Friday, November 30, 2012

Movie Review: “Beasts of the Southern Wild”

Allegories aside, Beasts makes a fantastic coming-of-age drama.

**** out of 5
93 minutes
Rated PG-13 for thematic material including child imperilment, some disturbing images, language and brief sensuality
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild on Blogcritics.

It seems there’s always a lull after the glut of Thanksgiving films have made their way to theaters. With nine films opening in a four-week span you need some room to breathe. Now, the openings have seemingly come to a halt with only one wide new release this Friday. So it’s tiem to play catch up. Beasts of the Southern Wild, based on Lucy Alibar’s stage play Juicy and Delicious, has been on my radar ever since winning the Grand Jury Prize Dramatic award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Even when it was released theatrically I still never managed to see it. Finally, I’ve found out what all the fuss is about.

Beasts throws us right into the middle of what appears to be a horrible situation where we find young Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) living in the flooded wilds of “The Bathtub.” Here, she lives with her dad Wink (Dwight Henry) and her menagerie of pets. Life is hard growing up on the other side of the levee in a flooded collection of homes and wilderness, offshore of New Orleans. Hushpuppy doesn’t exactly live with Wink but in her own shack within shouting distance. She attends “school” where the kids are scared about the climate change with the threat of melting ice caps and ancient aurochs running amok.

One day Wink goes missing and wanders back wearing a hospital gown and bracelet. He won’t explain what happened to him causing Hushpuppy to get his attention by starting her shack on fire and hiding in a cardboard box. Now Wink is forced to take her in and things go from bad to worse when Wink suffers a possible heart attack and a storm whips its way through town savaging everything “The Bathtub” has left. Now Hushpuppy and Wink are forced to head out in their makeshift motorboat to find fellow survivors or be left high and dry. As Hushpuppy says about their predicament, “The end of the world already happened.”

Director Benh Zeitlin brings quite the experience on such a limited budget. Reportedly around $1.3 million, he pulls off some amazing visuals, which are probably helped that there are only a handful of visual effects, mostly involving the aurochs. Cinematographer Ben Richardson helps out by keeping things on a documentary level, which only makes Hushpuppy’s hard reality ring even truer. And as for Hushpuppy, young Quvenzhané Wallis certainly holds her own. Feisty yet fragile, Wallis throws herself into the role proving her a force to be reckoned with. The title may make you think there’s more literal “beasts” roaming through the film, but what we find out is that it just may be all of us who are Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Movie Review: “Silver Linings Playbook”

Another Playbook of filmmaking perfection from director David O. Russell.

***** out of 5
122 minutes
Rated R for language and some sexual content/nudity
The Weinstein Company

Article first published as Movie Review: Silver Linings Playbook on Blogcritics.

The leaves are changing and starting to fall which means one thing to me – Oscar bait is in the air. Week after week now, studios will be finally bringing out the big guns in hope of scoring early recognition of something worthy of the coveted gold Oscar. So far, Argo has been sitting at the top of my list, but it has a chance of being bumped after bearing witness to David O. Russell’s new Silver Linings Playbook.

Adapting Matthew Quick’s novel, Silver Linings Playbook brings a film that rightfully flips the bird at conventional romantic-comedies. Pat (Bradley Cooper) has just been released from a mental institute in Baltimore. His mother Dolores (Jackie Weaver) has talked the courts into letting him move back home under the supervision of herself and his father, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro). After a quick turnaround back to the institute to return fellow patient Danny (Chris Tucker), Dolores takes Pat home. He’s forced to take in some meds and participate in therapy with Dr. Patel (Anupam Kher), after he was institutionalized for beating up the history teacher with tenure he caught in the shower with his wife Nikki (Brea Bee).

Not everything at home is fine and dandy. While Pat was diagnosed as bi-polar, his father also seems to be dealing with his own OCD. Pat becomes obsessed with winning back his wife and begins by reading everything on her syllabus and showing her that he has changed. After meeting up with his friend Ronny (John Ortiz), whose domineering wife Veronica (Julia Stiles) is good friends with Nikki. Veronica invites Pat over to dinner, along with her sister Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). Tiffany has just been fired from her job and recently became widowed.

Tiffany and Pat quickly become a little obsessed with each other for very different reasons. All Pat wants is for Tiffany to deliver a letter to Nikki, which she quickly uses against him to blackmail him into being her dance partner for a couples competition. She’s always wanted to compete but her football-obsessed husband never had time. Speaking of football, Pat’s father thinks he has returned his beloved Philadelphia Eagles’ juju and believes Tiffany is throwing it all out of whack because they’ve been spending so much time together on Sundays. But everything is about to change in some unexpected, and some not so, ways.

