing to create a story thread true to its central character.  And while, at times, the biopic manages to do exactly that with a starved, exasperated, solitary pacing, this very same element also manages to grind the film to a halt at times and forces the audience to linger on moments and points in the criminal’s life that we simply could have done without.

Granted, the biopic of a man who has spent 34 years in prison, 30 of which were spent in solitary confinement, would be hard to tell.  However, there are certainly fantastical elements to Michael Peterson’s (the titular character’s birth name) life that would merit a 90 minute feature.  Unfortunately, director Nicolas Refn, doesn’t choose to dote on those aspects.  It’s almost as if he’s afraid to let any moment of character or excitement develop for longer than a short spat of screen time.  What he may have been trying to produce were bigger moments, larger flashes in the pan, if you will, amongst the sea of monotony that coursed through Bronson’s life.  The finished product, however, eventually comes across as uncharacteristically languid and tedious by film’s end.  While we spend plenty of time seeing Peterson shipped from prison to prison, rotting away as time transpires, Refn neglects to show instances of the man’s life that the audience would love to see that are merely broached.  The robbery Peterson commits at the age of 19 which catalyzes his stint in the “hotel” as he calls it, of prison.  Also, Bronson’s 69 day stint on the outside where he allegedly took to streetfighting and fell in love with a stripper could have become, at the very least, a bit more fleshed out, if for nothing else, to delve into a few other character’s psyche.  However, maybe that would have taken away from the solidarity of Bronson’s own mental state, I’m really not sure, but that’s what one comes away with after this film.  Rather than a sincere semblance of what the director was looking for, the audience comes away feeling a bit exhausted and listless.  Even Bronson’s prison riot he organized where he earned the title of “Her majesty’s most expensive prisoner” is glazed over with actual news footage that probably entails thirty seconds of screen time.  Glossed over with a few phrases on fame.  Much time feels wasted and the overarching wish of the theatre goer is that we could have illuminated certain elements while keeping others abbreviated.

All things considered, however, Bronson does do certain things well, mostly by taking chances.  The theatrical style in which the story is told does MUCH to alleviate the audience’s job of staying engaged with the story.  Without the innovative, first-person, fourth-wall-breaking, vaudevillian style in which Bronson tells his tale to the crowd, I believe that this movie would have become borderline unwatchable.  Not for any extraordinary circumstances, but quite the opposite, it would have ground to a halt in the first half.  Also, much can be said for Tom Hardy’s pitch-perfect over-the-top, grandiose performance as a performer without anything to really say to his audience.  Bronson speaks to wanting fame multiple times in the flick and only finds solace in violence and mayhem.  Hardy’s rendition of a praise-desiring circus act relying on battle to merit a response from the British populace additionally saves the film from what would have surely been eventual ruin had a weaker actor been granted the part. Further, the soundtrack to the film does MUCH to bring the story to life.  Primarily consisting of electronica and classical scores, the audible element of the film does mesh perfectly with what Refn has captured onscreen, and does much to accentuate the action.  One of my favorite flourishes is during a fight scene when the synths from the electric undercurrent of the score actually sync up to individual punches Bronson lands on his opponents.  If the whole movie was categorized by moments of character like this, it would have been a completely different (i.e. better) experience.

While describing things this film does right, one simply must condone its cinematography.  One of the key elements of the film that gave you a strikingly adroit insight into the mind of the man, the look of the film managed to give you a claustrophobic, caged sense to the entirety of the story, only ever to be saved by Bronson himself.  The visual aesthetic of the film keeps you boxed into Bronson’s world, devoid of much outlet, left only to be led and held by the man whose mind you’ve entered.  Additionally, certain shots bring so much more to the story than an individual character ever could.  One of the first shots in the insane asylum, for example, contains a long dolly shot in which we follow one inmate as he walks the length of the recreational area.  He passes Bronson, who is incredibly close to frame, so close that one could easily be forgiven for not noticing him, stops a few feet past, turns, and returns to a drug-addled Bronson who is clearly out of his mind.  It’s a simple tracking shot, but the actor’s placement, the shot’s pacing, and the reveals that the shot entails brings so very much to light as to the personality of the film itself.

