Tag: Drama

‘The Artist’: A Silent Masterpiece

The Artist (2011)
Written & Directed by Michel Hazanvicius
100 mins.

***1/2 (out of four)

By Tim Lucia

Basically a shoo-in for Best Picture at the Academy Awards this Sunday, The Artist is a magical, fun, one-of-a-kind movie experience.  French director Michel Hazanvicius (the OSS 117 films) breaks into American cinema with this magnificent black-and-white, silent film unlike any you have ever seen.  A tribute to classic Hollywood films that all audiences can enjoy.

Hollywood, 1927.  Silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a swashbuckling screen icon, in the tradition of Douglas Fairbanks and Rudolph Valentino.  He is on top of the world, adored by critics and fans alike, though he is quite self-absorbed.  While on the red carpet at a premiere, he bumps into – literally – the beautiful, young Peppy Miller (Bernice Bejo).  In a wonderfully staged meet-cute, Peppy kisses Valentin on the cheek, and they smile and pose for the photographers, flashbulbs popping like shining stars.

The next day, the headline in Variety reads: “Who’s That Girl?” with their photo on the front page.  Peppy is soon hired as a back-up dancer for the studio.  Then comes the innovation of sound in film.  Talkies become all the rage, and the silent films are left behind.  Peppy rockets to stardom, becoming Hollywood’s newest it-girl, while Valentin’s star falls into obscurity, and his life begins to spin out of control.

The Artist is a once-in-a-generation kind of film, I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like it.  The black-and-white photography, coupled with the (almost) silent nature of the film (of course, there is music), suggest a somewhat dream-like experience.  Dujardin’s performance is absolutely mesmerizing, drawing the perfect amount of expression in every scene; he really seems like a silent film star.  Bejo is also perfect as Peppy, her wide mouth, accentuated eyes, traditional beauty and flapper vestements make her the ideal actress for the role.  Rounding out the cast are veteran actors John Goodman (The Big Lebowski), James Cromwell (L.A. Confidential), and Penelope Ann Miller (Carlito’s Way).

Hazanvicius re-creates a time and place that we all know from history, and he does it perfectly.  The Artist really captures the magic of an era in filmmaking that (in my opinion) Martin Scorsese’s Hugo did not do as well.  Though the film is predictable at times (there are a few surprises), I found myself not caring at all, because it was still so enjoyable.  Dujardin is likely to win Best Actor on Sunday, and the film will surely win Best Picture.

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Payne’s ‘The Descendants’ is solid, but a bit over-hyped

The Descendants (2011)
Directed by Alexander Payne
115 mins.

*** (out of four)

By Tim Lucia

Director Alexander Payne’s latest effort, The Descendants, is a decent film, but a little bit disappointing (I probably went in with too high of expectations).  Payne loves the hybrid genre of dramedy, again following that pattern here.  After starting his career with the biting satires Citizen Ruth and Election, Payne went on to direct the excellent dramedies About Schmidt and Sideways.  The Descendants achieves some of the same comedic elements and situations as those two films, but lacks the emotional payoff with the drama.

Payne’s films always involve an everyman protagonist who is forced into a difficult situation, and forced to deal with quirky, odd, and somewhat troubled supporting characters.  The Descendants is no different in that respect.  Matt King (George Clooney) is a lawyer in Honolulu and a land baron, entrusted with a large chunk of idyllic paradise on Kauai that has been passed down through the generations from his royal ancestors.  The opening scene fades in on a shot of Matt’s wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) basking in the sun on a speeding motorboat.  The shot then fades out, and we soon learn that an accident occurred, and Elizabeth is now in a coma.  Matt describes himself in voice-over as “the back-up parent”, and now has to care for his two daughters, rebellious 17-year old Alex (Shailene Woodley) and cute 10-year old Scottie (Amara Miller).

On top of all that, Matt is informed his wife may have been having an affair; and his family desperately wants to sell the land to developers, netting them all a big pay day.  Of course, Matt is conflicted about all of this, but soon realizes the importance of family, despite the pain and frustration they sometimes bring.  

Some solid performances and interesting actor choices fill out the supporting characters; Alex’s dimwitted but likable boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) provides some laughs — Payne loves the dumb-but-lovable boyfriend character (Dermot Mulroney in About Schmidt, Chris Klein in Election).  Robert Forster (Jackie Brown) co-stars as Matt’s father-in-law, Beau Bridges as his cousin, Matthew Lillard (Scream) as a real estate agent, and Judy Greer (Arrested Development) as the agent’s wife — a somewhat normal character which she played well, a far cry from the crazy Kitty on A.D.  (“Say goodbye to these, Michael”).  Clooney shows somewhat of a different side of himself, gaining weight and donning some pretty ugly vestements to play Matt.  This is probably the least attractive he has looked on film, and he plays his role well.

