Maddeningly pretentious at times yet artistically daring, THE CONGRESS… MoreMaddeningly pretentious at times yet artistically daring, THE CONGRESS is sure to divide audiences due to its strange tonal approach, but nobody can deny that this is cutting edge cinema. Ari Folman loosely adapting the late Stanislaw Lem's novel, THE FUTUROLOGICAL CONGRESS, likes to upend genres. In his prior film, WALTZ WITH BICHIR, he blended documentary and animation. With THE CONGRESS, he has created a non-fiction/science fiction/animated hybrid. As the movie opens, Robin Wright, playing a version of herself, is having a career crisis. Her agent, played by Harvey Keitel, rehashes all of the bad choices she has made since her PRINCESS BRIDE/FORREST GUMP heyday. It's harsh because it's true (this film was made before her spectacular HOUSE OF CARDS comeback) and Wright is truly a brave actor to allow such scrutiny.
The two then meet with the head (Danny Huston) of the cleverly named Miramount Pictures, who wants Wright for one last performance. He wants her to get scanned so that the studio can use her however they want to for a significant period of time. She would be expected to not perform during those years, and for that she would be paid handsomely. With her career dried up, the money would come in handy, especially since her son, LET ME IN's remarkable Kodi Smit-McPhee, is ailing. Huston's scenes crackle with such audacious wit - its speeches reminiscent of NETWORK in their cruel harsh truths.
It should come as no surprise that Wright agrees to the contract, or else there would be no movie. What surprises is her naked, bold performance. The scanning scene especially is masterful as she experiences an awe-inspiring range of emotions. Wright is brilliant here. From this point forward, however, the movie goes off the rails. Without spoiling anything, Folman switches gears entirely and takes viewers into a strange new world. Unfortunately, there's a flatness to the experience, much like there was with BICHIR. Despite the highly provocative material, it feels as if it were at arm's length because of his excessively dry approach. Perhaps it's because we've experienced such a raw performance from Wright in the first act, that the second act, by its very nature, can't surpass it, but it's a bit of slog. Sure there's cleverness and beauty in almost every frame, but without a human element, it runs cold.
Regardless, I applaud Folman's efforts. This is highly provocative, prescient material. He's addressing the future of entertainment and how that may be delivered, and I'm willing to bet he's not that far off the mark. He has a lot to say here and he crams it all in, from the choices we make in our lives to how our egos need stroking no matter how much we may protest otherwise. There's always something in the frame to hold your interest, and the cut to the third act is simultaneously stunning and horrifying. There may be no limit to the imagination, Folman seems to be saying, but I wish he had tested those limits with less brains and more verve.
Craig Johnson (TRUE ADOLESCENTS) has directed and co-written (with… MoreCraig Johnson (TRUE ADOLESCENTS) has directed and co-written (with BLACK SWAN's Mark Heyman) the highly affecting THE SKELETON TWINS, which won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the Sundance Film Festival this year. I came to this film with great trepidation, as its story sounded like YOU CAN COUNT ON ME 2.0. Estranged crazy brother is reunited with perfectly imperfect sister to work out their troubles. While similar in basic themes, they are so tonally different that I swear I won't bring up the former film again.
SNL alums Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig play Milo and Maggie, damaged twin siblings who find their lives have hit an all-time low when they reunite. Aspiring actor Milo is gay, but it's a testament to Hader's talent that you'll think of his character's dark, biting edge first before ever considering his sexuality, despite the fact that it plays an important part in defining him. Dental hygenist Maggie is seemingly getting her life together with her husband Lance (Luke Wilson), but the audience knows her happiness is a thin veneer.
Bringing the suicidal Milo back to their hometown, Maggie tentatively approaches her brother. The chemistry between Wiig and Hader is what makes this film soar. You completely believe their history, their rhythms, and the way they can cut each other to the core one minute and make each other laugh out loud the next.
Milo, a bit of a third wheel with Maggie and Lance, starts to branch out, especially in a hilarious scene with Wilson in which he feebly attempts to clear twigs and branches. Wilson, often underrated, shines in his role as the happy-go-lucky man who starts to realize he's surrounded by more darkness than he anticipated.