Unfortunately, there are too few times in which these moments remind us of why we are watching this movie to begin with.  While I certainly acquiesce that Refn may very well have been looking to build the atmosphere of the story around Bronson’s primarily caged life, the end result simply leaves us wanting more, and not in terms of more of the same, but rather in the scope of more from the film itself.

Performances: 80

Cinematography/Aesthetics: 79

Score: 78

Script: 60


Film Reviews! Splice

December 16, 2010

With every fiber of my being I wanted to write this review objectively.  I wanted to use the most academic cinematic language possible and write candidly, but without bias or humor, on the film at hand.  Unfortunately, I find now that I simply cannot do that.  Splice is a movie that attempts to do so much in such a short amount of time.  And while certain aspects of the film actually shine through rather nicely and create a seamless image at times on screen, nothing can truly buoy the absurdly fluctuating tone of the film and the insane character development and plot progression.

I think my biggest grievance is with the fact that splice takes itself deadly seriously.  There are no allusions to meta-cinema or the creature horror genre to which this film primarily looks to occupy.  Which means that what occurs onscreen should either buy in to some semblance of formatted pacing, or otherwise create its own.  Splice rides a pacing and plot structure that comes across as strongly traditional.  Time and events occur in what is clearly modern day, devoid of variations.  And yet, the two main characters of Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) have absolutely NO semblance of consistency or morale of any kind.  These two characters go through so many internal, emotional transformations that it’s nearly impossible to get a grasp of who the hell they are.  Adrien Brody goes from being against the idea of splicing human and animal DNA, to catalyzing the experiment itself, to being weary of the product of the experiment, to trying to murder the product, to feeling sympathy for it, to feeling fatherly to it, to feeling seduced and sexually attracted to it, to murdering it.  In the course of a film under two hours.  And Sarah Polley’s character’s progression is not much better.  Within the course of ten minutes, Polley goes from being the ever-loving mother to the creature, to carelessly dissecting the being and playing with its genetic code.  Of course there are specific lines delivered throughout the film that are intended to give the audience SOME frame of reference to these inane mood swings, but they literally consist of Adrien Brody lecturing his wife about how the experiment has gotten out of hand and is no longer about ‘science,’ which helps launch Polley into a cold, thoughtless surgeon.  She operates on her own daughter/creature/porpoise/thing after it kills a cat.  Ridiculous doesn’t halfway describe the inconsistencies of tone.

Further, the creature itself, Dren, is a curious amalgamation of nothing at all.  Starting out as a highly intelligent and fast-developing creature with a penchant for coloring and playing with words, by film’s end the character has become a vampire-demon that can fly, use a scorpion tail, run with the speed of a gazelle, breathe both underwater and on land, shoot laser beams out of its eyes, and teleport through time.  Granted, I may have added those last two in, I can’t even remember anymore.  Anyway, the character seems to go completely feral rather than taking the intellectual high road (At one point it spells out the word, ‘Tedious,’ for the love of Ray Harryhausen).  During the scene’s climax, after Dren has metamorphised into a male, it actually speaks for the first time as it is raping Sarah Polley, its mother (take a second to re-read that last statement, then take another second, and read it again).  It says, “Inside you,” in a sickening, deep reference to an earlier part of the film.  But the point I’m trying to make is that the first phrase this creature says despite its clearly adept vocabulary, is an inuendo for rape and procreation.  It’s absolutely mind-boggling.

While I could go on and on about the awful up-and-down, backwards-and-forwards tone of this film and the written inconsistencies that abound, I must comment on certain things that worked really well.  First and foremost, I applaud anyone who’s willing to step into this genre’s territory and make something big, and difficult, and different, like director Vincenzo Natali chose to.  It’s very hard to do a work in this realm and it’s very easy to step off and work on lighter fare, or even, choose to not take your content seriously, almost creating a farce in the meta-theatrical realm.  Additionally, while always being the first to jump on the “CGI SUCKS” bandwagon, I will be the first to happily admit, the CGI in this film looked incredibly seamless.  The creature, Dren’s, legs were perfectly animated and never gave me the impression that I wasn’t looking at something tangible.  Dren’s face, as well, both young and older, came across as perfectly legit, never feeling produced or obviously added in.  Everything felt very honest, very physical.  And yet, so little of the monster was.  Watching the behind the scenes footage, it became apparent that the only part of Dren that was always the actress was her torso, and even then, the added things on, like a tail and wings.  It gave me great hope in the future for effects and CG work, which was something this film needed to be at all redeemable.

