Monday, December 31, 2012

DJANGO UNCHAINED - an absurd love affair

Quentin Tarantino is among the favorite directors that most people have a soft spot for, much like Wes Anderson or Christopher Nolan. He is famous for uncompromising gratuitous violence, pithy dialogue and a wild use of mise-en-scéne. Most everyone knows that he was a video store geek turned master filmmaker. It makes perfect sense that he would pay homage to a little known but much loved subculture of ultra-violent spaghetti westerns from the 60's and 70's sometimes starring the beautiful Italian man, Franco Nero. He decided to take a crack at his very own modern rendition of Django—hold the D. 

It must be said that the original films (there are seven that I know of) are not really all that good. Nevertheless, they have incurred a reliable cult following over time. This, I think, is what makes Tarantino's new film so special. Not only does he pay ode to these films that shocked him and engendered an absurd love of cinema bizarro (which I also share) but he does so with panache, style and contemporary sensibilities. He made a far better and far more watchable film than any of the forebears. The flashback sequences are rightly grained and filtered to give one a vicarious presence of what it was like to experience these films once upon a time, sitting in the video store—namely—shitty VHS copies. 

Tarantino cast the film very well. He introduced Christoph Waltz to American audiences with his previous work, Inglorious Basterds. He hasn't been as well utilized since. Waltz has an interesting way of sweetly patronizing you into a cataclysmic rage while being amused and disarmed of your wits. Tarantino exploits this trait to near perfection. Jamie Foxx was an odd choice to replace Nero, although perfectly apt for the new narrative take. His performance was a welcome change. Leonardo DiCaprio is generally always good. His acting felt a wee bit contrived this time round. Some scenes drag on and some melodrama is attempted but not always to complete satisfaction. Samuel L. Jackson reigned supreme as the gimpy, disgruntled butler who spews pejoratives at every convenience. Kerry Washington did a fine job as the weepy heroine but I would be interested to see who else they had in mind for the role. However good a director, Tarantino cannot act as evidenced near the end. A number of interesting cameos are donned throughout as well. 

I think QT made an excellent film with a few hiccups in the middle but eclipsed the questionable with a great opening and denouement. A truly well made homage to a forgotten era with enough twists and turns and blood and humor to last you to the next one. 

Recommended Viewing: Django (1966) - The Good, The Bad and The Ugly - The Wild Bunch

              Bob Scale: The Critic: 8.2   -   The Fan: 8.9
             MetaCritic: 81
 Rotten Tomatoes: 89
                    IMDB: 8.8

LES MISÉRABLES - a never ending aria

Tom Hooper's Les Misérables was a musical treat but a hard film to enjoy and therefore sit through. A handful of lines are spoken—nearly the entire movie is sung solo. I mentioned in an earlier review that I thought Anna Karenina would have fared better as a tragic musical, I felt just the opposite for this film adaptation. 

I think I would have loved this movie if it would have been either fully dramatic live action or just part musical but as a nonstop melodious stage play it could not capture me. I felt kept at a distance, like the characters lived in fantasy world that I could not connect to. Most will remember the superb rendition in the late 90's starring Liam Neeson as Jean Valjean or perhaps the other seven in existence—maybe we didn't need another version like those...

I imagine those that adore the Broadway play may like this film as pure escapist delight. I will give honorable mention to at least one scene. Anne Hathaway nearly made me burst into tears as I viewed in wowed silence, her powerful soliloquy, delivered in a one shot master stoke of raw, emotive, self realized suffering and utter destitution. It showcased, for me, the power of lyrical song and strong emotion which, heretofore, had yielded nothing but a pleasant apathy. 

Les Misérables, Victor Hugo's perennial classic, has continued to enrapture audiences since its publication in 1862. As well it should. At once, an awesome story of revenge, love, redemption and forgiveness. I just can't believe that this new version was the best way to share those motifs with us. It was very well made and designed but somehow the spirit was lost in the artifice. Bode thee better in thee times immemorial and thee times yet to come. 

