Archive | January, 2012

Crazy, Stupid, Love.

31 Jan

Title: Crazy, Stupid, Love.
Year: 2011
Directors: Glenn Ficarra and John Requa
Writer: Dan Fogelman
Starring: Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Julianne Moore, Emma Stone, Marisa Tomei, Kevin Bacon, Analeigh Tipton, John Carroll Lynch
MPAA Rating: PG-13, coarse humor, sexual content and language
Runtime: 118 min
IMDb Rating: 7.5
Rotten Tomatoes: 78%
Metacritic: 68

 

A whole month after 2011 ended the 2011 movie year ends for me, as Crazy, Stupid, Love. is the last 2011 release I will watch, after this one my rankings close with 256 films released on 2011 having been watched (an improvement over the 210 I saw of 2010). After this I’ll make a few Best of 2011 posts to recap the whole year and then move on with the 2012 reviews and get back to normal. All I know is that 2011 was pretty great for this blog, I started getting a lot of followers, some of them who pitched in with some really nice tips and recommendations, I started a facebook page so that people could get their trailers and reviews in their newsfeed, and the films of the year overall were pretty amazing, but comments about that I’ll leave for those Best of 2011 posts that I talked about. For now, let’s talk about the film at hand, a really terrific film to finish the year on and to cap off the career year Ryan Gosling had.

This seriously is a great film, it has an impeccable cast delivering really strong performances, and it’s just so sweet and funny that you can’t help but fall head over heels with it, it’s actually one of the better films of the whole year. Not to mention that, unlike most romantic comedies, this one actually gets better as it goes along and doesn’t churn out all of its best material at the start of it; something that can be attributed, surely, to this one being an actually adult romantic comedy, with an actual story and an actual heart, and people all across the board doing their best to make this material work, and boy do they succeed.

As I said 2011 was the year of Ryan Gosling, or at the very least one he shares with Michael Fassbender and Jessica Chastain, what with performances in a trio of seriously incredible films with this one, Drive (an A+ and the fourth best film of the year for me) as well as The Ides of March (an A and the eighteenth best film of the year). In this one Mr. Gosling plays Jacob Palmer, the impeccably-dressed and charming ladies man that takes on a man a decade older than he, Steve Carell’s Cal, as his protégé, decided to show him the ropes of the world again, to getting his game back after Cal has been cheated on and asked for a divorce from his wife Emily, played by the great Julianne Moore who in my opinion got too little screen-time here.

It’s the great charm of both Mr. Gosling and Mr. Carell and the great rapport that quickly develops between the two that makes Crazy, Stupid, Love. such huge fun to watch, so funny and sharp. Everything about this film is seriously spot-on, it’s equal parts hilarious, sexy, smart and, most importantly, it’s also quite true, everything about this film rings honest and wise, not like the kooky rom-com’s of today, which must have been what attracted such a dream cast to the project. Because Mr. Gosling is not a guy known for romantic comedies, and Mr. Carell is always great when it comes to choosing projects (Evan Almighty not withstanding) and there’s also Julianne Moore and Emma Stone, the two most talented and likable redheads in the business, as well as Kevin Bacon and Marisa Tomei, two seriously talented veterans who are always welcome on my screen. And then there’s the newbie of the cast, Analeigh Tipton, who was on a cycle of America’s Next Top Model not that long ago, and who here stars as a babysitter and really proved she has some actual acting and comedic chops, and I honestly can’t wait to see what she’ll do next.

I just loved this, I loved how it managed to be really funny while still being actually serious, and acknowledging the rather dark current of emotions that set this whole story into motion and shape Cal’s story. It has a lot of confusion and awkwardness, it has a bromance and it may get you to shed a tear or two along the way. Not to mention that, along all of the great things it has, there are also a lot of things it doesn’t have; it’s not raunchy, it’s not overly sarcastic and if there’s cynicism it’s not seen as an agreeable trait. By which I mean, even though this one does play by a certain playbook of the genre, it’s not like the R-rated snark-fests we are used to nowadays; it’s something fresh, it’s something better.

This was also Steve Carell’s first post-Office film, and what a great role it is. There’s not a hint of Michael Scott in Cal Weaver, he’s just an everyman with a nice job and a nice house and a nice family who has to deal with having a good chunk of that seemingly falling apart. It’s a shocker when Emily tells him she wants a divorce when he asks what she wants for dessert, and it’s a shocker to see how badly dressed and out of tune he is at the cocktail lounge where he meets Jacob. Their bromance will include everything you’d expect it to, with the tips in how to leave the bar with the girl of your choice in your arms, to the required makeover montage (which is actually funny in this film), but it will also include quite a bit of heart, and the relationship between Jacob and Cal really fleshes out tremendously thanks to the actors in charge of playing them.

