Thursday, December 29, 2011

Carnage Review

Regardless of what you think of Roman Polanski’s new film “Carnage,” everyone can relate to it. Two married couples meet to discuss a playground fight that took place between their two kids, which inevitably leads to verbal warfare. Now maybe you haven’t been in that exact situation (not all of us are parents) but we’ve all been involved in conversations that are awkward at the start and then turn ugly. What’s even worse is when you have to watch and listen to other people have a fight.

That’s the situation in “Carnage.” Except for two exterior scenes at the beginning and end the whole movie takes place within the apartment of one of the families. There are no or transitions, no establishing shots to let us catch our breath; we’re crammed in there for the duration of the movie. Its uncomfortable yes, but also exciting. “Carnage” is one of the most true to life movies I’ve seen all year. It’s also one of the funniest but it’s not screwball or raunchy, the humor comes from the simple truth that heated, malicious conversations can be funny.

The movie is based on a play called “The God of Carnage” by Yazmina Reza (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Polanski). That should be obvious from the start. The structure of the movie is made for a play, and whether it is “My Dinner With Andre,” or “Carnage,” making a movie in real time is a challenge. As director, Polanski does surprisingly well with the little room he has. Making sure to move the camera around.

John C Reilly and Jody Foster play Michael and Penelope Longstreet, the mother and father of the victim child. Michael is a hardware store owner and Penelope is a cultured historian working on a book about Darfur. Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz play Nancy and Alan Cowan, the father and mother of the attacker. Nancy is a working mom and Alan is an executive of some pharmaceutical company.

When we first see them in the Longstreet’s apartment, the movie appears to be over. The couples have come to some kind of conclusion and now they are writing up the incident in a newsletter. However, their problems have yet to begin. In an allusion to Luis Bunuel’s 1962 surrealist comedy “The Exterminating Angel,” Nancy and Alan try on numerous occasions to leave. Alan’s a busy man after all, as he’s constantly on his cell phone but each and every time something stops them and they end up going back in.

 At first the conversation starts out calm, with the couples trying to be polite to one another. They talk about parenting, their kids, what needs to be done and what punishments, etc. The holes in the marriages are revealed and widened, Nancy is mad at Alan because he is always working and doesn’t spend that much time with their son Zachary. However, the couples remain patient and gracious.

 The true difficulty with the movie is trying to take it deeper and Polanski and Reza are able to do it entirely through dialogue. After Nancy has thrown up out of nerves,  (all over Penelope’s art books) and the scotch is broken out, topics such as behavior, Western values, what’s right and what’s wrong, are brought up. With these topics come the nastiest insults. The couples switch off taking shots at one another, back and forth. The movie is like a boiling pot of water. One minute it violently bubbles up over the edge, the next it’s at a calm simmer.

It’s also interesting to see the evolution of the characters. Penelope and Michael start off as the easygoing couple, Michael even acting as a conscientious objector in early arguments while Nancy and Alan are the stern, uneasy ones. Gradually, however, as the conversation gets deeper and feelings get hurt, opinions and roles change. Michael turns out to have a violent temper and Penelope becomes hysterical and unstable herself, while Alan and Nancy become the relaxed ones.

As good as the script and the direction is, a lot of the film depends on the actors and all four play off one another nicely but Waltz is the clear standout. Mainly because this is the first role he’s has where he hasn’t played a villain. At first he may remind you of Hans Landa from “Inglorious Basterds” with his sneering, his snide comments, his overall intimidating presence, though he really isn’t a bad guy. Waltz nails the delivery of every line of dialogue and he’s the only one who keeps his cool throughout the movie, while everyone else is screaming their heads off.

“Carnage” won’t be for everyone. Those who don’t like a lot of talking should stay far from it. True, not a lot happens in it in the way of regular movie action but so what? After seeing endless 3D shoot-em-up’s and depressing character studies it’s nice to see a simple, well made movie about people having an insightful conversation. Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory did it in 1981; why can’t Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, Jodie Foster and John C Reilly do it too?

