Saturday, November 29, 2008

I've Loved You So Long ***1/2


Director: Philippe Claudel
Cast: Kristin Scott Thomas, Elsa Zylberstein
Serge Hazanavicius, Jean-Claud Arnaud, Laurent Grévill, Frédéric Pierrot

Have you noticed how characters in French movies wear the same clothes over and over? How their homes aren't afraid of looking dusty and unkempt? How the actors, despite the fact that you know their faces, seem to completely vanish into the characters they're playing?
This lived-in-ness may not be true of all their national cinema, but in Philippe Claudel's exquisite directing debut it seems to be the rule.
An intimate tale of the fragile links between people, the film begins when Juliette Fontaine (Scott Thomas) is released from prison after a fifteen year sentence.
She sits alone having a cigarette at the airport gazing ahead into some sort of limbo with a blank expression on her face; her sister Léa (Zylberstein), as energetic and smiley as her sister is sad, arrives to pick her up and after an awkward hug they leave.
We learn that Juliette was practically forgotten about while she was in jail, the reason of her sentence remaining a complete mystery for Léa (their parents began saying they had only one daughter) and the crime itself a continuing burden for Juliette.
Now she is forced to live with her sister, her husband Luc (Hazanavicius), his mute father Paul (Arnaud) and their two adopted Vietnamese girls (Lily-Rose and Lise Ségur).
She has to look for a job, knowing that most companies won't take her because of her criminal past, meet with her parole officer Captain Fauré (Pierrot) and try to readjust to a society and a life she really has no desire of being part of.
The film mostly works around the devastating, beautiful performance by Scott Thomas who in French seems to tap into the greatest source of her acting range.
Her aristocratic features and British accent have always made her a perfect actress for roles that demand an air of superiority (her character in "The English Patient" for example has her working the Garbo in her to the maximum level).
Here the actress becomes someone else entirely, her face becomes a blank slate. Her sunken cheekbones and detached manner only hint at the kind of life she led in jail, her wrinkles become the actress' weapon and the character's punishment.
You sometimes wonder why Juliette didn't try suicide as an option if she seems to have lost her will to live, Scott Thomas makes her such a complex woman that soon you realize that she has chosen to live her life as a continuation of her prison sentence.
She holds regret, resentment and anger, but at the same time allows herself to believe she may have some hope. Her interaction with Pierrot is a thing of beauty (and one of the elements that make the film delicious despite the heaviness of the emotional weight) and as she slowly learns to love her nieces (Ségur particularly is a delight to watch) she becomes luminous.
She is at her best when she seems to not be acting at all, watching her dress up for a bar says more about Juliette than a whole speech and in one of the film's most beautiful moments she quietly enters Grandpa Paul's study and falls asleep next to him while he reads.
Zylberstein is perfect in her own way, her character gets the difficult task of balancing fear and unconditional love. You wonder why does she feel an obligation towards someone everyone else disdains.
The actress however turns this in her favor and lets it become Léa's ground, her insecurity and lack of trust towards her sister make you wonder if she in a way is guilty of some sort of emotional crime as well.
A born storyteller, with background as novelist and screenwriter, Claudel crafts an intimate universe in what results a compelling portrait of desolation and the kind of pain that changes you forever. The film relies on silences and small moments, perhaps more than it does on dialogue, which is why it's remarkable how you can perceive how well written it is.
Claudel's choices as a director are just as fascinating; he could've easily made his film a mystery by making us wonder what exactly did Juliette do to end in jail, instead he creates a series of vignettes where we see her slowly becoming alive again.
Moving at an easy, but never dull, pace, Claudel takes his time taking us places and before you realize it you might have even forgotten that there is some sort of mystery to begin with; the film doesn't seem to need a normal catharsis, it reaches one without us even noticing.
He concentrates on Juliette, sometimes the camera moves with her and views the world through her eyes as if they were watching things for the very first time, or at least under a different light.
The central themes sometimes become too obvious (a scene where Léa discusses "Crime and Punishment") and the film doesn't work well when it feels as if it's forcing itself upon us.
It's too bad considering that Scott Thomas' work is enough to guarantee that we will ask ourselves Dostoyevskian questions on our own.
By film's end we may come out wondering if it's OK to like a criminal, if the nature of the crime should make a difference to how we view them and mostly if it's possible to regain one's humanity.
What Juliette did should've remained a secret, because in the end it doesn't make much of a difference; the pain in Scott Thomas' face doesn't come close to being justified by the eventual revelation.

