Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Film Review: Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty

So far, anyone and everyone who has reviewed this The Great Beauty, or La Grande Bellezza in its native Italian tongue, has one descriptive in common - and that descriptive is highlighted by everyone's favourite F-word.  And by everyone's favourite F-word, I of course mean Felliniesque.  From the first deliciously giddy moments to the grand morality tale finale, Paolo Sorrentino's latest film is possibly more akin to a Fellini film than any film since Fellini himself was making movies.  Hell, this film is so Felliniesque, it may be even more like a Fellini film than many of Fellini's own films.  Okay, perhaps that is just hyperbole, but seriously, this film is quite the spectacle to behold, and the blatant influence of Sorrentino's late great countryman, has to be the major reason why.  But none of this obvious influence, or over-use of that aforementioned F-word, should take away from the post-modern sensibilities and stunning film work brought forth by this post-realist, post-Fellini auteur.

Tackling many of the same concerns that Fellini (there he is again) played with in his masterful La Dolce Vita, Sorrentino takes a look at Jep Gambardella, an aging writer, and popular partier-cum-Roman pseudo-celebrity, upon his 65th birthday, as he tries to figure out what has happened to, and what will now happen to his life.  The juicy, contemplative role of Jep, Sorrentino's modern channeling of Marcello Mastroianni's Marcello Rubini in (here he is again) Fellini's La Dolce Vita, is played with plenty of aplomb by 54 year old actor Toni Servillo, most notably seen in Matteo Garrone's brilliant Gomorrah, and Sorrentino's own Il Divo. His performance is a centerpiece looking all around him at the titular great beauty, or grande bellezza, that is Roma, the Eternal City.  Acting, much in the way Mastroianni did in La Dolce Vita, as a visual narrator of the sometimes decadent, sometimes mournful world of Roman society, Servillo's Jep is the proverbial lost soul in search of meaning in an otherwise unfulfilled life of constant parties and drink and women.  A one time promising novelist, now relegated to writing cheap articles on Roman high society and its esoteric art world, Jep looks back on a life possibly wasted, longing for true companionship while simultaneously running from it, and yearning for his lost first love. It is as stunning a performance as the film itself is a stunning work of art.

Sorrentino's film, as Felliniesque as it wants to be (I keep going back to that F-word, don't I?), is essentially the story of a human tragedy, but not the kind usually associated with the genre of tragedy.  For all intents and purposes, Jep is a successful person, a celebrated member of Rome's upper crust society, but inside he is lost and lonely and unsure of his true place in the world.  He is part of a faux society, trapped inside a spiraling circle that leads deeper and deeper into despair and hopelessness, with no idea of how to escape this outwardly happy, inwardly depressing lifestyle.  Servillo gives this multifaceted character the most bravura of performances (his chutzpah is off the so-called charts), and this performance is integral in making the film work, but it is Sorrentino giving his all as director, that lifts this tragedy to near epic proportions.  With a swirling camera that takes in the great tragic beauty that is his Eternal City, a camera-eye that wraps itself up down around and through the heart of Rome's society, Sorrentino engulfs us with a visually Felliniesque (yep, that word again) brouhaha, showcasing both the city itself and Servillo's wayward Jep, and it all comes out so beautifully, it almost hurts.  Easily one of the best films of the year (and the probable winner of the Best Foreign Language Oscar), F-word laced or not, this old school cinephile was quite surprised as to not have the film end with a shot of Servillo turning away from the camera and walking down the beach.  La Dolce Vita, indeed.

This review can also be read over at my main blog, All Things Kevyn.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Film Review: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's The Lego Movie

Sure, it may be, as some are prone to gripe, just a kid's movie.  Sure, it may be just a PG-rated Robot Chicken, and therefore sadly lacking in the guts department.  Sure, it may just be this generation's pale distant cousin of my generation's Who Framed Roger Rabbit - well, kinda.  Sure, it may be all these things, and therefore nothing this critic, no matter how immature and still living in his own childhood he may be, would be all that interested in, other than perhaps just to see what all the hubbub's about, bub.  So, with soda and popcorn in hand, and surrounded by what I would approximate as half a million children (which included a two-row sectioned off birthday party area), I hunkered down to see just what all the hubbub was about, bub.  Surprisingly, the hubbub was more accurate than I would have expected.  Even more surprisingly, with the exception of one little girl's scream at the supposed peril of the film's hero at one point, these aforementioned half a million children sat in relative silence during the film's hour and forty-two minute runtime.  So there.

