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Saturday, June 30, 2012

Ted Review - by Joshua Handler

Ted Review
by Joshua Handler
2012, 106 mintues
Rated R for crude and sexual content, pervasive language, and some drug use

If there was ever a movie that was not supposed to be good as good as it is, this was the one.  But, alas, it was quite good and really funny.  Ted marks the feature film debut of Seth MacFarlane, best known for his hit television show, "Family Guy".  It is about a boy who wishes that his teddy bear would come to life.  The next morning, the bear is alive, and thirty years later, he is a pot-smoking, foul-mouthed, womanizer.  The boy grows up to be a man who is played by Mark Wahlberg.

The jokes in this movie are very hit-or-miss, but the hits far outnumber the misses.  There is something in this movie to offend just about everyone.  There are jokes about religion, ethnic/cultural background, body weight, mental disabilities, and everything in between.  Also, a lot of the jokes revolve around pop culture references from everywhere from the '80s to the present.  If you are offended by this kind of humor or crude sexual humor, stay far away.  If you can laugh at it, as I can, go.

The pop culture references are hysterical.  Many will go over the heads of those too young or unfamiliar with the eras that are referenced, but those that do get the jokes will laugh.  The humor style is in-your-face and relentless, just as "Family Guy" is, and that is the reason why I truly enjoyed what MacFarlane presented here.  

Though many of the jokes may be crude and nasty, there is a substantial amount of heart put in this film.  This story seemed to be very close to MacFarlane's heart and in the end, he really seems to care for his characters.  He wants to show that some people are really kids at heart, and that is just fine as long as you can balance it with having a productive adult life too.  This story is, at the core, the story of a man who learns to grow up, albeit at a much older age.  It will connect to the teenager inside everyone.

The cast is universally great and are really good sports to be playing along with something like this.  Mark Wahlberg really does a good job at being loose, funny, and unafraid to make a fool of himself.  He gives this movie his all and makes the most of talking to a stuffed animal.  Mila Kunis, a "Family Guy" cast member, plays Wahlberg's girlfriend and is well-cast too.  MacFarlane voices Ted.  He essentially uses the Peter Griffin voice from "Family Guy", but uses it to great effect.  Then come the cameos.  There are cameos from so many actors/entertainers (I won't spoil who they are) and it is very fun to see them playing along.  Everyone looks as if they are having fun, and that made the movie that much more enjoyable to me.

The visual effects are solid too.  Ted is completely computer-generated and he never looks anything less than real.

Overall, Ted is a very good movie with ample laughs and a big heart.  If you love "Family Guy", run to the theater.  If not, stay far away.


Friday, June 29, 2012

Safety Not Guaranteed Review - by Joshua Handler

Safety Not Guaranteed Review
by Joshua Handler
2012, 86 minutes
Rated R for language including some sexual references

It is sad that independent films don't get more attention.  They are typically made for nothing, but contain more heart and story in 90 minutes than a big-budget one does in 150 minutes.  Safety Not Guaranteed is a prime example of this.  It has not done well at the box office, but is better than 95% of everything else out.  Safety Not Guaranteed is about a group of writers from a magazine that go to investigate the following ad (which was based on a real one): "Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed."  

Winner of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, it is evident why Safety Not Guaranteed won.  It takes a 36-word ad and turns it into a heartfelt and, during some scenes, moving movie.  This film shows that what is on the outside isn't everything and that people should simply live life to the fullest.  Each character finds a way to happiness, whether it be through love or through breaking out of their shell.  This simple message is such a powerful one and takes the film to the next level.

The first half of the film is straight comedy with witty dialogue and quirky characters.  But, the second half gets much more serious as it explores the characters more.  Normally, tonal shifts such as this do not work as the film feels uneven, but this one somehow pulls it off.  It is not a sudden shift and the seriousness really works well with the film as the message comes out.

The second half of the film is also where much of Safety Not Guaranteed's heart comes from.  The moving exploration of the characters and the honesty with which the actors portray them really shines.  Every character seems lovingly written.  While the cast is all great, Mark Duplass really stood out as Kenneth, the man who put the ad in the newspaper.  He has a really charming and likable presence onscreen and I really felt like I wanted to know him.  One scene that really stood out to me with him was one where Kenneth and Darius (Aubrey Plaza), one of the reporters, are sitting in the woods by a fire and he sings her a raw, emotional song.  This scene was beautifully done as it was touching and a nice break from the comedy that preceded it.

I cannot really say anything negative about this film.  The reason why I cannot award it my highest rating is that it really is not an enriching viewing experience for me and simply didn't floor me.  It was a funny, entertaining movie that was very clever; nothing more, nothing less.

Overall, I would highly recommend viewing Safety Not Guaranteed.  It is charming, funny, and heartfelt.  In a time when movies cost millions and rely on explosions and potty humor (I have nothing against either if used correctly), this is a nice breath of fresh air.  This movie will appeal to both mainstream and art house audiences and I sincerely hope that it succeeds.


