Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Review: The Descendents

The best term I can come up with to describe The Descendents is quietly brilliant. It's easily one of the best films of the year and high in the running for one of George Clooney's best performances, but the way those things come about is strange. Yes the acting is incredible, but not in a scenery chewing, show stealing, kind of way. Yes the screenplay is amazing, but not in a plot twisting, unique story, kind of way. Yes the direction is great but not in a long sweeping shot or camera following sort of way. It's great in a subtle sort of way, is what I'm getting at. I guess we shouldn't be surprised that Alexander Payne, who's previous films include such greats as Sideways and Election, has made a film that's subtly genious.

The plot is concerned with Matt King, a Hawaiian lawyer who's ancestors essentially lucked into owning a shitton of beautiful land in Hawaii. As the film opens, the law is forcing him to sell it or lose it within seven years and his wife is in a speedboat accident, putting in her in a coma. So now the absentee dad has to deal with his children and their various issues without knowing anything about them. And...well that's more or less all I can tell you without spoiling some of the well done plot and character turns.

The story frames Clooney as a work obsessed lawyer , who is so emotionally cut off from his daughters that when his wife falls into a coma, he doesn't have any idea how to communicate with her, much less how to control her (and that's before his other daughter even shows up). The story moves back and forth between darkly comedic scenes and real dark character moments, and while it's occasionally kind of jarring, it manages to pull it off incredibly well. It also allows moments that might usually be comedic to have real depth. No less than three conversations with a coma patient take place and each one of them reveal depth to the character conversing.

Like many of Alexander Payne's film, the plot is initially simple, but because the characters are complicated the story eventually becomes complicated but it all works incredibly well and never feels contrived. Helping it along is the fact that all of the characters feel like real people with real depth (even a minor character who initially makes Bill S. Preston, Esquire look a genius). The dialogue is smart and fast, like most of the scripts that Alexander Payne's worked on, with each character having a distinct and unique voice.

Most of the weight of the acting is on George Clooney's shoulders, finding real humanity in his characters refusal to show emotion in front of other people and more importantly the moments when he does finally break and show it. Most of the other actors afford good performances, in particular Shailene Woodley who is so good in this that I can't actually believe her career.

The direction is afforded more care than it usually is in dialogue and character focused films, mostly in the presentation of it's setting. Hawaii is one of those places that tends to get presented in characture, but in this case an amazing amount of attention is afforded to making it look and feel authentic, and the history and politics unique to the region come up in the plot.

This being a story that features George Clooney as a work obsessed, emotionally closed off protagonist who narrates his own life in a incredibly well written film that moves back and forth between serious content and dark comedy, comparisons to Up In The Air are inevitable. And while it will take a couple more viewings of both films for me to decide which is better, there are much, much, MUCH worse things to be compared to. And taken entirely on it's own merits, The Descendents is easily one of the best things playing right now, so if you want to see something this Thanksgiving weekend, make it this one.

Elessar is a 21 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he's going to give this movie the award for least descriptive movie poster.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

DVD Review: Get Along

Rock Docs (that's Rock Documentaries) have existed for essentially as long as there has been Rock 'n Roll. The reason behind this isn't hard to gage: So much of the music industry takes place out of sight (even more than the movie industry frankly) and the artists behind it are often such unique and interesting people, that the public has such an intense appetite for seeing how they operate. Along the way they've created some interesting stories, unique experiences and even the odd cry for help (oh come on, trying watching The Carter and then tell me that it's not Lil' Wayne isn't screaming for help the entire time). And a spoof of Rock Doc conventions even produced a balls out classic in This Is Spinal Tap (which if you haven't seen you owe it to yourself to see it).

The problem is, when a Rock Doc isn't telling a unique story (Let It Be, Dig) there's really not a lot to be found for people who aren't fans of the musician in question. As much as I love The Promise, I would never recommend it to someone who isn't a fan of Bruce Springsteen. The gist of that rather lengthy opening is that, as much as I like Get Along, if you're not a fan of Tegan and Sara, it's probably not going to appeal to you that much.

