Friday, December 28, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Grade: 52 (C+)

There’s a question I’ve been asking all year: is Peter Jackson disappearing up his own ass? After the triumph of The Lord of the Rings, Jackson found more success with his strong remake of King Kong, but many questioned whether or not King Kong really needed to be a three-hour epic. When Jackson’s garish, wrongheaded adaptation of The Lovely Bones came out, many wondered whether or not he had forgotten how to tell a smaller story. Now comes the long-expected Lord of the Rings prequel The Hobbit…or rather, An Unexpected Journey, the first part in a trilogy based on the shortest of J.R.R. Tolkien’s most famous books, and just as I’ve feared, film point to a talented filmmaker not knowing what to cut or how to tell a coherent story anymore.

Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), an unassuming Hobbit in the Shire, is visited one night by thirteen dwarves and a wizard by the name of Gandalf (Ian McKellen, reprising his Oscar-nominated Rings role). The dwarves are traveling to Erebor, the old dwarf kingdom, which was taken over years ago by the dragon Smaug. The company convinces Bilbo to come with them as a burglar in spite of the perils ahead of them, including a trio of flesh-eating trolls, a group of Orcs with a grudge against the dwarves’ leader, and the twisted creature Gollum (Andy Serkis, also reprising his role), from whom Bilbo steals a rather peculiar ring.

The good news here is that no one should expect a dull disaster on the level of the Star Wars prequels. If nothing else, Jackson’s instinct as a director of spectacle remain intact. The last third of the film, with its nonstop Orc battles, is frequently exciting, particularly regarding a late battle that tests Bilbo’s courage. Freeman is reliably strong as Bilbo, as is Richard Armitage as the dwarf king Thorin. Freeman is particularly strong in the film's best scene, a game of riddles between Bilbo and Gollum. And while Jackson’s relies more on CGI than practical effects, some of the creatures designs (particularly a nasty character called the Great Goblin) recall the giddy grossness of early Jackson features like Dead Alive.

But Jackson’s gifts as a storyteller have atrophied, or otherwise his editor isn’t doing his job. There’s just not enough material in The Hobbit to stretch it out into three movies, and there’s too much marking time here. The film gets off to a particularly bad start with an unnecessary framing device involving an older Bilbo (Ian Holm) writing his story, which is only there to tie into The Lord of the Rings  and bring back Elijah Wood’s Frodo for a distracting cameo. Nor are the flashbacks to Smaug’s conquering of Erebor necessary, nor the pointless comic relief character Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy, who seems to be covered in bird shit). And while the dinner at Bilbo’s house could be rather charming, Jackson’s comedic timing is off, and the scene goes on far too long and breaks out into song twice (one song is haunting, the other irritating).

What’s even worse is when he tries too hard to throwback to The Lord of the Rings, as he does in unnecessary expository scenes where Gandalf insists to other Lord of the Rings characters (Christopher Lee, Cate Blanchett, and Hugo Weaving making distracting cameos) that just maybe the Rings villain Sauron is coming back. Jackson is going for the same sense of epic scale that he had with the Rings movies, but that approach is entirely wrong-headed. He has bloated a simple children’s story into something ungainly, losing the thread of the story and the character development, and he's broken the first part off at an unnatural conclusion. Most of this probably could have been saved had someone told Jackson that he’d already proven he was a great world creator, that he didn’t need to further prove it by cramming all things Tolkien into the film, and that he should instead just get to the point.

NOTE: Jackson filmed The Hobbit at 48 fps, double the frame rate most films are shot on, to give the film a greater realism. It has only been released into select theatres, usually in 3D. And it looks like absolute garbage, like an expensive soap opera or a high definition television with the settings turned on wrong. Every character’s movements make something else seem blurry, and while Jackson’s gift with the camera is still obviously strong, the high frame rate makes an often beautiful movie look cheap. Go to your listings or ask your theatre if they’ve got the regular frame rate in 2D instead.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Les Miserables

Grade: 41 (C)