It’s great that this film knows to be patient, it knows that taking its time and letting the story sink in and being witty can be much better than just going forward and forward, ignoring loose ends and churning out loud and racy jokes that don’t add up to much. Cal wants to get even with Emily, who cheated on him with the character Kevin Bacon plays, and wants to do so by scoring with every woman he can, which includes most prominently the character of Marisa Tomei who, at 47, still has one of the most beautiful smiles in Hollywood. But there’s also Cal’s son, Rob, who has a crush on his babysitter, played remarkably by Ms. Tipton, who in turn has a bit of a crush herself on Cal. And then there’s what happens to Jacob himself, the lady killer who meets Emma Stone’s Hannah one night at the bar and, unexpectedly, falls in love with her.

How the film manages to find such a sublime balance between the required scenes to establish what’s needed, as well as start deploying a few things to be unraveled at the end in a bit of a shocker moment, and the more adult serious stuff that these types of films are too shy to even slightly approach, is terrific. Because, even though this does get sweet and there indeed are a couple of sappy conversation moments, it also acknowledges that there are limitations to love, and it crafts characters that are really believable. It’s these characters that make us love this movie, they are allowed to feel and to grow throughout the two hours this film runs, and the great group of actors in charge of playing them are sheer perfection.

Grade: A

A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas

31 Jan

Title: A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas
Year: 2011
Director: Todd Strauss-Schulson
Writers: Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, based on their own characters
Starring: John Cho, Kal Penn, Neil Patrick Harris, Danneel Harris, Paula Garcés, Elias Koteas, Patton Oswalt, Thomas Lennon, Eddie Kaye Thomas, David Krumholtz, Danny Trejo, RZA
MPAA Rating: R, strong crude and sexual content, graphic nudity, pervasive language, drug use and some violence
Runtime: 90 min
IMDb Rating: 6.9
Rotten Tomatoes: 69%
Metacritic: 61

 

I like the Harold & Kumar movies quite a lot, I think it soars higher than its stoner comedy boundaries, and John Cho and Kal Penn are awesome in the titular roles, not to mention these are the films that did a lot for Neil Patrick Harris’ resurgence in the zeitgeist. Harld & Kumar Go to White Castle was released in the summer of 2004, made for $9 million, and even though it wasn’t a massive commercial success, making about $24 million, it became something of a cult-ish movie and four years later we got Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, made for a slightly higher $12 million, but this time making over $43 million at the box office and an added $24 million from DVD sales, even though it wasn’t as great quality-wise as the first one.

Now we get the third film by the duo, done in a hiatus from Kal Penn’s work as Associate Director at the White House Office of Public Engagement for the Obama administration, and it’s by far their most ambitious outing to date, and actually a step up from the second entry in the franchise. Not to mention that, this being their Christmas spectacular and all, we actually get a rather sweet kind of movie in the midst of all the highly raunchy and offensive moves these guys are known for, which is as hit-and-miss as always, but still pretty hilarious most of the time. If people start saying this too offensive or too crude, well, they’d be right, but it’s your fault for going into a Harold & Kumar movie in the first place, a baby covered in cocaine is a sight that’s bound to happen in their crazy little world of a ninety minute movie that’s made out of one ridiculous set piece after the other.

These guys are like the 21st Century’s Cheech & Chong, characters who have found their niche, their target audience, and the filmmakers here are smart enough to know who that target audience is and are more than happy to provide exactly what they want. It’s a film that’s all about the excesses their target audience wants from it, one that knows the sight of Danny Trejo ejaculating all over a Christmas tree will have them roaring in laughter, and one that knows the people who watch this film have an opinion of Neil Patrick Harris that’s certainly not Barney Stinson-like. Sex, drugs and claymation, all in 3D, people want this, and they’re gonna get it.

The film opens six years after the first sequel, and Harold seems to be really well-off, having the wife, the house and the great job at Wall Street. Kumar is still pretty much the same, the stoner he’s always been. And they haven’t really spoken to each other much since the second film, each going after very different paths in life, but those paths are about to intersect after a package for Harold arrives at Kumar’s door. If the first quest these two friends embarked on, to get some White Castle hamburgers, was insanely epic and full of really bizarre scenarios, then you can count that the one they embark on this time, to find a replacement for a great Christmas tree that Harold told his father-in-law (played by the aforementioned Mr. Trejo) he’d take care of, will be every bit as kooky. The quest sticks to the formula these guys are known for, and it wants to shock and it wants to be excessive, but why fix what’s not broken, this is all these characters and their fans need.

