Cole Smithey’s Fall 2013 Movie Preview
Moviegoers start your engines; the season of Oscar contenders is upon us. You have the best chance of seeing a better-than-average, if not truly exceptional, movie in the fall. Film studios are busier than ever rolling out movies they hope will secure spots in every critic’s top-ten lists. After an abysmal summer, Hollywood certainly has its work cut out. For the record, we’ll pretend that predictable flicks like “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” and “Thor: The Dark World” don’t exist. With autumn movies from Martin Scorsese, George Clooney, Bill Condon, Ridley Scott, and Alfonso Cuarón on the horizon, the cooling months of 2013 will have plenty of heat to offer at your local cinemas. Mark your calendars. Here are my ten most anticipated movies.
Gravity — Opens October 4
As unlikely as it sounds, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney could hear Oscar nomination’s siren sound for their performances in this outer space thriller directed by Alfonso Cuarón (“Children of Men”).
Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a medical engineer embarking on her premier space shuttle mission. Clooney’s veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky is along to supervise — this is his last mission before retirement. Things don’t go so well. Catastrophe strikes during a spacewalk where Stone and Kowalski are tenuously tethered together. The only thing potentially worse than being stranded in the middle of the ocean is free-floating in outer space with no ship to seek refuge inside. “Gravity” promises its audience a new kind of claustrophobia from inside the confines of a relatively thin spacesuit. Warner Brothers has been showing its impressive trailers for “Gravity” in cinemas for the past few weeks. They hold more suspense than you find in some entire movies. Be prepared to feel scared, cold, and frantic.
Captain Phillips - Opens October 11
Tom Hanks is overdue for a comeback. “Larry Crowne,” “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” and last year’s “Cloud Atlas” were the most recent cinematic embarrassments for an actor who once wore the crown of America’s best-loved thespian. Oscar® nominee Paul Greengrass (“Bloody Sunday”) directs the fact-based story of Richard Phillips, the Captain of the MV Maersk — the first American cargo ship to be hijacked in 200 years — as based on the book “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea” (by Richard Phillips with Stephan Talty). An Oscar nom could be in the offing for Hanks in a gritty role as a ship’s captain who keeps his wits about him under the fiercest of hostage conditions. Greengrass’s days spent working as a documentary filmmaker for the BBC should serve him well in an action-packed survival tale that will have you squirming in your chair. Catherine Keener stars as the brave captain’s wife Andrea.
The Fifth Estate - Opens October 18
The U.S. government’s endemic corruption that allows things like secret courts to sponsor illegal surveillance of its citizens and the internet at large, gets the first of what promises to be many more cinematic exposes. Bill Condon’s (“Kinsey”) dramatization of WikiLeaks’s origins should stir up yet more lively public conversation. Benedict Cubmerbatch plays the enigmatic Julian Assange. The freethinker and his equally ardent colleague Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl) become self-appointed “underground watchdogs of the privileged and powerful.” The duo fight with each other and with the defining question of our time: “what are the costs of keeping secrets in a free society — and what are the costs of exposing them?”
Here is a Hollywood crash-course in the movement, organization, and back-channels responsible for exposing a stack of government lies so thick it will take many generations for society to digest the scope of America’s mechanized and systematic deceptions. The cinematic search for truth in the modern age begins with “The Fifth Estate.” Carice van Houten (“Black Book”), Anthony Mackie (“The Hurt Locker”), and Laura Linney (“Kinsey”) star.
The Counselor - Opens October 25
“The Counselor” touts the best cast of any movie to come out of 2013. For argument’s sake we’ll pretend that Cameron Diaz isn’t in it. But just look at who is — Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Rubén Blades, Bruno Ganz, and Penélope Cruz. Then, realize that the movie is director Ridley Scott’s adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel (“No Country for Old Men”), for which McCarthy makes his screenwriting debut. Hot.
Unpredictable baddie Rainer (Bardem) introduces the Counselor (Fassbender) to “moral decisions” — involving drug trafficking — that are sure to “take him by surprise.” Needless to say our anti-hero counselor will embark on a descent into hell like nothing you’ve ever witnessed. A veritable hornets’ nest of Oscar bait, “The Counselor” promises to bask in Cormac McCarthy’s signature embellishments of a brutally dry wit, scathing social satire, and a kind of hard-earned violence that means something when the day is done. Hardcore moviegoers will salivate over this one. Come and get it.
The Wolf of Wall Street — Opens November 15
Martin Scorsese hasn’t missed the mark since “Gangs of New York” (2002). Even then, “Gangs” was thoroughly entertaining in spite of its flaws — why, oh why, did Scorsese ever cast Cameron Diaz?
Scorsese returns to his devoted muse Leonardo DiCaprio to play Jordan Belfort, a ruthless Wall Street hotshot. The year that Jordan turned 26 he made 49 million dollars — and he was “pissed” because it was three short of a million bucks a week. Jordan and his crew of investment sharks make more money than they know what to do with. I think you can sense where this is going. The movie is based on the real-life Jordan Belfort’s memoir of the same title. Sex, drugs, alcohol, and conspicuous consumption might not be the traps of all Wall Street robber barons, but they were for Belfort. Watch the greedy pig and his gnarly associates get their comeuppance. The movie also stars Matthew McConaughey, Jonah Hill, and Jon Favreau.
Grace of Monaco — Opens November 27
Nicole Kidman plays Hollywood-starlet-turned-Princess Grace Kelly in this Weinstein-produced period-piece biopic that is receiving a limited release in anticipation of Oscar attention. The film — directed by Olivier Dahan (“La Vie en Rose”) — follows Grace Kelly’s identity crisis in the midst of a political dispute between Monaco’s Prince Rainier III (Tim Roth) and Charles de Gaulle (André Penvern). The threat of a French invasion of Monaco hangs in the balance. Nicole Kidman has long been out of the limelight of critical praise. However, the famously icy blond may be perfectly suited to embody one of the ‘60s most iconic women. Keep an eye out for an appearance from Alfred Hitchcock (Roger Ashton-Griffiths), who famously directed Grace Kelly in “Rear Window” in 1954. Frank Langella and Parker Posey are featured in supporting roles.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom —Opens November 29
“I have walked a long walk to freedom. It has been a lonely road and it is not over yet. No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin. People learn to hate. They can be taught to love — for love comes more naturally to the human heart.” Nelson Mandela’s profound words still stir deep emotions in whosoever hears them. Idris Elba (“Pacific Rim”) plays South Africa’s national hero in director Justin Chadwick’s ("The Other Boleyn Girl") filmic chronicle of Mandela’s winding life’s journey that encompassed people of all races and political views. Expect Idris Elba to deliver a tour de force as the man who became South Africa’s first democratically elected president. It wouldn’t be Oscar season without a historically significant biopic. “Mandela” Long Walk to Freedom” is already a hot-ticket.
Out of the Furnace — Opens December 6
Scott Cooper — the writer-director of everyone’s favorite 2009 movie “Crazy Heart” — brings it with an explosive crime drama about two blue-collar brothers living in America’s economically downtrodden Rust Belt. Russell Baze (Christian Bale) is fresh out of prison when his younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), an Iraq war vet, goes missing. It turns out Rodney is mixed up with a Northeastern crime syndicate led by Curtis DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a notoriously dangerous character. Not even local police will investigate Rodney’s disappearance for fear of Curtis and his coldblooded gang. It’s up to Russell and his friend Red (Sam Shepard) to venture into Curtis’s territory in an attempt to locate and rescue Rodney. The ubiquitous Forest Whitaker stars in this dramatic potboiler of emotionally epic portions.
Inside Llewyn Davis — Opens December 6
The Coen Brothers’ reimagining of New York City’s early-‘60s era folk music scene was every critic’s darling at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Greenwich Village’s snow-covered streets provide the cultural platform for Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) — a Dave Van Ronk-inspired creation — to search for folk-music fame. A stray cat keeps Llewyn company. An angry romantic fling (Carey Mulligan) haunts Llewyn’s movements, as does the suicide of his former musical collaborator (Marcus Mumford). T Bone Burnett’s prodigious musical influence is every bit as present here as it was on the Coen’s winning “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Llewyn’s odyssey takes him to Chicago’s equally inhospitable landscape in the company of Roland Turner (John Goodman), a partially paralyzed blues singer with all the charisma of a hot glass of beer. “Inside Llewyn Davis” is the Coen Brothers’ first movie since “True Grit” (2010). Get the popcorn ready.
The Monuments Men — Opens December 18
George Clooney double-dips in the fall run-up to Oscar glory with a fact-based World War II story co-written with his frequent collaborator Grant Heslov. Clooney plays George Stout, an aging American military commander who puts together a troop of eight architects and art historians — all of whom are on the far side of 40 — to protect and rescue precious works of art inside Nazi Germany. Under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s orders, the platoon fights against the clock. The fall of the Third Reich inspires the German army to order all precious art and historic sites destroyed. With a cast that includes Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin (“The Artist”), and Bob Balaban, you can guess that a fair amount of humor will accompany the action. There may yet come a time that George Clooney will make a career misstep, but it doesn’t seem likely to occur anytime soon.
Why Hollywood Wants You To Love Surveillance
By Cole Smithey — This article is a reprint; it was originally published on September 30, 1999
The New York Times recently published an article describing how the U.S. Postal Service hired advertising executive Warren Weidman to improve the negative image of postal workers. Warren cut a deal with the Post Office for rights to its stories and went on to write five movies based on the adventures of U.S. Postal employees. The first of the five movies, The Inspector, starring Louis Gossett Jr., played on Showtime last September and received the best ratings for any original film in Showtime’s history.
The Truman Show was one of the best received movies of 1998, with its watered down vision of Jim Carrey as the vaguely tortured subject of a hugely popular national television show. The filmmakers’ negligent depiction of The Truman Show’s sub-plot viewing audience saw them as approving patrons of a sterile television show. It translates as a chorus of approval for a commercial brand of the constant observation that we, as American citizens, are subject to at this very moment whether or not we buy Crest.
The title for Enemy of the State speaks volumes in transmitting an idea that the public and private surveillance systems employed in the movie can and do work in concert to defend "the state," i.e. our cities, suburbs, and highways, against outside threat. Even independent film champion Wim Wenders’ excursion into the social ramifications of a widespread surveillance infrastructure took an ironic title and unexpectedly thin plot with The End of Violence, in which the distance between two-bit thugs and government agents is a hair’s breadth. EDtv has most recently weighed-in on the current anthology of voyeuristic surveillance movies — An ‘amusing’ taste of advertising, surveillance, and television entertainment blended together in a happy medium of generic and an even sentimental status quo.
