On Writing That Tree of Life Review
I remember listening to snippets of Alexandre Desplat’s soundtrack during the writing process to stimulate my mind, perhaps with the effect of channeling the deeper philosophies of Terrence Malick’s film through its elegant score. The audio inspiration certainly helped, but with over 4000 words for the review, I found that I had listened to the entire soundtrack without even finishing the write-up. Naturally, I turned to the only other artists who could possibly serve as a proxy to the orchestral brilliance of The Tree of Life soundtrack: Kanye West and Jay-Z. So when I was writing that bit on Nietzsche and the existential void and its relation to Malick’s film, all I could hear running through my mind was the eternal, god-like Kanye enquiring, “That shit cray, ain’t it Jay?” There’s philosophy there as well.
The “‘Why Didn’t I Review This?’ Award,” or: “Too Lazy to Write-Up Something About This Film So Here’s a Paragraph Award” or: “Woody Allen Made a Film and All He Got Was This Stupid Paragraph”
Woody Allen begins Midnight In Paris with an exquisitely executed montage of shots lovingly poring over the city of lights, giving us the usual glimpses of the Eifel Tower, Champs-Élysées, etc. As day quickly passes to night, Allen brings us away from the tourist traps of Paris and towards the overlooked aspects of his city – cobblestoned alleyways, inviting boutiques and cafés, side streets and picturesque riverfront views. Of course, these shots only express the deep admiration Woody Allen has for the city, an admiration not unlike his awe for New York City in 1979’s Manhattan. Owen Wilson plays Gil, a starry-eyed romanticist looking to temporarily escape the detached pragmatism of his fiancée (Rachel McAdams) in the streets of Paris. While wandering at night, he finds himself slowly coming across an entirely different scene: Paris of the 1920s, playful anachronisms and all. Thus, Allen delivers a captivating lucid dream witnessing Gil idly conversing with Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Alison Pill and Tom Hiddleston), swapping stories with Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), and even hanging out with Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll). And as Gil nostalgically walks through Parisian streets, flappers and Lost Generation writers in tow, numerous other cultural figures make their charming appearances: T.S. Eliot, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Paul Gauguin, Josephine Baker, Djuna Barnes. But it’s Adrien Brody as Salvador Dalí that really drives these wistful performances home, a perfect cast for the surrealist painter. Then there’s Marion Cotillard as forgotten muse Adriana, offering another unforgettable performance with parallels between her and the great French actress Anna Karina more apparent than ever before (looks, personality, charm). Ultimately, Midnight In Paris is Woody Allen’s enchanting wish fulfillment of living out of time, though the director’s own insightful commentary on the nature of nostalgia and the realities of life make this one of the director’s best works to date.
Melancholia. Elaborately detailed slo-mo shots resembling still life, direct thematic references to Pieter Bruegel artwork, gorgeous cinematography, clever manipulation of spatial depth, Shakespearian allusions, shots of planetary collision, an overture of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde Prelude”… The opening montage of shots deposits us at the end of the world, with Lars von Trier serving as maestro conducting what appears to be absolute artistic beauty.
Two words: orgasmic catharsis.
2011’s Acting Performance Worth Noting, But Probably Won’t Even Be Acknowledged By Any Award Shows
In Kevin Smith’s Red State, actor Michael Parks as the deranged Pastor Abin Cooper sells his role so well that he robs the entire film from true greatness. For a film that aims to criticize both corrupted religious fanaticism and inept bureaucratic administrations, Smith fails because Parks simply overshadows the weak story with pure charm and whimsical charisma. His commanding sermon to a brainwashed audience conveys his villainy perfectly. Parks’s natural Southern drawl is at once powerful and slightly foreboding of an inner immorality, but also enticing with its down-home familiarity and easygoingness. Watching the aged actor dance about, sing to children, and put on a smile amidst the hellish sadism going on throughout the film ultimately feels more inviting, more alluring than Smith’s pseudo-intellectual commentary. Thus, we’re left with a paradox. Red State is so bad because Michael Parks is so good.
Films Too Self-Absorbed For Their Own Good
Director Roland Emmerich, known primarily for his bloated “disaster flick” blockbusters 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, Independence Day, and so on, traverses entirely different ground with his 2011 effort Anonymous. Dressing itself up as a period political thriller striving to reveal William Shakespeare as a fraud, the film sinks to unsubstantiated pseudo-historical ramblings and commercialized melodrama tailor-made for consumption by the gullible. Honestly, a tiny part of me perished while watching the film to the point where I simply could not continue. The sheer conviction Emmerich has in conveying such unsubstantiated claims makes Anonymous so much more unconvincing and conspiracy mongering rather than the attention-grabbing thriller it’s made out to be. Of course, Emmerich’s not the only one to blame for this obvious blemish, as John Orloff’s screenwriting pushes so desperately for audience understanding and, worst of all, to force us to become convinced of its pseudo-historical explanations. And even if Anonymous was supposed to be a tribute to the literary genius of “Shakespeare’s” works, then thanks Emmerich. But no thanks.
Cinema Confessional, #1
The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence) found myself thinking very awkward questions, specifically “Would I want to be in the front, middle, or back?” I’m still trying to purge these images from my mind.
Best Movie Poster
As an honorable mention, the poster for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives remains an unparalleled work of art readymade for any film devotee’s wall. Nevertheless, the most significant movie poster I’ve seen this year goes to The Ides of March, a simple concept featuring top bill actors Ryan Gosling partially covering his face with a magazine with George Clooney’s slightly off-putting politician mug shot. The film poster speaks multitudes, relaying the duplicity and political double-dealing at work with presidential campaigning. It’s a menacing concept, reminding audiences that politicians are merely public finger-puppets working hand-in-hand with unseen political strategists/managers/advisors (Gosling). Aside from the actual thematic points in the film, the poster also calls attention to Ryan Gosling’s rapidly growing prestige in Hollywood. The fact that he can stand side by side in the billing with a veteran actor as Clooney speaks to Gosling’s future potential for a long, celebrated acting career.
Worst Movie Poster
On the other hand, the worst movie posters this year sink to new lows. Minus the original teaser poster (with the “X” emblem), the entire collection of promotional posters for Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class is an atrocious, gawky eyesore. From the oddly tinted “Before he was…” character one-sheets to the poorly photoshopped, simplistic group shot poster, these examples don’t even relay the worst the film has to offer. Taking the throne are the one-sheets for Magneto and Charles Xavier, two horrendously photoshopped pieces that look like poorly handled fan-made posters that actually turn out to be official promotional work. To begin, there’s the Magneto poster in which a vague silhouette of the character contains a cringeworthy inclusion of Michael Fassbender’s shadowy face on the silhouette’s stomach/cape area. The concept itself is straightforward, aiming to show the divide between the iconic figure and his origins à la that iconic Star Wars: Episode I teaser poster (with the shadow of Darth Vader). But this one looks terrible and so poorly executed that it could be a fan made image completed in five minutes using Microsoft Paint. Worse still is the one-sheet for Charles Xavier, containing the same terrible qualities of the previous poster but somehow managing to sink even lower. The eyesores are hard to miss: James McAvoy’s face is partially cut off and it’s awkwardly located on the silhouette’s crotch area. Don’t expect any of these posters to hang up in a bedroom any time soon.
Runner up: The poster for J. Edgar, in which Leo’s out-of-context close-up shouts at you (now in plain AND patriotic versions!)
If I Were a Mad Scientist…
…I would clone Guillermo del Toro multiple times so he can work on the H.P. Lovecraft adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness, his follow-up to Hellboy II: The Golden Army, his announced Frankenstein film, and to finish his Pacific Rim monster epic. I would also use my mad scientist powers to brainwash studio executives to give del Toro all the money he needs for the likely colossal budgets all these films require, but I know that the money will be put to good use given the context of Pan’s Labyrinth’s gorgeously macabre costumes, set design, and practical effects that aren’t merely eye candy (ahem, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland) but are actually employed to enhance the mood and give the films a unique quality to them. While this proposal seems ambitious but conceivably impossible, I’m absolutely certain that the scientists mad enough to work on this project will be motivated by just a glimmer of a chance for a decent big screen adaptation of some good ol’ H.P. Lovecraft.
