Friday, July 27, 2012

Take This Waltz ★★★½

Exploring Relationships Both New And Old

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

Many films in the past have dealt with the subject of relationships in flux; a couple that at one time were so in love to the point where they could not control themselves but over time have lost much of that initial passion. Take This Waltz, the highly anticipated second feature from writer and director Sarah Polley, provides unique examination into this type of couple.

Michelle Williams stars as Margot, a freelance writer living in Toronto, Canada, with her husband Lou (Seth Rogen), a cookbook author. She tries to be sexual and spontaneous with him but for whatever reason, he's not as interested as she'd like. Meanwhile, she meets a rickshaw driver named Daniel (Luke Kirby), who also happens to live across the street from her, and their instant attraction is undeniable. 

The theme of the film is the idea that new things get old, and while it is a pessimistic view of how relationships work, Polley dives into the subject matter head first, never straying away from the story she wants to tell. That sense of something new is explored in one very sexual - and at times uncomfortable - scene in which Margot asks Daniel to describe what he would do to her if he could have her. It's an odd scene to witness in that I'm sure no two people will have the same reaction to it, but it works perfectly. It illustrates Polley's gift for adding her own spin to something that has been explored numerous times. Juxtaposed with that scene is one that occurs toward the end of the film, where a montage illustrating the passing of time shows a relationship beginning and then settling into comfortability, with their sexual appetite gradually fading. Polley's stance is that no matter who one is with, eventually we all feel unfulfilled. 

Polley excels in scenes like these but loses some of her touch in others. I don't think she's particularly gifted at showing how couples behave around one another. The scenes with Rogen and Williams are not all that believable, largely because I don't think any genuine couple "play" as they do. I think Polley intends to make these two characters seem cute - they speak in baby talk, express their love by saying things like, "I love you so much I'm going to mash your head in with a potato masher," but the result makes them more annoying than anything else. In addition, Rogen seems horribly miscast as Lou. He's an actor I have never really admired, and he proves why there's not that much to his talent in his scenes. Rogen seems uncomfortable and awkward playing a loving - albeit somewhat distanced - husband. The argument could be made that this is due to how the character is written, but I disagree. Rogen simply does not know how to play a character in love.  

While Rogen fails to be endearing in any sense, others in the film are very memorable, such as Sarah Silverman as Margot's sister-in-law and recovering alcoholic, Geraldine. Silverman steals every scene she's in and proves some of the best comics in the business have even more to offer in a dramatic role. In addition, Williams displays her innate talent by making her character sympathetic and likable, despite the fact that she's doing this despicable act to her husband. Whatever your belief on sustaining a relationship, she makes us understand why she's seeking out this other man through her performance. It's a tricky part to play but Williams owns it. 

Polley's directing and certain performances are not the only elements that stand out in Take This Waltz. One of the most important aspects in any film, at least for me, is the use of location as a character. The film was shot and takes place in Toronto, and cinematography by Luc Montpellier conveys a love and admiration for this beautiful city. We believe that these characters live in Toronto (despite their lack of any kind of Canadian accent) and the story immerses us in Toronto's culture. Thus, Take This Waltz is a film of this time and of that place.

For these, and many other reasons, Take This Waltz won me over, despite its flaws. Polley is a gifted filmmaker who knows the story she wants to tell and adheres to it, no matter how uncomfortable certain scenes might make her audience. She's a director deserving of our attention as well as our praise and one whose future films I'm excited to see.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises ★★

Proving Why The Third Time Is Not Always The Charm

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

Of all of the directors making movies these days, I have to say that Christopher Nolan would easily make the cut on a list of my favorite filmmakers. The stunts and effects he achieves so effortlessly within the camera, his focus on story, and his dedication to using film (as opposed to digital) prove why he is one of the last great directors of what now seems like a bygone era. He's a true original, which is why it pains me to say that his latest endeavor, The Dark Knight Rises, is the first film of his that doesn't seem to meet his own standards.

