Thursday, December 13, 2012

Django Unchained ★★½

Entertaining To A Point, But Not Tarantino's Finest Work

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

I think I'm in the minority when I say that Quentin Tarantino's latest film, Django Unchained, is just okay. This theory also applies to my feelings toward his previous film, Inglourious Basterds, which, despite mixed reviews, I thought was perfect.

The story in this film is about the title character, Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave who is freed by a German bounty hunter named Dr. King Shultz (a terrific Christoph Waltz) in order to help Shultz find the Brittle Brothers, whom Django once belonged to. The two become friends and after several successful bounty kills, Shultz agrees to help Django find and free his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). When they eventually locate her, they find out that she is owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, who does his best work in years), a ruthless slave owner in charge of a southern plantation named Candyland.

Of all the characters in the film, Shultz is the only one who tries to find peaceful ways of resolving problems. Yes, he kills people for money, and yes, he enjoys it, but he only kills people who draw on him first or those who are criminals wanted by the law. When Django wants to kill Candie and all of his men, Shultz persuades him to take action within the limits of the law. When Candie is tormenting one of his doomed slaves, Shultz tries to pay him for that slave's life. He's the glimmer of hope in an otherwise dark and bloody movie, the polar opposite of his character in Basterds.

Furthermore, Tarantino takes his time developing the relationship between Shultz and Django, so much so that DiCaprio doesn't even appear on screen until well into the film. The first hour or so involves Shultz helping Django master his shooting ability while the two men battle the cold of the winter and collect rewards for all of their kills. When Django kills his former owners, you know they're deserving of what happens in the same way that Hitler deserved his brutal death in Basterds. As with that film, Tarantino no longer seems interested in commenting on violence in cinema, rather, he relishes in it. It worked once, but perhaps seeing a similar revenge story again is what left me feeling underwhelmed.

While Tarantino's films all manage to concern revenge in some way, Django feels like it's nothing new, despite its attempts at being a western. Inglourious Basterds had an original feel to it: It was Tarantino's World War II, brutally rewriting history while giving us the same sharp dialogue and love of movies that we've come to expect in his work. Django Unchained feels like he's trying to cash in on that same magic, only this time it's applied to slavery.

It's definitely creating an emotional response from the audience, but not exactly ushering in an appreciation of how far we've come as a nation. He's giving us an excuse to enjoy the killing of so many people and wants us to share in the excitement of that. To do that in his last film, a departure in many ways from what he typically does, felt refreshing. Now, however, he seems to want to hit us over the head with this new found appreciation for glorified violence.

In many ways, each of Tarantino's movies are love letters to what has come before: his first few films were all homages to crime thrillers and gangster pictures from a bygone era; his Kill Bill series paid respect to his fascination of the Samurai film; Death Proof was obviously a Grindhouse appreciation; and Inglourious Basterds illustrated his love of making movies. We get none of that in this film.

It may seem as though I hated Django Unchained; I didn't. There is enough that I love about Tarantino in it to keep me mostly entertained. His next work will surely tell us if this is the direction he's headed with his films. If it is, I don't know if I'll ever be on board. You'd think by now he'd be ready to show us something completely unexpected. Apparently, he's not.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Lincoln ★★★★

Making History, Then and Now

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

Steven Spielberg is the master of revealing iconic characters on film. Think back to Raiders of the Lost Ark, where, during the opening credits of the film, Indiana Jones' face isn't revealed until he prevents a man from shooting him with the crack of his whip. Or how about Quint's scratch across the chalkboard introduction in Jaws? And I'm sure we all remember the fate of the unlucky goat in Jurassic Park, when the Tyrannosaurus Rex rears his ugly head. Spielberg has a gift for creating memorable imagery that resonates with us years after we've seen our favorite film of his. That talent of revealing memorable characters is echoed once again in his latest film, Lincoln.

The opening scene involves two African American soldiers talking to Lincoln (the perfectly casted Daniel Day-Lewis) about the hardships they continue to face as the Civil War rages on. The camera, focused on these two men, pulls back ever so slowly to show us Lincoln, giving him an almost heroic glow and certainly showing us that were looking at one of the most important figures in our nation's history.

More successfully than any other portrayal of this famous president, Day-Lewis brings humanity to a character that could have very easily been played as an over-the-top idealist. What he and Spielberg pull off in this film is nothing short of amazing. We see Lincoln portrayed as not only a president, but a husband, father, politician and, in some scenes, a normal, everyday guy who loves telling stories. We're familiar with Lincoln's success in creating the Thirteenth Amendment, and while much has been written about him, many will be surprised to see what Day-Lewis brings to the role.

For starters, the voice Day-Lewis created is much higher than previous portrayals of the character, which, as history tells us is probably the closest to how Lincoln actually sounded. In addition, we see his estranged relationship with his son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), as the result of his dedication to politics. Furthermore, his wife, Mary (Sally Field, doing some of her best work in years), still distraught over the death of one of their son's, is more of a burden to the president, even though he tries to be as supportive as he can. In other scenes, we see Lincoln at his best, as he does everything within his power (bribery, persuasion, etc.) to get the Thirteenth Amendment passed in The House of Representatives.

The bulk of the film takes place during those proceedings, which has resulted in the unfair criticism by some that the film as being just a bunch of people talking. The script, from playwright Tony Kushner, is dialogue-heavy and sharp-witted, which somehow turns people off from seeing the film. Take it from me: I'm someone who could not be less interested in politics and I loved Lincoln. For those who know me, and who enjoy reading my work, that should mean a lot.

Because of what he does with the camera, Spielberg is the perfect choice to keep Kushner's dialogue entertaining and informative. We feel like we're a part of the political process in ways that, in recent years, many have forgotten about. This is how our country works and how major events within our government are shaped. Spielberg and Kushner invite us in and never talk down to the audience, nor is anything that any character says difficult for the less politically-savvy people like myself to comprehend.

Yet, if you still feel like you just cannot relate to the material, or if it's a film that just doesn't interest you, alas, Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens spends most of the movie yelling at those who believe the color of one's skin somehow makes them less than those with white skin. Jones is terrific as Stevens, bringing out the comedy in ridiculing others and, like Day-Lewis, showing the human side to a man who was seen as a radical for his belief in equality.

If Lincoln isn't a movie you want to see, it's a movie that you should see. It's easily the best film Spielberg has made in years and a reminder of why he's considered one of the greatest directors of our time.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Master ★★★

Who Is In Command Of Who?

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master has quickly become the most theorized film of 2012. It's not interested in story, but rather, mood. Before its release, it was said that this film was Anderson's take on Scientology, and to a degree it is, just not in the way many are expecting.

The overall atmosphere of the film is disturbing: every scene hints at an eruption of violence that sometimes occurs and sometimes doesn't, creating a sense of unease and fascination. We feel this largely due to Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman, both entirely different characters, yet each one possessing a certain sinister quality that hints at instability. 

Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a World War II veteran who brings new meaning to the word addiction, as he both an extreme alcoholic and completely obsessed with sex. His face is twisted, his body is bent, and his actions are menacing. He floats from one job to the next, first as a photographer, then as a cabbage farmer, though his primary skill in both occupations is concocting new ways of making his own alcoholic beverages. When he poisons an old man on the cabbage farm (whether or not it's accidental is up to the viewer to decide), he flees the farm and stows away on a yacht for the evening. As fate would have it, this yacht belongs to Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), the leader of group called "The Cause". 

