Monday, January 21, 2013

Director's Retrospective: M. Night Shyamalan Part 2

The second half of Shyamalan’s career is, to put it charitably, where everything went to shit. This means that the movies got simultaneously harder to watch and more fun to write about. The tradeoff is generally more than worth it, so let’s get started shall we?

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Review: Mama

Ghost based movies, in particular the jump-scare variety, have always had a deficiency in the story and character department. Various recent good entries have tried to compensate for this in different ways, to varying success: Woman in Black tried to compensate with a great set and an unrelenting second act, Sinister tried to make the concept do most of the work. Mama takes the novel approach of having a solid story with good characters. Fancy that.

Quickly rehashing the plot: A business executive, upon finding out he’s bankrupt, kills his estranged wife and kidnaps his two daughters, taking them out into a cabin deep in the woods, intending to commit a murder/suicide. He is stopped by a …thing. 5 years later, the executive’s twin brother (both of them played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau who those of you with good taste might know as Jamie Lannister from Game of Thrones) finds them, still living in the woods. The thing turns out to be a ghost the girls call Mama, who has been caring for the girls, and follows them home when the brother and his punk girlfriend (Jessica Chastain…no really) take them in on the advice of a watchful psychiatrist.

You’re probably expecting a lot of jump out scares with that premise, and you’ll get them, but the movie is actually more creative than that. The film is very fond of long uncut shots, which are well spaced out and used. There are also a pair of extremely creative dream sequences, with some interesting cinematography and visuals, which help elevate the film as a whole to above average.

Another assist the movie gets is from the actors. Jessica Chastain is excellent, playing a character that is miles away from her performance in Zero Dark Thirty, but is still an interesting one. Her character is reluctant to care for the kids when Mama causes an accident that puts her boyfriend out of action, but manages to slowly summon up her maternal instinct. Her character arc and the acting she puts into it are one of the main ways this movie is better than usual for it’s genre.

Aside from her, the other actors are all doing their jobs well. Nikolaj acquits himself nicely in a secondary role, and between him and Lena Heady in Dredd, I’m hoping more Game of Thrones will get more work (now can we get Peter Dinklage in more things? I mean, we’ve all seen The Station Agent and Death at a Funeral right, so we know how good he is). The two girls are solid, managing to be exceptionally creepy when called for (especially the younger one) but also sympathetic (especially the older one…huh). Special mention must also go to actor Javier Botet under heavy makeup and CGI as Mama.

Aside from that (that it’s well acted and quite scary) there’s not a whole ton to say. It’s about as original as jump scare horror flick can be, it’s mostly well written, the ghost design is nicely original and her goals and backstory make her a tiny bit more interesting than the usual “Cuz evil” explanation for ghosts in these movies. I guess there are some minor issues here and there: There’s some ‘Horror Dumb’ going around, Jessica Chastain occasionally seems to lack peripheral vision and Mama’s ability set can be a tiny bit on the vague side. But those are all par for the course with this genre and none of them are deal breakers.

Horror is rarely, if ever, aiming for the artistic side of things. It’s always nice when it does, but it can often make it through without it so long as it succeeds at what it wants to be. And Mama wants to be a ride, a movie where you jump and shriek, and it’s highly successful at that, and manages to be a well made movie on top of that. New director Andres Muschietti is a definite talent and it’s nice to see Guiellmo Del Toro producing a good horror film after the…unpleasantness that was Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (don’t get me wrong, when it comes to directing he’s still coming up aces all around). This is January, which means that there’s a lot of crap clogging up the theaters. Mama however isn’t, and if you’re in the market for a horror flick, you’re probably not going to do better than it. Recommended.

Elessar is a 22 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he’s decided that Nikolaj’s dog is named Sandor Clegane.

