Short takes: Krampus, Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 & Creed

Krampus

Krampus — Krampus is a delightful, deranged revision to the standard dysfunctional family Christmas film.  It begins as one, with a slew of perfectly cast character archetypes — Toni Collette as a controlling mom, David Koechner as her gun-toting, obnoxious brother-in-law — trapped inside a home for the holidays.  The first third of the movie is sharply written, but fairly standard.  They bicker at dinner, pick at each other’s life choices and complain about the cooking.  Then Max (Emjay Anthony), a young boy teetering on the edge of believing in Santa, is ridiculed by his cousins into tearing up his letter for the North Pole.

From here, Krampus comes unhinged in the best possible way.  Max’s lack of faith disturbs St. Nick’s evil twin, a monstrous, horned demon who lands in the neighborhood with a band of demented elves and possessed Christmas toys.  Director Michael Dougherty orchestrates a gleeful spectacle of it all, finding a perfect tone that blends absurdity with terror.  From gingerbread men cackling as they fire a nail gun at someone to a giant clown jack-in-the-box that eats children, Krampus is filled with some wonderfully terrifying imagery.  The ending slightly cheapens the overall effect of everything before it, but I can see this movie becoming a welcome holiday alternative whenever someone suggests that we watch The Santa Clause for the 800th time.  Grade: B

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Short Takes: Mockingjay Part 1, Whiplash, Force Majeure & more

Hunger Games Mockingjay

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 – The premiere dystopian young adult franchise continues its gradual steps forward in quality in this third installment, which is slightly more above average than the second.  In Mockingjay Part 1, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is at the center of a propaganda machine for a rebel group attempting to overthrow the sinister, Donald Sutherland-led central government.

This set-up, whether intentional or not, makes this third Hunger Games at times feel like a commentary on franchise filmmaking.  The rebellion’s leaders critique Katniss’ blank, disinterested performance in the propaganda in the same way Lawrence was picked apart for her apathy in the first film (to her credit she has vastly stepped up her game since then).  That’s the most interesting thing about Mockingjay, aside from seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman and Julianne Moore share the screen as those scheming rebel leaders.  Director Francis Lawrence choreographs the uprising with just enough ferocity to make it resonate while still restraining it enough for a PG-13 rating.  Grade: C+

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REVIEW: A Most Wanted Man

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A Most Wanted Man
Directed by: Anton Corbijn
Written by: Andrew Bovell (screenplay), John le Carré (novel)
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Rachel McAdams and Robin Wright

Though this John le Carré adaptation switches between being a generic spy caper and a thrilling one, it was a great moviegoing experience for me simply because it was the last new movie I’ll ever see with Philip Seymour Hoffman in a leading role.  Yes, he’ll return as a supporting player in the final Hunger Games installment(s), and his debut in the last movie was filled with promise; but this is his last time at center stage, and I’m glad (but not surprised) that he knocks it out of the park.

A Most Wanted Man, directed by Anton Corbijn, is several steps behind the flashes of mastery in Tomas Alfredson’s take on le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and it even copies many of the visual elements used in that movie.  There are brightly colored rooms filled with drab spies speaking cryptically, and windowless, deglamorized operation hubs that felt lifted from the world of Alfredson’s film.  Though both movies benefit greatly from fantastic central performances, A Most Wanted Man’s winding, post-9/11 paranoia narrative doesn’t establish character nearly as well.

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Our Favorite Performances of 2012

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1. Joaquin Phoenix (The Master)- There must be something about Paul Thomas Anderson that gets such raw, elemental performances for his movies.  Phoenix, after his faux crazy odyssey, gives The Master such ferocious, filthy life that he managed to beat all the other fantastic roles this year, including the great Daniel Day-Lewis (who also gave Anderson an immortal performance in There Will Be Blood).

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2. Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln)- Though Lincoln is an ensemble drama, it is built from the ground up around a character that needed to be reigned in and humanized.  Day-Lewis is not larger than life as our 16th president because that would’ve added layers of cheese to a movie that was already scored by John Williams.  His take on Lincoln often appears exhausted, both physically and emotionally, as he should be while overseeing the Civil War while trying to push through the 13th amendment to ban slavery and contend with family drama.

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3.  Emmanuelle Riva (Amour)- The slow, ruthless decline of Anne during Michael Haneke’s Amour is essential to the movie’s success.  From her first, silent stroke at the breakfast table to her crippled, mangled body by the end, this is a performance that required great emotional honesty without overdoing it.  She gives one of the most wrenching depictions of hopeless, helpless illness ever.

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REVIEW: The Master

The Master
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson (screenplay)
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Laura Dern

The latest film from mythic American auteur Paul Thomas Anderson is an ambitious, beautiful mess.  With 2007’s There Will Be Blood, he announced himself as one of the greatest working directors, altering and unhinging the film community much in the same way that that movie’s protagonist alters and unhinges himself and the landscape.

The Master is both a historical continuation and thematic sibling to that film, which concluded in 1927.  Anderson skips over The Great Depression and World War II, and picks up at the dawn of the 1950s, in a glamorous age of excess and social repression.  Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a disturbed Naval veteran, does not belong to this era.  He is too overtly sexualized and too much of an alcoholic to fit in with the tidy, polished department store where he works briefly as a portrait photographer at the beginning of the movie.

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ARCHIVE REVIEW: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
Directed by: Sidney Lumet
Written by: Kelly Masterson (screenplay)
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei, and Albert Finney

We didn’t know until recently that Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead would be the last film from the masterful director Sidney Lumet.  Few saw it when it was released back in 2007, which is a fair summation of Lumet’s later career.  Though the all-important edge remained in his work, especially this ferocious indictment of American family dynamics, the “classic status” of films like 12 Angry Men and Dog Day Afternoon was not achieved.

By no means does this make Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead lose merit, but it is not a classic.  All directors don’t get to end on masterpieces (Stanley Kubrick didn’t), but Lumet had the distinction of making them.

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ARCHIVE REVIEW: Magnolia

Magnolia
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, and Philip Seymour Hoffman

Capturing the entirety of the human experience is an ambitious goal, one that many filmmakers never really feel up to tackling.  Paul Thomas Anderson thinks its third feature material.  Let’s face it though, the movies are better when the focus is narrowed.

That’s not to say Magnolia is not a beautiful, often breathtaking piece of work.  It is, in fact, a blueprint of sorts of the new decade of filmmaking that was to follow in the year 2000.  The seemingly unrelated yet interwoven storylines of films like Traffic, Babel or Crash meet the bizarreness of network television polluting Requiem for a Dream.  Bookending the film is the snarky know-it-all narrator you may know from Woody Allen films.

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