Real-life Film Couple of the Year
When both Mike Mills and Miranda July release films in the same year, expect weird and unusual, yet quirky and likable movies. The married couple both have sophomoric titles at SXSW this year, Mills’ Beginners and July’s The Future. In Beginners, Ewan McGregor plays a hopeless romantic trying to rekindle one last attempt at love alongside the perpetually delightful Mélanie Laurent, all while his father (played by Christopher Plummer) steps out of the closet. Interconnected flashbacks and philosophical musings ensue, all of which features the second cutest dog this year played by Cosmo, who has his own Wikipedia page. Miranda July’s The Future concerns equally enthusing material, concerning a couple handling the existential anxieties of aging, identity crisis, etc., all of which emerges after adopting a cat (which also narrates the film, in true Miranda July eccentricity). Naturally, laws of space and time go wonky as the emotional anxieties of The Future’s characters shift out of control beyond easy repair.
The fact that both Mike Mills and Miranda July maintain such an harmonious balance between their personal relationship and a passionate career in art affixes the two with this “Random Film Musing” award. Artistic partnerships like Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo or John Lennon and Yoko Ono seem like bygone precursors to the directing couple; in this case, they’re the King and Queen of indie cinema. Indeed, the couple met at the indie film capital of the world, the Sundance Film Festival back in 2005, when Mills premiered Thumbsucker and July unveiled Me and You and Everyone We Know. Nowadays, the couple continues to produce artistic indie titles that are all around good movies. As Mike Mills says on living and working with Miranda July: “We try really hard to keep our work lives out of our home, and I love having my best friend and pal, the most interesting person in the world, be Miranda.” There’s hope for celebrity relationships yet.
The Michael Bay Action Sequence of the Year Award
EXT. ON THE SET OF SUPER 8 – MORNING
Enter filmmakers STEVEN SPIELBERG and J.J. ABRAMS. Both wear thick, black-framed glasses. On their faces, it looks geeky, not fashionable. Both giggle excitedly, with Spielberg occasionally doing filmmaking stuff, Abrams completely out of it. They sit in stereotypical directors’ chairs and chat.
SS: Alright, J.J., this is a summer blockbuster, so the people are gonna be expecting a big-budget action set piece. What are we going to do?
JJ: Lens flare!
SS: That’s right, J.J., we’re going to choreograph an immense train crash sequence that’s going to kick the living hell out of any masturbatory metallic-crunching, robotic anarchy sequence from Michael Bay!
SS: That’s right, J.J., it’s going to be filmed with an eye for realism… that means in-the-moment chaos every which way and that, and we’ll have the kids right smack in the middle of it all.
SS: No, J.J., we can’t have the monster unveiled just yet. Instead, we’ll satiate audiences with the colossal train wreck, cranking up the volume to the max to elevate those explosions, those twisting metal, those screams to its very extreme.
SS: It’s actually pronounced Elle Fanning. Yes, we’ll have her and all the other kids running through this mayhem, escaping flaming debris like a game of dodgeball. I can’t think of anything more exciting this year…
JJ: [quietly] …flare?
They gaze into each other eyes. The theme song for Indiana Jones plays in the background. Nothing makes much sense. Both nod their heads in contemplation, stare into space appreciatively. For whatever reasons, none will ever know.
FADE TO BLACK.
The Black Swan After Effect
Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis are definitely involved in some kind of clandestine conspiracy to undermine Hollywood corporatism. By appearing in practically the same film in the same year, No Stings Attached and Friends with Benefits, as a follow-up to their Academy-lauded Black Swan (which they both starred in) last year, they must be making some kind of disdainful statement on the shallow nature of the modern filmmaking business! Genius! Subversive! The combined global box office totals reach nearly $300 million, obviously pointing to Portman/Kunis’s original sociological commentary on the sad state of modern filmgoing audiences. Brilliant! Groundbreaking! To make money on formulaic, hackneyed, out-of-date humor (Look, an iReference! Flash mobs? Still relevant!!!)… that’s not a cheap stab at relevance, that’s cutting edge! Of course it is, because Academy Award winner for Best Actress Natalie Portman and the similarly acclaimed Mila Kunis star in either one!
Oh, how the mighty have fallen (At least Thor was good; Mila, I’m not so sure about your future career).
Cinema Confessional, #2
I thought the little penguin rapping to LL Cool J in Happy Feet Two was cute.
The Oscar Isaac Award for Underappreciated Acting Performances by Oscar Isaac
That’s right, Oscar Isaac has to award himself for his great acting this year because no else seems to have even cared. Granted, his roles in Sucker Punch and Drive are no awards show highlights, but the majority of the film community has overlooked his psychologically dark and unrepentantly moody performances in either film. For starters, his villainy in Sucker Punch stands as one of the bleakest in 2011, conveying the sleazy misogyny and megalomaniacal machismo as Blue. As Standard (yet another cool one-word name for Isaac) in Drive, he embodies the sole emotional nakedness that the existential void of the eponymous Driver lacks. Freshly released from a long prison sentence, he immediately tackles the guilt of being an absent father, the threat of gangsters out to take his life, and the burgeoning intimacy between the Driver and his wife Irene. Isaac plays out his emotional turbulence with grace however, depicting a genuinely upright husband and father simply struggling to make sense out of a violent world out to harm his family. Nearly every scene he’s in radiates with a touch of humanity and complicated individuality: a scene in which he hesitantly comes to grips with the reality of the moment, disclosing his perilous circumstances with the Driver. And then there’s the film’s most touching scene, recalling how he and Irene fell in love with such wistful, humorous, and profoundly saddened eyes aged by the harsh world that surrounds all.
To quote directly from Wikipedia, “The year 2011 was notable for containing the release of the most film sequels in a single year, at 28 sequels.” But how to separate the good from the bad? Sure, 2011 featured a number of glorious titles from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (the eighth installment) to Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (number four), but many still relied on former glories in a weak attempt to rekindle past success. Scream 4 fizzled; Paranormal Activity 3 lacked teeth; The Hangover: Part II was derivative; Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides seemed lacking; Cars 2 was simply wrong. Sigh. At least Transformers: Dark of the Moon maintained such excellent action pieces and at least Pirates 4 still contained Johnny Depp’s eternal charisma. Regardless, these singular positive traits cannot save dying franchises, a lesson that other on-the-fence between admirable and rotten franchises such as Sherlock Holmes and The Fast and the Furious need to take into mind.
Still, I hear that Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (which I missed) is a decent sequel, saved primarily because of a jaw-dropping slow-motion action piece. I may end up enjoying that one yet…
Seemingly Unnecessary Sequels That Turned Out Quite Good
Tips of the trade for filming a good sequel:
1) “Forget realism: reject conventional rules of physics for adrenaline-pumping stunts!” says Fast Five from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
2) “Mix-it-up in terms of storytelling. Top of the line CGI just doesn’t cut it anymore for animation… work with Chinese shadow puppetry, watercolors, 2D, and so on for full artistic impact! Still, stereoscopic 3D CGI still looks amazing for all your fast-paced kung fu action needs,” says Kung Fu Panda 2 from Gongmen City, China.
3) “Abandon all continuity with previous titles in the series, or at least… almost all. A well-executed cameo appearance could spread approving smiles all around,” says X-Men: First Class from Westchester County, New York.
4) “Andy Serkis,” says Rise of the Planet of the Apes from San Francisco, California.