As for the story of The Lego Movie, it is typical archetype stuff.  A simple everyman, Emmet Brickowoski (voiced by Chris Pratt), living his mundane simple life, stumbles upon a magical prophecy of which he must fulfill in order to save the world from the evil doings of Lord Business (voiced by Will Ferrell).  Along the way, the often oblivious Emmet is joined on his quest by a manic panic-haired heroine ridiculously named Wyldestyle (Elizabeth Banks), the wizened blind wizard Vitruvius (the seemingly omnipresent voice of Mr. Morgan Freeman), a candy-coated creepy-ass unicorn hybrid of a Lego and My Little Pony (Community's Allison Brie), a cobbled-together pirate monstrosity (Nick Offerman), an over eager 1980's spaceman Lego guy (Charlie Day), and of course, Batman (Will Arnett putting that famed raspy voice to great use), included most likely because he gets butts in seats, baby.  Also featuring the voice of Liam Neeson as the bi-polar Bad Cop/Good Cop henchman of Lord Business, and a slew of other Lego characters (Superman, Wonder Woman, Abraham Lincoln, Shakespeare, an incessantly nagging Green Lantern voiced by Jonah Hill, as well as some fun little cameo appearances, one of them staying especially classy), The Lego Movie is actually a lot of fun.  Perhaps not to the level of some other toy-related animated films (cough, cough...the Toy Story franchise), but still a fun little movie.  So there...again.

With that said, I would have loved to have seen, instead of a PG-rated Robot Chicken, an actual Robot Chicken version of this film.  I know, I know, the damn thing's aimed at a much younger set than I, but still the possibilities of a pop culture wonderland in the form of Legos is a pretty spectacular idea.  But alas, instead of many of the pop references that coulda woulda shoulda filled this film (there are some cute references, but nothing compared to something like the Pixar gang or the Shrek films, or shows such as The Simpsons and Family Guy, or dare I say Robot Chicken) we are left with a fun, but still not as fun as it could be film.  Sure, this may be a small gripe in the whole scheme of things, for it is an enjoyable film (and has a nice non-conformity message), and judging from the lack of bothersome, disgruntled children in the screening I attended, its intended audience is more than pleased as punch, so who am I to argue.  Let's just keep it at my original assessment of it being a fun little film, and go on about our respective lives.  After all, in a case such as this, my problems don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy critical world.  I was once taken to task by the six year old son of a friend of mine, for not giving good enough reviews of animated films, so perhaps I should best leave well enough alone, and finish this review with the title of the movie's purposefully annoying hit song - everything is awesome.  So there.

This review can also be read at my main blog, All Things Kevyn.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Film Review: John Wells & Tracy Letts' August: Osage County

When I say something along the lines of Julia Roberts gives the best damn performance of her career in August: Osage County, it is not all that bold a statement.  After years of playing in films below her ability (she is actually a fine actress, just a bad role taker, as it were), it would not be that difficult to overtake such performances as those found in the silly slapstick rom-coms, holier-than-thou melodramas, and cheap wouldbe thrillers, the actress is so fond of finding herself.  On the other hand, when I say a statement such as, Meryl Streep gives her career best performance in August: Osage County as well, then we are in definite bold statement territory - damn bold statement territory, indeed.  Is this all true though?  Well ladies and gentleman, hold onto your hats and bonnets, because it may very well be true. Perhaps to keep the hyperbolic owls at bay, I should probably rearrange that latter statement to read, if not the best, but surely one of La Streep's finest performances, but such a downgrade should not hide the fact that her performance in August, a performance that has garnered the iconic actress her ever-increasing unprecedented eighteenth Oscar nomination, is right up there with her jobs in Sophie's Choice, Silkwood, and Ironweed. So there.