Friday, June 22, 2012

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World Review - by Joshua Handler

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World Review 
2012, 100 minutes
Rated R for language including sexual references, some drug use, and brief violence

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is a good, clever film that is worth seeing, if you like movies of its kind.  It follows a man, Dodge (Steve Carrell), who befriends a young woman, Penny (Keira Knightly), as the world is about to end.  Together they take a road trip to visit some loved ones to be with them for the end.

This film marks the directorial debut of Lorene Scafaria (writer of Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist) and is a solid debut.  It has a nice mix of comedy, romance, and drama, but something is missing.  I cannot put my finger on it, but something kept it from being a really good or great film.  I think I wished that it had more of a "take advantage of life and go live it" message and more of a developed touching love story.  While bits of both are there, they should have been much stronger.  Also, the movie seemed to get distracted with different side characters and weird occurrences.  While some were very funny and necessary, some just detract from the movie and take running time up that could have been dedicated to, such as a scene (shown in the trailer) where Dodge and Penny are pulled over by a cop and briefly go to jail.  While this scene is funny, there is no reason why it should take up time that could be dedicated to the love story or whatever else.

That aside, there are many clever moments in the film.  Much of what makes them funny is the cast.  Steve Carrell and Keira Knightly do excellent jobs here.  They have very believable chemistry and they fit perfectly in their parts.  The supporting cast is also excellent, particularly Patton Oswalt (Young Adult, Ratatouille) as a drunk party guest.

In addition to the acting, the existing love story is very touching and bittersweet.  Writer/director Scafaria does very well at making the audience like the main characters and uses some very moving scenes to give the movie some heart.   

Overall, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is not perfect, but recommended if you like your films a little strange.  It is sweet, funny and sad and will not necessarily make your day happier, but will be nice to watch nonetheless.


Sunday, June 17, 2012

Caligula Review - by Joshua Handler

Caligula (Uncut and Unrated) Review
1979, 156 minutes
Not Rated (if rated, NC-17)

This review is part of a series of extreme pieces of cinema that I believe are either essential or interesting.

Caligula fits the "interesting" part of the statement above.  It is one film that I watched in multiple parts.  That was probably the best way to view it because it is truly terrible.  Caligula is one of the top 10 worst films I have ever seen, but it is absolutely worth viewing because it is a landmark film.  If there ever was a film that walked the line between art and porn, this is the one.  Caligula follows the life of the notorious Roman emperor, Caligula, who committed every crime and had every perversion.

Caligula has a fascinating back story behind it.  I will not tell the whole thing, but I will tell you that this started as a project directed by Tinto Brass and written by Gore Vidal that starred Malcolm McDowell, Teresa Ann Savoy, Helen Mirren, John Gielgud, and Peter O'Toole that was financed by Penthouse's Bob Guccione.  Production got out of control and Guccione eventually fired Brass and hired his friend Giancarlo Lui to shoot hardcore pornographic footage to splice into the movie.  By the time the film premiered, most of the original people involved with the production distanced themselves from it.

When released, Caligula was slammed by critics.  If you ever look up lists of the most controversial films ever made, this one is bound to be on there.  On top of the terrible quality of the production, the imagery is disturbingly violent and distastefully sexual (if you want a tastefully (or at least smartly) sexual film, click on this link to my review of In the Realm of the Senses:

Now, I will attempt to review this garbage.  First off, the acting is atrocious.  Even with some of the finest actors ever to act on the silver screen, the acting is beyond bad.  The sets are terrible (some of them look like they are out of a school play) and the camerawork has some random zooms and weird angles.  Also, the inserted shots of naked bodies gets very distracting.

The sex scenes are another huge problem.  They are long and explicit and come out of nowhere.  I am not one to call a movie out on sex (as you may have noticed from some of the other sexually graphic films in this series), but there must (somewhat) be a purpose.  The sex here is abundant and just distasteful.

The story is a little history (how accurate it is, I don't know) mixed in with a lot of trash.  Imagine that for 156 minutes.  It is painful to sit through because it is boring which is one word that should not describe a film about such a colorful subject.  The debauchery becomes so redundant that it just becomes boring.

Though everything is awful about this film, the reason why it is included in this series is because it is like Pink Flamingos in that it was a landmark film.  It used A-list actors in what is essentially a near-porno and caused controversy like no other.  It (as mentioned earlier) walks the line between art and porn.  However, where Pink Flamingos is different and better is that it knows that it is terrible and is hilarious because of it, whereas Caligula tries to be good, but fails miserably.  All of that said, it is worth seeing if only for the curiosity factor.

Overall, Caligula is a mess.  A pure mess.  It is long, nasty, and notorious, but worth seeing to say that you have seen it and because it is an important film.


