Search Film Reviews

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Suspiria Review


Anchor Bay
Suspiria Review
1977, 99 minutes
Rated R

This is a superior example of horror.  Dario Argento did not earn his reputation as a horror master from nothing.  Suspiria follows a young woman, Suzie (Jessica Harper), who goes to a prestigious European ballet school, but upon her arrival, strange things start happening.

The storyline of the film is follows a familiar arc, but is done compellingly enough that it doesn’t matter.  What sets this apart from other horror films is its energetic pace and outstanding production design, both with contribute to the mood and scares.  Argento doesn’t go for the “slow-build” type of horror that was common for many horror films of that time.  He keeps the kills and chills coming rapid-fire along with the gore.  The energy is really fantastic.  While horror films with slow builds often work extremely well (Psycho and Rosemary’s Baby are two great examples), Argento’s method works quite nicely too.  I am not arguing for fast-paced horror films like people try that today by passing off constant gore as scares, but if done right, fast-paced horror is extremely effective.  Dario Argento knows that gore is not what scares people.  He knows that atmosphere is a key component to those scares.  Argento seems to have been influenced by Roman Polanski’s direction of Rosemary’s Baby, a film thematically very similar to Suspiria, as the storylines and effective use of eerie atmosphere drive up the tension.  But, where Polanski and Argento differ is Polanski goes for the atmospheric slow-build (very fitting for the material and very effective), whereas Argento goes for the constant creepy situations and gore.  Argento wants your heart rate up the whole time and he succeeds.  The technically superb and artful camerawork contribute to this mood.

The production design of Suspiria is something else that distinguishes it from other horror films of its time.  While films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Halloween used their low budgets to great effect, going for the “less-is-more” feel, Suspiria is big and glossy.  To give the film a fever dream look, Argento has many shots, particularly those at nighttime, lit with bright blues, reds, greens, etc.  This lighting lends a surreal look that is particularly eerie.  In addition, the wallpaper and set decorations have a surreal, classic western European look that combine well with the lighting.  The ballet academy in which most of the film takes place is almost more threatening than the actual antagonist(s) because it almost becomes a character due to the bizarre and creepy design and feel.

The score by Goblin keeps the heart rate up and the energy going.  It is a pumping score that rarely lets up.  In most other films it would be overwhelming, but not here.  The music isn’t subtle, but neither is the movie, so they complement each other well.

Finally, I will tell you whether Suspiria is actually scary.  Fortunately, my readers, it is.  One of the opening sequences is very suspenseful and tension-filled, so are many other sequences around the middle.  The finale is more exciting than scary (Argento moves off of some of the colored lighting which provides much of the mood), but it is nonetheless a very good conclusion.

Overall, Suspiria is one of the best horror films.  With a bright-colored color scheme, beautiful production design, a creepy score, wonderful camerawork, and great scares, Dario Argento pulls off a rare feat.  With Suspiria, he created an artful, unsubtle, but frighteningly effective film.  This is a classic that truly deserves its reputation and should be more widely seen.

-Joshua Handler

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Holy Motors Review

Indomina Releasing
Holy Motors Review
2012, 115 minutes
Not Rated

I don't even know where to begin with Leos Carax's film Holy Motors (this is Carax's first feature in 13 years).  I don't even know how to describe it.  Is it a musical?  In some parts.  Is it a comedy?  In some parts.  Drama?  Some parts.  This film has everything.  It is intensely enjoyable and is just about perfect.  This review will not be any form of an analysis of the film, so as not to spoil the experience for you all and also because I have not come to one conclusion as to what it all means.

So you may ask, what exactly is Holy Motors?  It isn't easy to describe, but I'll try.  The film follows Oscar, a businessman who goes around Paris in a limo transforming into nine different people with different lives throughout the course of one day.

Holy Motors is essentially Leos Carax giving the audience and mainstream cinema the finger.  In one of the opening scenes, Oscar even has an elongated middle finger.  It defies every cinematic convention in the best possible way.  A film such as this could have gone very wrong and could have been a total mess, but Carax has complete control over the story.  Each and every story is interesting and never drags.  The stories are so different in every way that I was just waiting to see what happens next.  They are all unpredictable.

