Monday, January 30, 2012

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Tonight I saw Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, starring Thomas Horn and Sandra Bullock.

The title of this film just begs its audience to rename it, so I will happily oblige:

Extremely Annoying & Incredibly Awful

Oskar (Horn) is a kid—possibly on the autism spectrum—who lost his best-friend-of-a-father on September 11. His mother, Linda (Bullock), is a grieving widow who will never be as close to her son as her deceased husband was.

There's also a grandma across the street (who communicates with Oskar via Walkie Talkie) and a possible grandpa shacking up with her, who may or may not have been a concentration camp at some point. And a gaggle of strangers—472 of them, I think—who little Oskar will encounter on his search to find a lock that fits a key that he found in his dead dad's bedroom.

That's pretty much the movie. In a nutshell.

And although that is all pretty straightforward, I came out of the film with dozens of questions:

Who thought it was okay to show a kid (I don't care if he's fictional) freezing photos he finds on the Internet of what could be his dead father jumping to his death on that terrible day?
I may not have lost anyone personally in 9/11, but seeing the real people jumping on that day will be burned into my memory forever. I can only imagine how those who actually lost someone must feel seeing a such a reenactment.

Why did they have to make "The Renter" mute?

If he was from the old country, how could he understand/write English so well?

Why did Abby and William Black have to be actively separating when the already-disturbed boy shows up? And are we to believe his reappearance caused their reconciliation?

If Oskar knows not to mingle with strangers, why is he so comfortable barging into their homes to search for his answers?

How did they talk some of Hollywood's greatest A-list actors into doing this film?

What the hell was the Academy thinking nominating this for Best Picture?

I'm just baffled.


Thursday, January 26, 2012

War Horse

Tonight I saw War Horse, starring Jeremy Irvine and Emily Watson.

It's been a long time since I've made it through an endurance test like this. I had a feeling it wouldn't be my cup of tea, and sadly, it wasn't.

Albert (Irvine) is the young son of a drunken farmer who promises his mother, Rose (Watson), that he will train and care for the horse his dad paid too much for at auction. The horse's name is Joey, and he's—of course—beautiful and smart.

By the time Albert and Joey bond, drunken papa has sold the horse to the Army. Though all signs point to the horse being lost/killed in WWI, Albert claims he will see him again. He's not kidding.

Calling them a series of unfortunate events would be a gross understatement. Let's just say, poor Joey goes through hell. In fact, the only scene that got me misty-eyed was the one where the horse tries to escape the human horrors of war only to get completely tangled in barbed wire. This prompts soldiers from both sides of the fight to take a time out from combat and help the poor animal break free. The bit was wonderful and reminded me of another film where soldiers pause in war to share one another's company peacefully during a holiday called Joyeux Noel. But I digress.

Joey gets passed off to several owners during his journey, and his journey (along with ours) is a long one.

The redeeming moments of the film have everything to do with the beautiful cinematography, the excellent score (seldom does Spielberg ever get that wrong) and the acting from the horse. Yes, the horse.

I'll admit to loving the closing shot—something that reminded me of Gone With the Wind, and was most likely intended to.

It's just a shame that the majestic, amber sunset didn't arrive before I got bored.


Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Iron Lady

Today I saw The Iron Lady, starring Meryl Streep and Jim Broadbent.

Margaret Thatcher is one of the most polarizing political figures in modern history. Her reign as Prime Minister of England from 1979 to 1990 was notable not only because she was the first female elected to the office, but because she lasted so long in the role.

Revered by some and reviled by others, Thatcher is portrayed in a balanced light in this film by the always-amazing Meryl Streep. She shows the passion and conviction of a woman who truly believed in her decisions (as I think Thatcher did), and also the abusive monster she could be toward her staff. Sadly, most of what we see is her present-day self, shuffling around in a cloudy state of confusion.

In fact, that's my largest criticism of this movie. I went into it expecting a run-of-the-mill biography of the politician's life. Instead, I took a—sometimes first-person—journey of dementia, which not only dampened he impact of the story, but added a layer of sympathy that I'm guessing the real woman would detest.

It was almost as if the filmmakers laid the illness on so thick so the Thatcher haters couldn't attack it (or her) too much. It would have been more powerful if they had just told her story in a linear way, start-to-finish, with a title card at the end explaining her current state. Her life was interesting enough to warrant two hours without the last decade even being acknowledged.

That said, there is nothing wrong with Streep's performance. I grew up in the Thatcher-Reagan era and remember hearing the real Iron Lady speak often on television. Streep's diction and accent were insanely accurate, as were her mannerisms and expressions. And who doesn't love Jim Broadbent playing anyone's husband?

The movie was indeed paced well, despite way too many present-day/hallucination scenes, and it may prompt those who loathed the leader to remember her with a little respect, even if her choices for the country are never forgiven.

I will be very surprised if Streep doesn't add another Oscar to her shelf for this performance.


Beauty and the Beast in 3D

Last night I saw the animated classic Beauty and the Beast in 3D.

I loved the film the first time I saw it, became addicted to its infectious soundtrack and even dressed as Belle for Halloween. Seldom does an animated film capture me so.

Belle is a village girl who loves books and her eccentric father, Maurice. Gaston is the macho man of the town who wants Belle to be his wife.

