Posts Tagged ‘movies’

SXSW Interview: “Girl Model” filmmakers share a shocking secret about the making of their film

I met A. Sabin and David Redmon on the verandah of the Four Seasons Hotel overlooking Town Lake. Sabin is darkly beautiful and carries a quiet confidence, while David is a bit more intense. They look like the serious, award-winning documentarians they are, but that doesn’t stop them from getting distracted and a bit giddy when we’re joined on the terrace by a couple of celebrities posing for local press. After the excitement dies down and David and I discuss our shared roots in the DFW area, we dig in to the topic at hand: Girl Model, a film which documents the recruiting of under-age girls in remote Siberia for modeling in Japan.

Three-quarters of the way into our interview, things take a dark and unexpected turn, but we began with some background on the story.

DW: How did you first hear about this agency doing cattle calls in Siberia?

AS: We were approached in 2007 by Ashley, the model scout. At that point she sent us an email and the story was about modeling and prostitution, and the fine line between both. But our style of filmmaking is verite so we document events as they unfold. For us that creates a complexity in the story. So we had obvious concerns that she said this is the story that I think you should follow. We sort of pulled back and said we don’t want to make an investigative piece. But that’s how we initially got the story through Ashley and then it became something quite different.

DW:  I have to say that’s surprising to me because Ashley seems so conflicted about what she’s doing. It wouldn’t seem like she would approach you to open herself up like that.

AS: She’s complicated. I think that’s why audiences respond to her so strongly because they’re trying to figure her out, to understand her motivation. Read the rest of this entry »

SXSW Review: Girl Model

This haunting documentary opens on a huge ‘cattle call’ of girls from small villages in Siberia. They stand in bikinis, some with arms folded across their breasts, others with slumped shoulders, signs of obvious self-consciousness. They are here to audition for an opportunity to model in Japan, but most don’t look like future models at all. It looks more like a very large gym class lined up for weigh-in. They don’t flaunt or carry themselves in a presentational manner. No matter how pretty they may be, most of them look like gangly, innocent youngsters and that’s exactly what they are. As young as 13, they’re here because they dream of “getting out” and making money for their struggling families. But it will mean leaving behind everything they know and finding themselves in a strange land, at the mercy of a cruel industry.

When we first meet Ashley Arbaugh, an American scout who works exclusively for the Japanese modeling agency, she tells us she believes she’s “saving” these girls and giving them a chance in the west. But as we get a creepy feeling watching these minors being poked and prodded like so much market beef, and photographed in skimpy clothes so their bodies can be assessed and measured, Ashley fully admits that it’s the look of wide-eyed innocence they’re after. She then tells us that they pre-screen girls even younger than 13 in the villages. “Before anybody else gets there, we get the girls.”

A 13-year-old named Nadya is chosen from among the hundreds who showed up. Read the rest of this entry »

SXSW Interview: Jack Black talks Bernie, Prison Conditions, Gospel Music, and Tenacious D

Jack Black saunters in wearing a cool black western shirt, black jeans, and neon lime green sneakers. He’s also carrying a drink which may or may not contain something more than Coca-Cola at 1pm. Sometimes thoughtful and incredibly articulate, other times profane and silly, he keeps the roundtable interview jazzed. He’s got a touch of magic about him. He’s also got a fine performance in Bernie that he is (rightfully) proud of.

I was invited to attend this roundtable interview with several other journalists (local and national). The following is an edited transcript, and an audio file of the last few minutes of the interview in which Jack serenades us with some Tenacious D.

Glory be, and long live rock.

QUESTION: How does it feel to join the ranks of Jack Nicholson and Jack Lemmon who romanced Shirley MacLaine on screen?

JB: You know that’s a lot of pressure. Those are some powerful Jacks.


QUESTION: You give her a foot massage so that’s even more intimate according to Pulp Fiction rules.

JB: Is that in Pulp Fiction? They say a foot massage is more intimate than intercourse? Yeah, and I didn’t just rub the feet. I also buffed and shined’em. You saw it. It was a full-on thing there.

(He pretends to blow residue from a buffer as he does in the film.)


QUESTION: Did you spend any time with a funeral director to get some of those techniques down? Read the rest of this entry »

SXSW Interview: Kay McConaughey Raised A Good Boy and Some Hell Along the Way

Kay McConaughey in “Bernie”

Kay McConaughey (affectionately known as K-Mac) plays a small town gossip in the new film Bernie, directed by family friend Richard Linklater, and co-starring her son Matthew, whom you may have heard of.

