In the 12 years since James Cameron last directed a feature film (a little art-house number called “Titanic,” heard of it?), much has changed in the growing field of special effects. His latest picture, “Avatar,” reflects a filmmaker who’s spent more time polishing his impressive new tools than scraping the rust off of his once extraordinary storytelling instincts. A gargantuan production of obscene technical achievement, “Avatar” is freakishly cold to the touch; the work of man who felt he had to leave a Godzilla-sized footprint on the face of cinema when all the public wanted was simply to have him back in the game he once dominated.
It's tough to skate on plastic.
Hilary Duff is endeavoring to stretch as an actress, but I’m not convinced the drama “According to Greta” gets the job done for her. The former tween queen takes the reins on a harsh character that’s exceptionally self-centered, suicidal, and brimming with mall chick wiseacrery -- a definite change of pace for a star desperate to smother her previous bubble gum professional choices. However, “According to Greta” is a melodrama and a labored one at that, entertaining far too much tiresome formula, making the whole enterprise feel like an extended television pilot, or perhaps a fiendish “Georgia Rule” sequel.
Fashion world titan Tom Ford switches gears with “A Single Man,” co-writing and directing a tragic tale of love lost and (briefly) found. A ‘60s period piece, the velvety aesthetic challenge suits Ford’s instincts; he rolls out an impossibly beautiful film adorned with the sort of ornate architecture, sumptuous photography, and set design detail that should have film fans salivating. Ford also displays a generous nature toward his cast, urging star Colin Firth to one of the best performances of his career.
“Invictus” doesn’t pursue any overwhelming dramatic demands or blinding shots of glory as a sporting tale of rugby or as a political film of historical revolution; it’s Clint Eastwood directing in a manner he’s always managed quite wonderfully: understated and softly spoken, assembled with a sure hand, not a trembling one. A film based on the events of the 1995 World Cup championship run in South Africa, “Invictus” may not provide a challenging, electrifying night at the movies, but it’s sturdily constructed from top to bottom, depicting a benevolent story of racial discord and nationwide unification in an agreeably comfy, Eastwoodian manner.
“The Princess and the Frog” represents Disney’s big comeback to feature-length, traditionally animated filmmaking. Granted, it’s only been away for five years, but a comeback is a comeback, and I’ll take any renewed interest in 2-D storytelling I can get. Playing it safe to rekindle the animated magic that once defined the Disney name, “Princess and the Frog” is a joyful lap around familiar Mouse House artistic elements, looking to help rebuild the kingdom brand name with a cushy tale of a princess, smooch-happy amphibians, and the grandeur of turn-of-the-century New Orleans.
The devious art of grand theft movie is always a delight to witness. Walking into “Me and Orson Welles,” I was expecting a benevolent coming-of-age tale, using star Zac Efron’s dewy looks and immaculate representation of adolescent earnestness to carry the film to heartening results. But then in walked actor Christian McKay, who delivers such an immaculate impression and summarization of Orson Welles, it makes the rest of the cast and the humdrum melodrama feel like they’re blocking the view.
And its Juggalo inspiration here. (NSFW!)
If you’re able to recall the 2003 teen comedy “Dorm Daze,” well, you have my sympathies. I hear there’s potent medication now available on the market for the screaming nightmares. The bad news is that “Transylmania” is actually “Dorm Daze 3,” tarted up with a new title and a trendy vampire-slanted marketing push to capture the interest of those who haven’t had their fill of those fanged creatures of the night. And before anyone e-mails me, yes, there was a “Dorm Daze 2.” I couldn’t believe it either.
Director Nimrod Antal has made a solid impression with his directorial output thus far. With the atmospheric “Kontroll” and the merrily macabre “Vacancy,” Antal has proven himself a gifted genre engineer, able to pump fresh air into half-baked screenplays, with a solid command of big screen twists and turns. “Armored” is a coloring book of a motion picture, as routine a heist thriller as they come, but the whole shebang is directed with a charming impression of passion. It’s bottom-shelf junk food enjoying a convincing B-movie paint job, primarily because Antal appears invested in this scrappy thriller, not just collecting an easy paycheck.
“Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” is not a sequel to the brutal 1992 Abel Ferrara motion picture. In fact, there’s no viable reason to label the film a “Bad Lieutenant” adventure at all. “Port of Call,” while duly twisted and tormented, just might confuse cult film fanatics lining up for a second helping. Instead of advancing Ferrara’s story in some trivial way, “Port of Call” cooks up an entirely fresh adventure of behavioral disease, turning the spotlight on Nicolas Cage and his boundless capability to personify the melting of a man’s soul.
“Up in the Air” is the third film from writer/director Jason Reitman, and his third film to take leaps of pathos it doesn’t earn. After the cockeyed satiric miss “Thank You for Smoking” and the curdled mass of whimsy known as “Juno,” it’s a delight to report that “Air” is the most matured, grounded film Reitman has attempted to date. However, while polished, the picture is a crude deconstruction of loneliness and the comfort of isolation, forgoing tangents of refreshing dramatic impulse to tinker fruitlessly with cliché and heavy-handed symbolism.
I was profoundly moved by Susanne Bier’s 2004 Danish film, “Brothers.” A troubling story of war and bereavement, the film touched me deeply through a range of exceptional performances and a special attention to unnerving matters of the heart and mind. Interest to remake the picture makes sense, considering the seismic dramatic drift of the material is practically catnip to all filmmakers and actors. Now “Brothers” has returned to the screen in a respectful remake, utilizing the change of scenery and bloom of star power to mine exceptional results. It might not contain Bier’s sympathetic sucker-punch filmmaking hold, but director Jim Sheridan comes close to matching her paralyzing emotional beats.
It’s refreshing to see Robert De Niro shove aside his tough guy screen persona now and then, to remind viewers used to his antics that beyond his icy glare and powder keg temper lies a uniquely sensitive actor. “Everybody’s Fine” is a thorough tear-jerker, but the feature earns most of its sentiment, due in great part to De Niro and his gentle, worrywart lead performance. I’m not suggesting this is De Niro at his most invested and commanding, but his communication of concern adds a needed push of authenticity to a film forever on the precipice of pure schmaltz.
When Adrienne Shelly was murdered in 2006, it was a heinous, heartbreaking event that struck down a talented actress finally getting a firm grip on motion picture direction, with her final effort, “Waitress,” a tender valentine to the various varieties of love. It’s hard to say where her screenplay for “Serious Moonlight” would’ve fit in during this glowing career ascension, but I hope, for the sake of her memory, that the material was still multiple drafts away from completion. “Serious Moonlight” is not how I want to remember Adrienne Shelly.