Everything I love about Nolan seems like it's missing from The Dark Knight Rises, the most obvious of which is his attention to plot detail. There are too many characters and too much happening all at once, the result of which is every single arc being under-developed. Eight years have passed since the last sighting of the caped crusader, and we see a more aged, broken and lonely Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), a concept that I very much enjoyed, at least in the beginning. Wayne has become a hermit; a shell of a man without his alter ego. He only speaks with Alfred (Michael Caine, who does his best work by far in the series); mourns the death of his one true love, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal); and, because dressing up like a bat and jumping off of rooftops would (we assume) cause bodily harm after a while, walks with a cane and has no cartilage left in his joints.

I love the idea of exploring a man who sees himself as nothing unless he becomes someone else; a man who sees no other future than protecting the people of Gotham. It seems like this is where the film is going until Wayne realizes Batman is once again needed. Quite conveniently, he straps a high-tech knee brace to his leg allowing him to walk, and the idea that he can no longer do what he once did is quickly abandoned. Sure, he fights Bane (Tom Hardy) and loses round one, but it's nothing a few sit-ups and some wall-climbing can't fix.

In addition, our other favorite characters don't seem to have a lot to do in the film, so much so that they are offscreen for much of the 165-minute running-time. Alfred leaves early on in the film; Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) is incapacitated until roughly the midpoint; Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) is given a minimum amount to do; and the new characters (for the most part) feel out of place. Yes, Anne Hathaway is good as Selina Kyle (Catwoman), but I disagree with those who say Catwoman fits into Nolan's Batman universe. As a love interest for Wayne and a sort-of-sidekick to Batman, I guess Nolan felt it should be this character, but throughout the film I kept asking myself, "Why is Catwoman in this movie?" Joseph Gordon-Levitt does an admirable job in the role of John Blake, an idealistic rookie-cop who exists as a reflection on Gordon, but again, he doesn't seem essential to the story (fans may unite in hating me given the way this film ends).

Perhaps the two major blunders are Bane and Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), but for very separate reasons. First, let's deal with Bane.

Many critics have cited Heath Ledger's performance in 2008's The Dark Knight as a detriment to this film because it was so brilliant, so inescapably dark, that it was next to impossible to top. The only choice (it would seem) that Nolan had in deciding to conclude the series would be to take the story in a different direction. Nolan's decision to introduce Bane - a less charismatic, more-of-a-brute villain - seemed to emphasize the fact that this was indeed a new path for the series. Instead, Bane shows up with the exact same intention as the previous villains: to destroy Gotham. While there are some impressive explosions and a lot of production value, it still just ends up feeling like a lesser version of the first two films. Bane has nowhere near the screen-presence that Joker had, and while he is an entirely different character, the main villain in any story needs to have some kind of presence. He's all muscle and yes, a bit imposing, but I felt none of the dread that I did with Joker, or even Liam Neeson's Ra's al Ghul in Batman Begins. Furthermore, the fight scenes between Bane and Batman are somehow quite dull. Tom Hardy is a big guy, especially in this film, yet I felt like I was watching a bad version of a wrestling match. The fights between Ra's al Ghul and Batman in Begins were more engaging than in The Dark Knight Rises. Oh and did I mention that it's near impossible to understand most of what Bane says, even with his dialogue noticeably boosted in his scenes?

Secondly, there's Miranda Tate, who barely gets any screen-time and is, like several other characters, unnecessary for everything other than existing as a connection to Batman Begins. She has a love scene with Wayne that is both random and unbelievable in the context of the story. She also has the means to save Wayne's dying company, but that's glossed over and ignored for most of the film.

What ultimately works in the film comes in small doses: Caine shines in his scenes with Bale and you find yourself wishing there were more of them; the visual effects and cinematography are breathtaking but they end up being underscored by the awful sound mix; the early scenes that emphasize an older Bruce Wayne emphasize where the film could have gone; and finally, the conclusion. Despite its many missteps, the third act of The Dark Knight Rises is where everything starts working better than the rest of the film, and the way Nolan chooses to end his series left me feeling reasonably satisfied.

