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Archive for December, 2011

There seems to have been a big shift this year in terms of reminiscing (more than usual) into what made movies what they are today from old characters to historical perspectives.  Although each of them vary in terms of their mileage, each seem to remind audiences both how little some aspects of the film industry has changed along with the advancements that have pushed storytelling forward.  Then it is only appropriate that the year ends with one of the best culminations of this formula with The Artist.  Although not truly based off of one true event or past characters, The Artist is an engaging and touching look back at the silent film industry, but more than just that, the film is a creative and emotional journey through one man’s rise and fall from fame.

The Artist follows George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a popular silent film actor who is at the height of his career with many fans and a large sum of wealth. One day, after his most recent film premiere, one of his fans, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) stumbles into George’s photo shoot and gets to meet her idol face-to-face.  She is also an up-and-coming extra dancer who slowly starts to make gains in the industry. After another unexpected meeting, George gives Peppy a small fake mole on her face and soon, Peppy skyrockets into fame while George has to deal with the studios’ move into talkies in which he comes into contention with his head honcho, Al Zimmer (John Goodman). Being helped only by his butler Clifton (James Cromwell) and his dog, Jack, George struggles to get back to his popularity while Peppy tries to deal with her new-founded fame and her past friendship.

Although strong in many facets, there are a few quibbles that came to mind throughout the film dealing with emotional contexts and concepts.  The overall tone of the film is very playful and jovial, which works with its silent film backdrop and the vibrant expressions and actions of its actors.  However, the emotions of the film are much deeper and thoughtful than just some fun banter or actions and although the shifts are mostly noticeable, at times, there are strange clashes of emotional styles that seem to dilute the moment whether it is a fierce emotional outburst from George or a confrontation between two main stars.  Perhaps it is a product of the times Director Hazanavicius wanted to go for, yet admittedly, it was distracting to see happen.  On a lesser note, as creative and unique as the film is, it feels that the film could have even been pushed farther down the concept, playing with more of the aesthetics and time period than presented.

As a whole, though, The Artist is a wonderful achievement in both homage and originality.  Aesthetically, the film is period rich and well-done from the look of the buildings and costuming to the melody-heavy soundtrack that starts out quiet and tinny but eventually bellows up into a much more full orchestra as the years progress.  And really, it is that concept of silence and sound that is so fascinating about the film and where its creativity shines, playing with the idea of a silent film with modern technology.  Director Hazanavicius cleverly tinkers with all the aesthetic and aural tricks that could not have been possible with the silent films of the past and makes them meaningful additions to the story.  One of George’s dream sequence is a perfect encapsulation of this concept which shouldn’t seem that impressive but really is a great sequence that is emotional and fantastic in its execution and thought.

This point can relate to the final two terrific aspects of the film – the acting and the plot.  The actors are all wonderfully chosen in that they extenuate their movements and facial expressions, so immensely important due to the lack of sound.  From the unexpected, such as Cromwell, to the perfectly cast, like Goodman, each actor seems born to play any of these roles in the silent era.  And the best comes to us with Dujardin, an actor who seems to embody the front man looks of Clark Gable while the expressions and movement of Charlie Chaplin.  Not only can he play the funny and charismatic actor who really sells the film (and can also dance) but also hosts a wide range of emotion without a single line of heard dialogue.  Its an amazing range that is sure to impress and really should be applauded for a fine show here.  In addition to this is a fairly strong plot that capitalizes on the era of Hollywood and silent films and thematically makes the aesthetic trappings, time period, and the silent film workings itself all work into the plot.  Although the core plot is fairly straightforward, the journey of the rise and fall of an actor becomes an engaging ride emotionally, physically and mentally while being told in such a unique and fascinating fashion.

The Artist is an unexpected surprise that is creative in spirit and in execution. Only marred by some emotional clashes and a concepts that could have been taken even further, Hazanavicius has created both a celebration of silent film while still making it unique, having it stand out on its own with some of the year’s best acting and playful imagination.  Some may argue how the film is simply steeped in nostalgia and plays to a limited niche viewership but in actuality, if you can accept the silent film dialogue cards and the black-and-white aesthetics, there is an enjoyable plot, insightful themes, a great soundtrack, and creative gimmicks all wrapped into a beautiful film about fame, time, and hardships.  

Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Rated: PG-13

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

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Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol shouldn’t really be celebrated.  Its the fourth film in a franchise thought to be finished much after the third film and represents the sequel-itis safety net that Hollywood has clung onto in trying to get some financial stability and earnings.  Even more curious for some, Director Bird has never filmed a feature-length high budget action film and although personally, he stands as one of my favorite directors, some questioned whether he was ready for live action.  Well, the core film of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol really is a success in many ways as a very good action film and as an imaginative ballet of set pieces.  Although it does suffer from franchise fatigue and plot/character qualms, Ghost Protocol is probably one of the best action films of the year and can be wholeheartedly recommended to both series veterans and newcomers alike.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol continues to follow the adventures of Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) who has been assigned to a new IMF mission in Russia but rather than being able to choose a specific team, he is assigned members from Jane (Paula Patton), Benji (Simon Pegg) and Brandt (Jeremy Renner).  Together, they need to infiltrate and find nuclear codes that have been stolen by the villain, Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), before nuclear missiles are shot at the United States.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol falls short in terms of some deeper plot and character intricacies.  For the amount of complicated jargon and supposed plot twists that make up many spy films, Ghost Protocol’s periphery story doesn’t get as much attention or care as the main, central points.  Of course, these plot points and characters are supposed to be smaller whether in scale or depth than the showcase highlights, but here, they feel flimsy and almost unnecessary. Take for example the villain, Hendricks, who is played by a pretty terrific international actor, Nyqvist.  However, his role is diminutive and flat with only one scene given to explain his ambitious evil goals (which even then is shadowed by a separate plot point given to Hunt) and relegated to simply running away or fighting the good guys without a word.  After getting a villain like Hoffman in MI3, its disappointing see such a flat villain. This lackluster treatment also bleeds over to several other subplots such as the one between Hunt and Brandt, which is supposed to feel morally difficult and grandiose but comes off quite the opposite.  Instead of feeling emotionally invested into these subplots or care about their inclusions, they feel unnecessary.

However, the pacing, the main characters, and the set pieces are exquisitely well-done and contribute to making an amazing action film overall.  The main acting crew is nicely grouped together with some standouts like Pegg who, as in many of his other movies, keeps up the film with his hilarious banter and actions.  However, it really is Cruise that holds the film afloat with his charisma and dedication.  Rarely (or seemingly never) using a stunt double or a CG counterpart with an unwavering look to the goal at hand, it may not be an original or unique performance but his confidence sells the high octane scenes.  Speaking of these moments, the action set pieces are definitely another superb highlight.  Director Bird and his crew crafted some truly creative and fascinating moments that feel original and hard-hitting.  Much of this is helped by the use of ‘real’ locations as much as possible and the balance showcasing huge scale, dangerous distance, hard-hitting sound design, and relentless pacing.  The use of IMAX in this respect is fairly a treat to watch as well in scenes like at the Dubai Tower which really induces a sense of awe and danger.  Personally, I thought a chase scene in a desert is quite a highlight that must have been painful to shoot but creates an end product that I’ve never seen done quite in this light.  Finally, there is a fun and classic feel about the style of the film that never feels like its taking itself too seriously yet still exciting to watch due to its high-octane action and fearless acting troupe.  From the very old-school title sequence to the mysterious classic TV-like ending, there was a certain charm that may be lost on some viewers but for those that kind of get the small winks and nods, its a fun touch.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is a great action film that skimps a bit on the character development and various other intricacies but little on its core fundamentals.  There are some legitimate complaints to be had with a fairly substandard villain and some subplots that aren’t nearly as compelling as the rest of the film.  However, as a whole, the film is an action-packed and well-paced film that is imaginative in its scope.  Along with a strong and daring Cruise anchoring the whole operation, Director Bird not only creates one of the best action films of the year but has definitely more than proven he can play with the big boys in both the animated and live-action fields.  