Saturday, December 24, 2011

War Horse Review

“War Horse” reeks of Steven Spielberg. It has the kind of human-creature connections and wonder that we saw in “E.T,” the battlefield grittiness in “Saving Private Ryan”(“War Horse” takes place during World War 1) and finally a touch of the darkness we saw in “Schindler’s List.” The cinematography by Janusz Kaminski is bright and joyful. John Williams’ instrumental score is whimsical and fluttery. Typical of any Spielberg movie.

It’s also, as near as I can tell, the first sweeping epic to come out this year. The very first scene is an overhead sweeping shot of the rolling, green, wide-open hills of England, and that shot is repeated a few times throughout. There’s a scene where the characters are silhouetted against a beautiful sunrise, like in a John Ford western. The script by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis (taken from the book by Michael Morpurgo) is vast, full of lots of characters from different perspectives.

Now, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with all that. Spielberg is very good at handling this material. The human-animal connections are strong and the few battle scenes are thrilling. A scene toward the end in which soldiers charge out of the muddy trenches will bring the D Day sequence in “Private Ryan” to mind. But, I dunno, there’s something mechanical about all of it. With the emotional stuff you feel more obligated to react to it instead of genuinely feeling for it and Spielberg has it down to a formula. Sometimes it’s happy and playful, then it’s sad and dark, then it’s upbeat again and then it’s sad and dark again. The movie feels specially designed to win awards.

Speaking of melodrama, the central story is about a horse, which is an emotional rollercoaster all by itself. We know there will be scenes of humans touching the horse’s snout and staring into its eyes. There are a couple majestic sequences of the horse galloping through those same rolling hills, as well as battle-torn France. On the other hand, there will be sadness. The horse gets stuck in barbed wire, it gets treated badly by other humans. But that’s what we’ve come to expect from horse movies.

Anyhow, the horse is named Joey, a Caramel brown thoroughbred. Young Albert (Jeremy Irvine) can’t keep his eyes off him from the very first time he sees him grazing in the field. When his farmer father purchases the horse, Albert trains Joey and bonds with him. The horse is stubborn at first and no one believes in him but Albert does. Everyone loves a good underdog story.

So, OK, some of this stuff teeters on “Horse Whisperer” but Spielberg is justified in doing it. Since the Albert-Joey relationship is the core relationship in the movie, Spielberg needs to establish it…by showing all the horse touching and sharing, so that we have a reason to care about them.

Now, this is where the vastness of the screenplay comes in. Due to money issues Joey is sold to British soldiers, where he is used in battle by Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddletson). But after a failed raid on a German camp Joey is sent over to the German side, where two sympathetic young German brothers look after him. Then he comes to another farm inhabited by a teenage girl and her grandfather, and then he goes back with the Germans where he’s forced to pull heavy armory but luckily he’s looked after by another kind hearted German armor man. Clearly Spielberg has had enough of portraying the Germans as cruel.

 I get it; the movie’s supposed to be about the horse’s journey. How he goes around to all these places and meets different people and gets a lot of experience. And the horse is not your typical Hollywood trick pony, that’s for sure but frankly it’s all a bit much. There are more characters and stories than needed. A few moments stand out, like when the horse is caught in barbed wire and a German and English solider come out of the trenches and cut the horse out while bonding, because that kind of stuff actually happened in the real war. But others (like the girl and her grandfather) feel repetitive, or (like the German armor men) are underdeveloped.