5) “Consistently be a good series. Only release a new film in the space of four years (minimum). Have an excellent cast. Have distinct directorial styles for each title. Always be exciting to watch. I shouldn’t even be on this list… because I’m not a ‘seemingly unnecessary sequel’; people will always look forward to a new me,” says Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
The Han and Chewbacca Bromance of the Year Award
Cinema-going audiences have been swooning over the golden trio of Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint) for a decade, but these child actors-turned-iconic celebrities are now transitioning into careers elsewhere. What won me over this year were the young talents from Super 8, a bunch of Goonies-esque kids who can endear their roles to audiences with their suburban earnestness and mischievous escapades. And while Elle Fanning exhibits the best acting capabilities of all, the frontrunners for bromance of the year go to Riley Griffiths as Charles Kaznyk and Ryan Lee as Cary, an odd pairing whose effortless likability and playful bickering constitute the best 2011 has to offer. Charles’s sincere interest in George A. Romero zombie B-movies and Cary’s obsession with pyrotechnics ground these characters in a childlike nostalgia that we can’t help but relate to. Never settling for cheap stabs at quirky cuteness or unsubstantiated attempts at pathos, the two remain completely open books that the audience can both connect with and share laughs (their constant sibling-like squabbling in the background are always good-humored). Griffiths and Lee’s spirited acting abilities contribute to the appealing quality of their characters, selling their parts well while also remaining totally down-to-earth and honest. And in Super 8, director J.J. Abrams gives us a scene for the ages: crowding in a diner booth, the kids squabble over fast food on topics ranging from the terrific train crash to the movies itself, rewarding us with their clear-eyed curiosity and goofy grins that mirror our own preoccupations with childhood fascinations.
The Film So Baffling, It’s Left Me With a Permanent Look of Confusion On My Face Medallion
Your Highness. No explanation possible.
Runner up: 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy. No explanation necessary.
The ‘M. Night Shamalayan’ Underachievement in Filmmaking Award
Attn: Darren Aronofsky
RE: Harvard Film Studies Dept., Final Project
Film Studies 101.
Final Project, due Friday.
Extension request must be accompanied with 13 Broadcast Film Critics Association nominations.
Guidelines: This is a simple project meant to follow-up on your massive enterprise from last year, the Oscar-worthy psychological thriller underclassmen project. For this assignment, you must begin by announcing a self-aware arthouse film dealing with largely eschewed subject matters including Biblical stories or revisionist blockbuster superhero origin stories. Unless you’re Terrence Malick or Jim Jarmusch (which I doubt), this final dissertation may be beyond your capabilities as a self-indulgent, often pretentious filmmaker. I notice your 2006 assignment The Fountain tackled Biblical topics to laughable arthouse conceits in a desperate attempt to conceal its scrambled narrative and shoddy assemblage of themes. Please, be sure to consider your notes on The Tree of Life if you must proceed with another project tackling religious themes from an experimental approach. I also noticed that you dropped your early plans to draft that revisionist blockbuster superhero origin story. Too bad, because if you had gone the same route in crafting a lonely, existentially-bound tragic hero as in your 2008 assignment The Wrestler, your grades could surely improve. While nothing says respectable like a setup as this, please make sure to avoid oversimplifying and restating the obvious themes like you did in last year’s project. These faults just barely cost you top marks.
The second half of your project deals with crafting some kind of audiovisual work just to leave your mark on the year so as not to lose directorial relevance amidst a year of Fincher, McQueen Malick, Refn, and von Trier. A smaller work such as a short film or a… music video would seem appropriate. Be sure to create something clever, eye-catching, and artistic, and consider the music video/short film alumni from the 90’s including Spike Jonze, Michael Gondry, and Mark Romanek for a solid starting point. Also, keep in mind that out-of-focus close-ups, grainy black and white imagery, and deep shadows are NOT edgy and “pushing the boundaries” of the medium. Don’t you remember your seminar with Harmony Korine and Béla Tarr? Also, choosing blatantly gawky subject matter such as, say, beat poetry/heavy metal collaborations (especially lazily executed ones) does NOT constitute as tastefully ironic.
Remember, this is for your career!
The Proper Way to Use 3-D
Amidst all the big-budget 3-D blockbusters (Transformers: Dark of the Moon), IMAX-ready goliaths (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol), and exploitative shock value flicks (Final Destination 5), only one film manages to utilize 3-D right. Unexpectedly, this 3-D laden movie is none other than Werner Herzog’s documentary about prehistoric cave paintings, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Herzog delves deep into the remote recesses of the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in France with modern 3-D equipment, delivering a completely once-in-a-lifetime glimpse at the prehistoric art gallery. But Herzog envisions more than a simple collection of scattershot renderings of animals, instead imagining the cave paintings as a “proto-cinema,” tracking the walls with his camera to give the illusion of motion. Each and every exhaustively detailed shot leaves Herzog himself remaining in awe of the images before him, remarking with his German-accented English, “It is as though the modern human soul had awakened here.” And if Cave of Forgotten Dreams can make us gape wide-eyed in awe at a collection of widely disregarded horse paintings with more weight than any overblown battle sequence this year, then the 3-D here remains the most magical of all.
The Proper Way to Use Slo-Mo
Set to an exotic-sounding, crooning piece of music and zooming in on a dapper-looking Ryan Gosling munching a pizza, this hilariously overly-exquisite use of slow motion beats out Tarsem Singh’s slo-mo action sequences in Immortals or Nicolas Winding Refn’s bloody hotel kill in Drive. So unexpected of a shot, Crazy, Stupid, Love draws us even closer to Ryan Gosling’s character Jacob Palmer, and the film’s festishization of the actor produces a mélange of hilarity and style. In fact, by pointing out attention to the cult of personality that is Ryan Gosling, the movie highlights the real surprise at its core – the hilarity and likable charisma of the actor. Perpetually having a blast during the entire film, his amusement is infectious alongside his great chemistry with Steve Carell. As for the actual slow motion shot, there’s nothing much to say other than the fact that it exists as a piece of aesthetic guilty pleasure, but then again, when has slow-motion not been a source of that?
Worst Use of a Mustache
Clive Owen in Killer Elite. Come on now.
Oh Right, So Marvel Comics Is Cooler Than Ever Apparently
In a year where adaptations of DC comic characters has all but bombed critically and commercially, with only the limp Green Lantern title representing all DC has to offer, Marvel has responded with strength both in sheer numbers and quality. Boasting blockbuster titles Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, and X-Men: First Class, Marvel Studios has crafted the summer blockbuster events of the year. What truly makes these titles true winners, however, rests in the individual polish and excellence each film boasts rather than feeling like simple moneymaking, time-draining filler material for the imminent Avengers communal superheroics monstrosity looming over the horizon. Indeed, each film makes its mark on the typically homogeneous summer blockbuster spectacle season, featuring captivating revisionist histories, strong leading performances, and moments of genuine humor, rush, pathos, nostalgia, intrigue.
X-Men: First Class easily surpasses the other two titles, with the subversion of the characteristically Manichean moral absolutes of popcorn flicks through the artfully rendered Magneto by Michael Fassbender blurring lines between hero and villain. Thor contains such unexpected dichotomies as charm and combat, Shakespearian tragedy and spectacle, sci-fi and fantasy that director Kenneth Branagh seems to be delivering the extremes of a complete theatrical summer experience. And Captain America: The First Avenger surprisingly delivers a nostalgic, adventurous ride despite its overblown premise and aesthetics, even managing to convey a level of drama and narrative underneath its setup. Ultimately, these three movies are mere warm-ups for 2012’s The Avengers, but also stepping-stones for other secondary Marvel films like The Amazing Spider-Man and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (both of which have great potential). As for DC, the only title for 2012 remains Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, singlehandedly fighting off swarms of Marvel fanboys for summer audience attention.
Frustrating Movie of the Year Award
Punjabi filmmaker Tarsem Singh released his labor of love The Fall back in 2006, a personal artistic expression of visionary forte and stunning global cinematography. Featuring one of the most jaw-dropping opening credits sequences ever filmed, The Fall goes on to present an affecting narrative concerning two lost souls swapping stories in order to discover a shared consolation. In 2011, Singh released the not-so spectacular Immortals, a super stylish Greek mythology tale overburdened by a boring script, odd pacing, and popcorn theatrics that relegate his gorgeous visuals to nothing more than excessive flourishes in the grander context of the narrative. Almost all the pieces are played right, from the unforgettable visuals to the stylishly choreographed final action sequences. Indeed, Immortals radiates a unique visual flair, with its earthy tones of black and amber coalescing with a photographic palette that aims to capture Renaissance paintings unto the big screen. As for the actual story of Immortals, that’s where the film gets less interesting. Featuring a lackluster script from the Parlapanides brothers, the film drags on without a trace of excitement, energy, or even concern with the events transpiring before us. It’s only the final twenty minutes of the movie that gears begin to change and action sequences reach spectacular levels, from the time-warping gods vs. titans fight to the tightly packed hallway battle. The actors themselves are all competent enough, with relative newcomer Henry Cavill making his mark before his grandiose role as the titular Man of Steel in 2013, and a bizarrely cast Mickey Rourke surprisingly selling his villainy well as the barbaric King Hyperion. However, the true surprise here goes to Luke Evans as Zeus, an imposing figure whose lines come with fire and brimstone. Nevertheless, the oppressive pacing and the tiresome story simply overshadows all the positive aspects of this film, but at least Tarsem Singh has the charity to offer us one of the most epic closing shots of the year, a skyward shot of mythological figures in all-out war reminiscent of Kanye West’s “Power” video – glorious, grandiose, godly.
