Thursday, September 23, 2010

Typical 'Town' Heist

'The Town'
Review: 3/5

Ben Affleck is making a name for himself as a burgeoning director. His films, emotional crime dramas set in Boston, seem to exude a genuine empathy for the city's lower class inhabitants - most often rendered as tormented, drug and alcohol addled bystanders content with maintaining the status quo. 'The Town' is no different, pitting a team of bank robbers against not only a trigger-happy FBI, but societal restraints, seemingly dictating that the crew live in the wake of their sins until the next 'job' presents itself. It's an aimless lifestyle, imposing upon these outlaws a lack of permissible ambition.

Taking place in a decaying Charlestown, Massachusetts, Affleck, along with writers Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard (and adapted from Chuck Hogan's novel 'Prince of Thieves') construct a grim story centered on Affleck's Douglas MacRay, and his yearning desire to escape the archetypal gangster 'life' and carry on a steady relationship. This is no easy task, of course, considering this protagonist's loyalty to his delinquent buddies (including the manic James Coughlin, played in an Oscar-worthy turn by Jeremy Renner), an imprisoned father, and a menacing florist enigmatically played by Pete Postlethwaite with a thick Irish accent and a lingering sneer - not to mention a newfound love interest who is, ironically, a local Charlestown bank manager whose relative 'goodness' is measured by the extent to which she cares for her garden.

Without debating the disparity between cliches and archetypes, it's fair to say that this story has been told in various fashion for some time now. It's nothing new or revolutionary. It's a simple narrative, simply told. In this case, that's all the material requires.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Ready, Set, SALT!

Review: 2/5

Director Phillip Noyce has a slew of reputable action-thrillers to his name; foremost among those being the Jack Ryan films, 'Patriot Games,' and 'Clear and Present Danger.' Unfortunately, his venture into the world of 21st century pyrotechnics is alarmingly static, suggesting that his retro 90s-inspired directorial sensibilities have been rendered archaic. The camera-direction is shy and often unmotivated, the aesthetic is overtly bland, expositional dialogue reigns paramount over visual storytelling, and gifted actors Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor are reduced to one-dimensional CIA caricatures. The queen of the show, of course, is Angelina Jolie, whose enigmatic character alters frantically between heightened panic and brooding allure - it's a conflicting duality.

The story is centered on Jolie's character, Evelyn Salt (Why such an odd last name? No explanation in the film. It must have sounded pretty cool on paper). She's, supposedly, a member of the CIA. Or is she? When an ominous Russian spy, who's apparently psychic, tells her that she's going to kill the US President (yet another histrionic character given ludicrous dialogue), she flees and the chase ensues. Granted a few of the stunts are exciting, we don't know enough about Salt's character to truly care for her. The premise is an obvious excuse for gratuitous action, which could have possibly been the film's redeeming attribute (come on, it's summer), but the inept script demands a serious devotion to political realism, contradicting the silly warfare that ultimately ensues.

All this being said, it's only fair to commend Noyce for his willingness to redefine his spy-thriller roots. Look at the man's credits: he's clearly talented (his 2006 thriller 'Catch a Fire' was arguably one of the best of the year). Regrettably, this suspense-caper is highly forgettable, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't looking forward to the director's next undertaking.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Dream Big: 'Inception' Does

Review: 5/5

"You're waiting for a train..." the existentially tormented idea-extractor Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is told in a dream by his late wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard, who will be nominated for an Oscar for this iconic role). But is it really a dream? Or is it reality? Is Mal actually dead? Is Cobb? What's the significance of the train? These are all questions viewers will likely be asking themselves when Christopher Nolan's highly intricate, riddle-wrapped within a puzzle-labyrinthian 'Inception' cuts to black. It's a cerebral visual achievement at the highest level - a film that defines a genre all its own, with deftly positioned pawns that manifest in the form of elegantly clad dream-inhabitants, all functioning under the strict command of Cobb; a self-proclaimed idea-thief of the highest order.

When corporate-magnate Saito (Ken Watanabe) recruits Cobb to perform the near impossible task of inception (planting an idea in someone's mind instead of stealing one), Cobb reluctantly accepts, pending an all-too-appealing promise made to him by Saito himself. Cobb will need the most efficient team, of course, and in a kind of avant-garde re-imagining of the heist genre, a frenzied Cobb quickly assembles the most capable group of idea thieves - the most interesting of which may be Ariadne (research the significance of the name prior to seeing the film), a college student studying architecture. The others include Yusef (a chemist), Eames (a forger) and Arthur, Cobb's right hand man. Together the group travels through various levels of dream territory, always attempting to avoid the presence of the seemingly evil Mal.

This dream-voyage necessitates astounding visual architecture. Stanley Kubrick, M.C. Escher, and Salvador Dali might be cited as influences for such an aesthetic feat. That these images only exist as service to the story, and are not arbitrarily included as mere 'eye candy,' is a credit to a highly detailed script (supposedly it took Nolan ten years to put the finishing touches on the multifaceted dream-inspired narrative), as well as exceptional execution by cinematographer Wally Pfister, and production designer Guy Dyas; you've never seen anything quite like it.

Monday, July 12, 2010

A Cold, Bleak 'Winter'

'Winter's Bone'
Review: 4.5/5

There's beauty in simplicity. Sounds cliche', I know, but Debra Granik's infinitely tense meditation on blood-ties set against the stinging, bitter Ozark Mountains affirms this archetypal proverb with a crushing disquiet that resonates, throbbing and lingering in the psyche long after the credits roll. It's a testament to purely visual filmmaking - a narrative that progresses with startling discovery and observation, holding the spectator in a taut unease. And it never once lets up.