Overall I respect the efforts that were taken and the film certainly never fails to keep you entertained.  As far as quality spectacle, however, Splice falls quite short.  The performances are barely above average and the story just cannot be taken seriously.  The key to making sci-fi or horror or any fantastical genre work is to either establish strong character work or establish your tone and pacing and keep it within some realm of consistency or fabricate a framework of absurdism.  Splice doesn’t do any of these things well and instead opts to do all of these things poorly.

Performances: 64/100

Cinematography/Aesthetics: 90/100

Score: 50/100

Script: 28/100

Overall: 42/100

Film Reviews!: Never Let Me Go

October 28, 2010

The next time that you find yourself in the middle of a movie, knowing EXACTLY what’s going to happen next and the exact beats that the screenwriter is cultivating to get you there, just take solace in the fact that every so often we are given a movie like Never Let Me Go.  I went into this screening knowing nothing at all about the movie beforehand.  I had abstained from trailers, internet gossip, the whole nine yards.  I knew that the movie was primarily produced in the UK and nothing in this movie relishes in that of standard conventions.

Mark Romanek is given the helm as director and this work marks his third foray into full-length feature films.  The hallmark of Romanek’s work is that it always manages to invoke a sort of gritty, heartless, almost cruel realism that few directors have the capacity to engineer in their productions.  One hour Photo, shot in 2002 and starring Robin Williams, is a perfect example of Romanek’s style and how he manages to make the film’s aesthetics as central to the story as the script itself.  Known primarily for his expansive music video catalog, however, further examples of Romanek’s creative touch as it transcends mood and tone are best referenced in Weezer’s El Scorcho,  Fiona Apple’s Criminal, and Johnny Cash’s Hurt.  His incredible eye for detail and attention to not only the undertones of the story, but the overtones and all the tones in the middle, are what guides the images he captures to broadcast such a heightened sense of understanding.  Romanek truly knows how to tell a story through images and an overall aesthetic, which is exactly how Never Let Me Go manages to accomplish so much with so little in terms of production or back story.

One of the greatest accomplishments of this film (and there are many) is it’s ability to instill an overall sense of dread and hopelessness in the audience. And while many movies have the capacity to instill an audience with the equivalent mood to collaborate with the tone of their film, few flicks do so in such a masterful way as Never Let Me Go.  For it’s not the story that creates such an ethereal sense of abandon in the audience (though the story IS quite bleak), nor the dialogue or the superb writing.  The unending tone of dismay that Never Let Me Go so successfully conveys is explicitly broadcast through the heartlessness and futility found in the day-to-day lives of the movies characters, and of the film’s alternate world’s atmosphere that it has completely fabricated.  Fair warning, a bit of background into the film’s plot and some spoilers will be required to further flesh out my analysis.

Never Let Me Go follows the lives of three clones in an alternate version of Britain in which, as early as the mid-sixties, clones were regularly grown and harvested for their organs.  The story follows this love triangle of clones as they are brought up in an orphanage through their adolescence and  into their adulthood as they begin to be harvested for their organs (clones are kept alive for as many as up to three ‘donations’ on average).  The story isn’t about rebellion.  It’s not even about passive resistance, or really any kind of resistance at all.  The characters make a single attempt at preventing their own demise only to be told calmly, cooly, and in a warm, open environment that there is no such thing as a delay or an extension on life.  Once your number is called, it’s called.  So, while the characters do eventually have a mental break down, they never actually attempt to escape the fate that is bestowed upon them.  This, amongst multiple other tonal impressions, is how the inescapable sense of despairing fate envelopes the entire film and manages to drape itself over the audience, by proxy.

And this overbearing sense of dismal loss and submission does so much more than simply play into the movie’s central theme.  It helps to elaborate on the symbolism and specific messages that the film looks to project in its alternative universe.  For example, despite the fact that the characters in Romanek’s most recent endeavor have roughly half the life-span of most people, they still experience the exact same trials and tribulations, still wrestle with the same concepts of life’s futility, of love lost and unrequited, and dealing with reality as you are confined to it.  The characters in Never Let Me Go blindly accept the life they have been born into with little to no grievances, much as most do.  The story, based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, works as a beautiful metaphor for the short lease we all have on life, and the way most of us waste our lives striving for mundane things or blindly accepting our fate.  Had the main characters in the story ever ventured out farther than an occasional trek into town or if they had even questioned things more than once, perhaps they could have escaped the early deaths that awaited them.

