Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The NJNM Podcast: Ep. 68 - Planes, Trains and Automobiles

In this week's episode, Ben and Tyler discuss John Hughes' 1987 classic Thanksgiving film, Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

Character Name Game Intro - 2:49

Media Consumed
"Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown" - 3:44
"Running Wilde" - 6:00
Announcement of forthcoming LOTR reviews - 13:20

"Jekyll" and Santa's Slay leaving Netflix Instant - 14:35
Catch Me If You Can - 17:00
Hugo - 20:23

Planes, Trains and Automobiles - 25:55

Next Time: Cool World - 59:55
Listener E-mail/Voicemail/Twitter - 1:01:22
Character Name Game - 1:02:39
Where You Can Find Us - 1:04:30

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The NJNM Podcast: Ep. 67 - Flash Gordon (Guest: Melissa Molina from Latino Review)

In this week's episode, Ben and Tyler are joined by Melissa Molina (from Latino Review) to discuss Mike Hodges' 1980 film, Flash Gordon.

Character Name Game Intro - 2:06

Media Consumed
Jim Henson's "The Storyteller" - 2:35
Cancellation of "Batman: The Brave and the Bold" - 4:02

Blue Velvet - 6:45
"Cougartown" - 7:15
The Devil's Double - 8:00

TCM Presents: AFI Master Class - The Art of Collaboration - 9:17
Childish Gambino's "Camp" - 13:13
Donald Glover's "Weirdo" - 14:15

Flash Gordon - 15:30

Next Time: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles - 50:45
Listener E-mail/Voicemail/Twitter - 52:20
Character Name Game - 52:57
Where You Can Find Us - 54:29

NJNM After Midnight: "Horace, We Have a Problem..."

Episode 6: Horace, We Have a Problem!

Ben and Tyler hit up the mythical Chinese restaurant of a smoky downtown city, and discuss an old pair of now infamous "radio" personalities we came up with called Jeff Worthington and Horace Smith.

Download Here [Direct Link]

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Muppets

Jason Segel has been passionate about getting the Muppets back together for a long time. Using his breakout film Forgetting Sarah Marshall as an audition of sorts (that film features a vampire puppet show), Segel teamed with Sarah Marshall director Nicholas Stoller and successfully pitched the concept to Disney. The result is one of the most heartwarming films of the year: an old school Muppet adventure for the modern world.

The Muppets
Director: James Bobin
Starring: Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, The Muppets

Gary (Segel) and his brother Walter have been best friends since childhood, but because Walter is a Muppet, he's always been a bit of an outcast. When Walter discovers The Muppet Show on television, he becomes their biggest fan, obsessing over the famed Muppet Studios in Los Angeles and dreaming to visit one day. Years later, when Gary and his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) decide to celebrate their tenth anniversary by taking a vacation to Los Angeles, they leave Smalltown, USA - in keeping with the classic Muppet charm, "Smalltown" is actually the name of their town - and they bring Walter along for the ride. But they're shocked to discover the Muppet Studios have been abandoned for years, about to be bought by oil baron Tex Richman (Chris Cooper). Walter overhears a secret plot to destroy the theater to dig for oil underneath, and the movie really gets started as our trio attempts to reunite the Muppets so they can rejuvenate their old act to make the $10 million necessary to save the theater.

It's no coincidence that the only other film that's given me this much pure joy in a theater this year is another one that's related to Jim Henson: it's called Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey, a documentary about Kevin Clash, the guy who voices and "plays" Elmo on Sesame Street. (Read my review of that film here.) I guess that means I'm a sucker for Muppets, and I'm OK with that label. We recorded a podcast a few months ago in which we discussed The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, and The Muppets Take Manhattan (listen here), and Segel's newest take on the material has elements from all three: it has a touch of the sadness found in Manhattan in the "everyone's gone their separate ways" storyline, has a similar "brother" joke to the Fozzie/Kermit relationship in Caper, but overall it's mostly reminiscent of The Muppet Movie (my favorite of the series). Segel and Stoller really nailed the tone, and they did a great job of bringing this brand of nostalgia back to the big screen in a way that makes us feel as if the Muppets should always be in the zeitgeist.