Already these movies have subliminally gone to work on the public’s consciousness to create a zeitgeist of consent for hidden cameras that record much of what we do in our public and even private lives. In reality, every phone conversation that we make is recorded and most public activity is documented on video tape recorded by cameras operated by public, private, foreign, and U.S. government agencies. High-resolution satellites are reaching a level of technology capable of thoroughly documenting millions of people’s day-to-day lives. Movies like The Truman Show, Enemy of the State, and EDtv act as cement reinforcing the concept of constant surveillance as a friendly system that we will come to enjoy and benefit from. The three movies converge from distinctly different angles to form a fuzzy invitation to conform to a higher level of comfort, security, and downright enjoyment that we, as Americans, should desire in our lives. While tech-happy computer users contribute to their own exhibition by installing cameras onto their computers, unspoken is an agenda for having our lives easily accessible on microscopic slides for dissection by private, corporate, bureaucratic, and civil powers for legal, political, and capitalistic goals.
The power of cinema as a propaganda machine as long been recognized and practiced by American, French, British, and German military over the course of the 20th Century. Cinema language has come a long way since Hitler gave Leni Riefenstahl her assignment to capture the spirit of Nazism with Triumph of the Will as a lasting document of fascist temperament. American audiences are remarkably savvy to mainstream Hollywood’s formulaic narrative structures and implied meanings by virtue of having seen hundreds, even thousands, of movies over a brief time span. Still, most audiences are beguiled by wide-ranging cinema parley when it acts between movies with a program furtively combining advertising with different film genres working in subtle unity to affect a desired mass mentality.
America has been living in the age of George Orwell’s prophetic 1984 since about that same year, with Orwell’s uncanny prediction for social clampdown by Big Brother, and now Big Sister, tightening around us as technology advances. When you consider that the United States’ crime rate has been consistently dropping over the past ten years, while prisons are not being built quickly enough to harbor a predominately black male populace detained on drug charges, you can glimpse a trend that presents itself as a formula for the U.S. Government to view our very country as a prison to be watched over and ministered to in ways driven by capitalist greed and voyeuristic lust.
As our country moves toward a totalitarian and fascist government regime operated by citizens who unknowingly participate in their own confinement, it’s clear that the people most able to comfortably endure absolute control by surveillance will be consumers who take their routinely prescribed medicine and dutifully return for more. Hollywood will surely hold our hands through it all. And according to box-office ticket sales, complete control by surveillance is very amusing and entertaining indeed.
Cole Smithey Predicts the 2013 Oscars
Ah, the glorious flaws of democracy! As a film critic, I learned long ago to abandon any sense of personal investment in the conclusions drawn by Academy Award voters about the most deserving participants in the seventh arts. As in every previous year, the 85th annual list of Oscar nominations comprises its share of clunkers — “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” glaring omissions — “The Turin Horse,” “Killing Them Softly,” and “Rust and Bone” are nowhere to be found — and blatant filler — “Argo” and “Sliver Linings Playbook” aren’t exactly the stuff of classic cinema.
Still, everyone loves to take a shot at second-guessing the results hidden in those carefully sealed envelopes come Oscar night — February 24th at 7pm Eastern Standard Time.
Of the nominations for Best Motion Picture, you can rest assured that Quentin Tarantino’s genre masterpiece “Django Unchained” will remain unfettered by the weight of any stinking award.
“Zero Dark Thirty” is too politically larded to charm the average notoriously elderly Academy voter. “Argo” tips the same scales, albeit with significantly less dramatic weight.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is far too kooky for a win in any of its three categories (Best Film, Best Directing, or Best Actress). How it scored an Academy nomination with its indefensible resort to child abuse is a mystery.
As for “Les Misérables,” suffice it to say it’s no “Cabaret.”
“Sliver Linings Playbook” contains some respectable performances, but has all of the narrative impact of a half-dose of Alka Selter.
With its ten nominations in various categories “Life of Pi” will receive its share of little gold statues; Best Picture won’t be one of them.
That leaves us flipping a coin between “Amour” and “Lincoln.” I’m putting my dime on Michael Haneke’s “Amour.” I forgot about “Lincoln” by the next day except for the fact that the movie painted its racist subject as some kind of humanitarian. Cough. Yet I’m still savoring the wellspring of emotions that “Amour” stirred up.
The Achievement in Directing award should go to either Ang Lee for “Life of Pi,” or to Michael Haneke for “Amour.” But logic based on the past dictates that it go to Michael Haneke alongside his statue for Best Picture.
Benh Zeitlin (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”) and David O. Russell (“Silver Linings Playbook”) will go home empty-handed. That said, Steven Spielberg is likely to be the one making a speech for his Academy no-brainer “Lincoln.” A cold glass of irony will sit between Tarantino and Spielberg for their vastly different depictions of slavery in the South. Tarantino’s version is a damn sight more cathartic and, oddly, more accurate.
Daniel Day-Lewis is a shoe-in for the Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role prize even if Hugh Jackman is more deserving for his superb work on “Les Misérables.” The Academy could surprise everyone and give it to Jackman. After all, the Oscars are all about the surprises, and this year will have its share.
Bradley Cooper (“Silver Linings Playbook”), Denzel Washington (“Flight”), and Joaquin Phoenix (“The Master”) will look great in their seats — well, Cooper and Washington will look elegant in their seats. Joaquin Phoenix will just look uncomfortable and out of place.
I’d be bemused if not entirely surprised if Emmanuelle Riva didn’t win an Oscar for Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role for her overwhelming work in “Amour.” Her performance stands heads and shoulders above all of the competition — Jennifer Lawrence (“Silver Linings Playbook”), Jessica Chastain (“Zero Dark Thirty”), Naomi Watts (“The Impossible”), and Quvenzhané Wallis (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”).
The Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role honor will likely go to Robert De Niro (“Silver Linings Playbook”) because it’s the first bit of respectable acting De Niro has done in recent memory.
Personally, I’m blinded by Christoph Waltz’s expansive gifts in “Django Unchained.” I’d put my money on Waltz because, well, it is my money after all, and I know consummate acting when I see it. If you put Waltz and De Niro at the same party, I know which man I’d want to spend a few hours talking to.
Tommy Lee Jones suffered from a poorly written part in “Lincoln” that left audiences scratching their heads. Alan Arkin’s lighthearted efforts in “Argo” come across as throwaway because that’s how his part was designed — I’d still watch Alan Arkin read from a phone book and love every second of it. Phillip Seymour Hoffman sadly seemed like he was reading from a phone book in Paul Thomas Anderson’s hollow excuse for a movie “The Master.” More filler.
Things get interesting in the Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role category. Helen Hunt went over the moon in “The Sessions,” and really does deserve to receive the honor for her transparent portrayal of a sex therapist. Sally Field lit up “Lincoln” with some much needed female energy. Anne Hathaway gave an indisputably powerful performance in "Les Misérables." Less deserving are Amy Adams (“The Master”) and Jacki Weaver (“Silver Linings Playbook”). Remember what I said about filler. The Academy will give the prize to Sally Field.
The Best Animated Feature Film category is crammed with worthy rivals. Tim Burton’s exquisite “Frankenweenie” sits agreeably alongside “ParaNorman,” ”The Pirates! Band of Misfits,” and ”Wreck-It Ralph” — “Brave,” not so much. I’d like to see the Academy give the award to ”The Pirates! Band of Misfits,” but I wouldn’t grouse if it went to any of the other nominees — except for “Brave.”
Original Screenplay is the one place where Wes Anderson [and his co-writer Roman Coppola] could win the limelight for “Moonrise Kingdom.”
Nonetheless, I believe the Academy will hand over the victory to Michael Haneke for “Amour.”
Obviously, Quentin Tarantino is the correct choice for the prize, but I don’t get the sense that the Academy is ready to welcome him into their club just yet. Not that it matters much since Tarantino already hit the international high watermark when he won the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or in 1994 for “Pulp Fiction.” The Academy is always a few decades behind.
John Gatins (“Flight”) and Mark Boal (”Zero Dark Thirty”) will be left to drown their sorrow in after-party vodka rather than champagne.
The squishy category of Adapted Screenplay will likely find favor for David Magee, whose ”Life of Pi” hits every grace note of religious predisposition Academy members lean toward.
It still wouldn’t be a surprise for Chris Terrio to get his chance to shout out thanks from the Oscar stage for his sugary script version for “Argo.”
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” (Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar), the historically dubious ”Lincoln” (Tony Kushner) and ”Silver Linings Playbook” (David O. Russell) will be left to parlay their Oscar nominations into future projects.
The Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar should be a cakewalk for Austria’s “Amour.” Other contenders include “A Royal Affair” (Denmark), “No” (Chile), War Witch (Canada), and Kontiki (Norway).
Hands down, the Original Score Oscar should go to the redoubtable Thomas Newman for “Skyfall.” The other nominees are “Anna Karenina” (Dario Marianelli), ”Argo” (Alexandre Desplat), ”Life of Pi” (Mychael Danna), and ”Lincoln” (John Williams).
Look for “Skyfall” to also take the Original Song trophy. Of the nominees, “Skyfall” is the only one that audiences will want to sit through, if nothing else to be wowed by the always mesmerizing Adele.
Rival contenders include: "Before My Time" (by J. Ralph for “Chasing Ice”), "Everybody Needs a Best Friend" (by Walter Murphy and Seth McFarlane for “Ted”), "Pi's Lullaby" (by Mychael Danna and Bombay Jayashri for “Life of Pi”), "Suddenly" (by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Herbert Kretzmer and Alain Boulil for “Les Misérables”).
“Life of Pi” will take the prize for Achievement in Production Direction. “Anna Karenina,” ”The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” ”Les Misérables,” and “Lincoln” just don’t have as much visual oomph.
The Achievement in Cinematography Oscar should go to Roger Deakins for “Skyfall.” But “Life of Pi” (Claudio Miranda) could run away with the prize.
The other nominees are: "Anna Karenina” (Seamus McGarvey), “Django Unchained” (Robert Richardson,” and ”Lincoln” (Janusz Kaminski).
The Achievement in Costume Design statue will be handed to Jacqueline Durran for her great work on “Anna Karenina.”
Paco Delgado (“Les Misérables”), Joanna Johnston (“Lincoln”), Eiko Ishioka (“Mirror Mirror”), and Colleen Atwood (“Snow White and the Huntsman”) have nothing on Jacqueline Durran.