Look, I know how Spielberg is drawn to these kinds of stories. I admire his ambition to do such a large-scale picture and I have no complaints about the acting except that no one is sensational. However, the movie is so melodramatic and there are instances (such as the very last scene) where Spielberg is trying too hard to pull at your heart strings that it’s overkill. Every bit of the emotion is calculated. But hey, there’s one thing you can say about a Spielberg epic: you get your money’s worth.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Artist Review

It took some courage on Michael Hazanavicius’ part to make his latest film “The Artist” in the style of an old fashioned silent film. You wouldn’t think there would be a huge audience for it. However, considering this film is about the rise and fall of an aging silent movie star, this is the only way Hazanavicius can do it. It gives the movie its sense of identity and without it “The Artist” would probably be another run of the mill tragedy/love story about a famous person’s decline.

The film is straightforward, easy to follow, not too long and for how sad it is it maintains an overall playful and vaudevillian tone. It shows you that a movie doesn’t need to have sound in order for it to be convincing.

Hazanavicius captures every aspect of a silent movie. The use of black and white, and dialogue cards. There’s Ludovic Bource’s silent movie-esque instrumental soundtrack that mirrors every mood and action in the film perfectly. There are also a few small touches that further the overall experience, like the slight overacting in the performances and portions of the film that are sped up.

The movie opens in 1927, silent movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is at the top of his game. He and his producer Al Zimmer (John Goodman) have made a number of successful movies and he’s still going strong. After a packed screening of his latest film he and his faithful Jack Russell Terrier (played by Uggi the dog), do some more performing and posing for a crowd of onlookers and press outside the theater.

He has a beautiful wife, a loyal audience and a big house; he’s living in a dream world. However all of that changes with the birth of The Talkies. George is suddenly cast aside to make way for the younger talent. “Out with the old, in with the new.” The new being rising Hollywood starlet Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) who takes a liking to George.

All the actors in the movie look like they’re having the time of their lives. Since there was no sound silent movie actors had to work harder, mugging for the camera and making themselves more animated. With his black tuxedo and top hat, his pencil thin mustache, slicked back hair and million dollar smile you can’t take your eyes off Dujardin, his fluid movements are almost hypnotizing and partnered with Bejo’s charms the two have some of the best screen chemistry of the year and they do it without sound, which spares us the sappy cliché rom com dialogue. And as for Uggi? The scenes he and George share are some of the most memorable and touching in the movie, as it usually goes with dogs in film.

George thinks the whole idea of Talkies is silly and doesn’t think they’ll last. As he says (or rather, doesn’t) “People come to see me, they don’t need to see me speak.” He tries to make his own silent movie, but it flops at the box office. Then his wife leaves him and he loses his house and possessions but he still won’t budge. He won’t even look at a screenplay, not that he gets any. He’s old news. George is stubborn yes, but can you blame him? He doesn’t want things to change, he wants to keep living his caricature dream, making movies and posing for crowds. Who wants to face the harsh reality? None of us really like change; especially if it’s in an area we’re passionate about, whether it be movies or print journalism vs. online. But change is the future and it will go on with or without George.

It takes place in the silent movie era but “The Artist” is still a very contemporary film. Just as cinema was going through a revolution back then, cinema is going through a revolution now, with the rising popularity of 3D and even digital film. There are the big hotshot producers who are all for embracing it and moving forward just as there are those who are reluctant. There are independent filmmakers who don’t want to conform to the studio system and stick to their old ways.

Although Hazanavicius isn’t trying to preach by any means. There is still a well-paced, compelling and amusing story to keep our attention. And the picture isn’t totally against Talkies or changes either, but (in the end) about compromise. Silent movies are out but that doesn’t mean a silent movie star can’t still find his place in the new era.

The bottom line with “The Artist” is that it’s silent (except for a couple instances) and in black and white. If you can’t get behind that then you won’t enjoy the movie. Hopefully, audiences will see that Hazanavicius has crafted a rare, once in a decade movie, that both reminds us of a magical time in cinema and of where we are today. These are the kinds of risks I like to see directors take, amidst all the CGI, 3D, Spielberg sentimentality, and Michael Bay caliber explosions

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Adventures of Tintin Review

Steven Spielberg’s “The Adventures of Tintin” (based on the popular comic book series by Belgian artist Herge) will no doubt be a crowd pleaser. From the very minute we first see our scrappy, red headed, baby faced hero, you know you’re going to be in for a treat. “Tintin” is a swashbuckling adventure (and the latest movie to use motion-capture animation) stuck somewhere in between “Indiana Jones” (movies of which Spielberg served as director) and “Pirates of the Caribbean,” which is all well and good but also serves as a problem.

