Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Review: The Grey

It's easy to assume that all movies released in January and early February are either shit or Oscar movies getting a wide release. This is partially because it tends to be true, but it tends to mean that January releases get unfairly judged. But it also means that when a good movie gets released in January, it tends to look really good by comparison to everything else. But I like to think I'm mostly unbiased, so hopefully it means something when I say that The Grey would be good no matter what time of year it is.

Liam Neeson has the lead as a sniper hired by an Alaskan oil rig to protect it's workers from predators. On his way home, his plane crashes and he and a small group of survivors must make their way to safety, while battling the elements, starvation, each other. Oh and a small but vicious group of wolves. Anyone from Alaska who is expecting me to grouse about wolves not acting that way...yeah they don't, but so long as breaks in reality are in service of a good movie, I can overlook it.

Acting, as it does, primarily as a suspense/action film, The Grey can survive quite a bit of cliché so long as it's engaging and watchable and in that respect, it does. On the whole, it resembles nothing so much as a disaster film, with the characters trying to get to safety from an impossible situation. The wolves, who remain offscreen for much of the action, act primarily to ramp up the stakes and keep the characters.

The screenplay is actually fairly solid, which is one of the more shocking things about it. The characters, while mostly cliched, do have moments that allow them to transcend their clichés and become more rounded human beings, which goes a long way to making the already tense scenes even tenser, as we actually care about their fates. Mostly, there are a couple cannon fodder characters. Credit must go to the actors to being able to credibly sell their roles and make their characters interesting. Liam Neeson in particular does an excellent job, putting a tremendous amount of work into making his character unique and interesting. Sure you've heard a lot of this film before (difficult start, questioning leadership, makeshift weapons, physical obstacles, manly bonding etc.) but it's extremely well put together and engaging, which is all you can ask really.

The film was directed by Joe Carnahan, who's previous work includes the excellent Narc and the awful A-Team and Smokin' Aces (and one movie I've not seen, but shut up). While he tends to waste his competent work on indulgent Tarantino inspired tripe, if this and Narc are any indication of what he can do when he calms himself down, he may eventually find himself on the level of Michel Mann or maybe Tony Scott.

It's not a film without flaws, even within it's genre constraints. Several scenes read a little like 'okay, here's the characterization dump,' the film gets going so fast that it's a little awkward at the beginning (I think they wanted to start it directly at the plane crash but backed off). And towards the end I started to think that the reason the wolves stay off screen so much is less because they felt that the Jaws style 'keep it in suggestion' was scarier and more because the CGI used to realize the wolves is really iffy when seen up close.

Look, this movie would be really, really, REALLY good no matter what time of year it was released during. But to see a movie of this quality getting 'dumped' into January is damned near a miracle. Right now, unless you're catching up on Oscar flicks, this is the best thing you could possibly hope to see right now, so definitely give it a look.

Elessar is a 22 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he thinks they should do a remake of this movie with wolverines. Cuz wolverines are assholes.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

DVD Review: Super

To say that Super is a strange movie is to understate mightily. To say that it's a great, or even most successful movie is to overstate mightily. It's not bad, mostly, but it's frustrating, schitzophrenic and weird and I'm not sure it's sure what it wants to be, much less how to be it. But it's a unique specimen and well worth a look.

The plot is concerned with Rainn Wilson as Frank, a poor, pitiful man married to an absurdly hot woman (Liv Tyler for fuck's sake). She is a recovering drug addict and very quickly leaves Frank to begin dating her dealer. He, after a failed attempt to get her back and either a holy vision or a hallucination, he decides that the best course of action is to become the superhero, The Crimson Bolt and fight crime with a wrench.

The best thing about this film, by far, is the acting. The film, as a whole, is a near perfect example of how to use Rainn Wilson in...well anything. He gives a fantastic demented performance that suggests that A, he's being wasted on The Office and B, if he survives the (often difficult) transition from TV to Film, he might be someone important. Of equal import is Ellen Paige as his fangirl and eventual sidekick (that's not a spoiler, it's in the trailer). I can't tell you WHY it's so good, but the film is almost worth watching to see the weird and twisted places she goes with this role. Oh and Nathan Fillon is in it. Not a LOT of it, mind, but hey it's always nice to see him.