Lancaster sees something in Freddie and decides to take him on as his protégé. For whatever reason, Freddie doesn't run away from him, and yet again, the reasons are left up to us to decide. There's a connection between these two men, one that is so powerful, Lancaster's wife, Peggy (played with understated intimidation by the brilliant Amy Adams), takes notice and becomes visibly jealous the longer Freddie stays with The Cause. 

One of the many theories out there posit that The Master, more than anything else, is a love story between these two men, and to an extent, it is. Lancaster seems more aware and comfortable with his feelings for Freddie, whereas Freddie is a puzzle. You can't help but wonder if he's aware of those feelings and playing him for a fool, or if he's just too stupid to realize it. Thus, the question of who the master is shifts back and forth between these two characters, even though Lancaster is mostly referred to as Master by his followers. 

Freddie doesn't seem to need a world with rules and regulations. He doesn't fit in with society and could very much qualify as his own distinct breed of human. Yet Phoenix plays him so perfectly that you cannot help but wonder if he truly is the Master of his world, everything he does being a calculated choice in manipulating Lancaster to reveal himself as a fraud. Or maybe, Lancaster is the master manipulator, though much more overtly than Freddie. He has a following, a commanding presence, and most importantly, the power of persuasion. 

Anderson succeeds in making a movie that is open to a variety of interpretations. and his attention to period detail (it takes place in 1950) and visual composition are breathtaking. Shooting mostly in close-up only further illicits that sinister feeling in the audience that conveys something bad will happen. It's claustrophobic, jarring and very effective. Setting it in 1950 makes the film feel otherworldly all together, as this is a 1950 we've never seen before and one that could only come to life through Anderson's lens. Assisting him perfectly, as far as the tone of the film is concerned, is the eerie score provided by Jonny Greenwood. If there's one thing that stays in your head leaving the theater, it's the music heard throughout the film, more twisted than Freddie himself. 

In other words, The Master is different. It's unique in almost every way, yet somehow a lesser achievement when compared to Anderson's previous work. The pacing is off, the length of the film becomes problematic when the last chunk of the film feels unnecessary, and the shift in focus between both men doesn't fully work. Despite these flaws, however, The Master succeeds on its own terms. While it may not be Anderson's masterpiece, it's certainly unlike anything else you're likely to see all year.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Searching For Sugar Man ★★★★

A Detroit Musician Brought Back To Life By Two Loving Fans

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

It's safe to say that movies showcasing the talent that the city of Detroit has to offer are few and far between. It's a city I'm associated with as a result of my Michigan location and is often the butt of every joke. Every now and then, however, Detroit is recognized as a place where many true originals came from, a point exemplified in the terrific documentary, Searching For Sugar Man.

A Detroit musician named Sixto Rodriguez recorded two albums (Cold Fact in 1970 and Coming From Reality in 1971) that did absolutely no business in the U.S. His voice was reminiscent of Bob Dylan, his music had a very Led Zeppelin feel to it, and his lyrics were truly original. What's astounding is that while these albums failed here, Rodriguez was more famous than Elvis in South Africa due his anti-establishment lyrics during the Apartheid - and he never knew about it.

After the failure of his two albums in the U.S., no one knew what became of him, which eventually resulted in two of his biggest fans from Cape Town, Stephen Segerman and Craig Bartholomew Strydom, trying to find out the rest of Rodriguez's story. Searching For Sugar Man unfolds almost like a detective story, drawing you in with every new detail as the film progresses, and is absolutely brilliant as a result. The efforts of these two men, combined with other music journalists and old record producers, is truly fascinating to watch; a lesson in the merits of great research combined with outstanding storytelling technique.

This documentary, like Rodriguez himself, is a hidden gem among the many great films 2012 has offered so far. It's an amazing look inside the world of the 1970's music industry, as we see the producers who championed Rodriguez as an original artist, and some who didn't really care what became of him because of the popularity of other bands at that time. It is also a commentary about the realities of living in Detroit by showing the detail of urban decay throughout areas of the city and, in particular, the stories family members tell about Rodriguez's life in Motown.

More than anything this is a documentary about hope, redemption and rebirth as it pertains to one man's omission from music history and the recognition he eventually received as the result of two fans who were inspired by the lyrics he wrote. At the time, Rodriguez was a symbol of hope for the African nation divided by prejudice and censorship. Rodriguez himself was cast aside for similar reasons in a way, somehow viewed as less than other talents of the time, even though, as you'll no doubt learn seeing this film, he's more original than all of them.

Rodriguez's story is very much the story of Detroit itself. A city forgotten and looked down upon by others, yet capable of producing original talent. I'm glad Rodriguez finally got the fame he always deserved but never expected, nor wanted. One day, Detroit may be as lucky as Rodriguez.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Rise Of The Guardians ★

Seeing Isn't Believing

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

A large amount of the joy I receive from the best of animated features comes from the fact that they all manage to bring something human to a story that, to the naked eye, seems like it's from a different world all together. Most recently, Wreck-It Ralph was set in the world of video games, yet anyone who saw the film probably recognized a version of themselves or someone they knew in at least one character. It's the heart of films like that and many others that make us love the possibilities animation offers. The worst in animation however, trades heart for technology, a fault that the new film Rise Of The Guardians has in spades.

The problem with Guardians is that it's all visual spectacle and very little story. Director Peter Ramsey seems like he's only interested in the freedom animation offers, delivering sweeping shots over rooftops during the film's many, many action sequences, and never allowing the camera to stay stationary for a moment's breath. What little story there is involves Jack Frost (Chris Pine) being chosen to help the other Guardians - North (Alec Baldwin), Bunnymund (Hugh Jackman), Tooth (Isla Fisher) and Sandy, or, as they're all more commonly known, Santa, The Easter Bunny, The Tooth Fairy and Sandman - defend themselves against Pitch, otherwise known as The Boogeyman who's voiced by Jude Law. Pitch has found a way to bring terror and nightmares back into the minds of children, growing more powerful with every success. His goal is to rob children of their belief in all of these characters thereby taking away the Guardians' power and being free to corrupt the world.

It's an easy enough plot to get behind and not much more than that. Sure, they throw in Jack's identity crisis (he can't remember who he was before he became Jack Frost) and forcibly try to make his story the one we're interested in, but he's the weakest character of the bunch. And by weak, I mean both in character development and animation. One could argue that it was the animators' point to make Jack so inhuman, as he's not even believed in by any of the children, but the animation is so lifeless that it just looks lazy. Whereas the other characters in the story, particularly North, have such grandiose features it's a shame they were not part of a better movie.

What Rise Of The Guardians ends up feeling like is the collision of too many ideas that do not fit together at all. I get that each of the Guardians come from different worlds and therefore need their own distinct look, but it seems as though attention and favoritism was paid to the characters the filmmaker's felt they could have the most fun with, in this case, North. His design and features look gorgeous, and the detail of the North Pole is different than most are used to seeing - one amusing difference is that Yetis make the toys, not the elves because well, they're not right in the head. Pitch meanwhile looks like something out of the art-deco era (which I actually didn't mind, except for the fact that it doesn't work within the film) and Bunnymund just looks like a standard Rabbit.

I don't think Ramsey was the best choice of a director for a movie like this (it's also his first feature) mainly due to the fact that Guardians seems directionless. There are simply too many separate ideas about the animation going on for the story to function well. The designs for all of the characters are so separate that they don't work in the same movie. I feel especially bad for Jack Frost, given that the premise is supposed to be all about him, yet Ramsey and Co. seem awfully uninterested in him. It's no wonder the children don't believe in him; the filmmakers don't either.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Remodeling The Moviegoing Experience

Waiting For A Movie? Enjoy Some Coffee!