The best-kept secret of the Oscars is the documentary category. The exclusion of Ken Burns’s “The Central Park Five” and Amy Berg’s “West of Memphis” are great oversights on the part of the Academy. “The Invisible War” deserves to take the Oscar considering the competition, but the Academy will likely present the award to the feel-good documentary “Searching for Sugar Man." The other contenders are: “5 Broken Cameras,” “The Gatekeepers,” and “How to Survive a Plague.”
Best Documentary Short Subject is the category that trips everyone up because hardly any of the public has seen any of the offerings. Sean and Andrea Nix Fine’s “Inocente” — about a young homeless artist — is a shoe-in. The other nominees include “Kings Point,” ”Mondays at Racine," “Open Heart," and "Redemption.”
“Life of Pi” is a lock for the Achievement in Film Editing Oscar, though “Zero Dark Thirty” could squeak out its only prize of the night in this category. “Argo,” “Lincoln,” and “Silver Linings Playbook” don’t stand a chance.
The Achievement in Makeup & Hairstyling trophy should and probably will go to “Hitchcock.” “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” and “Les Misérables” are the other noms.
The glory of the Best Animated Short Film Oscar presents one of the most beguiling guessing games the Academy plays. Look for Walt Disney’s “Paperman” to walk away with this one. The other nominees are “Adam and Dog,” ”Fresh Guacamole,” ”Head Over Heels,” and Maggie Simpson in "The Longest Daycare."
The category for Best Live-Action Short Film seemingly exists only to tack another five minutes to an already overlong Oscar ceremony. Look for “Death of a Shadow” to walk away with the Oscar. “Asad,” ”Buzkashi Boys,” ”Curfew Death,” and ”Henry” comprise the rest of the candidates.
It’s bizarre to imagine that Academy voters have the slightest clue about what fulfills the demands of the Achievement in Sound Editing category. On first blush a movie like “Zero Dark Thirty” would seem to have the requisite amount of woof and whistle to secure an Oscar from Academy voters who don’t know that “Life of Pi” is the title that most deserves the win. “Django Unchained,” “Skyfall,” and “Argo” make up the rest of the films considered in this category.
Common sense dictates that the “Achievement in Sound Mixing” Oscar go to the same film as won the Sound Editing award. Really, it’s just an excuse to give out another trophy to a movie that didn’t get a win in the previous category. Look for “Les Misérables” to get its just reward here. The other films considered for “Sound Mixing” are “Argo,” ”Life of Pi,” ”Lincoln,” and ”Skyfall.”
If you’ve made it this far into my predictions for the 85th annual Academy Awards, you probably feel like you’ve sat through three hours of backslapping and brownnosing. The Achievement in Visual Effects Oscar should and will go to Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi.” Don’t get me started on the other nominees — “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” “Marvel's The Avengers,” ”Prometheus,” ”Snow White and the Huntsman.” I could talk all night.Tweet
Save to del.icio.us | Digg This
Cole Smithey’s Top Ten Films of 2012
2012 was an extremely eventful year in cinema. Expanded distribution channels meant more film titles being released than ever before. The growth of Video-on-Demand allowed movie audiences to avoid audience members who can’t refrain from talking, texting, or chatting on their cell phones while watching a film at the local cinema. An explosion of terrific foreign, independent, and documentary films gave Hollywood a run for its formulaic models of over-produced “movie-product.”
I’m obligated to throw stones at my ten most loathed movies of the year. Try as I might to avoid clunkers, I did manage to squander precious hours of my life on the following travesties of the seventh art.
The worst films of 2012:
10. The Master
8. The Paperboy
6. The Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning
5. Citizen Gangster
4. Tonight You’re Mine
3. Red Dawn
2. Beasts of the Southern Wild
1. Beyond the Black Rainbow
The best films of 2012:
10. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylon uses every shaded detail of time, atmosphere, human condition, and verbal and non-verbal communication to tell a quietly complex story about a murder investigation and the imperfect methods of the men assigned to solve the crime. At night Doctor Cemal accompanies a group of police officers and a soldier as they drive around the dark outskirts of the Anatolian steppe. The group has with them two incarcerated suspects they hope will lead them to the grave of a missing man. The story is about how detectives communicate. It’s also about how entrusted public servants wrangle with overpowering emotions and personal secrets. Nuri Bilge Ceylon is a lover of humanity. His great concern for every one of his characters goes beyond their innocence or guilt. He recognizes the balance of both qualities in their actions. The cinema of Nuri Bilge Ceylon is a transformative one. It is unique and honest. Most significantly, it offers a rare experience to be treasured.
9. Killer Joe
William Friedkin's dark, funny, and sexy black comedy is a triumph. “Killer Joe” makes “Fargo” seem like a rom-com. The "Exorcist" director once again works with source material by playwright/screenwriter Tracy Letts — the author responsible for Friedkin’s cool 2006 psychological thriller “Bug.” Mathew McConaughey explores his assassin character with calculated vengeance. Killer Joe is a natty Dallas detective who moonlights as a hitman. Joe gets called into action by the Smith family, a batch of trailer-trash nimrods that includes dumb-as-a-stump dad Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), his current wife Sharla (Gina Gershon), his gambler/drug-dealer son Chris (Emile Hirsch), and his sultry teen daughter Dottie (Juno Temple). For all of its nail-biting sensuality and quicksilver violence, Friedkin is smart about what he leaves to the viewer’s imagination. He concocts a black comedy stew of blood clots, torn panties, and hard-hitting slapstick humor.
“Skyfall” divides three distinct acts as individual homages to specific aspects of the franchise. The first act is a nod to the leaner and grittier modern James Bond — as exquisitely played by Daniel Craig. He’s a first-rate action movie actor. This time around, Bond has to return to work after being thought dead for several years. He’s been off playing civilian — i.e., drinking a lot of booze. A computer-hacking genius villain named Silva launches an attack on Her Majesty’s Secret Service’s — with M (played by the irrepressible Judi Dench) in the crosshairs. Javier Bardem introduces the film’s second act as Silva, an effeminate villain busy revealing the identities of NATO undercover agents embedded in terrorist organizations. The third act provides a retro vantage point. Bond pulls his trusty 1964 Aston Martin (circa Sean Connery's "Goldfinger") out of the garage, and treats the audience to a gloomy bit of nostalgia-defying action set in the Scottish mansion where James Bond lived as a boy when his parents died. Bond says he “never did like the place.” One thing's for sure, it won't be the same when his enemies are through with it.
7. The Central Park Five
Witness the sordid handling of the notorious “Central Park Jogger” case. An April 19, 1989 brutal beating and rape of a twentysomething white woman led to the railroading of five teenagers, all members of minority groups, whose convictions were eventually vacated — but only after serving more than 41 combined years in prison. Ken Burns’s reputation as one of our era's finest documentarians informs the film’s airtight veracity. Burns made “The Central Park Five” with his daughter Sarah and her filmmaker husband David McMahon, a frequent contributor to Burns’s films. No effort is spared to expose the misconduct and complicity of New York City police detectives, prosecuting attorneys — you’ll never buy another Linda Fairstein novel — media outlets, political figures, and such racist fringe celebs as Donald Trump. Careers were made; justice be damned. The city of New York still has not settled the case to make the wrongfully convicted men whole. Each man is suing the city for $50 million in damages. In Ken Burns’s words, “After 13 years of justice denied – which everyone agrees on — there’s suddenly now justice delayed, which we know is just justice denied.” Justice, as many wrongly accused Americans can attest, is not what we do here in the trademarked “land of the free.”
6. Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai
Takashi Miike’s update of Masaki Kobayashi’s black-and-white 1962 film “Harakiri” never so much as brushes a wrong note. The setting is Japan’s 17th century feudal Edo period — a peaceful era without much need for samurai warriors. Hanshiro, an impoverished ronin, approaches the local samurai lord — Kageyu — to request use of the House of Li’s courtyard to commit seppuku to lend a warrior’s finish to his dishonorable state. Hanshiro’s request is met with cold contempt. Kageyu tells in flashback the story of another samurai — Motome — who came with a similar request the previous week. In the sequence, Kageyu’s assistant Omodaka warns his master that he suspects the man of attempting a “suicide bluff” in order to procure money. Once situated in the courtyard, Motome is assigned a second, a witness, and an attendant. Realizing his dire condition, Motome begs for one more day, or even a few hours, to leave and return before carrying out his bloody mission. His desperate appeal is refused. When he is finished telling the story, Kageyu offers Hanshiro to give up his request and leave without incident; Hanshiro refuses, and insists on following through with his ritual suicide. What follows is all of the backstory behind Motome’s decision to attempt a suicide-bluff, and his relationship to the unwavering Hanshiro. “Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai” is a stunner from start to finish.
5. Rust and Bone
A tour de force by any standard, Jacques Audiard’s convention-breaking romantic drama is one more example of how French filmic storytelling rises above the fray of Hollywood’s forced efforts. Audiard meticulously examines a complex love story between Alain (Matthias Schoenaerts), a single father who boxes in an underground circuit in Cannes, and Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), a killer whale trainer at a waterpark park who loses her legs in a freak accident involving one of the giant creatures. Matthias Schoenaerts makes for an empathetic anti-hero in spite of, and due to, his character’s honest but guarded nature. The film’s thought-provoking title evokes the strange compatibility linking Alain and Stephanie, two unlikely lovers who develop a unique romantic bond. Based on a novel by Craig Davidson, “Rust and Bone” is an in-depth character study that never telegraphs its motivations. The provocative sexual component of the couple’s relationship helps the drama earn its stripes. Look for “Rust and Bone” to be a contender for a foreign entry at the Oscars.
4. Django Unchained
Campy, funny, shocking, and seeping with sardonic social commentary, “Django Unchained” is Quentin Tarantino’s finest film to date. The madness of slavery, the ultimate expression of racism, hangs thick in the air of the American South circa 1858. In customary revenge-plot fashion, Tarantino establishes the nimble bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (brilliantly played by Christoph Waltz) as the kind of guy who can get himself out of any situation. The retired dentist “purchases” freedom from slavery for Django (Jamie Foxx) in order to assist Schultz in identifying a trio of brothers named Brittle whose heads carry a hefty reward. Django proves more than qualified to hunt down and kill slave-owners. Working together as a team, Dr. Schultz and Django craft a complex plan to free Django’s enslaved wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of Leonardo DiCaprio’s evil plantation owner Calvin Candie. “Candyland” is the name of Mr. Candie’s plantation, where he cultivates “Mandingo” slave warriors who fight to the death. Tarantino’s plot acrobatics have never seemed silkier — or bloodier. Blood doesn’t just splatter — intestines explode from bodies. As with all of Tarantino’s films, “Django Unchained” is filled with spellbinding dialogue and crazy plot twists. Movie lovers rejoice; Q.T. is back in the house.
