Sunday, January 27, 2013

A Grim Experience: Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters

My bad! I have no one to blame but myself. There wasn't much out there I hadn't seen, and I needed something to see Friday night after a stressful teaching week. I thought, at least, the film might start out with an atmospheric depiction of Grimm's classic fairytale and I could enjoy gazing upon Gemma Arterton's beautiful face. Alas, the film hurriedly jumps through the fairytale with artless art direction and without any sort of imagination. So much could have been done with this prologue. We don't even get "Nibble, nibble, like a mouse. Who's that nibbling at my house?" And the bread crumbs? No crumbs! And here I am in a bind since I promised earlier that I would post comments on all the movies I see this year. Well, I won't have much to say.

What follows this film's artless prologue is just as artless, a big mess of silly gore and boring action. With witches, you'd think you'd get some interesting makeup and costumes. Instead, the makeup is shoddy and not a bit scary. Gemma is cute, and the character of Edward the Troll is at least campy enough to be interesting, like something you'd find in the cult classic Labyrinth (1986), obviously an actor in an over-sized costume but actually establishing a whimsical tone. But the Troll is not enough to make this so-called movie worth viewing. The only really good thing about seeing this thing was that I had to go back the next day for a second viewing of Mama in order to flush out the bad taste.

Mama is a straightforward horror film that doesn't waste time. Its artful look and its solid acting take you along for a chilling, touching ride. What I noticed this time was that the amazing performances of the two little girls, thralls to the possessive ghost of a disturbed mother, add a lot to the strength of this film. Megan Charpentier as eight-year-old Victoria and Isabelle Nélisse as six-year-old Lilly are simply superb in their subtle, invested performances. As Victoria yearns for the touch of a "real" mother, the less articulate Lilly is still tied to the influence of Mama. Nélisse shows Lilly's awareness of the lurking Mama in her eyes and in her incipient smile. Meanwhile, Charpentier shows growing maturity as she learns the advantages of a warm-blooded mother and expresses her terror of Mama's jealousy. Working superbly with the girls, Jessica Chastain does a great job of showing her emerging motherly attributes, qualities she has previously denied. In one of the best scenes, she engages in a wrestling match with Lilly, battling to embrace the child and convince her that she is safe and loved. The climax of this struggle is a wonderfully touching moment. Here, as throughout, Nélisse's large, haunting eyes say a world of meaning without words.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Oscar's Silver Lining: Silver Linings Playbook

Oscar is all over Silver Linings Playbook. Best Picture! A nominee in all four acting categories: Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Jacki Weaver, and Robert De Niro. What's this? Screenplay, too!

Silver Lining's Playbook is the 2012 feel-good romantic comedy about two people who don't feel good. Pat (Cooper) is bipolar and has anger-management problems. Tiffany (Lawrence) is depressed. Both have been medicated; Pat's just out of an institution. Can Pat cope? Can he find the silver linings in life? Pat strikes up a reluctant partnership with Tiffany, but he still obsesses about getting back together with his wife whose infidelity triggered the big blow-up that sent him to the loony bin. As Pat practices dance routines with Tiffany for a competition, as the dance competition gets tied up in his father's addiction to gambling, Pat learns that everybody's wacky, and everybody watching can feel relieved that having an extreme mood disorder is okay, especially when everything comes out just right for Pat, Tiffany, Pat's dad (De Niro), and his mom (Weaver), and there's nothing very disturbing in the whole predictable thing. Towards the end, not knowing that the film is directed by David O. Russell (The Fighter), I thought, "Hey, this reminds me of The Fighter." Still, the development of the rapport between Pat and Tiffany is well done, and there is much to laugh at.

As for the acting, it's good, not great. Cooper gets to speak rapidly, and he achieves a couple of touching moments. Weaver and De Niro each get a touching moment, the latter only slightly controlling the overacting that is the signature of his elderly career. Finally, Lawrence is convincingly manic, peppy, endearingly odd, and full of likable spunk; she gets her touching moments too.

Everything comes out just right for Pat and those around him, and that makes everything just right for Oscar and most viewers in the market for a romantic comedy about mental illness that isn't as provocative as Rachel Getting Married (2008) or I've Loved You So Long (2008).

Monday, January 21, 2013

Come to Mama!

Mama is a haunting, visually beautiful horror film about the power of a mother’s love. In this case, it is the possessive, lethal love of a phantom mother who rescues two girls, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse), from their suicidal father and raises them in a dilapidated cabin in the middle of the woods. When the feral children are found five years later, they are thin, dirty, and acting like wildcats. After they are given into the custody of their uncle (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend (Jessica Chastain), the ghostly Mama follows them, reluctant to let them go.

