Monday, July 30, 2012

Movie Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Quvenzhane Wallis
Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
Written by: Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin
Directed by: Behn Zeitlin
Starring: Quevenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry

"When it all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything that made me flying around in invisible pieces."

And so we are introduced to the six-year-old heroine at the heart of this fable from first-time director Behn Zeitlin.

With echoes of Terrence Malick's recent The Tree of Life, Zeitlin's film is part-poetry, part-family drama. It manages to feel rooted in stark realism while surrounded by fantasy and post-apocalyptic imagery. A big winner at both Cannes and the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, Beasts of the Southern Wild marks one of the most promising directorial debuts in recent memory. Based on a play written by co-screenwriter Lucy Alibar and starring an entire cast of non-actors from Louisiana, Beasts is one of the great cinematic surprises of 2012.

The film is narrated by Hushuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) a precocious six-year-old African-American living in the "Bathtub" -- a tiny piece of land downstream from a levee in New Orleans. Isolated from the rest of the world, she lives in a couple of ramshackle trailers with her gruff, alcoholic father, Wink (Dwight Henry). The residents of this forgotten piece of land spend their days laughing, drinking and getting by on what the land provides. It's a hard existence made easier by their shared sense of community. It's a world few of us could ever understand -- but you don't need to be able to relate to their existence to know that they make up a genuinely affectionate family unit.

Hushpuppy spends her days collecting food and spending time with wild animals, calmly picking up the smaller ones to hold against her ear so she can listen to their little heartbeats. She often carries on conversations with her absentee mother, calling for her in moments when she requires strength and guidance. Her desire to be remembered when she's gone inspires her to mark down her life's story with black chalk and pieces of cardboard. It's a hard life; a vivid reality told through the eyes of a little girl.
When a devastating hurricane rips through the Bathtub, forcing the "outside world" to intervene and force the residents to leave their homes, this tight-knit community bands together, refusing to budge. Beasts isn't so much about who is right or wrong. Nor is it about passing judgement on those who desire to stay behind and continue to live in the Bathtub. It's about the experience; a brief glimpse at the day-to-day life of a child and the rest of her community. Little else is known about the supporting characters, but this is Hushpuppy's story and we observe everything through her point of view.

Newcomer Quvenzhane Wallis is absolutely mesmerizing. Tiny and dainty, she's a force to be reckoned with and you don't doubt that she could take care of herself should she ever find herself alone in the wilderness. She even stands up to her fathers verbal threats, angrily telling him: "When you die I'll go to your grave and eat birthday cake by myself." It's one of the boldest and most memorable performances of the year. It would be impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. Wallis plays Hushpuppy with such a natural grace, it's a marvel that she's not a trained child actor. She tackles grown-up conversations and situations with a manner that is wise beyond her years. She's reason enough to seek out the film.

There will be naysayers who doubt its sincerity or question the directorial intent. Some may find it too precocious for their liking. But Beasts of the Southern Wild is a beautiful, moving slice-of-life narrative told through the eyes of a child.


Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Movie Review: The Dark Knight Rises

Christian Bale
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Written by: Christopher and Jonathan Nolan
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Anne Hathaway, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Caine, Marion Cotillard and Morgan Freeman

It's been four years since The Dark Knight set a new standard for both summer blockbusters and comic book adaptations. It's also been four years since the late Heath Ledger created one of the cinema's most fascinating and unpredictable villains.

British director Christopher Nolan took a risk back in 2005 when he decided to reboot a tired franchise that had essentially been reduced to a box office joke. He set out to erase all mental images of "Bat nipples" (see: George Clooney) and Two-Face's purple bubblegum features (see: Tommy Lee Jones). He succeeded, with the release of Batman Begins, followed by the monstrous success of 2008's The Dark Knight. Now, with the third and final chapter of his series, Nolan sets out to appease his rabid fans and conclude his critically acclaimed trilogy on a high note. He mostly succeeds.

Set eight years after the events in the sequel, The Dark Knight Rises begins with a plea from an injured Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) for Batman to return to his former heroic self. Since the conclusion of the last film, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) has become a bordering-on-Howard-Hughes recluse, prowling the grounds of Wayne Manor, with only his loyal butler, Alfred (Michael Caine), for company. After having sacrificed his reputation so that attorney-turned-sociopath Harvey Dent could remain a symbol of hope to the people of Gotham, the Bat Suit was put into retirement to collect dust. That is, until a hulking mass of anarchist muscle by the name of Bane (Tom Hardy) arrives and poses a threat to the city. Throw in a costumed jewel thief (Anne Hathaway), an earnest young cop (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and a potential love interest (Marion Cotillard) for our Caped Crusader and you've got a jam-packed plot with a large handful of characters and storylines to keep straight.