Which isn't to say it isn't good, in fact it's quite good. The film is separated into 3 sections. State, a bit on a series of shows where the pair answered questions from the crowd, India, which documents Tegan and Sara's journey to guess-where and For The Most Part, which covers a concert in a slightly closer setting. Like most Rock Docs, much of it is made up of professionally shot concert footage. Of course, since, Tegan and Sara never felt particularly beholden to genre, the effect of the wildly different genres between songs can be interesting. One that stood out to me was when the soft song Call It Off was followed up by the much more rock infused Hell (I like Tegan and Sara, sue me) and the presentation of the two songs opposite each other was unique.

Honestly, I don't know what to say, beyond my opening paragraphs. If you like Tegan and Sara, you'll like Get Along, if not well you SHOULD like Tegan and Sara. So if you are a fan, good for you and it's on iTunes (and Amazon too, I think) so give it a look.

Elessar is a 21 year old cinephile and he found the video of Tegan talking about how much she was inspired by Billy Corgan interesting, given how much better they are than The Smashing Pumpkins.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Second Age Reviews: The Muppet Movie

One of the things I have insisted my entire life is that nostalgia will not save a product. If something I loved as a kid no longer holds up to scrutiny as an adult, then the fact that I loved it as a kid will not keep me from ignoring it. What this doesn't mean is that I hate everything from my childhood, just that it must stand up to scrutiny as an adult. And one thing that consistently stands up to adult scrutiny is The Muppet Movie.

Sing along if you know the words. A frog named Kermit, living in the swamps of who-knows-where meets an agent who tells him he has talent and suggests he go to Hollywood to seek his fortune. Along the way he meets a bear named Fozzy, a whatsit named Gonzo, a pig named...well Miss Piggy and begins a journey to Hollywood, chased by a slightly psychotic frog leg salesman (no, really).

One of the things I still love about the Muppets is their humor can appeal to multiple age groups, and not in a stupid pop-culture references way like Shrek. For example as a kid I enjoyed the often intentionally lame puns (which, as my viewing companion pointed out, were very similar in style and presentation to Looney Toons) and the fourth wall breaking that defined the Muppets style. As an adult, I still appreciate those things, but I also enjoy many of the jokes that would go right over a lot of kids heads. To wit, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem remain a very broad hippy joke (come on, their bassist is named Sgt. Floyd Pepper, the references couldn't be any louder if you screamed them). As a kid, I never would have gotten that but as an adult (and a Beatles and Pink Floyd fan) the gag really does appeal to me.

Of course, what Muppet movie would be complete without numerous guest stars and The Muppet Movie does not disappoint. Madeline Kahn, Steve Martin Richard Pryor, Bob motherfucking Hope, GOD HIMSELF (That's Orson Welles, for those of you who don't speak fluent film student). Hell, the guest stars manage to include other Muppets (Big Bird shows up 'on his way to NYC to break into public television' HA) and behind the scenes (John Landis and Tim Burton!, 6 years before Pee Wee's Big Day, were called in to help control the hundreds of Muppets for the finale).

Honestly, I don't know what to say about this that hasn't been said already. It's probably the best movie the Muppets ever made, it's funny, engaging and ever so slightly sweet at times. If you haven't seen it, you definitely should, especially if you have kids. So you do that and I'll see you later.

Elessar is a 21 year old cinephile and he still gets Rainbow Connection confused with Imagine.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The internet is NOT a big truck

(As always, get the joke title, you're awesome)

I'm gonna keep this one brief, mostly cuz the site explains itself pretty well. Quick version: Like the internet? Like free speech? Like free speech on the internet? Hate censorship? Want to keep speech on the internet free? Sign this petition:

Stop Internet Censorship

Thanks for listening

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Review: J. Edgar

The primary reason people are talking up J. Edgar is because of Leonardo DiCaprio's earth shatteringly good performance as the title character. That's all well and good, because he deserves all the praise he's getting and more, but when you actually see the movie (oh spoiler for the review, you should DEFINITELY see the movie) you'll actually find that so much of the movie is good and so many of the good things are getting overlooked.