In truth though (and Streep's mean-minded matriarch prides herself on being a truth teller) it is not just Streep and, more surprisingly, Roberts who run away with this film, for this is a production, as should be the case with such a stage play turned motion picture (at least ideally), that is chock full of bravura performances - a stacked deck, if you will.  Beyond Streep and Roberts, as mother and daughter Violet Weston and Barbara Weston-Fordham, we also get a slew of stunning and powerful (and all those other appropriate adjectives and descriptives) performances from the likes of Julianne Nicholson as middle sister Ivy, Juliette Lewis as baby sister Karen, Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper as Violet's sister and brother-in-law respectively, Benedict Cumberbatch as 'Little' Charles, woebegone cousin to the three sisters, Dermot Mulroney as Karen's lascivious fiance (my wife tells me that Mulroney can play sleazy with the best of 'em), Ewan McGregor as Barbara's wandering husband, Little Miss Sunshine Abigail Breslin as their fourteen-going-on-forty daughter, and Sam Shepard as family patriarch Beverly Weston.  Not a dud in any of these performances. Personally I think Nicholson, Martindale, and Cooper should have been awarded Oscar nominations as well, but then again, maybe that's just me.

Based on Terry Letts' award-winning play, and adapted for the screen by Mr. Letts himself (the film is directed by John Wells, best known for his role as exec producer on TV's Southland), August: Osage County is the story of a dysfunctional family living in the small town plains of Oklahoma.  And when I say dysfunctional, I mean that in the whole nine yards kind of way.  As the film progresses, more and more layers are peeled away, onion-like, and more and more skeletons fall out of the collective family closets, each one a bigger and more disturbing revelation than the ones that came before.  Layer upon layer, skeleton piled up on skeleton, this cast keeps pushing the so-called envelope, further and further and further along, until the inevitable explosion happens, and everything is laid bare, and ugly, and psychologically scarred what could very well be far beyond any thoughts of repair.  Letts' words are a big big part of this, of course (Hitchcock's idea that the three most important things in a movie are screenplay, screenplay, and screenplay, will always be a truism to a point), but if not for the courage of the fearless cast, this Minnow could very well be lost - but not to worry, for they are more than up to the difficult task ahead.  Dare I even say that this is the most well acted movie this critic has seen in a long long long time.  Bravura indeed, and brava as well.

This review can also be read over at my main site, All Things Kevyn.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

My 25 Most Anticipated Films of 2014

Well, it's that time of the year again.  All the hoopla of the past year's top tens has finally died down, and even though we still have the Oscars coming up, it's time to turn our eyes toward the cinematic goings-on of 2014.  In other words, here's a list of the twenty-five (or so) films that I am most looking forward to this coming year.  So, without further ado, here we go.  Let's count 'em down.

25. Life Itself - A documentary based on the memoir of the late great Roger Ebert, directed by Steve James, the man who made Hoop Dreams, a documentary that Ebert was integral in making a success back in 1994.  Oh you tricky little circle of life you.  Whether James captures Ebert or not, just the chance to watch the life of the most influential critic on this critic, puts the film on the list.

24. 22 Jump Street - After the surprising success of the first film (before the film came out I was expecting it to be part of my worst of the year list, instead of a runner-up on my best list) Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill move across the street, and take their somewhat surprisingly hilarious high school act into the local college.  Second films tend to go downhill from the original (well, it would be the semi-original in this case) but since the first one surprised so well, why not again?  We'll see.

23. Godzilla - After the beyond disastrous 1998 version, many are holding their collective breath waiting for the May release of this monster.  At the helm is Gareth Edwards, who went straight from the extremely low budget monster movie, Monsters, to the extremely high budget monster movie, Godzilla, and I suppose many are wondering if he is up to the task.  But hey, with Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Bryan Cranston in the cast, how can ya not be excited over seeing Kick-Ass and Walter White battle the big G-Dogg?