Clocking in at two hours and 45 minutes in length, the first half of the film suggests a conclusion that could potentially rise above the previous two instalments. Rises gets off to a dark and ambitious start, featuring commentary on the class system and offering glimpses of the urban terrorism that is to come at the hands of Bane. (With its distinct parallels to the recent Occupy Wall Street movement, the film presents some muddled politics, yet never delves too deeply into any sociopolitical themes).

However, as the film unfolds it becomes harder to ignore some of the more glaring plot holes (which I won't divulge here, lest I spoil the movie for someone). These goofs often detract from the action on the screen, resulting in more than a few scenes that will leave you scratching your head. 

As is to be expected with such a solid ensemble cast, each of the actors leave a strong impact in their respective roles.The always-reliable Christian Bale and Michael Caine both give moving performances, specifically in pivotal scenes their characters share together. Bale's Bruce Wayne is left jaded and broken-hearted. Even after eight years he hasn't recovered from his guilt over the death of Harvey Dent and the havoc wreaked by the Joker -- which ultimately led to the death of the love of his life. Rises features less Batman sequences and more quieter moments of a reflective Bruce, a wise decision in a film that focuses more on redemption and the ability to overcome personal tragedy.

As the only two women to appear in Rises, Anne Hathaway and Marion Cotillard do their best with what little they are given. Hathaway opts for a more subdued Catwoman, wisely moving away from the traditional purring kitten performances of the many actresses who came before her, dating back to the 1960s. In the underwritten role of Miranda Tate, a member of the Wayne Enterprises executive board, Cotillard is lovely in a small part. She still manages to leave an impact even though her character is one of Rises weakest links.

Tom Hardy
However, the two standouts are two new additions to the cast. As the eager-to-please beat cop, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Officer John Blake is a welcome, clear-headed presence in a film filled with characters battling severe depression, bouts of rage and broken hearts. His genuine humanity and courage under fire is what Gotham needs and Gordon-Levitt's subtle performance proves memorable in a cast of many. You'll catch yourself wondering how the city ever survived before without his calm, collected ways.

Then there is Tom Hardy, a captivating actor who has bulked up for roles in the past -- most recently in 2011's Warrior but also in his explosive career-making turn in the little-seen 2008 British flick Bronson. However, it's his role as Bane that will likely put Hardy on the map. He manages to convey wrath, hatred and, ultimately, love, while buried beneath a claw-like contraption clamped over the majority of his face. His performance temporarily makes you forget Bane's murky motivations. Some may gripe that the mask robs Bane of a personality, but I think we can all agree that Bane -- a coldly calculating, machine-like terrorist -- was never going to have the same vivid insanity as the Joker.

In the end, The Dark Knight Rises tries to do too much and the second half of the film drags as a result. It's a well-executed spectacle that never quite rises to the level of The Dark Knight. It's overly plotted, with a bloated running time and chock-full of half-realized ideas. Despite this, it's still a mostly satisfying and entertaining conclusion to what has ultimately been a wildly successful model on which future comic book adaptations can model themselves after.


Saturday, July 21, 2012

Movie Review: Safety Not Guaranteed

Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass
Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
Directed by: Colin Trevorrow
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake M. Johnson and Karan Soni

One of the best indie films of 2012 is also likely one that few audiences will see, due to its very limited theatrical release -- which is shame since Safety Not Guaranteed is a fresh and imaginative film that isn't afraid to take narrative risks.

Seattle-based reporter Jeff (Jake M. Johnson) pitches a story to his editors after coming across a bizarre ad in the classifieds section of a small newspaper. The ad seeks a companion for a time travel expedition, cautioning readers that they "must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed." Jeff sets off on a road trip to interview the writer of the mysterious ad with the help of interns Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and Arnau (Karan Soni). The man behind the ad turns out to be relatively easy to track down: His name is Kenneth (Mark Duplass), an unremarkable 30-something grocery store clerk who lives in a ramshackle house in the middle of the woods. When Jeff's attempts to convince Kenneth that he wants to join him on his time travel mission backfires, Darius steps in and successfully convinces the reclusive Kenneth that she has her own important reasons for wanting to go back in time. Is Kenneth for real or is he mentally unbalanced? As Darius' unexpected friendship with Kenneth becomes stronger, the more she finds it difficult to reveal the truth about her actual intentions.