Anyone even remotely aware of history is going to know the basics. John Edgar Hoover is a young up and coming agent in the Department of Justice and, after a series of triumphs, helps create the new Bureau of Investigation (the addition of Federal came later) answerable only to the Attorney General. Thanks to a mix of his own sterling reputation and (let's not beat around the bush) the sheer amount of blackmail material he had on everyone in power, meant that he kept his position for nearly 50 years, through 8 presidencies.

The vast majority of the film takes place in between the founding of the Bureau and the resolution of the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, though there is a framing device set around JFK's assassination and the movie moves in and out of time quite a lot. Which is the closest thing the film comes to a problem, but we'll get to that in a moment.

The biggest problem the film has to overcome is in making one of the most morally grey and unsympathetic men of the last century into a sympathetic protagonist and the film does admirably. Part of this is the incredible performance by Leonardo DiCaprio, easily the best performance I've seen all year. J. Edgar Hoover, as portrayed by DiCaprio, is a lonely, bitter man, so obsessed with protecting his country from the myriad threats he sees to his nation and so repressed that he can barely show any affection or even emotion toward the people that are important to him

Many of the other performances are top notch notably Judy Dench as Hoover's overbearing mother. Arnie Hammer is a little stranger, initially feeling a little flat but really giving it his all when the second act rolls around, giving real weight and depth to a character who comes close to being the emotional heart of the story.

Of course, as many people who have hired Gary Oldman have found, hiring the best actors in the world won't save you if you don't have a worthwhile script and good direction. In this area, as in most, J. Edgar shines. The script emphasizes the human element of the story, eventually revealing itself as a rather intimate character study. For those of you wondering, yes the issues of Hoover's supposed homosexuality and crossdressing do come up, but in much more mature way than you might be expecting.

The direction is well done, concentrating on fantastic lighting and...oh don't look at me like that, I'm taking film classes, I'm allowed to notice lighting, especially when it's this good. The cinematography is great, especially within the tight corridors and crowd shots at the FBI. Ad the makeup used to create a subtly aging Leonardo DiCaprio is nearly perfect.

It does have flaws, mostly in the pacing. The use of the framing device left me at a loss for when some events happened, and while the makeup on Leonardo DiCaprio is amazing, the makeup for Armie Hammer could occasionally stand to be better.

Look, this is a dividing film so you're gonna hear a lot of different opinions. But for my money, it's a great biopic and easily one of the best films of the year. So if you've got any inclination, don't miss this film, it's well worth a look.

Elessar is a 21 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he wonders how Hoover would react to Agents Mulder and Scully?

Friday, November 11, 2011

Listen to Stewart Jimmy

(Anyone who gets the reference in the title is awesome)

Every so often I feel like I should comment on some current event or political story. I don't often because that's not what this blog is about. I was going to do one, however, on the Penn State riots. But then along came Jon Stewart who summed it up better than I could.

Jon Stewart on the Penn State riots

Yeah. Just about that.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Born to Run

Yeah I've got real content coming later this week, but until then I've got this:

I was listening to Born to Run (the song...well the album too, but the song in particular) on the train ride this morning and I was reminded of something I always thought was amusing. See, Born to Run is the unofficial state song of New Jersey. Which is all well and good, Springsteen is the best example of a Jersey son made good, he still lives there, he sings about it constantly. Seriously, if you listen to 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy) while actually being on the Asbury Park Boardwalk, you can see all the places he references in the song. It's actually a little spooky. It'd be like being in Blackburn, Lancashire while listening to A Day in the Life, except I don't know if they actually have 4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire. Or if they have to count them.