The comedy is pitch-perfect, from the celebrity cameos, to Fozzie's awful-on-purpose one-liners, to the sight gags this series is known for. My favorite of these moments involves Kermit's intro, in which he approaches our heroes bathed in light with a choir of angels singing in the background, and then the camera pans out to reveal Kermit was just in the headlights of a passing bus full of singing choir members. I don't want to give away the best gags of the film, but if the promise of Academy Award winner Chris Cooper rapping isn't enough to get you in the theater, I don't know what is.

As is typically the case for Muppet productions, the music is fantastic. Flight of the Conchords' Bret McKenzie wrote many of the songs, including the highlights "Life's A Happy Song," "Me Party," and "Man or Muppet?" The dance numbers work wonderfully, and the song-and-dance aspects of it add to the timeless feel of the movie. With the exception of an unnecessary Cee Lo Green parody near the end, this could have been made any time in the past ten years.

If you're even remotely interested in Henson's loveable creatures, The Muppets is a must-see. Its unbridled enthusiasm and genuine heart provides a stark contrast to dark material like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo coming up this holiday season, so if you're looking for a family-friendly option that will please kids but has more jokes for adults, look no further than Kermit and Co. as they come back for one last hurrah. Let's hope there's more where that came from. Until next time...

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Artist

Michel Hazanavicius has done the improbable with The Artist: he's made a silent, black and white French film that goes against everything the studio system stands for in 2011. But though the director may be French, this story is purely American. Not only does it take cues from Hollywood heavyweights like Sunset Boulevard and Singin' in the Rain, it's so beautifully crafted that it's also able to stand alongside those juggernauts in the pantheon of greatness. It's a timeless love letter to old Hollywood, an instant classic that perfectly captures the era and reminds the audience of the wonderful things great films are able to accomplish.

The Artist
Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Starring: Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell

George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a silent film star at the peak of his career. He's a narcissistic blowhard - he salutes a framed portrait of himself when leaving his house - but he's always smiling, an immensely likeable guy who is simply a born entertainer. He hams it up for audiences at screenings and plays all the right cards with the press, and the fact that he stars in films alongside his adorable pet dog doesn't hurt. But two things happen early in the film that alter the course of his life: George meets Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), a young fresh-off-the-bus type with starry eyes set on becoming a movie star, and the "talkie" is introduced to the world. As a member of the old guard, George stands firmly against the concept of adapting; Peppy, on the other hand, uses this new style of filmmaking to emerge as America's sweetheart, leaving George in the dust in the process. 

This old vs. new conflict is the driving force behind the movie, and with such broad themes, the film invites viewers to interpret our own messages from them. Is The Artist a critique of the recent 3D boom in American film? Is it a coming of age story? Is it a cautionary tale about the perils of succumbing to one's own pride? I'd argue it's all of the above, and far more. It's a Rorschach test of a film, allowing multiple readings on different levels for those who seek them.

The ultimate irony of the film is that it's a movie about the rise of the talkie presented in a "silent" format. But perhaps the most engrossing element of The Artist is the way it handles sound design. Ostensibly it's a silent film, but in reality, it's a case of selective sound choices made by the filmmakers. There's a "Twilight Zone"-inspired dream sequence about thirty minutes in that provides a shocking break from the conventions established early on, using sound to unsettle the audience. Have you ever stubbed your toe and walked around for a few minutes afterward, feeling a twinge every time you make even the slightest motion, and realized you've taken for granted those times when you're not injured and everything's OK? That's what The Artist is like, except with sound as the element we're hypersensitive to; we notice every single noise here, from the superb, swelling score to the rarely heard but remarkably effective sound effects. Text cards are also dropped in occasionally, though the physicality of the actors means that not every line they speak has to be written out and shown to us.

The leads are both extraordinary, flawlessly embodying the look and acting style of the film's setting. Dujardin is eerily reminiscent of Clark Gable, carrying himself with the same rascally bravado as the iconic actor. Bejo (who, I discovered at a post-screening Q&A, is married to Hazanavicius, this film's director) is marvelous and adorable, totally believable as a rising star beloved by all. It's a love story of the best kind, one fraught with obstacles and spanning years in the lives of two people drawn together by a common passion and an instinctual attraction. There has been some Oscar talk for the acting - Dujardin won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival this year - and any awards that come their way are totally deserved. The supporting cast is also authentic and genuine, with big names like John Goodman and James Cromwell providing veteran assistance for the headliners.