I’ve always felt that David O. Russell was robbed when his last effort, The Fighter, lost out to The King’s Speech. While some may not believe in the power of repeat viewings to be one of the key elements in winning (see also the loss of Juno to No Country for Old Men), I think it should be. I may own No Country as I am a completest and own every Coen Brothers film on Blu-ray, but I have only watched that one twice. Juno on the other hand, has had its fair share of spins in the old player. Same goes for The King’s Speech, I’ve only seen it once, don’t own it, and feel it’s been over-praised, at least as far as Best Picture goes, but I digress. The Fighter I have also watched on multiple occasions, no thanks in part to my wife’s Marky Mark obsession, but mostly because it’s such an enjoyable movie on top of being award-winning.

Russell always manages to cobble together an eclectic cast to bring out the best in his characters, reaching all the way back through his filmography from Flirting with Disaster, Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees to The Fighter and now Silver Linings Playbook. Not to mention that he’s also written or co-written every film he’s directed (with the exception of The Fighter), which goes to show what a rounded filmmaker he really is.

Cooper and Lawrence are the real winners here, and together they deliver a dramedy tour de force. Yes, Cooper has been more hit-or-miss over the years, but Lawrence proves yet again that she’s still the beacon of talent brought to light in Winter’s Bone. When the nominations are announced early next year, don’t be surprised to find plenty of deserved love for Silver Linings Playbook.

Photos courtesy The Weinstein Company

Movie Review: “Life of Pi”

A life worth watching on as big of screen as possible and the 3D is worth the money too.

**** ½ out of 5
127 minutes
Rated PG for emotional thematic content throughout, and some scary action sequences and peril
Twentieth Century Fox

Article first published as Movie Review: Life of Pi on Blogcritics.

When it comes to the novel Life of Pi, I’ve heard from one end of the spectrum to the other. One person told me it’s one of the worst books and couldn’t finish it, while another person told me it’s one of his wife’s favorite books. Having seen Ang Lee’s film adaptation of Yann Martel’s novel, I can see how both sides are probably correct. I have no interest in cracking open the book, as the movie makes me think it would be quite yawn-inducing. However, Lee, with screenwriter David Magee (Finding Neverland, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day), overruns Life of Pi with the year’s most jaw-dropping visuals and crafts the most emotionally vested film so far this season.

Life of Pi is exactly that. The Writer (Rafe Spall) meets with Older Pi (Irrfan Khan) after it is suggested to him that Pi has a story that will make him believe in God. Pi goes into his early life in some detail; young Pi (Ayush Tandon) deals with schoolchildren who make fun of his full name, Piscine, and how he grew up in a zoo owned by his Father (Adil Hussain).

Over the years Pi nearly gets killed wanting to see into a Bengal tiger’s soul; then when he is a teenager (now played by Suraj Sharma) his father informs the family that they will be moving to Winnipeg, Canada. The animals are packed on board a freighter ship and they hit the high seas. The meat of the story picks up here when the ship sinks, killing everyone on board, aside from Pi, the tiger, a hyena, an orangutan, and a zebra with a broken leg. Now Pi is set against all odds with far worse stowaways than Castaway’s Wilson ever could have been.

After Pi tells the Writer his unbelievable tale of survival, the latter says “That’s a lot to take in,” and it’s beyond true. Suraj Sharma gets to deliver quite a tour de force performance, especially considering he’s basically acting against a green screen for an hour of the film. I said that I still don’t have any interest in reading the original novel and that’s because there’s no way the book could ever trump what’s on display here. The film is visually astonishing thanks to help from cinematographer Claudio Miranda and especially Rhythm and Hues Studios. Lee has delivered a masterpiece, and I won’t be surprised when Life of Pi sweeps at least the technical awards.

Lee should also do well as far as directing goes too, bringing the story sensibilities he’s always had from Eat Drink Man Woman, Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, Ride with the Devil, and Brokeback Mountain. It also showcases the technical merits he’s learned from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hulk. Some may not have been as turned on by his last two efforts, Lust, Caution or Taking Woodstock, but he’s more than recovered with Life of Pi, delivering a sweeping epic of survival and one of the year’s best films that demands to be seen in 3D and on as big of screen as possible. There’s a reason Life of Pi is playing in IMAX 3D, because that’s where it needs to see be seen.

Photos courtesy Twentieth Century Fox

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Movie Review: “Rise of the Guardians”

I'd put all my eggs in this basket come awards season.

***** out of 5
97 minutes
Rated PG for thematic elements and some mildly scary action
Paramount Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: Rise of the Guardians on Blogcritics.

Let’s get one thing straight, Rise of the Guardians (based on William Joyce’s book, The Guardians of Childhood) is not a sequel to Legend of the Guardians: The Owls Ga’Hoole. Yes, the title is a bit confusing, but this movie has no owls ripping off The Secret of NIMH, but does feature some elves that show Despicable Me’s minions a thing or two about what funny really is. With the holiday season upon us, there was bound to be something released featuring Santa Claus in one form or another. Last year we got a new classic in Arthur Christmas, and this year DreamWorks Animation has decided to one up it by gathering together most of our childhood mythological beings for Rise of the Guardians.