Recommended Viewing: Les Misérables (1998) - Les Misérables (1934) - The Hunchback... (1939)

              Bob Scale: The Critic: 7.5   -   The Fan: 6.4
             MetaCritic: 64
 Rotten Tomatoes: 72
                    IMDB: 8.2

Sunday, December 23, 2012

THIS IS 40 - hollywood 40 that is

This is 40 is Judd Apatow's new comedic film about aging in our contemporary electronic society. Some pathos, some laughs and some nonsense is propagated. 

Movies like this tend to make me feel inadequate. There are myriad moments that convey reality, albeit in a superficial way, that tend to induce empathy and likewise contempt. I'm scared to get older. It's unfair and frightening especially if you feel you have not succeed at any goal attempted, many times, with naive bliss. Nonetheless, I can relate to Paul Rudd this time round. He plays a goofy father that pursued his musical passion which is currently failing as a business. Leslie Mann plays a working house mom that, like all women in particular, wish not to be aging. It's incredibly easy to see why.

The cast is full of current comedic characters and a number from the previous "sort-of sequel", Knocked Up. Both Albert Brooks and John Lithgow fill their stereotypical antifather roles very well. This is life—not at 40—but always... rife with daddy issues. The odd thing about it is that these people, at 40, look amazing, unlike many at 40, which takes away from accepting the message as a serious comment. Melissa McCarthy makes this apparent at the end with a number of self reflexive jabs. To sum up, there are a few inside jokes that are common throughout and fun, a mass of gratuity and some social issues of note delivered by a host of familiar faces. Overall, I enjoyed the film and would view it again. It is rather overtly coarse in nature so the under 10's should probably be kept at bay.

Recommended Viewing: Knocked Up - Funny People - Wet Hot American Summer

              Bob Scale: The Critic: 6.9   -   The Fan: 7.7
             MetaCritic: 58
 Rotten Tomatoes: 50
                    IMDB: 6.3

HE GUILT TRIP - the road less taken

Seth Rogen and Barbara Streisand. Sounds like a film for the ages. Indeed it is—ages 45 and over only. 

The story follows Rogen in his late twenties whom is down on his luck as a salesman. He went to school as chemist and has created an organic cleaning product with a silly title which he now tries to sell to large companies. His mom, Streisand, plays your average lonely, single house mom who has nothing better to do than bother her son. They meet up and she divulges a sexy secret about the origin of his birth name which in turn compels Rogen to electronically seek out this man of mystery in hopes of a possible reunion. Maybe to get his mom off his back? A road trip ensues with lots of geriatric anachronistic humor. 

I will say that I'm sure my own mom would like this movie especially the part when she tells her son that he's a shit and to drink the fucking water. I believe the humor was poor and the message hackneyed in the extreme but I couldn't help viewing it without my own maternal sensibilities challenged. The Guilt Trip does contain a tear inducing moment near the end and a number of intermittent scenes of poignancy, yet be that as it may, I would only recommend this movie to unhappy mothers with happily distant sons. 

Recommended Viewing: Take This Waltz - Funny People - What's Up Doc?

              Bob Scale: The Critic: 3.5   -   The Fan: 4.4
             MetaCritic: 51
 Rotten Tomatoes: 37
                    IMDB: 5.6

JACK REACHER - grasping at straws

Where the hell did this movie come from? It felt to me as if it was excised from some long lost 80's vault only to be projected for audiences to their lasting peril. Action TV from the last 10 years was better than this. 

You may as well call this a comedy of errors. The casting was not utilized to their full potential, the dialogue was god awful and the story was weak and lazy. I enjoyed a few scenes but the whole way through, the narrative pushes, felt coerced and forced. This film may be a candidate for a bad good movie. You get lines like "I mean to beat you to death and drink your blood with my boot!" Also, Cruise is portrayed like some modern day sherlockian bad ass with massive attitude which plays poorly. You may enjoy the GTA car chase and near complete lack of theme music or the last gun battle but I think laughter would be more appropriate. 

As for the cast, I believe Tom Cruise is still a viable actor and has worked on numerous projects worthy of his talents. This was not one of them. Oh Werner Herzog! Why oh why did you choose this movie!? I was so excited to see him play the arch nemesis. I thought he might be like Alan Rickman in Die Hard but he failed to make a lasting impression. Rosamund Pike was like a comic book heroine. Duvall was Duvall

It had a few moments of interest but all in all Jack Reacher lost his, already tenuous, grip on me. I'll wait for Oblivion next April. 