The script is fine, a little blunt at times, but it works. The big problems come in with the tone, and by extension direction. Simply put, this movie doesn't know what it wants to BE. Does it want to be a dark disturbing commentary on the superhero genre, ala Watchmen (landmark comic, not shitty movie)? Does it want to be a sick, depraved and darkly comic parody of superheroes, ala Kick Ass? Does it want to spoof the 'called by God' aspect or play it straight? Does it want to mock sentimentality or actually try to tug on our heartstrings occasionally? This is usually a question one answers before starting the script and somehow this one managed to get through post-production without them answered.

It mostly manages to overcome these issues for the majority of the film, where they manifest as some jarring shifts in tone and the occasional odd directorial flourish. They only really come to a head in the big finale when the multiple things it wants to be start colliding and several moments that could have either been funny or deeply moving get hamstrung by it's presentation and result in the moving ending with a whimper instead of a bang. But, that said, it's still a unique and ambitious effort and if you think you can stomach the weird places it goes, it might be worth a rent. I'm going to call it...recommended, with reservations. See you next time.

Elessar is a 21 year old Alaskan born cinephile and this is his last review as a 21 year old. Probably.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

And the 84th Nominees Are

Best Picture:
The Artist
The Descendants
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
The Help
Hugo
Midnight In Paris
Moneyball
The Tree of Life
War Horse 

Wow, I honestly did not expect both Drive and Melancholia to be shut out, especially given that there's a 9th spot open where you could stick one of them. More than a little pissed, if I'm being honest. Other than that, it's a solid list, without a lot of surprises. It was kind of a shit year as Oscar movies go, what're you going to do? As usual, you can tell who the real nominees are by looking at director. As I continue to say, it's a mostly two person race, between The Artist and The Descendents with maybe Tree of Life as an upset. Hugo and Midnight are welcome back nods to Scorcese and Woody Allen, respectively the rest are honored to be nominated. The odd man out here is Extremely Loud and Incredible Close which has received middling reviews at best, but hey it's not going to win so who cares?

Best Director:
Woody Allen for Midnight in Paris
Michael Hazanavicus for The Artist
Terrence Malick for The Tree of Life
Alexander Payne for The Descendents
Martin Scorcese for Hugo

A solid enough list, but reeking of Oscar politics and polite nods. Honestly, I'm expecting a split between The Artist and The Descendants, with Artist taking Director and Descendants taking Picture. But hey, I was wrong about Drive getting nominated, so I might be wrong.

Best Actor:
Demian Bichir for A Better Life
George Clooney for The Descendants
Jean Dujardin for The Artist
Gary Oldman for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Brad Pitt for Moneyball

The fact that Brad is nominated for Moneyball as opposed to Tree of Life makes me feel that an upset in the bigger categories is less likely, but hey it's still a good category. It's probably going to be either Dujardin or Clooney, with Brad Pitt as an upset. Bet accordingly.

Best Actress:
Glenn Close for Albert Nobbs
Viola Davis for The Help
Rooney Mara for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady
Michelle Williams for My Week With Marilyn

I haven't seen 4/5 of these movies, so my ability to comment is limited. You'll also note that only one of these films is up for Best Picture, which is odd. That said, if I had to guess, I'd probably stick it for Glenn Close, as she's been 'due' for years.

Best Supporting Actor:
Kenneth Branagh for My Week With Marilyn
Jonah Hill for Moneyball
Nick Nolte for Warrior
Christopher Plummer for Beginners
Max von Sydow for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close


Oh boy, now we can enjoy seeing 'Academy Award Nominee' whenever Jonah Hill is in a shitty comedy. Okay, that's unfair to him, the performance and movie were both good, good on him. I'm also more than a little pissed to not see Albert Brooks here for Drive. As with Actress, I've only seen Moneyball. That said, Academy Politics says Kenneth Branagh is the big favorite. Bet on him but...carefully.

Best Supporting Actress:
Bernice Bejo for The Artist
Jessica Chastain for The Help
Melissa McCarthy for Bridesmaids
Janet McTeer for Albert Nobbs
Octavia Spencer for The Help

Wouldn't it be hilarious if the only Oscar win for The Help was to a white actress? Also, Bridesmaids, really? That seems...odd. And as much as I'm a little disappointed to not see Shainlene Woodely up, it's probably going to be Bernice Bejo.


Best Original Screenplay:
The Artist
Bridesmaids
Margin Call
Midnight In Paris
A Seperation

Bridesmaids again huh? Odd. Oh well, it's probably going to be Midnight in Paris, just to make sure it gets an Oscar, but don't be surprised if it goes to The Artist

Best Adapted Screenplay:
The Descendants
Hugo
The Ides of March
Moneyball
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

An overall good category. My money is on The Descendants, as most people's probably are.

