Sunday, October 30, 2011

THE SKIN I LIVE IN (LA PIAL QUE HABITO) (2011)

Written & Directed by Pedro Almodvar


Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA.  October 16, 2011 7:00PM


Pedro Almodovar, the Spanish writer/director best known for his stylish, technicolor melodramas laced with a kinky sexuality, has returned with his latest, "The Skin I Live In" and while all of these components are still very much in place but this time he has added a new twist, or rather, twisted, dark and disturbing element to his new feature that comes across as very extreme, even for Almodovar.

Based on the novel, "Tarantula" by Thierry Jonquet, Antonio Banderas plays Dr. Robert Ledgard, a plastic surgeon who has announced to his colleagues that he has just developed in the lab human flesh that cannot burn. However, what the doctor neglected to tell them is that he wasn't testing the skin on lab animals but on an actual human, a young woman he is holding captive in his home.

Imprisoned for the last six years while still looking quite healthy, sexy and vibrant, Vera (Elena Anaya) has remained in a room in Ledgard's tastefully decorated mansion wearing only a flesh-colored bodysuit as she reads, practices yoga and tries to hang on to her sanity. Vera is constantly watched by cameras installed in the room to survey her every move while she is cared for by Marilia (Marisa Paredes), Ledgard's long-time housekeeper who never questions the idea of housing a prisoner.

An unexpected visitor arrives at the house, a man in a tiger costume. Zeca (Roberto Alamo) is Marilia's estranged son who is dressed this way because he is wanted for an armed robbery and since it is carnival, this is the only chance he can move around undetected. He sees Vera on the camera and thinking that she is someone that he knows, demands that his mother take him to her. After Marilia refuses, Zeca ties her up, then searching each room until he finds Vera where he proceeds to ravish her. The doctor arrives home finding Zeca on top of Vera and shoots him to death.

It's impossible to describe the film much further without giving away too much but I can say that there is a mysterious connection between Zeca, the doctor and his deceased wife who perished in a fiery car crash as well as with Vera who is imprisoned because of her tragic relationship with the doctor's mentally, unbalanced daughter and none of this is in any way you could ever possibly imagine.

Mr. Almodovar is in full control as his take on a horror film is done in the only way he knows; "The Skin I Live In" is boldly perverse, opulently creepy, and extravagantly disturbing but the final results end up being too grave to be much fun and a touch too frivolous to be taken seriously.

The screenplay is both overheated and undercooked for it is complicated, wildly over-the-top but still feels slight..While there are drops of  tiny clues throughout, the characters still have go through lengthy, detailed explanations to help figure it all out. There are hints of Almodovar's trademark quirky humor throughout but there isn't nearly enough to offset some of the absurdities of the plot..

Banderas, who hadn't appeared in an Almodovar film since 1990's, "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!", gives one of his best performances in a long time. He manages to appear somewhat reasonable yet wildly deranged at the same time. Ms Anaya, a stunning beauty, is a magnetic presence who doesn't say much but her expressive face displays her steely determination to survive her ordeal.

While "The Skin I Live In" is far from my favorite from Mr. Almodovar but let's face it--it's still Almodovar. Cinema is in desperate need right now for a film maker who offers his delightful style of wit, charm, and camp and (like how I feel about Woody Allen) even the lesser works by Pedro Almodovar are still more fascinating, watchable and enjoyable than many films out there.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

THE IDES OF MARCH (2011)

Written by George Clooney & Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon


Directed by George Clooney


Where & When: Arclight Cinemas,  Hollywood, CA, October 10, 2011 7:00PM


George Clooney has returned behind the camera to co-write and direct his fourth film, "The Ides of March" based on the play by Beau Willimon (who co-wrote the screenplay), "Farragut North", which is the name of a Washington D.C. Metro station. that is located near the district's center for lobbyists.There are certainly some intriguing moments and strong performances but despite that, it still ends up being superficial.and unsatisfying.

We first meet Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) as he helps prep the stage for a Democratic Presidential debate in Ohio between the Arkansas Senator, Ted Pullman and the Governor of the state of Pennsylvania, Mike Morris (Clooney). Stephen, who works for the Governor as his junior campaign manager, is young, talented and believes with all his heart that Morris is the best candidate for president.