Sadly, Nolan's film as a whole does not sustain the magic of both the early scenes with Wayne and the final moments before the credits roll. What we're left with is a marginally entertaining movie and by far the weakest effort in Nolan's trilogy.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Savages ★

More or Less, It Just Kills Your Buzz

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

In his review for Savages, the latest from director Oliver Stone, A.O. Scott writes, "The thing about spending time with potheads is that if you’re not stoned yourself, it can get kind of dull, and Ben and Chon, cool as they are, are not always scintillating company." Scott's observation about these characters is a perfect illustration of my feelings on the film as a whole. The word "savages" is spoken numerous times on screen and while grisly actions do occur, the most savage experience that this film offers is having to sit through it.

Savages offers a pro-marijuana stance as a business model: Grow the best pot, sell and distribute it with a minimum amount of violence, and use your proceeds to build schools in less fortunate civilizations. The leaders of this lucrative business are Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), best friends who could not be more dissimilar. Ben is the idealist hippie who believes in world peace and helping others. Chon is a war veteran who uses violence as a method of solving even the most simple of problems. Together, these men share a girlfriend named "O", for Ophelia (played blandly by Blake Lively), who also narrates the story. Voice-over narration is hit or miss for me in movies, and in Savages, it does nothing but hurt the action on screen. Take, for example, one of the opening scenes: O and Chon are having sex and as a way of explaining the type of man Chon is, she states "I have orgasms, Chon has war-gasms." Very insightful.

After a lengthy introduction to these less-than-desireable characters, the Mexican cartel arranges a meeting with Ben and Chon to discuss a partnership with their business. When Ben and Chon refuse their offer, the cartel kidnaps O to force Ben and Chon into working with them. The rest of the film becomes a long, drawn-out examination of how these two men will get back the woman they both love. Of course to do this they need to be stoned for most of the running time - because if you're going to kill people, you might as well do it carefree, right?

While most of the film lacks any real spark of life there are two performances that stand out, the most surprising of which is John Travolta as a corrupt D.E.A. agent named Dennis. He's an informant to both Ben and Chon, as well as the cartel, and he's not been this good in years. It's a reminder that when given the right role, as he was with Pulp Fiction - a film that is far superior to Savages - Travolta can shine. In addition, Benicio del Toro gives his most amusing performance since The Usual Suspects as Lado, the cartel's primary enforcer. Yes, his character is brutal and does despicable things, yet there is something oddly comic about how he carries himself throughout Savages. He's having a good time, and we have a good time watching him, despite his evil tendencies.

These performances illustrate the film's biggest crutch: The villains are more interesting than the heroes. Many movies have fallen into this trap before, where the characters we're supposed to be rooting for are the ones we hope will be killed off as quickly as possible. Ben and Chon would be better as supporting players, and even then only in small bits. On top of that, O wears out her welcome within the first five minutes, but we're stuck with her until the bitter end. Lively does nothing to make O compelling, which is a major problem considering she's the driving force behind everything that happens.

This is a film that tries to be serious yet doesn't take itself seriously. The violence, while awful to watch, is actually quite minimal, and the rest of the film focuses on the characters trying to get back to a sort of utopia that you never quite believe in. For a film that has a running time of two and a half hours, Savages is a prime example of a story that's less than half-baked.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

People Like Us ★★

Too Afraid of its Own Message

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

People Like Us, the directorial debut of Alex Kurtzman is an example of a film that starts off well but by the time the credits role is unsure of the statement it was trying to make. In reading about the film a few months ago, I was intrigued by it. It seemed as though it was a personal story that Kurtzman very much wanted to tell and I was curious to see Kurtzman would bring to the director's chair. Unfortunately where the film fails is in its need to wrap up every risk that it takes in a conventional Hollywood way.

The film stars Chris Pine as Sam, a businessman who excels at lying, and fails at being a decent human being and, as the film begins, is forced into returning home to Los Angeles to attend his estranged father's funeral. When the details of his father's will reveal that Sam has a half-sister he never knew about, he sets out to find out more about her. The sister in question is Frankie (Elizabeth Banks) an alcoholic single mother raising her troubled eleven-year old son, Josh (Michael Hall D'Addario). She, too, was estranged from her father and feels a resentment toward the family she never knew nor was allowed to be a part of. Meanwhile, Sam befriends her and inserts himself into their lives, becoming the father figure Josh never had.