Denis Lavant gives an amazing performance as Oscar.  His role(s) is physically and emotionally demanding and he rises to the occasion marvelously.  If there were justice in the world of the Oscars, he would be nominated for Best Actor.  The makeup effects that help his transformations are also Oscar-worthy.  They are amazingly convincing and much better than the sometimes great, sometimes shoddy ones in Cloud Atlas.  

Carax's direction of the film is tight.  He controls all nine stories well and the camerawork is beautiful.  It is fluid and each shot is carefully composed.

Now I am going to discuss the experience that is Holy Motors.  Watching Holy Motors was exciting and invigorating.  I was in heaven watching this.  I have always said that the greatest high I could ever experience is that of watching a great film.  Holy Motors gave me a rush of energy.  During some sequences, particularly two musical numbers that literally come out of nowhere, I had a huge smile on my face and thought about how imaginative and exhilarating it is to watch a good film.  Everything in my life faded away and I was completely hooked on watching Carax do what he does best.  After a string of good, fair, and terrible films, it was such a relief and breath of fresh air to view this.  No words could ever describe the impact Holy Motors had on me.

Overall, Holy Motors is simply sensational.  This is the only film that I have seen this year that is at the edge of perfection.  There are no moments when it drags, no moments when it doesn't strike the right tone.  It really is an unforgettable film and for my money, the best film of the year.  If something is better than this, I will be very surprised.

-Joshua Handler

Thursday, October 18, 2012

NYFF Review: No

Gael García Bernal in No
Sony Pictures Classics
No Review
2012, 110 minutes
Rated R for language

Already a huge critical and audience hit, Pablo Larraín's No is one of the best films about modern history that you will ever see.  Everything in it works so well that it is an experience that is simultaneously moving, funny, suspenseful, and fascinating.  

No is based off a stage play and the screenplay was written by Pedro Peirano.  It follows an ad executive, René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal in yet another impressive performance), who takes up the opposition to dictator Augustín Pinochet during the 1988 Chilean elections.

Pablo Larraín should, but won't, get a Best Director Oscar nomination for this film.  He made the daring directorial choice to shoot the film on U-matic tape to make the historical footage and film blend seamlessly.  This is a bold choice as the film is low-resolution and literally looks as if it was an '80s TV show.  But, this is a brilliant movie.  The historical footage and the film footage do blend perfectly creating a film that looks so authentic that it is literally impossible to distinguish between 2012 footage and 1988 footage.  After screening this film, I viewed one of the commercials actually made by the campaign and I actually believed that that footage, when used in the movie, was shot for the movie, not historical footage.  That is a testament to how well Larraín's U-matic shooting worked.

No's screenplay is excellent.  The dialogue is sharp and the story arc is very good.  The film is never boring and even though I knew the result of the election, it was still suspenseful to watch.  A distinguishing mark of this film is its humor.  Though the film's subject is anything but funny, Peirano adds humor and wit into the screenplay to make it even more enjoyable to watch.  He also wrote great characters whom I cared for.

The performances in the film are all top-notch.  The supporting cast is all great, particularly Antonia Zegers as Saavedra's politically active, ex-wife (or estranged wife).  But, Gael García Bernal (The Motorcycle Diaries, Bad Education, Amores Perros), one of the most versatile and talented actors working today, takes the cake as Saavedra.  His performance here is so nuanced and quietly powerful as he plays a man trying to save his country.  A man who tries to keep his cool in a heated political situation.  Bernal has great comedic timing and proves once again that he can carry a film.

No, above all, is an inspirational film about a country coming out of an era of darkness that never resorts to cheap sentimentalism.  It is well-acted, scripted, and shot and should be a contender for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination come January (it is Chile's submission to the Oscars).  This is a film that everyone should see.  It is a little-known part of a horrifying chapter of history that deserves to be seen.

