Archive for November, 2011

Minimalism in film can be achieved in many ways and is common whether in some of the more cult hits or indie variants.  Indeed, when it appears, minimalism shouldn’t be that surprising to notice because it is a bit commonplace, but when it works, it is stunning to still see the results of a well-made film done with so little.  So is the set-up for Martha Marcy May Marlene, a film that thrives in its minimalist vision of the fascinating topic of a cult and its chilling aftereffects. Both psychological and atmospheric, Martha is a quiet but powerful dramatic film that is not to be missed.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is the name of the main character (Elizabeth Olsen) who runs away from a cult she has joined. The only person she knows is her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who takes Martha to her and her fiance’s (Hugh Dancy) lake house.  As Lucy lets Martha recuperate, Martha begins to reminisce about her life with the cult as she is challenged by her sister and her fiance on the beliefs as a cultist.  Martha must soon face both these challenges and herself, created by the cult atmosphere, which was led by Patrick (John Hawkes), throughout the duration of the film.

On the one hand, there are some detractors to the overall film which include some strange editing choices and its perhaps over-reliance on its plot devices.  Throughout the main film, because of its heavy reliance on its actors and atmosphere, the filming process itself becomes much more apparent along with any slight miscalculations.  Namely, there are some editing choices that are understandable in their usage but feels more like a damper to the pacing and the tone from misplaced fade outs to some back-to-back editing choices that don’t entirely work as intended.  Just as well, some of the plot devices do sometimes seem too obvious and set-up than organically introduced, although this complaint is not a blanket statement.  Just in some cases, some story beats, which may feel as if they were intended to be more shocking, come off more short-lived.  Finally, and once again, not apparent in the entire film but only in some specific cases, there is some dialogue that pushes on the err of being too melodramatic, creating some imbalance in some of the more intimate or emotional moments.

However, these complaints feel minuscule next to the accomplishments of the film as a whole.  Namely, the film revolves around setting up such a rich and tense atmosphere with nothing more than flashbacks, editing tricks, rich dialogue and a great soundtrack.  These great film elements are well-calculated and well-executed without feeling cheap or unoriginal.  Grouping these elements is important because they work as a whole.  The soundtrack, for instance, is fairly non-existent throughout large portions of the film but when it does come through, it slowly creeps into a scene and just elevates the tension and atmosphere that is being evoked.  This relates to the entire film which is not about quick thrills or fast scares.  Instead, it broods and feels out its story with quiet moments and intriguing moments that are nearly always interesting to watch play out.  The next element comes from the strong set of actors.  There are some great supporting roles in the film such as John Hawkes who plays the eerie but omnipotent cult leader with such great conviction and earnest solitude.  However, the greatest acting accomplishment comes from the titular character, Elizabeth Olsen, who has to balance playing both the transforming cult member to the runaway stray who tries to acclimate back into a society that is against her prior values.  There’s just an array of emotions that are always played subtly but emotionally packed that makes the performance fascinating to watch and to be sure, one of the best characters and acting performances of the year.

The final element that really completes the entire package is the plot itself.  Both psychological and dramatic, the film plays both the audience and Martha.  It really is one of those scenarios in which one can say, ‘just when you got it all figured out, you don’t.’  Whether this effect is intentional or not, it makes for a great number of revelations and overall, a fascinating and (mostly) unblemished look at a cult and the potential effects it had on one of its members.  The end product is emotionally touching, slightly creepy and more or less fulfilling with an ending to really match the weight and vindication of the entire plot thread.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a minimalist dramatic film that achieves so much with having to do so little.  Although some may complain about various questionable editing choices or a plot that becomes a bit too stringent on its framing and patterns, its accomplishments far outweigh its detractors.  From the amazing performance of Elizabeth Olsen to the tense and atmospheric story, Martha is fascinating, haunting and engrossing insight into both the strange life of a cult and the intimate and disturbing aftereffects one can have from the experience.  Its minimalist filming at its finest and is definitely one of the most memorable films of the year.

Director: Sean Durkin
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Rated: R

The Wie muses: **** out of *****


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Films are highly dependent upon their conception of reality and the plot points that are within it.  Whether a film is more fantasy-based and can play up some more zany angles or a film is more held down in reality and plays by the rules of the real world, its nearly integral to make the plot devices believable dependent on the film’s perspective.  Like Crazy is an example of a well-meaning and fairly well-written movie that is bogged down by its plot devices and characterizations.  Although the core film is still a good watch with interesting insights into long-distance relationships and some nice cinematography and editing flourishes, the ways the film pushes and pulls its characters do a disservice to the end product.