Payne adapts most of his films and does again here, from a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings.  Although, instead of working with his normal writing partner, Jim Taylor, Payne instead adapted the script for The Descendants with two actors, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.  Though it is a decent film with good performances from Clooney and Woodley, and a setting that would make anyone want to hop on the next plane to the beautiful archipelago that is Hawaii, the film falls short of Payne’s two previous films.  There are some laughs, and plenty of drama happens, but I felt disconnected from it.  There was a lack of emotional impact, and the predictability of some of the situations, outcomes, and characters didn’t help.  A solid dramedy worth watching, but not an absolute must-see in the theater.  Side note:  HBO announced today they are canceling Hung, the dramedy series starring Thomas Jane which was executive produced by Payne.  This should ensure he will be making feature films with more frequency.  The Descendants ended a seven year drought from Payne, he has two new films announced on imbd, one already in pre-production.

Pitt, Miller hit a home run with ‘Moneyball’

Moneyball (2011)
Directed by Bennett Miller
133 mins.

***1/2 (out of four)

By Tim Lucia

Michael Lewis’s non-fiction book Moneyball burned up the bestseller list in 2004, rocketing all the way to number one.  His follow up, The Blind Side, was adapted into a highly successful film in 2009, earning Sandra Bullock an Oscar for Best Actress.  But, the film Moneyball is extremely superior, and deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as other great baseball films such as The Natural, Bang the Drum Slowly, Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, and Eight Men Out.  In my opinion, the little-seen 2008 film Sugar, directed by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (Half Nelson) and the 1993 kids classic The Sandlot are also up there.

Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane was on top of the world at age 18.  Sports and life came easy to him.  A handsome, All-American athlete, he wowed scouts as a 5-tool player (running, throwing, fielding, hitting, and hitting for power) in baseball, and was also a top-tier quarterback in football.  He was offered a full scholarship to Stanford, but was allured by the promise of a big contract to play pro baseball.  A first round draft pick by the New York Mets, Beane took the money but never panned out as a player, ultimately becoming a bust.

Years later, Beane (Brad Pitt) is struggling to put together a roster for the A’s after losing stars Jason Giambi (to the Yankees), Johnny Damon (to the Red Sox), and Jason Isringhausen (to the Cardinals); all teams with big payrolls.  Oakland has the smallest budget of any team in baseball at $40 million, and Beane knows he can’t compete with these teams in the financial market.  So, he tries something new.  While attending a meeting in Cleveland, he meets Peter Brand — in real life his name was Paul DePodesta (Jonah Hill), a Yale graduate with a degree in economics.  Brand presents his theory of analyzing players through statistics, specifically a mathematical formula known as sabremetrics, which looks at a players’ numbers, namely on-base percentage.  In theory, this would allow the A’s to manufacture more runs with less talent.  This also allows them to get players of value that are overlooked by other teams, who are smitten with the sexiness of the 5-tool, raw talent type of player.

No one has faith in this system, including manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and the team starts the season off terribly.  Beane faces all kinds of criticism, but ignores it, remaining faithful to the system.  With the eventual help of certain ‘moneyball’ additions, namely Scott Hatteberg (Edmonds native Chris Pratt), the A’s begin to turn things around.  The main subplot revolves around Beane’s relationship with his daughter Casey (Kerris Dorsey), who begins to take an interest in the team out of love for her father.  Robin Wright also co-stars as Beane’s ex-wife.

Director Bennett Miller (Capote) helms a superb film here, with a very good script from Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List, American Gangster, Searching For Bobby Fischer) and Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, A Few Good Men, The West Wing), two of the best screenwriters in the business.  Miller perfectly blends real-life baseball footage with staged action, and brings the story together in a perfect fashion.  The script is excellent, chronicling Beane’s struggle very well, and Pitt is superb in the lead role.

Moneyball is an outstanding, emotional sports drama.  A crowd-pleaser that really makes you feel for the characters and the team, it sucks you in and takes you on the roller coaster ride that is professional sports.  You don’t have to be familiar with the book, or even be a baseball fan to enjoy Moneyball.  It is an fantastic drama that should earn some Oscar nominations, and deserves a place alongside all the other great baseball films in cinema history.

‘The Ides of March’: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail

The Ides of March (2011)
Directed by George Clooney
101 mins.
***(out of four)

By Tim Lucia

George Clooney’s fourth directorial feature The Ides of March has hit theaters, as the Fall movie season is now in full swing.  Clooney’s first two efforts, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night and Good Luck were met with critical acclaim, the latter earning some Oscar nods.  His third feature, Leatherheads, was met with mixed reviews, but is a fairly enjoyable film in the tradition of classic Hollywood romantic comedies, a la Tracy and Hepburn.  March is his latest, a political drama with an all-star cast; a cynical view on the behind-the-scenes goings on during a campaign.

Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) is an idealistic staffer for Presidential candidate Mike Morris (Clooney), and a rising star in the political campaign world.  Philip Seymour Hoffman is on board as Morris’ campaign manager, Evan Rachel Wood as a sexy intern.  Against his better judgement, Stephen takes a meeting with the manager of the rival campaign (Paul Giamatti) and hooks up with said sexy intern.  With a reporter (Marissa Tomei) on his case, Stephen is caught between a rock and a hard place, and soon realizes he will have to get his hands dirty, just like everyone around him.