First-time director Colin Trevorrow and screenwriter Derek Connolly have concocted a sweet, unpredictable and and character-driven comedy that also takes its subject matter seriously, right down to its time travel theory. Its not necessarily about whether or not Kenneth's time travel machine actually works, it's about how people interact with one another and how, deep down, we all ultimately want someone to accompany us on life's adventures.
Aubrey Plaza, Karan Soni and Jake M. Johnson
Even the subplots involving Jeff and Arnau, which at first appear to be anecdotal diversions to break up the scenes between Kenneth and Darius, actually reveal themselves to be essential to both the narrative and the development of their characters. It's only after Jeff successfully tracks down an old girlfriend (Jenica Bergere) and pushes Arnau to enjoy his 20s and come out of his shell that we realize he's doing his own sort of time travel -- one that allows him to relive his lost youth, however briefly. 

The performances are all sensitive portrayals of very real people supplanted in a sort of science-fiction fantasy. Johnson's Jeff evolves from arrogant and shallow into a vulnerable adult who looks back on his past with both nostalgia and regret. As the shy, introverted Arnau, Soni is perfect foil to Johnson. While at first he comes across as a bit of an Indian-American stereotype, his character ultimately emerges from his shell to embrace the world around him.

In the lead role of Darius, Plaza ably carries the majority of the film on her shoulders, balancing her dry sarcasm with a soft, sensitive side just waiting to reveal itself to the right person. She's a star on the rise and her performance is a thoughtful, intelligent interpretation of a young woman on the verge of discovering herself and falling in love for the first time.

However, it is Duplass, in the most challenging role, that is the true revelation. His Kenneth could potentially suffer from paranoia, or even schizophrenia; yet, as the film progresses, we see that he's a vulnerable, gentle "everyman" who is more than just a bunch of bizarre explanations of time travel theory and Star Wars action figures. It's a subtle, moving performance grounded in reality and the majority of the film's success lies in his ability to make Kenneth a strangely endearing person. 

The evident chemistry between Plaza and Duplass allows Safety Not Guaranteed to soar even higher. Their blossoming romance and witty banter leave you wishing that they would appear in every single frame of the film. The perfect, open-ended conclusion only further demonstrates how capably Safety Not Guaranteed handles its tonal shifts and merges fantasy and reality.


Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Movie Review: Ted

Ted (2012)
Written & Directed by: Seth MacFarlane
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis and (the voice of) Seth MacFarlane

Given the enduring popularity of TV's Family Guy and its creator, Seth MacFarlane, it was inevitable that the comedian would eventually make the leap from the tube to the big screen. With Ted, MacFarlane writes and directs his debut feature with mixed results.

When John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) was a child he made a Christmas wish that his favourite teddy bear would come to life and be his friend in real life. Easily the loneliest boy on the block, John is thrilled when his wish comes true. Now in his mid-30s, John is a slacker who spends his days smoking weed, watching Flash Gordon reruns and trash-talking with his foul-mouthed bear, Ted (voiced by Seth MacFarlane). Even John's incredibly patient girlfriend, Lori (Mila Kunis), has reached her limit and wants him to make a choice: Her ...or the teddy bear.

Fans of MacFarlane will undoubtedly leave the theatre satisfied -- the flick is as crass and vulgar as any Family Guy episode, only times a hundred. Ted may look like a cuddly children's toy but he has no filter, spewing out raunchy one-liners and thumbing his nose at political correctness. While some jokes hit their mark, there are those that fall far short of the target -- behaving badly doesn't always equal laughs.

Those uninitiated in MacFarlane's particular brand of humour are still bound to find some moments amusing -- although the majority of the best lines can be found in the movie's trailer. While Ted does have its laugh-out-loud moments, for the most part it's a bunch of haphazard comedy vignettes, centred around a talking teddy bear -- a narrative that eventually wears out its welcome. It's thin premise only carries the flick so far, as evidenced by a random, tacked-on, unfunny kidnapping subplot involving a creepy Giovanni Ribisi in the latter half of the film that threatens to collapse the whole flick.
If there's anything keeping Ted afloat, it's the effortlessly energetic charm of Mark Wahlberg. There's something to be said for watching an actor have a great time in a particular role. Ted is a welcome departure for the action flick vet who knows how to sell a one-liner and generate his own laughs -- with or without the help of his little bear friend. Using his natural Boston accent, Wahlberg nearly steals the movie right from under Ted's fuzzy feet.

However, in the end, Ted tries too hard to shock the laughs out of its audience with its excessive (and ultimately redundant) attacks on everything from bullied,overweight children and the gay community to "kid cancer." By the end, you may be a little worn thin from the constant barrage of rapid-fire pop culture references. 

