Monday, September 10, 2012

Holy crap, it's coming!

I'm so thrilled to say that I spent my lunch hour today poring over the Milwaukee Film Festival program book for the first time!  I got it on Saturday but only was able to glance at it before today, and of course, there are a million movies I want to see.

I'm not going to get too excited until I have confirmation of my press credentials (which really should be any day now I think) so I'm not going to make a definite schedule until then, but it's looking like at least 37 to 39 films this year.  I'm really excited about the new venue at the Fox Bay Cinema; from what I understand, it's a film critic's dream because it's a "cinedine" so not only will there be sustenance for those of us who are there all day, but it also has tables that I can make notes on.  That's right: no squinting with the steno pad pressed up against my nose and bizarre, barely legible handwriting!  Plus, there's a Starbucks down the street, so that can't be all bad.

This year I'm planning on taking some photos and trying to integrate social media into my experience (we'll see how that whole thing goes...) so it could get interesting for me.

So, once I get my creds, I'm all over this like white on rice.  I can still stand with my nose pressed up against the window though.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Bridesmaids (2011)

Director: Paul Feig
Starring: Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Melissa McCarthy, Chris O'Dowd

Bridesmaids starts out with a bang (literally) and throws us into the life of Annie (Wiig) a failed bakery owner living in Milwaukee who is hard up for money and fulfillment in her life. This desire is never more apparent when her life-long best friend Lillian (Rudolph) announces that she is getting married and moving to Chicago. Not only does Annie realize that her life is going to change, but that Lillian has begun to change and evolve without her. After Lillian asks her to be the maid of honor at her wedding, Annie’s life takes a turn for the crazy as she fights to keep things the way they’ve been, yet still be there for her friend.

Bridesmaids is a really crude film, but there’s something really refreshing about it. There has been a glut of successful and stupid “guy’s comedies” in the recent past and this film, co-written by Wiig lets the girls scratch their own metaphorical balls and get down and dirty like the guys do, but not without being hilarious at the same time. There were a number of sight gags that were practically stroke-inducing, I laughed so hard (“is that your fella?”) and there were a number of instantly quotable lines. Wiig, an obviously gifted comedic actress really shines in the film, though her affectations are derivative of a lot of female comedians now, including Chelsea Handler and Samantha Bee. Melissa McCarthy was a riot in the film, completely playing against type as a crude, mannish member of the wedding party who says what everyone is thinking, and then some.

Though Bridesmaids succeeds as a romantic comedy, it does have quite a few flaws: the dialogue is incredibly clever and snappy, and Annie is written as someone who is too much of a caricature to exist, or if she did, she would be an exhausting person to know. There were also a bunch of loose ends, and while the romance between Annie and Officer Rhodes (O’Dowd) was sweet, it wasn’t really fleshed out a lot, which was necessary only because it became such an important part of the film.

Despite its faults, Bridesmaids is a really fun film and I enjoyed watching it. I think that a lot of what is wrong with it can be forgiven, or at least pushed to the side because it doesn’t pretend to be an important film; it just opened some doors that we were never able to fully walk through. It’s certainly not a film that everyone would enjoy, but if you can get past the plot holes and embrace the gross out humor it’s actually really clever and entertaining.

3 out of 5 stars

Rango (2011)

RANGO (2011)
Director: Gore Verbinski
Starring: Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Ned Beatty

Rango (voiced by Depp) is a wildly imaginative chameleon who has lived a sheltered life up until the point he finds himself alone and wandering the Mojave Desert. He winds up in the town of Dirt, a lawless Wild West town populated by many desert animals, including a lizard named Beans (Fisher) and run by the Mayor (Beatty) an old turtle. Rango decides that he can make up whatever past he wants, so he tells the townsfolk tales of false bravado, after which they elect him sheriff of their lawless town. After their water supply goes missing, Rango has to try to save the town, using his ingenuity and imagination while saving face for his new friends.