There are some metaphors here that may be considered a bit too obvious (George writes, directs, produces, and stars in his own film, and it ends with him literally sinking into quicksand; later, he surrounds himself with film and sets it on fire, trapping himself in the blaze of his own history), but subtlety is not a luxury afforded to a film as brazen as this. The movie has a timeless feel to it, but it's important to realize how important it is that The Artist was made now, in 2011, an era in which quadrilogies are the norm and one which many consider to be the most creatively bankrupt span in the industry's history. For me, the very existence of this film in today's marketplace, along with its (granted, self-imposed) format constrictions, allows me justification in overlooking some of its more on-the-nose choices.

The Artist is a spellbinding yarn about show business, change, hubris, refusing to adapt, attempting to stay relevant, and falling in love. I can't recommend it highly enough, as it'll surely end up on my favorites of the year list. It's emotional in all the right places, charmingly funny, and nothing short of tremendous in both drama and style. Until next time...

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The NJNM Podcast: Ep. 66 - Dragonheart (Guest: Mike Eisenberg from ScreenRant)

In this week's episode, Tyler and Ben are joined by Mike Eisenberg (from ScreenRant) to discuss Rob Cohen's 1996 film, Dragonheart.

Character Name Game Intro - 1:51

Media Consumed
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 - 2:20
Like Crazy - 3:53
J. Edgar - 4:30

"Green Lantern: The Animated Series" - 14:30
Season 2 of "The Walking Dead" - 17:10
"Nova" on PBS - 19:25

AFI Film Festival Review -22:06

Dragonheart - 31:40

Next Time: Flash Gordon - 1:02:50
Listener E-mail/Voicemail/Twitter - 1:03:30
Character Name Game - 1:06:20
Know Your Specs - 1:10:00
Where You Can Find Us - 1:16:53


Full disclosure: I studied Greek and Roman mythology when I was in college, so I'm a sucker for these kinds of movies. Now that you can take this review with the appropriate grain of salt, I liked Immortals. It certainly won't end up anywhere near my favorites of the year list, but it's a pretty fantastic union of a director with a unique visual style to a script that desperately needs the distraction of that style.

Director: Tarsem Singh
Starring: Henry Cavill, Mickey Rourke, Freida Pinto, Luke Evans, Isabel Lucas

A fusion of stories from Greek mythology, Immortals follows Theseus (Cavill), a young peasant chosen by Zeus (Evans), and Phaedra (Pinto), an oracle priestess, as they lead humans against the evil King Hyperion (Rourke) and his legions of warriors. Snubbed by the gods, Hyperion plans to take vengeance on them by releasing the Titans, the gods' archenemies who have remained trapped in the earth following an epic battle years prior. But Hyperion needs the Epirus Bow, a legendary weapon capable of producing powerful arrows out of thin air, to accomplish his goal.

The movie is being sold as a companion piece to Zack Snyder's 300, and it's clear that the studio had a huge influence on those comparisons, even down to the story level. The two films share many of the same plot points: a traitor defecting to the opposing army, warriors wearing masks, cheesy speeches, and one sequence involving a tunnel near the end that's ripped directly from Snyder's breakout film. To its credit, though, I actually liked Immortals a lot more than 300. Most Greek myth stories probably feel familiar from a story perspective, and if most feel cliche these days, it's because these old myths are the basis of western storytelling as we know it. We've seen these stories told before in thousands of variations in movies and television shows over the years, so it makes sense that the only way audiences will find them interesting is attaching visionary directors to give us a fresh look at the material.

For me, it comes down to performance. Mickey Rourke owns this movie as King Hyperion, relishing every line and squeezing every dramatic drop out of his twisted villainy on screen. It's a much more interesting performance than Gerard Butler's constant bellowing in 300, and Rourke alone gives Immortals a higher likelihood of rewatchability for me. I also prefer Tarsem's grandiose symmetrical visuals to Snyder's speed-ramping; Tarsem's predilection for eastern imagery and fascinating production design - on full display in his fantastic second film, The Fallseems to fit well with this kind of storytelling. 

