Monday, January 30, 2012

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Werner Herzog is a man of eclectic interests. His recent films have explored everything from Antarctica to death row. But as any loyal Herzog fan is aware, subject matter is only of topical concern to the filmmaker. His investigations into the lives of seemingly off-the-map individuals often tap into life’s deeper questions and abstractions; and yet he often remains befuddled by the both the simplicity and the wonderment of existence. Perhaps no place is better suited to Herzog's unpretentious stylings than one within the earth that few eyes have seen. Cave of Forgotten Dreams follows Herzog into a cave in France housing some of the oldest artistic representations in history, preserved for some 30,000 years. Sprawled across its rolling walls are renderings of men and beasts, stories frozen in time. It’s the stuff tailor-made for Herzog’s enlightened narration and trademark tangents. Watching the small team of filmmakers and scientists navigate the caverns is a breathtaking sight, but it is dwarfed by the stirring visions carved onto rock. Despite the limiting filming conditions, Herzog’s camera beautifully maneuvers the cave’s surreal surfaces, from the fossilized bones on the ground to the theater on the walls. These would surely make for compelling interludes in any film. But authored by Herzog, they become encounters with stories and people from a distant life. (Werner Herzog, 2011) ***½

Friday, January 27, 2012

Win Win

I resisted seeing Win Win for several months on account of its indie-pastiche marketing design. As a friend of mine pointed out, it was made to look like a Wes Anderson film, evidenced by the poster's bold yellow title text, symmetrical composition, and characters directly facing the camera.* The real tragedy of this is that a Fox Searchlight felt it had to sell the film to a niche audience to secure viewership, when in reality it faintly resembled the poster/DVD cover and should have wide appeal. It is life-affirming without being formulaic, hilarious without resorting to hackneyed stereotypes, and full of sharp observances without lecturing. As we have come to expect from Paul Giamatti, his performance is one of quiet subtlety. Few actors can pull off the challenges Giamatti meets in portraying a man hewing ethical lines in his struggle to make ends meet. Win Win doesn't just belong to Giamatti, but also to Amy Ryan, Jeffrey Tambor, Bobby Cannavale, and Alex Shaffer, each of whose performances contribute in making the dialogue and comedy—and the film as a whole—come alive. However, Win Win isn’t without flaw. David Edelstein sums up my criticisms far more succinctly and elegantly than I, expressing a wish that director Tom McCarthy would open and free up his frames and maybe hold shots longer. But these are minor complaints in the scope of what he achieves with this, his third feature. Perhaps most unique about McCarthy’s budding directorial voice is how skillfully in each of his three films he orchestrates a rich assembly of characters and performances in service of simple, but wholly genuine story told with nuance. (Tom McCarthy, 2011) ***

* I don't dislike the Wes Anderson aesthetic. Nevertheless, it has become tired and often itself a cliché akin to the very contemporary tropes Anderson ostensibly is out to undermine.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Like so many blockbuster types from last year, Rise of the Planet of the Apes offers a handful of near-remarkable images. The problem—as with much of its big-budget brethren—is that these images and moments are buried within a heap of bland storytelling and direction. I credit the film with excelling in places where many other contemporary blockbusters fail: It has a sense of stakes, a basic competency with its action sequences, and at its core a brilliant performance courtesy of Andy Serkis and Weta Digital. But for every close-up of pixilated wonderment there are countless contrivances that undermine any possibility of intrigue. Each character is fodder for a brutally mechanical plot. You have the good-willed but idiotic scientist, the sadistic aide at the abusive care center, and, yes, even the intelligent girlfriend who has almost nothing to do except look pretty and kiss the hero in a dramatic moment. These are what remain long after the images of dramatic Golden Gate showdown fade into a collective memory bank already overfull with battle scenes. (Rupert Wyatt, 2011) **

Thursday, January 19, 2012


Father-son stories represent a common thread in American cinema. A son either seeks his father’s acceptance or can be the source of his redemption. Beginners grazes these conventions but adds a new wrinkle to the narrative. Ewan McGregor plays a thirty-something artist whose father (Christopher Plummer, in a likely Oscar-winning performance) reveals that that he is gay. Much of the film is told in flashback, cutting between McGregor’s memories of his father's final years and his budding relationship with a French actress (played by the luminous Melanie Laurent). Per the title, this is a movie about learning who you are. But it is even more so about how identity is discovered, molded, and altered by and through relationships. It possesses the right amount of indie charm in telling a story of people longing to connect. Aided by strong performances, Beginners is by turns sorrowful and joyous, and one of more delightful movies released last year. (Mike Mills, 2011) ***½