Best Animated Film:
A Cat in Paris
Chico and Rita
Kung Fu Panda 2
Puss in Boots
Rango

My money is on Rango as it was probably the best of all of these, but if Kung Fu Panda gets it, I will be deeply unhappy.

Best Foreign Film:
Bullhead
Footnote
In Darkness 
Monsieur Lazhar
A Separation

Anyone who tells you this is going to anything other than A Separation is either an idiot or can see the future and knows something I don't.

Other Commentary:

Seeing Transformers 3 on any of these makes me cry. I really hope The Muppets grabs song. Documentary is getting ignored by me for not letting Tabloid up. I will have a more extensive prediction list sometime down the line.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

SOPA and PIPA

Yeah, yeah, yeah I bet you're really sick of hearing about these things, but this is important. If the Stop Online Piracy Act or the Protect IP Act get passed then the internet as we know it is gone. No seriously, I'm not going into specifics but a lot of things we all like will become illegal. I'm sure it could probably get slapped down as Unconstitutional if it got passed, but is that a chance we really want to take?

The best weapon we have right now is to inform politicians and companies that their support of these acts does not sit well with us, the voting public, so we need to hit them as hard as we can. Right now there are a pair of petitions, one addressing Congress (which is just for the general public) and one addressing the Entertainment Software Association telling them that gamers hate this law and asking them to withdraw their support. So if you want to keep the internet free and open, sign one or both. Especially since this whole fiasco means I have to live without Wikipedia for a day.

Google Petition

ESA Petition

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

DVD Review: The Help

Based on a critically acclaimed book that, as usual, I've never read The Help has been repeatedly accused of being yet another 'white people fix everything for black people' film, ala The Blind Side. And while that's not an entirely untrue accusation, it manages to function quite a bit better than The Blind Side, while not being without it's own set of flaws.

The gist of the story is a woman returns home from college in 1963 with aspirations of being a writer. She discovers the horrible treatment of the black maids, primarily based about them being forced to use a different toilet in the house they're working in. She begins writing the titular book about their life stories.

The primary point of the movie are the acting, followed by the writing and in those respects it succeeds admirably and acceptably, respectively. The biggest standouts are Viola Davis and Jessica Chastain (who has seriously been in an absurd number of great things this year) but Octavia Spencer does an excellent job too. Emma Stone does a solid job, but she winds up being a bit of a cipher in her own movie, moving through most of the events with very little in the way of the a character arc, especially compared to the more complicated, interesting characters (it doesn't help that she keeps dropping her accent). Bryce Dallas Howard does an okay job with a villain role, as does Allison Janey as a secondary character. The script is fine, mostly concentrating on character turns and world building than plot twists.

The problems are mostly from the directorial side, with it almost feeling a bit well, paint by numbers. The checklist of things that have to be there for a movie like this is fully filled out (stock historical footage? Check. References to famous events? Check.) The camera work, with the exception of one really nice pan, is pretty bland. But still, it's a functional, if not exceptionally unique, film. So if you've got the inclination...yeah I guess it could be worth a rent.

Elessar is a 21 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he really should get around to reading some of these books.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Best Everything of 2011

As I continually make slow, but steady steps, to acting something like a real critic (didja see my review of Carnage? Not one use of fuck and aw dammit, there I lost it). Anyway, something I've learned that real critics do is in addition to the their top 10 movies of the year, they also announce the best of certain categories (they might have help with that from other critics, but fuck that, I still run this place alone and there I lost it again). So here we are. As always, based on the movies I've seen not the movies I've heard are good and no, I will not be providing explanations for my decisions.

Best Picture: Drive

Best Director: Nicholas Winding Refn for Drive

Best Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio for J. Edgar

Best Actress: Kristen Dunst for Melancholia

Best Supporting Actor: Albert Brooks for Drive

Best Supporting Actress: Shailene Woodley for The Descendants

Best Original Screenplay: Lars Von Trier for Melancholia

Best Adapted Screenplay: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash for The Descendants

Best Foreign Language Film: The Troll Hunter

Best Documentary: Tabloid

Best Animated Film: Rango

Friday, January 13, 2012

Review: Carnage

Carnage is a movie that puts me in an awkward position, review wise. It's a unique and well made film, with great writing and some memorable performances. It's also incredibly straightforwardly directed, to the point where it feels a tiny bit paint-by-numbers, which is odd for Roman Polanski. This is mostly a result of the film all taking place in, essentially, one room and happening in real time which I suppose is a unique enough hook to forgive a lack of directorial flare.