Milo eventually revisits what appears to be an old boyfriend, Rich (MODERN FAMILY'S Ty Burrell), but their history is far darker and much more nefarious than it first appears. Burrell flips his television image in a small but highly effective, creepy performance.
As touching and strong as this movie is, and as gently calibrated its screenplay is, you're likely to walk away remembering the set piece, when Hader and Wiig lip sync to STARSHIP'S 80's power ballad "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now". Their complete lack of abandon and total love for each other is indelible and will surely remain one of the top movie moments of 2014. Both Hader and Wiig are given a chance to show many sides to their characters, from tragic, to quietly desperate to the wonderful chemistry on display when they cut loose with farting noises. Yep, even 2-year-olds will find something to love there! When Hader dons drag in a Halloween scene, it's completely devoid of camp. This is a movie about siblings helping each other through tough times, and any "hey girl!" moments would have felt highly disruptive. I'm impressed by how Johnson and Heyman were able to stay true to their tone.
Reed Moreno, who is quickly rising to the top ranks of cinematographers with stellar past work on FROZEN RIVER, and KILL YOUR DARLINGS) shows off her range here with work that is so connected to its characters. Her underwater photography alone is truly memorable and gorgeous. The film also features a lovely score by Nathan Larson (BOYS DON'T CRY and THE MESSENGER among many others).
This is a small film. I'd rate it higher, but its ambitions aren't grand. It's a simple story, simply told. I don't think I'm going to remember this film for anything but its big moment, but I'm glad to have seen Hader and Wiig reach new heights nonetheless. SNL may have turned Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader into comedy legends, but THE SKELETON TWINS makes them great dramatic actors.
You want to have a blast at the movies? You know you do. Want to… MoreYou want to have a blast at the movies? You know you do. Want to catch something completely off the radar that'll bring sheer joy and an anarchic spirit into your lives? WE ARE THE BEST is that film, the kind that'll make you wanna get a mohawk and bash the sh*t out of the nearest guitar.
I've enjoyed the films of Lukas Moodysson (TOGETHER, SHOW ME LOVE, and LILJA 4-EVER), and here, adapting his wife Coco's graphic novel, he uses his populist story-telling sense and keen grasp of the absurdities of life to tell the story of 3 thirteen-year-old girls forming a punk band in early 80's Stockholm. Our main characters are Klara (hilarious, saucer-eyed Mira Grosin) and Bobo (the droll Mira Barkhammar), two best friends who are out of control in that believable young teen way. They skip out on their parents to go drink and smoke at a party or pull pranks at the local community center. It's here where they eject a legitimate band from the music room and start thrashing away on the available instruments.
Almost completely lacking in talent, the girls enlist their serious, Christian classmate Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne) who has genuine musical talent and an unruly mane of hair just waiting to get SID AND NANCY'd. What I loved about Klara and Bobo is the enthusiasm and slight lunacy in which they form their friendship with Hedvig. One minute they're learning chord progressions and the next they're almost assaulting their new friend. Even when things go wrong, you're reminded how young they are, and like infants, they bounce back mighty quickly from their boo-boos.
It's this resilience of spirit that drives the film and makes it shine. Moodysson shoots the whole thing Cinéma vérité style, giving the film a true documentary sense of immediacy. There isn't a moment in this film that feels like he's fetishsizing the 80s with overly composed frames or garish pops of color. This is closer to how the 80s really felt with its internet-free, dial telephone levels of boredom. It's the true atmosphere in which a young kid would want to rebel.
While simple to adult viewers, you get the sense that every adventure the girls take is monumental to them, whether it's flirting with young guys from another band (a great sequence on a rooftop with haunting, wintry imagery) or playing their first gig. I fully believed that this is how young girls actually speak and interact. Grosin and Barkhammar form such a delightful bond, that you just want to listen in on their phone conversations forever. Looking like little boys, they're two sides to punk - one is outrageous and the other is eternally annoyed. Writing songs like "Hate The Sport", because, well, they hate their gym teacher, the girls' point of view is perfectly captured.
The character of Hedvig is tricky, as she evolves from an almost puritanical figure to something quite lovely. She grows on you in a wonderful way. Same goes for the film. It doesn't matter that they never really improve as musicians. They're too busy making lifelong memories to care. Kinda makes you want to form your own band, eh?
Kinda makes you want to form your own band, eh?
