Archive for February, 2010

Scorsese + DiCaprio = this year’s first best movie

Posted in Reviews on February 19, 2010 by Steve Mesa

His first narrative feature film since directing the Oscar-winning movie The Departed, Martin Scorsese reunites for the fourth time with Leonardo DiCaprio in the film adaptation of author and FIU alumni Dennis Lehane’s 2003 novel, Shutter Island.
Set in 1954, U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) is assigned to investigate in the disappearance of a female mental patient (Emily Mortimer) with his new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo). However, they must travel by boat to the last know whereabouts of the missing person, which happens to be an island that houses an asylum for the criminally insane. As they investigate further, they find the head doctor (Ben Kingsley) uncooperative when it comes to requests for patient records and with a category five hurricane approaches, Teddy begins to sense something sinister is occurring on Shutter Island.
Martin Scorsese is not a stranger to the thriller genre as he directed the 1991 remake, Cape Fear and Shutter Island shows that he certainly has not lost his touch. Scorsese pays tribute to the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, visually with the scenes that involve Teddy’s flashbacks and hallucinations that is creepy, shocking and violent. A long panning camera shot that involves the execution of several Nazi soldiers is a work of a filmmaking genius, along with the images of blood and scattered papers in a scene that shows a failed suicide attempt of a Nazi general. Scorsese uses his filmmaking talent in order to keep the audience on their toes at all times because he creates an atmosphere that carries an ominous mood, dark tone and dangerous perils for Teddy and Chuck to overcome.
The ensemble is tremendous in Shutter Island as everyone who has a role in the film does a great job with their performances, especially Leonardo DiCaprio.
As DiCaprio keeps working with Martin Scorsese, it seems to me that his acting gets better and his characters that he portrays get more complex from his roles as the eccentric Howard Hughes in The Aviator and undercover cop looking for his identity in The Departed. DiCaprio turns in his most intense performance to date as a man caught in a labyrinth and questions his sanity as his partner disappears and the doctors seems to conspire against him to keep him on the island. By the time the movie ends, the moviegoers’ perception of Teddy will be radically different from when they meet him at the beginning of Shutter Island.
The combination of Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow are both in full-creep mode as the main physicians of the asylum with any dialogue that they deliver carry a deliberate and menacing tone. Michelle Williams plays a pivotal but small role as Teddy’s deceased wife, Dolores. Her first appearance in the film starts out as Teddy’s vessel in order to solve the case, but her constant appearances to Teddy become more of a warning of what is come in terms of his fate on the island.
As the story progresses and many puzzle pieces begin to come together, the big reveal is not surprising if you look back at the events that has transpire before. Some people who might have big expectations for a thriller in the vein of The Silence of the Lambs will be turned off by what it ultimately is, a complex and intriguing character study of what happens to a man who suffers from too many tragedies in his life. The ending could be another turnoff for the casual moviegoer as we learn that Teddy predetermines his own destiny. Shutter Island might be appreciated better with a second viewing for moviegoers in order to keep up with the clues that lead up the film’s surprise revelation. However, the trailers and the TV spots for the film does not do the film justice as it is not just a psychological thriller, but the tale of Teddy’s intense and traumatic journey that will change the perspective of the character by the time the end credits roll.
Shutter Island is the first best film of 2010 as it is a complex and emotional ride that is anchored by Martin Scorsese’s masterful direction and a powerful performance by Leonardo DiCaprio.

SHUTTER ISLAND: 5 stars out of 5

A hairy and bloddy tale awaits in ‘The Wolfman’