Rachel Getting Married ***1/2


Director: Jonathan Demme
Cast: Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt
Mather Zickel, Bill Irwin, Tunde Adebimpe, Anissa George
Anna Deavere Smith, Debra Winger

Who would've guessed that Jonathan Demme's best film in almost twenty years would have him turn into a wedding planner?
After a decade that has had him directing documentaries and pointless remakes, he's back in form with an Altmanesque tale of a family coming together for a wedding.
Anne Hathaway plays Kym, a former model who's been in and out of rehab for ten years; she takes leave for a weekend to go to her family's house in Connecticut where her sister Rachel (DeWitt) will be getting married.
There we meet her dad Paul (Irwin), her estranged mother Abby (Winger), Paul's new wife Carol (Deavere Smith), Rachel's fiancé Sidney (Adebimpe), best man Kieran (Zickel), Rachel's best friend Emma (George) and all the sorts of people, with varying descriptions brought together by the event.
Before the weekend is over there will be fights and reconciliations, dark family secrets will come to the surface, news will have them outbursting with happiness, faces will get slapped, music will be played (if there was ever an informal musical film this one's it) and eventually the guests will leave having done exactly what they came to do.
From its opening shot the film establishes the fact that it will be everything except what you thought it would be. The plot is the kind made to make us think that it will be a quirky indie film about dysfunctionality and hippie people, but Demme aptly turns it into a quasidocumentary about love and all the shapes it can take.
Working with a beautiful screenplay by Jenny Lumet (daughter of Sidney and granddaughter of the legendary Lena Horne) you often wonder how much came from the words and how much from Demme's mise-en-scene which comes alive in a way very few films ever do.
Big part of it is owed of course to cinematographer Declan Quinn whose handheld camera approach might've been off putting if it wasn't so damn engaging.
The camera peeks into rooms to see who's there, moves around the house following the characters and eventually it's home video feel might make us wonder who is it exactly representing?
Is it our guide? Is it perhaps Kym's aid in trying to take everything in or is it perhaps some sort of scrapbook with the intention of capturing both the good and the ugly from the wedding?
Whatever it turns out to be for each audience member the truth is that Quinn's work is so fantastic that it makes us thrive on a sort of inviting voyeurism.
The ensemble is tremendously natural, so much in fact to the point where we feel as if the movie was constructed from outtakes.
Hathaway is a revelation, Demme makes the most out of her established likeability and turns her Kym into something we think we like, only to pull the rug from under our feet and making us battle between us "loving to hate" or "hating to love" her.
Hathaway, like everyone else in this film, grabs onto something other films exploit shamelessly, in her case drug addiction and extracts the cliché out of it.
Kym is holding on to a source of pain you can't even imagine, but the actress never martyrizes her character. Hathaway is especially moving when the camera catches her going to some faraway place. Her need to fit in is obvious in her line readings, but watching her just listening to other characters or smoking a cigarette make her turn into someone real.
Her chemistry with the extraordinary DeWitt gives the movie its soul. DeWitt's Rachel who often tries to act like the grownup is in a limbo between going to the childlike joy her wedding brings to her or remaining a steady rock for her whole family to lean on.
When you watch her try to conatin herself from accusing her sister of something DeWitt shines with a rare kind of beauty.
If they give the film a lively spirit, the magnificent Bill Irwin gives it its heart, his Paul is the kind of ever loving father that cries because he can't contain his happiness from having his family with him. Irwin's nuances should've felt like a parody at times, but he's the kind of movie character you wish you knew in real life.
Winger, who is in far too little scenes, makes her Abby someone strangely appealing. You want to know more about her, why did she divorce Paul, why did she become so distant from her daughters, she's a fascinating force of nature that proves to us that love for a mother might be the only kind that is undying.
The rest of the ensemble from Adebimpe's adorable Sidney, to George's neurotic Emma and Zickel's unbelievably sexy Kieran make for one hell of a welcoming party.
"Rachel Getting Married" feels like a family relationship. Its cast and crew become vital parts of a vibrant organism. It goes up and down with its characters, fills them with unmeasurable joy only to replace it seconds later with anger and deceit.
It's like the kind of wedding where you wake up the day after with bruises and a hangover, but will never regret having attended.