There's a certain level of discomfort just beneath the surface throughout the film. Sam knows that what he's doing is wrong and his relationship with Frankie very quickly becomes inappropriate. She likes him, and while it's never explicitly stated, you get the sense that she's falling for him. Sam knows this and allows it to happen anyway.

I enjoy Chris Pine as an actor, and he's committed to his role as Sam, but he does nothing to redeem Sam of all of his distasteful actions. He's actually a pretty terrible person and quite far from being someone that the audience empathizes with. He continues to make bad decision after bad decision, each one furthering the fact that he's not worth our time, nor is he worthy of being the main character in the film.

Several other stories are explored, including Sam's major screwup at the beginning of the film that will most likely lead to his prosecution by the Federal Trade Commission; his girlfriend, Hannah (Olivia Wilde) being fed up with his behavior and leaving him early on; and his mother, Lillian (Michelle Pfeiffer) who's quite angry with him because of his absence in her life for the past thirteen years. There's too much going on, and each plot point that's introduced deters the film from what its original intent was.

There's something Kurtzman wants to say about families in his portrayal of the relationships in this film. What that is exactly, I'm unaware of and this film does not do its job in conveying that message. It loses itself in its fear of going deeper into the family dynamics it sets out to explore, and it's one dimensional lead character strips away any heart the film may have had. It's as if Kurtzman was afraid to really dig deep in looking at an estranged family and the consequences that discovering secret sibling can create. At the end of the film you may think you know exactly what Kurtzman wanted to say, but because the film loses itself somewhere in the middle, the original message gets lost in the shuffle.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Katy Perry: Part of Me ★★★

Do Fame and Fairytale Go Hand in Hand?

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

Many of us don't understand what it's like to be a musician. Whether they're famous or not, the life of a musician is anything but easy. They're on the road constantly, working late nights, rehearsing all day and spend far less time than they want to with the ones they love. This concept is part of what makes Katy Perry: Part of Me, the new documentary about the singer/songwriter's 2011 world tour, so intriguing.

Perry's album, Teenage Dream, propelled her to international fame and made Perry the first artist since Michael Jackson to have five No. 1 singles on an album. The film begins in January 2011 when her year-long international tour is about to begin. We see her excitement, her enthusiasm and nervousness about embarking on such an adventure, and watching her, we're anxious to see what events will unfold by the tour's end.

One major event that made me completely invested in Perry's strength as a performer was her relationship with actor/comedian Russell Brand. He appears briefly in the film, but it's well known that these two separated in December of 2011 and divorced shortly thereafter. While this may seem more like gossip, it's not. Instead it adds suspense and dread to the story, which is something I was not expecting going into the film.

Over the course of the first few months we see the effort that Perry is putting into her relationship. Despite being in Europe, she flies to Los Angeles or New York (or wherever Brand happens to be) in order to spend time with him, leaving her exhausted and frustrated. She's committed to her marriage, but in one scene argues with her manager that there are no days in the coming weeks for her to fit in time with her husband. Her manager, clearly annoyed, tells us that Perry is killing herself by making all these trips and thinks that Brand should fly to Europe some of the time, but he won't and Perry knows that.

I mention her relationship to Brand because it emphasizes the juxtaposition the film is ultimately about: this singer, who's style, songs and attire all evoke a fairytale belief system, has anything but a fairytale life. This is a film that shows us the personal tole that superstardom can take on an individual and that, as much as someone like Perry may want the ideal life, sometime's it's just not possible.

In one truly heartbreaking scene, something has happened (we're never told the specifics and it's tasteful that we're not) between Perry and Brand. She's devastated, does not want to move and cannot stop crying. She forces herself into getting ready and not canceling the show she's about to do in Brazil. She walks beneath the stage, steps on the platform that will bring her up to the stage (echoing the opening scene of the film) and breaks down crying again. It seems as though they'll have to pull the plug and then, being the dedicated artist she appears to be, she composes herself, smiles and does the show.

