Saturday, June 25, 2011

Bad Teacher

Movie Name: Bad Teacher
Year of Release: 2011
Director: Jake Kasdan
Stars: Cameron Diaz, Lucy Punch, Jason Segel, Justin Timberlake, Phyllis Smith, John Michael Higgins,  Jillian Armenante, Thomas Lennon, Eric Stonestreet
Genre: Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 2

Jake Kasdan has a great pedigree as a filmmaker: he is the son of the great and underrated Lawrence Kasdan (who directed "The Big Chill", "Silverado", "Accidental Tourist" and "Grand Canyon" to name but a few). He has also directed the funny and little seen "The TV Set", with David Duchovny and Sigourney Weaver. "Bad Teacher" follows the story of Elizabeth Halsey. Elizabeth is a teacher and a gold digger, whose marriage to a rich man falls flat once he realizes she is after his money. Forced to teach for another year, Elizabeth decides to firstly get bigger breasts and secondly find another man who will be a good provider for her. In order to achieve these goals, Elizabeth lies, manipulates, steals and seduces whomever crosses her path. 
This comedy which is desperately trying to be anti-politically correct,  runs out of interesting moments and situations very quickly. The writers clearly have not realized that humor does not come from simply using foul language. Cameron Diaz tries her best to be rude and crude, but the film always falls flat and unconvincing - her teacher isn't just bad, she's ultimately not interesting at all. Justin Timberlake as the object of her affection is considerably worse - his comedic timing is null (as is his acting). The only actor having some fun with the whole situation is Jason Segel, who ends up being the more interesting character of the entire film - he has fun with the whole simplicity of the film and the situations that arise. A very mediocre effort from a director who has a lot more potential.

The Tree of Life

Movie Name: The Tree of Life
Year of Release: 2011
Director: Terrence Malick
Stars: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan, Fiona Shaw, Joanna Going 
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6

The enigmatic and always secretive Terrence Malick is back, with a new film that has just won the Palm D'Or at Cannes. The director has thus far been responsible for 5 films, in a career spanning 4 decades. It has been widely known that Malick takes time to shoot and mainly to edit his films. After reading the book from Peter Biskind, "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls", it's easy to understand that Malick is obsessive and detailed in his approach in finding the right tone for a film - "Days of Heaven" for instance,  took two years of editing. "The Tree of Life" is a philosophical contemplation about the meaning of life, about being true to oneself, the meaning of pure love, all seen through the eyes of a family in the suburbs of a north american city in the 50s. Through the eyes of that family, and in particular through the eyes of the elder child, Jack, we come to realize the dichotomies of what life and love are about and how they affect the way we relate to nature and the planet itself.
This is a very ambitious film, simultaneously grandiose and intimate. Terrence Malick paints a broad canvas, utilizing the microcosms of a family to extend his metaphors to the entire human race. Jack, the main character, is torn between the loose and loving upbringing of his mother, and the more disciplined and strict ruling of his father. These contradictions plant seeds of discomfort for his life as an adult, something that influences his relationships. The director approaches this remotely and with some distance - the current life of Jack is never more than a sad glance from Sean Penn, or an arid and void space where he stands. All the characters end up being keys for understanding a deeper meaning of how relationships should function and make sense in the world. Sadly, the characters are never fully explored and though the film tries to go in many directions, and it does reach some points of poignant beauty, it is also borderline simplistic and of questionable taste (particularly some "new age" scenes towards the end of the film). It's a film beautifully shot by Emmanuel Lubezki and very well acted by Brad Pitt. Jessica Chastain is muted throughout the film, as is Sean Penn. An interesting and flawed experience, worth investigating.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Midnight in Paris

Movie Name: Midnight in Paris
Year of Release: 2011
Director: Woody Allen
Stars: Owen Wilson, Marion Cotillard, Rachel McAdams, Michael Sheen, Kathy Bates, Mimi Kennedy, Kurt Fuller, Nina Arianda, Carla Bruni, Alison Pill, Tom Hiddleston, Corey Stoll, Kathy Bates, Adrien Brody, Adrien de Van, Yves Heck
Genre: Comedy, Fantasy, Romance
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6

Woody Allen's new film after "You'll Meet a Tall Dark Stranger", follows a new group of characters in a different European city, this time Paris. The film follows the story of Gil, a screenwriter in Hollywood, who is trying to be a writer and who is engaged to Inez, a beautiful but superficial woman. Both are visiting Paris, a city Gil always wanted to move into, but never had a chance. During their stay, Gil and Inez start going their separate paths, Inez with Paul and Carol on cultural strolls (that result in an affair with Paul) and Gil going on a more fantastical journey through time. Each night as the clock indicates midnight, Gil is taken back to the 1920s where he gets to exchange ideas with luminaries such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso and Gertrude Stein, to name but a few. These meetings have an impact on Gil's relationship with Inez and ultimately his life.
Woody Allen builds a film that is clearly enamored with the city of Paris and with nostalgia - specifically with the 1920s. The film is an ode to Paris, whereas the characters are a continuation of his usual universe, starting with his alter ego Gil, the screenwriter trying to find his own voice through his writing. There's as usual the muse (personified by the beautiful and lovely Marion Cotillard) and the larger than life characters who in this case are well known icons, such as Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso. The film is simultaneously a reflection on the importance of art and also finding one's true voice as a path to real happiness. It's a dream-like film, not as inspired as the Woody Allen from the 70s/80s/90s, but much better than his latest output. A film worth watching.