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando and David Hall

The smell of fresh popcorn, the look of a beautiful print displayed on the screen, the sound of whispers as everyone quiets down, the feel of the seats as you recline, and the taste of sweet fountain pop are all part of the movie going experience. The quality of these components has an effect on our overall enjoyment of a particular film.

The theaters that offer the most unique spin on this experience are usually the independent ones; the ones that, for whatever reason, have managed to stay alive in an era of mainstream movie houses where foreign and independent cinema are virtually unheard of. The Maple Theater, located in Bloomfield Hills, is not only a great venue for seeing quality films, but one that is changing the definition of a night at the movies.

The Maple reopened a few weeks ago after months of renovations and Jon Goldstein, the theater owner, is bringing his own unique perspective to quality. “I hired designers that were more familiar with restaurant spaces. This was the best choice I could have made as they brought an entirely unique point of view to the renovations,” Goldstein said.

Great Lakes Coffee
True to his word, when you walk into The Maple, what you see is something very modern - Great Lakes Coffee equipped with many tables and a few leather chairs for patrons to relax in before seeing a film. There’s even a bar section near the middle of the theater where people can feel free to unwind.

“We are aiming to celebrate the movie theater as a medium all its own,” Communications Director Jeremy Mills said. ”We hope movie lovers will realize how much we care about their experience and that we will continue to tweak and perfect the viewer experience as tastes and technology progress.”

This kind of attention to detail is something that too many theaters lack, making The Maple’s reopening that much more appreciated. Owning an independent theater in today’s economy isn’t easy, especially with a Midwest location, which restricts the number of movies a theater like The Maple may obtain.

Wall of Cameras Located in The Theater Lobby
“We are at a bit of a disadvantage, but New York and L.A. are really the testing grounds for art product,” Goldstein said, adding that his issue “is not that they get them first, but that much of the reviews and info about these movies happen when the movies starts. By the time we get the films there is no marketing support that let's people know they are playing.”

To combat the lack of availability of certain movies, The Maple successfully made the transition to digital projectors – a switch that many independent theaters cannot afford, forcing them out of business. However, The Maple is still at a particular disadvantage because of their previous owner, Landmark, the Los Angeles-based movie chain that currently owns one of the biggest competitors of The Maple, The Main Art Theater in Royal Oak.

“They refuse to allow us to play any movie they book. We have an open policy and are happy to compete with anyone and everyone. Landmark uses their buying power as the largest exhibitor of independent and foreign film to block other theaters from showing titles. I think it is a short sighted and crappy business practice as we enter the digital age,” Goldstein said.

An Updated Marque 
Regardless of Landmark’s restrictions and the Mid-western location, Goldstein remains as optimistic as ever. The care he and all of the employees have for not only the movies themselves but the experience the theater offers them sets The Maple apart from virtually every other theater in the area. This is a theater that’s run by a lover of movies.

The decision could have been made to simply let The Maple continue to deteriorate, but instead Goldstein chose to resurrect it because he knows the value of independent cinema. His aim is to show films that are “good” but also balancing it out with a little bit of everything, which includes mainstream films as well.

When we see a great movie, we’re giddy with excitement. When we remember a particular theater because of the experience it alone offers, it’s something truly magical. Thankfully, The Maple Theater has brought back the wonder and excitement of going to the movies.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Skyfall ★★★★

The Classic Bond We've Come To Know And Love; A Perfect Film In Every Way

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

If Casino Royale blew your mind as a result of its greatness and Quantum of Solace left you questioning whether or not the James Bond series was headed in a downward spiral, alas, Skyfall trumps both films.

I loved Casino Royale. It reinvented a classic character we have come to know and love over the years and it did it well. Daniel Craig as James Bond is, for me, the best choice for a role like this. I know all of the Sean Connery lovers are preparing their angry comments as they read this, but Craig brings everything you would want to the role and then some: He is well-educated, a brutal killing machine, suave with women, in peak physical condition, has a great sense of humor, and most importantly, he's a human being, as opposed to just another iconic movie character. Casino Royale also set tragic events in motion that would ultimately be resolved in the lesser received Quantum of Solace, making Quantum the first true sequel in the entire Bond franchise. Even though that second film has it's faults, it also successfully established Bond as a man vulnerable to pain, as opposed to someone without feeling or remorse. While that aspect of it worked, the rest of the film was just okay, when it should have been great. Skyfall on the other hand is magnificent, largely because it reintroduces the character with a completely new story and thus frees it from the baggage of the previous installments.

Sam Mendes takes over the directing duties this time around, resulting in the first Bond film that feels like it was made by a true fan of Bond movies. There are references to all the things we've come to know and love about a classic Bond film and none of them are distracting. They work beautifully within the context of Skyfall, and it feels like this rebooted series has finally hit its stride. On top of that, Mendes and writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan, choose a personal story involving both Bond and M's past, giving this film the heart that other Bond films lack. (Judi Dench, who plays M, does her best work in the series here.)

Bond's story relates to his broken state after being badly wounded in the film's opening. He's disheveled, bearded, addicted to pain killers and heavy liquor, but is reinstated by M after a three-month absence out of sheer desperation. That desperation is a result of a stolen hard drive containing the names of nearly every NATO field agent embedded in criminal organizations around the world. The man in possession of that hard drive is Raoul Silva, (Javier Bardem who reminds us what a great villain can do for a franchise), a former MI6 agent with a vendetta for M and a menacing demeanor about him.

Rounding out the cast are Ralph Fiennes as Garreth Mallory, M's boss; Naomie Harris as Eve, a fellow MI6 agent; Bérénice Marlohe as Sévérine, Raoul's employee; and Ben Whishaw as Q, a brilliant piece of casting if you ask me. Each actor is great in their respective roles and every one of them a necessary part of the puzzle that Skyfall ends up being. It takes the characters and story in some unexpected directions, all of which lead to a resolution that is, quite honestly, perfect.

Enhancing everything great about Skyfall is the cinematography by Roger Deakins and the score by Thomas Newman. Deakins is most famous for shooting many of the Coen Brothers films, including No Country For Old Men (easily one of the greatest photographed films of all time) and most recently True Grit, but also for shooting other films like The Shawshank Redemption and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Each of those films were enhanced by Deakins' work and Skyfall is no exception. It's the most gorgeous looking Bond film of the entire series; beautiful, crisp, vivid, and astounding in its imagery. Newman's music enhances that imagery, giving us the most nostalgic score of any of the new films, a point seconded by film critic Michael Phillips in his video review of the film.

Everything works in Skyfall, making it not just a a great Bond picture but an overall terrific film that will be remembered for many years to come. Craig does some of his best work as an actor and Dench solidifies herself as the best M the series will ever have. It's thrilling, it's touching, and it's everything that audiences go to the movies for. Consider me wowed.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Wreck-It Ralph ★★★★

A Lovable Animated Character of the 8-bit Kind

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

Growing up, my console of choice was Sega Genesis and the game I spent countless hours trying to conquer was Sonic the Hedgehog. Sonic and I were a great team until, of course, I accidentally made him jump onto a row of spikes or bash into a badnik, at which point we would start the level over. Eventually we would reach the third act of a level and be forced to defeat the maniacal Dr. Robotnik, thereby saving the helpless animals he had trapped in machines. I watched Robotnik explode thousands of times, never thinking that Robotnik may have grown tired of always being the bad guy and never getting the spotlight Sonic did. I should have been more considerate.