While David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo provided ultra-stylish, sleek trailers building up to its release, these pieces of promotional work only draw attention based on the sheer allure of the film’s images and score. Therefore, the year’s best collection of trailers goes to Steve McQueen’s Shame, a series of videos that sells very ugly subject material with an elegant, almost poetic touch. The first trailer immediately delves deep into the soul-churning depths of its subject matter – sexual addiction – providing a montage of sleek, sexually charged images that could resemble a modern reshooting of American Psycho. The graceful music combined with the frantic breathing (from Fassbender’s jogging or from sex?) pairs with intercut selections from critical reviews, offering apt descriptions such as “bold,” “daring,” “mesmerizing,” and “courageous.” From the trailer, the only two words that can fittingly describe the imagery presented is simple: raw and powerful. The “New York, New York” trailer (I believe it’s the second one) features Carey Mulligan covering the aforementioned song, and the outcome is fiercely shattering stuff. The trailer itself begins by teasing us, showing images that could come out of a typical romance film, but the drooping piano and the isolated shots of Michael Fassbender towards the latter half of the clip suggest darker, internal, and tragic implications. Setting up the character as profoundly psychologically afflicted (the only words he speaks are the whispered, “slowly”), this Shame trailer (which I consider my personal favorite) points towards very weighty material. One particular bit where the character’s reflection is distorted on a wall presents a wounded, lost individual, and the final shot of Fassbender averting his eyes contains such wordless emotional impact that it all but feels revelatory. Finally, one last promotional piece features a scene in which Fassbender eyes a girl on a subway, the effect of which is pure sexual tension. All the elements – the anticipatory clock noise ticking away, the start/stop of the subway train, Fassbender’s fixed gaze, and the final shots – serve to contribute in producing a cryptic, yet hypnotic series of shots for a trailer. Such ugly subject matter has never been marketed better.
The Chemical Brothers – Hanna
Alexandre Desplat, et. al – The Tree of Life
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Cliff Martinez, et. al – Drive
I may have to rework this category from “Best Soundtrack” to “Notable Soundtracks” next time around, because 2011 has generated an unprecedented four-way tie simply because the music in each of these films works so effectively when paired with the visuals onscreen. The Chemical Brothers’ fast-paced electronic pulses weld nicely to the music video mind-bending, equally fast-paced aesthetics of Hanna, intensifying scenes with ruthless paranoia and a bludgeon of beats. The orchestral movements of Alexandre Desplat and the collection of composers assembled coincides with The Tree of Life’s own narrative structure of movements, providing some emotionally shattering moments of audiovisual pairings (see: the creation of the universe set to Preisner’s “Life: Lacrimosa - Day of Tears”). Following the Academy Award-winning score of 2010’s The Social Network, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross return to work with director David Fincher for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, assembling pieces of atmospheric iciness conveying the same hopeless cold on the screen. Finally, Cliff Martinez continues his reverberating electronic work in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (with similar outcomes to his other notable 2011 work in the Contagion soundtrack), though the assortment of 1980s synth pop-inspired tracks by Kavinsky & Lovefoxxx, The Chromatics, Desire, and College are the standouts here. Oozing that nighttime 80’s vibe fitting nicely into Drive’s retro pastiche, these tracks purr out distinctly feminine delineations (specifically College’s “A Real Hero,” the film’s de facto theme) damn near perfect for listening to while double-clutching it down the hills of Mulholland Drive.
On TGWTDT Score: Track 2, Disc 1
The name of the track is “She Reminds Me of You,” a piece that I think is the most haunting out of all thirty-nine musical arrangements spread out over three discs. Perfectly suited to director David Fincher’s work, the track sounds ominous, mysterious, and marked with an intrinsic darkness. Naturally, I had “She Reminds Me of You” playing on loop for hours while studying for my first semester finals, providing wordless noise as I ruminated over weeks’ worth of notes and other academic material. So when night silently drifted by and I found myself isolated in a corner of the study room, I had completely immersed myself in the music so much so that the spare, decaying chimes of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross felt embedded within my head – I had forgotten that I had music playing in the first place. Consequently, the late night scene recalled images from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, that of a slowly degenerating figure who feels that the entire world is slowly closing in, a feeling intensified by those unforgivingly bleak chimes that seemed to be emanating from oblivion. The effect then, is perfection. The most emotionally and mentally arresting moments of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo soundtrack materialize out of layers of damaged, indecipherable sounds when given the right context – the inaccessibility of space and time itself, the very same elements that comprise David Fincher’s evocative adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s novel.
Cinema Confessional, #3
I tried not to touch my face while watching Contagion after that one scene (you know which).
Man of the Year
Okay, so Michael Fassbender may have the BEST overall acting run for 2011, boasting such grandiose titles as Jane Eyre, X-Men: First Class, A Dangerous Method, and Shame, but the “Man of the Year” title simply has to go to Ryan Gosling for his ubiquitous presence this year as a celebrity. From Drive to The Ides of March to Crazy, Stupid, Love, Gosling has appeared in a diverse selection of films only to substantiate his role as a promising, reputable actor capable of helming anything from arthouse to blockbuster. Consequently, a number of notable filmmakers have voiced their interest in the young star for future work, including Nicolas Winding Refn (Only God Forgives, Logan’s Run), Derek Cianfrance (The Place Beyond the Pines), Ruben Fleischer (The Gangster Squad), and the oh-so prestigious Terrence Malick (Lawless, a film starring our Woman of the Year alongside Gosling). But first, to address the films of 2011. Drive witnesses Ryan Gosling finally exhibiting a rawer, more violent side under Refn’s meticulous direction, and also the popularization of the now iconic scorpion jacket. The Ides of March features one of the wittiest back-and-forth flirting games of 2011, envisioning Evan Rachel Wood and the actor sharing their fair share of sly, rapid-fire exchanges. And finally, Gosling’s run in Crazy, Stupid, Love shows off a funnier side of the actor, from the crazed shopping spree movie montage (tastefully done, i.e. not Sex and the City 2) to the goofy banter with co-star Steve Carell. Besides shooting critically acclaimed films, Gosling is also known to break up fights in New York City, become a famous Internet meme, serve as a spokesperson for feminism, display his affection for Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn at the Cannes Film Festival, and embody the general existentialist protagonist as exemplified in Drive. Jean-Paul Sartre put it best. “If I became a philosopher, if I have so keenly sought this fame for which I’m still waiting, it’s all been to seduce women basically.”
Woman of the Year
Like the “Man of the Year” title, I’ll begin with the honorable mentions for this category. First off, I can’t stress enough the acting brilliance of Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin, authentically conveying the trauma and paranoia of a character plagued by an belligerent son through sheer body language and a striking command of the screen. Furthermore, actress Jessica Chastain remains unparalleled in terms of the sheer number of new, quality films released this year from an acting career established only in 2008. Honestly, Chastain had top billing in about every third film released in 2011 (The Tree of Life, Take Shelter, The Debt, The Help, Texas Killing Fields, and so on). Nevertheless, it’s Rooney Mara who takes the shining title for “Woman of the Year,” boasting such a weighty role in David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that her performance feels like total role commitment. Indeed, her sudden transformation from the charming Erica Albright of The Social Network to the gritty, standoffish hacker punk Lisbeth Salander (featuring Mohawk, tattoos, piercings, bleached eyebrows, and all) reveals the sheer breath of her undertaking to even appear in the film. And when she does have her glorious screen time, Mara portrays Salander brilliantly, completely selling the character as her own apart from Noomi Rapace’s rendition back in 2009. The Salander she envisions is deathly frail and vulnerable, but also brutal, captivating, and hypnotic, ready to exercise sudden tonal shifts at the drop of a hat (or after the actions of a random thief at a subway station). Thus, during the events of the nearly three-hour sprawl of film, one can’t help but notice the inevitable. Rooney Mara drives forward in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, moving closer and closer to revenge, but also an even greater redemption.