Monday, January 16, 2012


Moneyball deserves a lot of praise, and not just because it makes the business of a billion-dollar game so compelling. Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin have received a big chunk of the credit for their efficient writing and crisp dialogue. But we mustn’t forget director Bennett Miller, whose cool command of the players and fluid dissemination of the many moving parts results in a real, visceral movie. My only complaint about such deft handling of complex material is that the film doesn’t quite dig to the heart of why the numbers and statistics are so important. Some of its finest interludes involve mathematics; unfortunately they are short-lived and undercooked as a result. Nevertheless this is smooth filmmaking. And at the center is Brad Pitt, who has never carried a movie on his shoulders as he does here. It’s not just that he owns the film from start to finish, but that he does it with a layered, subtle performance. His character exudes confidence when he’s wheeling and dealing, but in moments of quiet (see the opening and closing moments of the film) his eyes tell you everything. (Bennett Miller, 2011) ***

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Cowboys & Aliens

Jon Favreau’s film caught a lot of flak from critics—in part—for taking itself too seriously. On the contrary, one of the redeeming aspects of this otherwise forgettable genre mash-up is how it dons a straight face as it dishes out ludicrous servings of pulp. When you consider Cowboys & Aliens as both a brilliant title for a movie and as a moniker for the limitless possibilities of colliding sci-fi and western tropes, the movie itself is something of a disappointment. Yet as a modest tribute to these traditions it has enough appeal to get by. The story veers on the brink of oblivion and/or inconsequence at nearly every turn, but Daniel Craig’s portrait of an amnesia-suffering cowboy badass (the best kind of badass, of course) anchors the campy proceedings and keeps the film on course. Harrison Ford contributes his customary scowl, which this time comes packaged along with a Searchers-inspired racist redemption subplot. In whole, Cowboys & Aliens is a complete throwaway, but one I enjoyed as such. As an absurd genre exercise, in some ways this film reminded me of Frank Marshall’s Congo. And that is probably the highest compliment I can pay it. (Jon Favreau, 2011) **

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Hangover: Part II

At one time I was content with the notion of a carbon-copy sequel. Take Home Alone, for example. At nine years old, I was perfectly happy to see Kevin McCallister romp through the streets of New York as opposed to suburban Chicago in a film that was otherwise the same as its predecessor. The Hangover: Part II is essentially Todd Phillips’ Home Alone 2; except Daniel Stern and Joe Pesci’s shtick is much more bearable than watching Zach Galifianakis desperately try to rekindle the laughs he elicited from audiences with the original. I tried with this film—I really did—but it was no use. Props go to Phillips for the atmosphere and the look, but everything that seemed to work about the first first go-round falls flat here. This left me to wonder whether Phillips has any inkling as to what made the first movie work so well. Sure, we loved the Wolf Pack, but the individual comedy bits weren’t what set The Hangover apart from other comedies. There was a novelty to its brashness that gave it an enduring quality, and Part II all too well articulates this. (Todd Phillips, 2011)

Thursday, January 12, 2012

New directions

In comings days and weeks this blog will undergo some changes regarding its content. Given the difficulty I've had with posting frequency, I am adopting a new approach that should keep my writing and posting more in-line and consistent.

The capsule review.

I have avoided short write-ups for some time, mostly because it isn't a terribly exciting model for film writing. But I have recently concluded that for too long this has been my excuse to simply not write. And given the current state of the site, I'll take any writing to no writing at all. Moreover, while good capsule reviews are something of a rarity, this is less a statement about the form than it is a reflection of the difficulty of penning concise, interesting accounts of a film. Some of the best writing I have read recently has been of this variety, and it is about time I start pressing myself to explore it. Short and concise have not exactly been trademarks of my writing o'er these last five years of The Cinematic Art. So, in truth, I take this as a challenge. All news films I see in the theater or at home will receive a short review—probably no more than 200 to 250 words. I may pepper in some reviews of older films, though these will be less frequent.

It is my hope that I still find the time and energy to write commentary pieces on film criticism or a certain trend in film. These pieces tend to represent my preference for writing in this format. But they also require more time and inspiration than I have had lately. Nonetheless, I hope to still chime in to the larger discussion of this great circuit of film writing on the web, even if my contributions are not regular. In the mean time, for the foreseeable future, the capsule review will become this blog's identity.

From a personal viewpoint, I find that I am happier when I write. It is a daunting, often frustrating act for me. It always seems impossible. I write for my day-job in a very different format, and while the task at hand is different the challenge remains the same. Going from blank page to something useful and maybe even interesting is always a source of stress. However, the process is where real discovery happens. Writing helps me to better understand my response to a given movie, or a particular moment within a movie; a shot, a line of dialogue, an edit, etc. Movies are made up of so many things and criticism is a way not only to try to understand how movies work, but more importantly how movies (and art in general) can provoke our innermost states and burrow into our conscious and unconscious minds. For me, writing offers the ability to understand, hone, and develop those thoughts and feelings; which is why I am making a concerted effort to regain some direction for the site.

As always, thanks for reading and I invite your feedback.