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Oscars 2012: Ten films shortlisted for Best Visual Effects category

Posted by Max Lalanne on November 29, 2012

Ten films – The Avengers, Life of Pi, Snow White and the Huntsman, Prometheus, Skyfall, The Dark Knight Rises, Cloud Atlas, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, John Carter, and The Amazing Spider-Man – are left in the running for the Best Visual Effects category at the Oscars. Nominations for the 85th Academy Awards, to be telecast February 24th, will be revealed January 10.

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Mel Gibson’s Braveheart

Posted by Max Lalanne on October 8, 2012

It’s somewhat telling that the 13th-century-set epic Braveheart, directed by, and starring, Mel Gibson, opens with a narration: “I shall tell you of William Wallace. Historians from England will say I am a liar, but history is written by those who have hanged heroes.” A not particularly convincing tell-off right from the start to whatever historical inaccuracies and absurdities that one might encounter in this film, and they are countless, it also establishes the mood and context of the picture. Braveheart asks you to set aside your presumptions and embrace what you see and feel in front of you, and the audience bears witness to the undaunted and thrilling passion that Gibson brings to this film and to his performance as Wallace, who made sure he lived and, like Spartacus and the countless other revolutionaries before him, died a free man.

This film wears its heart proudly on its sleeve and doesn’t hold anything back – that apparent passion translates to rampant bloodiness and gore, the afore-mentioned carelessness for what really happened in favor of and in search of cinematic perfection, and a sort of fully unafraid, out-there inspirational corniness that might be best summed up in Wallace’s last defiant yell before his beheading: “Freeeeeedooommmmm!”

Ah, Wallace. He’s a self-professed “savage” who covers his ruggedly handsome face with blue warpaint and kills soldiers left and right with a mad fury. And yet he’s an intelligent, literate and sensitive man, merely driven to violence by an unyielding anger to avenge his slain wife. That swiftly turns into something more, a bloody campaign against the English overlords and a promise of freedom for all of Scotland (that’s constantly undermined by the local lords’ resistance to a full-fledged war).

Gibson, with his long hair, blue eyes, and a thick brogue, plays Wallace as a romantic, uncouth yet endearingly sensitive hero that makes a princess swoon when he’s not slashing limbs off. It’s as if he was born to play this role, made all the more impressive by the fact he not only had his character to invest in but also the entire film.

Saving Braveheart from being an exercise in self-indulgence is very little, but I’d be damned if I wasn’t entertained and engrossed throughout. Handsomely mounted by cinematographer John Toll and set off by James Horner’s evocative score (which, I feel, directly inspired that of this year’s animated film Brave), the film takes its time in properly starting with a young Wallace, who wants to go help his farmer father fight the English. “I know you can fight, but it’s our wits that make us men,” his father tells him. The next time that we see him, however, he’s a lifeless corpse being pulled on a cart through the moors, and the orphan boy is taken in by his kindly, educated uncle.

Jump to a dozen or so years later, and Wallace is returning from his journeys and falling in love with his childhood sweetheart, Murron (the lovely Catherine McCormack), whom he takes on night rides in the pouring rain in the Scottish heartland and later secretly weds. However, the relative happiness is not to last. Murron, having been saved by Wallace from being raped by some brutish English soldiers under the command of the local lord but failing to escape, gets her throat slit in public for treason. In a vengeful fury, Wallace returns to the village and proceeds to kick the ass out of the entire English garrison (who’s been expecting him, mind) with some help from the villagers.

That sequence is the first in the film to show the shockingly visceral violence, as soldiers get skewered with spears, dismembered with swords, punched by improvised knuckledusters in the throat, and whacked across the face with what looks suspiciously like a nunchaku all in the matter of thirty seconds or so. However, it’s far from the last, as the audience is treated to several more large-scale battles, all filmed in the same relentlessly brutal way and all giving us the same giddy, adrenaline-boosting pleasure of watching some scrappy Scots fight the armored, well-equiped forces of the cold-hearted King Edward “Longshanks” (Patrick McGoohan).

Braveheart, and Gibson, have been criticized for being Anglophobic, albeit only by modern British publications such as The Guardian. That’s a special kind of nonsense. Really, although the film is strong with Scottish patriotism and national pride, the timeless, universally recognized message of freedom and struggle against overwhelming odds is far too great to be constrained to a war against two nations.

