Cinema News and Reviews for the Rest of Us

Archive for November, 2010

Leslie Nielsen has died

One of the titans of screwball comedy has passed away.  Leslie Nielsen, who appeared in such films as Airplane and Naked Gun, passed away yesterday of complications from pneumonia.

No one could play a clueless All-American dope quite like Nielsen.  His decades-long career is about as eclectic as they come, including many early dramatic roles and the lead in science fiction cult favorite Forbidden Planet before he committed to comedy in the 1970s.   His style of comedy influenced countless comics who followed, including Jim Carrey and just about anyone from Saturday Night Live over the last 25 years.

He will be missed

……”I am serious.  And don’t call me Shirley.”

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‘The Great Gatsby’ adaptation rounding into form

Baz Lurhmann’s upcoming adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerld’s The Great Gastby now has its female lead, as the director has cast Oscar-nominated Carey Mulligan as Daisy.  The role has apparently been highly prized, which should be no big shock, and Natalie Portman, Scarlet Johansson, and Blake Lively were also in the running.

Mulligan will join a cast that includes Tobey McGuire as Nick, and of course, Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby.  I couldn’t think of a more perfect casting than decision than DiCaprio as Gatsby.  I’m sure it was a no-brainer for Luhrmann and his team.  Holy hell, he’s going to knock that role out of the park.  He should even one-up Robert Redford, the best screen Gatsby to date.  I’m still not quite sure about how Luhrmann’s visual style will translate to Fitzgerald’s narrative, but I’m optimistic.  With the lead roles so well-cast, all he really needs to do is let his actors go to work, much like Sam Mendes did in his wonderful adaptation of Revolutionary Road, also starring DiCaprio.


‘The Dark Knight Rises’ will have a female villain

Christopher Nolan is currently lining up actresses to be considered for two female lead roles in The Dark Knight Rises, one of whom will be Batman’s new love interest, and the other of whom will reportedly be a new villain.  Potential candidates include Rachael Wiesz, Naomi Watts, Blake Lively, Natalie Portman, Anne Hathaway, and Kiera Knightley.

Like most people, I’m not so much interested in the role of Batman’s new love interest (Linda Paige and Julia Madison seem the most likely character choices).  I’m much more curious about the new villain.  Ever since a throw-away cat reference in The Dark Knight, fans have chattered about a Catwoman appearance, but I don’t buy it.  Both Catwoman and Poison Ivy, the two female antagonists from previous Batman films, seem too campy for Nolan to fit into his grittier, more ‘realistic’ Batman world.

My eye is on Harley Quinn.  She seems to be most in line with the world and themes of Nolan’s films, and her connection to the Joker provides an easy lead-in from the previous film but wouldn’t require recasting Ledger’s role (which will never, ever happen in this series).  The psychotic psychiatrist just strikes me as tailor made for Nolan’s Batman universe, and his fascination with the darkness and dangers lurking deep within the human mind.  She may have born from the cartoon television show rather than the comics, but she’s one of my favorites.  From the above list of actresses, my pick would be Natalie Portman.  I recently got to see Aronovsky’s The Black Swan, and Portman pulls off beautifully disturbed madness in a way I haven’t quite seen before, and she’s actually emerging as a leading Best Actress contender for the role.  And her slight, athletic frames makes her physically ideal for Harley Quinn as well.

As always, whatever the choice for the character and the actress, I place my trust in Nolan.  Whatever he decides, I’m confident that he’ll be correct.

(Addendum:  The below picture is a cut-up of Kristen Bell as Harley Quinn, and though I would change the actress, that look is fucking perfect, and would fit very nicely into Nolan’s aesthetic.  Striking, disturbed, tragic.)


DVD Round-Up: November 10, 2010

The Losers

This is the film The Expendables should have been.  And if that sounds like a compliment, it isn’t, chiefly because The Losers isn’t trying to be as cliched and ridiculous as Stallone’s misguided 80s spoof should have been aiming for.  This film is trying so hard to be cool, it’s almost sad watching the many ways in which it fails.  The characters are one-note, the dialogue is awful, and the plot is incoherent to point of complete dullness.  Idris Elba and Zoe Saldana do their best in inject some life into the proceedings, but to no avail.   The only so-bad-it’s-good bit is the performance of Jason Patrick as the villain.  Here’s a guy who seems to have no idea just how bad of an actor he really is.  (1 STAR)


Dead Poets Society

The film is considered by many to be a modern classic, and for good reason.  Director Peter Weir can’t help but fill a film with heart, and Robin Williams gives a wonderful performance in a role similar to that which won him an Oscar in Good Will Hunting.  I loved this film as a kid, and I still carry some of Williams’ stirring classroom speeches with me.  However, upon closer examination, the film does have its share of flaws.  Most of the characters fit very neatly into prep school stereotypes, and the suicide at the end feels more over-the-top than on first viewing.  But this is still a great watch, and Weir’s skillful storytelling hits the mark far more than it misses. (4 STARS)

