Saturday, January 21, 2012

Capsule Review: The Pianist (2002)

Władysław Szpilman was a Jewish-Polish Pianist who, despite all odds, managed to survive the horrific German occupation of Warsaw, Poland. Perhaps no other director was better prepared to tell his story than Roman Polanski, who escaped from the Krakow Ghetto as a child after the death of his mother. Despite devastatingly emotional material, Polanski doesn't wallow in the sadness, instead embracing moments of quiet beauty amongst one of the greatest tragedies in modern history. He rests the entire film on the pitch perfect performance of Adrien Brody, who goes from naive professional to harrowed, impossibly traumatized survivor in a world so unrecognizable, that it seems nearly post-apocalyptic. When you witness the barbaric behavior of the Nazis in the film, it might be easy to believe the end of the world wasn't far behind. The 2002 winner of the Palme D'or at Cannes, and a truly powerful film.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Capsule Review: A Very Long Engagement (2004)

After Jean-Pierre Jeunet's disastrous Hollywood experience which resulted in Alien Resurrection, he returned to France and made the timeless, internationally beloved Amélie. His followup appeared at first to be a rather dramatic change of pace - a romantic drama focusing on a woman's desperate attempt to discover the fate of her fiancee, who was sent to his death during WW1 due to self-mutilation. However, Jeunet's visual gymnastics and unique storytelling devices are in full force, as the film darts around timeliness, making use of frequent cutaways, and employs a huge number of quirky, fascinating characters. But this is much more than simply Amélie goes to war - despite Audrey Tautou once again being radiant in the lead role. For one, the material is much bleaker, with scenes of intense violence and brutality that might make more sensitive viewers wince. The scope is also much wider, and feels much more grounded in reality despite Jeunet's otherworldly tendencies. Features Jodie Foster in a small role, showing off her impressive french skills.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Capsule Review: Gangs of New York (2002)

One of Martin Scorsese's dream projects, in development for over 30 years, Gangs of New York ended up a glorious mess, stuck somewhere between historical epic and action film. At over two and a half hours, it still feels like a compromised experience, perhaps exemplified by its casting. While Daniel Day Lewis as Bill "the Butcher" Cutting electrifies every moment he's on screen (and ably carries the film's dead spots), both Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz are horribly miscast, and even the incredible production design and supporting performances can't hide the weaknesses of those two stars. Thankfully, the supporting performers are universally excellent, and the settings makes for a fresh environment that is beautiful to look at - it's hard to believe that the sets were constructed in Rome, Italy. It's still massively entertaining, but feels unfortunately compromised. One can't help but wonder what a lean, hungry Scorsese might have made of this material in the 1970s. 

Monday, January 2, 2012

Capsule Review: The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008)

A delightfully overstuffed tribute to Sergio Leone's Spaghetti westerns, director Kim Ji-woon (The Foul King, I Saw The Devil) ramps up the action and comedy with the help of some of South Korea's most recognizable actors. The first half plays like a very loose remake of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly with the multiple characters all attempting to track down a treasure map after an incredible train robbery scene. The Good (Jung Woo-sung) is a grizzled rifle-carrying bounty hunter, while the Bad (I Saw The Devil's Lee Byung-hun) is an well-coiffed maniac out for revenge. Best of all is the always wonderful Song Kang-ho as the comically weird Yoon Tae-goo. While the film misses much of the emotional weight of Leone's masterpiece, and the second half rapidly morphs into a Korean take on It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World the results are so deliriously entertaining that the final scenes will leave you breathless. While taking place in 1930s Manchuria, the film still captures the desolate locales the films it's referencing, while bringing heavier WWII style fire-power into the fray. Tons of fun.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Capsule Review: District 9 (2009)

A South African-set science fiction film by a first time director and featuring almost no recognizable actors might be one of the least likely possible blockbusters, but director Neil Blomkamp (who had impressed filmmaker Peter Jackson with his short films) found worldwide acclaim for his mixture of special effects and political statement. Obviously inspired by the segregation within South Africa during the apartheid era, Blomkamp - adapting his own short film Alive in Joburg - posits the alien "prawns" as sadly helpless and despised by the people around them, and horribly mistreated as they are forced into government camps. The special effects - by Jackson's Weta Digital - are astounding, and are expertly incorporated into faux-documentary footage before the film seamlessly transitions into its narrative. While the metaphors tend to get a bit heavy handed, it's still a wonderfully entertaining and original film that promises great things from Blomkamp in the future.

Capsule Review: Fish Tank (2009)

A thoroughly honest, though consistently distressing, character piece, Andrea Arnold's FISH TANK is impeccably acted by newcomer Katie Jarvis and rising superstar Michael Fassbender. Jarvis plays Mia, a 15 year old girl growing up in a council estate in East London. She's angry, violent and headed toward a life likely similar to her own hard partying, alcohol fueled mother who has just started seeing the energetic, charming Connor (Michael Fassbender). While the film refuses to paint the characters in broad strokes, every possible bright spot between Mia and Connor is snuffed out after a drunken incident, but the film refuses to easily label Connor as a villain. The performances are amazing, and the constantly hovering hand-held camera puts the audience in the middle of a life flying rapidly out of control. Some of the symbolism is a bit on the nose, and at over two hours it can feel exhausting, but it remains a remarkable achievement for all involved. Winner of the Cannes Jury Prize, and recently released as part of the Criterion Collection.