Finally, it needs to be noted that the acting and directing in Never Let Me Go help to translate the story beautifully, as well, with Kiera Knightly playing one of the most unlikeable-yet-understandable, conniving characters in recent memory.  Her portrayal of the back-stabbing Ruth rings so true as one of her sole motivations in life is to keep from being lonely.  Andrew Garfield continually reminds me why I am excited for the Spider-Man reboot, with his calm and impassioned portrayal of Tommy.  And Carey Mulligan easily gives the strongest performance of the film as the demure and complacent Kathy.  It’s certainly worth noting, as well, that the child actors in this film put on excellent performances, in addition to the star-power inherent in Mulligan, Garfield, and Knightly.

Never Let Me Go’s expert discussion of some of the most existential, overarching concepts in humanity makes it a textual masterpiece that comes alive through Romanek’s exquisite ability to create an entire universe through tone and atmosphere.  Without wasting a minute of screen time and without adding any superfluous content, which, in effect, usually ends up taking away from the original story, Romanek  and screenwriter Alex Garland paint a beautiful, haunting, and discouraging portrait of how often life is wasted on complacency and fear.

Performances: 92/100

Cinematography/Aesthetics: 85/100

Score: 67/100

Script: 88/100

Final: 81/100

Film Reviews!: Let Me In

October 8, 2010

Despite the fact that I am an unabashed opponent of 90% of all remakes done in cinema, there is occasionally an actual, valid excuse for producing one.  Whether time has lapsed and a story of yesteryear feels as though it can benefit from being reincarnated in the present pop-culture landscape (Ocean’s Eleven), or a director has been saving a passion project for years that he feels can only be served best by his own, personal spin on the tale (The Fly), there are reasonable means for endeavoring a remake of a production.  Unfortunately, Let Me In does not contain a single one of them. 

Let Me In is an American remake of the Swedish film entitled Let the Right One In, which was an adaptation of the Swedish novel of the same name.  The best way one can describe the original is as the most dark, disturbing, and grotesque, yet PASSIONATE love story you will ever see.  The production is so smooth and engrossing, you don’t even realize the severity of the stakes and the absurdity of the entire nature of the story until long after you’ve left the theatre.  In the most succinct, secretive nutshell that I can keep it, a scrawny little boy, Oskar, befriends a young girl, Eli, who recently moved into the apartment across the hall from him.  She is shrouded in awkward secrecy and her only relative appears to be her much older father.  Throughout his blossoming relationship with Eli, Oskar comes to stand up for himself and learns to choose his own path in life, in regards to love, self-fulfillment, and destiny.

The story is fantastic and is further bolstered by the overall mood, tone, and acting styles of the cast involved.  An overbearing, depressing schematic is draped over the entirety of the production, making all the little beats of magic and wonder that coalesce between the two, young lovers all the more enchanting.  There is nary a negative word to be said about the picture, other than the fact that it tries to bite off a bit more than it can chew from the novel (Pun quota: filled).  However, one obvious detriment to the film’s success (not detriment to the actual film itself, mind you, but detriment to its financial SUCCESS) is that it was produced in Swedish with English subtitles.  Heaven forbid.