3. The Turin Horse
At the relatively young age of 56, Bela Tarr announced he would retire after the completion of his eighth feature film, “The Turin Horse.” The anti-narrative picks up after an apocryphal event on January 3, 1889 in Turin, Italy, when the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche came to the defense of a stubborn carriage horse being brutally whipped by its driver in a piazza. As folklore goes, the sobbing Nietzsche wrapped his arms around the elderly horse’s neck in order to protect it from the enraged driver before the philosopher fell to the ground. Within a few weeks Nietzsche became mentally ill and was mute for the last ten years of his life, which he spent in the care of his mother and sisters. “The Turin Horse” is an existential provocation to its audience, demanding that we consider the effect of man’s judgments against nature and ultimately against ourselves. The film’s repeated visual, musical, and thematic motifs make it simultaneously transparent and opaque.
2. Killing Them Softly
Andrew Dominik’s cold-blooded satire of American corporate-political-capitalism cuts through its subject like a freshly sharpened guillotine blade. Economic metaphors big and small fill the narrative about gangster vengeance set in 2008. Dominik based the script on a George V. Higgins novel — see Peter Yates’s “The Friends of Eddie Coyle.” “Killing Them Softly” is a stylish crime drama made up of piercing monologues and canny dialogue that reverberates with social implications. Nothing is wasted. People and places are appropriately ugly. Every performance is spot-on. That the film so effectively lashes out at economic hypocrisy in America is truly rewarding. Here is a one-movie revolution against all of the corporate-controlled two-party bullshit that has turned America into a third-world dictatorship. Brilliant is too soft a word to describe it.
Michael Haneke’s elegiac exploration of an elderly couple’s final days together transcends all definition of the romantic ideal. Retired music teachers Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) rarely leave the comfort of their spacious Parisian apartment. Anne suffers a stroke that leaves Georges as her primary caregiver. A second attack leaves Anne barely able to communicate with her long-adoring husband. The tenderness and fire in Trintignant’s and Riva’s portrayals occurs with a quietly operatic significance. The brutality of nature is a mutual enemy that the characters struggle to command. A pigeon that flies into the apartment through a courtyard window is a tragic metaphor that informs Georges’s sense of personal justice. “Amour” is an incredibly intimate movie that provides a priceless definition of romantic commitment and loyalty.
Honorable mention for their teriffic efforts goes to:
Compliance (Craig Zobel)
Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)
Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul)
The Invisible War (Kirby Dick)
Let the Bullets Fly (Wen Jiang)
Klown (Mikkel Nørgaard)
Cole Smithey's Fall 2012 Movie Preview
Autumn is the best season for moviegoers. Oscar-bait movies from all corners of foreign, independent, documentaries, and of course Hollywood, are pitted against one another in an ever more crowded series of weekly release windows than usual. Choosing ten must-see movies for audiences to mark on their calendars is like shooting fish in a barrel – albeit some incredibly large fish in a very big barrel. Some lower-profile films, such as Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” (September 14), David Ayer’s “End of Watch” (September 21), or Andrew Dominik’s “Killing Them Softly” (October 19) didn’t quite make the list but are definitely worth checking out.
Sharpen those pencils and get out your calendar. Here we go.
Although he said he’d given up acting for good after “Gran Torino” (2008) Clint Eastwood returns to the big screen for what could actually be his last performance. Eastwood plays Gus, an ailing legendary baseball scout whose eyesight isn’t what it used to be. Gus brings along his adult daughter Mickey (Amy Adams) on a road trip to Atlanta to help him get a look a prospective player. Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Matthew Lillard, and Clint’s son Scott Eastwood star in this auspicious family drama. If you’re a Clint Eastwood fan, you don’t want to miss the master in action.
Tim Burton brings his trademark creepy and ghoulish style of animation to bear in his latest effort. In a movie about a boy and his recently deceased dog, young Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) has a plan to bring little “Sparky” back to life. The trouble is that Victor’s reanimated version of Sparky isn’t exactly the same canine he was before he died — he’s more of a monster dog. Burton’s classically composed stop-motion black-and-white animation pays homage to James Whale’s original “Frankenstein.” Burton also references other classic horror films such as David Lynches “Eraserhead.” Keep your ears peeled for vocal performances by Martin Landau, Christopher Lee, Martin Short, and Winona Ryder. [In a whispering aside] “FrankenWeenie” could just be the best animated movie of the year.
You’ve got your Brad Pitt. You’ve got your James Gandolfini. The endlessly watchable actors star in “Killing Them Softly” as hired assassins. Writer-director Andrew Dominik (“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”) oversees the action. The setting is post-Katrina New Orleans. Pitt plays Jackie Cogan, a prudent hitman working in economically depressed America. The media might not admit we’re in a Depression, but it’s taken as fact in the movie. Jackie has to call in for reinforcement in the guise of Gandolfini’s killer Mickey to assist with a double killing that needs doing. All nuance, social commentary, and neo-noir style, Domink’s movie is based on Geroge V. Higgins’s 1974 novel. Higgins is big in the cult movie fan club for writing “The Friends of Eddie Coyle.” “Killing Them Softly” made waves when it premiered in Cannes this year. You say you like serious adult crime drama that oozes with social and political subtext — you’ve got it. Sam Shepard and Ray Liotta also star in this gritty potboiler.
The first movie from the Wachowski Brothers since Larry Wachowski’s sex-change transformation to “Lana” finds the duo teaming up with co-director Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”). “Cloud Atlas” is a macro-micro “exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.” Heady stuff. The all-star international cast includes: Tom Hanks, Hugo Weaving, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent, Jim D’Arcy, and Zhu Zhu. Last year’s “Tree of Life” has nothing on “Cloud Atlas.” This is not a movie to watch at home. Get thee to the big screen and don’t be late.
Sean Penn plays his age as Cheyenne, a 50-year-old former Goth rock star who has lived in seclusion for the past 30 years. He once sang with Mick Jagger, or perhaps it was the other way around. Cheyenne lives a luxurious existence in Dublin from his still incoming royalties. He and his wife (Francis McDormand) play handball in their emptied-out swimming pool. Penn’s deeply introspective [read moody] character maintains his teased-out hairdo. He still wears eyeliner. News of his Jewish father’s death brings Cheyenne around to the idea of hunting down the America-dwelling Nazi who victimized his dad in Auschwitz. The first English-language film from Italian director Paolo Sorrentino (“Il Divo”), “The Must Be the Place” is a trippy road movie that should give audiences plenty to chew on. Given the Weinstein’s track record at the Oscars, their oddball movie might just “be the place” come February.
“Quentin Tarantino presents” is the name above the title. That fact alone tells you all you need to know, since everything that the master-of-all-things-tasty touches turns to gold. In this case, a character actually does turn into a gold-shielded warrior. Tarantino’s frequent collaborators RZA and Eli Roth team up as co-writers — RZA directs. Feudal China is the setting for a blacksmith who makes crazy weapons for his small village. A battle-royal explodes when seven clans come together in a blood-splattering fight for power, gold, and ultimate bragging rights. Kung-Fu super-action will hit epic heights in this fast-twitch bloodbath that stars Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu, Pam Grier, and Rick Yune. Get the popcorn ready, and plan on seeing “The Man with the Iron Fists” more than once — if you’ve got the stomach, that is!
The name is Bond — James Bond. For all of the meaningless flack Daniel Craig has caught for his lean-and-mean interpretation of everyone’s favorite 007 agent, Craig is the real deal. “Skyfall” is the 23rd Bond franchise movie — for anyone who’s keeping count. In “Skyfall,” Bond’s MI6 agency is under attack. Only he can track down and destroy the threat. Impossibly sexy women, edge-of-your-seat chase sequences, and sleek style spilling out like there’s no tomorrow, come together in an action spy movie that should put “The Dark Knight Rises” to shame. “Skyfall” is for the big kids. Ralph Fiennes and Javier Bardem play opposite Helen McCrory and Berenice Marlohe in this seriously badass movie. Sam Mendes (“Road to Perdition”) directs.
Director Ang Lee ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") will make your eyes pop with this groundbreaking 3D movie about an Indian boy named Pi who survives a terrible disaster at sea and is hurtled into an “epic journey of adventure and discovery.” The movie is based on Yann Martel’s bestselling novel. You may have seen the film’s poster that alludes to the Bengal tiger — named Richard Parker — that accompanies our hero as the only other survivor on a lifeboat they must share in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Ang Lee is a master filmmaker whose work in a diverse range of film genres always proves fascinating — his version of “The Hulk” notwithstanding. “Life of Pi” has been chosen as the opening film for the 50th New York Film Festival. Grab a cocktail with your date before the movie and know that you’re in good company when you go see it.
Hyde Park on Hudson (December 7)
It wouldn’t be December without a little highbrow historic drama to brighten the intellectual mood of the season. Bill Murray angles for Oscar attention as the wheelchair-bound President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in director Roger Martin’s (“Notting Hill”) period piece about a love affair between FDR and his distant cousin Margaret Suckley aka “Daisy” (Laura Linney). A spring 1939-weekend meeting in upstate New York with Britain’s King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) gives FDR an opportunity to spend some quality time with Daisy. The event marks the first time a British King has ever visited America. Britain is verge of war with Germany, and its Royals are seeking FDR’s crucial support. Juggling the demands of his wife, (Olivia Williams), mother and mistress, FDR has a weekend social calendar that is very full. How Murray’s FDR divides his time amid so many demands and so much desire is the stuff of one very witty romantic drama.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (December 14)
“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” has been so long in the works that many audiences have all but forgotten about Peter Jackson’s promise to finish what he started with his impressive cinematic rendition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy (2001 – 2003). The time has finally arrived for Tolkien’s tale of Bilbo Baggins to enchant new and returning fans of Peter Jackson’s unique vision. The hobbit Bilbo (Martin Freeman) embarks on an epic quest to reclaim the lost Lonely Mountain and its treasure, which was “long ago conquered by the dragon Smaug.” The dragon still lurks. Bilbo teams up with 13 dwarves to journey into the Wild where Goblins, Orcs, Wargs, Giant Spiders, Shapeshifters, and Sorcerers await. Naturally, Gollum (Andy Serkis) plays a key role with a certain gold ring that holds the fate of Middle-earth. Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Saruman (Christopher Lee), and even Frodo (Elijah Wood) are in attendance for this extraordinary trip into the enormously popular fantasy world of J.R.R. Tolkien.