Yes, this is a film about Katy Perry - by Katy Perry - so she'll obviously be portrayed in the best way possible. It's subjective and manipulative, but then again, so are all stories. Perry has a unique presence that captivates us, making us feel her pain and emotionally invest in her journey. She's a character in a film and a real person at the same time. She's brave for allowing her fans and all other interested parties see what a year of her life looks like.

The film's weaknesses are few and far between. I would have preferred more objectivity, maybe showed interviews with people who have had bad experiences with Perry, if there are any, and there could have been less fan montages showing the impact of her songs. I know what they're trying to do, but it makes the film feel too biased in Perry's favor.

These weaknesses don't take away from the enjoyment Katy Perry: Part of Me provides. This is a documentary that provides insight into the price of fame, and Perry is just the right character to keep us engaged throughout.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man ★★★

A New Approach To An Old Tale

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

Was it really time for a reboot of the Spider-Man franchise? The answer depends entirely upon your enjoyment of The Amazing Spider-Man, director Marc Webb's take on the web-slinging superhero. If, like me, you had a good time with the film, the answer will be a resounding, "YES!"

It's been five years since the release of Spider-Man 3, the last film of the Sam Raimi-helmed trilogy, and the sting from that film made me skeptical about any other attempt at another Spider-Man story. Thankfully, Webb has managed put his own unique spin on the character of Peter Parker (this time played by Andrew Garfield) by making him more of a brooding loaner, focusing more on his relationship to his family and to his high-school crush, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), and worrying less about action scenes. This is about what it's like to be a high school student full of emotion and confusion, in addition to becoming a superhero. It's much more of a serious take on the character than we're used to, which, especially given what Christopher Nolan has done to the Batman franchise, is an approach that I'm liking more and more.

This time around it's revealed in the film's opening sequence that Peter has been living with his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field) since his parents (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz, who appear briefly) abandoned him under mysterious circumstances. This leaves Peter feeling alone, angry, and quite depressed despite his Aunt and Uncle doing the best they can to be there for him. When Peter discovers a picture of his father with Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), he sneaks in to Oscorp, the laboratory Connors works at and, as we all know, gets bitten by a radioactive spider.

The familiar aspects of the film have caused some critics to chastise it as being unnecessary, which I feel is unfair. Yes, Peter is bitten by the spider, but it takes a much longer time than one might expect for him to don the Spandex and mask. Instead, Webb focuses on how these powers would effect a normal teenage boy already full of emotion and who is just beginning to figure out his place in the world. In addition, Webb puts more emphasis on Peter's loss of having a father figure in his life. We all know that Uncle Ben will be killed before Peter becomes Spider-Man, but Peter also finds that kind of parental guidance in Dr. Connors, who eventually abandons him when he becomes The Lizard. Somewhat unexpectedly, when Gwen and Peter become more serious, Gwen's father and police captain, George Stacy (Denis Leary) becomes yet another father figure for Peter. Through these men it's illustrated that Peter is just a lost kid trying to find his way. It's those kinds of character elements that Webb brings to the table - ones which I feel were left out of the previous installments.

I identified with Peter's struggle for guidance, largely due to the fact that Martin Sheen and Denis Leary do so much with their supporting roles in the world Webb creates. Sheen and Garfield have great chemistry together, and Sheen is given more screen time, making his death that much more painful once it happens. Leary is an actor I've never really paid that much attention to, but one deserving of high praise in the film as he manages to make Captain Stacy a more believable, three-dimensional character instead of just another antagonist for Peter. He's a father who very much just wants to protect his daughter, but he's also someone who, despite having reservations about Peter, listens when he needs to and does the right thing.

The other standout performance comes from Ms. Stone, who (if you'll indulge me) can do no wrong as far as I'm concerned. She brings something to the table no matter what film she's in. Here, I found her Gwen Stacy a better, more quirky and fun love interest than Kirsten Dunst's Mary-Jane in the previous films. She and Garfield really shine in their scenes together, and it's evident that Webb (who directed (500) Days of Summer) is quite good at showing a believable romantic relationship on screen.

