In terms of film debuts it doesn't get any better than what Sean Durkin and Elisabeth Olsen do in Martha Marcy May Marlene. The film follows Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) as she tries to deal with the paranoia resulting from her thinking that the cult she escaped from will try to hunt her down. This paranoia is so perfectly portrayed due to a haunting atmosphere created by director and writer Sean Durkin and a no holds barred performance by Olsen. The two seem like veterans of their craft despite having no feature film experience.
Revelatory is probably the best word to describe Sean Durkin's work on the film. The film opens up with a sequence of the women in a cult waiting for their turn to eat as the men finish their meal. It's done subtly but leaves such a powerful message, and there are numerous sequences like this throughout the film. Another effective thing Durkin does during this sequence (and throughout the film) is use silence to create a spooky atmosphere. The sound mix on this film is perfection and brings the viewer closer to the amount of fear Martha is fearing. Durkin's direction is just so meticulous. He shows every one of Martha's struggles (internal and external) no matter how small. Just look at the many times, that when not in the center of the camera, Martha will do subtle glances over her shoulder as if she thinks she's being watched. All of this is of course shown and not told which is something a rookie director and writer will normally fail at doing.
Of course Durkin's direction couldn't be complete without his well written script. The best thing it does is the way it treats the jumps in time. It's just difficult enough to follow that you can never take your eye off the film but it's never so difficult that you have no idea what is going on. He also does a great job of juxtaposing between the two main timelines (such as subtle scenes of characters drinking and swimming).
Now onto Olsen who is fearless in the lead role as she isn't afraid to do anything in front of the camera. She also effectively shows vulnerability and confusion in a realistic manner (just watch one of the opening scenes involving a phone call to her sister for proof). The most visible evidence of this great performance though is the stark contrast between the pre-cult and post-cult versions of Olsen's character. They are two completely different characters and Olsen portrays them both in an exceptional manner. The real highlight of the cast though might be John Hawkes. I think the best thing I can say about him is that he is the one guy I would never want to meet in a dark alley. He is brilliant at portraying scary figures. As the cult leader in this film, he is captivating and it's easy to see why he has such a following (especially during his portrayal of "Marcy's Song"). All you do is wait for this guy to come back on screen as he is always on your mind.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is a disturbing yet completely captivating story of the downside of fanaticism.
It is said that Like Crazy had a budget around $250,000. That is a very cheap budget by today's film standards. This is not meant to be a sleight against the film as the style used on this cheap budget gives it a very realistic feel to the film. The problem with this film is that it does not use this realistic style effectively. It too often heads into melodramatic territory, a style of storytelling that completely goes against the atmosphere the film is aiming for.
It is weird to see that Drake Doremus both directed and wrote the film (although Ben York Jones co-wrote the screenplay with him) as the two goals that these two jobs are trying to accomplish seem to be antagonistic with each other (realism vs. melodrama). You would think that a director who also writes his film would be able to create a film where the script and directorial style work with each other. Not so here. Separately, however, the directing and script are pretty effective. The directing effectively creates an authentic style. Doremus effectively captures the subtleties of both the characters and their story. The screenplay also does a great job of allowing the actors to form the characters while still containing some interesting choices (such as the ambiguous ending).
The film's biggest asset though is the cast. Felicity Jones has a breakout performance as Anna. She makes it easy to see why someone would want to invest heavily in a relationship with her and makes her vulnerability so realistic. Anton Yelchin is the perfect complinet to Jones. He is subtle but in an expert way as he lets Jones' much more interesting character take command of the screen. This has been an impressive year for Yelchin as he was also great in The Beaver (in a completely different role).
Beyond that the supporting cast is very uninteresting. Chris Messina (who was one of the standouts of this past season of Damages) is completely wasted. The writing for Jennifer Lawrence meanwhile is borderline offensive. She just shows up with no introduction and then becomes an important part of the plot. Even then she is just treated as a plot point as no one bothers giving any dimension to her character. Then she disappears from the film as quickly as she appeared.