Speaking of Snyder, he's got a new Superman movie coming up called Man of Steel, and cast none other than Henry Cavill as the lead. While this role doesn't demand much of anything from him, aside from running around shirtless and throwing the occasional spear, I saw flashes of both Clark Kent and Superman in his performance. (As of this writing, we haven't seen any trailers or footage from Snyder's film, so my gut feeling is that Cavill is going to be a really good Superman in a pretty terrible Superman movie.) Getting back to Immortals, the gods, played by young 20-somethings with chiseled bodies, wear insane headgear that would make even Tim Burton do a double take. One piece in particular looks like the head of a dragonfly. Why would Tarsem do this? The only answer I can think of: "because he's Tarsem."

The fight sequences are clearly depicted through the use of Brendan Galvin's impressive cinematography (he reunites with Tarsem for their upcoming Snow White film, Mirror, Mirror), and if my only complaint with the action that it gets a little overdone by the film's ludicrous ending, then I'd say that's a compliment. After all, no one comes to movies like this for the dialogue. (Though there are some interesting religious points touched on here about faith and belief that I found surprisingly well-handled for a movie that's otherwise brash and borders on garish at times.) The score is influenced heavily, as most action films seem to be now, by Hans Zimmer's work on Inception, with quick strings highlighted by bursts of booming brass.

Immortals is a fluff piece with almost no real weight to it, but it's also a beautifully shot film that marries a visionary director to the perfect subject matter for his tastes. If nothing else, it will expose people to Cavill, an actor best-known for a small role in The Count of Monte Cristo and the Showtime series "The Tudors," and get them ready to see him take flight as Superman in 2013. Until next time...

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Adventures of Tintin (AFI Film Fest 2011)

Much like Catch Me If You Can, Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin begins with a slick animated credit sequence. But unlike any of Spielberg's directorial efforts thus far, Tintin unfolds in beautiful motion capture animation and proves that even after the embarrassment of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Spielberg is still at the top of his game in the action/adventure genre. The director's history with this character goes all the way back to Raiders of the Lost Ark, at which time he read a review of his film that compared his hero to Tintin. He spoke with Tintin's creator, Herge, and secured the rights to make a film. Years later, Spielberg partnered with producer Peter Jackson and his Weta Workshop, incorporating the latest technology to render Herge's comic world in breathtaking 3D and resulting in one of the most fun films of the year.

The Adventures of Tintin
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost

Tintin (Jamie Bell) is a fearless young boy reporter with no family left except for his trusty canine sidekick, Snowy. When Tintin buys a model of a ship called the Unicorn, the mustache-twirling villain Sakharine (Daniel Craig) immediately asks to buy it from him, but Tintin's not interested in selling. Soon, our hero discovers his house has been ransacked because of the model ship and he uncovers a trail of clues that lead him across the world on a race for a legendary treasure. Along the way, he encounters bumbling policemen Thomson and Thompson (Nick Frost and Simon Pegg) and a drunken sea captain named Haddock (Andy Serkis) that aid him in his race against Sakharine to retrieve the treasure.

Weta's animation here is absolutely flawless, bringing Herge's art to dazzling life and competing with Rango for the best-looking fully animated film of the year. On a technical level, The Adventures of Tintin is an indisputable masterpiece; but unlike another impressive visual achievement, James Cameron's Avatar, Tintin's story seems to be as important to the filmmakers as technological innovation. The action - and there is plenty of it - is classic Spielberg, recalling the best sequences in his Indiana Jones films while also showing some flashes of the Playstation 3 video game series Uncharted (itself heavily inspired by Spielberg's fedora-wearing icon). One shot in particular - a sublime long take through the streets of Bagghar as Tintin attempts to recover scrolls from an elusive eagle - seems ripped directly from an Uncharted game, with the video game vibe apparent to anyone who's touched a controller in the past ten years. 