Adapted from the play Farragut North by Clooney, Grant Heslov, and playwright Beau Willimon, March features some very sharp dialogue and solid performances.  Hoffman steals every scene he’s in, Clooney brings a dark mysteriousness to the character of Morris, and Gosling broodingly stares down everyone, as he does so well.  But, the film is too short for its genre, clocking in at only 101 minutes; Hoffman, Tomei, and Giamatti are all underutilized.  Wood’s character was not entirely believable, and the film was fairly predictable at times.

March is a decent and fairly enjoyable film, but it’s not without flaws.  Though I’m giving it three stars, there’s really no need to rush out and see it in the theater.  Clooney will be on the big screen again November 16th with The Descendants, director Alexander Payne’s (Sideways, About Schmidt, Election) first film in seven years (I am excited).  If you need another dose of the brooding Gosling, Drive, Nicholas Winding Refn’s instant cult-classic is also out there, an incredibly directed film which blends action, crime, and romance with shocking violence and a great soundtrack.  Stay tuned for Clooney in The Descendants and 2012’s Gravity, a sci-fi thriller from Children of Men and Y Tu Mama Tambien director Alfonso Cuaron.

Netflix Pick: ‘Fish Tank’

Fish Tank (2009)
Written & Directed by Andrea Arnold
122 mins.

By Tim Lucia

Andrea Arnold’s 2009 film Fish Tank is her second feature after the equally excellent 2006 film Red Road.  A hard-edged drama, Fish Tank provides a look into the life of a troubled young girl and the conflicts that surround her.  Mia (Katie Jarvis), rebellious, angst-ridden, foul-mouthed 15-year old lives a lower-class existence in Essex with her precocious younger sister and their young, sexed-up, chain-smoking, and seemingly unloving mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing).  Expelled from school, Mia spends her days wandering around her town drinking, causing trouble, and practicing her one passion, dancing.  Joanne then brings home her new handsome Irish boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender), and he becomes friendly with Mia, encouraging her to pursue her love of dancing.  Their relationship eventually takes a turn, and Mia sets out to change things in both her own life, and for those around her.  Arnold has crafted an outstanding film here, with an excellent script and fantastic direction.  Young Jarvis gives a performance to rival Jennifer Lawrence’s in Winter’s Bone.  Fish Tank won Best Film at the 2009 BAFTA Awards (British equivalent of the Oscars) and won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes.

Netflix Pick: ‘Risky Business’

Risky Business (1983)
Written & Directed by Paul Brickman
99 mins.

By Tim Lucia

Paul Brickman’s 1983 cult classic Risky Business is the film that made Tom Cruise a star, for better or worse.  I hadn’t seen the film for about ten years and was surprised how much I enjoyed it this time around.  Rich suburban Chicago teen Joel Goodsen’s (get it? – ‘good son’) parents leave him home alone after going on vacation.  Joel decides to cut loose by taking out daddy’s Porsche, drinking his Scotch, and rocking out to Bob Seger in his underwear (that scene is painful to watch – possibly even worse than the beach volleyball scene in Top Gun).  He decides to fulfill his sexual needs by contacting beautiful prostitute Lana (Rebecca De Mornay) for a proverbial roll-in-the-hay.  Things quickly spiral out of control and he is forced to become an innovative businessman to get back his parents possessions that he had stolen and/or destroyed himself.  The cinematography was quite good, and regular 80’s soundtrack band Tangerine Dream provides another good score here.

Netflix Pick: ‘Enter the Void’

Enter the Void (2010)
Directed by Gaspar Noe
143 mins.

By Tim Lucia

Argentinian (and French-schooled) auteur Gaspar Noe released his hallucinatory epic Enter the Void at Cannes in 2010, where it took audiences by storm.  Somewhat similar to Kurbrick’s 2001: A Space Odessey, (especially the third act), it is very experimental and extremely trippy.  American drug dealer and user Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) lives in a dark, seedy, neon-lit Tokyo (think Blade Runner’s production design) with his stripper sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta).   During a police raid on a club, Oscar is shot and killed.  The first act (and almost the entire film) is shot from Oscar’s point-of-view.  After death, Oscar’s spirit leaves his body and he floats over Tokyo, watching the goings-on of the seedy underworld, while keeping a close eye on his sister as she goes through her grieving process.  Oscar sees all the colors of the spectrum in great beauty and can see life even down to the molecular level, while at the same witnessing life’s grim ugliness.  Flashbacks to Oscar and Linda’s childhood unfold, and the viewer begins to get a greater sense of who these characters are.  Enter the Void is crazy, hallucinatory journey through life and death.  Forewarning, the film does feature some very explicit sexual content, so it’s probably not for younger viewers.  Note: On imdb, the film is listed as being 161 minutes, but the Netflix version is only 143 minutes.