Like Crazy has many elements that anyone will see involve some real artistic ability (such as the performances from the leads), but the film is never able to find out what it wants to be. What results is a film with a disingenuous tone that turns me off from the film so much that I don't even care about an interesting choice of an ending.
The Muppets (the comeback film for the "former" pop culture icons) does a lot of things right. It is fun, touching and has many awesome moments. However, the greatest thing it does is make Jason Segel seem like the perfect person to resurrect The Muppets franchise. Segel revealed his love for the Muppets in the first screenplay he wrote, Forgetting Sarah Marshall. In that film Segel incorporated puppets that he actually asked Jim Henson's company to make into the plot. What resulted was one of the best scenes in the film ("Dracula's Lament").
Now three years later, Jason Segel stars and writes again but for the actual Muppets this time. Segel's script (which he co-wrote with constant collaborator Nicholas Stoller) is nothing special. In fact it is the weakest part of the film as it tries to cram in too much material and never picks which storyline in the film to really focus on. Segel's performance as Gary, the human protagonist, is also far from his best as he is just asked to look happy and sing instead of providing emotional depth. Despite this, Segel's enthusiasm for The Muppets is all over the film. Even the biggest grouch in the world will be smiling throughout this film and that is brought to you by this one man's conviction for the subjects of this film.
Segel's biggest accomplishment in the film is his choice of director. James Bobin seems like as big of a Muppets expert as Segel as he creates the perfect atmosphere for a film from this franchise. He is able to perfectly mix lavish dance numbers, amusing jokes, and moments of emotions while still giving almost everyone their moment in the spotlight (and this is a large cast of humans and muppets). Just look at the telethon that takes place during the third act where the muppets storyline and human storyline mix wonderfully. The telethon also is a major reason why both new viewers and longtime viewers of the muppets will both love it as it features a mix of classic Muppets skits and entirely new content (speaking of the new content, the original songs in this film are spectacular with "Life's A Happy Song" being of particular note).
Speaking of the cast, the actors do a great job. Amy Adams is perfectly casted even if she doesn't get much to do. Chris Cooper is Chris Cooper (meaning he is good as always). Rashida Jones does well with a very one-note role. The numerous cameos (including Jack Black, Mickey Rooney and Emily Blunt) are all fun.
The Muppets are of course great and are used effectively especially Kermit and Miss Piggy. My only complaint about them is that the new muppet introduced in this film, Walter, is not very effective. He is not interesting and that especially becomes apparent when he needs to use a talent of his late in the film. I will say though that he is exceptionally performed by Peter Linz.
All in all, I think The Muppets was the most fun I had at a theater all year long.
Bridesmaids has many moments of absurdity, real emotion, and almost every other thing you can think of. It seems to have it all. Too much in fact. The film just throws everything at the viewer with a "let's see what sticks" attitude. While box office receipts and audience enthusiasm seem to suggest this approach is working, in reality it does not. What results is a film with memorable moments that is glued together by complete nonsense.
The "let's see what sticks" approach to this film results heavily in the off-paced nature of the film that is so typical of a Judd Apatow production. Almost all of Apatow's films seem to be at least thirty minutes too long. At over 2 hours, Bridesmaids is no exception. Many of the attempts at comedy in the first half of the film could have easily been cut down or completely scrapped (in the case of a scene set around a dress fitting that results in non-stop potty humor). The only segment that belonged in this film was the expertly executed airplane sequence which just kept on ramping up the comedy for about ten minutes straight. As the film continued into the second half, the film spent way too much time on a feud you knew was going to be resolved. It resulted in the loss of screen time and character development of the supporting characters (and there is nothing wrong with the likes of Wendi McLendon-Covey and Ellie Kemper who show themselves to be great comedic actors on other shows and films).
Kristen Wiig of Saturday Night Live fame co-wrote the screenplay (in addition to starring in the lead role) with Annie Mumolo. On Saturday Night Live, she is known for being the only woman that they use in any sort of lead capacity (in terms of screen time) and for playing quirky characters. The problem is that quirkiness and a lot of screentime do not mix. The big problem with her roles on Bridesmaids is that her work is just a continuation from Saturday Night Live. Sure she gets to do some dramatic acting at points during the film but she is let done by her screenwriting that can only manage to use cliches to bring about the drama.