Ultimately, Braveheart is a fantastically thrilling, emotionally involving achievement. It’s fast and bloody and fun, and what more could you possibly ask for in a film such as this? [A-]

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Making the case for The Hunger Games as one of the year’s best movies

Posted by Max Lalanne on October 2, 2012

So I recently re-watched The Hunger Games, and while this article will indeed be about its many notable merits please note that I’m not saying it should be considered in the commencing awards season at all. I’m not doing that because a) Hunger Games would never stand a chance at even being considered seriously by Oscar voters in a million years, b) Jennifer Lawrence is doing fine on her own with her Silver Linings Playbook thus eliminating the need for campaigning with this film, and c) the truth is it’s simply not that much of an individual achievement to warrant a Best Picture nomination. Although, granted, it would’ve been a different case had it been released last year. Ahem.

But it is excellent, certainly a bar-raiser for YA novel adaptations that cater to their main audience of teenagers while still being enjoyable for adults and everyone else to enjoy – not that there have been any of the sort recently, which makes Hunger Games quite a remarkable pioneer also. Critics generally liked the film when it came out in March, though many quasi-dismissed it as an Americanized, if you will, version of Battle Royale (“You know what they call The Hunger Games in France? Battle Royale with cheese” was a rather popular meme at the time). Though I haven’t seen the subversive Japanese cult hit (nor the Arnold Schwarzenegger action picture The Running Man), my only response to that is my agreeing with the sentiment that everything has been already done and its the execution that matters. End of discussion.

Why is The Hunger Games one of this year’s best movies? Because it’s smart and moves along at a peppy yet unhurried pace, because it doesn’t dumb down anything for its perceived audience who were, after all, old enough to understand that the source material – Suzanne Collins’ trilogy – was very good stuff, or at least the first book was. Because it doesn’t overdo it, masterfully and even sophisticatedly executed by director Gary Ross without tripping headfirst into the pitfalls of most YA movies, ridiculous romantic subplots and all included. Because it’s a film that, like well-crafted cinema should, stands up to multiple viewings without revealing its flaws. And because it has another great performance from  Lawrence.

It’s easy to say that The Hunger Games shouldn’t count in Lawrence’s “notable” filmography between, and alongside, her star-making indie Winter’s Bone in 2011 and Silver Linings Playbook, because, you know, it’s a lead role in a mainstream movie that didn’t challenge her too much or was too complex or whatever. But whoever says that is wrong. Lawrence really carries the movie on her shoulders, and imbues just the right amount of headstrong, slightly aggressive stubbornness mixed in with restrained vulnerability that, together, prove a marvelous result. It’s a quiet, understated, and softly nuanced performance but one that is powerful in itself and helps the film a lot.

The supporting cast is pretty great, too. Josh Hutcherson is likably disarming, some of the edge that belonged to his lovelorn character Peeta in the book is non-apparent here but that’s okay. Woody Harrelson pulls off the constantly swilling if well-meaning mentor Haymitch with great, skillful carefulness. Liam Hemsworth is hilariously wooden but thankfully his hunky Gale has all but five or so minutes total in the film. Elizabeth Banks is absurd but not distracting as the dithering Effie Trinket. Lenny Kravitz is a quiet, blink-and-you’ll-miss-him presence. And Stanley Tucci, sportingly doffing a blue wig and a megawatt smile to play couldn’t-care-less television host Caesar Flickerman, is just genuinely brilliant.

So. My point. If you passed on watching this movie in theaters because you were afraid of the hysteric teenage masses/didn’t want to watch another “teen movie,” do youself a favor and rent The Hunger Games because it is indeed, one of the best films of the year. Not being a so-called “prestige” late fall picture nor having the too-cool-for-school popular clout as fellow box office successes (like The Avengers) enjoy, if there’s one movie that’s in danger of being forgotten by the end of this year it’s this one.

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Is Cleopatra the most underrated historical epic of all time?

Posted by Max Lalanne on September 30, 2012

When you think of Cleopatra (available on Netflix streaming), the controversy jumps to mind – the staggering, ballooning cost of the 1963 picture and the poor reception of such that practically led 20th Century Fox to bankruptcy, the consuming affair between stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton that led to the same studio landing a lawsuit on their heads. All of this and more helped made Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s historical epic a legendary faux-pas in Hollywood history. Read the rest of this entry »

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Review: Sci-fi actioner Looper won’t exactly blow your mind but it does try

Posted by Max Lalanne on September 28, 2012

A film largely about the choices and decision that one makes, whether they be in one dimension of time or the next, Looper achieves in being a smart and original sci-fi action drama but neve.comr reaches the mind-bending, head-wracking grandeur of Inception, the last film I can remember that successfully played with our collective minds (Source Code tried but failed).There is much difference between the two productions, yes, but writer-director Rian Johnson’s nifty premise has the same deep potential that, in this case, wasn’t exploited to its fullest. But it’s still quite a ride, and one that feels like a welcome breath of fresh air in this year’s lineup of new releases.