I don’t want to spoil every single crazy situation we get to witness in this film, those are for you to discover on your own, all I’ll say is that if you were a fan of the first two films, you’ll be a fan of this one, and if you weren’t, well, then this one won’t be your particular cup of tea either. Personally, I love the antics presented on screen by these guys, I think you don’t have to be a stoner to appreciate stoner comedy, nor do you have to be one to appreciate how awesome Neil Patrick Harris is at playing this insane fictionalized version of himself that proposes that the actor’s real-life homosexuality is but a front to hide his sexual depravity, you just know Mr. Harris is having a helluva lot of fun playing such a crazy version of himself, not to mention that this time around he gets to do a seasonal song-and-dance number that’s pretty neat.

I give A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas a very recommending grade, it’s a third film that improves upon the second one, and it’s just seriously entertaining and surprisingly sweet. It proves that these guys are here to stay, that their brand of comedy and knack for being excessive are justifiable when you watch just how awesome the end product is. And I truly don’t know what these guys would have to do in order to top themselves if a fourth film is ordered, but I do know that I’ll be first in line to see it if it ever comes to be.

Grade: B+

Dirty Girl

27 Jan

Title: Dirty Girl
Year: 2011
Director: Abe Sylvia
Writer: Abe Sylvia
Starring: Juno Temple, Jeremy Dozier, Milla Jovovich, William H. Macy, Mary Steenburgen, Dwight Yoakam, Maeve Quinlan
MPAA Rating: R, sexual content including graphic nudity, and for language
Runtime: 90 min
IMDb Rating: 6.1
Rotten Tomatoes: 25%
Metacritic: 37

 

I’m of the opinion that Juno Temple is bound to break big sooner rather than later. After starting out with small roles in great British films like Atonement and Notes on a Scandal, she’s been gaining quite a lot of traction lately, she had a small role in last year’s superb Greenberg (which I gave an A to and was my 17th favorite film of 2010), and has been around quite a lot in 2011 with roles in The Three Musketeers (a C-), Cracks (a B), Kaboom (a B) and now Dirty Girl which is one of three final films I have to watch before putting an end to my 2011 Rankings. And next year she’ll keep at it, with a wide array of roles, most notoriously in Lovelace and, of course, the one that could potentially really get her to rise up the ladder, and fast, a turn as Holly Robinson, Catwoman’s sidekick, in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises.

She’s the lead in Dirty Girl, the feature-length debut from writer-director Abe Sylvia, and even though this isn’t really even a good film, it’s Ms. Temple’s performance the one thing you can salvage about the ninety minutes of this film, which proves she can be good even if the material is bad. The thing about Dirty Girl to me was that it didn’t really know the kind of film it wanted to be, it was as though Mr. Sylvia was just absolutely unsure about the emotions he wanted to portray in his debut, showing a lack of confidence in the tonality that really hurt his material. As for those tones, it starts off kind of campy, like a satire, and it worked decently enough when it was that, but then it started to become this kind of quirky coming-of-age film that it was just way off, and the two tones just never really meshed at all.

Yesterday I saw the terrific Submarine (an A- from me), the debut from another writer-director, Richard Ayoade, and that film has everything this film doesn’t, it was a film made by a guy that was confident in his skills and made a stylized film sure about what he was doing, and if people liked it then fine, and if they didn’t then that was fine, too. Dirty Girl, on the other hand, feels like a film that just really really wants you to like it; it starts off acting kind of naughty for you to be kind of shocked about it, but then you’ll realize that at the bottom it just did so to get your attention and it’s actually well-intentioned. It’s difficult not to make the comment that it’s fitting that this is a film about teenagers with identity crises, this film doesn’t know what it wants to be either, it’s like a teenager who wants your attention and who you just have to put up with.

Also like Submarine, it’s set in the 80’s, though this time it’s in Oklahoma, where Danielle, the resident dirty girl of Norman High School, resides. After one of her typical outbursts of bad behavior Danielle gets placed in a remedial class, which is where she meets Clarke, who’s this awkward chubby kid who’s innocent of any bad behavior, except that his parents want him to believe that him being attracted to other boys is just that, bad behavior which he should be able to correct. The class makes them do one of those typical sex-ed exercises of having a bag of flour and pretending its their baby, and of course their relationship will start badly until they eventually start to hit it off.

