Review: “Haywire” (2012)

It’s January and that can only mean one thing for theatres nationwide: time for all the campy action and demon possession movies to come out and play.

Around this time of year, I generally avoid the theatre unless an Oscar hopeful is just making it around to my city. No sense in wasting good money on movies that even their respective studios have little faith in. (That’s what Netflix is for.)

However, with “Haywire,” I had read online that it was much better than it looked and, considering the supporting cast (Michael Douglas, Channing Tatum, Antonio Banderas, Bill Paxton, Ewan McGregor and Michael Fassbender), I was intrigued.

The film stars retired MMA fighter Gina Carano in her first big movie (she’s had cameos in a straight-to-DVD movie or two). She plays ex-Marine and current gun for hire Mallory Kane, a skilled fighter and expert field operative. After taking a mission in Ireland, she finds herself set up for murder and hunted by her employer (Ewan McGregor).

Of course, this leads to Mallory tracking everyone down and finding out how many vases she can break over each man’s head, etc.It’s not that original of a concept.

Given that we’ve all seen the “scorned spy out for revenge” story countless times, what does “Haywire” bring to the table that makes it different? In a word: style.

Director Steven Soderbergh (the “Ocean’s Eleven” series) is shooting for a very B-movie vibe to his film. The music is low key. Scenes that are heavy with dialogue take longer than they feel necessary. The film is a thriller for sure, but it’s not in any hurry to get to the thrills.

While Carano may not be the best actress, it’s hard to criticize her too much in a genre defined by the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger. That being said, acting lessons should be sought after. Her delivery is flat and I can’t say I would have been upset in the least bit if Michael Fassbender had killed her off 40 minutes in (which is also a script problem).

But with bad actors in action films, there is usually a pay-off. For Gina Carano, it is her MMA-infused fighting style. Soderbergh sets action scenes against a blank wall or some other still environment and lets Carano go to work. The contrast pays off nicely in several scenes and these are arguably the best stuff the movie has to offer.

To save Carano from looking too bad, the producers hired a slew of veteran actors (listed above) to carry scenes which featured more than a few lines of dialogue. Of these actors, Douglas and Fassbender probably do the best with their material.

Some interesting camera work, good fight scenes and talented supporting cast try to make this film better than your average January disappointment, but I wouldn’t suggest “Haywire” to anyone looking for more than just a B-movie action flick. Hey, in a few months it could make a good rental.

Grade: C+

Happy viewing.

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Review: “The Artist” (2011)

They just don’t make ’em like they used to.

In today’s movie world of big explosions and 3D, a black and white, silent film may seem a little old-fashioned, but “The Artist” is a breath of fresh air.

The story follows silent film actor George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) in the late 1920’s as the film industry stands at the brink of new sound technology. Valentin is charming and the public loves him. When “talkies” become all the rage, though, actors like Valentin are cast to the side in favor of new faces. Toss in the stock market crash in 1929 and the actor’s world is flipped upside down.

At the same time, a chance encounter outisde of one of his film premieres launches the career of Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), an up-and-coming actress for the talking pictures.

While those two actors may not be the most famous names you’ve ever heard (both are French actors, although Bejo has been seen in American movies like “A Knight’s Tale”), the film also has big names like John Goodman, Malcom McDowell, James Cromwell and comedic actress Missi Pyle (who got her start in acting about 15 minutes from where I’m currently writing this review).

There are two things that make “The Artist” great to watch. First, it is a perfect homage to the golden days of silent film. Making a silent movie these days could be perceived as a gimmick of sorts, but the film does so much more than just cut out sound. It captures the spirit of the 1920’s. The glitz and glamour of big premieres, fancy dresses and bright lights. And the situations that these characters find themselves in are pretty spot on to what was going on at the time.

Secondly, the film works for today’s audience. Of course it is different from what we’re usually watching these days, but the work of the camera is more fluid than, say “City Lights.” It’s not like the camera is left on a tripod for half the movie. Writer/director Michel Hazanavicius (who is up for 3 Oscars next month) does a great job of making a film from a different era flow into a 100-minute presentation that audiences today can enjoy.

The technical aspect of the film is met with equal achievement from those in front of the camera, as both Bejo and Dujardin are marvelous. The former is vibrant, funny and sweet while the latter takes the audience from laughter to despair and back again.

So, I guess the big question for this movie would be, “Does the audience miss having spoken dialogue?” My response: “Not really.”

Around the 80-minute mark my eyelids were starting to get a littly heavy, but that was more on me than the film or its story. Despite only being given about 30 lines of dialogue from title pages, the film is easy to follow through character expressions and common sense. And a killer score also helps things out.

Overall, “The Artist” is a charming film delivered in excellent quality through top notch production. I’m not sure if I’d call it the best film of 2011, but it’s sure going to make an argument over just about anything else.

Grade: A

Happy viewing.

 

The 84th Academy Awards Nominations – My Take

Here we are at last. The mother of all award shows released its list of 2011’s best this morning in what many will consider to be the highest honor in film.

So let’s look at some of the major categories and see what were some highlights and other areas where the Academy dropped the ball.

Best Foreign Language Film:

“A Separation” (Iran), “In Darkness” (Poland), “Bullhead” (Belgium), “Footnote” (Israel), “Monsieur Lazhar” (Canada)

There are so many foreign films to look at this year so it isn’t that crazy, but if one were to pay attention to which imports had been nominated at the Golden Globes 9 days ago, they’d notice that only the winner (“A Separation”) from that ballot is seen here.

It is also interesting to note that “A Separation” received a nomination for Best Original Screenplay, which is pretty rare for a foreign film.

Best Original Song:

“Real in Rio” from “Rio,” “Man or Muppet” from “The Muppets”

Most likely due to the Academy’s ever-tightening qualifications for what can be nominated, this year’s category only has two nominees. While fans of Jim Henson’s creations will be happy for its nomination, I hate to see “Rio” of all movies on this list. “Real in Rio” is probably tenth in line in my eyes for deserving songs this year.

Best Original Score:

“The Adventures of Tintin” John Williams, “Hugo” Howard Shore, “War Horse” John Williams, “The Artist” Ludovic Bource, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” Alberto Iglesias

John Williams and Howard Shore are two great composers and Bource won the Golden Globe for Original Score, so their nominations were on lock. However, between Williams second nomination and the appearance of Alberto Iglesias’ work in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (an original score that wasn’t bad, but hasn’t been recognized by other award shows aside from the BAFTA’s), Trent Reznor’s score for “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” fell by the wayside.

Best Cinematography:

“War Horse,” “The Tree of Life,” “The Artist,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “Hugo”

This is one of those categories where everything makes sense. “War Horse” won this nomination based on the trailer alone. “The Tree of Life” rests solely on its directing and cinematography and does both very well, so no surprise there. “Hugo,” “The Artist” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” all deserve to be on this list as well.

Best Supporting Actress:

Berenice Bejo “The Artist,” Janet McTeer “Albert Nobbs,” Jessica Chastain “The Help,” Melissa McCarthy “Bridesmaids” and Octavia Spencer “The Help”

While I picked Shailene Woodley (“The Descendants”) to win this category at the Golden Globes, it makes sense that Melissa McCarthy would steal her spot for this show. McCarthy made “Bridesmaids” the movie it was. “The Help” hangs onto its acting trifecta with Spencer and Chastain getting bids here as well as Viola Davis getting a Best Actress nomination.

Best Actress:

Glenn Close “Albert Nobbs,” Meryl Streep “The Iron Lady,” Rooney Mara “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” Michelle Williams “My Week with Marilyn” and Viola Davis “The Help”

There were other great performances this year from actresses like Tilda Swinton (“We Need to Talk About Kevin”) and Charlize Theron (“Young Adult”), but honestly, who can you take off of this final ballot? It’s just one of those years where there are more than 5 worthy ladies.

Best Supporting Actor:

Kenneth Branagh “My Week with Marilyn,” Jonah Hill “Moneyball,” Nick Nolte “Warrior,” Christopher Plummer “Beginners” and Max von Sydow “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”

Jonah Hill. Really? I will never shy away from my dislike for the actor but I’m especially upset that he gets a nomination and Albert Brooks (“Drive”) is left out in the cold. If that switch were made, I’d think this was a fantastic category. Still, between Plummer, Nolte and Branagh, this is a strong ballot.

Best Actor:

Brad Pitt “Moneyball,” George Clooney “The Descendants,” Demian Bichir “A Better Life,” Jean Dujardin “The Artist” and Gary Oldman “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”

A lot of people will be upset that Michael Fassbender (“Shame”) didn’t make the cut (and they have a right to be), but the inclusion of Bichir and Oldman amongst this year’s big names is a good thing. “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” really didn’t get enough credit for its fine acting outside of the BAFTA Film Awards and Bichir is this year’s Javier Bardem, pointing audiences toward a smaller film that should be seen.

Best Picture:

“Hugo,” “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” “The Descendants,” “The Artist,” “Moneyball,” “War Horse,” “The Tree of Life,” “The Help,” “Midnight in Paris”

Since the Oscars starting nominating more than the usual 5 films for Best Picture, I have been pretty hesitant to like the idea. This year there is a lot of diversity, which is good for the show I guess, but I still feel like a film or two got the shaft. Without exceeding the nomination ceiling of 10, I would’ve liked to have seen “Extremely Loud” taken off the ballot and 2 of 3 films added: “The Ides of March,” “50/50” and/or “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”

Looking at this year’s nominees, I am shocked to see that “Hugo” has more nominations than “The Artist” (11 to 10, respectively). Aside from that and the few complaints expressed above, I think the Academy did a rather good job of picking nominees this year. This time next month, however, I may have something new to whine about when the winners are revealed.

Between now and then, visit Velvet Curtain Reviews for my takes on “The Artist,” “War Horse” and other films as well as my picks once we get closer to February 26.

Happy viewing.

Golden Globes – My Simplified Ballot

Best Picture, Drama: “The Descendants”

Best Actor, Drama: George Clooney “The Descendants”

Best Actress, Drama: Rooney Mara “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (will come down to Mara/Close/Davis)

Best Picture, Comedy/Musical: “The Artist”

Best Actor, Comedy/Musical: Jean Dujardin “The Artist”

Best Actress, Comedy/Musical: Michelle Williams “My Week with Marilyn”

Best Animated Film: “The Adventures of Tintin”

Best Foreign Language Film: “A Separation”

Best Supporting Actress: Shailene Woodley “The Descendants”

Best Supporting Actor: Christopher Plummer “Beginners” (Kenneth Branagh could steal it)

Best Director: Michel Hazanavicius “The Artist” (but there isn’t a bad choice on the list)

Best Screenplay: Alexander Payne “The Descendants”

Best Original Score: “The Artist”

Best Original Song: “Albert Nobbs”

 

Best TV Series, Drama: “Homeland”

Best TV Actress, Drama: Claire Danes “Homeland”

Best TV Actor, Drama: Damian Lewis “Homeland”

Best TV Series, Comedy: “Enlightened”

Best TV Actress, Comedy: Zooey Deschanel “New Girl”

Best TV Actor, Comedy: Johnny Galecki “The Big Bang Theory”

Best Mini-series or TV Movie: “Downtown Abbey”

Best Actress, Mini-series or TV Movie: Elizabeth McGovern “Downtown Abbey”

Best Actor, Mini-series or TV Movie: Dominic West “The Hour”

Best Supporting Actor in a Series, Mini-series or TV Movie: Peter Dinklage “Game of Thrones”

Best Supporting Actress in a Series, Mini-series or TV Movie: Maggie Smith “Downtown Abbey”

Hope we all enjoy the show tonight. Follow along on Twitter at @VC_Reviews.

Golden Globes Preview

On Sunday, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association will present the 69th annual Golden Globe Awards, a ceremony celebrating 2011’s best in TV and film.

Second only to the Academy Awards and Emmy’s, the Globes let us know what the overseas critics and correspondents think of our yearly entertainment output. So let me share my picks for this year’s best in film, given the nominees that the HFPA announced back in December.

Best Original Song

This is actually a pretty competitive category this year. The musicians range from Elton John to Madonna to Chris Cornell from Soundgarden and Audioslave. My favorite isn’t one of those three, however. My choice is “Lay Your Head Down” from the film “Albert Nobbs.” Given his amazing career, I see Elton John possibly stealing this award, but we’ll see.

Best Original Score

Variety is the spice of this category as we see new and old school collide. The last time Nine Inch Nails musician Trent Reznor did a film score (last year’s “The Social Network”) he took home Oscar gold. His competition is found in two celebrated composers (Howard Shore and John Williams) and a relative newcomer (Ludovic Bource). Although there are some great talents and bodies of work here, my money is on Bource and his film “The Artist.” The silent, black and white film has been receiving accolades all over the place and when its only audio component is a musical score, you know its a good one.

Best Screenplay

Some great writers can be found on this ballot. Alexander Payne (“Sideways”), Aaron Sorkin (Oscar winner for “The Social Network” last year), Woody Allen and George Clooney (with only his second writing credit) all make strong submissions. Michel Hazanavicius from “The Artist” also makes an appearance here. I’m betting on Alexander Payne, as his films always have a strong core of writing, but I wouldn’t be surprised if “The Artist” ended up inside the envelope.

Best Director

Not too surprising, this category shares 4 out of 5 nominees with Best Screenplay. Martin Scorcese takes Aaron Sorkin’s place as the “Hugo” director can’t seem to make a bad movie. There isn’t a bad film, or director on the list, but I think “The Artist” director Hazanavicius will edge out Payne’s “The Descendants.”

Best Supporting Actor

With the exception of Jonah Hill, who I will forever be hesitant to enjoy, supporting actor is an old man’s battle. Ranging from 51-year-old Kenneth Branagh (“My Week with Marilyn”) to ripe old man Christopher Plummer (“Beginners”), the nominees are of a professional caliber and put out some great performances. Albert Brooks (“Drive”) had one of my more favorite roles, but I think Plummer and Branagh will be the top contenders.

Best Supporting Actress

Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain both did well in “The Help,” but I think this will be one of those times that two nominees from the same film cancel each other out. That leaves Janet McTeer (“Albert Nobbs”), Berenice Bejo (“The Artist”) and Shailene Woodley (“The Descendants”) to vie for the award. All three have a fair chance at winning, but Woodley has extra power as a newcomer who almost shows up George Clooney so I’m siding with her.

Best Animated Film

The fact that “Cars 2” is even nominated shows that this is a weak category this year. “Rango” and “The Adventures of Tintin” are the only worthy films up for the award. I like “Rango” more, but I think that the foreign press will be more inclined to pick “Tintin.”

Best Actor – Comedy/Musical

I loved Joseph Gordon-Levitt in “50/50” and Owen Wilson was much less annoying than I usually find him in “Midnight in Paris” but I think that Jean Dujardin from “The Artist” has this category on lockdown. I’m always up for being surprised though.

Best Actress – Comedy/Musical

Sadly, I haven’t had the chance to catch “Carnage” yet. The film has two nominees in this category with Kate Winslet and Jodie Foster, but I think they will again cancel each other out. Kristen Wiig was a hit in “Bridesmaids” and Charlize Theron has been making some noise with her performance in “Young Adult” but Michelle Williams was incredible as Marilyn Monroe in “My Week with Marilyn.” If the HFPA doesn’t choose her, I would be shocked.

Best Picture – Comedy/Musical

Unlike some years where this category is filled with mediocre comedies and lackluster musicals, there are five great movies here. That being said, I don’t think “50/50” or “Midnight in Paris” have a shot at beating the juggernaut that “The Artist” could be this awards season.

Best Actor – Drama

I always felt that “Drive” was a better role for Ryan Gosling than his nominated one in “The Ides of March” and Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance was overshadowed by mixed reviews for “J. Edgar.” Brad Pitt does pretty good with Aaron Sorkin’s material in “Moneyball” but it doesn’t feel like an award-worthy role. This leaves George Clooney (“The Descendants”) and up-and-comer Michael Fassbender (“Shame”) in the race. Although great things have been said of Fassbender, his film is rated NC-17 so it may not have been hyped as much as it could have been. That, combined with the fact that the HFPA loves big names, tells me that George Clooney walks away with this award.

Best Actress – Drama

This is another strong category this year. “The Help” has been very popular with mainstream audiences as well as critics this year, so a nomination for Viola Davis was inevitable. Meryl Streep as the “Iron Lady” also makes sense as she delivers a great performance. Although Tilda Swinton is always great, I think “We Need to Talk About Kevin” was seen by almost no one. Best Actress will come down to Rooney Mara (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) and Glenn Close (“Albert Nobbs”). Both are unconventional roles, one by a longstanding name, the other by someone most famous for a 5-minute scene in “The Social Network.” This is somewhat of a gamble going against Swinton, Streep, Davis and Close, but I think Rooney Mara will pull off the upset with her great portrayal of Lisbeth Salander.

