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Saturday, June 23, 2012

Bernie (Limited Release Date: 4-27-2012)

        Playing against type used to feel a bit more glamourous. Oscar winners still love to disguise themselves under thick accents and pounds of make-up, while the likes of Meryl Streep and George Clooney still try their hands at comedy from time to time. But many recent unexpected turns have been regulated to small art house theaters, where audiences seem unable to find them. Examples include Jim Carrey (I Love You, Phillip Morris), Ryan Reynolds (Buried), Keanu Reeves (Henry's Crime), Will Ferrell (Everything Must Go), and now Jack Black, who tries his hand at dark dramedy in Richard Linklater's Bernie.

        Based on a real-life incident that took place several years ago, Bernie lays its scene in small-town Texas, where the titular mortician charms everyone around with his kindness, positivity, and sincerity. Through interviews with real people that are interspersed through out the film, we learn that the whole town is pretty much smitten over the guy, who has a curious preference for older women. The apple of his eye turns out to be Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a bitter, controlling senior without a single friend in the area. Despite his best efforts to charm her into happiness, Marjorie's negativity finally weighs him down, coaxing Bernie into a drastic decision that will change his life forever.

        The story is enticing, and, as this is a Richard Linklater movie, the experimental bits liven the proceedings considerably. They also tend to muddy them, however, flashing in and out through a zillion talking heads instead of using that time to further develop our twisted hero, breaking the third wall about every two minutes. Black clearly relishes his chance to finally sink his teeth into a role, but that doesn't mean that he's ready for it. His Bernie is an interesting creation, but the fear that he might devolve into his normative song-singing, expletive-flinging self at any moment permeates the whole film, preventing his character from ever truly convincing. I suppose there's a reason that some of these movies get lost at the art house.

Grade: C+

Monday, June 18, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom (Limited Release Date: 5-25-2012)

        Wes Anderson. Even just typing the name feels like an invitation for a debate, with one side's eyes watering in dewy amazement, while the other sneers snidely. There's no denying that Wes has style, all dead-pan humor, with countless nods and homages to the works of Hal Ashby, and everyone within 100 miles of the French New-Wave. It's a consistent, unique tone, one that he seems completely unable to escape, and one which no current American director has figured out how to replicate. Like Tim Burton, or Michael Bay, Anderson has churned out enough films with the same look and feel to prompt quite a bit of mockery from folks who put a premium on variety. Those with the taste for the stuff, however, lap each new offering up with vigor and excitement. It will come as a surprise to no one that Moonrise Kingdom not only refuses to tone down the auteur's signature quirks, but might just stand as the most Wes Anderson-y movie that Wes Anderson has ever made.

        Set on a fictional island off the coast of New England in the mid-60's, Kingdom tells the story of a pre-teen pair of social pariahs. Suzy (Kara Hayward) stalks quietly around her parents' massive, maze-like home, emotions ever-vieled by both a venomous glare, and a pair of binoculars. Sam (Jared Gilman) is the more out-going, out-spoken of the pair, but that doesn't mean that his know-it-all attitude and inability to follow orders sits well with his peers. The two meet randomly one summer day, striking up a pen-pal relationship that culminates with the two running away into the woods together one year later. A typically Andersonian supporting cast of older Hollywood stars playing narcissistic, defeated, or both (Bill Murray, Francis McDormand, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, and Tilda Swinton... Just to name a few) sets out across the island to find the trouble-makers, while the pubescent lovers wander excitedly through trees and hormones.

        The brainiac protagonist who thinks he's smarter than he really is. The the stoic, deflated acceptance of infidelity. Bold, mono-colored costumes. Minimal smiles. By now, the, 'Wes Anderson drill,' can be boiled down to a formula, but it's interesting through-out Kingdom to see him wrestle with ways to take that signature aesthetic to the next level. For one, he finally sets a movie in the damn 60s, which, in truth, is where his work has always been theoretically located. He even toys with era-appropriate camera lensing, and when, in the film's finest scene, we see young Hayward from afar as she prepares to jump into the ocean, the romantic fuzz that covers her face brings us back to a yesteryear of film.