Recommended Viewing: A Few Good Men - Magnolia - Collateral - Born On The 4th Of July

              Bob Scale: The Critic: 4.9   -   The Fan: 5.4
             MetaCritic: 48
 Rotten Tomatoes: 63
                    IMDB: 7.3

Monday, December 17, 2012

THE HOBBIT - an expected journey

Bored? Peter Jackson to the rescue—usually. No one disputes the fantastic job he did with Lord Of The Rings. He ushered in a whole new way to appreciate fantasy with adult sensibilities and stunning special effects. His two subsequent efforts were first good then terrible. The King Kong remake was enjoyable but the dreaded Lovely Bones adaptation was just plain awful. His earlier works like Dead Alive, Heavenly Creatures and The Frighteners were all marvelous in their own right. We could, perhaps, throw in Bad Taste and Meet The Feebles for good measure. 

In comes The Hobbit with it's troubled path to production. You will hear things about high frame rates, an unnecessary trilogy and how Guillermo del Toro was on board, then left and so on and so forth. You may have even asked yourself why he didn't immediately choose to direct this years ago, when offered, as I did, because I thought—who else could direct The Hobbit? But, I now see that it may have been a good choice to stay away. No matter how good The Hobbit could be it would never eclipse the greatness of LOR and so you have thrown yourself into a situation that will be underwhelming. He went ahead anyway and what we get should be expected—more or less.  

A quick aside regarding 48fps. Is it another gimmick? No. A slice of film history is needed with a dash of tech. The first moving pictures appeared in the 1880's and 90's with special cumbersome devices that captured light and overlaid onto film in rapid linear sequences. The history is of course riddled with details and goes much further back than the late 19th century but in the interest of brevity I will keep the description terse. Edison, the Lumiére Brothers and Méliés et al. all tinkered around with this new medium and eventually projected it for audiences to their horror and delight. Many of the first mobile cameras were operated by hand cranks which in turn enabled different frame rates for the light to pass through the film and emulsify. Many times 15fps was chosen and that is why many silent films look sped up to your eye because less discrete pictures/frames pass during each second. Moving pictures is the great illusion of motion and hence the magic of the movies

In the early 20's, groups of filmmakers decided that 24fps was the most realistic speed, and still retained a certain ethereal quality. Despite a number of experimental attempts, the 24fps statute has remained virtually unchanged. No one can say it is right or wrong. So in the age of digital, it may be time to try out new frame rates for mass audiences. You will be seeing twice as many pictures per second and hopefully a fuller and richer second by second image. Is it any good though? I leave that to you—it seems hyperreal and strange at first but so did high def, which, now I want not to live without. 4k is on the way with OLED displays which will also change your perception with cumulative saccadic lethargy—but well worth it, I assure you. Get ready for the best visual experience of all time in the next decade. 

Enough digression. How was The Hobbit? Mediocre as a stand alone film. Maybe as the first part of a nine hour film this movie becomes acceptable. That statement needs a brief clarification. If I were to sit down and watch a nine hour movie—straight through—then I think I would except this section as is, however tedious and needed, to build up the future drama and action. Next—the makeup and costume design is poorly done and just downright irritating. Of all the races in Middle Earth, the dwarves are the most annoying and make a poor choice to accompany a silly hobbit and an antiquated wizard for three hours. Obviously there is no choice here but to follow the storyline in the book. But Jackson created characters that were excessive, bad humored and histrionic with little character development. Namely, you simply don't care if anyone lives or dies. Even Bilbo is given little screen time to win your fancy until the very end. 