Posted in Reviews on February 12, 2010 by Steve Mesa

Horror remakes have been getting a bad reputation from the pointless (John Moore’s 2006 The Omen) to being a complete waste of film (Rob Zombie’s Halloween II). However, The Wolfman manages to be an entertaining and bloody tale that pays tribute to the original 1941 Lon Chaney Jr. film and other classic werewolf films.
In 1891, several villagers of Blackmoor, England have been found beheaded, dismembered and disemboweled by what the surviving villagers say was caused by the arrival of gypsies in their town. Law and order come in the form of Scotland Yard Inspector Francis Aberline (Hugo Weaving), who believes that is a crazed lunatic that are causing the deaths. Meanwhile, Lawrence Talbot (Oscar-winner Benicio Del Toro) is an theatrical actor who travels back to his homeland in Blackmoor, England after receiving news from his brother’s fiancée (Emily Blunt) of his brother’s disappearance. When he arrives at his family estate, he is reunited by his estranged father, Sir John Talbot (Oscar-winner Anthony Hopkins), who tells Lawrence that his brothers’ ghastly and grim remains were found. In search of who or what killed his brother, Lawrence has a very close encounter with a wolf-like beast and becomes a tragic victim of an incurable curse.
The casting for The Wolfman is great, but the performance by Benicio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins really brings some class to this gothic horror movie. Del Toro reinventing a role played 70 years earlier by Lon Chaney Jr. by bringing portraying Lawrence as the brooding and tragic man, whose childhood is laced with tragedy. It also helps that Del Toro is able to work through the tons of makeup and prosthetics he wears in the film to create an expressive werewolf that pays tribute to his predecessor. Hopkins’s role offers some intentional laughs with lines delivered with quick wit, but his role as the father of the doomed and cursed man is radically different from the original by the time the film reaches its climax. However, the change is welcoming as it is fresh breath of originality from any remakes become a literal modernized copies of the original movies.
Not to be outshined by the two Oscar winners, Hugo Weaving does a descent job the inspector as his character has an incredible arc throughout the film that leads to an unexpected ending. It also gives the film a conflict where Lawrence is basically “on the lam” after things become a little hairy and bloody. There is a lacking in the acting ensemble with Emily Blunt, whose character is becomes a object for romanticism in the film Blunt’s character becomes useless in the story and shares ineffective chemistry with Del Toro that feels unsettling, However, as the story reaches its climax, her character becomes more important because she is becomes destined as the only person who can end the curse.
Director Joe Johnston makes several winks and nods to the original film and other werewolf films. The silver wolf-head cane that Lon Chaney Jr. used to kill the beast in the original becomes an integral part of the story as it first introduced when Lawrence carries it with him when he first arrives to his family estate. There is also a poem introduced before the credits begin was a warning given by the gypsy Maleva in the original: “Even a man that is pure in heart, and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane bloom and the autumn moon is bright”. There is a specific scene that pays homage to An American Werewolf in London where the Wolf Man is running amok and causing chaos in London when he causes a bus accident that results in several fatalities.
Legendary make-up artist Rick Baker’s (who won the first Best Make-Up Oscar for his work on John Landis’ 1981 horror masterpiece An American Werewolf in London ) work on The Wolfman is tremendous as his make-up design pays tribute the original film without making it look corny and fake such as past werewolf incarnations in films such as craptacular fest known as Van Helsing and The Twilight Saga: New Moon. Whenever the Wolf Man is in full sprint mode, it gets on all four legs to pick incredible speed and gets on two legs when it prepares to stalk its prey. Baker also does a great job in creating the gory kills in the film whether is severed heads or enough blood and guts that would make Eli Roth blush and decorate an entire bedroom. The only problem with the deaths is that they happen so fast before a blink of the eye.
Unlike London’s transformation scene, the transformations scenes in The Wolfman was completely computer-generated. The CGI works great with the scenes that involve the Wolf Man, but there some spotty CGI work when it comes to composing other animals such as bears and deer. It makes me wonder how come the filmmakers use real animals for those scenes because they could have save some money.
The Wolfman is entertaining 108 minute ride that is also a fitting tribute to the original 1941 film with strong performances from Benicio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins bring a certain acting class to this horror film. The one weak link in the acting ensemble is Emily Blunt, whose character does not become essential until the climax of the film. Rick Baker does an incredible job with the makeup effects for the Wolf Man and the gory death scenes. There are certain CGI scenes that are rough around the edges and looks like some imitations of animals.