Greenberg

I got my fill of this crap when I was in film school.  We meet an unlikeable asshole, listen to his histrionic criticisms about the world and watch him awkwardly navigate social situations for the entire running time, and when it’s over we end up thinking he’s just as big an asshole as before.  This is supposed to be an affecting character study, and thanks to an admittedly good performance from Ben Stiller, it succeeds some in that regard.  But the pretentious writing and the forced Indie-hip ‘thoughtfulness’ of the whole thing taps on the gag reflex far too often for this film to be worth recommending.  (2 STARS)

Michael Clayton

Screenwriter-turned-director Tony Gilroy nails the dark tone of this grimy corporate malfeasance story, and George Clooney is as good as I’ve ever seen him.  I’m not sure she deserved the Oscar she received, but Tilda Swinton does infuse some interesting vulnerability into what could have been a stock “big business” villain.  The heart of this film, though, is an excellent Tom Wilkinson playing a top lawyer who finally rejects the filth his job has covered him in.  The writing is so solid throughout that even when the plot veers into cozy John Grisham territory in the end, it feels like it’s earned it.  (4 STARS)

Hot Tub Time Machine

A completely harmless and frequently funny concept film, even if it never builds much on its catchy concept.  The music-video 80s milieu is affectionately rendered, and the ensemble cast make their characters likable and their relationships surprisingly touching at times.  There’s too much of the usual modern comedy pitfalls (gay panic, forced sexual innuendo, etc.) but this is an engaging and pleasantly brisk little film that’s worth a slot in your comedy lineup. (3 STARS)

 

 


On DVD: latter-day Terrence Malick

The word ‘genius’ is thrown around too liberally with regard to art.  I myself am certainly guilty of hyperbolic use of the term.  But there are some people for whom such a description is never unwarranted.  The brilliance of their work is undeniable, indelible, even if it doesn’t fit everyone’s taste.  Terrence Malick is such an artist.  He burst onto the scene in the 1970s with the greatest one-two-punch debut of all time,with Badlands in 1973 and Days of Heaven in 1978.  Both are masterpieces, poetic theses on matters as diverse as sociopathic murder and the eternal corruption of natural Edens.  They announced the arrival of a fascinating new voice in cinema, a contemplative and wide-eyed visionary a level above the hip preening of the Film School Generation that was overtaking Hollywood at the time.

And then he disappeared.

After Days of Heaven‘s release, it would be 20 years before Terrence Malick would deliver another film.  A Harvard philosophy student and Rhodes Scholar who never completed his studies, he was considered a brilliant mind who had trouble finishing things, and when he started work on The Thin Red Line, nobody assumed he’d finish that either.  He was simply too aloof to work in the film industry, too exacting and too incomprehensible in both his method and his personality.  The Thin Red Line‘s release in 1998 was met with much skepticism.  Had the runaway genius disappeared completely into his own mind, or was he still capable of crafting art the way he’d done back in the 1970s?  The question met him again when he released The New World seven years later.

Both times he delivered, though many are still coming to grips with what, exactly,  he accomplished with these two films.  They are still being considered and dissected.  Their genius is obvious, but the overall achievement is still not agreed on.  I felt this way myself, and that’s why I revisited the two films on glorious BluRay high definition this past week.

The Thin Red Line

If people cannot agree on the dramatic merits of Malick’s return to cinema, they can usually agree on this: The Thin Red Line is one of the most gorgeously shot films of all time.  The imagery is often overpowering, with Malick’s camera sweeping over the lush South Pacific locales and regarding battlefield carnage and nature’s eternal turmoil in the same meditative fashion.  And therein lies Malick’s central thesis in the film.  He observes war and human conflict as another constant layer of existence in a universe defined by struggle, no more unnatural and no less unavoidable than vines strangling trees or crocodiles hunting in the rivers.  He retains the themes of a lost Eden that he presented in Days of Heaven, but bravely asserts that Edens have their underlying conflicts too.  He is not endorsing war, just attempting to place it into some kind of cosmic context that’s often lost amid abstracts like’ patriotism’ and ‘righteousness.’