Maurice is a confused inventor who accidentally ends up in the castle of the Beast, a former prince under a nasty spell that can only be broken by finding true love.

The Beast, so bitter about his situation, takes Maurice as his prisoner until Belle finds him and offers herself in his place. The Beast allows the switch, hoping that Belle will learn to love him and break the spell.

His lively staff of servants (a teapot and her young son; a candlestick, etc.) hope for the best (they'd like to be turned back into humans too) and welcome Belle with open arms. In fact, one of the shining moments in the film is the song "Be Our Guest," where the kitchen comes to life with an impressive song and dance as they serve Belle her first dinner.

Anyhow, most know how the story turns out, but just in case there are any left who don't, I'll refrain from spoiling.

Just know that the magic and beauty of the original version of the film is only intensified by this 3D treatment, and the story remains charmingly timeless.

It's not hard to tell why it was a Best Picture Oscar nominee—as you're watching, you sometimes forget you're seeing animation.

It's that good.


Saturday, January 07, 2012

Take Shelter

Tonight I saw Take Shelter, starring Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain.

Curtis (Shannon) is a family man. He works hard at his construction job each day to provide for his sweet wife Samantha (Chastain) and their young daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart).

Hannah is deaf and needs surgery to try out a cochlear implant. Samantha is relieved when they finally receive word that the insurance will cover it.

But Curtis begins having terrible nightmares predicting an apocalyptic storm. This takes his attention away from his family and his work. He grows paranoid about the supposed impending doom and decides to renovate the storm shelter in their backyard.

At the same time, he's keeping his elaborate (expensive) plans for the shelter from Samantha and beginning to investigate mental illness (since it runs in his family).

As we watch his obsessive paranoia increase, we feel sorry for his patient wife, and even sorrier for him. After all, he may be bearing witness to his own descent into craziness. Or is he?

Michael Shannon plays this role so convincingly, he's more fragile than frightening. His fear is written on his face, but contained in the presence of those he holds dear. And although he is the least reasonable person on-screen at all times, he has the audience rooting for him in spite of it.

I'll be surprised if Shannon doesn't get an Oscar nomination for this role.

Chastain is also good, as are the rest of the supporting cast. Granted, they have a lot less to do, but they are all very believable as simple, Midwestern folks just trying to live their lives. Kudos to writer/director Jeff Nichols for creating 'real' characters.

And I may be in the minority, but I loved the ending. The fact that it wasn't predictable or wrapped up in a big red bow made me smile.

As did the possibility it implied.


Monday, January 02, 2012

The Artist

Today I saw The Artist, starring Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo.

I'll be the first to admit that I'm not a huge Charlie Chaplin fan. In fact, aside from the Harold Lloyd comedies I would watch with my parents as a small child, and an especially good version of The Scarlet Letter I caught a few years back at SIFF, I can't say I've ever really 'loved' silent films.

That made the delight of The Artist all the more satisfying.

It's 1927 and George Valentin (Dujardin) is a silent film star in the prime of his career. Peppy Miller (Bejo) is an up-and-coming actress he's enamored with, and as a result, helps jump start her career. Things are fine for a split second until talking pictures come along.

George is completely resistant to switching over to the 'dark side' of this new trend and inevitably makes himself obsolete. He sells his belongings and retreats into a terrible cloud of depression. At the same time, Peppy embraces the change and becomes an even bigger star.

Though the supporting cast is easily recognizable (John Goodman, James Cromwell, etc.), it's an added bonus for the American audience that the two leads are French. I can't say I would have been so easily convinced by a Clooney or a Damon in the main role for the simple fact that I know what their true demeanors are like (and hamming it up could've seemed false).

But here, I was won over by the heart and the soul of the experience. The love letter to a Hollywood many of us seem to forget. The simplicity of a love story intertwined with that of a person descending into their own man-made failure.

The various winks to the audience and the perfectly placed loyal dog could have been annoying if not worked into the story properly—luckily they were, and that's a credit to the screenwriter/director (Michel Hazanavicius).

All in all a fresh change from the popcorn action flicks, endless sequels and ho-hum dramas presently permeating our theaters.


Sunday, January 01, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

This morning I saw Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, starring Gary Oldman and Colin Firth.

That's the last time I'll see a film without reading the source material first.

It's the Cold War—early '70s. George Smiley (Oldman) is a recently retired British spy brought in to investigate a possible Russian mole. Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) is the rebel spy, in love with the wife of a Russian operative, convinced of the mole. Bill Haydon (Firth) may or may not be the mole. Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) may or may not be the mole. Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) may or may not be the mole.

And... they lost me!

This isn't a typical spy film that features people hanging from buildings or being tortured in heart-stopping, tense scenes. It's a moody, quiet interpretation of what real spy stuff is probably really like. And let's face it, a bit of that is undoubtedly boring.

Amidst the endless conversations and glimpses of what goes down are beautifully framed shots of a soggy London in the past. Once I had completely lost track of the story, I found myself focusing on how lovely the cinematography was and how many expressions Goldman could muster without ever getting excited.

It's really too bad, because fans of the BBC version of the story and the original book seem to be loving the hell out of this.

I can safely say I did not, but that doesn't mean the acting was bad or there weren't clever bits of dialog that woke me up from time to time.

It just wasn't for me—at least not without knowing the story and characters in advance to be able to follow along coherently.