After the debate, Senator Pullman's Campaign Manager, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) contacts Stephen, wanting to meet with him privately. Stephen attempts to call his Campaign Manager, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) but is unable to reach him so, against better judgement, he goes to the meeting. Duffy offers Stephen a job to work for the Senator. He is flattered and obviously declines but Stephen decides not to tell Zara about this encounter.

Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), an alluring intern for the Governor's campaign and who just happens to be the daughter of the head of the DNC, comes on aggressively to Stephen and he, being a typical male, easily gives in to her charms.

It's not long before Stephen's hero falls down to Earth as he discovers that Governor Morris is involved in a potential sex scandal that could unravel his candidacy. Stephen also has to deal with disastrous complications arising with the intern and with his secret meeting with the rival's team. With all of his beliefs having been shattered and the realities of a political campaign becoming crystal clear, Stephen must decide where his loyalties truly lie and what is he willing to do to survive this merciless, cut-throat environment.

Mr. Clooney's greatest strength as a director, although it's far from surprising, is his ability to elicit terrific performance from all of his actors, which includes Marisa Tomei as a New York Times reporter fishing for a scoop and Jeffery Wright as an Ohio Senator looking for a political favor in exchange for his endorsement. He did make it much easier on himself by hiring respected character actors such as Mr.Giamatti and Mr. Hoffman who both elevate this material with their unusual skill as well as the bright, young talent of Mr.Gosling and Ms Wood who are both excellent and certainly hold their own in this cast of heavy hitters.

It's fun to see all of these great actors in action but once you take that out of the equation, "The Ides of March" is a fairly routine and predictable story which is too bad because a political race is ripe with compelling, dramatic possibilities. The film touches on how corruption, deception and greed has an even firmer grip on our current political landscape but that's nothing we didn't have extensive knowledge of long before we sat down in the theater.While it does offer a seemingly accurate depiction of all of the endless hours, lack of any kind of real social life and the complete dedication that is required to actually run for office, (which is probably what attracted Mr. Clooney to this project), but "The Ides of March" just doesn't dig nearly deep enough as it's littered with stock types and not any actual flesh and blood characters, flat cinematography and a murky, implausible final act which leads to a limp and unbelievable conclusion.

"The Ides of March" is classy and ambitious with an actual message but the film is never able to come together well enough to reach it's full potential.

Friday, October 14, 2011

2011 AFI FEST PRESENTED BY AUDI

This year marks the twenty-fifth year of AFI's film festival which opens with the world premiere of Clint Eastwood's latest, "J. Edgar". Leonardo DiCaprio stars as the founding director of the FBI in this story that focuses on the public and private life of Hoover, one of the most powerfull and controversial figures of the last century.

The film should be released in U.S. theaters on November 9th which also features Arnie Hammer, Naomi Watts and Judi Dench.



Pedro Almodovar will be this year's Guest Artistic Director and will present a screening of his 1986 film, "Law of Desire" which helped introduce actor, Antonio Banderas (who stars in the director's recently released film, "The Skin I Live In") to the world. The acclaimed writer/director will also curate a program of films that helped inspire him as a film maker.



The festival will run from November 3rd through November 10 and will be held at the Mann Chinese 6, the Egyptian Theatre and the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.

For the third time, AFI Fest will offer free tickets to all screenings but you may purchase Star Patron Package and Marquee Patron Package to get reserved seating to the opening night gala.

Individual tickets for all film screenings and galas will be available on October 26th for AFI members and on October 27th to the general public.

For more information, go to:

AFI 2011

Friday, October 7, 2011

50/50 (2011)

Written by Will Reiser


Directed by Jonathan Levine


Where & When: Vista Theater, Los Angeles, CA.  October 2, 2011  7:00PM



I will admit that when I first heard about "50/50", a comical take on the story of a young man who discovers that he has cancer, I thought the idea would be end up being lame, unfunny, and wildly inappropriate and once I saw that Seth Rogan was involved, I knew for sure that this would be a must-avoid film.