Her character, Tassie, is one of the more memorable “locals” through which the film’s narrative is told. She plays a ballsy gal with plenty to say and steals the movie in her few brief scenes.

I sat down with K-Mac in the Lobby Lounge restaurant in the Four Seasons Hotel while SXSW frenzy buzzed around us. Looking nowhere near her 80 years and having more energy than most kids I know, she chatted about the movie, her book, her famous son, and being a grandma.

DW: I’ve just come out of a roundtable interview with Matthew and Richard. They talked about you…

KM: (laughs) Yeah, well, Richard’s so low-key and sweet. I hope I get to see him in a suit before I die. I’ve never seen him in a suit no matter what the premiere is and I go to all of his.

DW: How did you get involved with the film Bernie?

KM: Rick called me and said, “There’s a part for you in this movie Bernie and I cannot imagine anybody playing Tassie but you.” I’m good friends with him and his family so it’s not like… I mean he just comes right out and says, “It’s you, K-Mac. It’s got you all over it.” So he emailed it to me and I said, “Rick, you’re right. That sounds like me.” I said I’d love to do it.

DW: The part you play is one of the townspeople, one of the gossips, and it all seems so natural. Was it ad-libbed or scripted?

KM: I ad-libbed. (laughs) A lot. Read the rest of this entry »

SXSW Interview: Matthew McConaughey and Richard Linklater talk about “Bernie”

Tucked away in a quiet corner of the bustling Four Seasons Hotel in Austin with SXSW excitement buzzing all around, Matthew McConaughey and Richard Linklater arrive to talk about their film Bernie. The two have worked together and been friends since we first saw McConaughey in Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993). Their rapport is obvious as the two casually open up about their latest endeavor.

Bernie is a twisted, quirky comedy; the true story of a beloved and cheerful small-town mortician who befriends the meanest (and wealthiest) widow in town and ultimately kills her. It stars Jack Black as Bernie, Shirley MacLaine as Marjorie Nugent, and Matthew McConaughey as District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson.

The following is an edited transcript of the discussion in which 10 journalists were invited to ask questions.

QUESTION (to MM): In this film and in some of your best work you play a lawyer. I’m trying to think of all the films where you played a lawyer…

MM: What have we got here… A Time to Kill, Amistad, Lincoln Lawyer and this … yeah.

QUESTION: And you wanted to be a lawyer originally, you were pre-law?

MM: I did. That’s where I was headin’. Then I luckily ran into a friend of ours, Don Phillips, in a bar and he introduced me to this guy (motions to Linklater). And yeah, this is much more fun.

QUESTION: How does Bernie fit into your “J.K. Livin” philosophy?
(“Just keep livin” is a quote from Dazed and Confused that McConaughey has adopted as his personal philosophy and it is the name of his production company.) Read the rest of this entry »

SXSW Review: 21 Jump Street

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to a Movie I Didn’t Want to See, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Enjoy 21 Jump Street


I hated the TV show “21 Jump Street.” It’s not even worth discussing why. It just sucked in so many ways. I became a Johnny Depp fan pretty much the second he gave them all the finger and went off to make weird movies. I groaned when I saw the trailer for the big screen remake and I went to the premiere at SXSW under duress. And then a funny happened:  God help me, I liked this movie.

Let’s add to my reasons for trepidation the fact that I’ve been slow to appreciate the charms of Channing Tatum. Or to put it another way: until now, I could barely stand the sight of the guy, let alone entire movies that showcase his sub-par acting and hunkdom routine. That’s a little harsh, and I know that now because I’ve seen 21 Jump Street in which he displays stellar comic timing and only uses his good looks as the butt of jokes (not unlike Mr. Depp some moons ago.) Jonah Hill is consistently hilarious in the film, and let’s face it, Jonah Hill is consistently hilarious in everything. He can deadpan like no other and has a special gift for wringing belly-laughs out of awkward situations.