The two then embark on a road trip to California, Danielle wanting to find her birth father (her mom, played by Milla Jovovich, is dating a Mormon played by William H. Macy who wants to marry her mom and call Danielle his own) and Clarke wanting the opposite, to escape from his dad, a homophobe played by Dwight Yoakam, before he ships him off to military school. So of course the road trip will be when this turns into a coming-of-age film, with the Danielle and Clarke using the experience to learn about their true selves as they find true friendship in the unlikeliest of places. And kudos have to given to Ms. Temple and to Jeremy Dozier, who plays Clarke, they make the very messy screenplay sound much better than it should have, and they, especially Ms. Temple, get us to actually care a bit about this characters.

This film is just too clumsy for me to give it a recommending grade, it tries to give every single character an arc that’s made only to try and get some tears from our eyes (it didn’t succeed at that even once, though) and the fact is that even though it would really want you to believe it’s soulful film, the implications it tries to make about the particular issues the characters here go through are quite stale, and there’s just not an ounce of confidence from Mr. Sylvia and no real insight whatsoever. And yet, like I said, Juno Temple is meant for bigger and better things, she totally saves the movie from being a train wreck, and even comes awfully close to getting it to achieve a level of decency; keep an eye out for her.

Grade: C+

Hugo

27 Jan

Title: Hugo
Year: 2011
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: John Logan, based on the novel by Brian Selznick
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Chloë Grace Moretz, Sacha Baron Cohen, Ray Winstone, Jude Law, Christopher Lee, Helen McCrory, Michael Stuhlbarg, Emily Mortimer, Frances de la Tour, Richard Griffiths
MPAA Rating: PG, mild thematic material, some action/peril and smoking
Runtime: 126 min
IMDb Rating: 8.2
Rotten Tomatoes: 94%
Metacritic: 83

 

It’s taken me forever, I know, but I finally got to see Hugo, two days after it racked up the most Oscar nominations of any film, but now I’ve seen the film and it was seriously worth the wait. People were kind of skeptical when Martin Scorsese announced his next film would be an adaptation of a popular novel aimed mostly at children, and done in 3D at that, one that would carry a PG rating (the first film of his to do so since 1993’s The Age of Innocence), one that would be the director’s first film without his recent muse, Leonardo DiCaprio, since 1999’s Bringing Out the Dead and one that, it would seem, was as far off from the legendary director’s comfort zone as you could imagine. And it’s true, this is unlike anything the man has ever done, prompted by his youngest daughter, Francesca, do finally make a film that she could see and enjoy, and yet, in many ways, this is an incredibly personal film from my favorite director of all-time. It’s also easily the best film of all 2011.

I say Hugo is in many ways the most heartfelt and personal Scorsese film ever because it’s just bursting through the seams with the unabashed love for the art of cinema that defines the man. Part of the reason as to why Martin Scorsese is my favorite director ever is not only because he makes the best films one could hope for, which he does, but also because it’s infectious to see how he gets when he starts talking about films from other people, he’s like a little boy speaking about his favorite toy, just super excited, talking a thousand miles an hour; a film-lover first and a film-maker second. This love has always been evident, especially in his founding of The Film Foundation back in 1990, a non-profit organization dedicated to film preservation, something incredibly close to Mr. Scorsese’s heart, but in Hugo he manages to finally make a love letter to the world’s greatest art form, a beautiful and elegant film that has an innocence and heart that beat with his love for cinema, one of the characters here is even the inventor of film himself, Georges Méliès.

Wondrous is the word that probably best helps define Hugo, especially if you, like me, are a true cinephile. Because if you have even the slightest sense of love for films then this film will certainly do the trick for you; it’s like you have a guy who’s been loving films for half a century, who has studied every era of it and is insanely well-versed in it and who now has decided to create a film himself that encapsulates that love for the magic of an artform he has helped define himself; this is a film for us to treasure for years to come. Watching Hugo is an experience in and of itself, it’s thoroughly magical, purely innocent (which is a quality that’s insanely hard to pull off in today’s world) and helmed by the only man who could have been up to the task.

Unabashed love for film history mixed in with personal history from the director results in a beautiful film that’s serious and yet open to the fun of life at the same time, an adventure centered around the resourceful titular boy, played incredibly well by the young Asa Butterfield, a boy on a quest to unlock a secret his father left him some time ago. It’s like a poem with beautiful verses, a look at the power of cinema, the possibilities it gives us in life and the magic of it all; a masterpiece that is patient with its story, letting it come through slowly but beautifully, melding the gorgeous visuals with some truly heartfelt moments. And yet it’s still a children’s movie, a fable that will be enjoyed by (some) kids while (every) grown-up that takes them to theaters will be in awe about how the most talented cinephile has been given the tools and budget to make a film about films. It’ll be a while before I become a father myself, but for some reason I know this will be one of the first films I show my firstborn, and I can’t wait.