Saturday, June 16, 2012

Irreversible Review (Re-post)

Irreversible Review (Re-post)
2002, 97 minutes, Not Rated (If rated, NC-17)
by Joshua Handler

This review is part of a series of extreme, but highly recommended pieces of cinema that I believe are either essential or interesting.

Irreversible is a 2002 French film starring Monica Bellucci, Vincent Cassel, and Albert Dupontel and directed by Gaspar Noe.  This film is told in reverse order and is about a man getting revenge on the person who raped and beat his girlfriend.  What ensues after the murder and rape is what happened before.  If you've seen Memento, this film is very similar in structure.  A fascinating fact about this film is that every scene is a single take (though this is done using a computer combining many shots together) and all of the dialogue is improvised.  Many scenes use cinema verite (AKA "shaky camera") and low frequency sound which supposedly can cause vertigo and nausea. 

Now as fascinating as the style of Irreversible is, it is still widely known as one of the most disturbing films ever made.  It provoked 200 of the 2400 people to walk out of the Cannes Film Festival screening and made three people pass out.  The film is disturbing due to an especially brutal murder scene at the beginning and a single take, stationary camera, nine-minute rape and beating sequence in the middle of the film that was very hard to watch.  Now after hearing these details, one might ask, why the hell would anyone watch this film?  The answer is because Noe uses such sensitivity and tells such a good story, that the rape and violence are not exploitation, but just the opposite.  Without giving away too much, the murder at the beginning is shown to be an act of folly later on, thus showing the awful nature of violence.  The rape scene is also justified as it is not sexualized and what follows shows the horrifying nature of it, thus not justifying the act in the least bit.  

Towards the beginning of the story (the end of the movie), everything is quiet and peaceful and I realized how sad and moved I was knowing what was in store for the characters later.  Bellucci and Cassel built such great characters that I really felt for them by the end of the film.  They accomplished this so well that I felt a subtle wave of emotion come over me at the end that I did not realize was there from a while back.

One final note, Monica Bellucci's performance is one of the bravest of all time.  Not only does she make her character real, but she endures a horrifying rape scene and achieves an eerie realism.  

Overall, this film was a thought-provoking and fascinating film that really moved me.  It was not quite as disturbing as many have said, but still was very rough.  Unless you can handle a lot in your films, do not go near this film.

-Joshua Handler

Thursday, June 14, 2012

A Serbian Film Review

A Serbian Film Review
by Joshua Handler
2011, 104 minutes
Rated NC-17 for extreme aberrant sexual and violent content including explicit dialogue
(This rating only applies to the cut version.  The version reviewed is unrated and uncut.)

This review is part of a series of extreme, but highly recommended pieces of cinema that I believe are either essential or interesting.

A Serbian Film is the most controversial film to be released in years and has had the most jaded viewers running for the exits and wishing they would "un-watch" it while screening it at film festivals.  It was passed with dozens of cuts in Britain and is banned in multiple countries.  The film follows Milos (Srdjan Todorovic), a retired porn star, who is asked by a director, Vukmir (Sergej Trifunovic), to star in a porn film of which Milos knows nothing.  In return, Milos would be paid enough so that he will never have to worry about money again.  However, it is only when Milos gets on set that he sees that the film he is starring in is a snuff film.  This film contains (simulated) scenes of murder, rape, incest, pedophilia, necrophilia, and near-porn.  Bottom line, the buzz out of the film festivals was correct.  Though I did not see this in one sitting, the impact wasn't blunted.  This is one out-of-control film that is truly the most disturbing thing I've ever seen.  It is so disturbing that it makes everything else look like Bambi.  However, it is, as the filmmakers point out, a commentary on life in Serbia.  While this may be a bit of a stretch, I would have a hard time not believing this.  This slightly mitigates the extreme content.

The funny part about A Serbian Film is that it is extremely well-made and obviously well thought-over.  The acting is phenomenal, the writing top-notch, and the camerawork is beautiful and crisp.  However, this is all balanced against some of the most brutal scenes of sexual violence that have ever been put on film.  The images are graphic and leave nothing to the imagination.  Some are even stomach-churning.  One scene towards the middle of the film had me nearly covering my eyes.  I do not want to divulge into all of the gory (pun intended) details as seeing this film with no prior knowledge of its content would be ideal.

According to "The Guardian",  director Srdjan Spasojevic insists that "This (film) is a diary of our own molestation by the Serbian government. It's about the monolithic power of leaders who hypnotise you to do things you don't want to do."  Spasojevic hammers this point home.  He may go way past where he should have in making this point, but if this indeed is the point that drove him to make the film, he accomplished his task brilliantly.  It is interesting to note how this film and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover are both allegorical films using extreme content for what governments are doing to their people.