Perhaps Ted would have worked with a shorter running time (or half hour television episodes?). And, while it does have its fair share of laughs, this bear does better in small doses.


Thursday, July 12, 2012

Classic Film Review: The Palm Beach Story

The Palm Beach Story (1942)
Written & Directed by: Preston Sturges
Starring: Claudette Colbert, Joel McCrea, Rudy Vallee and Mary Astor

"You have no idea what a long-legged woman can do without doing anything."

Critics continue to hail The Palm Beach Story as a classic of the screwball comedy genre, one of its crowning achievements. The film is indeed an enjoyable diversion, albeit one that occasionally suffers from one too many scenes that distracts from the four main characters at the centre of the plot.

After five years in a seemingly happy and stable marriage, Gerry (Claudette Colbert) up and leaves her penniless husband, Tom (Joel McCrea), a struggling architect who just can't seem to make ends meet. Gerry flees to Florida for a quickie divorce, whereupon she meets the charmingly gullible John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee) and his sister, Princess Centimillia (Mary Astor). When Gerry discovers that the siblings are multi-millionaires she immediately concocts a plan that will help funnel some of their wealth into her soon-to-be-ex-husband's bank account, saving them both from a life of poverty. When a disgruntled Tom shows up looking for his wife, Gerry convinces him to play along as her brother so she can get closer to John and carry out the plan.

Writer and director Preston Sturges crafted an easy, breezy farce with cleverly witty and engaging dialogue that centres about the pursuit of wealth -- and the consequences that come with it. However, Palm Beach Story often gets a little lost in its own zaniness. The film starts off on a rocky note with an unnecessarily drawn-out set-up for Gerry and the millionaire John to meet on a train ride to Florida. Their engaging banter is too often broken up a gun club aboard the train who insist on shooting the place up after having one too many drinks. At this point the film nearly topples under the strain of its own wackiness.

However, once Gerry and John exit the train, the narrative settles into itself -- and it's a combination of Sturges' rapid-fire dialogue and his exceptional casting choices that help steer The Palm Beach Story on course.
Joel McCrae, Rudy Vallee and Claudette Colbert
As Gerry, Claudette Colbert reminds audiences of why they were so charmed by her in the earlier screwball classic, It Happened One Night (1934). The beautiful, doe-eyed actress had a knack for finding hilarity in even the smallest of gestures and its because of her talent that Gerry is such an immensely entertaining character. 

While Joel McCrea plays straight-man Tom perhaps a little too straight (never quite loosening up), Rudy Vallee nearly runs away with the film as the charismatic and socially awkward millionaire John D. Hackensacker III. Under the assumption that Colbert's Gerry is leaving her big, strong husband because of abuse, Vallee perfectly delivers one of Sturges' best lines of dialogue: "That's one of the tragedies of this life, that the men who are most in need of a beating up are always enormous." He underplays the role to perfection, his John creating a perfect balance between himself and the wild antics of the frenzied Gerry.

For the most part, The Palm Beach Story holds up well, delivering charming performances and genuine laughs. Despite a couple of missteps in the first half of the film, it's an amusing romp led by the vastly different, yet equally entertaining, performances of Colbert and Vallee.


Sunday, July 8, 2012

Movie Review: Take This Waltz

Luke Kirby and Michelle Williams
Take This Waltz (2011)
Written & Directed by: Sarah Polley
Starring: Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen and Luke Kirby

"Life has a gap in it. It just does. You don't go crazy trying to fill it."

Back in 2006 Sarah Polley made a name for herself as a promising young writer and director on the indie film scene. With her directorial debut, Away from Her, Polley garnered the kind of attention few young artists even dream of -- the end result being an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. Now, with Take this Waltz, Polley delves even deeper into the nature of relationships in all their complex highs and lows. 

Freelance writer Margot (Michelle Williams) is a (mostly) happily married wife to cookbook author, Lou (Seth Rogen). Despite the occasional spat, the couple appear content in their relationship -- that is until Margot meets her handsome artist neighbour, Daniel (Luke Kirby). Margot starts to feel more alive than she has in years, sneaking out to meet up with Daniel for late-night swims, afternoon drinks or just everyday trips around Toronto. Their gradually evolving attraction to one another -- and Margot's ever-present guilt at the thought of cheating on her husband -- is at the centre of Polley's thought-provoking sophomore release.

Films rarely allow audiences to glimpse the most intimate moments of a relationship and Polley is a master at building characterization through even the smallest suggestions. Margot and Lou speak in their own language and create dozens of inside jokes -- small, everyday moments that help solidify the foundation of a relationship. Polley takes risks, creating flawed characters that often border on unlikeable. Her willingness to portray very human decisions -- even the selfish ones -- speaks volumes about her ability to see every aspect of a personality.