That long take is so astoundingly perfect that it instantly became one of my favorites in cinema history, and because it wouldn't be possible with traditional live action filmmaking, it's almost as if Spielberg chose to make this film using motion capture specifically to accomplish that shot. A raging pirate battle told in flashback seems like the director giddily taking another shot at imagery that didn't quite fit into his own pirate film, 1991's Hook, and a brilliantly executed plane sequence is perfectly suited for this type of adventure. These are just a few of the spectacular action beats featured in The Adventures of Tintin, and I would highly suggest seeing the film for yourself (in 3D) to see the rest of them for yourself.

Interesting note: aside from a burly opera singer used more as a plot device than a character, there are no women characters in this story. I'm like most Americans in that I don't have any prior knowledge of Tintin (though the character is popular seemingly everywhere else in the world), so I'm not sure if the fact that there are no female characters stems from the source material or if it's just a choice by writers Steven Moffatt, Edgar Wright, and Joe Cornish. Perhaps there will be opportunities in the sequels; this series was always intended for Spielberg to direct the first film, Jackson to direct the second, and for the two of them to co-direct the third.

The collaboration between Spielberg and John Williams continues here, emerging with another perfectly realized melding of music and imagery that extends the relationship between two of the medium's most celebrated icons. There's even a funny throwback to one of the duo's most celebrated efforts, 1975's Jaws, as Tintin swims with his recognizable Conan O'Brien-esque hair sticking out of the water like a shark's fin. The pacing is quick and energetic, whisking the viewer across with globe with Tintin and his friends, and the writing is equally adept. Moffatt, Wright, and Cornish (the latter of whom have are also directors responsible for some of my favorite movies of the past couple years with Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and Attack the Block, respectively) do a great job of blending three of Herge's stories together to form a cohesive narrative, and the only complaint I have is with the character of Tintin himself. I found him to be a bit too bland with not enough personality of his own; in this case, though, it's kind of understandable because as the audience, we imprint ourselves onto the character to experience the adventure for ourselves.

Despite this, though, The Adventures of Tintin is unquestionably one of the most fun films I've seen in a while and also one of the best action movies of the year. A return to form for one of the best directors of all time, this movie rejuvenates my hope that Spielberg can direct a thrilling action movie again - he just has to stay away from Indiana Jones to do it. Until next time...

Friday, November 11, 2011

J. Edgar

It's easy to see how J. Edgar was one of my most anticipated films of 2011. It stars my favorite working actor, is directed by a living legend, and features a script by an Academy Award winning screenwriter. But who knew that those elements could combine to create something so...boring?

J. Edgar
Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, Armie Hammer

The film tracks the trajectory of the professional and personal life of J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio), the first director of the FBI, from the early days of his career in 1919 until his death in 1972. Hoover meets a young graduate named Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), and even though he doesn't fit the profile for a job on Hoover's coveted new squad, Hoover brings him on anyway. See, Hoover's been bullied into not accepting his homosexuality. Even his own mother (Judi Dench) says she'd rather have a dead son than a gay one. On a first date with a new woman at the Bureau (Naomi Watts), Hoover is so socially inept that she has to interrupt a proposal from him. She's married to her work, she says, and Hoover brings her on as his personal secretary (a position she'll have for the rest of his life). But he can't help himself with Tolson, what with the young man's booming voice and broad shoulders and all. Though things never get too sexual - check out another film that played at the AFI Film Festival this year, Steve McQueen's Shame, if you're looking for that - their relationship takes center stage as Hoover makes a name for himself and his department.

"Information is power," an elderly Hoover dictates to one of numerous agents tasked with writing a book about him (the structure of the film is told from the old man's point of view through flashbacks), and the film does add a tiny bit of complexity when dealing with the issues of how far Hoover is willing to go to keep his power in Washington, simultaneously commenting on the state of American politics and freedoms in a post-9/11 world. I wish more of those concepts were explored instead of what we are actually shown: a stale biopic about a tortured man whose private life was undoubtedly messed up, but was also, as the marketing hails, "the most powerful man in the world."