Ira Sachs' films are an acquired taste, with their languorous rhythms… MoreIra Sachs' films are an acquired taste, with their languorous rhythms and often elliptical storytelling techniques. Either you appreciate their intelligence or you nod off. I liked but did not love his prior film, the critically lauded KEEP THE LIGHTS ON. Sachs' choices distanced me rather than pulled me in to his epic story of a drug-infused gay relationship. My biggest problem is that he cast his own semi-autobiographical role with a person so different from himself, that I had a hard time caring as much as perhaps I should have.
His latest film, LOVE IS STRANGE, which like his last, is a collaboration with co-writer Mauricio Zacharias, is a completely engaging, emotionally rich and real meditation on love in all its ramifications. Although the story revolves around Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina), a couple who marry after decades of being together, only to face separation when a job and an apartment are suddenly lost to them. Ben moves in with his nephew (Darren E. Burrows) and his wife (Marisa Tomei, doing a wonderful slow burn) and their petulant teen son (Charlie Tahan). George moves in with the gay couple who lived below (Cheyenne Jackson and Manny Perez). The rest of the film plays out with this configuration, showing the separation's impact on not only our main couple, but on everyone around them.
Ben loses his job as a Catholic school teacher because of the marriage, and the dignity Molina brings to these scenes feels so natural and devoid of actor-like dramatics. It puts the audience in the position of wanting to scream for him, which is way more effective than having an actor scream for us. Moving in with the younger gay couple, Ben feels like the odd man out.
Meanwhile, George becomes an intruder in the lives of his family. Tomei plays a writer who cannot complete a thought without getting interrupted by a sweet, unsuspecting George. Tomei navigates the gradations of her frustration perfectly. Tahan, as her young son, isn't so subtle about his feelings for his uncle, who sleeps in the bunk below him, clearly invading his space. What I loved about this film is how the young son's story becomes such a focal point. Sachs and Zacharias aim to show the effects of one relationship on all those around them, and the arc of the teen character is one of the most satisfying surprises here.
Unfortunately, Jackson and Perez are relegated to the sidelines with little to do except host loud parties. While keeping things as believable and as natural as everything else, their exclusion feels like a missed opportunity. It's nitpicking, but to have mined their reactions to the older couple a little deeper would have enhanced an already terrific film.
Both Lithgow and Molina have played gay characters in the past and with flashier results, but here, they are all feeling. Not only are they a completely believable couple, but it's so easy to relate to them as humans. Lithgow appears to fully understand how nice people can be annoying, while Molina drives the point home that humility and kindness are sometimes frustrating but wise choices. They both deserve to be remembered for what they've done in this movie.
Sachs and his cinematographer Christo Voudouris (BEFORE MIDNIGHT) keep things highly credible and should be praised for what is not seen as much as for what appears. Nowhere is this more evident than a shot of the Waverly Diner as the film heads into its final act. So much is implied in this long take, that it becomes unnecessary to include what would have been an overly dramatic scene. Same goes for an extended shot of a character letting emotions out towards the end. Without fancy editing, this character is given such an opportunity to be real, and the film is all the more affecting as a result. That same character gets a transcendent moment on the sun-dappled streets of New York, where so much is said without a word of dialogue. It's the perfect marriage of good storytelling and image.
LOVE IS STRANGE is ultimately an ensemble film about the power of love and how it can heal anything. Some may find the Chopin score a little twee, and the film as a whole a little too understated. Personally, I found it to be quietly devastating.
I've made no secret of the fact that I just don't love comic book… MoreI've made no secret of the fact that I just don't love comic book movies. Coming off as nothing more than CGI explosions with simplistic good vs. evil storylines, these films seem to be the latest Hollywood thing that will not go away. Whatever happened to nuance and layers? Are 14-year-old boys the only people who go to movies? I've reached critical mass...or at least so I thought.
And then along comes GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY to screw up my evil master plan to eradicate the earth of these cinematic blights. Yep, I loved this one. Sure, it still operates within the same wheelhouse as all of the others, and everything explodes, many bullets are shot, and bad guys STILL wear a LOT of makeup...but from the very first scene, GUARDIANS sucked me in emotionally and kept me there with its nonstop sense of humor and fun.