In order to have a very good, even brilliant extreme film, there must be some reason for it existing.  If it is nasty to be nasty, then what is the point (Pink Flamingos aside)?  By the end of A Serbian Film, I cared for Milos and was emotionally attached.  Spasojevic starts the film calmly and carefully cranks up the extreme content.  This is how I got attached to it and cared.  When the final scene came, I was devastated.  That is good filmmaking.

Overall, A Serbian Film is not for the faint-hearted.  It is ruthless and insane, but it serves a purpose and is an excellent piece of filmmaking.


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover Review

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover Review
by Joshua Handler
1989, 124 minutes
Rated NC-17

This review is part of a series of extreme, but highly recommended pieces of cinema that I believe are either essential or interesting.

Peter Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover is a masterpiece.  It is one of those films that will leave you laughing, gasping, and puking all at once, and is one of my personal favorite films.  It follows a disgusting, vile man, Albert Spica (Michael Gambon in a career-best performance), who opens a restaurant.  Every night, he makes a fool of himself and abuses everyone around him, especially his quiet and kind wife, Georgina (Helen Mirren).  However, when Georgina begins an affair with a customer in the restaurant (Alan Howard), things get "slightly" out-of-hand.

Many have said that this movie is an allegory for Margaret Thatcher's England.  This has never officially been stated by the filmmakers, but it is certainly plausible.  And, it is definitely not a flattering portrait of that period.  The character of Spica is used as a Thatcher-like character who benefits at everyone else's expense, particularly his "friends" and the kitchen staff (most likely representing the working class).  This is one scathing and sly allegory that is even more smart because it is never painfully obvious and hardly shows anything outside of the restaurant indicating that this film could take place anytime, anyplace.  

I really love this film for so many reasons other than the allegorical aspect.  It is not cute or cuddly like many other traditional "favorite" films.  The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover is a crazy experience, and I love it all the more because of that.  The acting by the entire cast is superb.  Michael Gambon is obviously the stand-out because he has such a robust character to play and has such a monstrous presence on the screen.  Mirren is great as his counterpart as she is reserved, polite, and pleasant.  To watch the two of them together is very entertaining and never less than completely believable.  

The camerawork of this film is truly amazing.  The tracking shots following the characters moving around the restaurant and through the different doors between the rooms are interesting because they give the film a very smooth feel.  Everything in it is very stylized from the cinematography down to the characters.  

The set design is a marvel using bright, vivid colors.  The main dining room is covered in red and classic-style paintings, giving the film a lush feel.  Michael Nyman's pounding score is crucial to the atmosphere of the film lending a classical feel to match the scenery.  It makes the film feel like a renowned, old play.  Without one of the aesthetic elements, whether it be the score, scenery, or cinematography, the film would not be the same. You will see what I mean when you view this film.

Finally, I will discuss what has earned this film an NC-17 rating and a lot of controversy.  The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover has numerous fairly graphic sex scenes and many other scenes featuring disturbing violence.  I will not elaborate on the violence as it is all essential to the movie, and if I discuss it, I would spoil it.  What I can say is this: it is some of the most disturbing, absurd, and nauseating violence (the finale epitomizes the word "nauseating") put on film and should be viewed at your own risk.

Overall, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, is simply a very unique, clever, and rich film that is entertaining and disturbing at the same time.  It is one of the more extreme art-house films out there, but is all the better for it.  The extremities are what make the film unique and are what give it much of its power.


Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Pink Flamingos Review

Pink Flamingos Review
by Joshua Handler
1972, 93 minutes
Rated NC-17 for a wide range of perversions in explicit detail

Starring Divine, Edith Massey, David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce and Danny Mills, Pink Flamingos is John Waters' most notorious film and is the most disgusting film that I have ever seen (and I have seen some nasty films).  Can you imagine a film that features sex involving chickens, unsimulated coprophagia, cannibalism, and furniture-licking?  Well, if you can, then this is that film.  And, this does not even scratch the tip of the iceberg!  

Pink Flamingos follows Babs Johnson, a woman (Divine, a transvestite) who is hell-bent on being "the filthiest person alive".  But, another couple, the Marbles (David Lochary and Mary Vivian Pearce), try to take the title away.  

When originally released, this film garnered much press and eventually found success on the midnight film circuit (probably one of the first to do so) where it continues to be a "classic" of sorts today.  It truly is a movie to be shown at midnight because this movie never should have seen the light of day.  However, it did, and has had a huge influence on film.

Made for $10,000 and easily making it back, Pink Flamingos was the first hit of John Waters' "trash" films and was one of the first to push the limits that it did.  It pushed the limits so far that I do not think that anything has rivaled, or for that matter will rival, this movie.  It signaled the "talent" of a new director that would have a very successful career in making campy films about Baltimore.  While the NC-17-rated Female Trouble and the hilarious Polyester are definitely fun, Pink Flamingos is, for better or for worse, John Waters' greatest achievement.