In addition to (surprisingly) excellent casting, the writers, Michael Bacall (Project X, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) and Jonah Hill (with a story credit) have a lot of fun turning the typical high school stereotypes on their heads. Schmidt (Hill) was uncool in school but a good student. Jenko (Tatum) was popular but not too bright. When they’re given the undercover assignment as high school narcs, now in their mid-20s, their phony names and personas get mixed up. Suddenly Schmidt is the cool kid and Jenko is the science geek. Read the rest of this entry »

SXSW REVIEW: Bernie, a Heckuva Sweet Guy and a Murderer

Meet Bernie (Jack Black), the nicest guy in the small rural town of Carthage, TX. He volunteers for charity, directs local community theater, goes above and beyond the call of duty as assistant funeral director, has a lovely singing voice that he lends to gospel classics in church, checks in on grieving widows in his spare time, befriends the most reviled woman in town, and kills her.

“Bernie” is based on a crime story that proves the adage “truth is stranger than fiction.”

There is so much about the film (and Bernie) that is odd, and often endearingly so. The story is structured around interviews of quirky and colorful local residents who are eager to share their thoughts about the crime. These are interspersed with re-enactments of the events as they unfolded in 1998. It’s at once funny and chilling that most everyone in town sides with Bernie even though he confessed to shooting an elderly woman four times in the back.

The offbeat tone of the film is established in the opening sequence in which a competent and cheerful Bernie demonstrates to a class of future-morticians how to make corpses look good. (You’d be surprised how much super glue comes in to play.) Read the rest of this entry »

(Annoying) Friends with Kids

Meet platonic friends Jason (Adam Scott) and Julie (Jennifer Westfeldt). Their best friends are two married couples: Ben and Missy (Kristen Wiig and Jon Hamm) who start out hot and heavy but then allow a chasm of resentment to grow between them, and Leslie and Alex (Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd) who bicker but manage to keep it fairly playful and forgiving. Both of these pairs have kids who create havoc in the home, strain their love lives, and generally wear them out. Inspired by, or more to the point, repelled by the lives of their married friends, Jason and Julie decide to have a baby together, but vow to remain platonic friends so they can separate the act of parenting and the pursuit of romantic love. They think this is the perfect solution to the problems they see around them. Sounds great, right? They get a bundle of joy, and still get to go out like singletons and pursue hot sex. They vow to be “100% committed half the time.” Thus the double-meaning in the title, “Friends with Kids.”

Of course, their married friends see the flaw in this plan right from the get-go. The problem is, so will the audience. It doesn’t take a genius to know that the intimacy of child-rearing will strain and confuse their friendship, and that parenting is going to require more of them than part-time commitment.

Much effort is made to ensure that the march to the foregone conclusion is peppered with “shocking” risqué humor, presumably meant to set it apart from less challenging mainstream rom-coms, but the result is a film that’s more repellent than riotous.

It’s hard to know what to make of star/writer/director Jennifer Westfeldt. Read the rest of this entry »

Austin’s Drafthouse Films distributes “Bullhead”, an Oscar contender for Best Foreign Film

When we first meet Jacky he’s threatening someone with violence. We aren’t sure if he’s a good guy or a bad guy. We only know he’s a guy you don’t want to piss off.

As the story begins, we’re introduced to the strange world of black market hormones for cattle. Unlike in America where we consume copious amounts of hormones, antibiotics, and other chemicals in our meat due to unscrupulous farm-factory processes, in Belgium, such things are illegal. But desperate cattle owners resort to buying hormones on the black market so their cows grow bigger, faster, and are turned around more quickly for a better profit. Like here, the animals are kept in dismal, cramped stalls and do not wander rolling green hills as commercials would have us believe. It’s a dark, grisly business.

Black market hormones are sold much like illegal recreational drugs. Mafia types bring the product in and sell to regular customers.  Thus unfolds a crime story involving a dead undercover police officer who was attempting to thwart local hormone trade, an informant who was raised in the close-knit community of cattle farmers, and the Vanmarsenille family who relies on the hormones to help them compete and maintain a viable business in a crumbling economy.

We soon learn that the informant, Diederik (Jeroen Perceval)  grew up with Jacky (Matthias Schoenaerts) and the two share a sad history.  Jacky was the victim of an unspeakable crime as a child that left him scarred for life: he is without testicles. Diederik witnessed the crime but was not allowed to testify because his father feared repercussions from the perpetrator’s powerful family.

The two boys were no longer allowed to play together, and lost touch until now, when they meet again as adults in a shady business meeting. Diederik is there to gather intel for the cops. Jacky is there to make a deal.  The moment is rich with tragic irony: The boy who couldn’t “tell” now “tells” for a living, but he’s suddenly forced to implicate the very person he would most want to protect.