I believe that the overall superficial look and vibe of a character, for better or worse, influences your apt  reaction to immediate likability. Consider comparing Aragorn to the likes of Thorin. Yes, this concept may seem blatantly racist but I think I can explain otherwise. Certainly humans feel a palpable connection to other humans even if you happen to be unrelated and have no reason to care about them. Thus you can feel vicarious pain for those in need or those worse off than yourself. When creatures are anthropomorphized in movies (made humanlike) ie the Ents (living trees) from The Two Towers or like Wall·e the robot, you subconsciously identify with them because they have arms and legs and eyes like you as well as, presumably, emotions and a brain to feel with. To deviate too far from this yields unwelcome results. Try to relate to a volcanic rock that has no features. Simply, you do not empathize and therefore feel nothing. Also, if a creature or costumed character deviates too far from this model or designed just plain ugly like dwarves and orcs, you tend to care little. Its in our nature to love beauty and aesthetically pleasing things—generally this helped us to survive once upon a time and still does to some extent. Why do you think babies are so cute? Do you like bunnies or bats? I say all this to point out that it's hard to care and connect with hideous and abstruse beings, however negative that sounds. In summation—the dwarves persist in being a cognitively strenuous group of vagabonds that yield a modicum of affection, but a gifted director could have changed this perception. Consider the The Huntsman earlier this year, that was not a good movie but the dwarves are likable and probably the best part of the film. I could and probably should elaborate these ideas further but for now I will choose to move on. 

As expected, much of the special effects were astounding, however, certain sequences were poorly done—especially the dragon fire near the beginning. The great lizard looking creature (Azog) was a formidable bad guy and appeared well designed as well as Golem and the Great Goblin. Still, The Hobbit seemed to be directed by some protege of Jackson's trying to capitalize on the success of the LOR trilogy with certain scenes guest directed by the master himself. The movie crawled along with many scenes taking far too long to move on. You know when your whispering to yourself that you wish this part would just end already, that something is amiss. 

This is no Lord Of The Rings and barely worthy of critical homologous treatment but as I have argued, the story and characters simply aren't as good as those in LOR and despite the inevitable comparisons, will not live up to hopeful expectations. That said, I still believe Jackson has it in him to do a much better job—this movie may be a slow moving stepping stone toward the grandeur that, perhaps, is yet to come. 

Recommended Viewing: LOR Trilogy extended - Wizards - Logan's Run

              Bob Scale: The Critic: 6.3   -   The Fan: 7.4
             MetaCritic: 58
 Rotten Tomatoes: 65
                    IMDB: 8.6

HITCHCOCK - mr. macguffin

Meet Hitch. Hold the cock.

As an autodidactic cineast I can safely proclaim to entertain a morbid love affair with Mr. Hitchcock. He happens to remain one of the most well loved and remembered British film directors of all time—sort of...

Hitchcock directed nearly 70 films in a prolific career spanning five decades. He is most well known as a horror enthusiast by the general public for The Birds, Rear Window,  North By Northwest, Vertigo, Rope, Dial M For Murder and of course, Psycho. Students of film with be familiar with his earlier work that is oft praised like The Lady Vanishes, Strangers On A Train, Shadow Of A Doubt, Spellbound, Notorious and The 39 Steps to name a few. Personally, I am a fan, albeit scattered. I have viewed 35 of his works and am happy to stop there. In my view, The Master of Suspense really doesn't hold up all that well except, of course, for a handful of masterpieces, aforementioned and a number of indelible sequences. 

I cannot verify the truthfulness of this new film. I can only presume that the caricatures put forth are based on seeming fact and that the period was represented with the upmost detail and verisimilitude. It felt about right. Yet, this movie is intentionally playful and hyperbolized. The double narrative follows the doppelgänger of Hitch's psyche with pleasing but not utterly satisfying results. Helen Mirren and the great Anthony Hopkins steal the show. Both superb. The rest of the cast was properly chosen as well. Ever since A Serious Man, Michael Stuhlbarg shows up everywhere. I shall not complain. 

There are enough references to the bizarre obsessions of Hitch to keep fans happy but nothing too new or novel. He liked birds, blondes and bloody deaths. Earlier this year Tobey Jones also characterized Hitchcock in the HBO film, The Girl. It may as well be the sequel to this movie, however, it was a much darker look at his inappropriate advances toward Tippi Hedren and his sometimes abject, loathsome nature as director. Apparently, if two movies are going to be released about the same character in the same year, just call in Tobey Jones for the independent version, as evidenced in Truman Capote. :)

It may be said that I have underestimated Hitchcock's multitudinous gifts of manipulation, voyeurism, suspense, shock and devious surprise. To that end, perhaps it is possible that we all still quiver in his ever looming shadow—that most famous of all profiles—the corpulent, witty, irascible genius, Alfred Hitchcock.    