There's much made of the creation of the FBI and Hoover's crusade to secure the adoption of the investigation techniques used in regular police work today. But since our modern media is saturated with a different CSI or NCIS show seemingly every night, the "magic" of the implementation of those tactics seems dull and uninteresting. The film doesn't really help us out in this department: the centerpiece of the use of this technology surrounds the infamous Lindbergh baby case - specifically, agents studying wood from a ladder found outside the home the day of the kidnapping. Yep, you read that correctly - guys standing around in a lab analyzing a wooden ladder. Some movies may be able to make a scene like that interesting, but J. Edgar is not one of them.

Behind the camera, this is not the rough and tumble Eastwood I prefer. Instead, it's as if adhering to his notoriously quick directing style - Fincher did 99 takes for the opening scene of The Social Network, while Eastwood prefers to do everything in one or two takes - became more important than the content of the film itself, rendering the movie completely devoid of any passion or personality. It could have been directed by anyone, and that was a big disappointment for me.

Another disappointment? This is not DiCaprio's best work. More distracting than the heavy age makeup for me was his speech, as he adopts what one can only assume is an accurate representation of the way Hoover actually spoke. But accurate as it may be (or maybe it isn't, how should I know?), DiCaprio's delivery is brittle and jerky, with an accent sliding in and out depending on the scene. This is the same actor who received high praise for his South African accent in Blood Diamond, one of the most difficult accents to replicate. So I'm sure it was just a choice on his part in J. Edgar, but it was one that I could never quite get past as the movie progressed. Armie Hammer and Naomi Watts were both fine, but the monotonous script doesn't allow them to live up to their potential and never gives them a true "moment" to make their own, save for a laughably over-the-top emotional outburst from Hammer seen in the trailers.

Sometimes the combination of some of the best talent in the business results in a misfire. In the blockbuster genre, take a look at Cowboys & Aliens from earlier this year: Jon Favreau, Harrison Ford, Daniel Craig, Damon Lindelof, Hawk Otsby, Mark Fergus, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci all had their hands in that pot, and it was pretty awful. If the nicest thing I can say about J. Edgar is that it's the dramatic equivalent of Cowboys & Aliens...well, there's that saying about "if you can't say anything nice," so maybe I shouldn't have said anything at all. Until next time...

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Shame (AFI Film Fest 2011)

A searing study of the consuming consequences of sex addiction, Shame reunites director Steve McQueen with his Hunger star Michael Fassbender and cements them both as talents to watch in the years to come.

Co-writer/Director: Steve McQueen
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan

Brandon (Fassbender) is addicted to sex. It dominates his psyche, and he can't even go through a day of work without contaminating his work computer or taking a break to masturbate in the bathroom. He has a great apartment and a good job in New York City, and spends his nights either with hookers or watching porn on his computer. A sudden visit from his troubled sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) introduces the conflict of the story, as Brandon's world is shaken and his life becomes far more complicated.

As you may have heard, both Fassbender and Mulligan go full frontal for this movie. Though it never shows any penetration, the film gets dangerously close in multiple scenes, and absolutely deserves its NC-17 rating. For a movie that showcases sex so frequently, one might think there would be a titillating factor to the proceedings. But director Steve McQueen manages to turn sex, as seen through Brandon's eyes, into an act devoid of emotion or personality; a necessity rather than a passion. Stimulation is replaced with pity for the character as we feel sorry for the way he lives and his unstable grasp on reality.

In this film, McQueen often employs one of my favorite filmmaking techniques: the long take. (I haven't yet seen the director's debut film, Hunger, so I'm not sure if this usage continues a pattern for him.) In a world where quick cuts reign supreme in the editing room, it's refreshing to see a director choose to let his actors bring the work to life in long uncut sequences. Fassbender is in most of these, and he's fantastic, but Carey Mulligan gets her chance to shine, too - since her character is a singer, she performs a super slowed down version of "New York, New York" that is, for the most part, shot in one long close up on her face. There are two groups of people in this world: those that will find this scene mesmerizing, and those that will be bored as hell. Count me among the former, but I can absolutely understand the latter's point of view.