Flash forward to two, yes, I said TWO, years later when American director Matt Reeves decided to remake this literary adaptation for obvious reasons…obvious reasons, like…like the fact that the original isn’t in English…and that the original requires non-Swedish speakers…to read…Le Sigh.  While a bit snarky (believe it or not, ladies and gentlemen, I CAN be snarky) it’s the honest truth.  Reeves’ remake is an admitted (Reeves has been quoted numerous times on his desire to ‘retain’ quintessential aspects of the film, “So my intention was to take the story and to, as much as possible, honor that story and tell it but in an American context.” (Bloody Disgusting interview)) almost-shot-for-shot rediscovery of the original which is an astounding TWO years old.  While I never condone ABSOLUTE, shot-for-shot recreations of past works (what, honestly then, is the point?), I will acquiesce that I would at least be able to see the merit in recreating an absolute classic shot-for-shot if it was decades old and the crew felt as though modern-day technology could truly benefit the new production.  This, however, is simply not the case in the example of Let Me In.  Modern cinematic techniques have SURELY not so-greatly surpassed those of the ancient era of 2008.  In fact, parts of this remake feel technically clunkier than it’s former.  The CGI in almost every scene that’s laden with it feels completely out-of-place and off the mark.  Rather than letting the film marinate in the simplicity and natural ebb and flow of the reality it has set up, just as the original did, Let Me In forcefully inserts scenes comprised primarily of CGI and effects that simply make the entire production come to a screeching halt.  In one of the first scenes in which we find out just WHAT Eli is (or Abby, in the American version, which is something else that will be discussed in a minute) the tone, the feel, and the entire gravitas of the film as a whole becomes completely stunted as what was a beautifully-paced production takes an immediate right turn and begins to jerk the audience around in what can only best be described as a cheap thrill-scare.  Further, every time that Eli’s ‘secret’ is expounded upon from that point forward (I’m doing my best to not uncover any full-on spoilers in this review, I feel like I can successfully vivisect this movie without ruining the first) some form of awful CG or some equally garish effect is utilized that feels completely anachronistic to the rest of the story’s flow.   It’s as though the studio saw the gorgeously crafted Swedish version and said “While we obviously HAVE to change this movie into English, another added improvement would be making it more DYNAMIC!  YEAH!  Why does everything have to be so blase and pouty?  ‘Boo hoo, I’m a little weak boy with no friends!’  We need more action, more epicness, more LEAPING!!!”  And that’s the stuff Hollywood failures are made out of.

All those past indiscretions aside, the few liberties that Reeves’ does take with his remake just act as glaring reminders as to how much better the original is and how frivolous this entire escapade was to begin with.  The few things that have literally been changed for American audiences are that the main characters names have been changed from Oskar to Owen, and Eli to Abby, and the story now takes place in Los Almos, New Mexico rather than Stockholm, Sweden.  That, my friends, is basically it.  There is nothing else to it.  And once you watch the two films back-to-back and realize that other than those facts, very little has been changed, you become very, very angry.

My largest arguments are not that the film, in and of itself, is bad.  It certainly is not.  Taking almost the ENTIRETY of its cues from its excellent Swedish source material, Reeves’ adaptation comes out as a fairly beautiful portrayal.  The acting is actually quite good in most areas (though not as strong as the original…I’m not gonna let this go) and the overall tone, pacing, and feel, when not broken up by unnecessary, ridiculous effects, is kept intact.  Additionally, there is one plot element that is left out of the American version that actually feels warranted, not because it doesn’t work, but because time simply does not permit its involvement (if I go any further, we will be in spoiler country, so I’ll just say that it deals with gender).  The film, overall, is ‘good.’  But the question that keeps plaguing me is how in the world ‘good’ merited a $20 million remake two years after the fact.  The subtleties and changes of the flick are so minute and redundant when aligned with the original that it hardly deserves the cash that it has been attributed.  What I’ve been wrestling with since this project was announced, was how something as trite as this was allowed to be produced when that $20 million (which I’m sure doesn’t take into account Prints and Advertising) could have been so much better allotted to either another lower budget, ORIGINAL flick, two VERY low budget flicks, or ten SUPER-LOW budget mumblecore movies.  In the grand scheme of things it’s all very disheartening, and I think I can sum it up perfectly with a direct quote from one of the producers of Hammer Films, one of the partners of the production studio responsible for the American version.  When asked by what Matt Reeves was bringing to the table in terms of his adaptation of the film, Chief Simon Oakes spewed that:

I think the original is fascinating in its exposition, but at the same time there is a doggerel element to it in terms of the mood and setting. So I think it takes it out into a more accessible setting. I think perhaps there is a little more characterization in terms of the two central characters. To be perfectly frank with you, this is making an astonishing story – which however hard you might try or I might try to get people to go see the original, they’re never going to do it – more accessible to a much larger audience. I think perhaps, again, the roughness of the original is great – and when I talk about faithful, I don’t want to put words in Matt’s mouth, because he is the creative filmmaker here, and we very much protect that with our directors – but I think it’ll just have perhaps a little sheen to it that makes it a little more accessible I think.

