Water for Elephants

“Water for Elephants” is a classically good romance with a period-piece vibe. The film’s title, which it takes from a book of the same name, is symbolic of the falsity in the main character’s life. But there’s nothing fake about the actual circus of a film director Francis Lawrence creates.

That tangible quality of ‘Water for Elephants” is part of its appeal. Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon and Christoph Waltz all interact with physical, flesh and blood animals including the aforementioned elephant, and their personal interactions are real and simple enough to reach out and touch them.

In a day and age when modern romances can seem so stretched, this one is smart enough to convince us otherwise. Continue reading “Water for Elephants”

Review: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Palme D’Or winner “Uncle Boonmee” comes close to the idea of “pure cinema,” but the film never announces its presence.

2010’s winner of the Palme D’Or at the Cannes film festival beat out the likes of Mike Leigh, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Abbas Kiarostami. His name is Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a director from Thailand who has been making his rounds at Cannes for some time with his distinct visual style.

In “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” he uses the backdrop of the rich, exotic Thai jungle to tell an odd but not disconcerting ghost story. Right there in his title, Weerasethakul (also known as Joe in the film critic community) explains to his audience the significance of the ideas of reincarnation in Thailand.

So his film is not complicated, but it is no less demanding. Continue reading “Review: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”

The King’s Speech

“The King’s Speech” was made in the 1940s, I’m almost sure of it. Director Tom Hooper’s film feels so much like one, and it’s just as good as anything in that golden age of movies.

For example, a majority of the films released during that time went to promoting the war effort and used World War II as a real world back drop. “The King’s Speech” is based on the true story of King George VI, who despite a crippling fear of public speaking and a terrible speech impediment, overcame his disability to unite the country during war time while the whole world was for the first time listening on radio.

And everything about the film screams that classical quality. The screen acting is superb and charismatic. The dialogue is fast, witty and poignant. The spacious cinematography compliments the dim art direction that begs to have been shot in black and white.

“The King’s Speech” is a true throwback to the good ‘ole days, and I suspect this film that won the top prize at the Toronto Film Festival will give “The Social Network” a run for its money in the Best Picture race, becoming a battle between the values of new and old Hollywood. Continue reading “The King’s Speech”

The Damned United

 

Tom Hooper just won Best Director and Best Picture for “The King’s Speech” at the Oscars. The expansive cinematography in that film revealed the gravity of King George VI’s every word. In “The Damned United,” which he made in 2009, the cinematography needs to be so wide open just to keep Brian Clough’s ego inside.

Michael Sheen plays Brian Clough in such a way that he becomes one of those characters you can only refer to by his full name. Clough has one of the most winning records in the history of the Premier League of British football, and yet Clough’s name has become synonymous with “The 44 Days,” or the immensely brief time he was manager of Leeds United and led them to their worst season opening in the history of the club.

“The Damned United” is a “sports movie” but avoids any of the usual clichés or even common themes of the genre. Here is a movie in which the loser becomes the legend.

Clough began his career as the manager of Derby County, which in the mid ‘60s was a struggling team near the bottom of the 2nd Division of the league. As part of the European Cup, Derby got to play the top seeded Leeds. Derby got trounced, but Clough was embarrassed not just for his team but also personally after the Leeds manager Don Revie (Colm Meaney) refused to shake his hand and blew him off for an after game drink.

Fast forward to 1974, and Revie has been appointed the manager of the national team after a disappointing run in the World Cup. Leeds’s replacement is Brian Clough, and he told the team that every award they ever won should be thrown “in the bin because they were not won fairly.” He hated the team, he hated the players and he hated Revie, and the film becomes a character study into Clough’s reasons why.

What Sheen brings to the performance is simply an immersed, headstrong attitude. He is not humble, and yet not overly rude, boastful, sarcastic or tough. He does swear and get in some witty jabs, but Clough is merely utterly confident of himself, and Sheen’s glowing personality and constantly brimming façade gives that exact impression.

He makes good choices and is even inspiring. His knowledge of the sport and even experience as a player ultimately allowed him to lead his team to the national championships. But in all of his motivating speeches and victories, we see no one but him. Most sports movies usually individualize a member of the team, providing the screenplay with someone for the coach to relate to, but this film is all about Clough.

That feeling of singularity in the story is thanks in part to Hooper’s direction. Hooper delicately paces Clough’s rise and fall, including mostly stock footage of matches, no “big games” and particularly minimal camera movement. There’s a scene early on where Clough is on the phone with his partner Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall) as he’s just tracked down a new player for the team. The camera moves in on Clough so subtly and slowly, but we get the sensation that his head and ego are just growing with potential.

