Melancholia (2011) Review

16 03 2012

Copyright 2011 Zentropa Entertainments

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

The first ten minutes of this film had me quite concerned with what exactly I was getting myself into, but the ensuing film was an immensely intriguing character study.

Defining the synopsis of this movie in detail would be, in my opinion, a rather futile process.  Let’s just say it’s a Bergman-esque family drama via Lars von Trier.  Oh yeah, and there’s a cosmic anomaly that is causing a hidden planet to come dangerously within Earth’s rotational path during the course of the story.  The relationship in question that the story focuses upon are of two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who are very different and have a strained, but oddly caring relationship.  Their parents, Gaby (Charlotte Ramping) and Dexter (John Hurt), are equally odd in their own ways and possibly a good explanation for their daughter’s troubles.  Claire is somewhat more grounded than Justine in her marriage to ultra rich, John (Kiefer Sutherland), and with her son Leo (Cameron Spurr), but as the narrative progresses and the strange planet of Melacholia approaches Earth, her defenses seem to be broken down more than Justine’s.

What von Trier has created with this film is an engaging and intriguing look at the psyche of these two sisters as their lives play out during what could be the final weeks of life on Earth.  It seems almost as if the approaching planet of Melancholia triggers an even deeper emotional block for both the sisters as it’s rotation closes in on Earth’s.  Almost every aspect of this film surprised me in how well it works because, as you can tell by the description, it is a pretentious story.  However, unlike the pretentious Tree of Life, which I was completely let down and uninterested in, this film wholly succeeded in keeping my engagement throughout.  I was worried about whether or not the story would take, the direction with its shaky camera movements throughout, the odd characterizations of the primary characters; yet, in the end, almost masterfully so, I completely understood why von Trier made those decisions and it ultimately worked beautifully for the film.

I am still thinking about this film today, trying to pick out and analyze pieces of its meaning, and that is always a sign of a great movie.  It’s a shame that von Trier made that SNAFU comment earlier in the awards season this year, as I feel it took the spotlight away from what is most important – the film itself.  This, in turn, I think took some of the respect this film deserves away, and this movie deserved a lot more recognition than it got.  If you don’t mind a pretentious film and want to see one that is done right, then so far, this is the best one I’ve seen from 2011.





My Week with Marilyn (2011) Review

15 03 2012

Copyright 2011 The Weinstein Company

★ ★ ★ ★

Another new release to DVD – we are on a roll burning through 2011 movies!  This one is a nostalgic look at an iconic world figure based on the supposed true events during and around the time of filming the 1957 film The Prince and the Showgirl.

Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), the son of wealthy art historian Lord Clark, wants to leave his upper class aristocratic lifestyle and “join the circus” that is the movies.  In an attempt to get his foot in the door, he moves to London and relentlessly pursues employment at the offices of Laurence Olivier Productions.  Impressed with his insistence, Sir Laurence (Kenneth Branagh), the noted actor and director, offers him a position as third assistant director on his next picture which will star American screen icon, Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams).  Clark readily accepts, and is awe struck with his new found position.  Monroe, who has recently married playwright Arthur Miller, arrives in the United Kingdom for filming with her entourage, which includes acting coach Paula Strasburg (Zoe Wanamaker) and management David Orton (Robert Portal).  Once filming begins, the evidence of Marilyn’s many personal troubles are brought to light and her and Olivier clash regularly on set.  In an effort to calm the tension and keep an eye on the turbulent Monroe, Clark strikes a relationship that blossoms into a brief romance.  His time with the actress and experiences on set were documented in his memoir, of which the film was based.

Production-wise, the film is quite solid.  This is likely director Simon Curtis’s biggest achievement to date, being that much of his previous work was television or smaller films, and he handles the cast of experienced British and American stars quite well.  The cinematography by Ben Smithard, a new name to me, is gracefully shot and evokes the hues and tone of the era in which it recaptures during the late 1950s.  The use of hard back light and classic Hollywood lighting during the set sequences is very much true to form to the era, and it contrasts quite nicely to the mood enhanced lighting during the real life scenes of Monroe’s struggles.