It’s really neat, too, to see Martin Scorsese, he of super violent gangster movies with the awesome soundtracks, produce a film that’s so emotionally strong. It comes from his love of cinema, from his love of his daughter who has helped him see the world, and thus films, through a different, more kinetic set of eyes. Hugo lives in Paris during the 1930’s, teaching himself about the workings of several mechanical artifacts, a love of which that comes from his family, his uncle being in charge of the clocks at a Parisian train station and his father having spent most of his life trying to complete an automaton, which is a self-operating robot. Hugo’s dad, however, dies before ever completing his work on the automaton. Instead of going to live as an orphan, Hugo stays hidden in the train station, the ladders and passages and clocks of the locale being his new home as he feeds himself off croissants he gets to pick off shops and sneaks into the movies whenever he can.

The performance that the young Asa Butterfield delivers, by the way, is another thing of wonder, and how he didn’t garner up more awards traction I don’t really get, he is the soul of the movie, and his interactions with the rest of the incredibly talented cast are awesome to watch. That cast includes Sacha Baron Cohen in a scene-stealing role as the Station Inspector who’s always on Hugo’s tail, chasing him through the traveler-crowded floors of the station and from whom Hugo always eventually escapes, getting refuge above the station’s roof. There’s also Jude Law as Hugo’s father seen through flashbacks, leaving behind his notebooks on how to finish the automaton. And the great Chloë Moretz, another insanely talented young actress, as Isabelle, a curious girl who also lives in the station and who Hugo quickly befriends.

There also is, of course, a great performance by the great Ben Kingsley as Méliès himself, now a grumpy old man who owns a toy shop in the station, something that did actually happen in real life. Hugo, obviously, doesn’t know who this man is, he doesn’t know he was the magician who pioneered film in order to trick his audiences, he doesn’t know he is the original inventor of automatons. The first half of the film (it runs for a bit over two hours) is all about Hugo and how he goes through life at the station, and how Mr. Scorsese uses technology to create the station and his shots of Paris is stunning, the art direction by Dante Ferretti and Francesca Lo Schiavo is impeccable as well, as is the cinematography by Robert Richardson. And watching the adventures of Hugo is tremendous fun and would make for a great film as it is, but it’s once we get to the second half of this film that this becomes the masterpiece that it is.

That second half of the film is more concerned with the life of Méliès, going back to showing parts of his career, of the early history of film that any true cinephile will go gaga for considering this is being done Martin Scorsese, who not only is a lover of film, but who, as we can evidence from the documentaries he has made, knows how to tell a real person’s story. We see how the old man now working at a toy shop once helped create the world’s first special effects, helped pioneer cinema and we see him then realize that he’s not been forgotten, but that, after being driven out of the cinema and stumbling into poverty, he was widely celebrated as a master of his craft around the world. There are some scenes in which Mr. Kingsley just shines, heartbreaking to see this man so sure that his work had been destroyed, that he had been forgotten.

It’s amazing the effect Hugo has, what it does with your imagination, how many times you’ll be left in literal awe, your jaw dropped, at what an old-school guy like Martin Scorsese is doing with the newest of technologies. It is the most beautiful ode to film imaginable, and even if it didn’t count with this amazing technology, it would be amazing just based on the story it presents, it’s a film made for kids that has two of the best performances given by younger actors in the past decade or so, and that in its young characters has kids that are actually smart and not just there to make poop jokes like in most family films we get today. Everything about this film is sheer perfection, from the directing, to the acting, to the editing (done as always by Mr. Scorsese’s usual collaborator, Thelma Schoonmaker), to the art direction, cinematography, costume design and sound. Hugo is the best film of 2011, and here’s hoping the Academy too recognizes that.

Grade: A+

Submarine

26 Jan

Title: Submarine
Year: 2011
Director: Richard Ayoade
Writer: Richard Ayoade, based on the novel by Joe Dunthorne
Starring: Craig Roberts, Yasmine Paige, Noah Taylor, Paddy Considine, Sally Hawkins
MPAA Rating: R, language and some sexual content
Runtime: 97 min
IMDb Rating: 7.3
Rotten Tomatoes: 87%
Metacritic: 76

 

This is Richard Ayoade’s debut feature-length film as a writer-director, previously having worked on mostly TV gigs (he directed Community‘s ‘Critical Film Studies’ episode after this film), a couple of shorts and directing the Arctic Monkeys at the Apollo concert documentary. And it shows he’s a guy with a helluva lot of promise, a director to watch after showing he has a very definite style in this picture, as well as showing he has a knack for crafting a dialogue that sounds like how a real teenager would actually talk. It’s not a perfect film, not at all, but as far as debuts go this one of 2011’s most impressive ones, it’s so delicate in how comically it shows the teenage angst, how it takes you by the hand and guides you along that you’ll be left craving for a new feature by the man.