The writers of Wreck-It Ralph obviously had these concerns in mind while growing up, as this charming film is all about the existential crisis of Ralph (John C. Reilly), the title character and villain to a video game called Fix-It Felix, Jr., wherein Ralph breaks down buildings that Felix (Jack McBrayer) must repair in order to win the game. It's now the thirtieth anniversary of the game's release, and Ralph has had enough of the lonely life his role offers him. He wants to be the hero everyone roots for as opposed to the lug that other characters are afraid of. He's even in a villain support group (which includes Dr. Robotnik) because of his dilemma.

When Ralph decides he's had enough, he determines that the best way to be seen as a hero is to win a medal from one of the other arcade games. The game of his choice, as fate would have it, is a first-person shooter game called Hero's Duty, which involves destroying thousands of alien bugs. Things don't go as planned, and, by way of escape pod, Ralph lands in an entirely different game known as Sugar Rush, a racing game whose landscape is made up of so much candy and chocolate that I may have a cavity just from having seen this movie. From this point on, Ralph is on a quest for his medal, which is now lost in the abyss of Sugar Rush, while also trying to prove his heroism by helping out a glitch in Sugar Rush named Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a 12-year-old who, like Ralph, is frowned upon for being different. Those differences are precisely what make these characters and the film itself so special.

At times, the idea of embracing one's uniqueness borders on being "too Disney" for older audiences like myself. But happily, Wreck-It Ralph has such a refreshing style and look about it that I found myself forgiving its hammer-over-the-head message and loving it for all that it is. That is, a film that has as much charm, joy and laughter as everything great that Pixar has ever created (Up, Toy Story 3, Finding Nemo, to name a few) and then some.

Part of that comes from the approach the filmmakers chose, which was making the world of a video games and the characters that inhabit them something to be taken seriously, but not too seriously. The screenplay by Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee is so obviously personal that there's no way audiences can't relate to the material in some way. The director, Rich Moore, whose credits include episodes of The Simpsons and Futurama, understands comedy and uses that knowledge to the film's advantage. Any other director may have gone too far in one direction, but thankfully, Moore is the perfect choice to bring these characters to life.

Inhabiting those characters, in addition to Reilly, Silverman and McBrayer are Jane Lynch as Sergeant Tamora Jean Calhoun, the leader of the characters in Hero's Duty and the object of Felix's desires, and Alan Tudyk, hilarious and incredibly creepy as King Candy, the leader and true villain of the movie. Each of these actors are cast perfectly, bringing something truly human to each of their characters, enlivening the comedy in every scene they are in.

In addition to the characters themselves, the animation is top-notch. Both the 8-bit and modern animation work perfectly together making the film feel nostalgic but also of its time. The colors are extremely vivid, especially in Sugar Rush, while the darker tones of Hero's Duty make it feel like you're actually in an Alien movie. Fix-It Felix, Jr., meanwhile, reminds me of another one of my favorite games, Rampage, in which monsters destroy dozens of city buildings.

Wreck-It Ralph is one of the surprising delights of the year and one audiences of all ages can enjoy. It also includes an animated short feature called Paperman, a brilliant, dialogue-free movie about a man who uses paper planes to get the attention of a woman he saw for only a moment on the morning train. It's a beautiful story, and one that works perfectly with Wreck-It Ralph's themes.

I think it's time that I play one of the Sonic games again, albeit with more consideration for Dr. Robotnik's feelings of being blown up by a hedgehog.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Flight ★★★★

A Journey Into The Complicated Life of an Alcoholic

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

Robert Zemeckis is a director who has basically been forgotten for the last decade. After directing two very different but equally entertaining films in 2000 (What Lies Beneath and Cast Away), he moved away from live-action entirely and as a result fell out of favor with audiences and critics alike. Happily, Zemeckis has returned to live-action for at least one movie with Flight, a terrific film starring Denzel Washington as an airline pilot struggling with alcoholism.

In the film's opening scene, we're immediately reminded of what Zemeckis can bring to a project. He shoots most of the movie either in close-up or medium shots, creating a very claustrophobic atmosphere, especially in the scenes where Washington's character, Whip Whitaker, chooses drinking over sobriety. Zemeckis uses this same tactic for the plane crash sequence, using tight shots and the point-of-view perspective to truly make us feel as though we're with the passengers on that flight. It's both discomforting and powerful, achieving that gut reaction many of us felt when watching the plane crash in Cast Away.

What's brilliant on Zemeckis' part is that we feel the same sensation (that weightless, stomach-in-your-chest feeling that anyone who has experienced turbulence on an airplane knows about) every time Whip is near a bottle of alcohol. It's not knowing what he'll do next that cripples us, making it hard to watch when Whip can't control himself. Yet Whip, despite being deeply flawed and very unlikeable at times, is a character you root for, largely due to Washington's performance and his direction under Zemeckis. We feel the suspense because we feel for Whip, a trick that not just any actor or director could pull off.

The most rewarding aspect that many of Zemeckis' projects offer is his close attention to character. We all remember Marty McFly and Doc Brown, and can easily recite the musings of Forrest Gump, courtesy of Zemeckis' knack for developing rich characters. Here, Whip is just as memorable because of his struggles, rather than the quirkiness that defined the aforementioned characters. In other words, Zemeckis and Washington both know how to bring a character to life, instead of just another guy in a movie. We shouldn't like Whip, but we do.

He's a guy who saves the lives of close to one hundred passengers on a doomed flight out of Orlando, yet he uses his new-found heroism as just another excuse to drink. He's enabled by his drug-dealing best friend, Harling Mays (John Goodman, who oddly felt a little out of place in the film), and his bad habits are ignored by both his co-pilot (Brian Geraghty) and flight attendant, Margaret (Tamara Tunie). He's estranged from his wife and son, and his friend-with-benefits, Katerina (Nadine Velazquez), an alcoholic and drug abuser, dies during the plane crash saving a young boy's life. To put it simply, Whip has nothing and is going nowhere really fast.

We find hope for Whip, unexpectedly so, in a young woman named Nicole (Kelly Reilly), who has a heroin addiction and almost dies from an overdose. Her story runs parallel to Whip's, her overdose occurring roughly the same time the plane crashes. The two of them meet in the hospital and instantly bond, though for different reasons. Whip sees a similarly damaged soul and uses her as yet another excuse to drink. Meanwhile, Nicole recognizes her problem and actively tries to build a better life for herself. Upon witnessing Whip's abuse of alcohol, she tries to help him, becoming the mirror held up to Whip's face; the image of the person he could be if he admitted to his addiction.

It's fascinating that Zemeckis and Washington don't shy away from the darkness of the story; they relish in it. There are many uncomfortable moments, scenes of heartbreak and betrayal, and somehow by the time the credits roll, there's a sense of hope and relief. This has been a major criticism of the film, it's "happy ending" somehow feels unearned to many critics. I find the ending to be peaceful rather than happy, dark enough to match with the tone the film establishes in its opening.

Flight is the perfect marriage of an actor and director working together to create a great movie and a powerful character. I, for one, am glad to see that Zemeckis has not lost his touch.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Cloud Atlas ★★

It's All Relative 

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

Some of the best science fiction is not without its flaws. Star Trek had its fair share of bad episodes ("Spock's Brain", anyone?) and bad movies (Star Trek V: The Final Frontier), as did The X-Files, Battlestar Galactica, and yes, Lost. Despite these missed opportunities, we remember these shows fondly (some more than others) and embrace the ideas and unique style that each of these shows added to the genre. The same cannot be said for Cloud Atlas, the epic science fiction odyssey rife with ideas and riddled with missed opportunities.