Django Unchained (December 25)
Christmas day 2012 promises to be a great time at the movies. Whenever Quentin Tarantino has a new film out, it is automatically an “event.” His seventh film — if you count “Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and 2” as one — is a period piece set two years before the Civil War. Think exploitation-spaghetti-western-Southern-style. Yum. Jamie Foxx plays Django, an abused slave who gets a shot at reaping vengeance on his former owners thanks to Dr. King Schultz, a German-born bounty hunter played by the always scene-chewing Christoph Waltz. Dr. Schultz acquires Django to lead him to his prey. Django and Dr. Schultz develop a working rapport that keeps them on the hunt for racist exploiters such as Leonardo Dicaprio’s Calvin Candle, the owner of a plantation where slaves are trained to battle one another. Django searches his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), whom he lost to the slave trade many years ago. Indisputably the most exciting American auteur working today, Quentin Tarantino keeps upping his game to cinema’s loftiest heights. If you only see one movie this year you’ll only have a week to catch “Django Unchained” before the ball drops in Times Square.
What’s Wong With This Picture?
Time Magazine Sucks
By Cole Smithey
The May 21, 2012 issue of Time Magazine is a significant bellwether. It speaks volumes about the state of America’s steadily imploding media, of which Time Magazine has crossed a line into tabloid exploitation. It could well be the magazine’s Waterloo. The New York Post has nothing on Time Magazine anymore.
A presentational image of a “mother” casually standing in front of a photographer’s white screen with her left tit exposed to allow her nearly four-year-old “son” (with the unisexual Assyrian name of Aram) to suck on it. He wears army fatigue pants and a gun-metal-gray t-shirt, and stands on a child’s chair that makes him only 18" inches shorter than his mother. The image is offensive across a wide scale of social decency. Pedophilic overtones saturate the militarized image. The chair is important because it creates an optical illusion of the child being older — much older than he is. His limp hands dangle helplessly at his mother's crotch. Dressed in a black leotard with her right hand on her hip, and her left knee cocked so that her ballet-slipper-styled shoe heel rises from the floor, suggests a come hither expression attenuated by a rebellious fuck-you attitude that dares the viewer to guess at what else she’s capable of. Her dead facial expression makes her look like a machine-woman — an android.
The representational (versus presentational) distinction is important. Here is a woman, acting as a “model.” She uses her own child to make a political statement. Skinny, blonde, and objectively sexy with tan lines that demarcate her arms from her pale white breast, the woman (Jamie Lynne Grumet) clearly intends to be the poster mom for a cult that, at best, adds more sand on the scales to the belief that most people have no business procreating. The 26-year-old Grumet isn’t yet old enough to qualify for the MILF designation that some male readers will be tempted to bestow upon her. She looks closer to 18 than to 30. One thing is certain; she cares more about her political agenda/image than she does about the vulnerable child at her breast.
The headline “ARE YOU MOM ENOUGH?” establishes a bullying editorial tone with a military association — think, “Be All You Can Be.” The rhetorical question is only barely softened by the sub-head, “Why attachment parenting drives some mothers to extremes—and how Dr. Bill Sears became their guru.” Note the incorrect use of the word “guru,” which is a Sanskrit term for a teacher of “Indian religions.” Talk about mixed metaphors — they are here in spades.
Whether or not the photo personally offends you, you should recognize that the posed image is more than just provocative. No kind of parallel image involving a 26-year-old male and his three or four-year-old daughter would ever pass for anything other than an actionable example of incestuous sexual exploitation. It doesn’t help matters that the boy in question sports a belly. The child is already overweight. Whether or not the boy yet perceives a sexual relationship with his mother; the effects of his long-term breastfeeding are already visible on his body.
Aram’s camouflage pants underscore a significant aspect of the photo’s subtext. The boy is being fattened up for war. His artificially created mental, emotional, and sexual state will be repurposed by a military complex poised to capitalize on his unique psychology.
The fractures are showing at Time Magazine, and every other TMZ-influenced media outlet that makes up what passes for news in this country. America doesn't do news anymore. War on civility is declared. Are we DEMOCRACY ENOUGH to do something about it? Only time will tell. You can start by canceling your subscription to Time Magazine, and or never buying it again.
SPOILER ALERT! CAN YOU HANDLE THE TRUTH?
CAN YOU HANDLE THE TRUTH?
By Cole Smithey
It kills me when otherwise knowledgeable and savvy critics such as Matt Singer and Devin Farachi fall into naïve traps about things such as spoilers. Read any Roger Ebert film review, and you’ll get a good idea of what a film is about. A few specific plot elements will be discussed because that’s the only way for a reader to get a grasp of a film’s narrative terrain. It’s the nature of the beast. If you are a moviegoer who doesn’t want to have a critic’s ideas or revelations influencing your experience, don’t read any reviews before seeing a movie. Duh. Wait until after.
That’s not to say, however, that a critic should necessarily give away a key surprise a filmmaker builds into his or her story. Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” — the original "slasher" film — is a good example. If the film came out today, you couldn’t — as a critic — reveal the narrative twist that comes late in the story. Hitchcock cleverly planted the twist to send audiences out of the theater shocked by what they had learned.
However, a film like “The Cabin in the Woods” announces its plot twist in the opening scene. As such, there is no “shocking surprise” for an audience, or critic, to contend with. There is merely a set-up — one that is not very well illuminated during the course of the movie. Nonetheless, it does present the entire groundwork for the story. To pretend otherwise is pure denial. The film wants to serve as a piece of social satire, but it fails so miserably in that regard, that no one seems to notice.
There is a dumbing down of film criticism occurring via the hive mind of aggregate culture that favors arcane commercial concepts such as RottenTomatoes’ “Fresh Certification.” Are you, as a critic or an audience member, really going to fall for that nonsense?
Any critic who complains in a review about how “hard,” “impossible,” or “unfair” it is to write about a movie is clearly not cut out for the job. It is so sad to read essentially the same review over and over again from so many “critics.” There’s a stupefying similarity between reviews of “Cabin in the Woods” coming from critics ranging from Ann Hornaday (The Washington Post), to Ian Buckwalter (NPR), to Andrew O’Hehir (Salon), and the list goes on. At least those critics don’t resort the strictly amateur maneuver of quoting from the film’s press materials as Michael Phillips (the Chicago Tribune) chooses to do.
But go ahead and believe the hype about “The Cabin in the Woods.” You are only setting yourself up for disappointment. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Social Media Government
How to Make American Democracy Work For Real Now
By Cole Smithey
The 2012 Presidential election doesn’t matter. Not at all. A social media mechanism that allows every American citizen to propose public policy (foreign and domestic) and vote on such proposals, on the other hand, would effectively put every single politician out of work. Firing American’s political functionaries will necessarily include the office of the President. The new face of American leadership will be an accurate compilation of all of its citizens.
Modern technology is about to allow for an absolutely pure form of Democracy run by and for the people. It couldn’t have happened ten years ago, but it’s on its way now. We don’t need anymore stinking corporate-controlled monkeys pretending that they’re working in the interest of the public good. The public will decide on all policy priorities, big and small.
We’ve already seen the power of social media to effect immediate change in a mathematically democratic way. When Verizon announced it would impose a two-dollar charge upon payments made online, social media enabled the public to effectively vote down Verizon’s decision. The company retracted its would-be surcharge. That’s Democracy in action. It doesn’t matter who identifies as a Democrat, Tea-Partier, Libertarian, or Leftist--voting is an intrinsically independent and egalitarian action. How you vote on each particular proposal—not one of two corporate-backed candidates--will add up to your true political identity.
For all of the chest-beating American politicians do about how well Democracy works, those elected men and women have no clue about how a purely mathematically driven form of pure democracy could put them out of work. The Occupy Movement is already situated to execute the necessary revolution that will send senators, congress people, and White House staff packing once our new social media platform of automated Democracy is in place. It won’t take long.
How will it work?
First of all a group of computer specialists and hackers will need to build the site’s infrastructure. It will need to be absolutely impervious to attack. It will also need to be organized in a thoroughly transparent way so that an ongoing record of all voting is always available for inspection. No more hanging chads or voter fraud. Everyone will be able to see exactly where every single vote came from. No more lobbyists. No more corporate string-pulling. You want Democracy; this is what it will look like very soon.
A group of moderators will need to be hired (I propose a modest annual salary). These moderators will handle the tasks of organizing the proposals that people post. Once a proposal reaches a specific numerical threshold, it will be put up as a bill which citizens will vote upon. If it passes, it goes into effect immediately.
There will be many bugs to be worked out, so it’s important that the system be put into place alongside our current structure of Government. Once Washington begins to be eclipsed by our more automated form of Democracy the Occupy Movement will need to take physical action to take over their offices, which will become completely open to the public. 24-hour voting centers will be opened to accommodate anyone who wants to vote. Assistants will be on hand to assist homeless and elderly people to vote. An open-door public policy will add to a sense of well-being in the country. Unlike revolutions that leave behind a power vacuum, the gaping hole of Democracy will already be filled by the people—all of the people.
If this idea sounds anti-elitist and full of humanitarian social responsibility, that’s because it is. But what we the gathered masses do with such a pure form of Democracy is entirely up to us, the people—not a corporation or a bunch of rich white-guy bankers. Social Media Government is coming.
Cole Smithey’s Worst & Best Films of 2011
2011 was an incredibly fascinating year in cinema. America’s two finest directors, Martin Scorsese and Stephen Spielberg, elevated children’s cinema with efforts that far outshone Hollywood’s apparent monopoly ruled by Pixar and Disney. Although neither “Hugo” nor “The Adventures of Tintin” made it into my top-10, they each deserve every bit of critical esteem lavished upon them.
Documentaries continued to carve out a significant section of high quality cinematic art. Errol Morris’s “Tabloid” and Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” both deserve honorable mention.
As with any year, 2011 saw a string of cinematic abominations that deserve little more than a roll-call. In the interest of attending to the more significant matter of counting down the 10 finest movies the year had to offer, here are my list of films that bored me nearly to tears.
10. The Rite
8. Stake Land
7. The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu
5. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
4. Meek’s Cutoff
3. Film Socialism
2. Paranormal Activity 3
This year’s 10 best films showed an exceptional amount of originality, rigor, and inventiveness. It’s with great pleasure that I share my favorite examples of why I keep returning to the cinema day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year.