What sort of premise is it? The one that sees Joseph Gordon Levitt, in the year 2044, make a living as a “Looper,” a hitman assassinating targets that were sent back from the not-so-far future. Time travel was indeed invented 30 years from now, but now remains only in the hands of the mob. They see this as a fine way to get rid of enemies literally without a trace. Send the target back into the past and he would’ve never existed in the present. Or something like that. Change the past, change the future. But then it appears that the mob wants the loop closed, so to speak, so they send back the older self of Gordon Levitt’s character, played by Bruce Willis, to get killed by his younger self. Because he’s Bruce Willis, he escapes (and later gets to indulge himself in some badass shoot-em-ups that could belong in The Expendables).

There’s many more layers to this story than should be divulged here, but, again, it’s all about the choices. Whose choice then, you may ask, was it to cast Willis as Gordon Levitt’s older self – while the two play off each other excellently, it’s well apparent that much was spent making them, well, resemble one another a little more. No adjustments at all would’ve been preferred (this is the movies) but here Gordon Levitt is saddled with heavily distracting prosthetics that, bizarrely, appear on and off during the duration.

When the two meet in a roadside diner – this film likes combining heady sci-fi concepts in low-fi settings, and the refreshing sensibility is such as well – halfway through to attempt to talk things out, a side view of the two sitting apposite each other reveal, among other things, the obvious trickery at hand that Gordon-Levitt wears to more resemble Willis’ well-known nose and overall visage. You get my point, anyway.

Once the action starts being anchored around the rural, Western-esque farmhouse property owned by tough single mother Sara (Emily Blunt) and her young son (Pierce Gagnon), who may or may not play an important part in the story, Looper stagnates a little in the more middling complexities of the story. It is certainly due to Johnson’s indie roots, but a more sweeping and grand approach to the story would have been ideally preferred while still keeping the finely tuned characters intact.

However, it also works to its advantage, maintaining a distinctively cool, taut and slick vibe that isn’t weighed down by unnecessary visual effects or more typical Hollywoodian temptations. [B+]

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Review: End of Watch a superbly acted cop drama with visceral and emotional realness

Posted by Max Lalanne on September 21, 2012

In writer-director David Ayer‘s End of Watch, the cops at the center of this engaging, surprisingly good slice-of-life drama set in the violent, tough South L.A. area aren’t rogue vigilantes or morally questionable or corrupt or even dealing with the latter in the system. These arguably “bigger” and certainly more cinematically tired themes are of no interest to this movie, which focuses on a pair of LAPD self-described “ghetto street cops” (Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena) as they cruise around in their black-and-white and generally are allowed to behave much like normal, relatable human beings who happen to be putting their life on the line every minute.
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Weekend Wrap-up: Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia & more

Posted by Max Lalanne on September 21, 2012

Yirmaz Edogan, Firat Tanis, and Murat Kiliç in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia: This 2011 Turkish import (with English subtitles throughout) by Nuri Bilge Ceylan is a tremendous feat of filmmaking. A dark, morose, and funny police procedural taking place largely in the rolling steppes of Anatolia, in rural Turkey, at night, the 150-minute-long film follows a police commisioner (Yirmaz Edogan), a prosecutor (Taner Biset), and a young doctor (Muhammet Uzuner) who – along with a little group of policemen, soldiers, and diggers – are driving around a convicted murderer in order to find a body buried somewhere in a field. Read the rest of this entry »

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Weekend Wrap-up: Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West & more

Posted by Max Lalanne on September 17, 2012

An early scene in Once Upon a Time in the West.

Once Upon a Time in the West: Made in 1968, two years after The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Sergio Leone returned from semi-retirement with a veritable epic that showed how much he’d matured in his filmmaking (and that there’s no one that can make movies like him paired with composer Ernio Morricone, but we already knew that). The ravishing Claudia Cardinale stars as a newly-married prostitute-turned-wife who arrives in the dust desert town of Flagstone to find her new husband and his family massacred, victims of the nasty Frank (Henry Fonda), a hired gunslinger working for handicapped railroad baron Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti). Read the rest of this entry »

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Trailer for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln released

Posted by Max Lalanne on September 13, 2012

Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln.