THE WOLFMAN: 3 stars out of 5

‘White Ribbon’ tells a story of evil and innocence

Posted in Reviews on February 12, 2010 by Steve Mesa

Winner of the Palm d’ Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, The White Ribbon is Austrian writer-director Michael Heneke’s (Cache, Funny Games) latest film in which a number of unexplained accidents that befalls a German village prior to World War II that might not be accidents, but malevolent acts of violence.
The film is set in a German village where half of the village works for a Baron (Ulrich Turkur) and the local protestant pastor (Burghart Klaussner) maintains a strong influence in the village. When the local doctor (Rainer Bock) is severely injured when his horse trips over a wire, this certain event sparks a chain reaction of random acts of violence and accidents including the kidnapping and punishment bestowed on the children of the Baron and a local midwife (Susanne Lother). As everyone in the village is questioning who is causing this kind of mayhem, the local schoolteacher (Christina Friedel) begins to suspect that his pupils might have something to do with what has been happening in the village.
The title of the movie comes from the punishment that the pastor bestows on his children by making them wear a white ribbon, which is a symbol of pure innocence, for their disobedience. One punishment goes as far as the pastor’s son has his hands tied to the bedpost because of the boy’s tendency to pleasure himself.
Michael Heneke manages to create an array of unforgettable characters that sometimes come across as borderline evil, creating a menacing and dark tone throughout the film. It is the actions of these characters such as the pastor and the doctor that is the catalyst to strange and bizarre events that are bestowed upon the German village. In the film, the children are taught to believe that God is watching at all times and they will go to hell if they “stray from the path of good”. While one child is sexually abused by a relative, another child acts out violently against a mentally challenged boy because of her father’s harsh punishments on her.
The only character that seems to be pure and good hearted is the schoolteacher. T he light that comes out the darkness of The White Ribbon is the schoolteacher romancing the Baron’s 17-year old nanny, Eva (Leonie Benesch). The romance seems to be overshadowed by an ominous tone and feeling that Heneke is going to throw an unavoidable obstacle that will seem unconquerable for the couple. The only child that does not seem to have any bad bone in his body is the pastor’s young son, Gustav (Thibault Serie), who is willing to give up a bird he has raised and trained to his father as a replacement for the pastor’s pet bird that was brutally killed.
Shot beautifully in black and white by cinematographer Christian Berger, The White Ribbon is not full of rapid cuts and editing. Instead, it is shot with a lot of long camera takes and shots that has become a trademark for the films of Michael Heneke. For example, the opening shot of the film fades from black to a 30 second camera take that follows focuses on the doctor riding in the distance on his horse towards the camera until he falls down with his horse. Another trademark of Heneke’s is shots that use sounds over images in order to show a scene without showing the audience what is occurring, which can be left to the imagination of the viewers.
However, the only complaint that I have for the film is that some of the question that posed in the film’s climax are never fully answered by the time the credits roll. With the final shot establishing some kind of answer, it is never fully explained why the strange accidents and acts of violence occurred in the first place.
The White Ribbon is a film shot gorgeously in black and white and it contains a cast of characters that have questionable morals and actions that would sometimes borderline on evil. This German imported film is considered to the frontrunner to win the Best Foreign Language Oscar in March.

THE WHITE RIBBON: 4 stars out of 5

2010 Oscar nominations

Posted in Festival/awards on February 1, 2010 by Steve Mesa

On Tuesday morning (5:30 am in Los Angeles and 8:30 over here on the west coast), the 2010 Oscar nominations will be announced. Here is what I think the outcome will be in terms of the nominations tommorrow. I hope I am right for once.

Best Picture
An Education
A Serious Man
Avatar
District 9
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
Invictus
Precious
Up
Up in the Air

Best Actor
Jeff Bridges-Crazy Heart
George Clooney-Up in the Air
Colin Firth-A Single Man
Morgan Freeman-Invictus
Jeremy Renner-The Hurt Locker

Best Actress
Sandra Bullock-The Blind Side
Helen Mirren-The Last Station
Carey Mulligan-An Education
Gabourney Sidibe-Precious
Meryl Streep-Julie and Julia

Best Supporting Actor
Matt Damon-Invictus
Woody Harrelson-The Messenger
Alfred Molina-An Education
Stanley Tucci-The Lovely Bones
Christoph Waltz-Inglourius Basterds

Best Supporting Actress
Penelope Cruz-Nine
Vera Farmiga-Up in the Air
Anne Kendrick-Up in the Air
Mo’Nique-Precious
Samantha Morton-The Messenger

Best Director
Kathryn Bigelow-The Hurt Locker
James Cameron-Avatar
Lee Daniels-Precious
Jason Reitman-Up in the Air
Quentin Tarantino-Inglourious Basterds