Monday, April 2, 2012

The Redbox Report - April 2, 2012


This past weekend I decided to make my relationship with Redbox official. We'd been playing it cool for awhile, making eye contact across the room and nodding amicably. But a few days ago I decided that I was done with the casual and confident, I was ready to take things up a notch, and it was well worth it.

I'm planning to make these "Redbox Reports" a bit more of a staple of my blog. Every few weeks, I'll binge on the latest DVD and Blu-Ray releases and then write up a comparatively (for this blog) brief review of each title. So here it is, Redbox Report Number One!

A DANGEROUS METHOD

David Cronenberg continues his professional fling with Viggo Mortensen (whom before he cast in Eastern Promises and A History of Violence, respectively) in his latest drama, A Dangerous Method. The film chronicles the relationships that laid the foundation for much of modern psychology. Those relationships, namely between Carl Jung (played by Michael Fassbender), Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and an initially disturbed young woman named Sebina Speilrein (Keira Knightley), form the foundation of a very tortuous narrative. Students of psychology and the psychoanalytic method will no doubt recognize all of the names mentioned above, and have their own opinions of whose discoveries and theories were the most valid. Cronenberg doesn't really bother with expressing an opinion about the work of his principle characters, but instead focuses on the relationships and the characters themselves. Compared to his previous work, it's a rather tame affair. He approaches familiar themes, but not exactly familiar imagery; it's certainly a departure from the work he's most known for like The Fly, Scanners, and Naked Lunch. The performances here leave little to be desired, though personally I had a hard time connecting with Keira Knightley's initial approach to her character's ailments. A Dangerous Method is a ponderous piece, but it's enjoyable nonetheless - if for no other reason than Viggo Mortensen's usual stunning performance.

YOUNG ADULT

Jason Reitman's career as a director is interesting to me because he doesn't choose flashy stories. His films always have a relatively uninspiring story on the surface - but from the moment they start there's something irresistible about his approach to these seemingly small stories. Such is the case with Young Adult, a film starring an impressively unlikeable Charlize Theron as Mavis Gary - an author who returns to her hometown with the intent to reclaim her old flame, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson). The main hang up is that Buddy is married and has a kid, but that's not going to stop Mavis. Once she arrives in town, she reunites with one of the less-than-popular kids from her old high school, Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt). What sounds like the foundation for a screwball comedy replete with "wacky hijinks" turns out to be a really poignant dramedy about how easy it is to get lost in the pursuit of one's notion of "happiness." Charlize's performance is really profound because her character is so clearly distasteful. Her intentions are never ambiguous; she sets out to be a homewrecker. But despite that she manages to elicit a measure of sympathy from the audience that allows the story to be both entertaining and profound. It's a classic Jason Reitman piece, and Diablo Cody's script is also above her usual self-indulgent tendencies.

DRIVE

C'mon, it's Ryan Gosling. There's pretty much as good a reason as you'd need to pick this one up. But if that doesn't sell you, allow me to confirm that Drive is every bit deserving of the critical acclaim it's received. The film follows Gosling's unnamed character, a stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway driver. He's a somber character who rarely speaks and smiles even less, but it's Ryan Gosling - so there's an undeniable charm about his portrayal. The film itself weaves its narrative brilliantly, slowly escalating a sense of mounting tension and danger as it becomes clear that the driver may have gotten in over his head. But what sets this film apart from other crime dramas like it is how well the Driver handles himself. He's always cool, calm, and collected. You see that face he's making in the poster? That's about as worried as he ever looks. It's a real treat to watch a thriller where the lead is both so in control and so accessible - he's not your typical action film hero. But then again, Drive isn't your typical crime drama either. The narrative tension nurtured by some really precise camerawork and lighting is punctuated a few times by one or two scenes of incredibly graphic violence. But the violence, like everything else in the film, fits together with the other pieces and serves a specific purpose other than simply jarring the audience. Toss in a Brian Eno-inspired retro soundtrack and a wonderfully reserved performance from the lovely Carey Mulligan and you've got yourself an unparalleled exercise in breaking most of the rules for American action movies. Drive was an absolutely joy from start to finish.