The film’s artistic production design immediately sets this film above most horror movies. This is especially evident in the details of the dank cabin in the woods and the fairytale quality of the climactic cliff scene. Quite memorable is the design of the ghoul, Mama: a reedy, spindly-armed, double-jointed wraith the color of sodden wood, and it is very creepy how she rises out of rotten spots in walls.

Jessica Chastain offers her talent for thoughtful, non-stagey portrayals in the role of the heroine victimized by things that go bump in the night. Bass player for a goth rock band, Annabel admits to lacking motherly urges, but she must develop some motherly tendencies if she is going to save the girls from the possessive Mama who wants to take them to a watery grave. She may not want to have children of her own, but Annabel knows how to hold Victoria in a body lock to force a sense of care and safety upon her. Meanwhile, the two girls deserve commendations for their naturalistic, unstilted performances. They set up the most chilling moments by acting like animals or conversing with the ghost. Isabelle Nélisse, as the wildest child, speaks only a few words, and her staring eyes and her haunting face do a lot to convince you there is an intruder in the house.

Unfortunately, the film’s biggest drawback is that it doesn't trust the strengths of its acting, editing, and atmosphere to make us jump. Instead, it relies on that standard, and most irritating, schlock horror device of matching frights with excessively loud musical screeches. Damn! Cut that out! Mama does so much with its art direction, timing, and the placement of the reliably scary Mama in just the right place at the right time. Superbly, the film uses the simple device of suggesting that one of the girls is communicating with an unseen entity. SPOILER: In the film’s most masterful shot, the camera frames the open doorway to the girls’ bedroom in the right-hand half of the screen and a hallway in the other half. In the bedroom, Lilly giggles as she plays tug of war with someone concealed behind the wall. Is it Victoria? Then Victoria appears in the hallway, coming from another room. Simply chilling!

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Last Stand

Emulating the pace, structure, and widescreen action of many a Western in which an outnumbered band of good guys shoots it out with the bad guys and comes out victorious, The Last Stand is lots of fun. Here, Sheriff Ray Owens (Arnold Schwarzenegger), along with four deputies (one of them played by Johnny Knoxville, full of Jackass antics, another a capable female law officer), faces off against an escaped drug lord (Eduardo Noriega) and his army of gunmen, and it all leads to the classic Western shootout in the streets, in this case, in the main street of a small Arizona town called Summerton. Nice suspense is achieved as the gunfight spreads from the barricaded street to rooftops and narrow stairways. The accent is different, but Arnold comes off like the John Wayne of the latter movies of his career. Crabby about getting old, he is full of taciturn swagger as he handles guns and dispatches the scurvy villains (one of them played by Peter Stormare, my favorite scurvy villain) with humorous one-liners. Yeah, it’s a lot of corn (as were most of John Wayne's last Westerns). Indeed, a clever car chase is staged in a field of drying corn. Full of action, the whole thing moves along without a hitch.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Mag Seven Minus One: Gangster Squad

With Josh Brolin as Sergeant John O’Mara, the solid family-man/ honest L.A. cop turned Eliot Ness crusader; Ryan Gosling, channeling Steve McQueen and a young Mickey Rourke, and generating some of his own cool to play O'Mara's right-hand man; Emma Stone embodying every gangster femme fatale to hit the screen, and doing a good job of it; and Sean Penn hamming it up quite convincingly as the despicable mob boss Mickey Cohen, the stylized, fast-paced Gangster Squad mixes elements of The Magnificent Seven with heavy doses of The Untouchables; alludes to the tone of Sunset Boulevard and frames one of its iconic images; hints at the Odessa Steps from Battleship Potemkin; employs the Thompson machine gun, a pervading Hollywood movie fetish, in the grandaddy of all Thompson machine gun battles; and stages every gangster film cliché in the book against a sumptuously classic 1940s L.A. mise-en-scène. The best thing about the release of this film is that I don’t have to watch the brash, squally preview for what would have literally been the twenty-fifth time. Still, as a movie, Gangster Squad is a lot of stylishly silly fun.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty starts with a black screen and the tragically familiar sounds of 9/11: sirens; air traffic controllers; clueless newscasters; screams; desperate calls to 911. Director Kathryn Bigelow knows that these sounds are enough to recap the events of 9/11 because we have all SEEN it on television as the though the tragic events had been immediately made into a movie.

Now we have Zero Dark Thirty, a film that intends to show the climax to the epic true story that began on 9/11, shifted location to Afghanistan, then to Iraq, and ended on May 2, 2011, with the death of Al Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden, an incident coming at the end of a ten-year CIA search. Is this a climax we wish to see? Can the killing of this mastermind, without benefit of trial, provide catharsis for the deaths of thousands when the men who directly killed those victims died on 9/11? Perhaps not, but the film asserts that ending bin Laden's life can save people from future terrorist attacks, and that makes killing bin Laden a gripping imperative.