As one character observes in the film, "new things become old." It's a part of human nature to desire something new and exciting. We often shy away from routine. Or, like Margot, we fear the "in between" and not knowing if something better will come along. However, Margot's inability to recognize the truth in that simple statement, and to not be so afraid of it, is what ultimately leads to her unravelling.
With regards to the performances, no one in her generation plays complex and conflicted women better than Williams. Whether you find Margot a sympathetic figure or not is irrelevant -- Williams portrays her as both a world-weary adult and free-spirit who just wants to openly embrace the excitement of new love. She gives a lovely, honest performance that perfectly compliments Polley's vision.

As Lou, Rogen veers away from his usual comedic roles and gives a surprisingly touching performance as a man slowly coming to terms with the fact that his marriage is deteriorating. At first glance, Rogen and Williams may appear to be an unlikely couple, but they generate chemistry through the small, intimate flourishes they add to their characters' relationship. And, finally, as Daniel, Kirby gives off a soulful, hopeless romantic vibe -- a nice guy who has been burned in the past when it comes to love.

While Take this Waltz focuses on the finer details of everyday life, creating an intimate portrait of love gained and lost, its only major stumble is in its overlong running time and multiple false endings.

But, for those looking for a reprieve from all the summer blockbusters, Take this Waltz is a quiet indie that will keep you thinking.


Thursday, July 5, 2012

Classic Film Review: My Man Godfrey

My Man Godfrey (1936)
Directed by: Gregory La Cava
Starring: William Powell and Carole Lombard

With the emergence of the "screwball comedy" in the 1930s, Hollywood discovered a sure-fire way to lift the spirits of an American populace struggling to survive the Depression. Audiences sought a reprieve from their daily hardships in the form of beautiful celebrities who had an effortless ability to make them laugh and transport them to another time and place.

It has been more than 75 years since My Man Godfrey was first released, yet it's the sign of a story well told when it manages to hold up for generations of new fans.

Working from a script based on the novel by Eric Hatch, director Gregory La Cava crafted a comedic masterpiece that manages to be both a sharp social commentary on the class system of the 1930s and a laugh-out-loud farcical romp.

When spoiled socialite Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard) crosses paths with Godfrey (William Powell), a "forgotten man" living in a city dump, she convinces him to accompany her a party teeming with the creme de la creme of New York society. Her reason? To win a scavenger hunt in which one of the items listed is to return with a homeless person. Irene is instantly infatuated with the mysterious Godfrey and convinces her parents (Eugene Pallette and Alice Brady) to take him in as the new family butler -- much to her elder sister Cornelia's (Gail Patrick) distaste. Irene takes Godfrey under her wing, referring to him as her "protege", much in the same way that her own mother addresses Carlo (Mischa Auer), a young Italian man she keeps around the house for her amusement. Godfrey is forced to endure the inane antics of the Bullock family -- the most alarming issue being the shocking advances made by Irene, who seeks to woo the butler into marriage.

My Man Godfrey is like a fine wine -- it's aged remarkably well for a film so firmly ingrained in 1930s society. You laugh along with its implausible situations and clever wordplay while considering its thoughtful commentary on social order. Even its remarkable cinematography has transferred well, with Ted Tetzlaff's rich visuals jumping off the screen.
Carole Lombard and William Powell
However, it's savvy dialogue and physical comedy could have easily fallen flat in less capable hands. Luckily for audiences, La Cava's ingenious decision to cast screwball genre stalwart Carole Lombard and the charismatic William Powell paid off in spades. The fact that the two actors were once briefly married in real life prior to filming made the dynamic all the more electric.

Powell's razor-sharp delivery and straight-man comedic chops provides perfect fodder for Lombard's whimsical, slightly neurotic performance. Watching them engage in witty repartee and innuendos is the reason behind My Man Godfrey's designation as one of the greatest screwball comedies of all time. Lombard, in particular, shines in her role. In the hands of a lesser actress, the role of Irene would have come off as nothing more than a simpering brat unworthy of audience sympathy. Instead, you find yourself rooting for her happiness, despite her flaws and regardless of her obliviousness to the world around her. 

The supporting cast fares just as well as the leads, specifically the maniacal frenzy of Alice Brady as Mrs. Bullock and the amusingly over-dramatic antics of Mischa Auer in the scene-stealing role of Carlo. 

My Man Godfrey is pure unadulterated fun -- witty escapism at its finest. If only all films were this good.