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 Ċ½eljko 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.