Our hero, Peter Quill, is first seen as a child as he experiences a traumatic event, like any good hero origin story typically begins. Combining 70s Mix Tape nostalgia with a terrific Wyatt Oleff as Young Quill, I'll confess to getting choked up instantly. Cut to 20-some years later, and Chris Pratt vivaciously picks up where Oleff left off with an endearing shuffle through an ominous planetscape. The combination of the old-school music with high tech special effects is truly engaging, much like it was in Jack Plotnick's new film, SPACE STATION 76.
The story, about Quill trying to take possession of an orb lest it be used to destroy civilization, is simple, and not the film's strongest suit. Anybody who has ever watched a shell game can figure out the plot elements at work. This film's strong suit rests on the spirit and enthusiasm director and co -writer James Gunn brings as well as that of his cast. Many of these comic book films get lowest-common-denominator bland for me, but GUARDIANS is downright hilarious. Pratt, doing a sexier but no less funny variation of his PARKS AND REC Andy Dwyer, easily commands the film. When was the last time you saw a dance off in one of these films, or an actor who knows how to surprise you every time he opens his mouth? He's like an overgrown kid who you take delight in the fact that he's thrilled to play with all these big toys in a film. Watching him command a ship, you can't help but think he would say, "This is so cool!" in between takes.
Equally as entertaining is the voice of Bradley Cooper as Rocket the raccoon. Beautifully animated, this Han Solo-esque scoundrel, complete with a single-line speaking, Chewbacca-like sidekick named Groot (Vin Diesel), manages to have a laugh line virtually every 30 seconds. Watching him explain why he wanted to steal a prosthetic leg is one of the film's most twisted yet funny moments. The animators really keyed into what makes this character sing, making full use of his mouth and bristling coat.
Zoe Saldana is the ass-kicking love interest all made up in green. I couldn't help but wonder if she was going to cover all of the primary colors in her film career, and that it would be nice to see her in a film sans tons of latex. She's gets the job done here, but doesn't have the complexity of her AVATAR character. She like the other gang of misfits Quill aligns with to save the universe, are all coping with some type of loss. This extends to Dave Bautista as Drax, a hulking, red-tattooed giant who humorously has no understanding of irony or subtext. Most Marvel films fail to acknowledge this trait in their heroes, but here it's part of the fun.
Michael Rooker, Djimon Hounsou and Lee Pace all play villains, and while each is given standout moments and possess eye-catching looks, my attention kept getting pulled back to our titular Guardians. I couldn't wait to hear what Rocket would say next or wonder when Quill would zig when we thought he would zag with a line delivery. Even Glenn Close takes a backseat to the antics, although her look for the film as Nova Prime, the civilization's leader, reminded me of a cross between Cruella Deville and the Hunger Games' Caesar Flickerman.
Easy to follow and with great forward momentum, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY has almost made me a believer out of the Marvel Universe. I STILL don't really care about the overall story, but any character that is brought to his happy place by a well-stocked Walkman, gets my loyalty for at least 2 sequels.
Oh Lucy, Lucy, Lucy. Consider my disappointment when I discovered you… MoreOh Lucy, Lucy, Lucy. Consider my disappointment when I discovered you were neither about Ms. Ball or Ms. Van Pelt, or the fact that you were never once shown in a sky with diamonds. Instead we get a premise straight out of LIMITLESS, but with an A-list actor swap, Scarlett Johansson pinch-hitting for Bradley Cooper. Rest assured, the comparisons end with the basic premise, as LIMITLESS stuck to its story, whereas LUCY insists on being a strange bedfellows mix of pulp and scientific lecture.
Things start off rather shaky as we meet Lucy (Johansson) in mid-argument with her boyfriend Richard (Pilou Asbćk), who as an actor, is odd and unconvincing. He wants Lucy to take a briefcase into a hotel and hand it off to a mobster named Mr. Jang. While Lucy is understandably hesitant, Writer/Director Luc Besson (THE PROFESSIONAL, THE FIFTH ELEMENT) chooses to intercut this emotional moment with footage of animals either mating or attacking each other. It felt like a highly immature, Film School 101 bad choice.