Director: Brad Bird
Running Time: 133 Minutes
Rated: PG-13

The Wie muses: *** ½ out of *****

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Audiences are so fascinated with epic mythology and many film directors have obliged them with countless films.  The main problem with bringing such films to the forefront is that they usually may be visually appealing but fail at nearly all other lines of production from the acting to the core plot.  And so the struggle to create a great mythology piece continues with the film Immortals, which attempts to showcase a highly visual feast with a very young cast and taking note of some older, inspirational films as well.  All-in-all,  Immortals is a film that has some striking imagery that succeeds at its basic, core purpose but try to make sense of its non-sensical plot and emotional weight and the film comes crashing back down to reality.

Immortals follows Theseus (Henry Cavill), a young poor man living with his mother, Aethra (Anne Day-Jones). One day, however, his village is evacuated as King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke) begins his invasion of the land in search for Apollo’s Bow, a weapon said to kill a god.  As Theseus is leaving, however, he is captured and thrust into a destined battle to get the Bow first. He is mentored in secret by Zeus (Luke Evans).  With the aid of an Oracle (Frieda Pinto) and a thief (Stephen Dorff), he must battle his way to save the world.

Director Singh probably gets his best out of the film through its vision and style.  Although the marketing has alluded to 300 as a comparison piece with the two films sharing a bold vision in its style, the difference is that Singh is much more interested in his allusions to older films and a bigger emphasis on fantastical elements.  For the most part, Singh’s vision is intriguing to watch play out. The color correction has a great look that is very reminiscent of some older epic mythology films and the cinematography has some wonderful long takes such as a great slow pan of two armies colliding in a hallway.  Especially at its best, the style and imagery create a wonderful tapestry and painting as can be seen by the very end of the film.  On the plot-front, similar to the imagery, it knows what it wants to be and embraces it for the most part.  The film is never meant to be more complicated than a poor-to-hero story sent by the gods and so everything is fairly simple and quick moving.  For its part, on a basic level, the film works to elicit the heroic emotions or the right hits and beats.

On the other hand, the simplicity of the plot doesn’t mean that it lacks faults; indeed, the overall story is ripe with plot holes along with a lack of any emotional involvement that more attentive audiences will find it all completely lackluster.  Even on its most basic level of continuity, the story is full of nonsensical plot elements and character interactions such as the floppy motivation that pushes Dorff’s character to follow Theseus or why the Oracle falls in love.  Perhaps an argument can be made for the simplicity of the original myths, yet the script seems to try to flesh out character motivations and origin stories…just without much thought into the actual characters but instead to push the plot along as briskly as possible.  The simplicity of the characters do not help in this regard as well as everyone is so one track-minded or has a very simplistic character progression that there is little room for surprise.  This problem can be related back to the gods who never are fully realized with the fact that so few of them are oddly present.  Other small aesthetical problems also come up such as CG and effects that don’t fit with the tone and atmosphere.  The biggest disappointment is perhaps that there is a lot of potential that the film had if it had pushed its vision further as showcased in its ending.  The film really could have been a much grander and more fascinating story had it run with its concept to the fullest rather than its more limited origin story.

Immortals is fairly bold in its overall vision and succeeds on a basic level of pacing and action, but the plot and lack of any emotional weight destroys much of the spectacle enjoyment.  Director Singh showcases a lot of potential in the film with some bold imagery and great cinematography along with a basic level of understanding in creating a well-paced action film.  However, the film falters in nearly every other aspect from the numerous and deep plot holes and the lack of any emotional empathy or connection.  Indeed, the fact that the final scene of the film showcases perhaps the most fascination and engagement than any other section is a strong testament to how much more interesting the film could have actually ended up being.  Instead, Immortals ends up being a one-time action fest with only hints of greatness that will otherwise end up much more forgotten than its inspirations.  