I do have to give credit to Wiig though (and Mumolo and director Paul Feig) for effectively tying in some of the side storylines of the film. Wiig has great chemistry with her love interest (played by Chris O'Dowd). That storyline comes off as very cute (and not in the overdone way). Another storyline involving a rivalry between Wiig's character and Rose Byrne's character (who steals many of the scenes in the film) comes across as one of the few genuinely funny portions of the film. It is actually odd to see Byrne getting such little credit while Melissa McCarthy gets so much. McCarthy isn't bad by any means, but she is being credited as a great actress when all she is doing is trying to be as obnoxious as possible.
The final blow to this film is the chemistry Between Wiig and Maya Rudolph. While they are friends in real life, it doesn't show on the screen. They never give the viewer a reason to root for that friendship so when it inevitably all goes to hell and becomes the main conflict of the film, there is no rooting interest.
Bridesmaids has some hilarious scenes, but that is about it as the rest of it is just held together by cliched developments.
Alexander Payne does a great job of taking a difficult subject and changing it into a watchable experience for a film audience. Therein lies the strength and weakness of his latest film, The Descendants. The Descendants follows Matt King (George Clooney), a lawyer and self-proclaimed "back-up parent", as he goes around with his two daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) telling friends and family that his wife is dying. While the plot sounds like something that would be hard to sit though, it is anything but. It is an enjoyable, well-acted tear jerker with only one fault: it's a little too predictable.
There is not one moment in the entire film that comes across as shocking. Everything is by the books, and while this does give us many emotional moments, it also gives the audience a want for something more. The screenwriters (including Payne doing double duty and Community's Jim Rash) do their best to make this film something special, but too much predictability and a superfluous subplot involving George Clooney's character trying to sell the rights to land he owns prevent them from doing so. Despite this, the screenwriters inject a perfect mix of humor and drama that really flies off the page with the help of Payne's directorial eye for realism.
This sense of realism that the film goes for at points is a major reason why George Clooney feels like the wrong choice for this film. Clooney too often comes off as just playing George Clooney. It happens here again as you never are really able to see Matt King. A perfect example of this is a scene in a bar where Payne decides to use a POV shot from the perspective of Clooney's charcter. The characters at this point seem like just a set of real people. That is until the shot ends and we are shown Clooney reacting to these characters. Clooney does the best he can with the material but it is not enough to get past his miscasting.
Luckily, the supporting cast is much stronger. Shailene Woodley is a revelation as the daughter of Clooney's character. It is amazing how quickly and smoothly she is able to transform her character from the bratty daughter to an almost mother-ly like character. She nails absolutely every scene in the first half as she suffers through coming to an acceptance with her mother's actions, and when her role changes in the second half she is able to create a fun repertoire with Clooney. The other three performances of note are those from Amara Miller (as the youngest daughter), Matthew Lillard (as an acquaintance of the family) and Robert Forster (as the father-in-law of Clooney's character). Miller is able to have chemistry with everyone she is onscreen with (which is surprising considering her young age). Lillard is able to create a sympathetic antagonist and Forster gives a powerful but short performance.
While the plot of this film is nothing special, The Descendants at least lives up to its name by featuring a cast where the young actors steal the show from their older counterparts.
It appears that Kyle Killen (the mind behind TV's short lived Lone Star and upcoming Jason Isaacs starring tv series, Awake) is one of the most promising up and coming creative talents in Hollywood. His first foray into film, completely backs up this perception. The Beaver (a film about a depressed CEO who forms a relationship with a Beaver hand puppet in order to cope) is an interesting, but far from mainstream portrayal of a tough topic (depression).
Killen's script is deftly directed by Jodie Foster (who also stars in the film as the main character's wife). Killen's script appeared to be such a tough script to bring to life. If the tone of the script was upset at all, the film would have completely failed. So it is such a wise choice that Foster decides to embrace the dark nature of the script. She holds nothing back and what results is a film that lets the script and performances tell the story. The one side effect of Foster embracing the nature of the script is that it takes a while to get into the film. It has such a unique atmosphere that makes it seem as the film is moving slowly as you adjust to it. Once it does find it's rhythm, however, Foster is able to get it to flow as if she were a director who has been directing for decades.