If anything, if one considers the acknowledgements at the end of the credits that pay tribute to the men and women who dedicated themselves to the war against terrorism, the film is more about brave Americans performing heroic deeds. "Do you even realize what you just did?" one Navy Seal says to the shooter who takes down bin Laden. Later, the shooter lets loose the kind of "all right!" utterance that is an ubiquitous trope of the Rambo-style military action film. Indeed, a Rambo-style film about the killing of bin Laden would satisfy the many Americans who honored the victims of 9/11 by fastening American flags to their pickups and flapping them into pathetic tatters. Bigelow's film only seems to be that kind of film momentarily and it offers hardly any visceral charge that might incite the virulent bin Laden-hater to utter, "All right!" because you never see bin Laden's face, and his death is a fleeting image that is very easy to miss. The college students and professionals filling the AMC Boston Common 19 where I saw Zero Dark Thirty were totally silent throughout the entire film, especially during the raid on the compound..

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Impossible

The Impossible, starring Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor, depicts a vacationing family of five trying to survive the 2004 tsunami and locate each other after the flood separates them. With its narrow focus on the family and a few other vacationers on the coast of Thailand, this is no action-disaster epic like 2012. The CGI is realistic, there is no comic relief, and the only dog we see is a dead one.

A grim survival story with a narrow focus, the film includes a number of gut wrenching widescreen images: the tsunami striking a seaside resort; the racing flood carrying victims and rubble; and the vast wasteland of destruction. Commendable too is the highly detailed art direction of the sprawling field of detritus and the blood-streaked, trash-strewn rooms and hallways of an overcrowded hospital. Watts and McGregor are excellent; Tom Holland as the oldest son, Lucas, emerges as a central, touching character as he cares for his injured mother. Though the climax attempts to stage the big, swelling emotional moment, the most touching moment, and my pick for the most touching moment in any 2012 film, comes when a lost boy comforts himself, and the injured Maria (Watts), by running his fingers up and down her grimy arm.

Yeah, this film has the things I love: touching drama; awesome forces of nature; gripping perils; and stunning widescreen images. But watching The Impossible, I found myself loving an element that often doesn't figure into my evaluation of a film. I found myself totally impressed by the sound effects. Go to this film for the sound! The film starts with sound as its focus: a growing watery rumble that provides a twist when it turns out to be something we don't expect. During the tsunami, we hear a symphony of sharp, threatening sounds caused by the flooding water and every tumbling, dangerous piece of rubble that narrowly misses Maria as she is swept inland. This is a film well worth hearing!

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Promised Land

As I start my fifth year of movie blogging, I plan to write at least a paragraph, more if the spirit movies, on each movie I see in theaters in 2013, and I will start with 2012 late releases. (If I had done that last year, I would have about 86 posts for 2012, a lot more than the 31 posts I wrote.) Yeah, sometimes less is more, but at least I can maintain a literal "web log" of my year at the movies, which I do anyway as a personal document.

1. Promised Land (2012)

When Steve Butler (Matt Damon) and Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) come to a small farming community in Pennsylvania to offer farmers a way out of the economic slump by leasing drilling rights for natural gas-producing shale, they encounter a very predictable cast of characters: the poor single mother who wants a future for her son; the uppity rednecks who see Steve as a big-city jerk; the unmarried teacher (Rosemarie DeWitt) who seems casually unconcerned about environmental side effects and sees Steve as a possible partner; the crotchety old science teacher (nicely played by Hal Holbrook) who knows all about the dangerous side effects; and the crusading environmentalist (John Krasinski), aptly named Dustin Noble.

The only thing out of whack is that Matt Damon is playing a sort of jerk, pushing his way up the corporate ladder by buying rights cheaply and dismissing worries of the environmental effects. Indeed, Damon seems uncomfortable playing the zealous corporate agent; he almost doesn’t know how to stand. Nevertheless, he provides presence, as he always can do in the weakest of films, and he bolsters up this simplistic story that lacks sufficient conflict and tension. McDormand is wooden; DeWitt constantly plays the laid-back, whimsical “I-know-the-truth” smirk.

Director Gus Van Sant frames some lovely atmospheric shots of smalltown America as well as some wonderful aerial shots that take in the whole beleaguered town. Finally, (SPOILER) we get a plot twist that turns Steve into the “Noble” character and allows you to breathe a sigh of relief as Damon assumes the wholesome, good-guy persona we expect from him and which he does so well.