For me, however, where this film truly shone was in the script by Adrian Hodges, that was intriguing and never dull, and the acting by the all-star cast.  Redmayne gave a good leading performance as Clark, but even still was over shadowed by the tremendous performances by Williams as Monroe and Branagh as Olivier.  I’ve always been a Branagh fan and he is a perfect choice to play Olivier, being that if you look at both their careers, his has very closely mirrored and taken cue from Olivier’s.  His brilliant Shakespearean work, various stints directing other genres and solid characterizations in other films like Woody Allen’s Celebrity make Branagh, in my opinion, one of the UK’s most well-rounded working actors.  For this performance, he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, but lost out to fellow Brit Christopher Plummer for Beginners, a film I have not yet seen.

Now, for the real shining star of the film, Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe.  Whereas, Monroe was iconically beautiful, Williams is cute in a waifish sort of way.  Upon seeing the trailer for this film, I really didn’t buy Williams as looking that much like Monroe.  However, once seeing it, her ability to re-create the voice, mannerisms and minute details of the Monroe persona sold the part so well that it was brilliant.  Williams, likewise, was nominated for an Oscar for her performance, for Best Actress, but lost to Meryl Streep’s The Iron Lady.  Williams, however, at just 30 years old, I’m sure has a long and fruitful career ahead of her.

In short, this was a well made and very worthwhile film.  I would highly recommend it to audiences of any demographic.





The Descendants (2011) Review

14 03 2012

Copyright 2011 Fox Searchlight Pictures

★ ★ ★ ★

This was the final film that was a major contender in this year’s awards season that I had yet to see.  In retrospect, though an enjoyable flick, I’m not upset we missed this one in the theaters.

George Clooney plays Matt King, a real estate attorney who lives in Oahu, Hawaii.  More importantly than his profession, however, is that he belongs to a family who has a long-line of land ownership on the Hawaiian islands, specifically on Kauai, that has been set up in a trust for years.  The large land ownership is what is left of a royal inheritance his great-great-great grandmother received in the 1860s from her lineage in the Hawaiian royal family.  With just seven years until the trust is absolved and being the primary beneficiary, Matt, along with his cousins, are planning a sale of the lands that will make all of them multimillionaires.  During this process, however, his wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), is put into a coma from a boating accident, which leaves Matt to also deal with raising his semi-estranged children, Alexandra(Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller).  Around the same time that he learns of Elizabeth’s imminent death because of her will, which states she doesn’t want to live in a persistent vegetative state, he also learns from his daughter that his wife was having an affair and planned to leave him anyway before the accident.  All of these personal events begin to reshape his perspective as he tries to cope with this newfound knowledge.

I have a love/hate relationship with Alexander Payne’s movies.  There are some that are just totally boring to me, like About Schmidt; then there are others that I absolutely adore, like Sideways.  This film fell somewhere in between.  As a whole, it was an enjoyable and interesting character study set in the beautiful Hawaiian islands, but I have to admit that there were several times I looked at the clock during this film.  As with most of Payne’s adaptations, the film did have a tight script and actually won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, Payne’s second in that category.  Clooney’s performance is a high point in the film as he manages, quite successfully, to transcend his movie star persona and is very believable as every-man Matt King.  The inner turmoil of the character plays out nicely and, as an audience member, its quite easy to feel the empathy needed for his character that makes the film itself succeed.

Personally, I could have shaved 15 minutes out of the third act and been happier with it, but all-in-all, it was a solid production with a great performance by Clooney in the lead.





Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) Review

12 03 2012

Copyright 1979 Columbia Pictures

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

Maddie had never seen this film and it had been probably 7-10 years since my last viewing, so we decided to fire it up on Netflix Instant Watch on Saturday night to wind down the evening.

Dustin Hoffman plays Ted Kramer, an NYC art director at a Madison Avenue advertising firm, who his quickly climbing his way up the corporate ladder.  At home, he has his wife, Joanna (Meryl Streep), and son, Billy (Justin Henry).  After learning he has just scored a huge account with the company that could be his ticket to success, his wife announces that she is leaving him and Billy.  At first, he thinks it’s some kind of a joke, but soon realizes that Joanna is serious about deserting her family, leaving him to raise their six-year-old son.  For a man who has constantly focused on his occupation, the added responsibilities of raising Billy are a hard-learned process.  However, as time passes, he and Billy grow quite close and their relationship blossoms.  After nearly a year and a half away, Joanna decides to return to New York from California, and wants to take custody of Billy.  Having now built a life with his son, Ted refuses to had over custody and the issue ends up in court, where many settlements are given to the woman out of gender stereotype alone.