Director: Tarsem Singh
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Rated: R

The Wie muses: ** ½ out of *****

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Culture has always been a fascinating topic to discuss or bring out ideas upon, especially those cultures that are either talked about very little or heavily stereotyped.  These latter categories are ripe topics for discussion and further evaluation to possibly grow some unique plots or philosophical thoughts.  The state of Hawaii is one of those strange cultures that everyone kind of knows of to a certain respect but heavily stereotyped with luaus, hula dancers and white pristine beaches.  The Descendants takes a stab at inspecting the Hawaiian culture and growing from it a thoughtful plot about the living dealing with the dead and the complexities surrounding it.  Unfortunately, the meandering plot never feels like it completely clicks in sync with its deep and unique themes and ultimately creates a film that feels interesting but not great.

The Descendants follows Matt King (George Clooney), a real estate lawyer who recently learned his wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), is in a coma due to a jet ski accident.  Now, he needs to take care of their children, Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), and tell the family about the tragic news.  To make his life even more stressful, he is conducting a huge deal with his family to sell off some land that his lineage has owned in Hawaii.  From dealing with family troubles to learning one family secret after another, Matt and his children have many burdens to bear.

The biggest strength of The Descendants comes within its interesting perspective on its themes and the arena of the film itself.  The film’s scripts deals with a number of difficult and heavy issues that initially seem much simpler than it seems.  This interesting notion comes into play with Matt King’s opening monologue which talks about the stereotype of Hawaiians and the truth that life for them is just as complicated as anyone else.  This statement sets up the general tone of the film in which complications arise out of situations once thought to be simple.  Heavy themes like parenthood, lineage, and love entanglements continually grow more and more complicated.  Its fascinating to see Elizabeth, who is struck with a coma for quite a while, never really do much persay but cause so many actions to happen from the family and many unexpected visitors.  Few films venture this far into such heavy topics and really try to deal with them as far as this film does.  The atmosphere itself adds to the plot as Hawaii is very much involved within the film and so many elements evoke this from the laid back musical stylings to the laid back nature of the editing to even just the general characters who all evoke a very lazy feel within the context of a very complex web of intrigue.  Its this juxtaposition of all these elements that gives the film much of its unique perspective.

However, these very atmospheric style choices also bleed into some of the problems of the film as well.  The first problem comes with the film’s overall tempo.  The laid back atmosphere bleeds too heavily into the various processes of the film, slowing the film down a bit too much for the sake of building character for the film’s locale and its relation to the main plot.  Long drawn-out edits and scenes that seem to have little purpose seem to infiltrate the film far too many times than necessary.  Unfortunately, this stylistic decision bleeds into the plot itself as well.  As intriguing as the themes may be, the plot feels like it meanders and never truly finds its footing.  Instead, the concepts and ideas are put into place but even by the end of the film, never feel like either a cohesive narrative or good character studies.  Instead, it straddles the line between the two and while the method may be interesting, the execution feels lackluster and unsure.

The Descendants is a case of a myriad of fascinating topics and juxtapositions with the appropriate elements but feeling more disconnected and aloof than engaging and revelatory.  The film itself is intriguing with a different look at what Hawaii represents and some deep and fascinating themes of death and its complexities.  However, the film is lethargic with edits and cinematic pans that feel unnecessary with a plot that meanders more than reveals.  Great ideas are seemingly marred by perhaps a lack of focus or purpose and in the end, although it fits both the cultural tone and the film’s deep themes, The Descendants never completely clicks.  

Director: Alexander Payne
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Rated: R

The Wie muses: ** ½ out of *****

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Movies about certain properties from other mediums are interesting beasts to tackle.  Whether inspired by a book or a television center, the director and team have to choose what to do with it…create a continuation of the series or recreate it altogether into something new.  There are, of course, much more numerous questions and philosophical musings than that and is dependent on the nature of the original property.  And so comes The Muppets, a property that hasn’t been touched in well over a decade.  Instead of trying to recreate or rebrand the puppets for the new millennium, the direction taken is much more of an homage and celebration of their history. The results? Although some of the humor falls flat and the actual mileage of the film may vary between one’s memories of the Muppets to being open-minded and/or young enough to try and enjoy some wackiness, the final product is a fun celebration of music and laughter.