-Joshua Handler

On a side note, the R-rating for this film is solely for a little language.  This is a film that parents should take their teens to see as it is harmless and enlightening.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Early 2012 (2013 Ceremony) Oscar Predictions

Early 2012 (2013 Ceremony) Oscar Predictions

Best Picture:
Life of Pi
Les Misérables
Silver Linings Playbook
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Moonrise Kingdom
The Master

Best Director:
Tom Hooper - Les Misérables
Ben Affleck - Argo
Paul Thomas Anderson - The Master
Steven Spielberg - Lincoln
David O. Russell - Silver Linings Playbook

Best Actor:
Daniel Day-Lewis - Lincoln
John Hawkes - The Sessions
Denzel Washington - Flight
Joaquin Phoenix - The Master
Anthony Hopkins - Hitchcock

Best Actress:
Marion Cotillard - Rust and Bone
Emmanuelle Riva - Amour
Quvenzhané Wallis - Beasts of the Southern Wild
Jennifer Lawrence - Silver Linings Playbook

Monday, October 15, 2012

Flight (WORLD PREMIERE) Review

Denzel Washington in Flight
Paramount Pictures
Flight Review
2012, 138 minutes
Rated R for drug and alcohol abuse, language, sexuality/nudity, and an intense action sequence

Flight is the first-live action film from Oscar-winner Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Back to the Future) since 2000's Cast Away.  What a return this is.  Flight stars Denzel Washington, Kelly, Reilly, John Goodman, Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood, and Melissa Leo.  It is about a pilot, Whip Whitaker (Washington), who flies a plane after a night of drugs and booze.  Shortly before landing, the plane crashes.  Afterwards, an investigation is carried out on what exactly caused the crash.

Flight is a powerful film about addiction (something not even hinted at in the trailers).  Whip, established in the first scene, has a severe drinking and drug problem.  Though the involvement of alcohol and drugs in the crash is investigated, the main story focuses around Whip's addiction.  While the film doesn't break new ground with addiction dramas, it does portray addiction brutally, honestly, and compellingly.  Whitaker's addiction starts off bad and gets frighteningly worse.

John Gatins' screenplay is quite good.  It follows a traditional structure and uses it completely to its advantage.  It tells a solid story that was riveting throughout.  After the long plane crash sequence, the movie loses substantial steam, but not long after, it picks back up and becomes as interesting as any film you are likely to find this year.  The last third also packs a large emotional punch.  Yes, it uses some cliches to deliver that punch, but they are woven so well into the narrative that they rarely seem corny.

The plane crash sequence is one of the most harrowing disaster sequences put on film.  Zemeckis ratchets up the intensity by almost solely focusing on the cockpit.  From this point-of-view, we can see out the front windshield of the plane.  He also shows brief glimpses of the horror happening in back.  The visual effects are top-notch in this sequence and Jeremiah O'Driscoll's quick edits make this sequence unforgettable.

Denzel Washington gives an amazing performance in Flight, one that will surely be Oscar-nominated by the end of the year.  During the plane crash sequence, he portrays panic underneath a disguise of coolness so well that I was convinced that he was not an actor, but that he was Whip Whitaker.  It would have been extremely easy for any actor to succumb to overacting for this sequence, but not Washington.  He gives Whitaker such a three-dimensional persona that it is simply mind-blowing when he pulls off something like this.  But, the great acting doesn't stop there.  After the crash, Washington portrays the guilt and alcohol addiction with the utmost authenticity.  

Overall, Flight has its flaws, but is a great film that marks Zemeckis' best film in years.  The second half of the film is so compelling that it made me forgive the slow section in the first half after the crash.  For those that don't like to fly, this will not be a film for you, but for me, this was a moving, well-acted film that did its job quite well.

-Joshua Handler

The Perks of Being a Wallflower Review

The Perks of Being a Wallflower Review
2012, 103 minutes
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, drug and alcohol use, sexual content including references, and a fight - all involving teens

This is how high school movies should be made.  Written and directed by the author of the book, Stephen Chbosky, Perks succeeds due to its brutal honesty, large heart, and solid acting, particularly by Logan Lerman in the lead.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower follows a boy, Charlie (Logan Lerman), haunted by his best friend's suicide, as he enters high school.  He has no friends and is bullied.  But, once he befriends seniors Sam (Emma Watson) and Patrick (Ezra Miller), his life changes forever.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower should be required viewing for teenagers as it deals with issues such as relationships, suicide, abuse, sexuality/sexual orientation, and just about everything else.  While this all sounds cliché (doesn't every teen movie deal with those issues?), it isn't because it deals with them with harsh honesty.  Nothing is glossed over and I truly believe that many outcast teens could relate to this film.  Also, the film sucked me in emotionally which made me really care about the characters.  Each character is well-developed and I really enjoyed watching them.