This is a very solid film.  By synopsis, it might sound simple, but it is the sum of the parts that make this film such an enjoyable and wonderful experience.  The unobtrusive direction and tight script by Robert Benton, amazing performances by Hoffman, Streep and 8-year-old newcomer Henry, and naturalistic cinematography by Nestor Almendros, all intertwine beautifully in creating this touching movie.  Henry became, and still is, the youngest nominee for an Academy Award in the competitive categories for his Best Supporting Actor nod, though he didn’t win.  Among other nominations, the film did win Best Picture, Best Actor for Hoffman, Best Supporting Actress for Meryl Streep, and Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay for Robert Benton.

There is nothing grandiose about this picture; it is simply a small film with the basic elements of telling a story visually.  However, it succeeds on such a level that I think nearly any audience member would enjoy Kramer vs. Kramer and find it immensely entertaining.  It goes to show how important a good story and solid characters are in motion picture production and makes me long for more simple, yet concrete stories like this one to come back to the forefront of American cinema.





The Rum Diary (2011)

5 03 2012

Copyright 2011 GK Films

★ ★ ★ 1/2

This film had an interesting spin for me.  When I first heard about it, it became one of my most anticipated movies of the year because of the source material (the book of the same name by legendary Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson) and the writer/director Bruce Robinson (director of Withnail and I and his first feature film in nearly 20 years).  However, once the film was released, the critics didn’t necessarily pan it out right, but the reviews were admittedly lackluster.  So, because of this, I put off seeing this movie and, rather than having too high expectations as originally was the case, I lowered my expectations greatly and went into the film planning on being completely let down.  After viewing, I can see how some people wouldn’t enjoy the movie, but for me, it still hit a chord in much the same way Withnail and I did for me.  Honestly, I had a hard time deciding whether this should be rated a three and a half star or four star film, I guess for me it’s somewhere in the middle.

Johnny Depp plays aspiring novelist and American freelance journalist Paul Kemp, a character who himself is an alter ego of author Hunter S. Thompson.  On assignment, he starts a job at the San Juan Star in Puerto Rico in the early 1960s writing horoscopes and other pointless articles for tourists under the discretion of editor Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), during a turbulent time in the country’s history, where island natives and the touristy expatriates from America are at bitter ends.  Kemp takes up eventual residence with the paper photographer, Sala (Michael Rispoli), and the two carry out many nights of drunken amusement, along with complete alcoholic Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi),  while in the day concerned with the changing culture on the island.  In addition, during his time on the island, Kemp becomes reluctantly involved with a plan to foster a military bombing island into a hotel/resort attraction with the insistence of self-proclaimed PR guru Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), whose girlfriend Chenault (Amber Heard), becomes an infatuation during his tenure.

What struck me about this film was two things: 1) the camaraderie of being in constant limbo in a Catch-22 situation where alcohol and drugs seems your only escape to “normalcy” and 2) the analysis of Puerto Rico during this turbulent time in the country’s history.  I related and found interest in the first bullet point in much the same way I did in watching Withnail and I, in that, I have had a period of my life that felt very much like that.  A period of constant intoxication in need of normalcy, while striving to find a creative voice in the chaos that is our world.  To me, I think every young artist has this period and, I won’t hesitate to say, I would likely still be in this period had I been able to continue to pursue the dreams of my youth.  Not that I have given up on my goals, but I have had to suck it up and get a “real” job and become a bit more of a cog in society, as opposed to the meandering drink laden writer/filmmaker/musician that is more in character with my genetic makeup.  The second point is what really encompasses the story of this film; without it, the whole movie would just be one long binge, and that doesn’t work as a story.  However, I can see how some would find the essence of Puerto Rico at this time to not really be of interest; yet, for me, it kept my attention throughout.

I’ve not read the novel, so I can’t compare the book to the movie.  Speaking on the film’s merits alone, however, I think this presents an accurate vision of what life for a personality such as Kemp’s was and would react in this particular setting and time period.  Though it’s not for everyone, it worked for me.