Facepalm of the Year
The Iron Lady, The Help, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, New Year’s Eve, and The Adjustment Bureau share collective groans all around, but the true facepalm belongs to Jack and Jill. To be honest, I avoided the film like a plague due to the multitudes of critics slicing it to mincemeat with their reproachful reviews and the abysmally low Rotten Tomatoes score of 4% (I’ll watch a poorly rated film… I’m all for B-movies, looking forward to that Ghost Rider sequel and Wrath of the Titans more than most, but that score is doomed). Even so, there’s always that horrible poster as an assessment of quality.
No contest, the best ending of 2011 occurs in David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, both affirming how damaged and hurt the character Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) is and elevating the preceding two hours in a poignant emotional dénouement. Unlike Niels Arden Oplev’s 2009 adaptation, Fincher concerns his ending with the pain and frailty of Salander rather than how “badass” she is – which is to say, she finally moves past the superficiality and actually defines a character that sticks in the back of one’s mind well past the credits roll. It’s a hollow sadness that the film evaporates with, but also the captivation and depth of actress Rooney Mara, the broken psyche of a character, and pangs of collective sympathy.
Two words: emotional catharsis.
12 For 2012: Most Looked-Forward To Films
1. The Place Beyond the Pines, dir. Derek Cianfrance
2. Only God Forgives, dir. Nicolas Winding Refn
3. Prometheus, dir. Ridley Scott
4. Moonrise Kingdom, dir. Wes Anderson
5. Cosmopolis, dir. David Cronenberg
6. The Avengers, dir. Joss Whedon
7. Looper, dir. Rian Johnson
8. Django Unchained, dir. Quentin Tarantino
9. Cogan’s Trade, dir. Andrew Dominik
10. Skyfall, dir. Sam Mendes
11. Night Moves, dir. Kelly Reichardt
12. The Dark Knight Rises, dir. Christopher Nolan
The Most Important Film of the Year
“The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”
- Albert Camus
In a year where censorship and government suppression of media became the norm for current events, one brave filmmaker released the single most important film this year despite the censorious powers that be. On December 2010, the Iranian government sentenced director Jafar Panahi to six years of prison, a restriction on travel, and a twenty-year filmmaking ban for “acting out” against the Islamic Republic. This threatening action that has led to Panahi’s suppression was merely his throwing of support for the street protests following President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election back in 2009, yet the Iranian director still continues his career of defiance amidst government contempt. Filming his snidely titled This Is Not a Film while under house arrest and the filmmaking ban, Panahi has created an importance piece of art that doubles as an act of the political amid the year’s Middle Eastern unrest (see: Arab Spring).
Internationally, issues regarding the suppression of media have become more apparent than ever. In China, artists/directors Ai Weiwei, Jia Zhangke, and Zhang Yimou have all publicly voiced their concerns about the Communist Party’s continued clampdown of the arts, with State-owned censor boards cracking down on everything from violence to time travel. Even recent developments close to home reflect the changing sociopolitical landscape, with scares from ACTA and the now defunct SOPA and PIPA forcing people to find new freedom in sharing digital media. And while the provisions laid out in ACTA are not directly related to artistic censorship, the now burgeoning international underground cinema culture has a level of relevance in completely bypassing these copyright laws, potentially hinting at the future direction of this art. Cheaper cameras, extremely low-budget HD films, Vimeo-uploaded material, independent production, taboo subject matter – these are all elements that point towards the rapidly expanding foreign underground, a tiny corner of cinema untouched by government censorship or suppressive copyright law.
In This Is Not a Film, Panahi documents his daily life under house arrest, waiting to hear development of his appeal. Co-director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb films part of the documentary in a secretive guerilla style on an iPhone, further demonstrating the rebellious nature of the project. This politically defiant nature of the project has an even more extraordinary story in terms of its screening. To premiere the film at the Cannes Film Festival, Panahi smuggled out the digital files out of Iran inside a cake (oh, Marie Antoinette). In Europe, the director’s work is highly acclaimed, from his 1995 debut The White Balloon (winning the Camera d’Or at Cannes) to his Golden Lion-winning The Circle at Venice back in 2000. While Jafar Panahi could not appear at Cannes this year, his support by the film community remained larger than ever, with figures including Francis Ford Coppola, the Coen Brothers, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, etc. signing a petition for his release. The obstinate Islamic Republic of Iran will likely ignore these requests, but the very existence of This Is Not a Film constitutes a dangerous, but vital act of political and cinematic rebellion.
The message: Don’t fuck with us.
So, What’s With All Those Post-Credits Sequences?
“If you can't annoy somebody, there’s little point in writing.”
- Kingsley Amis
Call the following movies faults, offenses, blunders, flawed, diamonds in the rough, whatever you want. They’re not necessarily bad films; after all, this list isn’t titled “The Worst of 2011.” Simply restating what’s been said over and over again, namely that Jack and Jill, The Smurfs, Season of the Witch, Priest, Atlas Shrugged: Part 1, Dylan Dog: Dead of Night, Zookeeper, Shark Night 3D, Dream House and so on are bad films doesn’t add much to the conversation. What do we learn that we don’t already know? I’m sure Dennis Dugan’s Jack and Jill would land on any “Worst of 2011” list, but yet another Adam Sandler bomb (in which he plays both male and female leads) lends no fresh insight into what constitutes as a bad movie: it just is. Instead, the following bunch of films represent the biggest disappointments of the year, as well as those movies with such arrogant, overinflated self-importance whose brainless accolade heaping from bandwagon critics only strengthens its idiocy. Think of this list as a corrective or a catalog of those films likely to be quickly forgotten in film history. Honestly, there are far better films to find out in the world, and I mean the world with full conviction, go watch a foreign film, most you’ll hear about are good.
Actually no, I have a better label: “Facepalms of the Year,” because I assure you at least one was given while sitting through these.
The first Cars was a harmless Pixar title that was charming enough but felt too thematically close to the far superior Toy Story series, sharing that same overarching theme of invisibility amidst an ever-changing world. So why release a follow-up to an already mediocre film (when placed side by side with other Pixar giants like The Incredibles or Finding Nemo?) Merchandise! Apparently Cars generated nearly $10 billion in global merchandise sales, resulting in Cars 2, a sequel that completely abandons the somewhat charming premise of the first in favor of uninspired globetrotting adventures in order to cash in another successful day for Disney. And although the introduction of voice work from the always-amiable Michael Caine enters the picture, he can’t even save the film from the annoying Larry the Cable Guy and Owen Wilson. These two voice actors were agreeable just enough for the first Cars, but I can’t say I’ve been longing for more mindless misadventures with them once more. Cars 2 represents a faltering Pixar, a notion that I explored in my earlier “Brave: Pixar’s Apology for Cars 2 & Signaling the End of an Era” piece, a film driven by profit rather than genuine artistry and imagination.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
While Andy Serkis’ motion capture work in Rise of the Planet of the Apes is groundbreaking, genuinely stirring material, the rest of the film falls flat with its one-sided vision of vehemently greedy corporatism. James Franco tries his best, but even he can’t stop the ridiculous “You make history, and I make money” line from being unforgivably cringeworthy. Please Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (the writers of the film), if you’re going to deride the state of voracious corporate greed in America, do so with a little more subtlety. Take a gander at the work by J. J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci in the TV series Fringe if you’re going to portray shady science corporations with the right mix of enigma and villainy. And don’t even get me started on Tom Felton’s caricature of a character, whose exaggerated cruelty and stupidly seemed as if his lines were lifted right out of Draco Malfoy’s dialogue in the first two Harry Potter films: “He thinks he’s special or something… filthy little ape!” Just replace “ape” with “mudblood” or “Weasley” or whatever Malfoy insult of your choice and see how superficial his character turned out to be.