Whatever happened to the movie musical? Why is it that no one seems to be able to pull it off anymore? Oh, sure, there are exceptions (Tim Burton’s Hammer horror take on Sweeney Todd, Lars von Trier’s gut-wrenching Dancer in the Dark, Baz Luhrmann’s delightfully hyperactive Moulin Rouge!), but modern movie musicals are by and large dreary affairs. Les Miserables has a high pedigree: it’s an adaptation of a blockbuster musical, itself an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel, and it’s crammed with Oscar-winners and nominees (Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carte), and Broadway vets (Samantha Barks, Hugh Jackman). But Les Miserables’ powerful material is hampered by the same problems  that plague most modern movie musicals: bad directing, weak performances, and a sense of self-importance mixed with pointlessness.

1800s France: Jean Valjean (Jackman) is paroled after serving a nineteen-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family, but the overzealous Inspector Javert (Crowe) and the unforgiving French system makes his life a living hell. Valjean breaks parole, assumes a new identity, and becomes a prominent member of society. When one of his workers, Fantine (Hathaway), dies, Valjean takes her daughter Cosette (played as an adult by Amanda Seyfried) under his wing as he flees from Javert. When the two return to Paris in the midst of the 1832 June Rebellion, Cosette falls for Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a student revolutionary also loved by Eponine (Barks), the daughter of Cosette’s cruel former caretakers (Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen). Javert, meanwhile, remains unyielding and single-minded in his pursuit of Valjean.

Russell Crowe has been knocked for his weak performance, and not without reason: the man sounds like he’s has a small animal trapped in his throat. But it isn’t fair to single Crowe out as the dud in the cast when most of the big stars are just as lousy, even when they seem ideally cast. Jackman is a charismatic actor and strong singer with experience in musical theatre, but he’s either singing way outside of his range or otherwise uncomfortable singing for the camera, and his acting isn’t much better. Where Crowe is stoic to a fault, Jackman is playing to cheap seats. Still, they’re better than Carter and Cohen, both abysmally hammy (especially Cohen, whose Pepe Le Pew accent is particularly grating considering that no one else is trying for a French accent) in spite of knocking similar comedic roles in Sweeney Todd out of the park.

Les Miserables isn’t without its bright spots: Aaron Tveit nails young revolutionary Enjolras’s fiery passion on “Red and Black”. Redmayne’s work as the passionate young lover Marius mostly makes up for Seyfried’s anemic work as Cosette. Barks, reprising the role she played on West End, is an absolute natural, her gorgeous rendition of “On My Own” a stark contrast to Jackman and Crowe’s butchering of “Who Am I?” and “Stars”. Hathaway is the sole movie star who escapes from the film unscathed, and her gasping, teary-eyed performance of the show-stopper “I Dreamed a Dream” represents the emotional peak of the film.

But that’s a problem: the scene comes about thirty or forty minutes into the film, and nothing in the rest of the film’s 160-minute runtime is half as successful. Hooper’s tight long-take close-up on Hathaway’s expressive, distraught face seems like a smart move, but he repeats it with practically every other number in the film, giving each number a same-y feel. Worse, Hooper’s irritating “stick the actors in the corner of the frame for no reason” tactic from the superior The King’s Speech is back with a vengeance, the much-ballyhooed live singing tactic is aggressively bombastic when done directly to the camera every time, and the film’s color palette is drab and dull. It's an absolutely exhausting an assaultive experience.

The film’s editing, meanwhile, is flat-out inept. Hooper’s every cut is completely arbitrary, and it constantly undercuts the natural rhythm of the musical numbers. It’s particularly distracting in the Act I closer “One Day more”, which strains to match the film version of West Side Story’s “Tonight Quintet” but can’t establish any cinematic rhythm. It wouldn’t quite be accurate to say that Hooper’s average went from undistinguished to outright incompetent in just one film. Really, it’s more of a sign that we should leave movie musicals to real directors.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Holy Motors

Grade: 98 (A)

There’s been a rather prevalent question over the past year: is cinema dead? Several critics, writers, and directors have complained about the state of the film industry these days: that product is placed before art, that the “right” kinds of movies aren’t getting made anymore, that audiences don’t like sitting in theatres with everyone else anymore (particularly without their cell phones at all points), and, perhaps most notably, that celluloid is being phased out in favor of digital photography. Some of these arguments have more validity than others, and cult French director Leos Carax seems to have collected several of them together in Holy Motors, his first feature-length film since the disappointment of 1999’s Pola X. But while Carax’s film communicates that sadness, it works against these very arguments. If anything, this batshit insane masterpiece is proof of the power and vitality of cinema, in whatever form it should take.