To understand the film, it's best to understand how it views time. It is not linear, as we all believe, but rather, vertical, or as I like to see it, circular. In other words, events that happened in our past and future are occurring parallel to what is happening now. The directors of the film, Lana & Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, weave six stories together all at once to show us that all of these separate events are happening simultaneously, with each of the characters' choices impacting their past and future. The key players in each of these stories are the ones who have a birthmark resembling a comet, as they are the ones whose actions will dictate whether the next one hundred years will be peaceful or erupt in chaos.

The actors playing different characters in each story include Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Susan Sarandon and Hugh Grant, all of whom do great work despite the execution on the part of the directors. The makeup and some of the accents (especially in futuristic story that features Hanks and Berry prominently) are too distracting, so much so that you begin to wonder if The Wachowskis and Tykwer didn't have enough faith in the abilities of the actors. I get it, reincarnation means sometimes the same soul inhabits a body looking entirely different than the prior body, but honestly, a cast like this deserves better.

For a film as grand as Cloud Atlas, the directors seem hard-pressed to find content that adequately fills the time. For much its three-hours the directors stretch each story (which could have been about ten to twenty minutes a piece) at the expense of the film. The cutting from one story to the next becomes jarring, taking the viewer out of the experience. It doesn't work, nor does the film need to be as long as it is. 

If you want a great movie that deals with life, death, time, space, and reincarnation, see 2001: A Space Odyssey. If you want a more Earthbound version of those ideas, see The Tree of Life. If you want a film that has many actors you love doing their best to elevate material unworthy of their talents, Cloud Atlas fits that description. But if you desire truly great science fiction, crack open a beer and watch some old Star Trek episodes. Even the bad ones are better than Cloud Atlas

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Paranormal Activity 4 ★½

A Weak Entry To An Otherwise Successful Franchise

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

I'm a genuine fan of the Paranormal Activity series. There, I said it. The first film changed the approach to making horror movies with its simplicity and inventiveness, ushering in many lesser rip-offs and some worthy sequels. Of the now four films that total the series, I find myself favoring the odd-numbered ones over the evens. Paranormal Activity introduced us to Katie (Katie Featherston), her back-story, and the unseen monster known only as Toby. Paranormal Activity 3 remains the most brutal of the chapters, a prequel to the first two films that explains how everything started - a reveal that includes a cult of witches and demons, evil grandmas, and two very dead parents.

Paranormal Activity 4 brings us to the present, taking place five years after the events of the first two films and, as a result, is a direct sequel to Paranormal Activity 2. When we last saw Katie, she had murdered her boyfriend, her sister, and her brother-in-law, all in an effort to capture her sister's son, Hunter. As the firstborn son of Katie's lineage, he's important to the cult and to Toby, for reasons that Paranormal Activity 4, sadly, does not reveal. What it does is tell us what happened to Katie and Hunter after the events of the first two films, and it does so in a way many will not be suspecting. It also gives us the scares we're now accustomed to seeing while still using interesting techniques to achieve those moments - the second film introduced multiple cameras around the house, the third used the pivoting camera in the kitchen to great effect - this time using webcams and a Kinect that reveal figures in the background or one's that are otherwise invisible.

Where the film succeeds in technical creativity, it fails in story. There's nothing that makes us excited for what comes next, a strength that part three had going for it. It feels more like a sequel made only for commercial reasons, giving us the basic plot points we've come to expect, uninterested in adding the unexpected. Instead of adults, or little girls, we get Alex (Kathryn Newton), the (roughly) fourteen-year-old protagonist suspicious of the new guest in her parents home, Robbie (Brady Allen). As creepy kids go, he's up there with Samara and Damien, and to his credit I was especially frightened by his delivery of a certain foreboding line during the middle of the film, but he and Alex are two minor highlights of a bad movie.

The series seems as though it's headed down the path of asking more questions than it feels like answering, which is a shame for a group of films that could have a potential if the right story is generated. The first film could have stood by itself as a great horror film; it didn't need sequels. Paranormal Activity 3 brought some life into the storyline after the average Paranormal Activity 2, making the possibilities endless in the next chapter. Paranormal Activity 4 is a major disappointment and doesn't give me much hope for the inevitable sequel. I guess we'll find out next year.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sinister ★★½

Cheap Thrills And Prolonged Mysteries Do Not Equal Genuine Scares

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

For a film that's been labeled "one of the scariest movies of the year," Sinister is surprisingly bland, offering a few jolting moments and some twisted home movies, making it a major disappointment especially during the month of Halloween.

Ethan Hawke plays Ellison Oswalt, a true-crime writer with a reputation for aggravating local police officers in his efforts to solve cases. He's moved his wife, Tracy, (Juliet Rylance) and two children, Trevor and Ashley (Michael Hall D'Addario and Clare Foley), into a house where every member of a family except a little girl named Stephanie was killed. (Sinister's opening Super 8 movie reveals that the family was hung from a tree, with an unseen figure causing their demise.) And because lying to one's wife is always a good idea, Ellison hides this minor detail from Tracy. As Ellison assembles the pieces of this tragedy - photos, crime reports and the like - he becomes increasingly obsessed with trying to find Stephanie. He hears noises coming from the attic, which eventually reveals a box full of Super 8 movies, each of them portraying another slaughter of another unlucky family. A child is missing from each family, leading to a pattern among all of the murders, adding to Ellison's disturbing desire to solve all of these cases at the expense of alienating his family.

The best parts of Sinister are these Super 8 snuff movies, inventive in their style, hauntingly disturbing, and well made. What takes away from the film is that it tries to be frightening when it's actually more interesting as a mystery. There are parts of the movie that drag, courtesy of screenwriters C. Robert Cargill and Scott Derrickson relishing in keeping the mystery going as long as they can, and the film suffers for it. Maybe it's because of the marketing and the opinions I heard from friends and family members saying that Sinister was terrifying, I'll grant you that. But in looking at the movie for what it is, it's just too slow and not at all scary.

The intriguing aspect to it, however, is its portrait of a writer struggling to remain relevant. Sinister gives us as surprisingly detailed look into Ellison's life of solving mysteries. Its success is in showing us that Ellison is quite good at his job, and if anyone can solve what has happened to these children, it's him. There are plenty of movies out there about writers and their process, but I think Sinister offers something new in it's portrayal of a writer's obsession, and how difficult it is to let go of that obsession even after a crime is solved. Hawke does an admirable job conveying that struggle, making him a rarity of typical horror films - a lead character we actually root for.

The other minor detail that Sinister has going for it is the two scenes that feature Vincent D'Onofrio as Professor Jonas, the expert in the occult who helps Ellison with his plight. If ever a film needs exposition, especially dealing with pagan deities, D'Onofrio is the man for the job. He shows up late in the story, but gives the film the juice it needs to finally wrap up. Too bad he's not enough to save the film from its own wearisome mystery.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Argo ★★★★

Proof That Ben Affleck Has Become A Great Filmmaker

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

I have to admit that I was one of the many Americans who doubted Ben Affleck's talents as a director. Having appeared in dozens of terrible movies and not bringing anything to some of the roles offered to him, I swore off all things Affleck related. That all changed when Affleck himself stated that he would only appear in films he felt his newborn daughter would be proud of, a promise that came to fruition in 2006 with his role in Hollywoodland. Since that time his career has shifted drastically, to the point that he's now directed three films, each one better than the last, all of them worthy of praise. The third of these films is Argo, a major achievement for Affleck as a filmmaker and one of the most thrilling films of the year.