The real highlight of this film, though, is the top notch cast. To begin with, Mel Gibson's role as the depressed father who uses a puppet to treat himself has to be one of the most interesting career choices an actor has ever made. The role is somewhat similar to the public's perception of the man in real life. I would actually call it a perfect career move by Gibson as the film was never going to play to mainstream audiences and those who do will be able to separate the actor from the man. It's the perfect starting block for a comeback, and it is one of his best performances ever. Gibson is able to handle the difficult material with ease. Most actors would have succumbed to the silliness involved with talking with and through a beaver puppet in dramatic fashion. Gibson on the other hand pulls it off and gives one of the most startling performances this year. You can hate the man all you want, but as an actor, Mel Gibson is a talent.
Anton Yelchin is as good, if not better, as the son of Mel Gibson's character. Yelchin is able to perfectly capture Gibson's mannerisms while giving more depth to his rebel teenager. The rest of the cast is rounded out by the aforementioned Jodie Foster (who does a good job of being the clear point of sanity in the film) and Jennifer Lawrence (who continues to be one of the most promising young actors out there as she turns a cliche high school girl role into a sympathetic and complex person).
The Beaver is definitely not a film for everyone as it holds nothing back, but to those who can see the message that it is trying to display, the film is completely worth the time invested.
The Ides of March may have a ridiculous and cheesy title, but luckily the film itself is a cinematic achievement and may be the defining cinematic example of the dark side of politics. George Clooney and company create a captivating look at one man's fall from grace through the story of a Democratic primary for the US presidency in Ohio. While it may not provide any new insight or deeper meaning on American politics, it isn't seeking to do so. It just revels in the corruption of politics and the film is all the better for it.
George Clooney is appearing too be a far better director than he has an actor. While his acting seems to be a bit generic with some good old Hollywood charm added in, his directing style is anything but. This isn't to say he is bad in this film as a presidential candidate. He (as an actor) actually completely makes you believe that his character is the next "candidate Obama" (the Obama that many in America thought would provide real change to the corrupt political system we know today), and you can't do that with just good writing. However, as a director, Clooney provides a bunch of homages to other political films while simultaneously finding a dark but original atmosphere for the film.
Clooney actually does triple duty on this film as he co-wrote the screenplay, and to be honest, his screenwriting ability may be the best of the three. Along with Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon, Clooney creates a script where every character is complex and realistic. Just look at the main character of Stephen (portrayed by Ryan Gosling). The script takes him through a very believable fall from grace. Yet there were always subtle signs that this fall was inevitable. At the beginning of the film, Stephen is no saint. He is clearly a flawed individual, and this is where a lesser film would have fallen. It would have never used as flawed of a character as Stephen as the main viewpoint into the world of the film.
Speaking of Stephen, a lot of credit also has to be given to Ryan Gosling for creating such a complex character. Gosling immediately makes you root for this guy despite obvious warning signals in his character from the beginning. The transition of Stephen from your average human to monster is completely seamless in large part to this guy. In addition to Gosling, George Clooney was fortunately able to get an amazing cast to back him up. Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman are two actors that make acting look so easy that you forget that they are acting most of the time. Giamatti is especially great in this film with one fiery confrontation between his character and Gosling's. Evan Rachel Wood is powerful as the victim. She makes everything that happens to her character leave a mark on the audience. Gregory Itzin, Marisa Tomei and Jeffrey Wright are also good in small parts (especially Itzin who plays against type as a grieving father).
The one big problem with this film is that it carries on far too long. This is a film that should have been 90 minutes long. The film being 100 minutes doesn't seem like too much of a stretch, but you definitely feel those extra 10 minutes. The third act suffers the most from this extra time as it tries to smack you in the face with all of its political treachery. With the exception of one well executed showdown between Gosling's character and Clooney's, the majority of the third act could have been (and should have been) cut.
The Ides of March is masterfully directed, well-written and has a dream team of actors to perform it all. It should not be missed.
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