The Muppets follows Walter (Peter Linz) and Gary (Jason Segel) who are brothers that grow up together watching the Muppets.  Walter is feeling lost as he stays a small puppet while his brother grows to be a man.  One day, however, Gary decides to take his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) to Hollywood on a vacation and invites Walter to go along with him to go see the Muppet studios.  When they arrive, however, they learn that the studio is abandoned and about to be sold to Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) who wants to convert the studio into an oilfield. Walter, Gary, and Mary decide to try to save the studio by finding Kermit and the rest of the Muppets before its too late.

The biggest aspect that is tough to digest with The Muppets is that it doesn’t really do much to change the core character of the Muppets or does much in terms of reinventing the general plot.  The Muppets hits hard with utilizing a heavy dose of nostalgia and little to speed up those that may have either not seen or grown up with the characters in their lives.  Of course, the background knowledge is not intricate into understanding the core plot as the film, which smartly plants the story in a set of new characters but some of the charm and humor will be lost on those entering for the first time or at least not aware of what the Muppets represent since they eventually do take center stage.  The fourth wall, in-your-face humor might be too cringe-inducing for some because of this problem and is difficult to sidestep.  Because the script is really rooted in the Muppets lore along with the in-jokes, newcomers either need to come in with an open mindset or get lost in the film’s writing.  Even worse, some of the humor even falls flat and stagnant in general such as an outdated chicken performance.  One final part of the problem lies in some plot devices and issues such as Tex’s tiresome continuous villainous plots, which understandably is an homage unto itself, and trying to throw in some random cameos that doesn’t necessarily feel genuine, leading to some underdeveloped characters or lost potential for some humor that could’ve made the film funnier or more interesting.

Yet for everyone else from fans of the show to those open-minded to a set of performing puppets creating a humorous show, there’s a lot to love about the film, especially in the passion and bravado taken to revive the brand.  There are various aspects about the film that showcase not only how fascinating the project is but the amount of effort and heart that shines.  For instance, the film really stays fairly true to its core and still come off as emotive and tangible as ever, utilizing the original puppets from before; no 3D or CG gimmicks here.  The style itself is also very bold, not only throwing in the big bang musical numbers but referencing back to some of their roots and past fun moments.  Perhaps that’s where the film really drew me in personally.  The humor is always self-referential and knows its a film with an awareness of the history currently around it.  The script never takes itself seriously and is better for it with some brilliant and catchy songs spread out throughout the entire film.  A great musical number that embodies this is between Walter and Gary near the climax of the film with some awesome cameos.  And somehow, even though the film really is an homage and recreation of great parts from the past, it all finds a way to create a story fascinating enough to carry the audience through to the end and to bring everyone back together.  When you go in with an open mindset and have some of that childish imagination and emotions, The Muppets pulls through.  A wonderful penultimate musical number with the whole Muppets gang is perhaps best representative of all of these positive concepts; an homage that is given some smart twists and enough passion to still bring a smile to your face.

The Muppets isn’t necessarily a perfect film and isn’t going to convince any non-Muppet viewers to join in, but there’s a lot of love and painstaking details that have been infused into the film to discredit it as anything less than a fun and good film.  Yes, its a film that requires either a childish, open-mindedness or knowledge of the original characters to really make it all work and come together, but this film is a passionate revival of what can make audiences giggle and smile.  The Muppets references itself as growing old and stale with a certain cameo even commenting how un-funny a Muppet joke may be, but as the film shows by the end, the world hasn’t changed its basic principles of humor and happiness.  All it takes is a frog, a banjo, and some love of the medium.  

Director: James Bobin
Running Time:103 Minutes
Rated: PG

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

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I’ve argued with countless people on the issue of how much a movie boils down to its purpose and how well it executes it.  Sure, there are a number of different features that are taken into account and yes, each audience member essentially takes their own interpretation of a film with them, but personally, I am amazed when a film uses nearly all of its elements to really push forward its true purpose inconspicuously and makes them work together in tandem.  That’s essentially what I felt with Hugo, a film under the guise of a children’s story that ultimately is much more than that.  Scorsese may have not crafted a great family film persay, but he has created a terrific homage to some of the origins of film in some surprising, innovative ways.