Rango is an absolutely delightful film from start to finish. It is incredibly entertaining, thanks to expert work by Verbinski and top notch voice talent headed by Depp. He was truly enjoying himself in this film, and his voice talent is just as impressive as his regular acting ability. Rango is a great throwback to classic westerns, including many homages to the genre, be it character design, a classic western plot, or even the mariachi band (made up of owls) who act as the film’s Greek chorus, always gleefully Rango’s ultimate demise, whether it’s true or not.

I am not a fan of most animated films and usually avoid them like the plague, particularly CG ones, but there was so much to like about this film, starting with the impressive animation. Roger Deakins, in my opinion the most amazing cinematographer working right now, was called in to consult on the framing of shots, and this expert consultation was obvious. There were so many amazing sequences (watch the chase scene between Rango’s posse and the thieves about 2/3 into the film, for example) that would have been impressive in live action, but were breathtaking in this form.

Rango also boasts a very intelligent script that features clever film references that will only be caught by “film people”, but isn’t so esoteric that it’s not for everyone. In fact, most times, it’s completely absurd and hilarious; I was laughing really hard throughout most of the film. It really was an enjoyable film that I can recommend to everyone, even the most jaded film lovers, since I’m solidly in that column as well.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Drive (2011)

DRIVE (2011)
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks

Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, Drive stars Ryan Gosling (whose character is simply billed as “Driver”) as a stunt driver, mechanic and part time getaway driver. As complicated and exciting as his life may seem, his life becomes more fulfilled when he befriends his neighbor Irene (Mulligan). Soon after, Irene’s husband is released from prison and “Driver’s” life spirals into real danger when he gets involved with the mob in order to protect Irene and her young son.

The plot sounds like it could be interesting and noir-ish, but it’s really not. Drive is nothing more than a plodding story rife with ridiculously long pauses in dialogue accompanied by wistful looks. Within a half hour I was completely bored and frustrated with the pacing of the film, which seemed to last far beyond its 100 minute running time. Not helping is the god awful music that plays throughout a lot of the film. The J-Pop sounding lyrics and voice coupled with the bad 80’s synth lines are laughably and distractingly bad.

Gosling and Mulligan are both good, proven actors but they didn’t help this film along at all. If they were supposed to have chemistry, I didn’t get the memo. Their blank stares only made them seem disinterested. This could be more forgivable for Irene’s character since she’s so undeveloped, but we’re supposed to believe that the Driver is supposed to be mysterious and like Eastwood’s iconic “Man with No Name”, when really he comes across as really dim. Much has also been made of Albert Brooks’ supporting role as a mob boss, but I just didn’t see it. Yes, it was a different role than he has ever played, and he did a fine job, but just because you play a really minor role against type and brandish a straight edge razor doesn’t make a role revelatory. Even Ron Perlman, who, despite growing increasingly simian in appearance is usually good for a few machismo moments, underserved as a mean mobster.

I’m not sure how it’s possible to make a film about a stunt driver who happens to get mixed up in the mob while making some tricky getaway drives so completely hapless and boring, but Refn manages it to do this in spades. There are a couple of good driving sequences, and a few violent moments that are so sudden and out of place that they are actually welcome because at least something is happening, but that little bit of redemption is quickly smothered by a lot of mediocrity. Drive is a film that should never have been made past a 25 minute running time because there simply is not enough material to work with; at least with the presentation we’re given. Drive has been universally hailed, but I think what is being mistaken for style is, quite frankly, pretention.

2 out of 5 stars

Margin Call (2011)

Director: J.C. Chandor
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Zachary Quinto, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany

The financial crisis of 2008 (to present) is a topic that has been explored ad nauseam in countless films, both feature and documentary, books and newspaper and magazine articles, so finding a twist to make “your” film stand out among the rest is imperative. With Margin Call, first-time writer-director J.C. Chandor successfully pulls this off by offering a quiet, yet powerful imagining of the crisis at its incubation and inception stages.