Friday, January 18, 2013

DVD Review: Frankenweenie

As I said during the Dark Shadows review, I do like Tim Burton, even with all of his…let’s call them ‘modern issues.” A lot of his modern movies have been pretty bad, but I’ve always been rooting for him to return to the Ed Wood levels of his earlier work. And while Frankenweenie is nowhere near that good, it is quite enjoyable and well made, and is actually probably one of his better movies in a while.

Adapted from a short film Burton did of the same title (but owing a lot more visually to another short film he did called Vincent), the plot is basically what you’d figure from its title. A lonely, isolated, movie obsessed kid’s faithful dog is killed by a car and he, in his grief, uses a familiar faux-science technique to bring his dog back to life. One of his scheming classmates finds out and begins to try and make his own undead animals.

I think what makes this movie work is there aren’t a ton of moving pieces. There’s the plot about hiding the dog, the plot about the scheming classmate and…that’s roughly it. There’s some minor things peeking in around the edges, like a well done sequence about the importance of science, but the movie benefits from an extremely tight focus. It allows the all important characters to feel like real people.

The other thing that helps the movie out is its commitment to its visual theme. None of the characters look anything like a real humans, but the movie is heavily committed to this design. This actually allows the designs on the… well you’ll see, in the third act to feel real.  Some of the character designs are rather impressive, and the animations is incredibly well done. I’ve always been very fond of stop-motion and this is a good example of it.

There are some negative points, mostly in Burton’s issues with structure. The first act is quite abbreviated and the second act seems to move a little quickly towards the end, in an effort to get to the film’s climax. Still, the movie’s script is solid and while it’s a little too much of a hurry to get there, the third act is quite impressive (and contains more than a few movie references that some movie geeks in the audience will appreciate). Overall, the film is imperfect, but it’s certainly an improvement over Burton’s last few. It seems that my theory about getting away from Depp being good for him is accurate. So I guess I can recommend it. I quite enjoyed it, and you probably will too.

Elessar is a 22 year old Alaskan born cinephile and if The Lone Ranger trailers are any indication, the reverse isn’t true for Depp.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Director Retrospective: M. Night Shyamalan Part 1

Man, I've been posting a lot lately, haven't I? Huh.

M. Night Shyamalan is an interesting case, when it comes to directing careers. He’s hardly the first auter director to stumble into mainstream success and be unable to cope (he has George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppla for company there). But the speed with which it happened and the degree to which it’s affected him are quite unique. So, with this particular director retrospective, I’m going to try and discover what went wrong, and figure out if Shyamalan can be saved.

NOTE: For the purposes of this retrospective, Praying With Anger and Wide Awake are being ignored. Partially because they’re not exceptionally relevant to his modern career, and partially because they are just fucking impossible to find.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Review: Silver Linings Playbook

If this movie taught me anything, it’s that I don’t get football. At all. Not exceptionally relevant, just thought I’d say it.

Anyway. Silver Linings Playbook is a movie that I less wanted to see, and more a movie I felt I was obligated to see. It’s been nominated for all of the big awards (and more weirdly, editing) so I felt obligated to see it, just to figure out if it’s actually that good, or if there’s some PR bullshit going on behind the scenes (since it’s backed by Weinstein, it’s quite possible). And the verdict?

Well it’s not bad, by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s not great. Les Miserables and Lie of Pi are still the worst films nominated, but it’s not like it could drag itself onto my top 10. Still, it’s engaging, well acted and well written to a point, so there are certainly worse uses of your time.

Anyway. The plot is concerned with Pat, a bipolar man just getting out of a mental hospital after a felony assault. He returns home, determined to get his life on track and reunite with his wife. On the way he meets a woman who recently lost her husband, who is similarly…off, and they begin to bond, very strangely, over their mutual issues. And yeah, that’s going exactly where you think it is.