Docudrama director Clio Bernard approaches a dead British playwright's life of persecution and abuse via the lens of situations from her autobiographical plays. When Andrea Dunbar died in 1990, at age 29, she was enjoying some theatrical success. The filmmaker obtained candid audio interviews with Dunbar's surviving family members, who still reside in the same impoverished Bradford estate housing where Dunbar lived. Using a technique called "verbatim cinema," Bernard uses professional actors to lip-synch with interview audio so that the spectator receives the information in a strangely organic fashion. "The Arbor" is a groundbreaking cinematic achievement.
The preteen boys of the '70s who played "war" in their backyards and pored over dirty magazines in their clubhouses are transmogrified into a pair of 21st century twentysomething misfits in writer/director/actor Evan Glodell's wild and woolly contemplation of apocalyptic America. Woodrow (Glodell) and Aiden (Tyler Dawson) are a pair of best friends obsessed with building a flamethrower gun and flame-spewing muscle car named Medusa, after the name of their two-man gang "Mother Medusa."
Evan Glodell has invented a bold vision of independent cinema that pisses down throat of the "mumblecore" indie movement. Call it "apocalypticore." Here is a movie that sears itself into your eyeballs and brain.
James Marsh examines the 25-year chronicle of Nim Chimpsky, a research chimpanzee who was put through the mill in the service of science. Nim's origins trace back to early 1970s hippie Columbia University professor Herb Terrace. Terrace took the baby chimp away from his mother and attempted to train it to communicate through sign language.
With access to a tremendous amount of archival footage of every stage of Nim's life, Marsh intersperses stylistically staged interview segments with many of the participants. Project Nim is an in-depth documentary with far-reaching implications about modern culture. It's impossible not to be swept up in the fragmented story of a de facto child who is repeatedly abandoned by people who exploit him with both good and bad intentions.
Apocalypse looms large in writer/director Jeff Nichols’s intimate tale of social, mental, and economic duress. Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) is a construction worker living in rural Ohio with his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and young hearing-impaired daughter Hannah. Curtis reads a worst-case scenario into foreboding cloud formations he sees. He also suffers from terrifying nightmares, about a coming storm, which cause him to wet the bed. Torn over whether his family's history of mental illness has made its way into his brain—his mother is schizophrenic--Curtis seeks out counseling.
“Take Shelter” captures a macro-micro snapshot of America’s post-9/11 zeitgeist at a moment when a decade of fear fatigue has left the country numb. When everyone is seeking shelter from economic, natural, and human-implemented disaster, no place is safe.
Pedro Almodóvar proves himself an apt technician at sustaining suspense in the thriller genre. Returning to work with Pedro Almodóvar for the first time in over 20-years, Antonio Banderas brings his A-game to a deliciously diabolical role. Plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard (Banderas) is a mad scientist with plenty of method to his particular madness of creating an indestructible skin. His wife died in a car fire. His daughter committed suicide. He harbors vengeance. But why?
"The Skin I Live In" is a haunting film that tips its hat to Alfred Hitchcock. There's a goodly dose of Georges Franju's 1960 French horror classic "Eyes Without a Face." Elliptical time shifts tell the story in a disjointed fashion that makes you want to see the film twice even as you're watching it. There's mystery here to savor as you would any great piece of cinematic art. Pedro Almodóvar has created a masterpiece.
Director Bennett Miller does the improbable. You don’t have to be a math nerd or a baseball fan to savor every minute of Miller’s cinematic balancing act built on Billy Beane’s ah-ha season with the Oakland Athletics in 2002. Brad Pitt gives the performance of a lifetime as former big league player Billy Beane, who recognizes talent when he sees it even if that talent is for crunching numbers. Only Pitt could make chewing tobacco look sanitary. Jonah Hill establishes himself as a dramatic actor of consequence as Peter Brand, a bean-counter with an unconventional viewpoint amount which baseball stats matter most. Together, Pitt and Hill are exquisite.
If last year's thinking-outside-the-box-movie "The Social Network" gave cynical insight to a social activity platform that is already approaching a crisis of identity, "Moneyball" has a more lasting quality. What’s profoundly interesting is how the romanticism of baseball comes through via sidelong moments of deeply personal experience.
"The Artist" conjures a bygone era that reminds us why we love Hollywood. Director Michel Hazanavicius's wonderfully nuanced movie made a splash at Cannes and then became the critical darling of the 2011 New York Film Festival.
Hazanavicius meticulously squeezes in an encyclopedic catalog of silent film conventions while staying true to the ideas behind them. The result is a movie that never feels forced or derivative.
The movie is full of sweet little surprises. Between brilliantly executed performances, dance numbers, and an exquisitely told romantic story about loss and redemption, this flawlessly crafted film shimmers. Visually, it’s astoundingly gorgeous. Equal parts drama, romance, spectacle, and comedy, "The Artist" is an instant classic.
Playing with a William Friedkin-like level of patient intensity, atmospheric style, and shocks of violence Dutch director Nicolas Winding Refn creates his own 21st century dialectic of cinema. "Drive" is a film-lover's dream. Hossein Amini's adaptation of James Sallis's pulp novel provides Ryan Gosling with the kind of cool-blooded character actors would kill to portray. Known only as Driver, Gosling wears a trademark silver racing jacket with a big gold scorpion embroidered on the back. His curious fashion sense matches his singular motivation to drive...fast.
The moody techno soundtrack by Cliff Martinez is the hippest thing around. Sexy, violent, and stylized like you can’t believe, “Drive” is a big-screen movie that oozes charisma and pops with brutality. Yum.
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is more than a character study. It is an examination of a highly skilled occupation that demands such complete and utter commitment that all emotional response must be submerged to a point of permanent poker-faced resolve. No one can be trusted and yet loyalty to the group is mandatory. A company party where the agents pretend to let their hair down momentarily arrives as a key sequence for what it says about the way British spies of the period interacted. Every jovial smile conceals suspicion and secrets. Tomas Alfredson’s flawless staging provides a fly-on-the-wall view that allows the audience to peek behind the characters’ well-defended shroud of secrecy to discover yet another one that hides beneath. The story is about how loyalty and integrity are enforced in a spy agency where such values add up to much more than a simple matter of life and death. They represent the safety and viability of an entire system of government.
2011 was the year of apocalypse in cinema. "The Tree of Life," "Take Shelter" and "Melancholia" each offer differing visions of Earth's waning days.
Lars von Trier evinces consolation for the end of planet Earth and all its evil inhabitants in the form of a colossal planet named Melancholia, which is travelling on an elliptical collision course.
Von Trier’s infamous Cannes festival publicity stunt wasn’t anymore outrageous than anything that drips nightly from Bill O-Reilly but it got the filmmaker himself thrown out of the festival in a manner befitting an outlaw filmmaker.
Had the jury at Cannes chosen von Trier's superior "Melancholia" over Terrence Malick's cluster-bomb "The Tree of Life" in spite of von Trier's "persona non grata" status, justice would have been served. As with all of von Trier’s films, “Melancholia” will divide audiences. Atheist audiences can take special pleasure in von Trier’s exquisitely uncompromising vision. After all, what’s a beginning without an end?
NYFF 2011 in Perspective
The New York Film Festival 2011
By Cole Smithey
Easily the best New York Film Festival I’ve experienced in the 15 consecutive years I’ve attended it, 2011 was truly an exceptional year. Of the 17 films I saw there was only one disappointment (Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants”) and one unforgivable dog (“Martha Marcy May Marlene” – I compulsively make fun of the title every time I say it). Martin Scorsese personally introduced a surprise screening of his latest film “Hugo” to a packed house.
Documentary filmmaking enjoyed strong entries with Chris Hall’s and Mike Kerry’s “The Ballad of Mott the Hoople” (which sadly will go to DVD), Joe Berlinger’s and Bruce Sinofsky’s “Paradise Lost 3,” and Alex Stapleton’s Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel.” Martin Scorsese’s named also showed up on the MTV-aired doc “George Harrison: Living in the Material World.”
While overrated festivals like Toronto pretend to compete with Cannes, and unfocused festivals like Tribeca continue to feel around for an identity, the New York Film Festival has proven once again that it knows how to treat filmmakers, celebrities, and its participating journalists. Kudos to Richard Peña, John Wildman, Courtney Ott, and the rest of the staff at Lincoln Center for making 2011 a festival to remember.
Aki Kaurismaki's humanist themed comedy of manners and intentions is a whimsical allegory about the desperate plight of immigrants and the communal actions needed to address the issue. There's an air of magical realism in the film's tone that places shoeshine man Marcel (Andre Wilms) in the unique position of harboring a young illegal immigrant named Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) from West Africa in Marcel’s French hometown of La Havre.
Marcel leads a frugal existence with his loving wife Arletty (Kati Outinen) in a small house on a little back street of the sleepy seaside town. The couple's minimalist lifestyle still allows for simple pleasures. With his wife's approval Marcel slips out to his favorite bar for an aperitif while Arletty prepares their dinner. Arletty doesn't want her husband know she's dying from cancer. So it comes as a shock when she has to be rushed to the hospital for an extended stay. When a dock guard hears the cry of a baby coming from a sealed shipping container, local officials are called in to open the giant London-bound metal box. Inside are a group of immigrants from which Idrissa escapes before running into the sympathetic Marcel who agrees to help the boy get to London to reunite with his mother.
Filmed with a deliberately simplistic regard, Kaurismaki embraces a regional sense of identity that allows supporting characters to flourish. Police Inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) gets wind of Marcel’s complicity in hiding the boy, and makes his position clear to Marcel. Enjoyable scenes between Darroussin and Wilms play out with a suspenseful sense of deadpan humor. As with all of the Finnish auteur’s films, there’s a bitter sweetness at play. When Kaurismaki adds the story’s final grace note it comes as rich reward. Few filmmakers have such delicate command of the poetic potential of cinema.
The Kid With a Bike
The Dardenne brothers tweak slightly their polished neorealist formula of personalized socially consciousness cinema related to their home country of Belgium, and their hometown of Seraing in specific. Composed music plays a role. The Dardennes continue the focus of their oeuvre on the plight of the country's youth. The result is a somewhat less than convincing story about a troubled 11-year-old boy named Cyril (Thomas Doret).