Duncan Jones’ Moon had much going for it: a breakout performance by Sam Rockwell, some interesting plot twists, a fantastic score by Clint Mansell, classic sci-fi intrigue, and of course, Kevin Spacey as a smiley robot. When Moon quickly became the sci-fi of choice for 2009 (next to, you know, that Avatar film or that District 9 flick or that Star Trek reboot), it seemed as though Duncan Jones was the next great thing for the genre. Lo and behold, Source Code comes out in 2011, an overly self-important film in which Jones recycles that old conceit of a character struggling with identity crisis, albeit with less stunning results. The film’s premise of trial-and-error time loops as an exercise in preventing a catastrophic bombing ultimately becomes redundant affair in the same vein as Vantage Point’s unending monotony. To be fair, a storyline in which events are repeated over and over is a difficult task to pull off successfully, with the only truly engaging, pulse-pounding work found in titles like the 1998 German film Run Lola Run and Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Blind Chance (both highly recommended). Nevertheless, the presence of Michelle Monaghan as protagonist Jake Gyllenhaal’s doomed seatmate only destines the film as a soppy, sometimes ditzy romantic comedy that ends with a completely Hollywood (unambitious, typical, lazy) coda. If Source Code had cut the last five minutes of the picture in favor of the beautifully executed freeze frame (you’ll know what I’m referring to if you’ve seen the film), it could have at least retained a level of integrity, but instead, Duncan Jones’ flick only goes down as the movie with the worst ending this year.
The Adjustment Bureau
Different movie, same conceit. The Adjustment Bureau shares Source Code’s inexplicable fondness for rom-com sappiness, completely leaving a complex storyline (loosely inspired by Philip K. Dick’s “Adjustment Team”) analyzing moral ambiguity, profound conspiracies, and fate vs. free will struggles up in the air. Instead, Matt Damon and Emily Blunt run around the streets of New York City to cash in the film’s sexist plot based entirely around whether or not the guy gets the girl, all after yet another unconvincing love-at-first-sight setup. The Adjustment Bureau completely drops its initial establishment of radical philosophizing ideas on power struggles and religion in favor of vague, Hollywood-friendly universalist ideals. Thus, the conclusions are harmless, equating some bland corporate organization as the film’s “heaven” while dodging religious and philosophical questions, leaving God as an uninspired “Chairman.” At the end of the day, the story aims to please a broad audience with its “universal” philosophizing on the importance of love that ultimately equates to ideas too vague to have any profound significance. And don’t even get me started on those magical fedoras (a cheap facsimile of Fringe’s observers), which apparently imbue the wearer with crazy travelling powers. Yeesh.
As I’ve said before in my earlier review of Super 8, I liked the movie fine enough, but I simply cannot get over that egregiously underdeveloped alien storyline. How are audiences supposed to sympathize with the thing? It wreaks havoc and eats dozens of townsfolk throughout the film, yet all J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg have to offer for sympathy is some obscure backstory on a history of testing by the military. Spielberg’s own overused, oversimplified portrayal of the military as an insensible, all-pervading villain cheapens Super 8 to inferior sci-fi camp. Neill Blomkamp’s own District 9 handles its “alien oppression” far more successfully because he actively shows this oppression through the slums, the apartheid allegory, and the military cruelty rather than Abrams’ work in merely mentioning his alien’s harassment. Thus, Super 8’s core sci-fi story wraps up with a hastily executed ending that gives a complete cop out of a closure. I may as well watch Transformers 3…
The Iron Lady
Meryl Streep is a fine enough actress. Her roles in Adaptation, The Hours, Fantastic Mr. Fox, A Prairie Home Companion, and The Devil Wears Prada are a few of my favorites from hers, but I absolutely detest a lot of her obvious “award show bait” performances in Doubt, Julie & Julia, Mamma Mia!, Lions for Lambs, and now this mess of a film. The Iron Lady is a biopic of ultraconservative British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher with Streep handling the role as the not-so-beloved leader. Yet for some bizarre reason, the film presents her repressive administration as an exemplar of feminine strength as she defies all those men who thought she couldn’t do it. The film completely simplifies an entire career of such a controversial political figure to mere “you-go-girl” B-movie trash (fit for the Lifetime Movie Network, I suppose) so much so that the film somehow even manages to spin Thatcher’s dispatch of troops to the bloody Falklands War with the mindless reasoning that she “does battle” every day in a “man’s world.” And I remember when critics predicted this film to be a big winner this awards season…
We Bought a Zoo
For some odd reason, every interview with Matt Damon on We Bought a Zoo ends with him communicating the overly sappy story of a disheartened father rebuilding his relationship with his family through purchasing and maintaining a zoo (hence the title), usually resulting in either the interviewer or Damon himself (or hell, even both) smirking in acknowledgment of the film’s own absurdly silly premise. To which Damon and admirers of the film defend, “uhhh… but it’s directed by Cameron Crowe!” as if Crowe were some untouchable movie god who could rescue any tasteless, family-friendly pretension. Of course, Crowe’s own filmography with titles like Say Anything…, Vanilla Sky, and Almost Famous comprise a respectable oeuvre, but to simply use Crowe’s name as a badge of quality for We Bought a Zoo pushes the film’s own integrity. The film has its heart in the right place, but it still can’t help but feel like a false, calculated contrivance.
We need to talk about Kevin. Not only does Red State miss its mark as a serious political/social commentator with something actually worth saying, it’s not even a particularly tense film. Sure, Red State has its moments and Michael Parks as Pastor Abin Cooper makes for one of the best villains of the year, but the seconds drag on for hours. Smith attempts to channel the witticisms of Tarantino with the misanthropic anti-narrative of the Coens, but fails to do either, instead leaving a pile of disorganized shots together and calling it a film. And the filmmaker himself even fails to successfully relay his point across on the dangers of crackpot religious groups and inept bureaucratic powers by not providing a moral center, which of course only leaves the insane Pastor Cooper as the most likable character. And when your film’s last man standing ends up to be the homophobic, ultraviolent antagonist sitting atop a pile of guns and brainwashed cult members, we may have a bit of a problem on our hands.
It’s baffling that The Help, a film that trivializes and decontextualizes the 1960s racial climate of Jim Crow-era Mississippi into a feel-good romp of cutesy costume designs and white wish-fulfillment fantasy, has received such high critical and commercial success. The Help claims to address racial injustices during the time period from the eyes of Aibileen Clark (with fiercely stirring work from Viola Davis), but only manages to ignore and misrepresent the true experience of the African-American community of the time. Largely toothless, mindless affair, The Help is pure Hollywood fantasy created to make audiences feel good about themselves from a darker historical past, though at the end of the day, the film merely sinks to pretentiously racist levels of celebrating a black woman being told she can work as a maid for a white family forever. And to add insult to injury, it’s the white woman’s book deal and the white director’s film that ends up making bank when all is said and done. Just how forward thinking is that?
Cowboys & Aliens
There’s a huge difference between self-absorbed and self-aware, Jon Favreau, remember that. Hobo with a Shotgun is self-aware; The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence) is self-absorbed. If one is going to make a film as tricky as a sci-fi Western with a straight face, one needs to remain cognizant of just how absurd and how close to B-movie exploitation trash the scenario actually is. Unfortunately, Cowboys & Aliens fails to pay homage or play it smart, instead looking ahead with full conviction that the film is sleek, inventive, tense, and exciting. Also working against it is Favreau’s presumption that overblown action and Hollywood explosions are universally appealing to summer moviegoers, as if the clustered multitudes of cinephiles will mindlessly take in all these hollow setups as entertainment. Favreau, you did well with Iron Man. Just remember this disparity next time around: self-absorbed vs. self-aware.
Green Lantern / The Green Hornet
2011’s not a great year for the color green apparently, with comic book adaptations Green Lantern and The Green Hornet completely missing their marks. Green Lantern, a film centered on the thematic core of the limitless powers of imagination ends up rather unimaginative and dull. The Green Hornet, with acclaimed director Michael Gondry and funnyman Seth Rogen, winds up with not much to praise or laugh about. Nevertheless, we audiences can laugh at these films, whether it’s Ryan Reynolds’ silly, over-the-top CGI suit in Green Lantern or The Green Hornet’s painfully atrocious mishandling of actor Christoph Waltz as its villain. These are incompetent films from talented directors who should know better – Green Lantern’s Martin Campbell (Casino Royale) and The Green Hornet’s Michael Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) – with 3D effects that signal the gimmick’s slow demise. And while Campbell and Gondry’s failures here are surprising, it’s no surprise that these films are entitled “Green,” because when the nonsense behind these films are finally lifted, all that’s left is… more box-office money!