His characters feel complex fear as they serve as Malick’s philosophical voice boxes.  They do not simply take what they are told about the war as righteous gospel, as is often depicted in World War II films.  They consider the constant air of death that surrounds them, and each reacts to it differently.  Critics often take issue with Malick’s transient use of characters to present his free-floating ideas, but these men never feel less than real.  The actors are universally excellent, especially a stunningly expressive Jim Caviezel in a early-career role he has yet to surpass.  Unlike as in Badlands, Malick makes full use of musical score, using Hans Zimmer’s wonderful compositions to propel his distanced, thoughtful examination on the nature of conflict and the evils that rise from existence like weeds in the grass.  The film’s narrative is actually fairly straightforward, but Malick’s typically elliptical storytelling will turn off some viewers, as it did upon the film’s release when many were expecting another Saving Private Ryan.  As great as Spielberg’s film is, Malick is trying something different.  He’s not making a ‘war film,’ but rather trying to find out where war fits within a violent universal puzzle.  This film is not for everyone, but it is a rush of brilliance from cinema’s greatest visual poet.

The New World

Malick was struck by the story of John Smith and Pocahantas back in the 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2005 that he finally delivered his beautiful portrait of that story to the screen.  The genius of the film is that it retains a resolute ignorance of its own historical context.  Almost any other film about the founding of Jamestown would be buried under political allegory and pious finger-waving at how the Indians would come to be treated.  Malick isn’t interested in that.  He’s concerned with telling a broader story of worlds coming together, about the beauty of discovery between peoples and the tragedy of how fear and misunderstanding can undermine the early potential of such meetings.  The term ‘new world’ here applies almost equally to two different discovered countries.  The English, specifically Colin Farrell’s John Smith, are awed by and struggle to exist within the lush untouched land of Virginia, and Pocahantas is similarly charmed and challenged by the crowded monajerie of England when she is taken there by her husband John Rolfe.  Her early love with John Smith is stripped of the usual love story trappings, instead embued with a mutual wonder about that which neither of them yet understand.  They are both wide-eyed individuals with a greater appreciation for the potential of their moment, and their love is presented as a beautifully clumsy, poignant, and uncertain exploration of two different universes.

These are not experiences soured by a knowledge of the crimes that would later come.  The encounters throughout the film are of course wary and occasionally violent, but they retain a wonder that is often lost when we retell these stories.  They speak more to the potential of two worlds colliding than to the tragedy of how we always seem to mess it up.  Malick lets himself be a dreamer, even among events that happened 400 years ago, and the result is spellbinding, a lovely and somber poem of a lost America that we will never get back.

Malick’s visual sense of nature is, yet again, without peer.  He somehow manages to make long takes of grass and water absolutely enchanting, and his characters’ poetic voice-overs enhance his observations and never intrude.  The film is reliant upon the portrayal of Pocahantas (though that name is never used), and a then 14-year-old Q’Orianka Kilcher delivers what I consider to be one of the greatest performances of the past decade.  How it did not receive even a nomination from the Academy is completely beyond me.  Even to those put off by Malick’s meandering narrative, she is a complex and overwhelmingly affecting personification of all the goodness and potential this moment in history possessed, and then lost.  The ending of this film will quietly floor you, and for a while you won’t be sure why, but the majestic work of Kilcher in the last scenes is a key reason.  For as taciturn and slow-talking as Malick is said to be, he knows just the right buttons to push with actors.  While The New World is yet another visual masterpiece in his canon, this time it is the work of his thespians that makes the film unforgettable.

Both Films:


Wait…Darren Aronofsky to direct ‘Wolverine 2’?

In what may the most surprising production news to come out of Hollywood in quite a while, Darren Aronovsky is just about to ink a deal to direct the ‘Wolverine’ sequel.  Yes, the cutting-edge auteur behind Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, and the upcoming Black Swan is going to make an X-Men flick.  And not just any X-Men flick….he’s making a sequel to one of the most utterly disappointing comic spin-offs I can remember.

How the hell did this happen?

Apparently Aronovsky just saw something in the material that he wanted to work with.  Not surprising, considering the Wolverine story has a ton of great storylines, too many of which were thrown into the overstuffed turkeythat was X-Men Origins: Wolverine.  I’m sure Anonovsky can streamline things considerably.  His films, though highly stylized and thematically complex, actually have fairly simple and linear plot structures, even The Fountain (still one of the most misunderstood and underrated films of the last decade).  And just to add to the excitement that has somehow managed to surround this project, Usual Suspects scribe Christopher McQuarrie is drafting the screenplay.  So I guess we have reason to hope for more compelling dialogue than “well well well, look what the cat dragged in.”

Studio intervention was a serious problem with the first film, and that’s why I haven’t been that hard on director Gavin Hood.  He was pressured to include way too many mutants in order to please the fanboys.  Though it buried the film in way too much plot and extraneous material, the plan seemed to work from a studio point of view.   It made a lot of money.  But Aronovsky is an established filmmaker and certainly not one to adhere to studio market research.  Could an actual auteur be given free reign to tell the Wolverine story, a la Christopher Nolan with the Batman franchise?  Looks like that just might be the case.  Intriguing, to say the least.