The story is concerned with two sets of parents meeting because the son of one of the families hit the son of the other with a stick, and the families are attempting a reconciliation. Aside from that the film follows the 4 characters as they continually (and unintentionally) prevent each other and themselves from leaving and tensions rise. The film is primarily devoted to the long slow descent from forced civility to veiled rudeness to outright hostility.

The film shines primarily in it's script and acting. The script manages to handle all four characters in a unique way, piling on the misfortune and circumstances until the characters hit the breaking point. Jodie Foster shines the most as the one who tries the longest to hold onto her civility and falls the farthest when she finally breaks. Christoph Waltz's performance is more downplayed nastiness to contrast Kate Winslet's eventual over the top performance when she gets to the end. But the surprisingly good performance comes from John C Reily who really manages to give his slow descent some really character and depth.

And this is what puts me in an awkward position as a reviewer. Once I've established that the acting and script are great, what am I left to say? The direction is competent but nothing special. The pacing and dialogue are both great, but those both go into the script. It doesn't even seem to have a moral affiliation, however broad. Sure a couple characters are bordering on nihilism, but I don't think we're supposed to agree with any of them. There are a couple flaws, mostly that it's very short and while it's got a solid hook, I can't honestly expect to remember it any real detail a week from now.

So, I guess I have to awkwardly end this review with a recommendation. It's good, it's funny. Go see it. Or you know, you could go see the latest Exorcist ripoff.

Elessar is a 21 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he think it must have gotten awkward when John C Reily realized he was the only actor who hadn't won an Oscar.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Review: Melancholia

Director Lars Von Trier's previous film Antichrist was a movie I really wanted to hate, but couldn't quite get there. Now, don't take that to mean that I liked it, I didn't. But, despite it being a sexists, pretentious, overblown mess of a film, I couldn't quite bring myself to hate it. Despite it's many, many problems, I could sense potential buried underneath it all, a unique filmmaking style and a tendency towards artistry. He could be a great director if he just got over himself and with Melancholia it seems he's finally done that.

The plot...is kind of weird and hard to describe without spoiling anything. After an extremely unique cold open (seriously, the first 7 minutes of this movie justify it's existence all on their own, they are simply gorgeous) which depicts the Earth being destroyed in a collision with a giant planet, the film begins at a wedding and...that's all I want to say about it. See the film for yourself if you want to find out whether the initial 7 minutes are real. Suffice it to say the film gets very weird, very fast.

Kirsten Dunst has the lead as Justine, the bride and she's getting the most attention, and it's well deserved. She owns this role in one of the subtlest most unique performances of the year, giving quiet depth to her initial collapse in the first half of the film and to her deep depression in the second half. It's one of the most realistic depictions of depression I've seen on film, and the best performance of Dunst's career thus far. Kirsten has the best performance of the film, but she gets incredible supporting work from Charlotte Gainsbourg as her put upon sister and Kiefer Sutherland as her husband (the sister, not Kirsten's).

The script is quiet and moves in and out of genres, at first appearing to be surrealist, then more conventional, then more fanciful before finally revealing itself as deep mediation on the nature of depression. Even some of the casting, seems to be working that angle, with the metatextual casting of Kirsten in the lead (who is still most famous for her 'damsel in distress' roles in the Spider-Man films) and with the sterotypically masculine Jack Bauer in the secondary role. How this particular bit of metatext works itself into the finale is technically a spoiler, but it does come up in the last 20 minutes of the film or so.

The direction is probably the oddest thing about the film. The camera work and lighting are particularly interesting. As I said, the gorgeous first 7 minutes, shot in extreme slow-mo, is one of the most gorgeous sequences I've seen in any film of 2011 and the numerous call backs to that style tend to be hauntingly beautiful. Most of the rest of the film is has more conventional camera work, albeit with some incredibly dark lighting and a near complete lack of any music.

This was technically a film I meant to see months ago, but didn't get a chance to until now and I wish I had, it would have made an excellent addition to my top 10 films. Regardless of how impossible it is to find at this point (it should be out on DVD soon) Melancholia is one of the most unique and impressionistic films of 2011 and well worth watching if you can. Do not miss this one.

Elessar is a 21 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he's going to assume Sutherland's character is Jack Bauer after having settled down.