The Singing Detective (2003)

21 02 2012

Copyright 2003 Icon Productions

★ ★

I really wanted to enjoy this film.  I’m not even sure exactly where I heard about it, but the quasi-surreal premise mixed with Robert Downey Jr. in the lead, who is one of my favorite modern actors, seemed like it could be a brilliantly funny mix.  Though there are some laughs to be had at the bizarre nature of some of the scenes, on the whole, this was a terribly boring flick.

The original premise of the story was adapted for BBC TV as a television serial in 1986 to wide acclaim.  Following the British television reception, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood started eyeing the project, though it would be almost 20 years before the film was produced because of falling into what we in the business like to call “development hell.”  Anyway, the story follows three separate but interconnected timelines: First, there is the story line of author Dan Dark (Downey Jr.), a novelist, who is in the hospital for a severe case of psoriasis; second, a reimaging of his first novel, “The Singing Detective”, in his mind while in the hospital with himself now playing the lead role; and finally, flashbacks of his childhood which present a clear picture of some of his original inspiration for the pulp novel itself.  Tinged with surreality throughout, the film becomes a hodge podge of these three story lines mixed with the occasional visit to psychiatrist Dr. Gibbons office, who is played by producer Mel Gibson (almost unrecognizably).

There are scenes in this film that work, but as a whole, this is a very disjointed picture.  The cinematography, to me, looked cheap, more in line with a television movie and even the impressive cast can’t save the mutilation of the story itself.  I really wanted to enjoy this film, but just couldn’t; I kept giving it 10 more minutes throughout, but when I got to the hour and ten minute marker of this hour and forty minute film, I called it and started watching The Ribos Operation, a Tom Baker Doctor Who serial.  I just could’t take it any longer, was not interested and definitely not entertained.  It could have been a great mix with a little cleaning up around the edges, but in the end, it was just a sorry excuse at Hollywoodizing author Dennis Potter’s original material.





Drive (2011) Review

1 02 2012

Copyright 2011 Bold FIlms

★ ★ ★ 1/2

Drive is an extremely stylized film that borrows heavily from two different, yet quite separate, eras of American cinema: the 1940s and the 1980s.  From the 1940s, the film borrowed heavy traits in its presentation from the popular film noir genre that was at its peak during this era; the soundtrack, filming style and titling attributes were all borrowed from 40 years later in the 1980s, giving off a very reminiscent feel to such films as De Palma’s Scarface.  However, as much as I appreciate high stylization for certain films, it does take more than that to be a truly great movie.

Ryan Gosling plays our unnamed hero, a part-time mechanic, part-time movie stunt driver and part-time driver for criminal activities.  When performing the latter, he has a very standard set of rules which he abides, that are not to be broken.  At the body shop, he works for a man named Shannon (Bryan Cranston), who assists him at times and has a history of being involved with criminals like Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman).  Shannon enlists Rose’s help in the amount of $300,000 to fund a stock racing car idea, with Gosling’s character being the driver.  Around this same time, Gosling’s character meets his next door neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos).  He finds that she lives alone with her son because her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is in prison, and he and Irene develop a certain relationship together.  Upon Oscar’s return, Gosling character (wouldn’t this be easier if he had a name) finds out that Oscar was indebted to some guys from prison who are now threatening his life, as well as Irene and Benicio’s.  To help, Gosling’s character agrees to be the driver for a job that will clear Oscar of his debts and save Irene and Benicio.  Unfortunately, however, the job ends up going very wrong.

Directed by Nicholas Winding Refn, this film, as mentioned earlier, is highly stylized and the handling of the visuals works great for the type of picture it is.  Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography further helps to develop the polished look of the movie, and there many shots throughout that I was very impressed with.  I think in a lesser year for cinematography, Sigel would have had a good chance at getting a nomination for this film.  Yet, polished looks aside, the story only held my attention to a degree.  It was interesting and I liked the film alright, but it wasn’t spectacular by any means.  Gosling did a good job in the lead role, as did Albert Brooks.  Again, however, Brook’s adoration for his role as Bernie Rose is a bit overrated in my book.  Yes, it was a good performance, but it wasn’t anything to write home about; we’ve all seen that character before.

I can see how many people really loved this film, and I can see how some didn’t care for it at all.  My opinion falls somewhere in between; it was good, but I’ve seen a dozen films off the top of my head with the same basic elements that I thought were better.








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