Jacky has endured the shame of living in a community that knows about his disfigurement. He’s dependent upon testosterone drugs, not only to replace what his body can no longer produce, but also to give him a “high” in which he is strong, powerful… manly. Read the rest of this entry »

“Dance, dance. Otherwise we are lost.”

Pina Bausch was a choreographer of extraordinary vision and innovation. In Wim Wender’s 3-D film entitled simply “Pina,” movie-goers are treated to excerpts from some of her most well-known and influential works. Among them are a piece that takes place entirely on loose soil so that the dancers become increasingly smudged and dirty as they enact tortured scenes of struggle and strife, a prop-filled piece entitled “Café Muller” in which chairs and tables are used to ingenious effect, and some outdoor sequences that use city space, light and air to add texture and depth to the dancer’s movements. Some of the most fascinating sequences are when Pina utilizes natural elements in the choreography: rock, sand, water.

There are moments of romance, levity, heartbreak, outright anguish and pain, and sheer beauty.

Between each dance piece, a member of the troupe tells a brief story about Pina. None of these stories are about her personal life – only about working with her. The film aims strictly to offer a tribute to this woman’s amazing work and work ethic. We’re given the impression of someone driven to create, bound only by her seemingly limitless imagination. She was a woman of few words, who made it count when she offered brief directions to her dancers.  Everyone involved clearly has enormous respect and love for Pina and her work, and that shows in each frame of the film.

The choice to use 3D here is inspired. It’s as if we’re in a live auditorium, watching the dancers move about on a real stage. In as much as it’s possible, we get the sense of live dance performances while sitting in an ordinary movie theater.

This is a must-see for fans of dance, art, and theater.

4.5 of 5 stars

The Vow

Paige Thornton (Rachel McAdams) is a happily married art student who’s just landed a very cool, high-profile project. She’s got a boho fab wardrobe, a groovy studio space in Chicago, a witty, handsome husband (Channing Tatum) who adores her, and a bright future. Her life is romantic and wonderful. It’s the kind of life most people only dream of, and the kind of life that usually only exists in the movies to validate our hopes that such an existence could at least happen to somebody. Oh, and her husband owns a music studio. Perfect.

One night there is a terrible car crash and Paige obtains a serious head injury that results in memory loss of the past five years. She wakes up thinking she’s the woman she was five years ago, a woman who lived a very, very different life.

The old Paige was very close to her uber-rich family (who she hasn’t spoken to in years), dressed like a total yupster, hung out with sorority pals, and went to law school per her father’s wishes. Oh, and she was engaged to a man (Scott Speedman) who fits neatly into this scene of Gucci and Chanel and all things “upscale.” It’s a completely different world from her bohemian artist’s life she’s living these days downtown.

So two storylines emerge: 1) the mystery of how uptight yuppie Paige became the free-spirited artist Paige of today, and 2) will she fall in love with her husband again and embrace her current life? Or will she go back to the life she remembers?

Another question emerges that the filmmakers likely did not intend: How does an art student and a struggling recording studio owner afford their fabulous loft downtown AND their two different studio spaces, especially if she’s no longer taking the family money? Ah, movie logic. Best not to question these things.

Anyway, what unfolds is a period of time in which Paige has to discover her own identity again. Read the rest of this entry »

A Whale of a Tale

“Big Miracle” is a sweet movie that chronicles the real-life “save the whales” story that captivated the world in the late 80s. A family of whales (mom, pop, and baby) get trapped in the ice, and will die unless they’re able to swim out to sea. Problem is, the ice is solid between here and there, and it will take a herculean effort to break a path for them. The most heartbreaking aspect of this predicament is that the animals are very aware that they are in danger, prescient enough to take turns blowing on the surrounding ice in order to keep the hole open. Anyone with the slightest affinity for animals will be moved, and were moved when this story dominated TV news some 20 years ago.

The film stars two of the most likeable actors on earth: John Krasinski and Drew Barrymore. Krasinski plays the local journalist who breaks the story. The role essentially requires him to be gosh-darn charming and that he is. Barrymore fares less well, playing a Greenpeace activist who is dedicated and single-minded enough to not really care whether anyone likes her. Unfortunately, Barrymore feels to be trying a bit too hard here. The line between an overly strident character and an overly strident performance is a tough one to walk.

Still, the pairing of Krasinski and Barrymore hits the right tone for a film that’s got a big heart and is intended for a family audience.