        The actors here perform at a variety of different levels. Most of the adults, Murray and McDormand especially, seem to just mope around, their characters' dull sadness serving as their only developed trait. Norton fairs better as a would-be Boy Scout Master, but the real stars of the show are the two youngest thespians on board, both in their big-screen debut. Gilman is either an effortless actor, or not much of an actor at all, and that strange contradiction plays perfectly into his youthful rebelliousness. Hayward feels like she fell right out of the 60s, proving the real find of the cast with her whip-smart brevity, and ever-simmering attitude. I'm not sure exactly where to rank Kingdom amidst Anderson's greater movies, but suffice to say it's easily his best live-action flick since The Royal Tenenbaums. A breezy, sweet love story about being young, striking out new ground, and defining yourself in a mad, mad, mad world.

Grade: B+

Friday, June 15, 2012

Snow White & The Huntsman (Release Date: 6-1-2012)

        Dear god, I know that nothing under the sun is original, but really? Ever since Twilight first exploded onto the big screen way back in 2007, pop-culture has been obsessed with fairy-tale re-thinks, especially those with a faux-dark tinge. It's a fad that has reached its greasy, cash-grubbing fingers into the likes of film, television, and literature without showing any signs of stopping soon. Those who need evidence need look no further than Snow White & the Huntsman, a sinister-looking Mother Goose re-hash featuring the trendy genre's biggest star (Kristen Stewart), and a big, hunky up-and-comer (Chris Hemsworth). If that simple description sounds like the carefully calculated blueprint of some tinsel-town hot-shots, just wait until you see the movie.

        People will look for a variety of reasons to defend Snow White, from prickly gothic aesthetic, to the admittedly inspired performance of Charlize Theron as the Evil Queen. Personally, the cynicism of the whole project seems only slightly removed from the wrong-headedness of Battleship (albeit with waaay better craftsmanship, and execution). The story is boiled down to the rudimentary stuff of a Hollywood playbook, from the protagonists' unlikely pairing, to the nauseatingly familiar epic-battle beats that Stewart and director Rupert Sanders badly mis-handle. No, Snow White & The Huntsman isn't awful: It's adequately made in measures of dialogue, acting, and art design. It's just completely, 100% impossible to invest an ounce of care into, and when those been-there, done-that 'epic' battle sequences would hit, I felt myself starting to slowly nod off. I understand that there's more to a movie than just a story, but since when did, 'Making the audience care about the characters,' slip to the bottom of the list of directors' priorities? This is a soulless cash-grab that commits the most fatal known to moviedom; it puts its viewers to sleep.

Grade: D+

Monday, June 11, 2012

Prometheus (Release Date: 6-8-2012)

        Warning: Those who have yet to see Prometheus, are breathless with anticipation, and want nothing more than to read a ringing review won't find what they're looking for here. These were the eyes that I greeted the film with, all eager, and with hopes as high as the ceiling. No, those who've seen the trailers, and felt the goosebumps of Alien-referencing terror raise their blood to a boil would be wise to temper those expectations a bit. Or perhaps adjust is a better word, because regardless of what your final thoughts on Prometheus are, it's probably not the movie you expected it to be. But let's not get ahead of ourselves here: Just like Ridley Scott's Star Beast prequel, let's go back to the very start.

        Paleontologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her co-hort/lover Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) are on a mission to meet their makers. The two have discovered ancient cave drawings all across the globe, each pointing to the same distant galaxy, where the scientist pair believe our creators just may have come from. Shaw and beau climb aboard the titular space craft, funded by the ever-devious Weyland Corporation, but when they arrive on the far-away planet, their dreams of a landmark discovery soon turn into nightmares.

        The only two movies that anyone really, actually cares about in the Alien series are Ridley Scott's original, and James Cameron's Aliens. Scott's starter was a horror film, short on exposition and character development, and mighty in mood and visual expressiveness. Aliens, on the other hand, wasn't much of a horror film at all, re-invisioning the Xenomorph as a far less indestructible creature, and putting hoards of them right in the middle of a full-blown action epic. The two could hardly be more different in tone, and where people like me expected Prometheus to be decidedly more in Ridley's wheelhouse, it actually turns out to be something of an amalgamation of the two styles. While his visuals and themes remain darker and more ominous than Cameron will likely ever touch, his newest entry into the Alien universe is about five times as concept-heavy as his last at bat. It includes mythologies, theologies, unexplained conspiracies, and far exceeds its predecessor in terms of length, expense, expanse, and over-all heft. One of Alien's greatest assets was being a simple movie; Prometheus is nothing of the sort, wearing some true Cameron-Style extravaganza aspirations right on its sleeve.