Luckily, the next sequence is juicy, suspenseful and well-played by Johansson as Lucy experiences one terror-filled moment after another. Jang has Lucy sliced open and places a bag of a powerful substance in her abdomen, thus forcing her to become a drug mule. An iffy act of violence, however, leads to the drug being released in her system where it has the effect of greatly increasing her mental and physical capacities. I won't spoil her quest from this point on, but I will say that things take a somewhat inert, more cerebral turn than expected in what I thought would be a straight-up action extravaganza. The cinematography by Besson's frequent collaborator, Thierry Arbogast, is vivid, colorful and downright gorgeous. The vibrant production design by the talented Hugues Tissandier reminded me of the restaurant scene in KILL BILL. From a craft perspective, there's great work here.
Had Besson trusted his basic premise instead of lazily falling back on stock footage, we would have a Brian De Palma-esque masterwork on our hands. Unfortunately, this frequently exciting thriller has a nerd-gasm as soon as Morgan Freeman enters the picture as Professor Norman. Lucy seeks him out to save her from her plight. Freeman, whose wonderful television program, THROUGH THE WORMHOLE, has shown him to be a true Science Geek, gets the opportunity to lecture a room full of students, and by default, us, on such topics as Creationism vs. Evolution, and the nature of humanity. While certainly interesting, the film loses forward momentum with each heavy speech. For every tripping visual of Johansson writhing on a ceiling, we get a man at a lectern reciting the obvious themes at play.
Despite this odd pairing, this is still a fun film. Johansson is having a fantastic year, and her blank stares here and in UNDER THE SKIN, are true movie star gold. As an audience, we get to project whatever we want onto her as she loses herself and transforms into something bigger, grander, more omnipotent. At times, the film plays out more like an iPAD app with its horizontal swiping, morphing, time-traveling warp speed.
Sure it's silly stuff, and it would have benefited greatly if it had stayed squarely in one lane, but Besson felt the need to pack in too many ideas. It's as if he wanted to make a film about everything. In fashion, you're supposed to look in the mirror before leaving the house and remove at least one article of clothing. Besson should have heeded that advice. At least it's not a cookie cutter movie. See it for the visual dazzle, the brave performance by Johansson, and the drug-induced feats but get the CliffsNotes on the lecture.
Author John le Carré is best known for writing espionage novels… MoreAuthor John le Carré is best known for writing espionage novels (TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY, THE LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL, THE CONSTANT GARDENER) which, unlike the flashy Ian Fleming Bond books, are steeped in the actual mundanity of spying. A MOST WANTED MAN, directed by Anton Corbjin (THE AMERICAN) and adapted by Andrew Bovell (LANTANA), continues in this tradition and features the last completed film role by Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Set in Hamburg, Hoffman plays Gunter Bachmann, a perpetually drinking/smoking anti-terrorist group leader who has set his sights on a Chechen/Russian man who washes ashore and may have ties to Islamist terrorist activities. Learning quickly that there are bigger fish to fry, Bachmann slowly and steadily begins to delve deeper into the larger plot. Of course, this isn't enough to hang a movie on, so complications come by way of a slew of other characters with their own counterproductive agendas. Enter Robin Wright as a CIA Operative, Rachel McAdams as a well-meaning but possibly misguided attorney, Willem Dafoe as a banker with access to another level in this puzzle, and Rainer Bock, an intelligence head who would rather arrest the small fry first and ask questions later.
All of this sounds like a perfectly acceptable thriller on paper, but in execution, I must say I was a little bored by the whole affair. One can examine true minutiae and remain exciting (ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN is a prime example), but here, it just feels exhausted. Knowing what we know now, it's impossible not to notice that Hoffman appears sluggish and only truly comes alive in the final moments. Whatever his personal struggles and demons were, they set the tone with a generally listless vibe. That's not to say it's a bad performance, because he's never less than interesting. I believed the way, for example, he leads his team in looking closer at surveillance footage. It's very off-handed instead of imbued with tightly-clenched intensity by way of Jack Bauer on 24. In his final scene, Hoffman final explodes, and it's a magnificent release. The last shot is beautifully subtle and a fitting way to send off (not counting the upcoming HUNGER GAMES movie, of which he did not complete) one of our most treasured actors.
All told, this is a very professionally made film, and everyone delivers engaged, interesting performances, but in its admittedly admirable quest to shine a light on the realities of the genre, they forgot to add a dash of spice.