Like Crazy follows two college lovebirds, a British girl named Anna (Felicity Jones) and a California native named Jacob (Anton Yelchin).  After their initial meeting and romance, Anna needs to return to the U.K. per visa law.  However, due to her longing to stay with Jacob, she breaks the visa law and overstays her visit.  After traveling by herself, she gets sent back to the U.K. and is restricted from re-entering the U.S.  What ensues, following these events, is the couple’s journey to both try and maintain their relationship and the lives they lead separated from one another along with the trials and tribulations of a long-distance relationship.

The strengths of Like Crazy come within its actors and stylistic choices.  The cast is fairly strong all-around with some fun supporting cast standouts from Alex Kingston and Oliver Muirhead who play the fairly stereotypical but delightful British parents of Anna.  The main two actors, however, are the two real stars.  Both Yelchi and Jones emit a great relationship that ebbs and flows from the beginning of the film to the end.  Character quirks and the general atmosphere are great to watch and evolve such as Jones’ cute but awkward giggles that become more and more muted as the film pushes on.  Its believable; its touching; and its intimate.  Director Doremus is proud of his unscripted dialogue and the natural actions really show from this directional style and should be applauded.  Yelchi and Jones really took the challenge well and made the characters real and unique.  In addition, there are a lot of neat and consistent editing and cinematography stylistic choices that add some memorable flair to the film.  Mostly focused on time lapses, the different ideas utilized to pass the time are always interesting to see hows its played and symbolically connecting to the rest of the film.  These strengths play into the effectiveness of the ending which feels proper to the film’s themes and tone.

However, on the opposite end of the spectrum, Like Crazy falls under its own plot devices and lacking some polish.  The biggest and main problem come within how it deals with how the plot deals with moving the characters along.  True, the problems encountered by Anna and Jacob have much truth to them and have affected many couples.  However, the reasoning and situations that are put upon the characters feel like a plot cop-out and therefore not genuine.  There can be something said that perhaps these complaints that occur are character flaws but the constant references to the themes of true love and empathy come apart when in light of the facts, particular towards Jacob more than Anna.  In addition, although they work well, there is a bit too much focus on the film’s stylistic decisions, sometimes forcing too much on cinematic flair that takes too long to get back to the plot or a particular emotion.  This problem varies perhaps dependent on an audience member’s patience but scenes seem to linger too long that makes the film feel arduously longer than it should.

Like Crazy is a well-acted and well-meant romantic drama that could have been taken further.  There are some wonderful performances in here along with a great sense of intimate cinematography that takes advantage of its time and space.  However, some characterizations and plot contrivances dampen the impact of the fairly solid script and unfortunately makes the film less memorable because of it.  Long distance relationships are the bane of any romantic entanglement which Like Crazy captures well; its just a shame that there wasn’t a better way to convey the plot with more believable and rooted plot devices or a story that acknowledges the weaknesses of the relationship far more.  

Director: Drake Doremus
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 90 Minutes

The Wie muses: *** out of *****

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4chan’s founder, Christopher Poole, made an interesting case a few weeks back at the Web 2.0 Summit [http://mashable.com/2011/10/18/chris-poole-4chan-web-2/] .  He stated that Facebook and Google were both steering identity on the Interweb in the wrong direction.  Instead, he states that there should be a choice for someone to identify themselves by their real names or a pseudonym.

In some cases, I agree with Poole’s assessment although the issue of online identity and discourse is much more complicated than he makes it appear.  Instead, we should really be looking at a more holistic approach to identity that encompasses both real names and pseudonyms.

Unlike the more narrow definition and usage used by Poole, the usage of real names on the Internet has always been available as an option and has its own set of benefits.  Regarding the first point, although indirect, there have always been ways to create an alter ego or a different self even on services like Facebook.  Because of the nature of signing up through emails and a lax security system, people can create multiple online identities although it does take a bit of work.

The more interesting point is in regards to what the usage of real name constitutes though.  One of the most common complaints about various online portals is the nature of trolling or online bullying.  Most of this is caused by the fact that anonymity can cloud a person’s identity which can empower them to harass and go after other users.  Even Poole’s 4chan website can be a direct example of this phenomenon in which trolling is a heavy part of the site’s culture.  Although the actual statistics of actual name usage versus pseudonyms is not directly available to my knowledge, I believe studies like Mashabe’s recent cyberbullying article [http://mashable.com/2011/11/09/pew-teenager-bullying] showcase some of the interesting attributes that actual name usage can imply.