The acting is where the movie is getting most of it’s attention and most of it’s quality. Jennifer Lawrence’s character is a teetering pile of manic pixie dreamgirl clichés, but she manages to sell it almost entirely with her acting, and salvage the majority of the movie along with it. Bradley Cooper is well outside his usual comedy persona, but it works really well and he’s giving a lot of effort to make it work. De Niro is good, not his best but it’s nice to see him getting his career back on track (which I imagine is why he got his Oscar nomination). And while I don’t want to talk too much about the Oscar nominations, I find it weird that Jacki Weaver got nominated, as she’s barely in the damned thing.

The screenplay is solid enough I guess, nothing on some of the better scripts like The Master or Moonrise Kingdom but workable. It’s best off in the first half, when the script is focusing on the downside and darkness in MPDG persona, and even seems to be going somewhere pretty dark with it for a while. But the third act is a little more problematic, as it falls into a more typical romantic comedy plotline. It’s still well written and well acted, but it’s just a little too…typical for my taste. I dunno, I guess I’m still waiting for another movie to go the dark and/or ambiguous route, like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

The more baffling nomination is the director nomination. Yes, David O. Russel is a real talent, who has made good movies before (The Fighter, Three Kings, etc.) but I don’t know if he tried to tone it down too far or what, but he just did not bring his A Game to this one. Most of the direction is flat or overly on the nose (I would like to put a goddamn moratorium on using Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas in movies, for fuck’s sake people), and the attempts at the unique things tend to fall flat. And while I promised myself  I wasn’t gonna bitch about what didn’t get nominated, I find it really annoying that this got nominated for Best Editing, when better edited movies like Cloud Atlas, Moonrise Kingdom and even Cosmopolis got shut out. Seriously, Cloud Atlas had to cut between 6 different stories, in 6 different time periods, in 6 different genres, what did this have to do?

There are other good points (an amusing, but ultimately go-nowhere subplot about Pat not wanting to take medication) and negative ones (some occasionally poor music choices) but ultimately, this is an acting heavy movie that kinda blows it on the directing level. These are fairly common among Oscar-Bait movies, and Silver Linings Playbook isn’t any worse than most of them. So while I am convinced that the amount of love for this movie is pretty much just PR Bullshit, I guess I can recommend it. As I said at the beginning, you could do a lot worse.

Elessar is a 22 year old Alaskan born cinephile and there was a continuity error towards the end involving a necklace that really bugged him.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

85th Academy Awards Nominations

I like the Oscars. I don't always agree with them (in fact I rarely agree with them 100 percent) but I like them. They allow movies that otherwise just wouldn't get made or seen to get recognition, which is nice. So I was paying close attention to this year's crop of nominations and I have to admit I was...quite surprised. So away we go:

Best Picture:
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Django Unchained
Life of Pie
Les Miserables
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty

That is a mixed bag, leaning good. The inclusion of great movies like Beasts, Lincoln, Django, Zero and Argo is enough to make up for mediocre to bad movies like Pi and Les Mis and the lack of things like Moonrise Kingdom or The Master. Given it's number of nominations, I suppose I need to see Silver Linings Playbook and while I'd not heard of Amour until now, I should probably give that look too. The sheer volume of nominations for Lincoln means we're probably looking at a juggernaut, which is...fine with me actally.

Best Director:
Michael Haneke for Amour
Ang Lee for Life of Pi
David O. Russell for Silver Linings Playbook
Steven Spielberg for Lincoln
Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild

I may not have seen Amour but Michale Haneke did the excellent Funny Games a few years back, so I like seeing him up. Pi looks nice enough that I'm willing to forgive it being up despite it's mediocre quality. Since Affleck and Bigelow aren't up, smart money is probably on Spielberg. But none of that really matters, because I'm just so fucking happy Tom Hooper isn't up.

Best Actor:
Bradley Cooper for Silver Linings Playbook
Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln
Hugh Jackman for Les Miserables
Joaquin Phoenix for The Master
Denzel Washington for Flight

Honestly wasn't expecting Denzel. The rest is fairly predictable stuff. Hugh wasn't always great, but he was trying his ass off, so we'll forgive his nomination. I'm betting on Daniel Day-Lewis, with Joaquin as an upset, but I'm rooting for Joaquin.