The film is helped substantially by something many teen films fall short on: acting.  Logan Lerman, as Charlie, is very impressive.  The range of emotions that Lerman portrays is wide and he is never less than completely convincing.  Watson is a pleasure to watch and it is fun to see her in something outside of Harry Potter.  And, finally Ezra Miller, an actor who has really impressed me recently.  After blowing me away with his chilling performance in We Need to Talk About Kevin, he pulls off a very different, but no less great, one as an openly gay teenager.  Miller made me really care about him in emotional scenes, and he steals the comedic ones.

The camerawork for this film was really interesting and beautiful.  It was in softer focus with some grain that gives the film a warm feel.  A very nice choice.

One last note.  I have always had serious issues with the MPAA, but don't always think I feel the need to write about it.  This one, however, was an exception.  This film was originally rated R (it was appealed and overturned to a PG-13) which is ridiculous.  This film will not harm any teens (the target age group), it will benefit them.  This film is also not even close to as racy as many other PG-13 films out there.  The MPAA is so hard on some great films that will benefit teens such as The King's Speech and Bully and so relaxed on others.

Overall, The Perks of Being a Wallflower isn't perfect (there are no flaws to point out, however), but it is a really good film due to its honesty, heart, and performances.  This is a great film to take teens to that will cause a lot of discussion and that will enrich you too.

-Joshua Handler

Friday, October 12, 2012

Seven Psychopaths Review

Colin Farrell (as Marty), Sam Rockwell (as Billy), and Christopher Walken (as Hans) star in CBS Films' comedy Seven Psychopaths.
Photo Credit: Chuck Zlotnick 
Seven Psychopaths Review
2012, 109 minutes
Rated R for strong violence, bloody images, pervasive language, sexuality/nudity, and some drug use

Seven Psychopaths is the new film by Oscar-winning writer/director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Six Shooter).  It follows a screenwriter with writer's block who gets tangled up with dognappers who dognapped a gangster's shih tzu.  Everything goes nuts from there.

This movie is so bad.  Having been a fan of Martin McDonagh's for years, I was really excited to see how this new film turned out.  His style of black humor is simply genius, but almost completely fails here.  The humor used here is what I call "awkward humor", "humor" that results from a character saying something outrageous or outrageously dumb, then another character responding in a smart-ass way or just giving a weird or confused look.  This is a style that has become increasingly popular recently and it is not funny.  There is no wit or skill that goes into something like that.  

In Bruges succeeded because it (for the most part) balanced the dark violence and humor.  It was original and had a lot of character to it.  Seven Psychopaths tries to mix the violence and humor completely and it turns out horribly.  There is a right way to mix violence and humor, as Tarantino does, and there is a wrong way.  This is the wrong way.  In Seven Psychopaths, there are so many excessively violent scenes that are played for humor that it gets old quick.  So does the rest of the humor.  I was bored and annoyed about 20 minutes into the film.  But, I wanted to like it and gave it a chance for the next 40 minutes.  By the one hour mark, I was done.  

While the film has a few clever twists and maybe two funny jokes, the story is a complete mess.  There is no direction or driving force behind it and with so many characters, the narrative gets cluttered.  McDonagh tries to mock Hollywood in many ways, mainly by breaking all of the rules, but he doesn't break them in the right way.  There is the right way to break the rules, as Tarantino does, and the wrong way.  This effort was pathetic.  In addition, there is no punch or bite to the supposed "satire" in this film.  The film that this wants to be, Adaptation., is ingeniously twisted, funny, clever, and has the punch.  A satire doesn't work without a punch.  Also, the main character, Marty (Colin Farrell) is completely uninteresting and I never cared about him, or anyone else for that matter.  Sam Rockwell, an enormously talented actor, has to play one of the most irritating characters in recent memory.  Woody Harrelson is criminally underused and when he is used, he is given nothing to work with.