Identity my be transparent in our life yet at the same time, as much as Google and Facebook dictate a major portion of the online users’ lives, much like in reality, there are alternative sources that people can become a part of such as forums, different IM clients and so on.  Does that mean I completely agree with Facebook’s technical no pseudonym policy or that I approve of the increasing regularity of Facebook-required log-ins for non-Facebook properties?  Definitely not.  However, until the day that we are required to make our online lives the exact same as our day-to-day lives, I see the nature of our online nomenclature as only evolving rather than stagnating.

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Films about the future or alternate realities have always a bit to think about before the actual filming begins.  How extravagant and far flung out will their film be?  Is the film attempting for mainstream market appeal?  What realities are the film going to stick to?  Successful sci-fi or fantasy films, persay, commit to their idea all the way and run with their world or at least provide a deeply rooted film with something unique to bring to the table that doesn’t wear out by film’s end.  In Time is a sci-fi, futuristic tale that tries to follow in the vein of many of its predecessors with a central gimmick, a fully realized world, and several rooted themes that should equate to a successful motion picture.  However, the film never commits to itself in running with its idea completely and isn’t really a well-made venture that doesn’t have enough juice to keep itself running before film’s end.

In Time is a rich versus poor/Robin Hood story that centrally follows Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) in a world where people live literally off of time, the currency and life force of the world.  He lives in the slums with his mother, Rachel (Olivia Wilde), who is a showcase of the world’s rules, living off of hours a day after turning 25.  After a series of unfortunate events, Will journeys to the richer sectors for revenge, meeting one rich denizen, Sylvia Wes (Amanda Seyfried), who takes fancy with him. However, he is also chased by the police force of the world, the timekeepers, led by Raymond (Cillian Murphy), and soon must try to figure out how to escape his pursuers while enacting his revenge plan.

The film is probably best when it comes to its ideas and the inspirations.  There are definite futuristic and past influences that the film takes from, which are quite big in term of influence.  From the past, Director/Writer Niccol is inspired by both the story of Robin Hood and Bonnie and Clyde.  The rich versus poor motif is constantly apparent throughout the film, from its color palette and artwork.  The Bonnie and Clyde theme also becomes an interesting and surprising addition to the plotline and makes for an interesting balance between the two themes.  Additionally, the concept of time as both a monetary and life values is definitely consistent and the idea behind it feels original.  The consistent reminder of time being on both the rich and poor citizens makes for interesting commentary unto itself.

However, ideas alone are not enough for a film when the execution and the majority of the trappings feel so haphazard.  The script is the first offender.  From the first act forward, starting wtih the acting to the dialogue, everything feels so forced and hammy.  Characters speak to each other with such melodramatic and serious flair that work against the film because the actual dialogue is never unique or natural enough; instead, it falls in between the lines of the two styles.  In many ways, the emotional drama behind it feels just as stilted.  Events are quickly forgotten or glossed over from character deaths to important plot points.  There is such a build-up to a repeated line or plot point that never gets resolved and only serves to become a nuisance than an exploratory idea.

The second offense comes with the actual film elements.  The film has a tough time getting its moving pieces to work whether its in the editing or the music.  The soundtrack is an overdramatic mess that constantly regurgitates the same melody and much like the dialogue, is way too straightforward to take the scene seriously.  This error bleeds onto the editing style as well which suffers from, again, a very obvious style that is paced so deliberately that there is no room for the film to feel natural or engaging.

One final note of complaint is in the world itself and the direction Niccol took the film in.  Even with the interesting themes and the varied futuristic world, there never is enough commitment for In Time’s world to work.  The concept feels too rooted down to reality and forces itself to be wedged in between being too real or being too fantasy-driven, instead creating something much more haphazard.  The grey area that Niccol tries to reach for, instead, becomes more black-and-white and makes the audience take it much less seriously than is originally intended for.  The end vision is more in kin with a teenage fairy tale that tries to encompass mature themes but cannot let go of itself to either fully create a strange, quirky world or a more serious, drama-laden tale.