‘Hugo’ (Asa Butterfield) is the titular protagonist of the film, a child who is living on his own at the Paris train station and living as the clock keeper under the nose of many people including the station inspector (Sasha Cohen).  His father (Jude Law) passed away and left him an automaton with drawings to rebuild it.  Hugo hopes to discover a secret message from his departed father. However, after he tries to steal parts from George Melies (Ben Kinglsey), a shopkeeper at the station, Melies captures the boy and takes Hugo’s father’s notebook to burn.  After Hugo follows Melies to his home, Melies’ granddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Moretz) promises to help him obtain the book which starts a journey that involves uncovering the secrets of the past.

The main problem with Hugo centers around its initial impressions as a children’s film.  The aesthetic film and some of the actions that centers around it do not feel completely sound.  Hugo works around a very stylized Paris backdrop but characters are too grounded in their reality to ever match up with these aesthetics, creating stylistic clashes.  The characters are a bit simplistic and although each may have a secret or two, it never really fulfills much in terms of character development.  Instead of people that are as flamboyant as the setting around them, they don’t feel as magical or interesting in comparison.  Even the central plot itself centering around Hugo is oddly not as engaging as it could be with plot surprises being read easily.  This strange clash continues with some odd writing and editing as well, such as the not-so-funny slapstick humor and the unnecessary slow motion when it rears its head.  The film also suffers from moments that feels too sluggish and without purpose.

However, the fascinating aspect about these weaknesses is that it plays into how beautifully the film pays tribute and is themed around the origins of story-based cinema.  Scorsese may not have purposefully made a strong children’s narrative but instead took his time to build all the film into really recreating and beautifying some of the first story-based movies in history for a whole new era.  From the locale to the simplistic story to the focus on Melies, these elements utilized into what some of the first original plot-based films were about and Scorsese plays with the elements to showcase how the core center of a film never truly changed.  There are some loving recreations of these original films in which Scorsese has his actors literally replay with behind-the-scenes look at the cheap but passionate aesthetics and shows the joyous wonder of people watching these films and new that had resonated with people.

Indeed, the film points towards one of the first films, Arrival of a Train, and shows how people were nearly frightened but bemused of a train coming into the station.  That is where even the 3D makes a large impact on the overall point of the film.  Few 3D films utilize 3D into the actual plot or theme of a film but here, it not only makes sense but is beautifully implemented.  Much like those watching Arrival of a Train, the 3D creates a modern sense of intrigue as even these older films are given a startling and surprising 3D lift that doesn’t feel poorly thought-out but instead points to both the timelessness and the fascination people have with film.  Perhaps some might argue its simply a ho-hum, historical lecture, yet Scorsese really does create this fascinating portrait of cinema with painstaking attention to the details to ultimately build on his central themes, even the aspects that were not-so-great.  And on top of all this, Hugo puts in some great aesthetic touches from the diegetic to non-diegetic musical transitions, the beautiful imagery of an exaggerated but still life-like Paris and elegant cinematography with smart long takes.

Hugo is a confounding film to review – on the one hand, it isn’t necessarily a great children’s film, but the core themes are revelatory and genius in theirimplementation.  Hugo, on one level, is marred by its simplistic characters, slapstick humor, and some unnecessary elements that try to fit into a family film formula.  However, by film’s end, even these detrimental elements make sense as everything in the film, from the 3D to the children’s vantage point to the simplistic arena fulfill Hugo’s core purpose of both looking back and looking forward on cinema.  For many, the film may seem a mediocre children’s film with some moderately good 3D effect but look farther and think as a film enthusiast and you’ll be properly amazed at what Hugo subtly accomplishes.  Its surprising, daring, and amazing to watch unfold.  

Director: Martin Scorsese
Running Time: 127 Minutes
Rated: PG

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

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