What makes Submarine define its style in such a cool way, which may draw a Wes Anderson comparison or two, is the fact that Mr. Ayoade changes the present-day setting from the Joe Dunthorne novel he adapted to 1986, an era which he can heavily stylize and use to his advantage in crafting a very distinct aesthetic. I said it reminded me of Wes Anderson because you can just tell that Mr. Ayoade made this change in order to make this film all the more whimsical and quirky, to enable his characters to wear these vintage clothes and use polaroids and be into French cinema. I’m a huge Wes Anderson fan, and as such this worked tremendously well for me, with Craig Roberts’ Oliver Tate acting as Jason Schwartzman’s Max Fischer in Rushmore; I loved every minute of this.

Oliver is fifteen years old, and he has two objectives in life: 1) To do everything he can to save his parents’ crumbling marriage, no matter how much meddling is involved, and 2) To lose his virginity before he blows out his sixteenth candle. And Craig Roberts is such a great find as Oliver, embedding him with that self-importance that only teenagers seem to possess, he’s clever but he thinks he’s a genius, thinking of himself like too much of a sophisticated soul to go looking for sex in cheap ways, even though it’s all he thinks about and a quest he has put himself a deadline to complete. He targets one of his classmates, Jordana, who’s a pyromaniac and who seems to understand quite a lot about what goes on in the mind of an teenage boy, and it’s terrific to see how their relationship progresses; Yasmin Paige, the actress in charge of playing Jordana, being just as great a find as Mr. Roberts.

The quest to lose his virginity and learn about love and relationships is interwoven with that of getting his parents to stay together, which he does by monitoring their sex life, which he does by charting the position of the dimmer switch in their bedroom and by crafting sexy love letters allegedly from his mom (whom he believes to be having an affair with a New Age guy) to send to his dad. And it’s all so neatly told, you just get the sense that Mr. Ayoade has an incredible amount of love for the art of cinema itself; you get a visual nod to Truffaut, you get Oliver actually narrating how he wants his life to be shot and the camera following his instructions, you have certain fantasy parts of the film shot in Super 8 film, it’s all pretty damn awesome because of how greatly it meshes with the personality of Oliver and the overall tonality of the film, it never once feels forced but instead as a very hip and organic kind of transition for this film to take.

There will be people that won’t like the over-stylized doings of Mr. Ayoade, that’s for sure, just like Wes Anderson has a lot of detractors, but even if you don’t like the twee factor in and of itself, it actually makes a lot of sense for this film to be this way when you consider it’s an imagining of what’s going on in the mind of a sensitive and quite weird fifteen-year-old. Because that’s really what Submarine is, it’s a period in Oliver’s life seen squarely through the eyes of Oliver, and every other character presented to us is just the version of them that Oliver sees, so in the end how you respond to this film is entirely about how you respond to Oliver himself, since he’s all that really matters here. It’s like when you read The Catcher in the Rye and you either love or hate Holden because it’s his opinions and his viewpoint that drives the whole book, this is a similar kind of character, and, much like I love the J.D. Salinger novel, I love Submarine.

Submarine really is an incredibly confident debut from Richard Ayoade, a guy who’s such a promising director that it’s just astounding. There are a lot of stylistic trappings here but they’re all laid over a really neat emotional center to the story, one that’s anchored by a hugely likable performance from Craig Roberts. It’s a film about teenagers that’s seen in its totality through the eyes of one. For me that certainly resonated because I just stopped being a teenager four months ago, for older viewers I just urge you to remember the idealism of that time, to remember how you felt when grown-ups told you that certain experiences you had as a teenager that felt life-changing wouldn’t matter at all when you hit their age; do that and there’s no way you won’t fall in love with Submarine.