Ree Dolly (in an Oscar-worthy performance by Jennifer Lawrence), an impoverished, 17-year-old sister to two younger siblings, and daughter to an emotionally flatlined mother, maintains an unwavering doggedness after her drug-dealing father disappears, leaving her to care for her siblings with no financial support. Solving the problem seems simple for Ree: locate her father. Her family, all glaring and unusually suspicious, appears to have valuable information. Extracting that information is another story. Why is everyone so resistant to interrogation? Why is Ree's mother psychologically devastated? How come the county's police sheriff is more interested in preserving his reputation rather than helping to locate Ree's father?

The film, shot by Michael McDonough with a frozen, blue aesthetic that emphasizes the grim, desolate terrain, unfolds visually. Each image evokes an escalating sense of dread, conveying an isolated, claustrophobic realm wherein all hope has been forfeited: with the exception of the virtuous 'Ree.' Any other family would have been proud.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Bad Guy You Love to...Love?

'Despicable Me'
Review: 3/5

For the most part, not enough credit is given to animated films that exist outside the parameters of the 'Pixar' realm. Fortunately, that doesn't seem to be the case with Universal's 'Despicable Me,' which has opened to critical praise and triumphant weekend box-office numbers - and with good reason. Coated with glossy highlights and soaked in a vibrant 'rainbow' aesthetic, the world inhabited by two dueling arch-nemeses comes across as a playfully irreverent province: a welcomed stage for screwball antics and overly-ambitious absurdity.

Front and center is the world's second-best super villain, 'Gru:' a lovable, middle-aged oaf whose retro villainy is undermined by a much younger, technically savvy 'Vector' (their rivalry always escalating in a very PG-rated manner). How does Gru plan to finally upstage the ADHD 'Vector?' Suffice it to say, if Gru's plan is executed properly, the world would turn into a dark, dark place (literally). Let's hope that, somehow, Mr. Gru learns to renounce his evil ways.

In the meantime, watch how the misunderstood protagonist struts and scowls simultaneously, embracing his sugar-coated wrongdoing - he thoroughly loves his profession, narcissism intact and emphasized by original music from hip-hop producer/rapper/singer Pharrell Williams, whose cool, jazz-influenced hip-hop compositions add a sense of debonair silkiness to Gru's distinctive journey.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Third Time's Charming

'Toy Story 3'
Review: 3.5/5

'Toy Story 3' has a simple premise, a formulaic structure, and a sincere generosity and respect for the spectator. In this third outing directed by Lee Unkrich, Disney and Pixar clearly attempt to push and even redefine the tonal bounds of animated filmmaking, hinging the film's plot on a premise outlined in the macabre. It's an unusual and often times pleasantly unnerving atmosphere, but it too often cowers to the sugar-coated Disney paradigm, ultimately resulting in an overly melodramatic stagnation.

In this 'Story' toy-owner 'Andy' is seventeen and moving off to college. His mother tells him to get rid of his toys, much to the dismay of 'Woody' and 'Buzz Lightyear.' Their plan? Well, the attic can't be so bad, can it? All signs of basic story principles remain at the behest of the Disney regime, with product placement as a platform for narrative acceleration (a brief sequence involving Barbie, Ken, and his decadent closet is just distasteful and borderline perverted), and a long-standing pun involving an overly histrionic 'Buzz' and a stereotyped Spanish caricature is unashamedly demented. These few moments, coupled with a sinister overtone never quite manifest into something bold or revolutionary. It's as if Spike Jonze directed a Nicholas Sparks adaptation. It's uneven.

The film's denouement is characteristically Disney, and that's not to assert it's unearned. In fact, for anyone with an ounce of humanity, it's difficult not to absorb the emotional fragility that's at stake in the final scenes, particularly the final shot which is, to say the least, iconic. Yet, as well-deserved and pleasant as it is, the film initially paved a trail cloaked in an ominous despair, and the results are all too polite.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Competing Sociopathic Worlds: Pretentiousness Intact

Review: 3/5

Don't be mislead by the headline. The Duplass brothers' raw, though ultimately genuine, study of the darker and more unassuming upper middle-class 'City of Angels' is delicately charmed, with an abnormal touch of gloom. It's peculiar trio of paranoid, anxiety-ridden Los Angelenos oscillate consistently between gentle confidence and humor-inducing self-deprecation. Each primary player has their own emotional baggage; from Cyrus' (Jonah Hill) borderline oedipal complex to John's (John C. Reilly) alarming emotive boldness, they each share a bizarre sense of realism shadowed by an all encompassing insecurity that fuels the film's most humorous moments, as well as the brutally honest departures into humanity.

Structured and shot adhering to the new 'mumblecore' vogue, the Duplass brothers are evidently trying to table their reliance on flat, faux-eccentric dialogue that serves no distinct purpose other than to add a sense of artificial authenticity to the 'mumblecore' avant-garde. In 'Cyrus,' it's clear that the directors have acknowledged their past flaws (if one can refer to them as such), and have centered their attention on a very simple story about a man vying to escape his loneliness. Many spectators can relate, I presume.

The film, with its overwhelmingly indie predisposition doesn't offer much in terms of aesthetic flavor; it's a bland palate of stale blues, greens, and greys. That's not to say the visual style doesn't work completely. Aside from the annoyingly self-reflexive camerawork (at times it seems cinematographer Jas Shelton is attempting to mimic the 'Bourne' aesthetic with unmotivated pop-zooms and deliberately unfocused establishing shots). Nonetheless the film aspires to be open and heartfelt, and, for the most part, it is.