Super 8

Movie Name: Super 8
Year of Release: 2011
Director: J. J. Abrams
Stars: Joel Courtney, Kyle Chandler, Elle Fanning, Riley Griffiths, Zach Mills, Ryan Lee, Ron Eldard, Gabriel Basso, Noah Emmerich, Jessica Tuck, Glynn Turman, David Gallagher, Brett Rice
Genre: Mystery, Adventure, Sci-Fi, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6

J.J. Abrams has made a name for himself as a screenwriter for both TV (he created "Alias" and "Lost") and Features (he wrote Mike Nichols' "Regarding Henry" and Michael Bay's "Armageddon") and more recently as a producer and director. After the huge hit that was the reboot of "Star Trek", Abrams in association with Steven Spielberg (as a producer), wrote the story for "Super 8", which gets a lot of its inspiration from the early Spielberg films (that he both directed and produced, such as "ET" and "Batteries not Included", directed by Matthew Robbins).
"Super 8" follows the story of young Joe Lamb and his group of friends, who live in a small town in Ohio. Joe is distant with his father, particularly since his mother passed away. Joe and his group of friends are trying to finish a small zombie film, when they accidentally witness the derail of a train carrying a very unusual cargo. The army gets called in and all sorts of strange things start happening in the small town. It's up to Joe and his friends to understand what is going on.
J.J. Abrams is an intelligent writer and director, and in this case in particular he uses the fantasy of films, something the children are doing and embracing, to evoke a time that has gone by. The sense of nostalgia is fueled by the union of this group of children, each one suffering their own losses, who come together for the sheer love of film and adventure. The film is very much a mix of Rob Reiner's "Stand By Me', Steven Spielberg's "ET" and Matthew Robbins' "Batteries not Included" - the creature from the outside is menacing, but never really threatening. In the end, everyone wants to be a part of a loving family (much like Spielberg's films). The only problem this film has, is the fact that where Spielberg's films stay true to his core of having family as a guiding light, "Super 8" feels calculated to elicit reactions and the sense of nostalgia of a time that has gone by. It's an entertaining film, made with a calculating perspective and without a sense of wonder.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

X-Men: First Class

Movie Name: X-Men: First Class
Year of Release: 2011
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Stars: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, January Jones, Jason Flemyng, Zoe Kravitz, Caleb Landry Jones, Edi Gathegi, Lucas Till, Matt Craven, Glenn Morshower, James Remar, Ray Wise, Alex Gonzalez, Michael Ironside, Jason Teghe, Brendan Fehr, Tony Curran
Genre: Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only):7

The "X-Men" universe is back after the disappointing last outings that were "X-Men: The Last Stand" directed by Brett Ratner and "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" directed by Gavin Hood, both of which had mediocre results. "X-Men: First Class" comes with a new director and with the association and touch of Bryan Singer, who directed thus far the two best films in that specific universe, namely "X-Men" and "X-Men: United".  The film follows the story of two men, Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr. While Charles is born into a family of wealth, Erik on the other hand, loses his family in the Holocaust and ends up being the target of experimentation at the hands of Stan Shaw, a mutant himself. Twenty years go by and Erik is now chasing the Nazis responsible for the demise of his family, including Shaw. Xavier on his side, is associated with the CIA when his talents are used to identify potential threats from the soviets. These two men join forces, alongside with young mutants to battle the common threat that is Stan Shaw, his Hellfire Club and the looming nuclear holocaust.
Following the success of "Kick Ass", Matthew Vaughn returns to the comic book universe, with some of the most iconic characters of the Marvel Universe. Whereas the last two films of the "X-Men" universe faltered under the mediocre hands of two disappointing directors, Vaughn clearly knows and understands the opportunity he has with these characters. The story cleverly mixes the Cold War tension, with the fear of Nuclear Holocaust and the mutant agenda - ultimately the common thread to all the "X-Men" films has been the lack of tolerance towards those who are different (something that "X-Men:Last Stand" and "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" completely disregarded). Matthew Vaughn also has fun inserting elements from the classic James Bond films, something that adds an extra layer of sophistication to the film. The cast is uniformly good, from James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Kevin Bacon who makes a perfect villain. A fantastically entertaining film!