The tone of that scene is reflected throughout the entire movie. This is a contemplative film, interested more in the psychological complexities of sex addiction than the constant progression of a narrative. It is first and foremost a character study, and therefore sacrifices some narrative momentum in favor of meditative moments for the leads. It's a purely adult drama, seemingly a dying breed in theaters at a time when studios would have us believe huge blockbusters or microbudget horror films are the only viable properties. Shame will definitely be too much for general audiences, but cinephiles and the arthouse crowd will likely find a lot to like between the astounding performances and the assured direction. Until next time...

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Haywire (AFI Film Fest 2011)

Perhaps it was fate that Steven Soderbergh's 25th feature film should premiere at the 25th annual AFI Film Festival in Los Angeles this weekend. As AFI President Bob Gazzale pointed out during his introduction of the director at Sunday night's secret screening, Soderbergh has certainly made a huge mark on the American film landscape over the course of his career. He invigorated the independent film movement of the early 90s with sex, lies, and videotape, and is equally adept at making slick studio movies like the Ocean's 11 series or blazing his own trail with boundary-pushing cinema like The Girlfriend Experience or his two-part Che Guevara biopic. With his newest film, Haywire, the prolific director brings his signature style to an unfamiliar arena: the action/spy genre.

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Gina Carano, Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas

Since Soderbergh decided to build a film entirely around her, it's only fair to begin with discussion of Gina Carano, the MMA fighter-turned-actress who plays the lead in the film. Haywire is Carano's first acting gig, and while I admire her director's ballsiness to have an unknown lead a multi-million dollar film like this, Carano is ill-equipped to handle the pressure. She's serviceable, but doesn't ever display a personality for the audience to latch onto; it appears as if she doesn't care whether she lives or dies, so why should we? The audience has to be able to find an emotional connection to this character for the story to operate as intended, and Carano's performance didn't do that for me. She totally kicks ass in the action sequences - more on that in a minute - but dramatically, she was flat and impersonal.

The film's spectacular introduction takes place in a small diner in upstate New York: a fight breaks out between secret agent Mallory Kane (Carano) and her ex co-worker Henry (Channing Tatum). A random kid (Michael Angarano) steps in to intervene on Mallory's behalf, and they escape, using the kid's car to get away. During the drive, Mallory explains and the movie employs flashbacks to reveal the story: a mission in Barcelona went south, so she's teamed with a new agent (Michael Fassbender) in Dublin. Things go further south, and Mallory takes it upon herself to find out who set her up and why, with the bureaucracy's (Michael Douglas and Ewan McGregor) motivations becoming increasingly murky thanks to their ties to a shady political type (Antonio Banderas). Catching back up to the current timeline, Mallory spends the rest of the movie working out and executing her plan to find the truth through any means necessary: which, thankfully for action fans, means kicking some serious ass along the way.

The story, as you can probably tell, is fairly straightforward. But it's not as much about the plot as the style, which is 100% Soderbergh in every way. Lighting, mood, tone, visuals - he applies his trademark to this genre the same as he did with the world virus genre earlier this year in Contagion, and the effect is similar here. Neither film would be considered the best in its respective genre, but there's something comforting in the knowledge of having a Soderbergh effort mixed in with the blandness of many other attempts. The director also continues his great collaboration with composers who create fantastic pieces that perfectly match the vibe of his films. In Haywire, David Holmes' bossa nova score is full of horns and brass - it's big band with an attitude. There are extended sequences in the film that are dialogue-free and rely on the score and the occasional muted sound effect to propel the story (a wise filmmaking decision, considering the limitations of the lead actress).

The action is often shot in long takes and brutally close confinement, leaving the actors to perform their own fights mostly without the aid of stuntmen. There are many times it appears as if they are actually being violently hit in the face, proof of the excellent Bourne-esque fight choreography. It's in these moments, as one may imagine, that Carano's true talent is demonstrated. She's quick, efficient, and powerful, and her deft movements and handsome beauty make it easy to understand Soderbergh's desire to set her as the star of her own action film. 

Haywire is a departure from more heady subject matter for the director, but I believe it's a justified jaunt into unfamiliar territory. Gina Carano's star power is yet to be measured, but even if she isn't the most effective actress, it's still a pleasure to watch a director with so much craftsmanship put these pieces together to add to the genre. Just don't count on a sequel. Until next time...