I have seen the film and I was very wrong and I guess I owe Mr. Rogan an apology as "50/50" is actually a honest, heartfelt and hilarious look how a guy might cope with fighting a deadly disease.

Joesph Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, a healthy, twenty-five year old, radio programing producer who goes to the doctor because of chronic back pain. He never expected the diagnosis that his doctor insensitively delivers to him; Adam has a rare form of cancer on his spine and he needs to go through chemotherapy to reduce the tumor before they try to surgically remove it.

Not surprisingly, Adam is in shock but remains relatively calm and optimistic as he begins to tell his family and friends about his situation. Kyle (Rogan), Adam's best friend, is concerned but soon sees Adam's illness as a way to score chicks and seems to feel that if Adam gets laid, it will help him forget about his troubles.

Adam and his artist girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) have been having some trouble in their relationship and actually offers her the opportunity to leave but she insists on staying to take care of him. However, Rachael doesn't want to really get involved with the messy side of his illness as she won't even go inside of the hospital while Adam goes through chemo.

Adam has put off telling his mother, Diane (Anjelica Huston) as she has been caring for his father who has been suffering from Alzheimer's but the main reason is because she is a worrier of epic proportions and can be a bit overbearing, which annoys Adam greatly.

To help him deal with his health crisis, Adam has been assigned to a psychologist, Dr. Katherine McCay (Anna Kendrick) although she actually younger than he is, with Adam being only her third patient. She tries to help him by following the text books she read in college but soon realizes that not all patients will behave the same as Adam is resistant to opening up about his feelings. Romantic sparks fly between them but Katherine insists on trying to remain professional although she keeps divulging personal information about herself to him.

Later, when Adam is informed that the tumor has actually grown and must have immediate surgery, he finally explodes with rage as he begins to question whether he will actually be able to beat this.

The screenplay. based on comedy writer, Will Reiser's own personal experience with cancer and also happens to a close friend of Rogan, is witty and full of good but raunchy humor which is used to soften the depressing subject matter.

Mr Gordon-Levitt is excellent, as usual, as his character tries his best to control his fear and helplessness as the people around him certainly don't make it easy. He and Mr. Rogan work well together although they aren't exactly convincing as a bromantic couple as their characters are so completely different that it's hard to imagine them being such close friends. My concerns about Seth Rogan were confirmed as he managed to throw things slightly out of whack because, at times, he seems to be performing in a completely different movie than his fellow actors but he never derails the film and adds a few very funny bits.

I can't honestly say I'm much of a fan of Ms. Kendrick but she delivers another solid performance following her Oscar-nominated turn in "Up in the Air" but I will say that I do love Ms Huston and I'm very glad to see her return to the big screen. Although she is not in the film nearly long enough but what she able to do with just her steely gaze and a cock of an eyebrow is priceless. Phillip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer (anyone old enough to remember the 1980's TV show, "Max Headroom"?) also make brief but sold appearances as two other cancer patients who introduce Adam to the wonders of marijuana..

"Terms of Endearment" has become the benchmark for a film that was successfully able to merge laughter and tears (it even gets name-checked in this) and while, "50/50" is not exactly in the same league, it is still very effective as a touching drama with plenty of belly laughs.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

DRIVE (2011)

Written by Hossein Amini


Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn


Where & When: Arclight Cinemas,  Hollywood, CA. September 18, 2011  8:30PM



It doesn't seem like the year 2011 is going to be remembered for too much, as far as cinema is concerned but one thing I can say, with certainly, is that it will be the time where Ryan Gosling finally became recognized as a major film star.

He is far from a newcomer, having started as a child singing and dancing on the television show, "The New Mickey Mouse Club" but he first got noticed as an actor for playing a young Jewish kid who becomes a Neo-Nazi in the 2001 film, "The Believer". Not only did Mr. Gosling follow that with several other impressive performances in independent films including his devastating turn as a drug-addicted high school teacher in "Half-Nelson" which earned him his first Academy Award nomination in 2007 but he was open to doing mainstream fare with him causing many hearts to flutter from his work in the film version of the bestseller, "The Notebook".