In Time is a film with some good concepts that doesn’t live up to them in its execution.  The ideas themselves are a fascinating mixture between sci-fi and classical genres with some interesting set pieces, color, and aesthetics.  However, none of the ideas are taken far enough or executed well enough to raise above its problems from its hokey dialogue to overdramatic music to underdeveloped world.  The biggest misfortune, however, is that ‘In Time’ comes at such an opportune month and year when the US and the world are grappling with similar themes and challenges and instead of being memorable, will most likely be forgotten on the wayside.  

Director: Andrew Niccol
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Rated: PG-13

The Wie muses: ** out of *****

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There’s something incredibly fascinating about the behind-the-scenes happenings of many sports that makes for great TV specials or movie features.  Perhaps its the nostalgic ting of seeing our favorite moment in a sport represented again in a brand new light or a different take on a sports legend.  Moneyball is definitely an oddball movie in that respect as it represents an underdog story but from a very different (and albeit difficult) approach, injecting statistics and economic theories into the mix.  The end result isn’t always perfect as it has to teeter-totter between heavy exposition and a core story that ends a bit abruptly on various threads, but some strong editing, acting and writing makes for a sports story that is worth watching for baseball fans and anyone looking for something to root for.

Moneyball is inspired by the true events of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the Oakland A’s general manager, who is struggling with his team and some heavy trade losses.  Under heavy pressure from both the burdens of his baseball career past and one of the lowest budgets among all baseball teams, Beane starts to take drastic measures by hiring Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) as his assistant who proposes a new way to look at baseball to use economic statistical data to value players. Beane has to slog his way through, however, against a bevy of people, including his own coach, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

The film has a few problems namely with its bigger concepts it needs to explain and some odd focuses concerning the plot and characters.  Because of the intricate and dense exposition, the film does fall into a few lulls that try to explain these concepts while having to still push the story forward.  This statement is not to say that Miller failed persay in making the audience feel the hardships of the background game of baseball or fail to explain the concepts thoroughly.  More or less, there are pacing issues that just affect the film’s tempo.  This heavy exposition affects plot and character threads as well.  Due to the fact that so much focus is put on these economic and statistical concepts that are presented, various points get shafted in favor of it.  One very obvious part that gets discarded is much about Art Howe and his growing frustration with Billy Beane in which the second half of the film completely forgets.  Finally, there is some concern with the outlook on Beane himself in which the film paints as such a heroic and positive figure.  Perhaps the moments were simply too overdramatized or never fully realized but the balance between Bean’s life versus many of the other ones including Brand and Howe feel too heavily contrasted.

However, the core of Moneyball is a great watch, exhibiting a different type of sports underdog film with some wonderful elements surrounding it.  As dense as some of the material is, the presentation of the film makes the audience feel engaged with the material.  One successful element is the acting, which is all-around a great effort.  The biggest and most successful characters come from one of the more least-likely pairs in Pitt and Hill, which probably helps to make their relationship feel all the better throughout the film.  They are fast and witty when put next to each other but never too far enough in which the film veers into a buddy comedy film.  Instead, the strong script helps to give the characters the multi-faceted viewpoint and growth along with centering it around around the Moneyball formula.  The ebb-and-flow of character development and plot progression because of the economic thought process creates a strange mish-mash that works to the film’s betterment because of Sorkins’ Social Network-like touch which keeps the proceedings fairly snappy and always filled with some kind of imagery or quick reveal.  Then the final piece of the puzzle is the editing, which reflects this tonality quite well.  Quick and smart cuts make what could have been a very slow, methodical, and boring film into these tense matches both on the field and off.  In the end, this results in a fairly engaging film.  There really is both a personal and broader conflict that feel constantly at play between Beane and the A’s that thematically feels impactful and intriguing to both sports fans and non-spots fans alike.

Moneyball is a very good sports film that has a little trouble maneuvering its way around the more lofty ideas it represents.  The exposition is very heavy at times which can bog down the pace and the proceedings along with some underdeveloped plot and character threads that feel a bit too celebratory than intriguing and revolutionary.  However, that does not discredit the wonderful parts that make it one of the better movies of the year thus far from great acting from its main stars, a strong script that puts the concepts into play and interesting, and some snappy and great editing to make it all work.  Much as how Beane helped shape some of the new concepts for baseball, Moneyball makes a valiant effort to pave a new way to showcase a sports film and for what its worth, succeeds in many ways.  

Director: Bennett Miller
Running Time: 133 Minutes
Rated: PG-13

The Wie muses: *** ½ out of *****

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