Oh Clint Eastwood, you’re a fine director with a respectable string of recent titles (minus Hereafter), but why does J. Edgar have to be so bland and boring? As a biopic, the film never really delivers any truly profound insight into the life of its titular protagonist, and as a forum for acting, Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, and Naomi Watts are nothing too special. Watching the former two put on grumpy old faces (complete with makeup work and all) and talk and talk and talk and talk without the conviction of Ken Watanabe in Letters from Iwo Jima or the occasional charm of Eastwood himself in Gran Torino leaves the film stiff and unmemorable. It’s pure Oscar bait yet again from good ‘ol Clint, lacking writer Dustin Lance Black’s engaging dialogue in Milk, ultimately remaining too formal, too by-the-numbers, too talkative, and too motionless.
New Year’s Eve
New Year’s Eve, a follow-up of sorts to director Garry Marshall’s ensemble romantic-comedy Valentine’s Day, continues the exact same formula of uninterested celebrities showing up for the sake of an effortless paycheck. Robert De Niro is literally dying in this film (commercialized cancer), a cheap stab at pathos that nonetheless symbolizes the star’s steady demise amidst weak comedies (Little Fockers) and senseless crime/action films (Killer Elite). Numerous subplots comprise the film featuring A LOT of unlikable stars – Ashton Kutcher, Jon Bon Jovi, Jessica Biel, Josh Duhamel, Zac Efron, Alyssa Milano, Sarah Jessica Parker, etc. – in a typical portrayal of New York City complete with obligatory helicopter shots of the skyline, the Statue of Liberty, and other landmarks that could be repackaged as a tourist agency commercial. Surprisingly, the director’s knack for only portraying heterosexual white couples falling in love while African-American and Hispanic characters (Ludacris, Sofia Vergara, Halle Berry, etc.) only existing for diversity’s sake isn’t the most reprehensible aspect of New Year’s Eve. Instead, it’s the ridiculous hospital birthing contest (first baby born after midnight wins the grand prize money) that takes the cake, that and the cringeworthy line that accompanies it: “May the best va-jay-jay win!”
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Humor websites BriTANicK and Cracked’s “Trailer for Every Oscar-Winning Movie Ever” nicely fits the overly sappy, 100% Oscar bait self-satisfaction of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the expected cinematic adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel. With a plot already seemingly lifted from the Hallmark Movie Channel, director Stephen Daldry does not hold back on the over-sentimentalism, instead choosing to exploit 9/11 pathos worse than United 93’s action movie shakycam style (you can practically hear the 24 countdown in that one). Leading actors Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock don’t hold back either, both obviously vying for awards season attention. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is so hopelessly clichéd, so blatantly fairytale syrupy that none of its emotional catharsis ever feels authentic. It only feeds our New York City wanderlust with its gawky storyline, appealing to the faux soul-searching and emotionally needy demographic of audiences who saw The Help or Larry Crowne. Ultimately, the film even leaves the lives of its own protagonists and all those people who show up along its soppy journey unexamined and undeveloped, all in favor of hopeless stabbing for audience sympathy. Well, I for one, won’t fall for it.
When British born author Joanne “J.K.” Rowling set out to write Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in 1990, she probably didn’t anticipate her work reaching worldwide critical and commercial success that not only uncovered the strata of piercingly insightful political and social commentary but also an unyieldingly human story for which the series is known. Rowling upholds her unique vision throughout the eventual film adaptations of her novels, beginning with the two Chris Columbus directed features in which the author worked with screenwriter Steve Kloves to lend her narrative voice. Staying irrevocably British in terms of casting, location, and the approach to filmmaking, the Harry Potter movie series epitomizes the power to preserve determined constancy even as characters and struggles change under the variable directorial visions of contemporary action-fantasy.
Placing special emphasis on the dichotomy between kinetic fantasy visuals and cinematic restraint, the Harry Potter series contains a visual virtuosity of large-scale action sequences and powerful character drama. At times, the pictures are haunting and atmospheric, capable of alluring audiences with beautiful, hypnotizing cinematography like Eduardo Serra’s work in the Deathly Hallows: Part 1. From the warm, highly digitalized visuals of Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets to the sparse but stylized color palate of haunting blues and grays in later films, the collective movies neatly shift in tone from piece to piece to impart a progressively growing feeling of dread. As a decades long experiment in establishing mood and mise-en-scène, Harry Potter tracks Rowling’s original story thoroughly while also saving room for directorial freedom in crafting a latent assemblage of political and social themes, coming of age comedy quirks, and dramatic character performances with each and every turn of the story.
Oftentimes, the films pull surprises that keep each title fresh and electrifying despite the series’ tendency to stray away from the source material towards unexplored, untapped cinematic storytelling ground. Movies are granted unexpected stylistic cues and unconventional plot structures that lean towards the ambitious and experimental rather than stick to by-the-numbers adaptation. In place of overstated emotional melodrama or action-packed set pieces, Half-Blood Prince prefers quiet existential rumination; Goblet of Fire visualizes macabre horror over whimsical fantasy; the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 chooses epic, cathartic battle over protracted action scenes. That the series can redefine itself under each and every director, and retrospectively, with each and every title, entitles the complete franchise as one of the greatest cinematic achievements this past decade. Individually, each movie contains its own special quirks and moments masterfully executed by its respective directors, allowing each film to have its own identity separate from the broader context of the series. Yet each piece of the franchise ultimately submits to a grander pattern that makes it even more special, more intelligible, and more brilliant. Watching theHarry Potter series gradually darken from Columbus’s lighthearted affairs to the mature, more foreboding installments later on speaks to the haphazard precision of the series as each piece seamlessly falls into play to make for holistically climactic, emotional visual affair.
The ever-darkening tone established in Alfonso Cuarón’s Prisoner of Azkaban would slowly develop into the emotional catharsis witnessed at the end of Half-Blood Prince, a tonal transformation that carries impact because of the holistic framework of the entire franchise. A wide, comprehensive control of the series invests characters, locations, and music with deeper contexts and emotional pulls, explaining why John Williams’ “Hedwig’s Theme” can still send shivers down spines when interpolated in Alexandre Desplat’s score in the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 and why witnessing a decimated Hogwarts at the end of Half-Blood Prince and its eventual, glorious return in the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 carries so much profound significance to fans. Looking back on the series as a whole, it’s easy to recognize the climax of the eight films precisely embedded within the final hour of the Order of the Phoenix with Dumbledore and Voldemort’s visually and emotionally arresting duel, signifying the unstoppable rise of the villain. Even one of the most contentious film entries – the Half-Blood Prince – makes even more sense when looked at in a broader context as a buoyant respite before the unrelenting finale to follow. So even as loyal Rowling fans groan at the directorial freedoms exercised in the film and the aimless portrayal of mundane teenage life and teenage drama unfold, it all develops for a reason – to infuse Hogwarts with warm, welcoming pathos and familiarity with the last normal year of classes before the final epilogue and its sole focus on Voldemort’s end and final battle.
Even contemplating the directors of films past make sense from a retrospective vantage point, as Chris Columbus’s innocuous, unaspiring first two films fulfill the meticulous task of world building necessary to fuel the conflict of later, more economic films. To defend Columbus when taken in a larger context, one only needs to look towards his fairly successful foundation of the basic presentational aesthetic and his augmentation of Rowling’s original material in visual form. Filmmakers with a darker aesthetic like Cuarón and Yates lack the innocent sentimentality necessary to ground Sorcerer’s Stone andChamber of Secrets to the past, and concurrently, Columbus lacks the maturity and sharp, concise storytelling vision of later directors. Cuarón remains my favorite director of the franchise because of his spectacular accomplishment in turning the series around towards a more serious, ominous affair through his exploratory tracking shots, organic sets and cinematography, and the general direction that Prisoner of Azkaban moves away from Columbus’s aimless whimsy. And while Mike Newell’s direction of Goblet of Fire is competent enough, it’s David Yates that easily takes the second place spot, with his looser yet more concentrated direction and his ability to tell stories and radiate burgeoning emotions through cinematography, camera movements, tone, and overall pacing.