Australia ****


Cast: Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman
David Wenham, Bryan Brown, David Gulpilil,
Jack Thompson, Ben Mendelsohn, Essie Davis, Brandon Walters

Remember the days when films were advertised as “movie shows” and studio productions boasted “having it all”?
Days when movie stars were photographed in beautiful, glossy light that made them look otherworldly? Days when there were “movie stars” to begin with. Well, those days are back, at least during the running time of Baz Luhrmann’s spectacular “Australia”.
After a seven year hiatus, the visionary auteur, who seems to have a thing for neglected movie genres and styles, takes on yet another cause: the reinvention of the historical epic.
Nicole Kidman plays Lady Sarah Ashley, a British aristocrat who travels to Australia looking for her husband in 1939.
After reaching the wild continent she meets one of her husband’s workers, a mysterious, tough man who everyone calls the Drover (Jackman). Once they reach “Far Away Downs”, her husband’s farm, which lies deep in the outback, she discovers he’s been murdered (no gasps here considering one should only use common sense to know that Jackman and Kidman will obviously become romantically involved in a film where they have top billing).
She also finds her estate is being tampered with by the greedy Neil Fletcher (Wenham) who is in league with the competitor cattle baron, King Carney (Brown).
Sarah first wonders what would’ve made her husband fight so much for something that to her seems an unnecessary risk, until she meets Nullah (Walters) a “creamie” (half aboriginal, half white) child who becomes suddenly orphaned and is being searched for by the authorities to be placed under government “care”.
Lady Ashley takes a liking for Nullah and this newfound knowledge of the vast injustices in the land inspires her to finish her husband’s work and, along with the reluctant Drover, deliver almost two thousand cows cross country to Darwin and stop Carney’s enterprise.
Lurhmann’s ambitious plot, combines the WWII background and the country’s racist history with the intention of encompassing everything the nation is about.
Paying homage to classics of the genre, the first part of the film feels like “The Sundowners” meets “Giant” going by way of “The African Queen” as the characters face danger and adventure in the form of cattle stampedes, wild sandstorms, fires and even a bit of aboriginal magic by the way of Nullah’s grandfather, tribe elder King George (Gulpilil).
There isn’t a single frame in “Australia” that doesn’t demand to be seen, Mandy Walker’s luscious cinematography (reminiscent of “Out of Africa”) is both in love and in awe of the country it captures.
Her camera sometimes feels as if it’s about to burst open trying to take everything in at once. In smaller moments, aided by CGI, the look is straight out of a Technicolor newsreel with vintage postcard strokes.
The whole cast is great, even if they know for a fact that they are not the main event. Kidman at first has a hard time fitting into the slight camp the film kicks off with, but soon enough (and after looking more beautiful than ever while covered in sweat and dirt) the usually cold actress radiates a sense of maternal warmth she’d never conveyed before.
She may be no Vivien Leigh, but unlike the other members of the ensemble, her performance is the one that doesn’t rely on any reference to become what it is.
Jackman, looking impossibly handsome, evokes Indiana Jones, Clint Eastwood and Cary Grant! He effortlessly moves between these personas and balancing the crass and the class, while flexing his muscles and romancing Kidman, is not something easy to pull off.
Wenham is as vicious as the bad guys in “Shane”, the incomparable Jacek Koman steals every moment he’s onscreen and Mendelsohn as the stern Captain Dutton provides the film with an unexpected sense of calm.
The find here is of course Walters, who it seems escapes every child actor cliché to deliver a beautiful performance of someone trapped between two worlds.
His narration helps hint that the film is perhaps a symbolic coming-of-age tale of the country where it takes place, which through the years has been marginalized (just consider how it was founded…) and become object of jokes (Baz has a ball playing with Aussie clichés to convey a sense of farce).
Working on this film Baz had the intention of creating his country’s very own “Gone With the Wind” and like the 1939 American epic (cinematic year which highly influenced this film) it acknowledges the racist roots both countries were built upon, but does so without losing hope for the future.
Fascinated by aboriginal mysticism, there are various customs revealed throughout the film, one of them being that once a person dies you can not say their name again; theory that is able to keep the memory while looking forward, in the same way Baz looks at his country.
Not as extravagantly stylized as his “Red Curtain Trilogy” (although some elements can be rightly called trademarks), this project gives the director the chance to broaden his storytelling horizons.
Because “Australia” is first and foremost about the art of storytelling. One of the aboriginal traditions portrayed in the film is that of passing along knowledge through stories.
Borrowing elements, and to a degree the structure, of Victor Fleming’s “The Wizard of Oz”, Luhrmann’s desire is that his country will also be part of history.
During one of the film’s greatest moments, Nullah asks Lady Ashley to sing, after bursting into a self-conscious version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, the boy giggles as he affirms that she is a funny singer, but the song is just too good.
The same goes for the director; if “Australia” feels overwhelming it’s because it is, but instead of being referred to as an undertaking, which implies burdens, Baz makes it feel like a love song that simply can not be contained.
Grabbing plot twists, characters and situations as varied as the country itself, “Australia” is a sort of imperfectly perfect masterpiece. It wants to be everything at once, but is at its best when it just lets go.
Nowadays when the musical score rises and the characters are put in unfathomable situations the audience will simply role their eyes and giggle, here we are swept off our feet.
It’s not every day that you feel your heart will come out of your chest when a movie reaches its climax. With “Australia” Baz Luhrmann has proved that he is the real wizard of Oz.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Before the Day is Over...