        Yes, it's an ambitious movie, one that wants not only to operate as a big-budget spectacle, but as a think-piece as well. This aspiration sees the flick frequently tripping over itself, not for lack of good ideas, but rather proper execution. Nearly each notion posited by the film (and there are many) is enticing, but at least 75% of them are dropped in the film's final 30 minutes in favor of standard sticky, gooey action-horror beats. They're fine in all, but one would have liked to know more about a lot of particulars, not the least of which being the motives behind the film's most fascinating character, emotion-less android David (Michael Fassbender), whose seemingly arbitrary choices set much of the film's narrative in motion. It's clear that a lot (see: Just about everything) is left open-ended with the intention of being revealed in a future sequel, but that's no excuse to clean up so little of the mess that you've made. Fellow, 'To Be Continued,' films of the recent past, such as the first two Lord of the Rings movies, or Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, had the decency to leave their audiences feeling like they'd had a hardy narrative, cinematic meal. Prometheus just kind of shuts down, and tells you to come back in three summers for about 60% of the movie that you thought you'd just paid for. Frankly, it's disingenuous, and a tad insulting.

        All of this is how I felt coming out of the film: Underwhelmed, frustrated, and somewhat cheated. Time away from the picture, however, has allows my thoughts to congeal into a slightly more positive outlook. The movie is truly a beauty to behold, 3-D handled in an especially classy manner, and some of its notions and set-pieces are pretty juicy. But that doesn't solve the rag sheet of other problems that plague the flick, such as the ill-fitting score, uninspired (albeit pertinent to the film's themes) creature design, a pretty damn deflating lack of tension, and an inability to properly frighten its audience. Perhaps worst of all, it reveals what we should have known all along: There's really no reason to add backstory to film that consists almost purely of a few people running away from a monster, especially the heady stuff that Prometheus tries to tack on. The two movies feel pasted together for no real reason, which just makes Scott's latest effort that much more of a head scratcher. I'm not going to lie: if a Prometheus sequel ever does arrive, and makes good on the set-up that this film offered, I very well might reconsider my stance. In that sense, the jury is still out on the elder Scott's latest offering, but as of right now, I'd have to call it an intriguing miss-fire.

Grade: C+

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Tallest Man on Earth: There's No Leaving Now (Release Date: 6-12-2012)

        No one needs to tell Kristian Matsson to take baby steps: He knows the drill. The Swedish folkie released one of the most bare-bones debut LP's in recent memory with 2008's Shallow Grave. His follow-up, 2010's The Wild Hunt, saw him to much greater heights of fame, but it certainly wasn't extra studio shine that got him there. Matsson writes almost all of his tracks with only an unadorned acoustic guitar to aid him, and while Hunt added occasional periphery details, its sonics are essentially the same as its forbearer. Then came Sometimes the Blues is Just a Passing Bird, a late 2010 EP that featured, of all things, an electric guitar! While still holding true to his minimal one-man-show, the new sound not only showed a different side of the artist, but alluded to the next wrinkle that Matsson would add to his act.

        There's No Leaving Now doesn't exactly set out to reinvent the wheel, but it still wants you to know that it's not just a retread. Why else would it open up with that new-fangled aforementioned electric axe, all soft, warm, and kind. Before Matsson's Dylan-like croak even joins in, To Just Grow Away comes to involve no fewer than four instruments, which should cause anyone who fell in love with The Wild Hunt to double-take. It's a much denser, less specific sound in which Grow Away cloaks its troubadour's croon, whirling and lovely, if perhaps a tad less immediate. Revelation Blues is built in much the same way, a certain fuzziness that was no where to be found on Tallest Man's break-through disc permeating the track, alternating between spring-time peppiness, and howling desperation. It's an interesting way to set the table, especially considering how Leading Me Now hops right back into Wild Hunt simplicity on the very next track.