22. Captain America: The Winter Soldier - Cap has always been one of my faves in the comics, stoic and Gary Cooper-esque (and especially brilliant when written by Ed Brubaker), and the first film was a much better film than many gave it credit for being.  Now we get the old guy in the modern world, assisted by Black Widow and having to fight the Winter Soldier.  As a comicbook nerd, this sounds like fun to me.

21. Boxtrolls - I've a secret to tell.  I love stop-motion animation.  No, really, I love love love it.  Can't get enough of it kinda love.  Give me stop-motion or give me death!  With all that out there, it is a safe bet that I am excited to see the latest stop-motion movie by the same animation studio that gave us Coraline and Paranorman (and in their early days, those dancing California Raisins of the 1980's).  Can't wait for September.

20. Assassin - From one of the most cerebral filmmakers of Asia, Taiwan's Hou Hsiao-hsien, now gives us something that seems more in the Wong Kar-wai vein of things - a period piece about an assassin.  Granted, it could be delayed until 2015, but right now, it looks like it may make it to the states by year's end.  Of course, Hou being Hou (and Hou's will be Hou's - I crack myself up sometimes), this is probably not going to be the mainstreamiest of movies, so NYC and LA are it's only real potential hot spots.

19. How To Catch a Monster - Christina Hendricks and Saoirse Ronan star in this fantasy-thriller that also just so happens to be the directorial debut of one, Mr. Ryan Gosling.  Hopefully the actor, who has more than proven himself on this side of the camera, has learned a thing or two about directing while working with the likes of Derek Cianfrance and Nicolas Winding Refn.

18. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For - The graphic noir gang is all back together again, including co-directors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller (the writer of the original novels), and stars Jessica Alba, Bruce Willis, Rosario Dawson, and Mickey Rourke, now joined by new kids on the block, Eva Green, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Josh Brolin, Juno Temple, and even Lady Gaga.

17. Two Days, One Night - The Belgium-born Dardenne Brothers, the duo that gave us such brilliant cinema of endurance films as Rosetta, L'Enfant, and The Kid with a Bike, are back with a film that, thanks to lead Marion Cotillard (the biggest name the directors have ever had in one of their films), could be their most seen film here in the states.  Okay, maybe not that big of a hit, but I do love the Dardennes. Why the hell don't you!?

16. Birdman - From the man who gave the world the Mexican New Wave hit Amores Perros, as well as 21 Grams, this new film about a washed-up actor, starring Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, and Naomi Watts, will hopefully make us forget the disheveled and ultimately mediocre Babel, and bring us back to the director's earlier works.

15. X-Men: Days of Future Past - As an X-Men fan from waaay back, long before the movies, long before Wolverine was in every comic made by Marvel, an way before the Phoenix or The Days of Future Past, I quiver at the possibilities of this film, but I also shudder at the possibility of this film sucking the royal teat.  This one really could go either way, and it worries me.  Will it be as good as First Class or as band as Last Stand?  After seeing some of the costumes and such in Empire Magazine this week, my worries have risen.  Even with these worries, I still place this film rather high on my list.  I mean, it is the X-Men after all.

14. Boyhood - This Richard Linklater project, filmed intermittently between 2002 and 2013, takes a look at more than a decade in the life of a boy as he deals with his divorced parents, played by Patricia Arquette and Linklater buddy Ethan Hawke.  Sort of a fictional version of the Up series, or perhaps a bit akin to Truffaut's Antoine Doinel series, the chameleonic auteur does it again - hopefully.

13. The Grand Budapest Hotel - I sort of have a love/hate relationship with Wes Anderson.  I think the guy is a talented filmmaker, and has a fun visual style to his work, but at the same time, the filmmaker hero to all the hipsters, seems to keep making the exact same movie over and over again, and this one, judging from the trailer, looks to be no different.  Alas poor Wes, let's change it up a bit next time, huh?