Frequent Carax muse Denis Lavant stars as Mr. Oscar, who spends the film traveling across Paris in a limousine by his assistant Celine (Edith Scob). Oscar’s job involves putting on a series of disguises and performing a variety of roles. In one scene, he’s dressed as an old bag lady. In another, he’s an old man on his deathbed. In another, he’s Merde, the mute, flower-eating character from Carax’s segment of the 2008 anthology film Tokyo!, as he falls for a beautiful model (Eva Mendes). In yet another still, he’s a hitman sent to assassinate his own doppelganger.

I could spend the next paragraph describing every strange and wonderful episode in Holy Motors without giving a full understanding of how joyous an experience it is. These segments all seem very loosely connected to the naked eye, but they somehow all make sense in the context of Carax’s history. Carax has admitted that many of these segments are from abandoned features he couldn’t get funded, and the title itself refers to Carax’s reverence for traditional film cameras as opposed to digital (which Carax was forced to shoot the film on for the sake of cost-effectiveness). Carax has, to some extent, created an tale about the death of adventurous filmmaking, the neglect of moviegoers, and the end of analog photography, but he’s doing it in the only way he knows how: through surreal, darkly comic mixture of genres (among those represented: melodrama, gangster, musical, motion-capture spectacle). Lavant, meanwhile, brings his own chameleonic talents to anchor the intoxicating madness in what’s undoubtedly one of the finest performances of the year. No matter what strange ride we’re on, there’s a level of familiarity and coherence to the sheer unpredictability on the screen.

Carax’s films frequently feature giddy explosions of feeling (the fireworks scene from The Lovers on the Bridge, a dance-sprint to David Bowie’s “Modern Love” in Mauvais Sang). What’s so exciting and beautiful about Holy Motors is that it’s seemingly made up of nothing but explosions of feeling, even in its quietest moments. One sequence features Kylie Minogue belting a song about past lives (no doubt in relation to actors’ roles). Another features a bizarre love-making simulation between two actors in motion-capture gear. Another still has a wonderful homage to Scob’s role in the Georges Franju’s classic Eyes Without a Face. Yet another features Lavant leading a group of musicians in an impromptu accordion version of the blues song “Let My Baby Ride”. Carax set out to make a film about the state of cinema and ended up making a film about cinema’s greatest possibilities. For anyone who truly thinks cinema is dying as an art form, let Holy Motors ring out as a defiant “FUCK NO”.

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Damsels in Distress

Grade: 84 (A-)

Writer-director Whit Stillman made a big splash in the 90s with a  trilogy of critical but sympathetic portraits of yuppies (Metropolitan, Barcelona, The Last Days of Disco) before promptly disappearing for thirteen years. Stillman’s distinct blend of dry wit and warmth was a major influence on the burgeoning independent film scene (particularly on Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach), but for the longest time fans had to make due quoting Metropolitan to each other (one character on The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie: “It would be hard to imagine a less fair or accurate portrait!”). Some fans were further disappointed by Damsels in Distress, Stillman’s new film. It’s a shame: they’re overlooking one of the most vibrant returns to directing in recent memory.

Lily (Analeigh Tipton) a transfer student at an East Coast university, is befriended, seemingly at random (there’s a Stillman trait) by a trio of preppy girls: leader Violet (Greta Gerwig), prickly Rose (a hilarious Megalyn Echikunwoke), and overexcited Heather (Carrie MacLemore). Violent and company make it their mission to better to campus spirit: they teach people how to dress properly, champion the lovably dumb frat-guys (rather than the often snobbish loners or “smooth operator” guys), and fight campus-wide depression with offbeat methods (tap-dancing, spreading good hygiene). Lily and Violent eventually fall for the same guy (Adam Brody), and Lily begins to chafe under Violet when she realizes that many of her methods of therapy are more for herself than for others.