This film is an achievement not in that it is by any means good, or even remotely close to fair, but that it is so crazy, and dare I say, fun?  Yes, there is a scene of real animal killing, but the rest of the movie is so amusing and gross that it is not necessarily made up for, but is slightly mitigated.  John Waters pours all of his dirty heart and soul into this film and doesn't hold back.  Just when you think "he won't go there," he does and goes one step further.  I can't tell whether John Waters is a pervert for thinking of this or is a genius.  You can decide that for yourself.

Divine is perfect for the role of Babs Johnson.  She is demented and a terrible actress, but fits in this role.  And, she is willing to do anything.  The acting from the other actors is so bad that it can't even be evaluated.  However, the terrible acting adds to the midnight-movie feel.  

The production values make a typical grindhouse film look great, and the camerawork is so bad that a beginning filmmaker could have done better.  However, all of these terrible aspects of the film only make it that much funnier.  I cannot tell why this movie is funny.  Is it the dialogue?  The acting?  Or the fact that it is so crazy that you must laugh at it?

Whatever it is, Pink Flamingos is the movie to beat for pure sickness.  SawHostel, and whatever else combined cannot even equal the depravity and sickness of this movie.  And, it is all real.  Watch this movie at your own risk.  I am not recommending that you do or do not watch this.  I will say, however, that Pink Flamingos is a landmark in film history and should be seen if you are up for it.  

I cannot give this film a star rating.  This is a movie that I would hesitate giving someone to watch on a dare.  It is in a league of its own and cannot be judged.

Unable to give a star rating.

Don't Look Now Review

Don't Look Now Review
by Joshua Handler
1973, 110 minutes
Rated R

Don't Look Now is a movie that is probably best appreciated when viewed more than once.  It was a success upon its release nearly 40 years ago, and its reputation has only grown since then.  The film, directed by Nicolas Roeg (Walkabout, The Man Who Fell to Earth), is truly fascinating and would unfortunately never be made now (for reasons that I will discuss later in this review).  

Don't Look Now follows a couple (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie who are both very good) who travel to Venice after the accidental death of their young daughter.  However, when they arrive, the husband begins to see visions of her.  

This movie is not a straight-up horror movie, but more of a thriller.  Many have said that it is also a drama about grief which I completely agree with.  It shows the effects of grief on a person and the obsession that takes over because of it.  Director Roeg shows us this, rather than telling us.  He uses dialogue to move the story along, but uses the visuals to play with the viewer.  His use of cutting the past with the present and keeping the action claustrophobic is how he made me feel what the characters were feeling.  Roeg uses Venice to great effect as the labyrinthine structure of the city adds to the claustrophobia.  The narrow streets allow for little room to breathe (and move).  The confusion caused by the editing and the paranoia and claustrophobia caused by the camerawork and setting show how visuals sometimes can be more important than words.

This is a movie that will not make complete sense until the very end.  Though the first chunk is very good [and has one of the most beautiful and (in)famous sex scenes ever filmed], it seems to be going nowhere up until the final stunning and frightening scene that ties the whole movie together.  If you can guess it, let me know.  This one scene was so brilliant that I was daring enough to put this on my "greatest films ever" list.  

I wrote earlier in this review that this film could not have been made now.  This is why.  When people go to see a thriller, they expect action, suspense and gore to be happening every second of the movie.  They are never able to savor the mood, or when a film does turn out to be a mixing of genres, they dislike it and ask for their money back (Drive comes to mind in this case).  In the 1970s, mood and story were everything.  Did Taxi Driver have constant shoot-outs and sex scenes?  No.  If it had been made now, it would have.  But Taxi Driver relied on so much more than lurid material (it did have its fair share, however).  It relied on character development and the gritty feel of New York City in the 1970s.  Films like Taxi Driver's success and brilliance came as much from their cities as their actors and scripts.  Now, the grit and mood are taken out, and this is why Don't Look Now would never have been made now in its current form.

Overall, Don't Look Now is a masterpiece that has stood the test of time.  It has unfortunately been largely forgotten, but should be viewed.  It is everything that is great about '70s cinema and certainly has the potential to be loved again now.


Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Intouchables Review

The Intouchables Review
by Joshua Handler
2012, 112 minutes
Rated R for language and some drug use

The Intouchables has been a massive worldwide success bringing in just over $345 million worldwide.  It is a good film, not even close to a great one, that has some fantastic performances, but has an over reliance on stereotypes and light humor.