As much as it pains me to say it, I think Herge’s cherished creation is outdated. The old-schoolness of the action and events that take place in the movie feels far too familiar by today’s standards; especially with the “Jones” movies and others like it. There are car chases, motorcycle chases, airplane flying, a desert village in North Africa, clues that lead to treasure. There’s a dastardly and greedy villain and a wacky sidekick used mostly as comic relief. The only thing that’s missing, strangely enough, is a love interest.

There’s also a flaw with the protagonist himself. Tintin (played enthusiastically by Jamie Bell) is Indiana Jones, MacGyver, and a Hollywood action star all rolled into one. He can do everything, he can fly a plane, solve puzzles, make elaborate contraptions out of everyday objects. He can beat up bad guys easily, even if some of them are much bigger and stronger than him. He’s a comic book hero (a familiar one at that) and this movie treats him like one. He speaks in astonished gasps like in a thought bubble on a panel and suffers from Saying-Important-Clues-and-Plot-Points Out-Loud-To-Himself Syndrome. He’s bland.

The rest of the characters have their moments but are just as flat, including his goofy, drunken sidekick Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), the humorous cop duo Thomson and Thompson (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) and the devious antagonist Ivan (Daniel Craig). The only one who’s constantly interesting and entertaining is Tintin’s faithful dog Snowy and that’s mainly because—whether it is live action or animation—dogs always steal the show.

On top of that the movie expects the audience to know all about Tintin and the others right from the start. Thankfully I had read a few Tintin books as a kid. At the beginning Tintin is already established as a well-known reporter. One day he finds a model of a ship called The Unicorn, that contains a clue to some kind of treasure that supposedly went to down with the real version of the ship long ago. This sets off a chain reaction. Bad guys led by Ivan want the clue along with two other models that each hold an additional clue. When Tintin is kidnapped and taken aboard a ship he runs into Haddock who is the ancestor of the Captain Haddock who manned The Unicorn. This in turn leads them to North Africa and so on.

While all of this is mildly entertaining it would have been better (since this is the first Tintin movie) to establish Tintin a little more. Learn about his origins; even show more of him interacting in his hometown. Spielberg is too hasty in trying to get Tintin’s epic journey started that we barely have a chance to get sense of his character at the start. There’s also a small side plot involving a pickpocket who collects people’s wallets that should have been expanded upon. I found it more unique and interesting than the recovery of pirate treasure.

Nevertheless, the film looks great. Motion capture movies don’t always work out too well (talk to Robert Zemeckis) but here the characters as well as the locations are full of detail and look very realistic. And even though it dims the picture, Spielberg puts the 3D to good use. There are a few sequences (one involving Tintin and Haddock flying a plane through a thunder and lighting storm) that are especially spectacular. Still, live action or not, too much action becomes overwhelming and after a while “Tintin” becomes exhausting, making the predictable ending less tolerable.

But as I said before “Tintin” is bound to be a crowd pleaser. It has the kind of kinetic, rousing energy that the general audience will respond to. And there will be sequels, you can be sure of that. All I can hope for is that Spielberg and producing partner Peter Jackson try to take the premise deeper and perhaps darker, because this movie is basically a motion capture comic book.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Review

Let’s put aside the fact that David Fincher’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is based on a book in the ever so popular “Millennium Trilogy” by the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson (and that all three books have been adapted into Swedish language films) and examine Fincher’s latest work as a stand-alone movie. It’s a cold, bleak, sometimes disturbing exercise in filmmaking. There’s a sense of dread mounting in every scene. The electronic score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross pulsates through each frame, hammering and drilling into your consciousness.