This year, Mr. Gosling will have appeared in three distinctly different films and in each one, he leaves an impression that has caused many to begin to see his full potential as a great screen presence. He first showed up this summer in his first Hollywood romantic-comedy, "Crazy Stupid Love" as he holds his own against comic veteran, Steve Carrell as well Emma Stone and he will next be seen, later this fall, as the lead in George Clooney's political drama, "The Ides of March" but right now he appears in "Drive".

This dazzling film, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn who was wisely handpicked by the actor, is the perfect vehicle to showcase his brooding intensity, captivating charm, deep intelligence and effortless sex appeal.

Set in the east side of Los Angeles, Gosling plays an unnamed young man only referred to as "Driver". The moniker is appropriate as he not only does auto stunt work for films but he is the getaway driver for thieves after committing a robbery as he is able to skillfully outmaneuver the police on their tail. He also works as a car mechanic for Shannon (Bryan Cranston), a crusty schemer, constantly in search for his one big break, who arranges and manages all of the Driver's various jobs.

Shannon approaches the local mobster, Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), who he has done previous work for, to financially back him with his plan to buy a race car with the Driver attached to be behind the wheel. Rose agrees and things seem to be looking up for Shannon and his young protegee.

The Driver doesn't say much, perhaps he is shy but most likely, it's because he will speak when he has something of importance to say. He does want to speak to the neighbor in his apartment building; Irene (Carey Mulligan) a sweet-faced woman who works as waitress to support her young son while his father is doing time in prison.

Circumstances bring the two closer together but any possible romance is interrupted by the arrival of Irene's husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac) fresh out of jail. Aware that something might be happening between his wife and their neighbor, he promises Irene that he has changed his ways but the Driver later discovers Standard, beaten and bloodied, in the parking garage. It turns out that Standard owes protection money for his time behind bars and if he doesn't repay it by stealing the cash of a pawn shop, they will harm Irene and their son.

Out of concern for Irene, the Driver agrees to help Standard but only by driving the getaway car during the heist. As we have come to expect from this kind of film, things don't go according to plan, as dead bodies pile up and a mob rivalry which causes Bernie Rose to wind up getting indirectly involved in this mess that ultimately leads to even more trouble for the Driver.

Mr. Refn, a Danish film director who deservedly won the Best Director Award at this year's Cannes Film Festival for this film, has taken elements of classic American film noir, reinterprets it and infuses the film with a European sensibility to create something that feels familiar and yet refreshingly like nothing that has been seen before. With a very low budget, the director was still able to make a visually stunning and vibrant film, thanks to the powerful work of cinematographer, Newton Thomas Sigel.

The dialogue is spare which adds to the tension as you know that something is going to happen but the characters never tip you off as to exactly what.or how much blood is going to be spilled. The soundtrack, created by former Red Hot Chilli Pepper drummer, Cliff Martinez, features prominently, throbbing synthesizers that really hasn't been used much in cinema since the 1980's but helps bring a perfectly cold, eerie chill to these proceedings and all together makes "Drive" a riveting, highly stylized thrill-ride that never feels pretentious.

The cast is solid including Ron Perlman as Bernie Rose's not to bright but equally psychotic partner and "Mad Men" 's Christina Hendricks in a brief appearance as a moll. Ms Mulligan delivers yet another terrific performance in a small but vital role but the true revelation here is Albert Brooks. Best known for comedic roles such as his Oscar-nominated turn in 1987's, "Broadcast News" as well as writing and directing such comedy classics as "Defending Your Life" (1991) and  "Mother" (1996), Mr. Brooks brings a calm, jovial menace to the part that is makes his character truly frightening. It really shouldn't be so surprising as many other comedians in the past have successfully taken on dark, dramatic roles to great effect and Mr. Brooks can be added to that list as he is brilliant here.

Breathtaking action sequences, subtle, colorful performances, surprising twists and turns with bursts of brutal, bloody violence, "Drive" is a bold and tense thriller but will probably still have some difficulty finding a large segment of the audience to understand the film at this moment. The problem is that it's far from the typical type of action film that U.S. film-goers are used to seeing with the unconventional pacing and being left to fill in the blanks themselves but I am positive that over time, it will find a greater appreciation. People will discover this little gem later and will highly recommend their friends to see this extraordinary but unusual film.