Argo is the true story of C.I.A. agent Tony Mendez's (Affleck) rescue of six United States diplomats in Tehran during the Iran Hostage Crisis; a story that, up until President Clinton declassified it, was unknown to everyone. It's also a story that lends itself well to film, as the cover Mendez used to get these six people out was that each of them were part of the production crew for a fake science fiction film called Argo, thus allowing them to escape the country without question. There are some obvious deviations from the original story for cinematic purposes, particularly when Affleck adds layers of suspense to the film's third act, but it all works well and serves the heroic nature of Mendez's rescue.

What Affleck manages to accomplish skillfully is a tone throughout the film that is both dramatic and comical. Most of the drama unfolds from the true events of the story, which Affleck handles nicely, and the comedy comes out of everything related to the fake movie Mendez uses as a cover. Most of those scenes occur early in the film while Mendez is in Los Angeles. There, he meets up with John Chambers (John Goodman, a genuine delight in this film), a Hollywood makeup artist who has worked with the C.I.A. before and has the necessary connections to pull off the charade. One of those connections is Lester Siegel (a brilliant Alan Arkin, delivering the film's most quoted line), a producer who provides the needed media attention to sell the idea that Argo really is being made. Goodman and Arkin are so perfect in their roles that if there were a spinoff of just these two characters about the ins and outs of their lives in Hollywood, I wouldn't be opposed to it. They serve the story well and provide hilarious commentary on what it means to be "someone" in Los Angeles, which I'm sure every producer in America will appreciate.

The rest of the cast is a who's who of television: "Hey that's Bryan Cranston from Breaking Bad!"; "Oh my, it's Kyle Chandler from Friday Night Lights!"; "Better watch out, that guy is The Man in Black from Lost, Titus Welliver!"; "Whoa! Sydney Bristow's dad, Victor Garber is here?"; "They even have Željko Ivanek, who has been a bad guy in virtually every TV show I've ever seen!" The funniest bit of casting, however, goes to Richard Kind playing a bitter writer that faces off with Arkin for the rights to his script, giving us a true portrait of writers everywhere in America.

At times, the casting is a little bit distracting, but not so much that it hinders anything that's great about Argo. In fact, the only true detriment as far as casting is concerned is Mr. Affleck himself, who is so deadpan throughout the film that you have to wonder if he's really trying. I get that he's trying to be an emotionless C.I.A. agent who is estranged from his wife and son, but I don't think that Affleck has the necessary acting skills to make us feel sorry for him. It has been suggested that George Clooney, a producer on the film, would have made a better Mendez, and I agree. There's no humanity to Affleck's portrayal and you need a little of that to be invested in his story.

Despite the weaknesses of Affleck the actor, Affleck the director shines. This is a film worthy of all its praise because of Affleck's ability to tell a story in an entertaining, swiftly paced manner. He somehow manages to make everyone who watches it wonder if the six diplomats will make it out even though we already know the true story. It takes a very good director to pull that off, and happily Affleck is reinventing himself as one of Hollywood's top directors of entertaining thrillers. For those still skeptical about seeing anything Affleck is involved in, Argo gives you many reasons to be excited for what he does next.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Seven Psychopaths ★★½

A Comedy About Movie Violence... Sort of

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

Here's a free lesson from Screenwriting 101: Whenever there's a writer as one of the characters in a movie, you can be sure that the director is giving us their own opinions about a certain subject within the context of the film. Your enjoyment of Seven Psychopaths, the latest film from writer/director Martin McDonagh, will depend entirely on whether or not you think McDonagh's commentary about movie violence works.

The writer in Seven Psychopaths is named Marty (Colin Farrell, who's actually quite funny the film) - who in absolutely no way is a reference do Mr. McDonagh - a nice guy struggling with a screenplay called Seven Psychopaths. It's a great title, but a movie about psychopaths doesn't really appeal to Marty, much to the dismay of his best friend, Billy (the always reliable Sam Rockwell), an actor and part-time dog thief. Billy is excited at the idea of a movie about psychopaths and is looking for any way he can help Marty out of his funk. As fate would have it, he steals the dog of a violent gangster named Charlie (Woody Harrelson), forcing himself, Hans (his partner in crime played by Christopher Walken, need I say more?) and Marty to get out of town fast.

Seven Psychopaths isn't a bad movie, it just loses itself within its own plot. There are moments in the movie that are quite funny, which works to the film's advantage in trying to point out the ridiculous nature of screen violence. There are also very dark moments involving Walken's story that clash with the comic tone the film seems intent on maintaining. They feel false, especially because the film is established as a comedy from the very beginning.

I was disappointed by Seven Psychopaths' ever shifting tone and expected more out of a film as meta as this one. There are scenes that recall what a gifted comedy director McDonagh but they're short lived as a result of his need to show us that movie violence is a problem in modern cinema. I get what he's trying to do, but I don't think he's the right filmmaker to execute these ideas properly.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Silver Linings Playbook ★★★★

A Playbook of Great Filmmaking

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

Unconventional comedies seem to be on the rise as the end of 2012 approaches. We've had The Sessions, a sex comedy about polio, and now Silver Linings Playbook, a comedy (of sorts) about mental illness.

Bradley Cooper stars as Pat Solitano, a bipolar, former substitute teacher, who has just been released from a mental institution after eight months. The reason for his time has to do with an affair his wife had and the beating he gave her lover as a result. During his stay he learned that there are silver linings to everything and that if he remains positive, good things will happen - at least that's what he keeps telling himself.

He comes home to live with his parents, played nicely by Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver. His father is a sports nut who recently lost his pension and bets what little money he has on The Philadelphia Eagles. He superstitiously believes Pat to be a good luck charm, imploring Pat to watch the games with him. Pat, however, is preoccupied with ways that he can try to win his wife back, even though she has a restraining order on him. Later, at a dinner party, he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a widow who  offers to help him in his quest if he agrees to be her dance partner in an upcoming competition.

Lawrence delivers yet another Oscar-worthy performance, nearly stealing the movie from everyone else involved. She plays Tiffany with absolute conviction, bringing out the ferocity and sincerity of her character. She's sexy, smart and damaged, searching - perhaps in all the wrong places - for a connection in the wake of her husband's death. Her scenes with Cooper, which take up a majority of the film, are what truly make this movie great, allowing both actors to showcase their skills just by having a conversation.

It's also nice to see Bradley Cooper doing something we haven't seen before, finally getting a role he deserves. Pat is not an easy part to play, to say the least, as he has to be manic, confused, scared, compassionate, inappropriate and likable all at the same time. He is, after all, bipolar. Cooper doesn't shy away from bringing out the crazy. In one scene that's effectively difficult to watch, Pat goes berserk in the middle of the night searching for his wedding video, accidentally hitting his mom in the process. Your heart breaks for him, yet you can't help but be frightened of him at the same time. He's doing the best that he can in service of his newfound philosophy.

His attitude, and resulting actions, are what make Silver Linings special. Everyone within the story wants to be better, even if it's at times motivated by selfishness: Pat wants his wife back and does kind things to show her that he's changed; Tiffany wants Pat to fall in love with her, begrudgingly helping him so that he'll be her dance partner; and Pat's father wants Pat to watch the Eagles games with him, under the guise of superstition, but really just to spend time with his son. They're trying to do the right thing and good things start happening as a result.