This film has a very good, and true, story to tell.  It just does not approach it in an appropriate way.  It tells the story of a man (François Cluzet), Philippe, who is paralyzed from the neck down who hires a Senegalese man, Driss (Omar Sy), to be his caretaker.  After a while, they become close friends.  The first half of the film focuses on stereotypes of poor African immigrants, and light, cheap comedy.  This may work like a charm in France, the country of this film's origin, but here in America, it is offensive and not even close to funny.  This is a different kind of offensive than films like Borat because the stereotypes are not played as satire and are used as part of the character of Driss.  However, they are not meant as mean. What would have worked better would have been a more subtly comedic approach with more realistic characters, and more of a balance of drama and comedy. 

The second half of The Intouchables works way better than the first half as it is much more serious, but still comedic, and very touching.  The ending is a bit abrupt, but the final scene was beautiful and showed me how truly great this film could have been had it kept with the tone of that scene.

The performances in this film are all great.  François Cluzet has perfect comedic timing with deadpan delivery.  He also is genuine and warm as Philippe and is magnetic every time that he is on screen.  Omar Sy delivers a lively and energetic performance and works wonders with the sometimes mediocre material he was given.

I can completely see why the world has fallen for The Intouchables.  It aims to please everyone with a predictable story with likable characters and a happy ending.  I love a feel-good movie, but it must set the right tone.  This one doesn't for a substantial portion of it, and that is why I did not respond as positively as many others have.

Overall, The Intouchables is a good film, nothing more, nothing less.  It is worth seeing if you have already seen all of the other great films out or just need a good pick-me-up.


Friday, June 8, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: A Reevaluation

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: A Reevaluation
by Joshua Handler
2011, 128 minutes
Rated R for violence, some sexuality/nudity, and language

I first encountered Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy back in December when it was first released.  I had incredibly high expectations, only to have them shattered.  When I came out of the film, I was incredibly confused and unsatisfied.  I had not understood the film due to the immense amount of twists, subtle clues, and characters.  My dad recently rented the film out of curiosity due to the fact that everyone I know did not understand the film.  I came in 15 minutes into the film laughing that he was going to attempt to understand it.  However, after a time, I felt myself being drawn in more and more.  After working through the film with my dad, I realized that the full plot was there, but I just had to start thinking like a spy to understand it.

The genius of the film lies in the screenplay by husband-and-wife team Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan who had a daunting task of adapting what is supposedly a very dense and complicated book into a two-hour film.  They make the film into a dense coil of secrets, betrayals, and lies with triple crosses and a dozen characters with many back stories.  They made my dad and I think like spies.  If you blink, you may miss one of the many subtle, but important glances or clues left by one of the spies.  The fact that  the writers were able to incorporate these little details into such a dense story is mind-blowing.

Working with O'Connor and Staughan was director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) who with superb visual flair and tight control over the film, translates the words brilliantly to the screen with his talented cast.  He, with cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema and composer Alberto Iglesias (one of my personal favorites especially for his work with Pedro Almodóvar), create an atmosphere of intrigue and mystery.  Van Hoytema uses the dreariness of London to full effect to create an atmosphere of darkness and tragedy and Iglesias uses his Oscar-nominated score to make the audience feel the paranoia and suspicion that all of the spies feel.

One aspect of the film that I truly commend Alfredson, John le Carré (the book's author), and the crew for is that they never make spying look like fun as the James Bond films (and nearly every other spy film) do.    Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a slow-burn with much of the film's running time taken up by conversations that don't even pertain to the main mystery, but rather to character development.  This film shows what spying is like: waiting, with some moments of suspense and excitement.

The finishing touch on all of the layers of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the cast.  The cast boasts the very best actors that Britain has to offer: Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Mark Strong, and Ciarán Hinds.  All are fantastic and completely believable in their roles, but the Oscar-nominated Gary Oldman steals the show as retired spy George Smiley who is brought back into The Circus (the movie's name for MI6) to find what may be a mole.  Oldman embodies Smiley completely.  The genius of Oldman in this film is that he has very little expression on his face, but I could see into his character and just glimpse the years of tragedy and mystery behind it.  An entire film could be dedicated to Smiley's past jobs with The Circus.  Gary Oldman is a very versatile actor playing such varied roles as Jim Gordon in The Dark Knight and Sirius Black in the Harry Potter films.  However great he was in those films, he ups his game for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in a performance that will probably be considered one of his finest in the years to come.

Overall, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is one of the few films that is not meant to be viewed in the theater, but rather one that should be viewed in the home with subtitles and the ability to pause the film and discuss with the person who you are viewing with.  It is a truly brilliant film that is absolutely worth watching, but will potentially be one that may not all set in with one one viewing.

Original rating: 2/4
Revised rating: 4/4

We Need to Talk About Kevin Review - by Joshua Handler

We Need to Talk About Kevin Review
by Joshua Handler
2011. 112 minutes
Rated R for disturbing violence and behavior, sexuality and language 

We Need to Talk About Kevin is one of the best of 2011 and director Lynne Ramsay and star Tilda Swinton got completely snubbed by the Oscars. Based on a book, We Need to Talk About Kevin follows Eva, a woman who raises a difficult child, Kevin, and how her hatred for him and his hatred for her spiral out of control, literally driving Eva to insanity.  