Given everything that I love about the film, The Amazing Spider-Man is not without its problems. I don't think that Garfield is better than Tobey Maguire as Peter. I think they're both good and bring their own perspective to the character, but Garfield at times felt as though he was pushing the emotion a little too far, and his sarcasm in some of the scenes where he's roughing up the bad guys got old real fast. The film also (unfortunately) shifts the focus from Peter's home life after Uncle Ben dies to the creation of The Lizard, seemingly forgetting about Aunt May entirely.

While it is by no means a perfect movie, it ultimately won me over and I forgave it for its faults - mainly because of the work of the actors and the focus on the relationships in the film, specifically that of Peter and Gwen. Webb seems to know that he's not an action director and instead focuses on his strengths as a filmmaker. As a result he's made a film that is entertaining without loosing the emotional punch. I admire him for that and I admire this film just the same.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Your Sister's Sister ★

This Is What Talking Around Different Tables Looks Like

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

Early on in Your Sister's Sister, the new film from writer/director Lynn Shelton, you get the sense that there's a better story to tell than the one the the film ultimately ends up exploring.

Jack, played by Mark Duplass, is still grieving over the death of his brother after a year, so his best friend, Iris (Emily Blunt), suggests that he retreat to her family's cabin on an island off the Washington coast to recover.

Isolation, it seems, is the best medicine when one already feels utterly alone.

Once Jack arrives, however, he finds the cabin already occupied by Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), Iris's lesbian, vegan sister. It doesn't take very long for Jack and Hannah to become drinking buddies, as Hannah has just walked out on a seven-year relationship and Jack takes comfort in meeting someone more miserable than he's been. Inevitably the two decide in their drunken stupor that the best option is to sleep with one another.

The rest of the film involves what I assume Shelton and Co. thought were funny ways that Jack and Hannah try to keep their affair a secret from Iris, who shows up the following morning to surprise Jack. As I watched I kept wondering why Jack was so concerned about Iris finding out about what happened with Hannah. Iris, after all, was Jack's brother's girlfriend so the stakes never seem that high as to warrant most of ninety-minute runtime to be devoted to guarding this secret.

It's the decision to focus on this story, instead of what losing a brother can do to someone, that the film lost me. Blunt and DeWitt are so good in their scenes together that you can't help but want more. Jack witnesses what Iris and Hannah are like together and clearly misses having that connection with his brother, but Shelton is uninterested in going there. There's even a scene in the third act where Jack tells Iris that he can never come between them - that their sibling relationship is something sacred, something Iris can never know the way Jack does because he's lost it. It's a powerful scene that reinforces where the story should have gone and how the film could have landed its own unique emotional impact. Instead, the film becomes an examination of actors sitting around a table and talking about nothing of substance.

Shelton has openly stated that she likes to let her actors create their own dialogue and not feel as though they have to stick to the script. This kind of improvisation can work if the actors know what they're doing. Duplass is not one of those actors and is dreadful from beginning to end making the film almost unwatchable. It's only when Blunt and DeWitt share scenes that Shelton's approach works, and even then it feels like if there had been more direction, the film may have worked.

What we end up with are several reveals in the third act that are completely unconvincing: Iris tells Hannah a major secret she's been keeping from Jack; Hannah's intentions with Jack are not what they originally appeared to be; Jack admits that he's not the best human being in the world. In other words, Shelton realized that she needed an ending to her film about actors sitting around different tables and talking. Within the span of about fifteen minutes, Your Sister's Sister becomes a melodrama wherein all hope seems lost and these characters seemed doomed to suffer for all of their poor decision-making. Then, suddenly, every single plot point is wrapped up all neat and nice and we realize we that this entire movie was a farce.

If there's one thing we can take away from Your Sister's Sister, it's that Blunt and DeWitt are two extraordinary actors. We're reminded of their better work (Blunt most recently in The Five Year Engagement and DeWitt in Rachel Getting Married) and shown that even with material as terrible as this, they'll own it and make us believe every scene that they're in.