So the ADMITTED intention of the production company of this film is to make the film more ‘accessible’ to a ‘wider’ audience.  They wanted to give it a ‘sheen’ so as to clean up the ‘roughness’ of the original.  And people wonder why I have so much hatred and cynicism towards the mainstream.

Performances: 78/100

Cinematography/Aesthetics: 62/100

Score: 68/100

Script: 80/100

Final: 78/100

P.S.  I realize that after that scathing review I am giving the film an incredibly high score.  This is because I disagreed with the film FUNDAMENTALLY, however, as a film, most of the technical aspects are still pretty tight, especially since it takes so much from the original which I would give an even HIGHER score.  Le sigh.

Film Reviews!: The Social Network

October 6, 2010

Hello all my shway-keteers!  (wow, that needs work).  I know it’s been a LONG time but I’m back in what I THINK is “the saddle” and I’m ready to start the bloggin’ once again.  I’ve decided to add reviews to the site for a very significant reason:  I think it’s all I have left to offer.  After I made the startling discovery of what the kids are calling “the Twitter,” I realized that anything that I could want to share or distribute over the internet could be done in 140 characters or less.  Film, however, my most lasting love in this life, yearns to be discussed.  Film and television and entertainment, as a whole, cannot be critiqued or evaluated in passing.  It needs elaboration.  So I’m going to start throwing the proverbial hat in the critic’s ring, in the hopes of expressing what I feel is (terribly) wrong with cinema (maybe even some things that are right.  Yay?)  My approach is simple.  I will discuss the piece in general, its flaws, positives, indifferent moments, then I will rate it on a scale of 100.  100 being a perfect movie, 50 being an average movie and 0 being one of the worst movies ever made, a completely inconceivable pile of filth that didn’t deserve the print it was delivered on.  So don’t think of it as a grading scale, think of it as a full, 100 point bell curve.  AAAAAAAAAAANNNNNNDDDDD we’re off!!!

David Fincher has a knack for making mainstream movies both beautiful and relevant.  This is a skill that is absolutely paramount to acquire in the industry as Hollywood generally ends up splitting the bill during the fiscal year, funding a plethora of movies geared solely towards profit margins, as well as a more meager slate of flicks designed to seduce the academy towards the end of the year in order to keep the studio in a ‘respectable’ light. His filmography reads of some of the most successful films (both financially and critically) in the past decade.  Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and now, The Social Network.  The through-line in most of his work, is an attention to pace and fluidity.  Fincher is nothing if not masterfully-kinetic.  He can take a dialogue-deluged script and shuttle it along at speeds reminiscent of Michael Bay or Brett Ratner, while STILL maintaining the story’s integrity, imagine that!

A fairly base hypothesis for why the man has such a mastery over his craft would lie in the years of time he spent as a music video director for roughly ten years from the late 80’s to the early 90’s.  Being forced to tell a story in around three minutes with little to no dialogue set to music is a task that will develop a sense of energy in your work.  Just ask any film school grad.  And while these are all simply wild hypotheses, I seem to be able to feel fully validated in them as The Social Network exists entirely almost as one long, beautifully shot music video.  That’s not to take anything away from the movie, necessarily, it just speaks to the overall tone that Fincher has set, and I want to believe that that tone is set from an intentional, psychological place.

My generation, one of the very first to basically grow up with Facebook (To date myself, I first signed on to Facebook my senior year of high school.  I was attending a university during high school so I had a .edu e-mail address, allowing me access), seems to have become defined by our succinct attention spans and constant yearning for diversity and multiplicity in all facets of life.  We work fast, we play fast, we rest fast, and if something isn’t up to our immediately-gratified standards, we have no problem trimming away the fat, throwing away the fluff, and digging in to something else, something more immediate, something more enticing.  The internet, the very overarching topic of discussion in The Social Network, has given us every bit of information and ability to create/interact with the rest of the world.