Recommended Viewing: Rebecca - Shadow Of A Doubt - Marnie - Lifeboat

              Bob Scale: The Critic: 6.9   -   The Fan: 7.6
             MetaCritic: 56
 Rotten Tomatoes: 67
                    IMDB: 7.3

Monday, December 3, 2012

KILLING THEM SOFTLY - a somnambulist with a gun

What we have here is an elegant hit man caper. Surely not to everyone's taste, but as for me, I gobbled it up with wanton abandon. 

For those lucky few that caught The Assassination Of Jessie James By The Coward Robert Ford you will hopefully be ready for the next film in Andrew Dominick's repertoire. This is an arty film—not artsy fartsy but certainly not your average Hollywood venture either. Killing Them Softly reminded me of early Godard or Truffaut back in the 60's under the French tidal surge of the nouvelle vague. Back when people experimented with cinematic conventions and when, sometimes, meaningless scenes just dragged on for the pure riveting pleasure of watching luminescent celluloid flash 24 pictures of ecstasy into your Cartesian theater for pure hallucinatory, illusory stupor inducing enjoyment. The palpability of the 70's was in the air as well, when many directors had complete control of their craft. This was the generation of auteurs—a time when society considered film an art form and accepted many different ideas and perspectives. Then Spielberg sailed in with Jaws and changed all that. Blockbusters were born and so were money hungry studios. Of course they existed before but after the success of Jaws in 1975, Star Wars in 1977 and the tragedy of Heaven's Gate (an enormously expensive film that tanked) the movies never remained the same. 

This film was photographed exceptionally, with pristine attention to detail. The sound effects are also interesting and excitingly experimental in nature—the Ray Liotta, getting thrashed scene, is one of the most pleasing and innovative things I've seen in a long long while. Just splendid. The pace is slow with many conversations lasting an uncomfortable amount of time with little to no background music for added trepidatious effect.  I would offer one criticism that the humor, many times, felt forced and even unnecessarily gratuitous, but still, I enjoyed it for the most part. There is a running motif of current politics throughout, which, I believe is present to be an ironic and absurd statement on the state of America and those of us that live in denial of the truth. Though I don't tend to concur with the films' pessimistic denouement, regarding every man for himself, you can't help but to agree when standing in the shoes of the hapless hit man. You know right from the opening sequence that this film will be different. Don't hate it for trying. 

Recommended Viewing: The Assassination Of Jessie James - True Romance - The Visitor

              Bob Scale: The Critic: 8.0   -   The Fan: 8.5
             MetaCritic: 64
 Rotten Tomatoes: 78
                    IMDB: 7.1

ANNA KARENINA - to die for

Leo Tolstoy—haven't yet got around to reading his literary canon—possibly because each novel is a flippin 1000+ pages! That normally wouldn't stop me but a long winded, sweeping Russian novel just doesn't sound that appealing at this stage in my life. Perhaps I should reconsider. Perhaps not. 

Anna Karenina is Joe Wright's third movie with his muse Keira Knightley. They are a terrific pairing and yield superb novel adaptations. I thought Pride and Prejudice was one of the best Jane Austen adaptations to date. This new film is, I believe, the least watchable of the three. 

Anna Karenina is set up like a extravagant stage play with many ingenious, rapid scene changes right before your eyes. The clever set design, notwithstanding, I still couldn't bring myself to enjoy the movie. It was irritating to watch and harbored multiple conflicting juxtapositions. The comic relief felt misplaced, the love story was unconvincing and the overall vibe seemed off kilter. Weirdly, I felt the need numerous times for someone to break into song. It seems as if the whole concept would have faired far better as a tragic musical. The costumes are beautiful, the score is apt and you will see enough close-ups of Knightley to last a lifetime. I applaud the attempt at something different but all in all it didn't work out. 

Recommended Viewing: Pride and Prejudice - Sense and Sensibility - The Last Station 

              Bob Scale: The Critic: 6.5   -   The Fan: 5.0
             MetaCritic: 63
 Rotten Tomatoes: 61
                    IMDB: 7.1