Hooper then puts Clough’s ego to the test with the Leeds squad, a group of players all dressed in bright purple, their names always starkly visible on their jerseys and identified above any other player on the Derby squad. It’s almost as if by just standing on the pitch with their backs to the camera they are challenging Clough’s ego and authority.

“The Damned United” is richly directed, photographed and acted. With Sheen, Timothy Spall and even Jim Broadbent in the cast, Hooper has assembled just about the three most underrated British actors working today, and they’re all doing wonderful screen acting.

“The King’s Speech” won the Oscar because it is so inspirational and moving. “The Damned United” is hardly an inspirational story of victory, but somehow it still seems like a win.

The Triplets of Belleville

Dark, disgusting humor can come in all shapes and sizes. So ideally, what better way to illustrate a sense of melancholy than with a form that gives you the most freedom of expression: animation. “The Triplets of Belleville” has drawn comparisons from Luis Bunuel and Jacques Tati, but I find this to be not as imaginative as their work, but instead simply gratuitous.

Sylvain Chomet removes the dialogue from his film along with the wit and charm (although many critics have somehow found the film darkly charming). He opens on a trio of 50s singers, the Triplets of Belleville. Their song makes for a swinging anthem to the film, but it’s starkly contrasted with the appearance of a young boy and his grandmother watching the Triplets on TV. The boy is depressed, and the grandmother gets him a dog, then a bicycle, to make him happy.

Years later, the boy is a world-class cyclist in the Tour De France. His grandmother trains him vigorously with an incessant whistle that speaks wonders of emotion but simply drove me mad. She vacuums his calves, cracks his back with a lawnmower and makes him eat a disgusting meal all while their fat and hungry dog barks at every passing train.

Despite all this, he’s not exactly wearing the maillot jaune. As he passes out on a mountain climb, two gangsters who intend to use him in an underground gambling ring kidnap him. The grandmother follows them, and it’s up to her and the now cragged and old Triplets of Belleville to rescue him. Continue reading “The Triplets of Belleville”

The Adjustment Bureau

“The Adjustment Bureau” is silly and light but thrives on its chemistry between Matt Damon and Emily Blunt… and fedoras.

The argumentative fallacy known as insufficient cause asserts the distance between a given cause and effect in a situation. This logic can be applied in “The Adjustment Bureau,” as in, because Matt Damon did not spill coffee on his shirt one morning, he may have prevented a third golden age in civilization.

There is considerable distance between that cause and effect, but man, Matt Damon looks good in a fedora.

“The Adjustment Bureau” hinges on that balance between a plot that ranges from odd to preposterous and the unfettered silliness of it all, not to mention the charming chemistry between Damon and co-star Emily Blunt.

Damon as an actor can range from stoic action badass in the Bourne movies to suave comic foil in everything from “Ocean’s 11,” “The Informant!” and “30 Rock.” Director and screenwriter George Nolfi has written for Damon in both “The Bourne Ultimatum” and “Ocean’s 12,” and he gives Damon free range to act, sticking him in 90 percent of the scenes and encouraging him to casually roll with the screenplay’s absurd punches. Thankfully, Damon capitalizes on every minute, and throughout “The Adjustment Bureau,” his David Norris remains a likable and confident leading man.

At the beginning of the film, David is a 24-year-old senate candidate for New York, famous as a youthful, yet authentic and loose cannon of a politician. Following a scandal at his college reunion, Norris loses the election but meets Elise (Blunt) in of all places, the men’s room as he rehearses his concession speech. The pair hit it off perfectly, notably from the performers and less the script, and that connection carries us throughout the rest of the film.

Thank goodness, because it is at this point that things get weird and silly. Continue reading “The Adjustment Bureau”

Source Code

Certain films beg comparison of others. “Source Code” screams out to be a hybrid of “12 Monkeys,” “Vantage Point,” “Eternal Sunshine,” “Unstoppable” and of all things, “Groundhog Day.” But Duncan Jones directs the film with such flair and vigor that it supersedes all comparisons.

On paper, the story begins to show its flaws, and the science of the Source Code apparatus that governs the events of the film fails to indicate how complex first time screenwriter Ben Ripley’s work is. Continue reading “Source Code”

Rango

There is no market in the movie theater for short animated films today. That market has moved online, only to be discovered in viral form. Such short films are hardly rigid in their aim to “amuse” the way modern animated kids movies are, yet they are experimental, revolutionary and captivating in their own ways. Like those classic shorts, segments of “Rango” exist purely irreverently, in a trippy void of comedy and drama that doesn’t cease to challenge. Continue reading “Rango”