Grade: A-

Kaboom

26 Jan

Title: Kaboom
Year: 2011
Director: Gregg Araki
Writer: Gregg Araki
Starring: Thomas Dekker, Juno Temple, Haley Bennett, Roxane Mesquida, James Duval, Chris Zylka
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Runtime: 86 min
IMDb Rating: 5.9
Rotten Tomatoes: 58%
Metacritic: 64

 

Gregg Araki had made nine films prior to Kaboom, all of which were part of the New Queer Cinema movement, of which he is a prominent figure. I’ve seen a few of his films, his whole Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy and the 2007 stoner comedy Smiley Face, which I thought was actually kind of good. But nothing of his I’ve seen has come even close to the film that introduced me to Mr. Araki, which was his 2004 film, Mysterious Skin. That film holds up to this very day as an incredibly thought-provoking view on a difficult subject that showed a truly sensitive hand from Mr. Araki as a director, and it of course also had Joseph Gordon-Levitt in his first role after breaking out on TV’s 3rd Rock from the Sun, showing off his acting chops, something that he would only cement in the following year’s Brick, which makes it evident for those who saw that film why the man is now one of Hollywood’s most talented young stars.

This isn’t about Joseph Gordon-Levitt though, he’s not even in Kaboom; this is all about Gregg Araki and his tenth film, the one that was awarded Cannes Film Festival’s first ever Queer Palm for contributions to LGBT issues, and that’s actually a sci-fi story centered around the sexual awakening of a group of teenagers. And it’s not a bad film, but it’s just no Mysterious Skin either. I mean, there’s a lot of stuff to like here; it’s sexy and dark and well-cast with a bunch of young actors that give solid performances and well edited, it’s just not particularly well-written by Mr. Araki, so even though there are a lot of great pieces to tell this really bizarre kind of tale, it ends up feeling like a slightly stupid telling of it all sometimes.

Not to say that it’s a stupid film, because it’s not, and like I said there’s stuff to really dig here, it’s just that by the end of its eighty-six minute running time, the whole experience feels kind of trivial, like an unimportant piece of film that you would be just as fine not experiencing at all. The experience is a fun one to have, it’s like an erotic fantasy that’s pure fun and that goes by in a breeze and that you don’t particularly want to stop, a chaos you want to lose yourself in; but once its all said and done it really means nothing. Thomas Dekker plays Smith here, an eighteen-year-old film student, who’s bisexual, though mostly gay, and who has a sexual thirst that’s hard to quench. Then there’s Haley Bennett as Stella, his best friend, who’s a lesbian but who’s just as ravenous about her pursuit of erotic adventures.

It’s just such a loopy kind of film that it overshadows the more serious aspect of it about finding one’s true self amidst the puzzling paths youth thrusts upon us. But many of the things that go on here, the inquiries about identities and the scandalous, sexy, fantasy-world situations these characters get involved in, seem only to exist for the sole purpose of enabling Gregg Araki to get them to take their clothes of and get it on with each other. So that’s the impasse at which Kaboom arrived for me, and thus why I’m kind of torn about exactly what I think about it; there’s stuff here that fits in with the Mysterious Skin themes, reflected in the stuff about how teenagers always try to reinvent themselves in one way or another when they get to college, but it’s smothered by this supernatural kind of spin about sex and teen mysteries that, while funny, I think goes a bit too overboard at times.

The supernatural aspect of it comes from Smith being haunted by a series of dreams, all focusing on two beautiful women, one dark-haired and the other one a redhead. It all turns all the more kooky as these women start turning up in his real life; Stella’s new girlfriend is a sorcerer that’s the dark-haired woman and the red-haired girl is a junkie he witnessed getting abducted by a gang of masked murderers. He starts investigating into that girl’s disappearance and it all starts leading him back to his family history and to a lot of people he knows, and he starts getting closer to the truth is may mean life-altering things for his life and for the lives of people close to him. Or maybe it just means the batch of hallucinatory cookies he ate at a party are acting up.

Whether you like Kaboom or not, one thing you can say safely is that there’s not another film quite like it. It’s all about teens and sex and loud music and bright colors and trippy sequences and the apocalypse. What’s great about the stuff Mr. Araki does is that he creates a world that’s just so crazy but that in the context of his characters and their actions makes sense and is believable, and because of that, because of the atmosphere he crafts, this works. The thing is, though light and breezy and short, the film’s final act seems like it needed an extra twenty minutes to work properly, we get an explanation to the all the mysteries that’s delivered in a single piece of dialogue and the film reaches an abrupt ending soon thereafter. That kind of lazy filmmaking I didn’t get, why he had to explain it all in a scene and not just keep going at it is something I don’t really understand, it left me wanting more, it left me thinking this could have been like a trippy and funny Mysterious Skin but Mr. Araki just didn’t want to try and make it so.