McDonagh's humor is largely characterized by politically incorrect humor which, when used right, is hysterical, as it was in In Bruges.  There it felt natural and funny.  In Seven Psychopaths, the un-PC humor is cranked up and feels forced.  McDonagh tries so hard to be outrageous that it turns out to be outrageously bad.

On top of everything, the editing is sloppy and the camerawork is boring.  There was more than one noticeable continuity issue and it simply felt awkward.  

Though this film was a near-complete disaster, the acting from all was very good.  Tom Waits is hilarious as a crazy man with a pet bunny and Sam Rockwell, much as I loathed his character, nailed his part.  Abbie Cornish is also noticeably good in a minor supporting role.  

Overall, Seven Psychopaths isn't the worst movie that I have seen thus far this year, but is close.  That honor currently goes to Lola Versus and Haywire, two movies that are insultingly bad.  Yes, they are not complete disasters, but, like this one are close.  Seven Psychopaths may be your cup of tea (everyone in my theater was laughing quite hard), but it sure was not mine.  It was, in short, an unfunny, excessively stupid, mess that felt like it was based off of a teenager's fantasy.

-Joshua Handler

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Sessions Review

Helen Hunt (left) and John Hawkes (right) in The Sessions
Fox Searchlight Pictures
The Sessions Review
2012, 95 minutes
Rated R for strong sexuality including graphic nudity and frank dialogue

Writer/director Ben Lewin's The Sessions is a really wonderful film that works on so many levels.  It won the US Dramatic Audience Award and a Special Jury Prize for Ensemble Acting at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and follows the true story of Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes in an outstanding performance) who, at 38 years old, is still a virgin due to the fact that he can only move his head because of a case of polio in childhood.  He spends much of his days in an iron lung and one day, decides that he wants to have sex.  So, through the guidance of his priest (William H. Macy) and the help of a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt), he loses his virginity.

The lead performances (as well as supporting) in The Sessions are the stand-out aspect.  They are perfect.  John Hawkes, an incredibly talented actor best known for his Oscar-nominated role in Winter's Bone, plays O'Brien with a quick wit and incredible sensitivity.  Hawkes, known for having a very deep voice, adopts a higher one for this role.  He is also completely convincing as a polio survivor.  During the film, I completely forgot that I was watching an actor.  This will absolutely get him his second Oscar nomination.

Helent Hunt is great opposite Hawkes as the sex surrogate, Cheryl Cohen-Greene.  She gives an incredibly beautiful performance.  Hunt is completely believable in this role as she seems to really care for Hawkes' Mark's plight.  She is dedicated to helping him tackle his physical obstacles and in addition, his mental obstacles.  I really loved watching Hunt.  She lit up the screen every time that she was on and her chemistry with Hawkes was impressive.  The sessions that they spent together seemed like real sex sessions, not awkwardly staged scenes that didn't work.  And lastly, the emotions that Hunt expressed as Cheryl always seemed genuine.  She, like Hawkes, should, and will, be recognized by the Oscars this year.

Ben Lewin's script is the other key component to this film as it is poignant and honest.  Lewin smartly decided to make this film a comedy.  Polio, iron lungs, and virginity are not my ideas of funny, but Lewin manages to make this portrayal of O'Brien comical and sensitive.  O'Brien's lines and conversations with Cheryl are so painfully realistic (and sometimes awkward) that I couldn't help but laugh.  Another really smart thing that Lewin did was that he developed Hunt's character and really focused on her life at home and away from the sessions.  He shows that she has a family and a husband.  Her husband knows about what she does, but it never seems to affect him.  By developing both Mark and Cheryl, Lewin crafted characters who I really cared for.  I wanted to know the characters in real life and spend time with them.  

Another strength of the script is that Lewin treats sex frankly and honestly.  He doesn't shy away from graphic descriptions and images, but at the same time, he makes everything tasteful.  Never is this film exploitative which is a really impressive feat given the subject matter.  This script a great chance of being nominated for an Oscar.

Overall, The Sessions is an excellent film.  It has amazing performances, a great script and tight direction, a fast pace, a sense of humor, and a big heart.  It shows how one man is able to get over an extreme disability to live life and do what he wants which is really valuable to see.  