Part of what made this story so fascinating was the disparate people who came together to free the whales: politicians (conservatives, no less!), Greenpeace, big oil, the National Guard, indigenous tribes. It took a village, so to speak, to do the near-impossible. Read the rest of this entry »

Rage Beyond the Grave

“The Woman in Black” succeeds in part, but doesn’t quite live up to the scares promised in the trailer.

Daniel Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a widower whose wife died while giving birth to their adorable son. He’s given the impossible task of settling the affairs at Eel Marsh, an aptly named spooky manor that is inexplicably located so far into the marshes that it’s only available by horse or motor carriage when the tide goes out. When the tide is in, the only road to the home is underwater, which of course leaves any inhabitants stranded until the tide goes out again. While the lonely mansion afloat in the marsh makes for an effective and creepy visual and serves a contrivance in the plot (one can’t merely decide to leave when the going gets spooky), it defies logic. Who would build a home that far beyond the tide? Who would live there? And how could the home ever be sold (even if it wasn’t ghost-ridden?)

Needless to say, this isn’t a job anyone would want, but Kipps is given little choice and his son depends on him.

When he arrives in town, the requisite mysterious and unfriendly reception he receives by the locals lets us know that something isn’t quite right at ol’ Eel Marsh. But determined he is, and off he goes. Read the rest of this entry »

Silent Film Makes a Joyful Noise

“The Artist” is a delightful confection that resurrects the art of silent film for a modern audience. Let’s call it “neo-silent,” if you will, as sound does play a role in the movie, though used only sporadically and to clever effect.

Meet George Valentin. He loves himself, and why shouldn’t he? He’s a huge star, he has a loyal dog who is his constant companion in life and onscreen, audiences adore him and his existence is almost perfect except for his sour-puss wife. Jean Dujardin’s portrayal of Valentin is simply splendid. His remarkably expressive, handsome face calls to mind Gene Kelly in “Singing in the Rain.” That smile could light up the world! And like Kelly, he tempers the character’s ego with an easy charm and gentle wit that makes it impossible to hold his conceit against him.

A cute mishap on the red carpet serendipitously thrusts the unknown Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) into the spotlight alongside Valentin and a star is born. Bejo’s delightful every-girl quality is infused with infectious joy and energy that befits the old-fashioned stage name to perfection.

Problem is, while Peppy’s on the way up, Valentin is on the way down. Silent films are falling out of vogue and talkies are the rage. Peppy is the new poster girl of the now and the wow.  Valentin is a dinosaur. As his life disintegrates into ruins, he’s forced to watch from afar as Peppy’s star rises. What he doesn’t know is that she hasn’t forgotten him, and it is this aspect of the story that gives the film its heart.

Peppy keeps tabs on Valentin. One can attribute her motivation to several factors: 1) She is loyal to the fact that he discovered her, 2) She realizes that her own fame won’t last forever and one day she’ll be in his shoes, and 3) She’s been in love with him ever since they first bumped into each other in front of the flashbulbs.

Peppy becomes a sort of secret guardian angel for Valentin as the life he once knew slips further and further away. Through her, and with some help from his loyal canine companion, Valentin must find salvation. The storyline tips its hat to both “A Star is Born” and “Singing in the Rain.” It’s sweetly and unashamedly old-fashioned; an exercise in anti-cynicism that will open your heart wide if you let it.

“The Artist” gets everything just right on a technical level, thanks to director Michel Hazanavicius and his entire team. The recreation of film style from that era is phenomenal down to every detail including the saturation in the black and white, the framing and blocking of scenes, the Art Deco environs, and of course the charming fashions. But this film is more than a technical triumph, and more than homage. It’s a rousing escape to another time and place that leaves your heart lighter than when you came in.

Quite simply, it’s the feel-good movie of the year.

5 of 5 stars

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

George Smiley never smiles. In fact, it’s hard to know what he’s thinking or feeling behind a carefully measured gaze which one must surely learn during the course of a lifetime of service to British intelligence. It’s likely you’re hearing Gary Oldman’s name a lot lately due to richly deserved award nominations. The great challenge in this role is to allow the audience to track Smiley’s arc and thought processes without giving it away to those around him. It’s a complex and sad performance that Oldman wears like an old suit. The furrowed lines on his face tell the unspoken story of the sacrifices that one makes in the personal realm when opting for a life of service to country.