Beginning with the icy birth of Jack Frost (voiced by Chris Pine), he discovers his newfound powers. He also discovers that no one can see him because no one believes in him yet. Three hundered years later – three days till Easter – and we find Jack Frost still nipping at our noses, and that Pitch Black – aka the Boogeyman (voiced by Jude Law) – has decided that it’s his turn to rise. Yet, he isn’t the one who was chosen by the Man in the Moon. Much to the chagrin of the Easter Bunny (voiced by Hugh Jackman) it’s Jack Frost. With their sordid past behind them, they discover that along with North, aka Santa (voiced by Alec Baldwin); Tooth, the tooth fairy (voiced by Isla Fisher); and Sandy, the sandman; they must all join forces to take down Pitch before he turns every child’s dreams into nightmares and the world’s children stop believing in them and they lose all their powers.

Director Peter Ramsey has crafted not only one of the best family-friendly holiday films in years, but one of the year’s best animated features. The last half of this year has seen a steady incline with each release, from ParaNorman to Frankenweenie to Wreck-It Ralph, now Rise of the Guardians has swooped in to try and beat them all. The voice cast delivers some raucous quips while the elves and Yeti’s are on standby to provide the film’s more hilarious sight gags. Backed by some fantastically rendered animation and a fun use of 3D, you just may once again believe in the likes of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the Sandman, and even Jack Frost.

Screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire (Pulitzer Prize winner for his play Rabbit Hole and recently tapped to rewrite the Poltergeist remake) has managed to make everything we used to believe in as children a quasi-reality. (As much as I despise the idea of anyone trying to remake Poltergeist, Lindsay-Abaire truly has my blessing as he’s been able to so successfully blend family-friendly with the macabre.) Yes, parts of the film get a little dark, but that probably has more to do with executive producer Guillermo del Toro’s sensibilities, which are welcome in spades. All in all, with Rise of the Guardians, the year’s best animated feature has also risen and once you see it, you’ll believe it.

Photos courtesy DreamWorks Animation

Monday, November 19, 2012

Movie Review: “The Sessions”

Hilarious, heartfelt, and brutally honest.

**** out of 5
95 minutes
Rated R for strong sexuality including graphic nudity and frank dialogue
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: The Sessions on Blogcritics.

Every year there’s at least one film with the words “Festival Hit of the Year” slathered across it. Sometimes it deserves the praise; sometimes it doesn’t. It at least ensures a crowd pleaser of a film.

What these films also bring with them is the chance to see a film that beats to a different drum – than Hollywood at least. Ultimately, yes, you should seek these films out, even if it’s on home video since they don’t wind up on 3,000 screens. And The Sessions, writer/director Ben Lewin’s biopic of polio-plagued Mark O’Brien (played brilliantly by John Hawkes), is certainly no different.

Lewin kicks things off with news footage of the real Mark making his way across the University of California, Berkeley, accepting his degree, and strolling down the street in his motorized gurney. Switching to Hawkes, we catch up with Mark in 1988, where he bides his time writing poetry and getting sponge bathes from his caretaker Joan (Rusty Schwimmer). He attends church where he meets the new priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), whom he eventually confides in as a friend. Mark winds up firing Joan based on her attitude and hires Amanda (Annika Marks). Mark starts to fall in love with her but when he confesses his love she quits. Now, Mark is between two caretakers, Rod (W. Earl Brown) and Vera (Moon Bloodgood).

One day, Mark receives a phone call with an article opportunity dealing with the disabled and having sex. Mark begins to interview people including Carmen (Jennifer Kumiyama). Mark realizes he’s starting to be a little out of his league with the article as he is a virgin. He seeks out the help of a sex surrogate – someone who offers intimate physical relations or sex with patients as therapy. Cheryl (Helen Hunt) is more than happy to help Mark out with his situation and let the therapy begin. After a few sessions, Mark has yet again fallen prey to his feelings and writes Cheryl a poem, much to the chagrin of her husband Josh (Adam Arkin) who throws the letter away before she can read it. Will Mark ever find true love? Will Mark succeed in his quest for penetration?

It’s no surprise The Sessions won the Audience Award and U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Price for Ensemble Acting at this year’s 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Everyone is at the top of their game, from Macy to Hawkes, and especially Helen Hunt. I have to admit that I was mad about her when she was on Mad About You and in Twister, and let’s just say that she’s in fine form here. At 49-years-old she’s got a body most 20-somethings would envy. And yes, just to warn or excite you, she does go full monty. The only thing that seems awkward is the film’s ending. It’s very abrupt and almost sucks the life out of the film. But what matters most is Mark’s story, and Lewin manages to bring us the most poignant, even while highly hilarious, tale of losing one’s virginity since The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Oscar nominations are surely headed their way.

Photos courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures