The Illusionist is an odd little film that doesn't do much but is charming enough to get away with it. The film is Sylvain Chomet's follow-up to The Triplets of Bellville, and anyone who's remotely familiar with that film won't be surprised to hear that this features some unique animation. Even more noteworthy, however, is the decision to make the film virtually dialogue-less. It's a bold choice, but the sweet central relationship-and the wonderfully slim running time-ultimately makes the lack of dialogue an acceptable and enjoyable stylistic choice. If only the film carried a little more heft, I'd be able to give it as strong a recommendation as its fellow Best Animated Feature nominees, Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon.
The film takes place in post-WWII Scotland and England, and follows an old-fashioned illusionist who is getting up there in years and losing a little of his talent-not to mention the fact that magic as a form of entertainment is being shunned in favor of rock-and-roll. So the illusionist travels along, struggling to find an audience. But a young girl he meets in a pub, Alice, is immediately taken by his magic. She thinks it's real and decides to follow the illusionist on his "UK tour," so to speak. The two develop quite a bond, but in his quest to make Alice happy, the illusionist buys her things and begins to go into debt. The result of his problems will change their relationship and give both of them a tough life lesson.
Though punctuated with moments of gentle humor, The Illusionist is a drama through and through. The overall arc of the film is actually quite tragic, as we observe the decline of a delightful profession and the dissolution of Alice's innocence. That being said, the film never gets too serious. The simple charms of the animation are enough to keep a smile on your face, and watching these two individuals bond is the film's chief pleasure.
I'm unfamiliar with Jacques Tati, but from what I've read it's impossible to see this film and not discuss the beloved French comedian and filmmaker. The Illusionist comes from the mind of Tati, and the illusionist himself is supposed to be modeled after him. Not knowing Tati or his work, I'd say the film reminded of the work of someone like Buster Keaton. The illusionist is clumsy at times, and his mishaps are quite funny. But the humor is never over-the-top. All the laughs are relatively subtle, and they help give the film a good, steady pace.
Ultimately, though, The Illusionist just feels like a minor entry in the surprisingly good 2010 film canon. I consistently enjoyed it, but I rarely felt crazy, head-over-heels, in love with it. The smiles it brought to my face were welcome, but it hasn't left much of an impact on me. But if you're looking for a pleasant way to spend an hour and 15 minutes, The Illusionist is a better than solid choice.
Last April, I spoke to Nash Edgerton, director of The Square, about his film and the state of Australian cinema. He told me to keep an eye out for Animal Kingdom, a gangster thriller in the vein of Goodfellas that would be coming out a few months later. I finally caught up with rookie director David Michod's feature, and while I wouldn't compare it to Martin Scorsese's masterpiece in terms of quality, the narrative and structural similarities are apparent. It's an intriguing picture that features some genuinely surprising twists, but it keeps you at an arm's length emotionally, and that lack of a connection prevents it from reaching the lofty heights it aspires to.
The film follows the Cody family-a group of an Australian family of criminals-through the eyes of its youngest member-Josh, or J (James Frecheville). J's mother has just overdosed, so he seeks out his estranged grandmother, Janine (Jacki Weaver), to take care of him. From there, he becomes more and more familiar with the illegal dealings of his uncles-the vicious, heartless Pope (Ben Mendelsohn); the somewhat dim-witted Darren (Luke Ford); and Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), who's the most intense, and paranoid, of the bunch. J enjoys spending time with his new family, and generally chooses to turn a blind-eye to their crimes, but when the police decide to really crack down on the Codys, J is forced to think about whether or not he's willing to go down with them.
The film's plot is only marginally important, really. For a while, I wasn't quite sure where this was going (and I wasn't quite sure I liked it that way), but in presenting things the way he does, Michod is able to sustain tension throughout the film, as well as surprise us every once in a while. It's a kind of gangster film that I, and I'm guessing many Americans, are unaccustomed to. There aren't any big moments (excepting maybe the brilliant conclusion), and while I can look back at the film now and appreciate that, I have to admit that as I was watching, it tested my patience on occasion.
Animal Kingdom is being recognized most for Jacki Weaver's performance, but I didn't find all that much extraordinary about it. She's good and has the perfect look for this part, but I think it's a matter of the part just being incredibly juicy, rather than well-acted. She has this sort of hold on the men in her life that makes them do precisely what she wants them to without them even realizing. But perhaps her scariest attribute is her ability to toss you aside so easily when you no longer serve her interests.