John LeCarre’s classic spy novel has a loyal fan base that will likely be pleased with the film. It doesn’t have the time to explore the complexity of the relationships of the four spies in the same way the British mini-series was able to, but it captures the deeply layered essence of the book as well as can be expected in its 2 hour running time.

“There is a mole.” The words are spoken ominously by John Hurt who plays the character simply named “Control” with the sort of world-weariness one might expect from the head of British intelligence. It’s the 70s. The Cold War is raging. And it seems that someone in the higher echelons of her Majesty’s government is working for the other side. George Smiley is tasked with investigating this convoluted web of double agents and deceit. Read the rest of this entry »

The Devil and Paramount Pictures

“The Devil Inside” is a crass attempt to cash in on the “found footage/fake documentary” horror craze that requires only a few good moments to be culled for the trailer in order to make millions of dollars on opening weekend. Never mind that the film is actually a stinker with bad acting and every cliché in the book (not the Bible, the other book – The Book of  Better Film Rip-Offs). Once word gets out, Paramount will have made their money. They won’t care that they foisted a sub-par product onto the public. They won’t care about the negative reviews. They got what they wanted. The shame here is not how bad the movie is (it happens), but how small the ambitions are (we’ll make a buck before they know what hit’em). Cue sad film critic shaking her head in disgust.

The film opens promisingly enough. We watch what appears to be police footage of a crime scene in which several people were brutally murdered during an exorcism. The woman is tried, found insane, hospitalized, and then moved to a hospital in Rome. Yeah… that last bit sounded unlikely to me, too. This was the first red flag. See, I’m just not sure the government of either country would agree to such a thing or that it’s even legal, but okay… moving on. Read the rest of this entry »

Pretty on the Outside

“Young Adult” feels like revenge, sweet revenge against the popular kids who grew up to be losers and spend their time wallowing in former glories and wondering why the rest of the world doesn’t understand that they are awesome.

Meet Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron). She writes “YA literature” (young adult novels) about catty school girls who relish their popularity, wallow in shallow pursuits, and thrive on gushy romantic foolishness. In short, she writes about herself. Problem is, she’s pushing 40. Mavis is very proud of her success as a novelist – though in truth she’s only the ghost writer of a formerly-successful series that is now being discontinued. Think “Sweet Valley High” for total bitches.

Early on we’re given glimpses into her life which involve lots of alcohol, meaningless sex, a very unkempt apartment, and lonely days of writing insipid dreck for an impatient editor. When she meets a friend for lunch, it’s at McDonalds (hardly fabulous) and the topic of discussion is her high school sweetheart’s recent email announcing the birth of his child. She carries on a lot about how lucky she is to have “gotten out” and how sorry she feels for the folks back home.

Pretty soon, she packs her bags and heads home to win over said high school sweetheart (Patrick Wilson), despite his wife and new born baby. Once in town, she heads directly to a bar in order to torture her liver as much as possible. She meets Matt Freehauf, a chubby nerd she went to school with but knew only as “The Hate Crime Guy” due to a gay-bashing incident that rendered him crippled for life (never mind the fact that he isn’t gay.) Matt is played by Patton Oswalt in a performance that almost saves the film. He sees right through Mavis and isn’t shy about telling her so. His dry, comic disdain for Mavis infuses their scenes together with a weird chemistry. For some reason, perhaps boredom and curiosity, he allows himself to be dragged in to her shenanigans. They have one thing in common: their lives have been crippled by the past, but in very different ways. Read the rest of this entry »

A Hot Mess

“Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” is an exercise in style. Either you enjoy Guy Ritchie’s irreverent take on the Arthur Conan Doyle classic or you do not. With the first offering in 2009, it was clear this rendering would be quite different than the more staid versions of the past. This Sherlock is decidedly flamboyant, in more ways than one.

In this sequel (hopefully one of many), Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes again employs his method of madness to foil a plot by the nefarious Professor Moriarty, played with sinister calm and confidence by Jared Harris (son of Richard) who seems to delight in making pretty boy Holmes squirm. The word “plot” is used loosely here, as it’s really all just an excuse to watch thrilling action sequences, delight in  Downey’s wonderfully bizarre and daffy performance, and enjoy the… let’s call it camaraderie… between Downey and his leading man, Jude Law.