As expected, Daniel Day-Lewis seems to be giving out a brilliant performance here in Steven Spielberg‘s  Lincoln. Portraying our favorite American president during a turmoil-filled period of history in our nation, he’ll certainly catch the eye of the Academy voters, win a lot of awards, etc. Everything else in the trailer though….? I’m not convinced that this is a major standout film more than, say, War Horse was last year.  Nothing seems to be particularly outstanding or new or exciting or oh-my-god-this-looks-so-good-I-can’t-wait-till-November quality. Except, again, Day-Lewis. Music by John Williams and cinematography from Janusz Kaminski, as usual, with Tony Kushner (Munich) writing the script based on Doris Kearns Goodwin‘s bestselling historical novel Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

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Double Feature: Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible, Part One

Posted by Max Lalanne on September 9, 2012

Nikolai Cherkakov in Alexander Nevsky.

[Note: Every week or so a pair of old, classic films that deserve modern attention will be spotlighted in the “Double Feature” column.  If you have suggestions for future installments feel free to hit me up on Twitter.]

In 1938, Sergei Eisenstein, the immensely talented composer Sergei Prokofiev, and Joseph Stalin‘s favorite actor Nikolai Cherkakov were brought together to create Alexander Nevsky, a thinly-veiled propaganda piece designed to stir up proud patriotism in the Soviet people and perhaps even scare the eminent threat of German invasion away. And what better way to do that then with a 17th-century-set medieval epic, about one of Russia’s most legendary princes nobly leading his people against an assault of Teutonic knights invading his homeland — and valiantly succeeding, of course? But Alexander Nevsky, which was hastily pulled from circulation when the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact came into existence a year later, and promptly reinstated in 1941 when Adolf Hitler did invade Russia, is one of those films that go beyond their original purpose. It’s a breathlessly grand and superbly enjoyable spectacle in the greatest sense of the word, made to inspire and rouse audiences even just through the awesome power of its visuals.

The climatic Battle of the Ice — which commences roughly halfway through the film — is the main draw, and it is quite spectacular indeed when matched with Prokofiev’s resonant score. (And we still see its influence in almost every film which included an epic medieval battle.) The Teutonic knights, purportedly deeply religious yet still prone to barbarically throwing babies and infants into fires, make for a fearsome lot, charging on their horses on a frozen lake with their large square-ish helmets and billowing cloaks. But no matter, for as a victorious Alexander Nevsky sternly reminds the people of Novgorod at the very end, “He who comes to us sword in hand, by the sword shall he perish.” Yes, it’s cheesy propaganda, but do you really care after watching such a fantastic film?

A scene from Ivan the Terrible, Part One, with Cherkakov’s shadow reflected on the wall.

1944’s Ivan the Terrible, Part One, which reunites Eisenstein, Prokofiev, and Cherkakov for yet another Stalin-approved depiction of a historical figure, is quite a different beast than Alexander Nevsky. The main antagonists are not helmeted German invaders, rather scheming boyars lurking in the shadowy confines of the tsar’s castle and who oppose Ivan’s dream of a united Russia; similarly, a poisoned cup of wine is of more deadly importance here than a plain sword or an axe. Mikhail Nazvanoz and Lyudmilla Tselikovskaya give fine supporting performances, while Cherkakov dons an scraggly long beard and dark robes for his role as Ivan, willingly casting off some of his boyish good looks that he used to fully advantage in Alexander Nevsky. (But, seeing as it passed the censors with no problem, you’d have to wait until Ivan the Terrible, Part Two, which Stalin restricted until 1956, for something that offers a taste of the more unpleasant side of Tsar Ivan.)

Ivan the Terrible, Part One is murky and moody and awfully melodramatic, and Eisenstein certainly recognized the acute difference in style and milked it to full potential when it came to the visuals. With his cinematographer Andrew Moskvin, Eisenstein expertly played with harsh shadows and light and the extreme ends of the available black-and-white spectrum to create lavishly detailed (all those heavily bejeweled Russian costumes help) and striking aesthetics that even bring to mind that of Citizen Kane, in some scenes. While the story might not be as easily captivating and rousing as Alexander Nevsky, if you can get into it, it’s rewarding enough. Both are classics in their own way, and more than deserve to be seen outside the limited realm of  film studies classes and scholarly lectures, that is, if you don’t mind sitting through a bit of Soviet propaganda — and two very fine films.

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