Having been recently abandoned by his single-parent father Guy (Jérémie Renier), Cyril searches desperately for his dad, and for his bicycle which has also gone missing. The manic boy escapes from the boys' home where he has been placed to return to the now empty apartment he once occupied with his father. Chased by his keepers back into the home Cyril throws himself at a visiting woman who sits in a lobby. Hairdresser Samantha (Cecile de France) helps reunite Cyril with his bike and agrees to look after the violence-prone boy on weekends. Samantha is at a loss to understand Cyril's self-destructive impulses that land him in a string of violent altercations. Still, Cyril's good fortune expands when Samantha agrees to keep him with her full time. Cyril’s guardian angel helps him track down his dead-beat dad at the restaurant where he works. Guy gradually makes clear that he wants nothing to do with his needy son. The filmmakers explore too shallowly Guy's reasoning for essentially throwing his son away. This, coupled with a lack of perspective on Samantha's backstory, weighs heavy on the film as a narrative contrivance that is nonetheless buffered by Thomas Doret’s exceptional performance.
Martha Marcy May Marlene
"Work-shopped in a Sundance writing and directing lab" proves to be the kiss of death for an overwrought and underdeveloped psychological thriller that refuses to either poop or get off the pot. Newbie writer/director Sean Durkin wears his obsession with Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke on his snot-covered sleeve. Evidently they don't teach that flashbacks are a bad idea at NYU film school—where Durkin attended--or at Sundance since exactly half of Durkin's story is told using the most common crutch in narrative existence.
Durkin has an ace up his sleeve in newcomer Elizabeth Olsen, whose beguiling nubility and haunting mood shifts the filmmaker milks for all they’re worth. Olsen plays the title character whose name Martha gets transmogrified to Marcy Mae by a creepy cult leader named Patrick (John Hawkes) who feeds on the flesh of his mostly female clan on a remote farm commune in the Catskills. Martha's "Marlene" identity is the least explained, and is left dangling along with every other plot thread the filmmakers bother to create.
Martha runs away from the commune at the beginning of the story. She calls her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who she hasn't been in touch with for two years, to come pick her up. Lucy and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) take Martha into their spacious riverside home in Connecticut. Martha displays odd behaviors such as skinny dipping in broad daylight and crawling in bed with Ted and Lucy while they're having sex. She doesn’t believe in such capitalist traps as pursuing a career. She holds onto firm but unstated beliefs about “the right way to live.”
Flashbacks reveal Martha's rape at the hands of Patrick, and her indoctrination as a "leader and teacher" at the commune. The filmmaker constantly jockeys back and forth between Martha's increasingly problematic situation with Lucy and Ted, and her not so distant past that informs her subconscious and conscious mind. Martha is an unreliable protagonist the audience is tempted to side with in spite of her volatile personality. "Martha Marcy May Marlene" comes across as an extreme right-wing fantasy about the leftist mind. If we take Martha, as the filmmakers seem to intend, to represent the kind of person engaged in the global protests against savage corporate greed then we are forced to admit that they are emotionally disturbed sociopathic human beings. The big problem with the movie is the filmmakers forgot to tell a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
In spite of its all-too-obvious machinations “The Kid with a Bike” touches on social ills in a direct fashion without preaching. When Cyril falls in with a neighborhood thug to perform a violent crime with no reason other than for the approval of an older male figure, we see clearly what the filmmakers are getting at. A kid with a bike is nothing without both a mother and a father figure. The Artist Inspired proof that a black-and-white silent film with a 4:3 aspect ratio can be more entertaining than a 3D anything, "The Artist" conjures a bygone age of Hollywood that reminds us why we love cinema. Director Michel Hazanavicius's wonderful movie made a splash at Cannes before becoming the critical darling of the 2011 New York Film Festival.
Jean Dujardin ("OSS 117 - Lost in Rio") combines Errol Flynn and Fred Astaire in his role as silent film superstar George Valentin. The story finds matinee idol Valentin enjoying a glamorous silent film career in Los Angeles near the end of the Roaring Twenties. Flawlessly tailored and groomed, here is a man who can do no wrong. His marriage to a grumpy wife (Penelope Ann Miller) isn't all it's cracked up to be but George has his constant companion, a Jack Russell terrier, to keep his sprits up. Valentin goes along for the ride when Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), an ambitions young starlet, creates a welcome bit of impromptu romantic zing during a public photo op. The kiss she plants on George’s cheek makes front page news. With her infectious smile and adorable dance moves Peppy's silent film career catches fire in the company of the suave and urbane Valentin. The advent of the Talkies doesn't bode well for Valentin, who refuses to participate for a reason that only becomes clear late in the story. Peppy is more adaptable. Cast aside by his producer (John Goodman), Valentin dips into his personal savings to produce, direct, and act in silent movie that necessarily flops on the same day as the release of Peppy's breakout sound role. Our impeccable hero hits the skids.
Apart from a precise use of appropriate music, Michel Hazanavicius teases the audience with sound as a delightful narrative ingredient. Will we ever hear Valentin speak? It is a silent movie after all.
Between brilliantly executed performances, dance numbers, and an exquisitely told romantic story about loss and redemption, is a flawlessly crafted film that shimmers. Visually, it’s astoundingly gorgeous. Equal parts drama, romance, spectacle, and comedy, "The Artist" is an instant classic. There is a line of thinking that states a film has to linger around for a decade before it can have a "classic" status bestowed upon it. To that notion I say, watch "The Artist."
Like his German compatriot Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders has a knack for the documentary form. Wenders's 1999 Buena Vista Social Club remains one of the best music documentaries ever made. Unlike Herzog however, Wenders may want to consider sticking exclusively to this type of storytelling in light of his recent failing efforts with narrative film. His last film "Palermo Shooting" (2008) is a film better left forgotten.
In discovering the human and artistic impact of his friend, the famed late choreographer Pina Bausch, Wenders takes a unique approach that involves set piece reenactments of Bausch dance routines performed by her fiercely devoted company of dancers, the Tanztheater Wuppertal. Bausch started the company in 1973. Wenders puts state-of-the-art 3D technology to ideal usage in capturing the dynamic vibrancy of transformative dance numbers that reveal the personalities of the individual dancers, as well as the bold vision of their artistic muse. Interspersed between the dances are brief direct-to-camera reminisces from individual dancers about Pina that tell the story of an artistic force of nature who lived and breathed nothing but dance.
Wenders had been in discussions with Bausch for many years about making such a film. Sadly, the visionary choreographer passed away in 2009 just as "Pina" was entering pre-production. Audiences will find much inspiration in the film's many passionate solo, pas de deux, and group dances performed in public spaces and in various theatrical settings. Natural elements such as dirt and water take on mystical qualities in dynamic dance performances that truly take your breath away. There are many aural, visual, and visceral surprises in this sublime film. If you aren’t a fan of dance, you will be after seeing Pina’s magnificent dances performed by dancers who worked with her for decades. "Pina" was one of the highlights of the 2011 New York Film Festival.
Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel
One of the most influential filmmakers in the history of cinema gets his due in a comprehensive love-letter documentary that celebrates Roger Corman's illustrious film career from top to bottom and inside-out. The inspirations, ideologies, and methodologies of Corman’s "one-man-band" of independent filmmaking come through in exhaustive clips from his more than 200 films, and from a plethora of interview segments. Aside from outspoken interview sequences with Corman himself, documentarian Alex Stapleton interviews everyone from the filmmaker's wife and business partner Julie Corman to Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard, John Sayles, Peter Fonda, William Shatner, and Pam Grier. The effect is a raucous celebration of Roger Corman's polite demeanor, colorful films, and his stripped-down approach to movie-making that gave so many directors and actors their start.
"Monster From the Ocean Floor," "Apache Woman," The Little Shop of Horrors," "Bucket of Blood," "The Fast and the Furious," "Death Race 2000," "The Intruder," and his psychedelic exploration of LSD "The Trip" are just a handful of Corman's many films examined with more insights than seem possible for such a fast-paced documentary. It would be a daunting task for any filmmaker to even attempt a documentary about such a prolific and influential figure as Roger Corman, but Alex Stapleton lovingly crafts a 95 minute filmic encyclopedia that touches all of the bases. "Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel" fills an essential chapter of cinema history. It is destined to become an integral addition to the curriculum of more than a few college film courses.
Death and dying play a big part in Cinema's current zeitgeist. From apocalyptic films like "Melancholia" to cancer-themed comedies like "50/50" there is a pressing dialogue of facing up to the reality of certain death with some amount of courage and dignity. So it is that Alexander Payne struggles to make funny the pending death of a comatose adulterous wife whose husband Matt (George Clooney) must facilitate a socially responsible passage for the mother of his two daughters. Perhaps the best thing "The Descendants" has to offer is its depiction of Hawaii as a place like any other that only appears as a tropical paradise on the surface. Payne has mastered a certain style of deadpan humor exemplified in a scene where Clooney's cuckold runs down a suburban street in sandals. He is anxious to question his friends about their knowledge of the man his wife was cheating on him with before she was critically injured in a waterskiing accident. There’s a slapstick air to Clooney’s gawky physicality and the sound of flip-flops hitting asphalt. Still, it’s a scene you feel like you’ve seen a hundred times before. There’s numbness to the humor. Alexander Payne is certainly a competent director. He knows just where to put the camera. But as a writer he remains stuck in a navel-gazing kind of rut. “About Schmidt” (2002) fell prey to Payne’s sluggish sense of ponderous humor. “Sideways” was his best film because he stepped outside the need to gaze upon ugliness. In “The Descendants,” the writer/director takes a brighter disposition in a literal sense. Hawaii’s bright sunlight and natural beauty work some magic. But it’s not enough to resuscitate a script that is as depleted as the comatose character toward which the narrative steers.
My Week With Marilyn
Michelle Williams delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as Marilyn Monroe in director Simon Curtis's thoughtful adaptation of the legendary actress' diaries by Colin Clark. At 23 Clark served as 3rd assistant director to Laurence Olivier for his 1956 romantic comedy "The Prince and the Showgirl." Here Eddie Redmayne movingly portrays a star-struck young Brit who momentarily wins the heart of the most sensual creature on the planet while working as Marilyn’s hand-picked liaison to the British theatrical world—a culture upon which she is an obvious encroachment. Michelle Williams effortlessly evokes the tragic icon's layers of insecurity and hopeless romanticism, which slip into fits of manic depression. Williams's mesmerizing set-piece performance of songs, such as a climatic rendition of "That Old Black Magic" transports the film into the erotic euphoria that Monroe stirred in the hearts and libidos of men. Equally effective is a charming dance number Williams reenacts from the film within the film. Williams's magical transformation into Marilyn Monroe is uncanny; you never question it for a moment. Although the movie has its weak spots--Julia Ormond turns in a one-note portrayal of Vivian Leigh and Zoe Wanamaker veers toward caricature as Paula Strasberg--Michelle Williams delivers a deft multidimensional character study built on truthfulness and soul. “My Week With Marilyn” isn’t just a gem; it’s a diamond.
The Skin I Live In
Pedro Almodóvar proves himself an apt technician at sustaining suspense in the thriller genre. Antonio Banderas returns to work with Almodóvar for the first time in over 20-years, since his memorable performance "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!." The years have been kind to Banderas who brings his A-game to a deliciously diabolical role. Plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard (Banderas) is a mad scientist with plenty of method to his particular madness of creating an indestructible skin. His wife died in a car fire. His daughter committed suicide. He harbors vengeance. But why? The Toledo-based doctor conducts experiments in the privacy of his luxurious mansion laboratory. Not even Dr. Frankenstein had it so good. His mother (Marisa Paredes) serves as his dutiful maid. Almodovar's meticulous attention to detail keeps you hypnotized. Every visual component is exact in color, placement, and scale. Naturally, the evil doctor is using a human being to live inside the hybrid-pig-DNA membrane he has perfected. His comely patient Vera (Elena Anaya) is confined to a large room. She wears a skin-tight body suit and practices yoga for hours on end. Dr. Ledgard secretly observes Vera through a large two-way mirror. Elena Anaya is an exquisite object of fetishistic delight for Almodovar to pour his patient camera over.
Based on Thierry Jonquet's novel "Mygale" "The Skin I Live In" is a haunting film that tips its hat to Alfred Hitchcock. There's a goodly dose of Georges Franju's 1960 French horror classic "Eyes Without a Face." Elliptical time shifts tell the story in a disjointed fashion that makes you want to see the film twice even as you're watching it. There's mystery here to savor as you would any great piece of cinematic art. Pedro Almodóvar has created a masterpiece. Plan on seeing it twice.
Once Upon A Time In Anatolia
Nuri Bilge Ceylon continues his minimalist yet universal exploration of society with a fascinating police procedural that values story over plot and character over prejudice. The mastermind behind such instant classics as "Climates" and "Three Monkeys" uses every detail of atmosphere and human communication to tell a quietly complex story about a murder and the imperfect methods of the men assigned to solve the crime.
At night Doctor Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner) accompanies a group of police officers and a soldier as they drive around the dark outskirts of the Anatolian steppe. They have with them two incarcerated suspects they hope will lead them to the grave of a missing man. Police Commissar Naci (Yilmaz Erdogan) lets his temper flare at his prisoner who leads the three-vehicle caravan on a wild goose chase in search of a "round tree" by one of the road's many fountains that provide water for travelers in the arid region. Prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel) reigns in Naci when the Commissar turns violent against his prisoner. The cops joke about food and engage in a bland kind of non-specific repartee that diffuses tension even as it subtlety discloses fragments of personal information. They stop for food at the home of man whose beautiful daughter momentarily entrances them.
"Once Upon a Time in Anatolia" is a film about how detectives communicate. It’s also about how entrused public servants wrangle with overpowering emotions and personal secrets. Anger and sadness are traits to be submersed under rote routines of professional conduct. Their personal sense of justice can be confused and arbitrary. And yet, these men are doing a job that must be done. Nuri Bilge Ceylon is a lover of humanity. His great concern for every one of his characters that goes beyond their innocence or guilt. He recognizes the balance of both qualities in their actions. As a sociological study, the film is edifying on many levels. As a drama it is at turns inscrutable, revealing, and moving. The cinema of Nuri Bilge Ceylon is a transformative one. It is unique and honest. Most significantly, it is rare.
Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly play Penelope and Michael Longstreet, a bourgeoisie married couple whose son lost a couple of teeth to a schoolyard bully who hit him in the mouth with stick. Rather than take America's kneejerk legal route, the mostly well-intentioned couple attempt to resolve matters via an afternoon discussion with the parents of the offending bully. Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz play the bully’s parents Nancy and Alan Cowan. Alan is a corporate attorney with a mind like a steel-trap and a constantly ringing cell phone that takes precedence to all other concerns. Nance is an investment broker with a queasy stomach. The Cowans and the Longstreets are equally matched in the area of self-righteousness, but not so much in the realm of what used to be called political correctness. Hiding behind a veneer of politeness, each character digs deeper into their personal bag of tricks to articulate a holier-than-thou brand of intellectual independence. Tempers flare, insults are tossed, vomit flies, and a bottle of scotch is consumed on the way to seeing a myriad of hypocrisy that lurks inside high-minded examples cultured, educated, and civilized society. The laughs come hard and fast.
There's considerable gratification in watching this quartet of great film actors working in Polanski’s deliciously theatrical setting. The film was shot in real time. The director himself makes a cameo appearance as a curious neighbor. Brief, explosively funny, and sardonic as hell “Carnage” is what you might get if you condensed three of Woody Allen’s early films into a 75 minute one-act. This movie is a kick. The Woman WIth Red Hair Japan's Pink Film genre lasted from the early '60 through the mid-'80s. Although Western audiences are most familiar Nagisa Ōshima's 1976 film “In the Realm of the Senses” as the genre’s most representative film, Japan’s Pink Film industry provided several generations of filmmakers with a lucrative outlet for their creativity. One of the country's oldest production studios “Nikkatsu” turned exclusively to making what it termed Roman Porno in the early '70s to compete for audiences distracted by television. Each Roman Porno film had to have four nude or sex scenes per hour. Nikkatsu served as an ideal training ground for Tatsumi Kumashiro, who directed his first film "Front Row Life" in 1968 and went on to be one of the genre's most prolific directors.
The Woman with Red Hair
Kumashiro's 21st film, "The Woman with Red Hair" is a study in social commentary disguised as porn. Construction worker Kozo and his pal have outdoor sex with the boss’s daughter before picking up a red-haired woman eating noodles at a truck stop in the pouring rain. Kozo takes the girl (Junko Miyashita) back to his squalid apartment where the lovers slip into a marathon of love-making interrupted by economic and social pressures that surround them. Character-discovery occurs during ravenous sex acts that extend to kinky expressions of fantasy and revealing post-coital conversations. The woman is on the run from an abusive boyfriend. She has a son she left behind. She might be a recovered heroin addict. One thing is certain; the woman with red hair is insatiable.
In keeping with strict codes of Japanese law that forbade the showing of genitalia or pubic hair, Tatsumi Kumashiro composes the sequences of unbridled love-making with clever angles and purposefully placed foreground objects. There’s a nervousness and honesty in the way the lower class couple express themselves. Anger and violence tempers their efforts at finding fresh paths toward a fleeting pleasure that must be refreshed immediately lest it vanish forever. Incredibly lusty and inflected with a cinéma vérité style “The Woman with Red Hair” aspires to a degree of social realism that features the surroundings of its characters as an influence that causes them to live in a state of constant fear. It compares favorably with Michelangelo Antonioni's 1964 film “Red Desert.” The emotionally exposed characters battle against oppression by an industrial world with a confused humanity hungry for release.
A Dangerous Method
Christopher Hampton's stage play "The Talking Cure" provides the basis for David Cronenberg to dive into the largely overlooked story of Sabina Spielrein and her influence on the fathers of modern psychoanalysis--Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Sabina (played with astonishing authority by Keira Knightley) is a Russian Jewish patient brought to Jung's Burgholzli Clinic in Zurich in 1904. Her "hysteria" impedes her speech as she contorts her face, neck, and head in violent spasms. Outwardly, she appears quite insane. Michael Fassbender's Jung is able to calmly look beyond Sabina's off-putting physical demeanor in the interest of curing her. Jung is intent on using Sabina as a premier test patient for Freud's conversational therapy which he mistakenly calls "psychanalysis."
The film glides effortlessly across years as Jung meets Freud (Viggo Mortensen) to discuss psychoanalysis. Cronenberg masterfully controls the soundscape. Music is never allowed to intrude on a scene. Ugliness becomes beautiful; beauty becomes divine. Jung and Freud share a special bond of intellectual endeavor that comes through in their candid conversations about dreams. Jung shares his nighttime reveries for Freud to openly dissect. Privately, Jung questions Freud’s insistence that sex is the crucial element to all mental dysfunction even if his own experience with rehabilitating Justine points to just such a conclusion. Jung assists the perceptive and unguarded Sabina in her pursuit to become a psychoanalyst. He also seeks out a rationalization to ignore his wife and children long enough to enter into an adulterous BDSM affair with the heretofore virginal Sabina.
“A Dangerous Method” is a lush character study and history lesson that tenaciously explores the personal conflicts of ego and id between Jung and Freud. The film also pays generous homage to the woman whose outré sexual desires enabled her to turn Freud’s theories around. Freud entrusted her with several of his patients for her to treat. As an actors’ showcase the film is stunning. Vincent Cassel gives a memorable portrayal as the nihilistic psychiatrist Otto Gross, who encourages Jung to take sexual advantage of his patient. David Cronenberg has matured into a director of immeasurable confidence and gracefulness. He maintains his trademark fearlessness toward sexual obsessions and their potentially cataclysmic effects. Like Otto Gross he is incapable of “passing by an oasis without stopping to drink.”
Melancholia 2011 is the year of apocalypse in cinema. "The Tree of Life," "Take Shelter" and "Melancholia" each offer differing visions of Earth's waning days. Lars von Trier evinces consolation for the end of planet Earth and all its evil inhabitants in the form of a colossal planet named Melancholia, which is travelling on an elliptical collision course. Von Trier opens the film with one of the most haunting and lushly composed sequences ever captured on film. Kirsten Dunst's Justine placidly observes in hyper slow motion as electricity flows between an overcast sky and her fingertips. Black birds fall around her like harbingers of a funeral procession. Dunst’s delicate features are filled with stern ambivalence. As she reveals through her actions during the night of her wedding party, Justine’s atheism has prepared her bettern than believers to live out the final hours of human existence with a composure calculated to allow for whatever choices she might make. Telling off her demanding boss, and cheating on her doting husband (Alexander Skarsgård) of just a few hours, are obligatory actions. Justine is an anti-heroine without a trace of superficiality. She's a lying, cheating hypocrite just like everyone else. The difference is she admits it to herself. If Justine sounds like an alter-ego of the filmmaker who shook the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, getting himself thrown out of the festival for his incendiary comments during a press conference; she most certainly is.
Had the jury at Cannes chosen von Trier's superior "Melancholia" over Terrence Malick's cluster-bomb "The Tree of Life" in spite of von Trier's "persona non grata" status, justice would have been served. As with all of von Trier’s films, “Melancholia” will divide audiences. Atheist audiences can take special pleasure in von Trier’s exquisitely uncompromising vision. After all, what’s a beginning without an end?