I actually found Ben Mendelsohn's to be the film's standout performance. He's an absolutely brutal individual, who isn't afraid to do anything to anyone if it means keeping himself out of trouble. Yet, he's very soft-spoken, and it appears that he genuinely wants to have a relationship with his nephew. The two contrasting sides to his personality are frightening, but great to watch.
As a writer and director, I think David Michod is definitely a talent to watch. We've seen films like this many times before, but he makes things his own with a deliberate pace, a number of visually interesting sequences (like the conclusion, which is framed in a fascinating way), and two very vivid characters. His direction is a little rough around the edges (I was a little turned off by the overreliance on slow-motion), but I'll be in line when his next film makes its way stateside.
I guess the film Animal Kingdom reminded me of most was The Town. It's very competently made-really, there's little I can fault the film for technically-but it's hard to muster up a ton of enthusiasm for it. Everything is good, but little about the film is great. And while that makes for an engaging two hours, it's not necessarily the recipe for a film I'll remember all that well.
Ordinary People is one of those Best Picture winners that gets a bad rap. It's easy to write the film off because it's a simple, though powerful, vision, and it went up against one of the most highly regarded films ever (Raging Bull). But you can't, or at least shouldn't, completely ignore a film this good. It's complex and moving, but not in an overly sentimental way. For the 90% of the film, Robert Redford (in his directorial debut, nonetheless) doesn't let his characters take the easy way out. The raw emotions on hand feel real because they are complicated. The ending feels like a cop out, which brought the film down just a bit, but the rest of the film and its strong performances more than make up for it.
The film begins about a six months after the Jarrett Family has been brought to its knees when Buck, the elder of two Jarrett siblings, died in a boating accident, and shortly thereafter, the younger brother, Conrad (Timothy Hutton), tried to commit suicide. After a lengthy stint in the hospital, Conrad still hasn't fully recovered and is still haunted by dreams of the accident. His parents, on the other hand, aren't quite sure how to handle him. His mother, Beth (Mary Tyler Moore), is very cold toward him. His father, Calvin (Donald Sutherland), simply wants to return things to normal.
Ordinary People isn't all that different from films like Rabbit Hole or In the Bedroom. Its characters are all complex, as are the emotions they are dealing with (or in some cases, not dealing with). Easily the most vivid character is Conrad. He definitely has a lot of issues he's dealing with (in the film, he regularly visits a therapist played by Judd Hirsch), and the way struggles with them directly drives the plot. Despite what the Academy declared (Hutton inexplicably was nominated for and won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar), Ordinary People is Conrad's story.
Where the film has a problem is with its ending. To be fair, there's only so much you can do when your source material is a beloved novel, but what happens with this film's ending is that it loses sight of just whose story this is. It simplifies things in the hope of providing a pat resolution for those we sympathize with. And worst of all, it completely disposes of one vital character. What happens to this character is a shame, for her or she (don't want to spoil it) provided the film with much of its complexity. I wish the film ended more strongly, for it definitely could have been a four-star picture.
The film is an acting showcase. Timothy Hutton's Oscar was well-deserved. I adored the way Conrad wears his emotion on his sleeves, and the fusion of intensity and vulnerability within the character commands your attention whenever he's onscreen (which is for most of the film). Mary Tyler Moore is astonishingly good as the mother from hell. She genuinely doesn't care for her son, and she repeatedly forces her husband to choose between her and Conrad. She's a character who typically would be sympathetic (suffering mother who has undergone a tragedy), but Moore makes her seem downright despicable. Finally, there's Donald Sutherland, who's the good guy in the bunch. He just wants to bring everyone he loves back together, and he struggles admitting to himself that it might just not be possible.
Ordinary People's Best Picture win is typically not looked upon with great favor, but compared to many of its fellow 1980s winners, it's a triumph. The film is emotionally honest and I was pleased by how often it restrains itself. There are a few moments of over-direction, as well as a weak ending, but on the whole, it's a worthy motion picture that deserves more praise than it typically receives.
I've made my love for 127 Hours plain enough around here, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that Buried was pretty high on my most-anticipated list. After sitting through Rodrigo Cortes' film, however, I can say the two bear little resemblance. Besides the obvious "lone man trapped and fighting for his life" stuff, these are two vastly different experiences. Where 127 Hours is transcendent and emotionally satisfying, Buried is a cruel cheat. I wasn't totally with it in the beginning, but I found it somewhat compelling-until the end, that is. It's a disgusting way to end a 90-minute investment, and it just spoiled everything that was good about what came before it. What a waste.
Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) works for an independent contractor in Iraq as a trucker. One day, his convoy is attacked, and he finds himself tied up and buried alive. After the initial feeling of panic, Paul realizes he has been left with a lighter and a cell phone, and he begins contacting various authorities to see if they can locate and rescue him.
Giving away too much of the plot would be unfair, though I'd love to shout out the film's ending and implore you not to waste your time because of it. Buried is the ultimate exercise in malicious misdirection. There's little need to end things the way Cortes and screenwriter Chris Sparling do, other than to elicit a sense of shock. On that front, they do a good job, but the shock isn't a clever or satisfying one.
Besides the awful ending, however, Buried is littered with problems. The first thirty minutes or so are sleep-inducing, with Paul simply making phone call after phone call to clueless bureaucrat after clueless bureaucrat. If I want to hear some dopes on the phone, I'll call my credit card or cable company. I don't want to watch this in a movie; It's silly.
The cinematography, which I've seen lauded by others, was quite obtrusive, in my opinion. Some disbelief is certainly necessary to get through this film, and I was willing to follow it a certain distance. But when camera pans out further and further from Paul-on more than one occasion, mind you-I have to draw the line. If this guy is buried underground, where's the room for the camera to move like that? It's fine to move it, if that's the kind of film you're making, but Buried sets itself up as a "you are there with this guy" sort of thing, and it decides to abandon that visual approach when it best suits the film.
All that being said, I did think Ryan Reynolds gave a great performance. Like James Franco in 127, he's on his own (with just a few actors on the phone to work off of). It's a performance that gets under your skin because of the predicament this man is in, and though Reynolds doesn't quite shed his cocky image, he does manage to hold your attention throughout. It's good stuff.
But other than a great lead performance (and a cool opening title sequence), Buried is sloppy filmmaking. It twists and turns for no real reason, and its gritty, unsettling, you-are-there way of presenting things is a little played out by the end of 90 minutes. I wanted to like it; I really did. And though I expect I'm in the minority on this one, I have to say that Buried will likely go down as one of the biggest disappointments of 2010.
The Big Lebowski has to be one of the most absurd movies I've ever seen. It's practically plotless. Its comedy is gleefully absurd. And it doesn't once try to be something it's not. As always, I admire the Coens for going so out there and not caring if they lose a majority of viewers along the way. It features incredibly vivid characters in unbelievable situations. Is it lacking something more? Of course, but it's still a ton of fun.
The film is a story of mistaken identity on steroids. Jeff Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), aka The Dude, is a stoner stuck in the 1960s. He doesn't work, doesn't really change his clothes often, and spends all of his spare time bowling with his friends, the loud and proud Vietman vet Walter (John Goodman) and the mild-mannered bonehead Donny (Steve Buscemi). One evening, The Dude is accosted in his own home by two men looking for a The Big Lebowski (David Huddleston), one of Los Angeles' wealthiest businessmen.
After the crooks soil his carpet (which perfectly complements the room), The Dude sets up a meeting with this other Lebowski to settle the debt. Things don't exactly go as planned, but shortly afterward, The Big Lebowski contacts The Dude again with a proposition. His wife, Bunny (Tara Reid), has been kidnapped, and he wants The Dude to deliver the $1 million ransom. The Dude obliges, but his ineptitude, combined with the ineptitude of everyone around him, causes things to veer off the tracks quickly, and no one quite knows exactly how it happened.
While the plot takes a lot of time to set up, there really isn't much of it to speak of. Once we know how the characters relate to one another, the film plays out like a series of hilarious vignettes. Everyone has a different agenda, so nothing goes as planned. It's all just a riot to watch. I can only imagine how much fun it would have been in a, um, different state of mind.
And as much humor is derived out of the outlandish circumstances of these character, even more is derived from the way they speak to one another. "This is what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass," "Donny, you're out of your element," and "Say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it's an ethos," were all-timers for me. Walter is one of the funniest film characters I've seen in years, and while I've found John Goodman's manic tendencies a little much in previous Coen efforts, like Barton Fink and Raising Arizona, I thought he was perfect for the material here.
The star of the show, however, is Jeff Bridges' Dude. The character is larger-than-life, a real cult figure, yet he somehow doesn't disappoint. Is Bridges' performance amazing or anything? No, not really. But he's perfect. He is The Dude. There is no Dude without Bridges. And as good as he is in serious fare like Crazy Heart and True Grit, this is probably the performance he'll be remembered for-if for no other reason than the character is a legend.
The Big Lebowski is far from a perfect film, but it's so much fun to watch that any and all flaws are forgiven. The Coens eschew plot and conventions in favor of crafting the most absurd story they can. And they definitely pull it off.