Margin Call features a great cast of character actors including Zachary Quinto, Stanley Tucci, Paul Bettany, Kevin Spacey, Simon Baker and Jeremy Irons, all portraying employees at an investment bank. The 24-hour period covered in the film begins with sweeping layoffs, including Eric Dale (Tucci), a middle manager who is on the verge of making a devastating discovery about the company’s finances. As he leaves, he hands the information over to Peter Sullivan (Quinto), one of his former underlings, with the warning, “Be careful.” After Sullivan analyzes the file and completes the puzzle, his discoveries not only prompt the involvement of every key player at the firm all the way up to CEO John Tuld (Irons), but set into motion the financial crisis that our world’s economy is still trying to recover from.

Margin Call is about as straight-forward a film can be without being a documentary, and it strongly reflects Chandor’s previous work in that genre. What was impressive about the film was that it breathed new life into a stale topic, and did it quietly and without hyperbole. The cast of the film give understated performances despite the highly charged theme, which was impressive. The film could have been played more theatrically, like Glengarry Glen Ross, with a bunch of stressed out people yelling at each other, but it went in the opposite direction, where they were struggling with trying to find a way out, feeling defeated and even wondering how their actions that very evening and day will impact the average man on the street. Margin Call doesn’t kid anyone though; there are no heroes here, merely “survivors” and sacrificial lambs.

There’s nothing flashy about Margin Call, and frankly, there will be some people who will probably be bored with it because there isn’t a lot of action in it. But it is a cerebral and daring presentation of facts that have already been revealed, simply told in an interesting enough way to warrant viewing; notable since this topic has been so pervasive in our lives for more years than I care to recall.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Descendants

The Descendants (2011)
Director: Alexander Payne
Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley
When his wife goes into a coma following a boating accident, Matt King (Clooney) has to balance his busy business life with trying to reconnect with his daughters Alexandra (Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller).  This would normally be a stressful time for King, an attorney whose native Hawaiian family is about to sell a large plot of land for millions, an issue that is big news in Hawaii, but further complications pop up as more layers of the lives of he and his family are peeled back. 

The thing I love about Alexander Payne films, and The Descendants is no exception, is that no matter how laid back the tone of the film, the protagonist is always pushed to a breaking point where they end up doing ridiculous things they never imagined they would do, but along the way achieve an amazing level of self-discovery.  Clooney's Matt King is self-assured and comfortable until he really opens his eyes (and has them forced open in some instances) and sees that he never had as much control or happiness as he thought, and this discovery is more perplexing than devastating.  Clooney is a versatile actor who is just at home playing a lovable, flawed guy as he is the dashing leading man.  I think it's more fun to see Clooney in the former roles because he's very natural, plus it's fun to see a guy with matinee idol looks making a boob out of himself once in a while.  

Woodley and Miller are great in the film as the young daughters with issues of their own.  Miller, as younger daughter Scottie, is a tomboy on the verge of puberty and Woodley's Alexandra is a teenager whose rebelliousness has landed her at a strict boarding school away from the family.  Woodley in particular is amazing; from what I can tell, this is one of her first feature films after doing episodic dramas on television, and she has an amazing amount of range and talent.  After King reunites with his daughters, the dynamic is not easy, nor even natural.  Like Sideways and About Schmidt, Payne's previous two films, self-discovery and strengthened relationships occur as a result of a journey.  In The Descendants, there are a couple of journeys, all poignant and educational, but also hilarious many times, thanks to Clooney's expert comedic timing and the addition of Alexandra's boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) who is crude and not very bright, but who has a good heart.  

Though the subject matter was heavy (and what Payne film isn't?) there was still a laid back and breezy feel to The Descendants, partly because of the environment (they were in paradise, after all) but I think the excellent acting and masterful direction and screenplay written by Payne are a large part of The Descendants' success as well.  I've always been a fan of Payne's films because I love their introspection, intelligence and eccentricities, and The Descendants lived up to my expectations after waiting 8 long years for another Payne film (2004's Sideways was a long time ago).  I experienced a great deal of joy watching this film, and afterward described the feeling as "delicious" to my companions.  Though that may sound like a very Holly Golightly thing to say, it really sums up The Descendants quite well, actually.  Delicious and sublime. 

4 out of 5 stars