12. Guardians of the Galaxy - Forget Spidey, Cap, and all those Marvelous Mutants, this is the super hero movie to watch for. Why?  Because no one really knows what it is going to be.  Outside of the comic-reading world (a place where I reside) no one really knows who the hell these guys are, and unlike known properties such as the aforementioned Spidey, Cap, and The X-Men, there's no telling what director James Gunn (incidentally also the director of the fun genre pieces Super and Slither, as well as the writer of Zack Snyder's fantastic Dawn of the Dead remake) will do.  I am Groot!  We are all Groot!!  Those inside the comic-reading world will love that last joke, the rest of you will just have to wait until August.

11. Noah - Normally, I would not be all that interested in a big budget biblical epic, but the fact that Darren Aronofsky is directing this one, and Russell Crowe is starring, gives it a spot at number eleven.  We also get Jennifer Connelly as Noah's little missus, Emma Watson as his daughter, and Anthony Hopkins as good old Methuselah.  Judging from the trailer, the movie does look like a big fat CGI fest, but hopefully the guy who gave us Black Swan, can help it be more than just that.

10. Night Moves - After playing at both Venice and Toronto last year, as well as being on my most anticipated films of 2013 list (whoops), the latest film from Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, Meek's Cutoff), will finally get it's long-awaited US debut later this year.  The film will also showcase the first major adult role for former child starlet Dakota Fanning.

9. Ex Machina - A psycho-tech-thriller, robot romance-esque sci-fi film written and directed by the guy who wrote the screenplays for 28 Days Later..., Sunshine, and Never Let Me Go, and starring Oscar Isaac, fresh off his brilliant turn in Inside Llewyn Davis?  How could we not be excited by this?  In fact, you'd have to be a machine to not be excited about this.  See what I did there?  Yup.

8. While We're Young - Granted, this is another one of those films that may not see the light of day (or the dark of the cinema, if you will) until 2015, but chances are still rather strong that it will be out in late Fal, in time for an Oscar run.  The film is written and directed by Noah Baumbach (Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha) and will star Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts, among many others.

7. Interstellar - Starring soon-to-be Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey, along with Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Ellen Burstyn, Matt Damon, Casey Affleck, and Michael Caine, this sci-fi film from Christopher Nolan (you know, the guy who directed Memento, The Prestige, Inception, Insomnia, and the Dark Knight Trilogy), is on pretty much everyone's anticipatory lips these days.  I must admit to not being a huge fan of Inception (I think it lacked a solid third act, and tried too hard to explain what should have been left unexplained) nor the final Dark Knight film (lackluster compared to it's immediate predecessor), but the rest of the auteur's oeuvre intact, I am greatly looking forward to this one.

6. Magic in the Moonlight - Believe it or not, this is not being called the Untitled Woody Allen Project, as has been the case during filming of the director's past films.  Set in 1920's French Riviera, the film stars Emma Stone, Colin Firth, Hamish Linklater, Jacki Weaver, and Marcia Gay Harden.  Granted, the Woodman has been hit or miss the past two decades or so (and he is going through some tough times of late, with ugly allegations being tossed and tweeted his way), but I am hoping this is more in Midnight in Paris, Match Point, Blue Jasmine territory and less in the Scoop or Whatever Works realm.

5. Gone Girl - David Fincher, one of the best directors working today (I mean, c'mon - Panic Room, Fight Club, Se7en, Zodiac, The Social Network, his American remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo!!), is back, and tackling the best seller, Gone Girl, with Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike.  Dark and sinister, and both visually and psychologically harrowing, are things we should expect from this film.  Hell, with a filmography such as his, how could we not.  I know I can't wait.

4. Jane Got A Gun - This long-anticipated (in the works for three years now) Natalie Portman western was originally to be directed by Lynne Ramsey, but after she walked due to problems with the studio (Jude Law walked as well, having only signed on in order to work with Ramsey), Gavin O'Conner (Tumbleweeds) took over the helm, and finally, we may actually get to see the film later this year.  I know, I'm excited to see one of my favourite actresses starring in one of my favorite genres.  Hopefully all the pre-production problems did not hurt the final product.