Grade: B

Arthur Christmas

25 Jan

Title: Arthur Christmas
Year: 2011
Director: Sarah Smith
Writers: Peter Baynham and Sarah Smith
Starring: James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Jim Broadbent, Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Ashley Jensen, Will Sasso, Joan Cusack, Robbie Coltrane, Dominic West, Andy Serkis, Laura Linney, Eva Longoria, Ramona Marquez
MPAA Rating: PG, some mild rude humor
Runtime: 97 min
IMDb Rating: 7.2
Rotten Tomatoes: 92%
Metacritic: 69

 

Yesterday morning the Oscar nominations were announced and the Best Animated Feature line-up was comprised of Rango (which was a strong A- for me), Puss in Boots (a B+), Kung Fu Panda 2 (a slightly higher B+) and two films I haven’t seen, Chico & Rita and A Cat in Paris. After seeing Arthur Christmas today, all I can say is that this film should have seriously been nominated in that category. It’s a really clever film from Aardman Animations (their first under their deal with Sony) and in it you see the studio that gave us Chicken Run, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and Flushed Away broadening its sense of humor a bit, even though it’s still mostly more witty than plain funny, but what surprised me the most about this film is that the studio showed more heart than they have in the past, a perfect fit for a Christmas movie.

It’s a super busy film, that much is true, and that opening sequence in which we are introduced to how Santa and his army of elves work may feel a bit too frantic at times, especially if you see it in 3D which makes it all the more aggressive, but once the story is established and you get to see how upbeat this whole thing is you’ll start loving Arthur Christmas. This is, it must be noted, the first foray into 3D from the Aardman team, so you can expect some tricks to be used only to play with that added dimension as the film aims to explain how exactly it is that Santa gets to deliver all of those presents in one single night, going to the North Pole and examining how his non-stop, high-tech operation functions. But at the heart of the film, and what really made it work so damn well, is the fact that it’s your typical Christmastime movie, with a dysfunctional family, a member of which who will have to save the day, and a great deal of heart in it.

I remember when Flushed Away premiered a lot of Aardman fanboys, myself included, were a bit skeptical of what was to come out of it. What was going to happen when the studio dabbled in CGI and strayed away from their impeccable use of handmade clay animation, which in some of their shorts still has traces of the thumbprints of the animators and which gives them a homey sense of love that goes along great with their image of being a small English studio. But the classic British humor, full of well thought out wit and dry remarks, transitioned just as well in that 2006 film. And, like I said, the humor is kind of broadened here in Arthur Christmas, they were definitely trying to reach out to a wider audience, to get Americans to fall for their impeccable style and execution, and unless Americans are dumb, they should have succeeded.

As frantic and busy as the first ten minutes are, it is fun seeing how the North Pole operates in this film, with Santa Claus, voiced by Jim Broadbent, ready to retire and hand over the reigns (literally and figuratively) to his eldest son, Steve, who’s voiced by Hugh Laurie, who runs the yearly operation like a military commander, overseeing that every little thing is done the right way before they board the S-1, a huge sleigh-shaped spaceship from which a million elves descend to deliver the presents and collect the milk and cookies that the ship converts into biofuel. However, something has gone wrong this year and a single little girl in Cornwall didn’t get her present this year, something that Santa and Steve see as a regrettable loss but one from which they must move on.

Arthur is Santa’s other son, voiced really well by James McAvoy, and he’s the sentimental one, the one who really loves Christmas and cherishes it as the earnest tradition that it is and not as a military operation like his brother does. So he and his grandfather, a former Santa himself, who’s voiced really funnily by Bill Nighy, decide to get on a traditional wooden sleigh with a reindeer and deliver that little girl her present in time for Christmas. And of course there’s a lot of sentimentality in those parts of the movie, and it can get kind of sappy at times, because it is after all a holiday film in which our hero is in charge of saving the day and that states that everyone should get their presents and be happy. But for every ounce of niceties and typical good-natured rules it follows, there’s also an ounce of the dryness that defines this studio, of the rule-breaking naughtiness, provided by the Grandsanta and by some of the elves.

I really liked Arthur Christmas, I know I’m seeing it a full month after the actual holiday, but it was still a tremendously fun time, a film that has a seriously terrific cast of actors lending their voices to a great slew of characters that, even when they’re one-joke personalities, are just awfully charming because of how they’re animated and written. Aardman Animations is going kind of mainstream, you could say, abandoning the claymation glories for the 3D/CGI arena, but they’re keeping the dryness of its humor and the technical mastery of their animation, which is all that matters, and I’m already looking forward to The Pirates! In an Adventures with Scientists, their April release that promises to deliver just like this one did.

Grade: A-