Best Picture – Drama

This one is for all the marbles. Best Picture has six nominees fighting for the crown of top dog. I think this award will come down to who is voting. In this case, its the HFPA which is made up of people who may not identify with America’s pastime (“Moneyball”), American civil rights (“The Help”) or American politics (“The Ides of March”). Also, I feel like “War Horse” limped into this competition on the name of Steven Spielberg. It’s not a bad movie, but certainly not his best. As much as I loved “Hugo,” I’m not sure that was a universal love for voters. With strong writing, fantastic acting and good cinematography, I think “The Descendants” will walk away as the best overall film in drama.

If you feel differently about my opinions, your comments are welcome below. At least we can all be happy that Morgan Freeman will be given the Cecil B DeMille Award.

Follow @VC_Reviews on Sunday night for more coverage. Happy viewing.

Review – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

It’s been a while since my last review. I was out of town last week and sick for part of the weekend, thus my absence.

For those not following the Twitter account @VC_Reviews, I wrote a guest post (“The 10 Best Movies You Didn’t See in 2011”) for a friend’s blog about a week ago. That link is http://tellurianthings.wordpress.com/2012/01/02/new-post-2/ and if you’re into TV recaps, comics or films, it’s a blog for you.

Anyway, back to “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (bit of a tongue twister, right?).

This spy thriller, orginally penned by British author John le Carre in 1974, features a fantastic cast (found above on the poster) with old school class like John Hurt and Colin Firth as well as up-and-coming stars Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch.

The story follows retired spy George Smiley (Gary Oldman) who is called back in to investigate a possible mole inside British intelligence. With the help of an aide still on the inside (Benedict Cumberbatch), Smiley must narrow down four agents (Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds and David Dencik) to one spy.

Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, behind one of the best recent Swedish films, “Let the Right One In,” takes the helm and delivers a meticulously-paced gem. This is a very British film: not a lot of color, relatively low budget and really bad teeth.

While it is marketed as a thriller (judging from the trailer), this is nothing like what spy films have become today. There are no Jason Bourne fighting techniques or James Bond gadgets. It’s more of a low-key mystery. Sound boring? It might be if not for a great cast and a good story.

There really isn’t a bad performance in the film. If I had to declare a winner, I’d probably say the best performances are by Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, John Hurt and Mark Strong. That’s how well each actor does. I was forced to pick four perfromances for the gold medal. There has also been talk of Benedict Cumberbatch (who recently got a big break being cast in the new “Star Trek” film) and  Colin Firth.

Although it’s great for the film to have so many good performers, the range of actors has really hurt the film’s chances at award ceremonies. How do you choose one (or at most, two) great performances to nominate? The actors end up ruling each other out for contention. I believe this is what also happened to “The Ides of March” although the latter is getting a little more attention.

The best and worst thing about “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is that it doesn’t treat its audience like 5-year-olds. After seeing more recent spy films, the pace does feel a bit slow, even if it isn’t THAT slow. The film jumps around in timeline and doesn’t feel the need to explain who so-and-so is or why Smiley feels the need to buy new glasses. It just shows stuff happening. How refreshing.

(Side note: If you are that person who doesn’t catch onto things quickly and you are sitting in a crowded theater, don’t act like the woman who was behind me while watching this film. She asked what was happening every five minutes at a volume that was audible for the next five to ten rows and made little comments to herself that were equally as loud. It ruins the experience and makes people want to slash your tires after the credits. Just watch the film. If you have questions afterward, discuss it then.)

Aside from this, I think my only real complaint is that I never really felt a level of tension with the film. There didn’t seem to be a race against the clock or a moment where the bad guys looked like they would prevail or anything like that. Smiley and his assistant conduct a thorough investigation and the film ends. That’s all. Not having read the source material, I can’t comment on whether the book does a better job of this. While I loved the performances and thought it was a very intelligent film, it lacked that special something to make it the great film it could have been.

Grade: B

For those interested, I plan to write a Golden Globes preview in the coming week and will be live-tweeting the award show at @VC_Reviews.

Good afternoon and happy viewing.