I'm getting off topic. Anyway, I find it ironic that Born to Run is Jersey's unofficial state song...given that the song is about how much Jersey is going to suck the life out of you and how you have to get out. Seriously, listen to it. "Baby this town rips the bones from your back, it's a death trap, it's a suicide rap, we gotta get out while we're young"? That's the image you want for yourself Jersey.

(Author's note: I may not have been the first person to make this point. If I'm not, please don't tell me, as far as I know it's original-ish).

Monday, November 7, 2011

Review: Anonymous

The most interesting thing about Anonymous going in is it's director. Roland Emmerich is best known for big scale disaster and action movies (the best of which is probably Independence Day), and so his decision to direct a slow burning period thriller is...odd to say the least. However it's my happy duty to report that the movie (which reads like a weird mix of JFK and Amadeus if that makes any sense) is quite good.

The story is based around the conspiracy theory that William Shakespeare wasn't actually the author of the plays that bear his name, more specifically that they were written by a nobleman who used them to not-so-subtly mock then current political figures without getting in trouble for it. You don't have to buy into that theory for the film to work though, because taken on it's own merits it's a well done political thriller, concerned more with being an enjoyable cloak and dagger story rather than selling it's idea.

Roland Emmerich has always had a flare for visuals and he puts it to good use here, but also manages to slow down for smaller, closer scenes. Where the technical aspects really shine is in the sets and costumes and for once not just with Queen Elizabeth (not that she doesn't get some absurd costumes in too). The level of detail put into making the film look and feel historically accurate is actually rather impressive.

Of course even with good technical work, we must have good story or else we're just watching very well photographed nothing (or more simply, Avatar. Zing). The story is engaging and well told, with enough story twists to keep you guessing without it ever feeling gratuitous. It's rather interesting, at least to me, to see Shakespeare who is usually treated like a Saint in film (not without reason) depicted as a drunk asshole. And Shakespeare nuts will enjoy watching for subtle and not so subtle call backs to the Bard's work.

Okay, okay, I'm overselling it, it's far from perfect. To wit, it trades up treating Shakespeare the person as a saint for treating the person he supposedly was like a saint. The dialogue gets wooden at tims and the direction still has the tendency to hit you over the head with certain concepts. The acting goes up and down: Rhys Ifans does a great hero, Vanessa Redgrave really sells the Elizabeth part and Rafe Spall does a get secondary villain, most of the rest of the cast is pretty forgettable, particularly Sebastian Armesto who's character only has one real effect on the story towards the end and a smaller one towards the beginning and other than that ends up being just sorta there.

That's the other problem: A story like this needs to have a tight narrative focus and it really doesn't. For example, the film has not one but two different framing devices. This is usually fine, but they don't really enter into it much except at the beginning and end, especially since one is crying out to be revisited throughout the piece. The story itself slides around in time and space a lot too. At one point a major character is sent off to Ireland for political reasons and isn't brought up at all until much later in the film at which point I'd nearly forgotten about him. And the use of flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks really starts to confuse you about when particular events happen, not to mention why.

Whatever, I'm nitpicking. What you need to know is Anonymous is well made, to a point and deeply engaging while it's going on. It's probably Roland Emmerich's best film since the aforementioned Independence Day and if he could get a really good script on his hands he could probably make a modern masterpiece. And while Anonymous is far from his masterpiece, it's a step in the right direction and well worth your time. Call this one recommended.

Elessar is a 21 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he's waiting for the day that a movie actually does period teeth right.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Cleaner

This is just a little short film I did for a continuity project at the NY Film Academy. So I thought I'd post it to youtube so everyone could enjoy it, and post it to my blog so that my readers could know to look. If you're wondering why it's in black and white and silent, we were required to shoot it on 16mm black and white film and it's not allowed to have sound. I'll be posting more videos to my youtube as we do them in class and I'll be sure to post it here when I've done one.