-Joshua Handler

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Amour Review

Jean-Louis Trintignant (left) with Emmanuelle Riva (right) in Amour 
Sony Pictures Classics
Amour Review
2012, 127 minutes
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material including a disturbing act, and for brief language

Only Michael Haneke (The White Ribbon, The Piano Teacher, Cache) could have made this film.  And only Michael Haneke would have made this film, and won the Palme d'Or for it (his second win in a roll).  Amour follows how an elderly man, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant of The Conformist), copes with the failing health of his wife, Anne (Emmanuelle Riva of Hiroshima, Mon Amour), after she has a stroke.  The film co-stars Isabelle Huppert (White Material, The Piano Teacher) as Georges and Anne's daughter.  

This film works because of three people: Haneke, Trintignant, and Riva.  Haneke does a masterful job directing this film.  One of his greatest strengths is that he doesn't resort to sentimentality.  Amour is an exercise in unflinching realism.  Haneke made the bold decision to shoot this film with mostly static, long takes, increasing the sense of realism and decreasing any chance of cinematic flourishes getting in the way of his storyline.  Each shot, while static, is expertly composed.

Haneke also wrote the screenplay to this film.  While this is not as dark or disturbing as The White Ribbon or The Piano Teacher, Amour will definitely push the boundaries, even with its PG-13 rating, of what audiences can handle.  As I mentioned, Haneke makes Amour uncompromising in every way that he can.  Consistent with his other films, Haneke uses very slow pacing to make the lives depicted actually seem like real life, something that very few filmmakers do.  Though the pace is slow, there is never a question about Haneke's control over the film.  He explores the darkest aspects of old age and is never afraid to shy away from anything.  One of the most heart-wrenching scenes of the film happens when Georges has to spoon-feed Anne some oatmeal.  He gives her the food with loving care, but after a few bites, she refuses.  At this point, she no longer has a desire to live and Haneke and Riva depict this with heart wrenching detail.

Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant give two of the very best performances this year.  Riva's, up to this point, may be the best female performance this year.  As Anne, she has the heavy-lifing to do.    Having to depict a woman who survives a stroke, then another, she has to portray suffering and misery to the extreme.  In addition, by the half-way point of the film, half of Anne's face is paralyzed, adding another challenge which Riva rises to expertly.  Riva, a very experienced and acclaimed legend, hasn't lost any of her power due to age (I haven't seen anything else that she's been in, but with this much power at 85, I can't imagine what she was like when she was younger).  Jean-Louis Trintignant is excellent also as Georges.  The love and care that he shows to Riva makes it seem as if they really had been married for years.  This is a performance from an actor who has not lost his game yet.

This film as a whole is wonderful.  The themes explored and questions raised are powerful and provocative.  What do you do when the person that you love is nearly incapacitated and doesn't want to live?  Haneke shows one way to handle that issue.  Stick it out.  Needless to say, Amour is not an easy watch.  It is painful, but somehow cathartic.  When the film was over, I felt its impact like a ton of bricks.  Sitting through it, I was literally moved to tears.  The climactic scene of this movie is one of the most unexpected scenes that you are likely to see this year and hurt me to watch it.

Overall, Amour is one of the best films that you are likely to see this year.  At a time when many films are too sentimental and artificial, it is refreshing to see a film that is gutsy and, more than anything, honest.

-Joshua Handler

Monday, October 8, 2012

Lincoln Review

Dreamworks Studios/Touchstone Pictures
Lincoln Review
2012, Running time unknown
Rated PG-13 for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language

Note: This is for an unfinished (it was probably about done) version of the film.

Lincoln is by far Steven Spielberg''s weakest film.  It is also one of his most uncharacteristic.  Headed by Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, the film focuses more on Lincoln and his cabinet trying to pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery than the man himself.  

Daniel Day-Lewis will be a sure-fire Oscar-nominee for this film.  His performance is understated and shows depth in a role written with very little depth.  Day-Lewis completely disappears into the role.  His line delivery is impeccable and he has a very gentle screen presence, unlike in There Will Be Blood.    Tommy Lee Jones, as Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, gives one of his greatest performances.  As Stevens, he is quick-witted and spirited.  He easily steals every scene that he is in a deserves an Oscar nomination, if not win.  Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, is weak.  Field, a two-time Best Actress Oscar-winner, is never convincing and her performance feels forced.  So is Joseph Gordon-Levitt's as Lincoln's older son.  