3. The Terrence Malick Kerfuffle - Supposedly, Terrence Malick is working on three films right now, and no one is really sure which will come first, and when it will eventually come.  The auteur is known for taking long times between films (sometimes decades even), but after two films (The Tree of Life and last year's To the Wonder) in just three years, the old boy's pace is a-quickenin'.  Among the actors involved in these simultaneous films, are Christian Bale, Natalie Portman, Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchet, Benicio del Toro, and Michael Fassbender, several of them starring in two of the three.  Who the hell knows what's going to become of this whole conglomerate, but one of them (most likely Knight of Cups) is bound to come out by year's end.  Right?

2. Nymphomaniac - This film was on my list last year as well (and in the same spot, if I'm not mistaken) but it took a bit longer to get here than we had all anticipated.  Now, in a two-part release schedule set for March and April (a la Soderbergh's Che, not Tarantino's Kill Bill), this ever so-controversial film from that ever so-controversial Lars von Trier, in all its penetration-happy glory, and featuring Charlotte Gainsbourgh, Uma Thurman, Christian Slater, Jamie Bell, Stacy Martin, Connie Nielson, Willem Dafoe, Udo Kier, Stellen Skarsgard, and mister breaking news Shia LaBeouf, is finally seeing the light of the American cinema.  I wonder how many people will be offended by this one?  I am almost anticipating the inevitably ridiculous puritan backlash more than the film(s) itself.

1. Inherent Vice - Paul Thomas Anderson is the best filmmaker working today.  There, I said it!  So, I suppose after such a proclamation, it should come as no surprise that his seventh film makes it to the top of the heap on my list.  The man who made the masterpieces Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood, and The Master, now takes on the 2009 Thomas Pynchon crime novel.  Expected to be somewhere between The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye, and starring Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Josh Brolin, Jena Malone, Martin Short (yeah, Martin Short), Maya Rudolph, Owen Wilson, and Benicio del Toro, this is my most anticipated film of 2014.

Looking even further ahead: There are a few films that will most likely not make the scene until early 2015 sometime.  Though any of these could end up getting a last hour release in time for Oscar consideration, they are more likely candidates for next year's list, but since there is the possibility (albeit it unlikely), and these are films that would definitely make the list if they had sure release dates, I should include them somewhere in here - so here they are.

Carol - Todd Haynes, the man who gave us such brilliant works as Safe, Far From Heaven, I'm Not There, and the HBO mini-series version of Mildred Pierce, as well as the marvelous must-see short film, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (seriously, if you can find this creature, you must watch it!), is back again, once again, like Far From Heaven, set in the not-so-halcyon days of the 1950's, this time with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara heading the cast.  How could we not want to see such a film?  This could make its way into theatres by December (it is the most likely of these three to do so), but probably a Spring 2015 release is more likely, unless they decide to hold the film for an Oscar run next year.

Cyber - This is Michael Man doing what Michael Mann has always done best, the classic American crime film.  This one stars Chris ' The God of Thunder' Hemsworth.  They haven't actually started filming yet (hence the probable 2015 release date) but I'm already all a-twitter over the idea of a new Michael Mann film coming our way after a four+ year absence from the big screen.

Macbeth - Michael Fassbender as Macbeth, and Marion Cotillard as his hand-wringing Lady.  How can this not be one of my most anticipated films?  But alas, poor Macbeth (now I'm just mixing my Shakespeare metaphors), or should I say, poor us, because we will most likely have to wait until next year to finally see this film, unless filming goes quickly (they have not started yet) and we get a rush job for Oscar season.  Though, I am more than willing to wait some extra time just to not have a rush job on this film.

And let us not forget these intriguing but not quite list worthy anticipations (in no particular order): the sci-fi Transcendence w/ Johnny Depp, Aussie drama The Rover, Anton Corbijn's A Most Wanted Man, Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher, Mia Hanson-Love's EdenDawn of the Planet of the Apes, Cronenberg's Map to the Stars, The Wachowski's Jupiter Ascending, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Muppets Most Wanted, The Lego Movie, Ridley Scott's ExodusInto the WoodsLow Down with Elle Fanning, the latest version of Madame Bovary, starring Mia Wasikowska, and about two or three dozen more.

That's it kids.  See ya 'round the web.