This is a film that doesn't shy away from its own optimism; it relishes in it. When it begins, you have no hope for Pat or the other characters. They all seem beyond help, yet as the movie progresses you see what each character brings out in the other and gradually become more invested in their triumph over their struggles. It's the sincere kind of film that, were he alive today, Frank Capra (director of It's A Wonderful Life) would surely have directed, and one that would have been considered one of his many "Capra-corns".

Instead, the directing duties fall to David O. Russell, who brings a certain style to the story (which he adapted from the novel by Matthew Quick) better than Capra could have in many ways. He shoots mostly in closeup, conveying the discomfort and claustrophobia of Pat's character feeling like he's being smothered. These closeups also bring out the insanity we all feel when we've been around our family for too long, which is perfect for this story. Russell seems to be telling us that no matter how normal any of us think we are, we're all a little bit crazy.

Russell has made a terrific film and, like the best of Capra's work, has delivered a message we shouldn't roll our eyes at and instead wholeheartedly embrace. A tour de force of both acting and directing, Silver Linings Playbook illustrates the power and inspiration that great filmmaking can achieve.

The Sessions ★★★

Polio Is No Obstacle In A Man's Quest To Have Sex

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

A comedy about a polio survivor trying to lose his virginity is not a sentence I thought I would ever use to describe a film, but The Sessions is exactly that.

John Hawkes stars as Mark O'Brien, a man who lives his life inside an iron lung, save for the few hours a day he is able to breathe on his own. As a child, he contracted polio and has been paralyzed from the neck down ever since. He's also a devout Catholic, routinely confessing to his priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), who gives him advice and also serves as perhaps Mark's closest friend. When Mark decides he wants to lose his virginity at thirty eight years of age, he's put in touch with a sex surrogate named Cheryl (Helen Hunt) who tells him that they will have a total of six sessions, each one furthering his sexual experience.

The film is based on an article written by the real-life O'Brien about these sessions, and it turns out to be quite funny. Like some of the best comedies about teenagers trying to lose their virginity, The Sessions takes that idea and applies it to an area that most films tend to shy away from: the sexual desires of an older man who has never experienced a woman's touch as a result of his handicap. It's an idea that when first heard, you tend to tilt your head and think about it for a second, before realizing that it's brilliant and quite refreshing given the current state of comedies about sex.

Hawkes is fearless as Mark and he gives a beautiful performance as this man who underneath it all just wants to meet the right woman. He's charming, caring and, like a teenager getting to experience sex for the first time, is quite misguided. In the first act of the film it seems as though Mark will fall for any beautiful woman that gives him attention, but it's not because he's shallow, rather, he thinks it's love. There's considerable precision for an actor to have in a role like this and Hawkes nails it. You feel for Mark and can't help but remember your own experiences (we've all had them) where you thought attention meant something more than it was. It's all due to how Hawkes makes Mark relatable to the audience, however foreign his circumstances seem.

In addition, he's incredibly funny in the role. There's a sense of joy and wonder to Mark that's completely genuine and incredibly infectious. The key to all of the comedy that ensues is Hawkes' decision to play every scene straight, instead of trying to push something funny. His reactions are all real, as opposed to going for, say, a punchline in certain scenes. He trusts that the comedy is there in the script and stays true to his take on Mark being a guy who is simply eager to experience something new.

Playing off of what Hawkes does in these scenes are Hunt and Macy, both terrific in their roles. Cheryl is not a character you would immediately associate with Ms. Hunt, but what she brings to the role immediately reveals why she's perfect for the role. In Cheryl's first scene with Mark, she's completely nude and explains the rules of their relationship in a very casual manner, achieving both a vulnerability and a commanding nature to the character. Hunt is fearless as Cheryl and is quite the perfect match for Mark's awkward inexperience.

Mr. Macy on the other hand makes the decision to play Father Brendan as a friend to Mark first, his priest second, and that works in the film's favor. Father Brendan is new at the church, and from the moment he and Mark first meet, there's instant chemistry, which hints that Mark has never really had a best friend to talk to about what he's feeling. Macy also helps to bring out some of the comedy, specifically in his reactions to Mark's sexual desires.

It's the three leads that make The Sessions an enjoyable film, as well as the decision by writer/director Ben Lewin (a polio survivor himself) to make the film a comedy, even if, at times, Lewin seems to struggle with tone. There are scenes in the movie - such as one involving Cheryl's theory that Mark blames himself for his sister's death as a child and as a result he feels undeserving of pleasure - that suggest a much darker film. I had the sense that there was a story Lewin wanted to explore further but decided to abandon in favor of a more lighthearted tale.

Furthermore the ending is a mixed bag of emotions and feels more abrupt than natural. Without spoiling what happens, I'll say that a character who ends up being significant to Mark shows up in the last five minutes of the movie, and you can't help but ask why that person is not introduced much earlier and explored a little more. Lewin seems to abandon the comedy and go straight for the heart instead of maintaining the feel good nature of the story. It's this tonal shift that prevents the film from being great, which is unfortunate considering how good the rest of the film is.

The actors made me forgive this misstep at the end of the film, enough to still call The Sessions a good movie. Hawkes continues to prove what an amazing, talented actor he is with every new role and Mark is the perfect vehicle for Hawkes to showcase these skills. It's a film that's saved by the actors involved, all of whom bring a certain commitment to their roles that is both admirable and enjoyable. If you're in the mood for an unconventional sexual comedy, The Sessions will surely lift your spirits.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

End of Watch ★★½

The Found Footage Genre Applied To A Buddy Cop Movie Proves Ineffective

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

An up close and personal look at the lives of two hotshot police officers patrolling South Central, End of Watch is about as gritty as it gets. Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña star as Brian and Mike, two Los Angeles cops who get more than they bargained for on an almost weekly basis. Brian is taking college classes on the side, one of which happens to be a film course. For one of his projects, he decides to outfit himself and Mike with mini-cameras so that whoever watches his finished film will get a first person perspective of their daily routines.

The interesting stylistic choice on the part of writer/director David Ayer, who has an obvious affection for the found footage genre, is abandoned midway through the movie. But it's not unwelcome, considering within the first twenty minutes or so even the criminals that Brian and Mike are chasing have cameras, the reasons for which are never explained. Once the switch occurs, you're immediately aware of it and it takes away from some of the film's emotional impact; you no longer believe in the vision of South Central Ayer set out to show us. Instead, you realize that this is just hyper stylized world that is nothing more than the creation of a gifted filmmaker.

This is not to say that the film doesn't have certain things going for it. Gyllenhaal and Peña have terrific chemistry, so much so that even when Ayer is is making mistakes stylistically you still believe that these guys are actually cops. Gyllenhaal's Brian is tough and brazen, pushing the limits of his job a little too far, while Peña plays Mike equally as assertive as Brian is, albeit with a more level head on his shoulders. You immediately see why these two are not only partners but best friends, and they keep you invested in their story.