Yates skillfully completes the far more appealing darkened visuals of the Harry Potter franchise, immersing viewers with his matchless aesthetic and his engaging portrayal of the characters that have continuously grown along with its audiences. As the childish wonder fades away from Columbus’s early romps towards the frightening gravitas of events unfolding, the films themselves mature and become markedly contemporary rather than remain a medium to display fantasy tricks and silliness. The successful maturation of the three perfectly cast heroes – the brave (Daniel Radcliffe), the wise (Emma Watson), and the enduring (Rupert Grint) – unravels the humanism underlying each and every film. The trio has always seemed larger than life, larger even than the story itself as they deliberately detach themselves from the main action as in the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 and their hunt for horcruxes as war rages outside. The films have magnified the characters from mere text to visual reality, walking a fine line between faithfulness and innovation in terms of character portrayal, acting, and characterization. This achievement seems rudimentary upon first viewing of the series, though the significance slowly seeps through when taking into account the social consciousness and contemporary resonance interspersed with the empathic portrayal of each character (even faceless ones within the masses of figures in battle), a marker that signifies the series’ ability to handle a dissimilar array of talent into a structured, unified whole.
That Rowling’s novels and the film adaptations can remain separate, respectable entities is a feat in and of itself, though the films look to be more enduring, more prominent in the public consciousness, an exploit very similar to Peter Jackson’s work translating J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings to the screen. It’s not terribly often that the public film-going body receives a film franchise that can fittingly be identified as epochal, masterful filmmaking, though the Harry Potter series yields outstanding results so vastly and so poetically. The decision to give audiences the privilege to witness Rowling’s vision of happiness and innocence, but also broody and ominous moments speaks to the franchise’s ability to keep a levelheaded vision even as this cinematic decade has witnessed a steady march towards obsolescence and shallowness. Nevertheless, screenwriter Steve Kloves, David Yates, et al. have an enduring faith in the medium, as do we all after years of steady releases and gradual development of the story. Yates, along with his predecessors of the Potterverse, craft a breathtakingly uncompromised vision of Rowling’s material while refusing to provide audiences with brainless thrills and action. Measuring the greatness of the Harry Potter film adaptations is a difficult trial, and the tens of thousands of words written about each and every installment (each article can be found via their respective title card below) barely even scratch the surface of why these films deserve such attention and appraisal. But I’ll still take these words to heart if it means getting closer and closer to unearthing its brilliance and why the film is such a profound experience. As film enters into another year, Harry Potter comes to its final close, but not before letting audiences know how brilliant and how enduring of a run it’s had these past few years. Because at the end of the day, it’s people like Rowling, Yates, Kloves, Radcliffe, Watson, Grint, Gambon, Rickman, and many others who are the real wizards. Watching them perform for the screen, that’s the real magic.
[Click pictures for reviews.]
A new trailer for David Fincher’s upcoming title The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, an original adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s first novel in the Millennium series (not an arrogant American remake of the Swedish films as some critics have claimed), has surfaced online clocking in at a massive eight minute run time. The three-minute extended preview released just months ago featured revelatory shots of the film set to a brutally haunting, minimalist piano and synth-driven score which built upon the economical, yet punk and tense original teaser trailer set to Karen O and Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross’ cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” The new trailer on the other hand gives profoundly more measured insight into what can be expected from the film, including the bare bones premise of the story revealed in detail played over a moody, ambient score.
Wintry, noirish, and altogether simmering with tension beneath the surface, the new trailer is sure to stave off hunger for those awaiting one of the last fine films of the year and general fans of David Fincher’s slick, stylish aesthetic. In fact, the new The Girl with the Dragon Tattootrailer hints that this movie may be Fincher’s darkest to date, implying the sick and twisted sadism lurking within its core. For those familiar with Larsson’s original source material, one particular scene involving character Nils Bjurman (played by a gruff looking Yorick van Wageningen) has a snippet revealed in the trailer, nearly teetering on the border between an R and an NC-17 rating because of its disturbing quality (see: Steve McQueen’s Shame)
Also depicted in the trailer is Fincher’s proclivity for golden color palettes in his scenes, in this case a magnificent golden glow for key flashback sequences that directly clashes with the cold, gloomy grays and blues of the present day. This warm gold / cold gray color scheme dichotomy is definitely a filmmaking aspect to look out for when the film ultimately debuts December 21, and it will be interesting to discover how Fincher manipulates his iconic mise en scène to serve the needs of this film.
Nevertheless, the primary interest of the recent eight-minute trailer is Rooney Mara, the leading actress of the film who has continuously proven to be a curious enigma as protagonist Lisbeth Salander. Her cold, unemotional line delivery instantly recalls Jesse Eisenberg’s own apathetic, condescending (but brilliant) performance in Fincher’s 2010 The Social Network as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, drawing parallels once again as a young, tech-savvy figure. As the trailer slowly explicates Mara’s character with its slow ambiance, the last minute all but floods over in a sudden rush of speed, quickly unearthing the split second cuts found in the first two trailers with heavy drum loops that drown out all sound. An abrupt cut to “A David Fincher film” and the titles ends the eight minute clip, finally boiling over all anticipation for the weeks left before the film’s eventual release this Christmas holiday season.
The trailer itself is released hand-in-hand with the official announcement of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ whopping three-hour score, a run time that far exceeds the actual film. On the official Nine Inch Nails website, Reznor writes, “For the last fourteen months Atticus and I have been hard at work on David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. We laughed, we cried, we lost our minds and in the process made some of the most beautiful and disturbing music of our careers. The result is a sprawling three-hour opus that I am happy to announce is available for pre-order right now for as low as $11.99. The full release will be available in one week – December 9th.”
The soundtrack is available in several formats on Reznor’s independent Null Corporation label: regular and HD digital downloads (released December 9), a physical copy of the triple CD (released December 27), and an extensive deluxe package (ships February 6). Said deluxe version, signed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, features six LPs, a book, a fold-out poster, and a USB drive shaped like a razor blade. Furthermore, anyone has the opportunity to exchange their e-mail address to download a six-track sampler from the album at the Null Corporation website.
Following Reznor and Ross’ Academy Award-winning original score for Fincher’s The Social Network last year, the upcoming music should prove to be another achievement once again. With song titles apropos for Fincher’s own dark, cryptic filmmaking quality – “Parallel Timeline With Alternate Outcome,” “Under the Midnight Sun,” and “Revealed In the Thaw” to name a few – it looks like a solid audio treat to build further expectation for the film. The soundtrack is also bookended with covers, starting with Reznor/Ross and Karen O’s “Immigrant Song” and concluding with a How to Destroy Angels (of which Reznor and Ross are members of) cover of “Is Your Love Strong Enough?”
David Fincher’s adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, starring Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara, will be released on US screens on December 21, 2011. Scroll past the tracklist to the bottom of the article to find the new eight-minute trailer.
01. Immigrant Song (Led Zeppelin cover) [feat. Karen O]
02. She Reminds Me of You
03. People Lie All the Time
04. Pinned and Mounted
06. What If We Could?
07. With The Flies
08. Hidden In Snow
09. A Thousand Details
10. One Particular Moment
11. I Can’t Take It Anymore
12. How Brittle the Bones
13. Please Take Your Hand Away
14. Cut Into Pieces
15. The Splinter
16. An Itch
18. Under the Midnight Sun
20. You’re Here
21. The Same as the Others
22. A Pause for Reflection
23. While Waiting
24. The Seconds Drag
25. Later Into the Night
26. Parallel Timeline With Alternate Outcome
27. Another Way of Caring
28. A Viable Construct
29. Revealed In the Thaw
31. We Could Wait Forever
33. Great Bird of Prey
34. The Heretics
35. A Pair of Doves
37. The Sound of Forgetting
38. Of Secrets
39. Is Your Love Strong Enough? (Bryan Ferry cover)