Director Lynne Ramsay uses this film as art, not entertainment (I dare you to find any recent release that is more unnerving) and puts a distinct stamp on the film.  Her use of surreal imagery and extensive use of blood-red gives the film an especially unnerving air. The opening of the film is a shot of an open bedroom window that leads to a scene of Eva partaking in La Tomatina, a large Spanish tomato fight. The red color of the tomato covers and consumes her, foreshadowing what is to come. It is never explained if this is a dream or something that happened in the past, but a scene such as this epitomizes Ramsay's directorial stamp. What follows this scene is Eva in the present day after some terrible event (we do not know what until later) has happened. The film then cuts back and forth effortlessly between Kevin's childhood and the present day revealing what led to that which is hinted at earlier. 

The depiction of Eva's dive into insanity is portrayed brilliantly by Tilda Swinton in a one of her best roles.  Her coldness (she tells Kevin that she would rather be in Paris than playing with him) and hatred toward her son make us hate her and Swinton does a masterful job portraying that.  As despicable as she is, I almost felt crushed by how unhappy she is.  I don't know why I cared for her, but I truly did.  That is amazing acting.

Overall, We Need to Talk About Kevin is extraordinary, one that completely unnerved me by the end.  I have seen such extreme films as A Serbian Film and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, but this film did something different: it immersed the horror and never let its hold go.  Brilliant.


Prometheus Review - by Joshua Handler

Prometheus Review
by Joshua Handler
2012, 124 minutes
Rated R for sci-fi violence including some intense images and for some language

Prometheus lives up to its hype.  It is an intelligent, visually impressive, and well-acted piece from master director Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator).  This is truly a visionary piece that had huge ambition, but it may not be the film that you may have expected.  For some, that may be a great thing, for some others, it may not.

Prometheus is a sort-of prequel to Alien, but has its own characters and story.  It follows a group of scientists who, after discovering some ancient cave paintings, travel to the far edges of space to visit a planet that may give them the answer as to where humans came from.  What they find there is for you to find out.

The film raises questions of humanities' origins, whether or not religion is valid, and many other deep questions.  It does not answer these questions, but more throws them out as food for thought which was enough for me.  Having answers is not everything.  Did A Separation need clear-cut answers?  Did the ending of Inception need a perfectly unambiguous conclusion?  Of course not!  Inception was one of the most hotly debated films when it came out and A Separation's genius was that it was ambiguous.  I don't want to discuss the details of how and why these questions are raised so as not to spoil the film.  I enjoyed thinking about the questions raised in Prometheus, something that most modern audiences don't seem to like to do anymore.

Ridley Scott has made some fascinating films in the past, some are near-perfect masterpieces.  This film is not a masterpiece, but it definitely an excellent one.  Scott along with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski have craft some stunning images that awed me.  The visual effects are meshed seamlessly with the live action and hardly ever look fake.  The world of the alien planet that the scientists travel to looks eerily real, even though we all know that it is not.  The budget for this film was around $100 million less than The Avengers, but has equally as good effects, if not better.

The acting, particularly by Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender, is superb.  Noomi Rapace plays Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, one of the head scientists, with a particular intensity that makes some scenes nearly unbearable to watch, and Michael Fassbender is scarily believable as the android David.  He speaks exactly like a robot and is never any less than believable.  Much of the time, sci-fi films are brought down by terrible acting, but that is not the case here.

As mentioned before, this film is not for gore-hungry action fans.  It is more of an intellectual (for the first 2/3) and dialogue and visuals-driven drama, than a horror or action film.  It does have some thrilling sequences and some moments of gore, but is nowhere near as scary or gory as other sci-fi films like Alien.

Overall, Prometheus is a must-see film with large ambition, solid acting, top-notch visuals, and fascinating  ideas.  I was never bored and was taken for a very fun ride from a director who knows how to deliver.


Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom Review

Moonrise Kingdom Review
2012, 94 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sexual content and smoking

Moonrise Kingdom is by far this year's best film and Wes Anderson's best.  It is as if Anderson took a preteen's worldview and put it on film.  Everything is very simple with vibrant colors and is as if it is out of a dream or a storybook.  The film follows two young adults who escape their town in 1965 and have various search parties after them.  The escapees, Sam and Suzy (Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward), are madly in love and they will do anything to stay together.

Anderson's films have always had an artificial and charming quality about them that almost always wins me over.  The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is a prime example of this.  It looks as if it popped right out of a '60s ocean documentary for kids.  Fantastic Mr. Fox is another example of this.  It is extremely stylized and looks like it is made of children's toys (and I mean that in the best way possible).  However, though his films may have superior wit and atmosphere, the stories fall apart at the end or the dialogue tries just a touch too hard to be witty.  The Royal Tenenbaums is the closest that Anderson comes to meshing his wit, story, and visuals perfectly (and even in that, the story gets too chaotic and falls apart towards the end).  With Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson has combined the elements perfectly to make what is the best of his films.