The music, by John WIlliams, is very nice.  Unlike War Horse or anything else that Williams has done, the score was understated and did not overwhelm the picture.  Janusz Kaminski's cinematography is, as usual, beautiful and complements the film very nicely.

Much of the film's problems come from the script by Tony Kushner (Munich, Angels in America).  Kushner, in trying to be as historically accurate as possible forgets to make the film compelling.  The first 90 minutes or so are so completely dull and boring that it is not fun to watch.  This isn't helped by the fact that the dialogue is stilted.  So much information is thrown out at once and is delivered in long-winded speeches that it is hard to follow and pay attention to.  Few realistic-sounding back-and-forth conversations take place.  Kushner also forgets to develop Lincoln.  While we get a basic sense of who Lincoln is, we don't get much below the surface.  His character has no character flaw and there is no arc to him which leads to him being uninteresting (though Day-Lewis does an excellent job).  In addition, the film focused more on the passing of the 13th Amendment than Lincoln himself.

The only compelling portion of the film is where the final vote is counted on the 13th Amendment in the House of Representatives.  It is genuinely suspenseful and moving.  After that, however, the movie goes on for a little while and is very corny.

I will say, though, that Spielberg seemed to put a lot of care into the film.  The film felt lovingly made, as most of his films do.  

Overall, Lincoln is not a complete failure, but isn't anywhere near being a success.  It has too many problems with its screenplay to be good.  Though this was technically an unfinished version of the film, there didn't seem to be much to finish and there is no way that they can cut this film to make it more interesting or enjoyable.  It is fundamentally flawed.  

-Joshua Handler

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Looper Review

Looper Review
2012, 118 minutes
Rated R for strong violence, language, some sexuality/nudity, and drug content

As Looper had its final fade out and cut to black, I sat in my seat speechless, stunned.  What had I just seen?  I have seen writer/director Rian Johnson's Brick (also starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt) a few times and saw a lot of promise in that film.  This is what Johnson has been working towards.  Looper is an unconventional, twisty, mind-bending piece of science fiction cinema that will easily go down in history as one of the best.  Johnson has pulled off a rare feat: he has combined dazzling action sequences, fantastic acting, and a brilliant story.  

Looper takes place in Kansas in 2044 where hit men, loopers, are hired by the mob to kill their enemies by sending them back in time (time-travelling is illegal in the future and only the mob uses).  However, the mob is closing loops, sending future-selves of loopers back in time to be killed by their younger selves.  Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a hit man, has a person sent back to him one day, himself (Bruce Willis).  

This movie works extremely well because, as mentioned, it works on every level.  Many movies of this kind are good, but have serious inconsistencies in their time-travel rules.  Rian Johnson, being the talented screenwriter that he is, has few inconsistencies, logistical issues, or plot holes (at least that I noticed) in his story.  The plot is always compelling, and even when there is a brief lull in the action in the middle of the film, it picks up in such a big way (to give you an idea, some people in the theater audibly gasped) that I forgot about the lull.  Johnson also has some great moments of humor that lighten the mood.  Also, there is a lot of humanity in the script.  Johnson made me care for the characters, a rare feat in a sci-fi film.

What is also fascinating about this film is that no one is particularly bad or good.  Most characters are fighting for love, a very humanistic element, and none are fighting for any malicious cause which makes all of them sympathetic in one way or another.

The acting from everyone was spot-on.  Gordon-Levitt puts in his usual fantastic work and Emily Blunt is incredible as always.  Jeff Daniels, who plays the loopers' boss is also very amusing to watch.

The action scenes are stunningly shot and choreographed.  Johnson places them in the right points, and still manages to balance action and drama well.  Each action scene is kinetic and has inventive camerawork to complement it.

Overall, Looper is this year's finest film so far.  I have now seen it twice and it loses little of its impact on the second viewing.  It is a smart sci-fi thriller, a moving drama, and an explosive, badass action film that will be sure to provoke and entertain.

-Joshua Handler