Best Actress:
Jessica Chastain for Zero Dark Thirty
Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook
Emmanuelle Riva for Amour
Quvenzhané Wallis for Beasts of the Souther Wild
Naomi Watts for The Impossible

The big 'wait, what?' for this one is The Impossible, as I've not heard anyone even talking about this movie. Jessica Chastain pretty much has this locked down, which is fine with me, but I'm just excited for Hushpuppy being up, and probably the closest thing this category has to an upset. It's also kinda cool that this year has both the oldest (Riva) and youngest (fucking guess) actresses ever to be nominated.

Best Supporting Actor:
Alan Arkin for Argo
Robert De Niro for Silver Linings Playbook
Phillip Seymour Hoffman for The Master
Tommy Lee Jones for Lincoln
Christoph Waltz for Django Unchained

That is...a damned good category. Okay yeah, Samuel L. Jackson or Leonardo DiCaprio would be better choices for Django, but it's still a good category. It's also a little too close to call right now, though gun to my head, I'd say Tommy Lee Jones. Don't quote me on that though.

Best Supporting Actress:
Amy Adams for The Master
Sally Field for Lincoln
Anne Hathaway for Les Miserables
Helen Hunt for The Sessions
Jacki Weaver for Silver Linings Playbook

Well Silver Linings Playbook better be fucking great given that it's in all of the big categories. As for this category, everyone thinks it's gonna be Anne Hathaway and I can't think of a reason to argue. Hence, it's boring to talk about. Next.

Best Original Screenplay:
Django Unchained
Moonrise Kingdom
Zero Dark Thirty

Honestly, unless Amour or Flight are terrible, there are no bad choices in this category. I'd have to say Django is probably the most likely, although Moonrise and Amour aren't outside the realm of possibility. 

Best Adapted Screenplay:
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Life of Pi
Silver Linings Playbook

This one is probably going to Lincoln although the purist in me is a little annoyed that Life of Pi made it in despite it's pretty crap screenplay. Argo is probably the reliable upset and it's just generally nice to see Beasts up for so many things.

Best Animated Feature:
The Pirates: Band of Misfits
Wreck-It Ralph

With so many well received animated films this year, I'd honestly expect the obligatory Pixar nomination to not grab it, especially given that it only got middling reviews. But then that's what I said about Rata-whatever a few years back, and it still managed to beat out Persepolis of all thing, so never underestimate the Academy's fetish for all things Pixar. And honestly, with so many other good options, the non-Brave vote might be split enough for Brave to grab it.

Best Foreign Film:
A Royal Affair
War Witch

Do I even need to tell you that Amour is gonna get it? Didn't think so. The only other thing I can think of to say is to ask whether Kim Nguyen, director of War Witch is related to James Nguyen, director of Birdemic? Seriously, wouldn't that be the greatest piece of irony ever.

Best Documentary:
5 Broken Cameras
The Gatekeepers
How to Survive a Plague
The Invisible War
Searching for Sugar Man

I've not seen any of these, but based on my research, I'm assuming How to Survive a Plague is the probable winner. Upset is probably Searching for Sugar Man or The Gatekeepers.

In the technical awards, I keep seeing Lincoln and Life of Pi, so those are probably the big ones. I'm personally rooting for Skyfall when it comes to Best Original Song and I have to say, I'm a little disappointed to see a complete lack of Cloud Atlas anywhere (not surprised though).

The ceremony is on February 24th, I'll be over at a friend's house to watch and live tweet it, and I'll have my official predictions up before then. Enjoy your betting.  

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Director Retrospective: The Coen Brothers Part 3

Yeah, I haven’t forgotten this feature. I just figured I’d try to burn through the remaining Coen brothers movies in one go. Also? First post of 2013. So, with introductions out of the way, away we go.