What was hinted at in the first installment is writ much more large in the sequel. Frankly, Holmes loves Watson so much that his jealousy of the fair fiancée cannot be contained. The Holmes/Watson repartee reflects not only a long-time collaboration of clever detecting, but a weary marriage of sorts between a couple who’ve grown accustomed to each other’s peccadilloes. The humor inherent in this situation is played to sublime perfection by these two larger-than-life movie stars who wink at the audience like the good-natured gents we hope they are.

Downey’s demented take on Holmes, the chemistry between our adventuring cohorts, the steampunk look and feel of the era, and a jaw-dropping action sequence in a forest are the film’s highlights. The thin plot is the dubious and forgettable string that ties these delights together. It’s better than the first, and tons of fun.

4 of 5 stars

A Comedy of Bad Manners

“Carnage” opens in a park with a group of kids taunting one lone boy who walks ahead, trying to get away from them. He takes their crap for a bit, then picks up a stick and swipes the leader of the pack in the face with it. Cut to:

Four tight-jawed parents are crammed awkwardly in a home office awaiting the final printing of a document they’ve agreed upon, which puts the responsibility of the incident squarely on the stick-bearing boy, and leaves the bully blameless. The elephant in the room being that this is the most expedient way to avoid a lawsuit.

The mother of said stick-bearer is played by Kate Winslet, who is ever so apologetic and says all the right things with such precision and care as to make it abundantly clear they were rehearsed, probably in the car on the way over with her spouse (Christoph Waltz), who has a harder time concealing his contempt for these proceedings. Jodie Foster plays the mother of the boy who was struck in the face, an unbearably strident woman who takes every opportunity to blow the incident out of proportion while her affable husband (John C. Reilly) goes out of his way to smooth things over with his aw-shucks good-natured demeanor.

What follows is an afternoon of tea and crumpets (so to speak) that devolves in ways I wouldn’t dare give away. Suffice to say the following: you’ve never seen Kate Winslet do THAT before. Read the rest of this entry »

A Timeless Classic

There is very little one can say to truly capture the visual splendor of Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo.” It is a breathtaking masterpiece, at once homage to early cinema innovation, and at the same time a harbinger of the vast possibilities still ahead of us.

“Hugo” is about an orphan boy (Asa Butterfield) who lives within the walls of a train station, winding the clocks so no one will notice that his alcoholic uncle caretaker is no longer around to do the job. His troubles include a nosy, orphan-hating station captain played with pitch-perfect wit by Sacha Baron Cohen, an angry toy shop clerk played with sad subtext by Ben Kingsley in what should be an Oscar nominated performance, a pretty girl with an affinity for literature played with plucky charm by Chloe Grace Moretz, and a mystery to solve which involves an automaton that Hugo and his father (Jude Law) were repairing before his dad’s untimely death. The mystery that unfolds leads the story into unexpected territory: the genius of a forgotten early cinema pioneer.

In this tale of artistry and craft, Scorsese uses 3D technology to highlight the themes of the film, rather than cheap gimmickry (as is so often the case with 3D.) The beginning sequence is so breathtaking that the audience literally gasped when the title “HUGO” finally appeared in large letters on the screen. One wonders, if that’s just the opening sequence, what can we be in store for next? A lot.

The beauty of the Paris train station circa 1930s and its quaint shops are captured with such grace and charm that one feels transported. The tracking shots inside the inner workings of the clock tower gears and the gritty walls where Hugo resides juxtapose a darker, less colorful world. The detail with which Scorsese handles scale is mind-boggling. For example, the angles of the Eiffel Tower are spatially accurate according to Hugo’s position in the tower and the city. The loving care given to every detail in the film is enough to bring tears alone. But it’s in Scorsese’s homage to the pioneers of cinema that the film really finds its heart. These sequences are shared with such childlike awe and whimsy, that only the coldest of hearts could remain unmoved.

Mr. Scorsese has some fun with the audience, too, by introducing classic scenes from early cinema and (lest we feel superior in our modern sophistication) recreating them within the story itself using current technology to illustrate how effective those scenes still are. We really aren’t all that different from audiences who were privileged to experience cinema in its infancy, and thanks to Mr. Scorsese, we are now able to experience some of that awe and wonder today, as if watching a movie for the first time.

I’m a purist. An avid 3D hater. And yet I beseech you to see this film in theaters in 3D. Do not wait for the DVD. It will not be the same film. This movie deserves to be seen as the artist(s) intended, in all its fanciful, ambitious glory.

“Hugo” is a spectacular masterpiece for all ages and forever.

5 of 5 stars

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