MY WEEK WITH MARILYN

Picking up this title coincided with a recent interest I've developed in the enigmatic Marilyn Monroe. In the weeks prior to seeing this one I read a little bit about her life and watched a few interviews, in addition to seeing some of her filmography. I say that to say that doing so allowed me to truly appreciate Michelle Williams' performance not only as Marilyn Monroe, but as Marilyn Monroe acting as someone else. The film itself is based on the true story of Colin Clark's (Eddie Redmayne), well, "week with Marilyn," during the production of Laurence Olivier's (Kenneth Branagh) The Prince and the Showgirl. It's a wonderful window into old Hollywood and the landscape of the film industry shortly after vertical integration. It's also a factual and profound glimpse at the rather tumultuous life of the titular starlet, from what I gather in my reading. For me personally, the film was a great opportunity to vicariously experience the thrill of getting a job like third assistant director on set with figures as legendary as Monroe and Olivier; it's a fifties-fanboy-fantasy-flick. But it's also a marvelously written, superbly cast, and brilliantly acted film. To say nothing of the score, which is accented by sugar-sweet sentiment and hints of big band music. This is one of those movies that leaves you to dabble in your own bittersweet memories, but it does so with such tenderness. I wouldn't call My Week With Marilyn a tear-jerker per se, but it's definitely a lush emotional piece; I loved this film.

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO

Seeing this film was a bit of a momentous occasion for me, because it marked the moment at which I had seen every film David Fincher has made up to this point in time. You can infer from that statement that I'm a fan of Fincher's work, so my expectations for this piece were very high and I'm glad to say the film exceeded them. I've not read the books, but I have seen the original film adaptations of Stieg Larsson's wildly popular Millienium trilogy and personally, I prefer Fincher's version. The story follows Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), an investigative journalist who's currently in hot water for an expose he wrote shortly before the film begins. He retreats temporarily to the countryside and becomes involved in an investigation of a missing girl from several decades ago. As he dives further into the sordid history of the family he's checking out, he eventually teams up with Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), the eponymous and enigmatic character. Slowly their two stories become interwoven as it becomes clear that there are ever darker secrets lurking behind the next discovery. In short, it's the perfect material for Fincher to adapt in his signature bleach-bypass manner. This version has two strengths over the original adaptations. First, Fincher manages to more clearly lay out the pieces of the narrative puzzle. Watching the initial adaptations, I always felt a few steps behind the characters and never fully caught up. Who's-who and what's-where and why just made more sense this go 'round. Secondly, I found Mara's performance as Salander much more accessible. Noomi Rapace's version of Salander was too standoffish and cold for my taste. Mara still plays the character appropriately - a brilliant combination of icy rage and muted fury - but she's ever so slightly more vulnerable. While many critics deride this as being unfaithful to the source material, I found it to be an incredible boost to the story overall. Everything about this version felt better to me; from the performances by every member of the cast, to Trent Reznor's and Atticus Ross's tortured score, to the opening credits sequence; it's somehow both organic and mechanical, feral yet calculating - just like Salander herself.

MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE

If you've heard anything about this movie, you've probably heard that it's Elizabeth Olsen's debut and that she's phenomenal and that's absolutely the case. Whatever talent was gifted to those siblings apparently went exclusively to Elizabeth, missing Mary-Kate and Ashley by a mile. *Insert joke about how it was probably due to their malnourished frames* The story itself revolves around a young woman named Martha (who is also called Marcy May and...well, I think you get the picture) who runs away from an abusive cult called the New Family. She takes refuge with her estranged sister and brother-in-law, but it becomes clear that her time with the cult, secluded in the Catskill Mountains, has left her emotionally and psychologically damaged. As Martha begins to succumb to paranoia, it becomes unclear just where the lines between reality and nightmare really are. Um, and then the movie ends. While Olsen's performance is truly electrifying, I found myself struck by just how ambiguous the whole film is. We never really find out why Martha joined the cult in the first place, though we get a clear message of just how damaging the whole experience was. And without giving anything away, the ending doesn't exactly resolve the many loose ends it introduced. It has a very episodic feel to it, as flashbacks slowly reveal just why Martha's behavior is so disturbing. As far as psychological thrillers go, it's not high on energy at all. It's a fairly slow piece with little to no action - though are a few moments of violence. It's well-crafted; the writing and acting are really superb. But this one is more of a head-scratcher than a nail-biter. But if that's what you're in the mood for, Martha Marcy May Marlene is an ominous thriller, sure to unnerve.

LIKE CRAZY

Young love has been the subject of more films than we could probably count, and rightfully so. It's a magical experience that's truly unlike anything else in life and Like Crazy does a magnificent job of capturing that magic on screen. The movies starts out with an old cliche as boy (Anton Yelchin) meets girl (Felicity Jones). Predictably, they fall in love. Not so predictably, there are some pretty difficult complications. She's from London and is only in Los Angeles - where the film opens - on a student visa. What follows is a tale that is, at times, kinda difficult to watch - as our principle characters wrestle with the struggles that come from maintaining a long-distance relationship. The entire movie is infused with a truly bittersweet tone, and if you've ever been in a long-distance relationship for any stretch of time you'll find a lot to relate to in this motion picture. A few things set this title apart from other comparable movies though. First, the film plays out *almost* like a music video. There are more montages than I initially thought healthy, but taken as a whole they actually strengthen the film rather than weigh it down. Secondly, the entire script was improvised. Now, in the hands of less than competent actors such a decision could yield less-than-savory results. The final product is anything but, and the conversations in the film feel natural and authentic. And finally, the film takes a hard look at life and doesn't flinch in outlining the difference between what it takes to fall in love and what it takes to make a relationship work. The film is supposedly based on the failed relationship of its writer/creator Drake Doremus and his ex-wife. So it's easy to draw a negative conclusion from the piece. Personally, I found it vaguely hopeful, but at times it's not easy to watch - and it's certainly not your typical romantic drama. The soundtrack is magnificent though, often sad and occasionally inspirational, and only adds one more reason to bring a box of tissues along for this one. And to its continuing credit, the film was shot on a budget of under $250,000 with a Canon EOS 7D DSLR camera. So it's safe to say that I really enjoyed this film...ya know, like crazy.

HUGO

Martin Scorsese isn't known for making heartfelt, feel-good movies. A master craftsman he is without a doubt, but when I heard he was directing a film more akin to Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium than, say, Goodfellas, I was admittedly skeptical. But true to the word of every major critic and friend of mine that recommended this film to me, Hugo is pure cinematic gold. Based on the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the film follows a young boy named Hugo (Asa Butterfield) who lives in and maintains the clocks of a French train station in the 1920s. Orphaned after his father (Jude Law) perished in a disastrous museum fire, Hugo spends his days dodging the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his nights pilfering spare cogs and gears to repair a gift his father gave him: an automaton - a windup mechanical man. With the help of a new friend Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), Hugo embarks on the adventure that is the majority of the film. Forgive me such narrative shorthand, but I don't want to spoil anything about this movie other than it's a must-see. Hugo is a movie-lover's movie. Not only is it chock full of the kinds of memorable moments and characters that make a movie just plain ol' fun to watch, but the story also interweaves with the beginnings of cinema. Moments from Voyage to the Moon, The Great Train Robbery, the Lumiere brothers actualit├ęs and many other early cinematic works populate the film. I won't explain exactly why, because that's part of the mystery and adventure the film explores. But trust me, Hugo is feel-good cinema at its absolute finest. There's a reason this movie was so well critically and commercially received: it's pure magic.

Well, that does it for this first edition of The Redbox Report. Stay tuned for more updates!

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