That story is one that leads to a lot of dead bodies, mangled cops and the Mexican cartel, all of which seems like a little too much over the span of time that the movie covers, which seems to be about a year, maybe two. While both leads are good, Ayer, for all the realism he's going for, doesn't seem to have a grip on reality. He's too chaotic for a movie about chaotic circumstances and too indecisive to stay with one style. The result is a film that happens to have solid performances from its actors but falls short of being anything memorable.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Looper ★★½

Time Travel Just Isn't What It Used To Be, Or Will Be

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

The new film Looper has about as much plot as you'd expect in a time travel movie and then some. The story focuses on Joe (Joseph Gordon Levitt), who is known as a "Looper" (a hitman in the present who kills men that have been sent back from the future). As we're told in Joe's opening narration, time travel is not invented until thirty years down the road, and when it is, it's immediately outlawed. The only people using it are the mob who, instead of killing these men in their time (apparently disposing of bodies in the future is quite difficult), send them back to the present to be executed. There's one rule among Loopers: never let one's target escape for any reason. It seems an easy enough rule to follow, until Joe's older self is sent back to him and he gets cold feet. For those still with me, it's never a good idea to hesitate when your older self is played by Bruce Willis.

Once the older Joe escapes the film enters into its very slow second act and introduces the characters of Sara (Emily Blunt) and her son, Cid (Pierce Gagnon). Both characters are crucial to the plot in ways I suspect many viewers won't be expecting, but they're also the weakest element of the film. Any screenwriter will tell you that the second act in any story is the hardest to write; it has to keep the story going with all of the elements introduced in the first act and lead into the resolution of the third act. Unfortunately, Looper ends up being an example of a film with an unsuccessful second act.

It's not so much that taking the time to discover who Sara and Cid are is bad, or that learning more about young Joe doesn't benefit the story, it's that neither is all that interesting nor does it seem to fit within the story. We've learned enough about Joe (both young and old) from the first act of the film, so it's unnecessary when the second act almost forces the audience into believing that young Joe is a hero of some kind. He's not really, which is not to say that Joe isn't an engaging character despite his flaws. It's almost as if the writer/director Rian Johnson thought the dystopia he was creating was too dark and, as a safety measure, decided to make Joe more heroic. 

Despite it's second act, there are elements in the film that work. Aside from Gordon-Levitt, who always does a good job no matter what movie he's in, the breakout performance for me came from Jeff Daniels as Abe, the mob boss in charge of all of the Loopers. Daniels plays him so perfectly; so chillingly matter-of-fact that every scene he was in worked so well. It's a very small role, but one that has stuck with me. It illustrates what a great, understated actor like Daniels can bring to a part, big or small. In Looper, you know Abe means business, even if he talks to you like he's your best friend.

That point is made clear in a scene where Abe persuades young Joe to give up his best friend and fellow Looper, Seth (Paul Dano) for letting his older self (Frank Brennan) escape. It's a pivotal scene in the film because it achieves two things: it shows us just how bad of a man Abe is and why he's the man running the game, and it illustrates to us the consequences Joe will face if he does not kill his older self. It's perhaps the most disturbing sequence in the film in that we see young Seth's fate through his older self's scars and vanishing appendages.

Scene's like that emphasize the craftsmanship of Johnson, who has a knack for being very original, both in story and tone. His first film, Brick (his and Gordon-Levitt's first collaboration) was a dark film noir set in a high school that had elements of horror, comedy and drama mixed into it. It worked very well and proved that Johnson wasn't the kind of storyteller most are used to. His second film, The Brothers Bloom, was more light hearted and polarizing with audiences. I was one of the people that thoroughly enjoyed it because it did for me the same thing Brick did, only in a different genre. With Looper, we get that same originality but instead of his usual mixed tone, it's a consistent one, which ultimately hurt my enjoyment of it. The second act just felt too safe and conventional, especially for Johnson.

This intriguing time travel film loses itself in its seeming desire to be mainstream, which is disappointing for a movie by such a gifted filmmaker. 

Friday, August 31, 2012

Side By Side ★★★★

Polarizing, Captivating; A Reminder Of Why We Love Movies

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

Unlike 2011, a year in which many documentaries failed to make nearly every critic's top ten list, 2012 is shaping up to be the year of the documentary. This theory of mine is illustrated beautifully in the new film Side By Side (directed by Christopher Kenneally), a documentary investigating the increasing popularity of digital filmmaking and its impact on film itself. The interviewees include directors, cinematographers, editors and a variety of other post-production talents, each with their own opinion of why shooting on film or digital is a better method for making movies.

The man interviewing these legends of cinema is the last person I would expect in a film like this, Keanu Reeves. While this is a documentary, I have to say that this film is Reeves' best work. He displays a wealth of knowledge on filmmaking processes and is terrific as an interviewer. He doesn't just ask question after question, but instead has a conversation with these people, allowing them to talk and challenging them, when necessary, to provide examples proving their argument.

On the pro-film side of moviemaking is Christopher Nolan, the titan of brilliantly staged and choreographed action all within the camera, and the perfect person to make the case for shooting with film as opposed to digital. He argues that digital filmmaking is not true filmmaking, and uses the example of the chewy cookie - made to look, feel and taste like it was fresh out of the oven - being a fake, and lesser version of the original. In other words, the use of digital photography is hindering directors and cinematographers from knowing their craft, limiting their understanding of how movies are actually made.

On the other side of the argument are David Fincher and James Cameron, two men who, for very separate and equally valid reasons, believe digital photography is the only way to make movies. Fincher is a man known for shooting close to 100 takes for a given scene to ensure a perfect mise-en-scène, and as a result, enjoys the ability to immediately view scenes that were just shot to do so. With film, he points out, directors have to wait until the following day for it to be developed and then watch the dailies. He considers this method a backward way of filmmaking, as a director cannot see if mistakes were made until the scene or sequence has already wrapped. Conversely, James Cameron states that film died for him years ago because could not shoot in 3D and that digital effects were and still are the future of modern filmmaking. Examples from the technology he used in The Abyss and Terminator 2: Judgment Day are shown to illustrate how shooting in digital has made Mr. Cameron's dream of creating his own worlds come to life.

Every time someone talks about being in favor of film, several disadvantages to it are mentioned. Similarly, the disadvantages to digital are brought up when someone shows their preference for it. One could argue that Side By Side seems to argue in favor of digital but I found it to be unbiased one way or the other. It's made clear that each method has its benefits and its problems, but it also makes a clear case that at this time, one cannot seem to exist without the other. Even if a movie is shot digitally, film preservation (as opposed to hard drives) is still the preferred and more reliable method for storing movies. What is made abundantly clear is that film has reached the best of its potential and that digital is in its beginning, pointing to the necessity for filmmakers like Mr. Nolan to embrace the new and remember the old fondly.

I have to admit that prior to seeing Side By Side, I was pro-film entirely. While directors like Mr. Fincher continue to impress me with digital cinematography, I still found something nostalgic and original in using film. Now, however, it's become clear that there's not necessarily one method that should be used in all movies, but instead, depending on the film and what a particular director is going for, one method may work better to tell that story than the other.

This is a debate that proves to be equally (if not more) polarizing than which political party one identifies with. Side By Side isn't out to tell us that we have to believe in one method or the other, it simply shows us both arguments (as the title implies) and allows us to choose for ourselves. It is an important film for cinephiles like myself, as well as anyone in the arts who wants to learn more about the craft of composing images. As The New York Times film critic, A.O. Scott said in his review, "It is worth a year of film school and at least 1,000 hours of DVD bonus commentary."

Side By Side is very personal for me. I grew up watching movies that my parents gave me, learning what I liked and what I didn't. I went to college to study film and to learn the skill with which all of my favorite movies were made. Hearing how these directors and cinematographers - many of whom have worked on movies that I love - talk about their craft so passionately reminds me why I love going to the movies in the first place. It emphasizes the importance of movies as cultural artifacts, and proves that no matter how many movies someone has seen or made, there's always something new to learn.