It takes place in Sweden, which means dark rainy days and snowstorms. The central mystery lies buried within the Vanger Family, a powerful Swedish syndicate that owns a major corporation. A family member named Harriet was murdered at sixteen and the solution to her murder has been left unsolved for forty years.

Still on a high from last year’s critically acclaimed “The Social Network,” Fincher is back in a somewhat familiar groove with his slick direction and the screenplay’s quick dialogue. His “Social Network” producer Scott Ruden is back, as well as composers Reznor and Ross and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, who photographs the picture in dim unwelcoming colors. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” isn’t better than “The Social Network,” mainly because its premise is more routine and formulaic compared to the founding of Facebook. However, Fincher’s new film is still a compelling and expertly made murder mystery.

Daniel Craig stars as Mikael Blomkvist, the editor of Millennium Magazine, who has just been sued successfully for libel for an article he wrote. He’s disgraced and doesn’t know what to do, until he meets Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer, in a witty yet sinister performance) who enlists him to write a biography on him and the Vanger Corporation, while secretly enlisting him to solve Harriet’s murder.

Meanwhile we have Lisbeth Salander (a hardly recognizable Rooney Mara), the underdog of the story and who the title is named after. She is short and skinny, wears baggy cloths, and sports a Mohawk. Her body is lined with piercings and tattoos. She’s, as someone describes her at the beginning, “different.” She lacks social skills and unfortunately she gets taken advantage of sexually. The scenes between her and a sadistic social worker are among the most intense and will make you shiver.

But she’s resilient nonetheless, she can take care of herself and wants to remain under the radar. The scene where she gives that Social Worker comeuppance gives you the kind of raw satisfaction you get from vigilante movies. Salander is also a damn good hacker; one of the best, and watching her at her computer, decrypting documents and breaking into emails, is just as exciting to watch as it was seeing Mark Zuckerberg do it.

For most of the film Lis and Mikael remain separated. Mikael working diligently on the case, digging himself deeper into the corruption and danger of the Vanger family, a place he’s not wanted. Not by fellow Vanger relatives Anita (Joely Richardson) or Martin (an ice cold Stellan Skarsgard). While Lis tends to her daily hacker jobs as well as her daily struggles to get money and food. Movies that do a lot of jumping back and forth have a tendency to get a little exhausting after a while but Fincher’s stylistically smart direction gives ample time for both of them, never stopping dead on one of them for a long time. And with the movie being 158 minutes he keeps it moving along.

It also helps to have a well-structured, meaty screenplay by Steven Zallian. Much like Aaron Sorkin’s script for “The Social Network,” Zallian’s is filled with rapid-fire dialogue that’s informative as well as entertaining. And for how dark the movie is Zallian finds comical moments to ease the tension.

When Mikael and Lis finally do unite (Mikael needs a research assistant) the movie is at its finest. Daniel Craig has a stern ruggedness that’s fitting for the role. He’s also a bit of a woman’s charmer as he was as James Bond but at the same time he looks washed-up and defeated, and Craig conveys that sense of shame perfectly. Rooney Mara, who was Mark Zuckerberg’s girlfriend in “ Social Network,” works hard, plunging herself into the broken down character of Lis Salander. Together the two play off each other wonderfully. Mikael’s personable, reporter mentality vs. Salander’s lack of sociability and untrusting of other people.

I haven’t read Larsson’s book yet. I didn’t rush out and speed read through it in preparation for this movie. I find that by doing that it can cloud your judgment of the movie. Sometimes we tend to hold the film to a certain standard that only a book can achieve. From what I’ve heard this film doesn’t stray too far away from the book, except for a couple things near the end. Speaking strictly of the film it does run a little long, especially at the end and compared to the foreign version there’s not a lot of difference. Even so, Fincher has crafted a fine movie with a strong, complex protagonist that we can both feel sorry for and root for.