And this is precisely how Fincher’s latest endeavor feels.  It feels like a 120-minute-long music video hurtling along at a 3-minute video’s pace.  And yet, it never feels sloppy.  It never feels forced.  Fincher is able to fully realize his world, in his time, on his terms within this seemingly expanded frame.  Of course, he also had all the pieces of the puzzle fit perfectly together, as well.  Trent Reznor’s score is a spot-on parallel for the action onscreen.  Every feeling, memory, and discussion caught on film seems to be perfectly buoyed by Reznor’s techno-tronic score.  While they highlight the different moments of each beat perfectly, they also manage to retain a sense of universality and act as a thread throughout the entirety of the production in order to keep the pace marching forward.  The overall emotion and ‘feel’ of the film itself is, ironically, conveyed through one of the most mechanized, digital scores of all time.  And yet, it works.  It perfectly works.

The cast of this film is quite impressive, as well.  Jesse Eisenberg has yet to disappoint me as he plays an emotionally disjointed version of Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg.  Eisenberg does a perfect job of bringing screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s interpretation of Zuckerberg to full-form as an emotionally misguided, driven, slightly misogynistic genius who sees the world in less than a three-dimensional sense but, instead, more of a binary code.   Andrew Garfield, our Godsend of a new Peter Parker, plays Eduardo Saverin.  Zuckerberg’s only true friend and the start-up CFO of  Garfield handles himself so well in the part of the ironically emotional and turbulent business end of the company, trying to act as a moral compass for Zuckerberg who he worries is simply getting swept up in the tides of the of fame as Facebook begins to become a larger and larger monster of itself.

And the supporting cast really adds so much to this film, as well, Rashida Jones works perfectly as the inevitable angel of reason to Zuckerberg’s beastly temperament.  Justin Timberlake continues to bowl over the competition by playing the greasy, snarky, but strangely-likable Sean Parker, founder of Napster, and one of the original entrepreneurs of the peer-to-peer revolution.  And Max Minghella, Josh Pence, and Armie Hammer respectfully play the suing trio behind Harvard Connection who look to profit off of Zuckerberg’s fortune.

The acting is absolutely spot-on, and is a testament to Fincher’s casting abilities and his artistic prowess as a director of actors.  Eisenberg shines the brightest in his highly nuanced, yet specified portrayal of Zuckerberg, yet this is perfectly acceptable, given the weight which Eisenberg is expected to uphold.  The glaring problem that The Social Network does run into is it’s slight emotional disconnect with audiences.  What is usually a monumental cinematic fault really becomes nothing more than a blemish on Fincher’s otherwise fabulous narrative.  In what may have been an effort, or even an after-effect, of producing a film centering on Generation Facebook’s digital dependency, The Social Network at times feels as though it is moving too fast or glazing over moments too casually that otherwise may desire to be fleshed out in other works.  And yet, that’s exactly what this entire parable of Fincher’s is all about.  In the age of instantaneous ALL things do move faster than we may desire them to, things may get lost in translation.  All we can do is sift through what we have and do the best to make moments of connection happen in an age where people feel much more comfortable giving out a webpage than a phone number.

It should also be noted that Sorkin’s script is not one for accuracy, in multiple facets.  While no one knows PRECISELY how the story went down, it should be noted that glaring inconsistencies have already been brought up with certain key elements of the film.  Zuckerberg has denied any wanted involvement of his own in attending any of the final clubs that the film almost seems to base his creation of Facebook on.  Zuckerberg is still with his Chinese-American girlfriend that was actually with him as Facebook was coming to fruition.  There is no failed relationship debacle with a one, Erica Albright, which caused Zuckerberg to spiral out of contral that one, fateful night.  Further, Sorkin seems to turn his girlfriend into a Facebook groupie, painting her as nothing more than a clinger-on after Facebook’s founder begins to reap the enormous rewards of his work.  While there are considerably others that I have been told of yet I am not adroit enough to have caught, it stands to be noted that Zuckerberg is painted in an increasingly negative light.  He is an anti-hero, at best, and the overall arch of the story is in the hopes that Zuckerberg will ‘see the light’ and realize the error of his ways.  It does an incredible job of making a story more fantastical, it just doesn’t seem fair to base a character off of an actual human figure and then paint in such a light with such distinct colors.

All that aside, The Social Network is an excellent cinematic achievement that manages to bring together all the filmic ingredients that best make a ‘good’ movie.  The flick’s tone, thematic construct, and score are among some of it’s strongest moments and give it an absolute edge over most of the other entries into 2010’s moviescape.

Performances: 88/100

Cinematography: Aesthetics: 84/100

Score: 94/100

Script: 80/100

Final: 84/100