        The rest of There's No Leaving Now largely follows suit, hop-scotching between Matsson's new electric interests (1904, Little Brother, Criminals), and his trusty, outdoorsy strum (Wind and Walls, One Every Page). While that's not exactly the biggest sound-scape for a 40-minute album, the disc features about twice as much variety during its runtime than any previous Tallest Man efforts. For my money, I'll still take The Wild Hunt for its thematic purity, and beautiful details, but bless No Leaving's heart for not just being a sequel. It shows Matsson as an artist who is willing to gamble despite already knowing what works, and when his risks pay off, such as on Revelation Blues, or the piano ballad title track, the results can be staggering.

Grade: B+

Friday, June 1, 2012

Reviews of Blockbusters I Haven't Seen

        Another week, another over-blown, effects-laden summer blockbuster. It’s an endless parade, one that sucks in cash like a Hoover vacuum year after year. But who really has time to keep up with Hollywood’s every offering? I’ll tell you what, I sure don’t. That’s why I’ve taken the liberty of reviewing the three major tent-poles that I’ve missed so far this summer based only on their trailers, and my general perception. Not fair, you say? Is it fair for Tim Burton to re-heat the same aesthetic for each new movie he makes? Is it fair that we still have to wait another week for Prometheus? Was Battleship fair? I didn’t think so! Prepare, you bloated tinsel-town offerings, to be judged unfairly!

Dark Shadows
Or, as some folks are calling it, Hot Topic: The Movie. Johnny Depp stars as a vampire, which is important, because were he a regular human being, there would be no reason to cover his face in clown make-up. Back from the grave, Pale-Depp toils about a Tim-Burton-y castle, ripe with dark corridors, and Helena Bonham Carters. Some odd bits of dark humor occur here and there, but never nothing too strange, the Disney executives would like to remind you. Mostly Johnny Depp just wears clown make-up, which has always been more than enough for certain fans of his. Burton is fine with this; He’s in the back, still counting cash from Alice in Wonderland, all while ensuring that his wife still has work. Happy Wife, Happy Life. Must be fun for them. It wasn’t (see: wouldn’t have been) fun for me. 

Extremely Official Grade: C-

Men In Black III
Will Smith, you’re such a weirdo. After a decade-plus of headlining mega-grossers on the regular, Smith experienced one (count ‘em, ONE) box office set-back with Seven Pounds, and disappeared from screen for 3 and a half years. The guy obviously can’t handle failure, which is probably why he decided to dust off the old suit, and step back into the most can’t-miss property to which he’s ever been attached. This time, Smith’s Agent J is sent back in time to hang out with a younger Tommy Lee Jones, played by Josh Brolin. This proves three things: (A) That Hollywood thinks Jones’ face is too old and wrinkly to have up on screen for long stretches of time, (B) Brolin does a killer Tommy Lee Jones impression, which, this writer theorizes, was perfected on the set of No Country for Old Men, (C) Even after you’re a famous and celebrated actor, your big blockbuster break might just be playing a younger version of a now too-ugly actor (Hollywood’s assessment, not mine), in a movie that really only exists to make a superstar feel better about himself. Sorry I haven’t seen your movie yet, Will, and please don’t take it personally. I bet it’s alright, though I’m going to have to knock you a grade or two for letting Pit Bull do the theme song.

Extremely Official Grade: C

Snow White & the Huntsman
Have you ever picked up a sword? I’ve only ever handled prop ones (that’s right: stage sword fighting. Be jealous/impressed), and even those weigh a ton. Kristen Stewart, bless her frowny-faced heart, could never wield one, which was a deal-breaker for me until I finally unlocked the mystery of Snow White & the Huntsman: It’s an unauthorized sequel to Twilight! Bella Swan already has her vampire strength, which is why she can fight so furociously, of course! Thanks to the power of hormones, Jacob’s voice dropped a few octaves over the summer, he dyed his hair, and, ‘poof,’ he looks like Thor. Edward somehow turned into Charlize Theron in the translation, but he did maintain his status as, ‘the fairest of them all.’ What a unique and provocative take on a previously existing mythology!

Extremely Official Grade: A-