It’s somewhat understandable that some Stillman fans didn’t go for Damsels in Distress. The film retains Stillman’s signature brand of dialogue (“I don’t really like the word ‘depressed. I prefer to say I’m in a tailspin”) but brings a newer, sillier tone: characters break into spontaneous song, frat guys claim to not understand the difference between colors, and the film sometimes veers strangely close in style slobby college comedies of the 80s. But while the material sometimes goes too broad (could’ve done without the anal sex jokes), Stillman maintains an assured grasp over the amiably airy proceedings. In a sense, it’s preferable that Stillman would return with a brighter, looser style rather than stick with the crisp, dry New Yorker meets Ernst Lubitsch style of the past- it shows a willingness to evolve as a filmmaker.

And no matter what, this is recognizably a Stillman film. It has the same affectionate ribbing of popular groups too often snobbishly derided in contemporary films. It has the same combination of wistfulness and clarity that so defined his 80s work. And it’s anchored by a delicate push-pull relationship between the duel protagonists: Tipton’s shy outsider, first enchanted by her new friends, then annoyed, then at a happy medium; and Gerwig’s oft-hypocritical but well-meaning and ultimately sympathetic preppy, too busy trying to help everyone else to realize that she’s suffering from the same neuroses as everyone else. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take Stillman another thirteen years to make another film.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Overlooked Gems #49: The Lovers on the Bridge

Grade: 89 (A-)

Some directors are celebrated in spite of their excess. Leos Carax is celebrated because of it. Carax has become almost as famous for his Terrence Malick-like non-prolificacy (his new film, Holy Motors, is his first in 13 years and fifth in his nearly thirty year career) as he is for the fantastical explosions of feeling that pepper his films. Carax’s 1991 film The Lovers on the Bridge has gained a small but fervent cult following in the years since its botched release- Miramax picked it up only to hold onto for years before dumping it into theatres in 1999- but Carax’s name is still not widely known among budding cinephiles. Time to change that.

Alex (Denis Lavant) is an alcoholic, pill-popping street-performer and tramp who sleeps on the Pont-Neuf (New Bridge). Michele (Juliette Binoche) is a homeless artist, haunted by a failed relationship and slowly going blind. The two meet and fall in love, with Michele gradually growing more dependent on Alex. But when Michele’s family learns of treatment that could save her eyesight, Alex shields Michele from their radio announcements and flyers, fearing that she’ll leave him if she gets better.

Sounds awfully bleak, doesn’t it? Well, yes and no. Carax never undersells the plights of his protagonists, and he’s aided by appropriately downbeat turns from the pathologically possessive Lavant (his frequent muse) and the ghostlike Binoche (his former lover). The film’s depiction of amour fou at a poverty level is certainly gritty and filled with soul-crushing lows associated with French tales of love. The harder Lavant tries to hold onto Binoche, the more disturbing his behavior becomes, as best exemplified in a sequence where he burns the posters Binoche’s family has put all over the subway in order to find her.

But just like French New Wave influences Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut before him, Carax also understands that the amour part is just as important as the fou part. And it’s in the dizzying highs that Carax shines the brightest, particularly in a stunning sequence halfway through where Binoche and Lavant dance on the Pont-Neuf under a sky of fireworks as a collage of songs from Strauss, Iggy Pop, Public Enemy and more soundtrack their happiness. It’s a moment of pure ecstatic feeling matched only by the two most famous scenes from Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (no spoilers for the poor souls who haven’t seen that one yet). If there’s a weakness to The Lovers on the Bridge, it’s that the next hour of the film, while still magnificent, can’t quite live up to what’s come before it, having been upstaged by pure movie magic. But that’s a weakness most films could only dream of.

This film is available on Netflix Instant.