The story of Moonrise Kingdom has many references to Peter Pan which give the film another dimension and add to the magic of it.  Sam and Suzy seem to want to escape to live life together without a care in the world.  They don't think of getting older or any logistical details as Peter Pan doesn't.  Peter Pan loves Wendy and takes her to Neverland to stay with him and love him forever, not thinking about the fact that she has a life back in London and parents.  At the preteen age, we as human beings don't think of later life or anything else but that which is happening then and there.  Sam and Suzy epitomize this mentality.  The setting of the film, New Penzance Island (Penzance could be a reference to The Pirates of Penzance which in itself may be a Pan reference with both pertaining to pirates), looks like Neverland with different distinct areas with creative names.  Also, in another sweet, but subtle reference to Peter Pan, Suzy reads the Khaki Scouts (the group that Sam ran away from that is like the Boy Scouts) a fantasy story, just as Wendy does for the Lost Boys in Peter Pan.  I found this reference to simply be a sweet and fun poke at Pan.

The references to Peter Pan and the storybook feel of the film really connected to me.  They are so different from the bland mainstream films that are made and "gritty realism" that so many directors try to infuse their films with currently.  While I love some hardcore realism, mainstream directors try to pass everything off now as gritty realism and fail miserably and that is precisely why I loved Moonrise Kingdom's feel.  It was a true escape from what life is like and was like a portal into a dream where life is straightforward, the settings are bright and beautiful, and emotions and feelings are not complicated, just black and white.

In Moonrise Kingdom, screenwriters Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola give the characters dialogue that is honest and to-the-point.  This style of dialogue adds to the artificiality of the film.  People only talk this way in a children's story.  And that is what children like to hear and seem to hear.  The actors, Gilman, Hayward, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, and Jason Schwartzman do a great job at giving Anderson and Coppola's dialogue the delivery it needs: deadpan.  The delivery is spot-on.

Another aspect where Anderson really works wonders is in the details of the film.  In one scene, Sam and Suzy dance together for the first time, but when they dance, they are standing as far away as possible while still holding each other showing the awkwardness of their romance.  Also, Anderson shoots Moonrise as if it was a '70s film with stationary shots and the occasional overdramatic zoom.  This adds to the feel of the film and some of the humor.

Overall, Moonrise Kingdom is a total triumph for Wes Anderson.  He keeps a tight control on his story and puts all of his signature elements together to make a stunning film.  This film is a must-see to remember above all that childhood is a time that should be cherished.

-Joshua Handler

Headhunters Quick Review

Headhunters Quick Review
2012, 100 minutes
Rated R for bloody violence including some grisly images, strong sexual content and nudity

This is another film that you may need to do some searching for, but if you find it, you won't regret paying $10 and seeing it.  It follows a corporate headhunter who, when he crosses the path of a former mercenary, is hunted.  This film has gotten stellar reviews and is based on the novel by Jo Nesbø, but has not been advertised at all.  The violence in this film is very bloody and there is an incredible amount of sex.  Most films rely completely on these as ways to entertain the audience, but this film uses them the right way: as a complement to the story.  The story twists and turns (the dialogue is very witty) and with the very talented actors, a good score, interesting characters, and solid camerawork, the film held my interest the whole time.  And, I had fun.  Director Morten Tyldum keeps tight control over the film and with this, he inserts bits of dark humor and energy.  I had a very good time sitting through Headhunters and really don't have any complaints with it.  It definitely will appeal to the general public as it is not arty, but most will not see it.  An English-language remake is planned, but do yourself a favor, see this one.

-Joshua Handler

Sound of My Voice Review

Sound of My Voice Quick Review
2012, 85 minutes
Rated R for language including some sexual references, and brief drug use

This is one bizarre movie, but a very good one.  It follows two documentary filmmakers who decide to infiltrate a cult led by Maggie (Brit Marling), a woman who claims she is from the future.  Gradually the filmmakers get sucked in.  This is the first film by director Zal Batmangalij and with great hand-held camerawork and a talented cast, he completely succeeds in making the audience feel the paranoia and intrigue that go along with being in a cult.  Brit Marling, however, is one of the biggest draws to this movie.  She co-wrote and acted in this.  After premiering the outstanding Another Earth at Sundance along with this, she has proven her versatility and dramatic depth.  As Maggie, she has a magnetic presence that makes the film that much more frightening.  Overall, Sound of My Voice may be one movie that you may need to search for, but if you do, it will be worth it.  If anything, the ending will have you talking for a while after the credits roll.

-Joshua Handler