It's time to say thanks for:
- The productive time in Miami movie wise.
- Cobb's Cine Bistro: I don't know if it was that great Margarita, the kind staff, those oh so comfy seats, or perhaps the fresh taste of every single pop corn (I'm not kidding, every single piece was perfection and I'm not even a pop corn person) that made this perhaps the best theater going experience of my life.
Then again perhaps it was "Australia"...
- Debra Winger and Rosemarie DeWitt in "Rachel Getting Married".
- Baz Luhrmann in Charlie Rose.
- Baz Luhrmann loving "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" just as much as I do.
- Baz Luhrmann himself!
- Cheap DVDs.
- WALL-E.
- The little girls in "I've Loved You So Long".

...and here's hoping the plane going home doesn't show "What Happens in Vegas" again.
Happy Thanksgiving to everyone!

In Completely Film Unrelated News.


She rocked my world tonight.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Uh oh...

The Screen Actors Guild strike is looking like a go.
How will this affect the worsening economy?
With 2009 movies already looking like a fiasco with the WGA strike last year, will this affect 2010 as well?
Will the Oscars be jeopardized again?
Click here for the complete story.

Friday, November 21, 2008

I Like You the Way You Are...


...so what do I care how you got that way?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Doubt Under.


The U.S. site for "Australia" is up and running (Click on the picture to visit it).
It asks you to click on "zones" that don't make much sense, but boy do they have pretty images to see!
Made me worry that the film is going to result in some sort of beautiful disaster.

Max Payne *1/2


Director: John Moore
Cast: Mark Wahlberg
Mila Kunis, Olga Kurylenko, Amaury Nolasco
Chris O'Donnell, Nelly Furtado, Ludacris, Beau Bridges

Why is it that the hero survives a shower of bullets and the seemingly invincible villain only needs one to be done with?
Based on a famous video game "Max Payne" is a dull, often preposterous attempt at neo noir that seems to be in love with fulfilling comic book aesthetic clichés.
Wahlberg plays the title character, a New York City detective investigating the death of his wife and daughter more than three years before.
After what sounds like the longest cold case ever, he suddenly gets a lead that has him meet the mysterious Natasha Sax (Kurylenko) who is murdered soon after.
When Max becomes prime suspect he uncovers a network of underground crime and drug trafficking along with Sax's pissed off sister Mona (Kunis) and clues that might finally get him the redemption he seeks.
While the film is stunningly shot, there is so much invested into the dark look and "Matrix" like action sequences that everyone forgot that the things they are lighting and animating so attentively needed to spark a bit of interest in the audience.
You rarely care about Max finding his wife's murderer, because apparently neither did he until he found out a movie was being made about him.
Even more, the film's need to show off visually is taken to the x level when they include Nordic mythical creatures that part the heavens like jelly and plague the film with a creepy presence. If you think they serve a purpose in the plot, then the film has pulled off a magnificent job of sending the audience into the wrong direction.
In a mystery you might admire their tricks, but in here you realize it's just part of their extravagant need for attention. And apparently this film thrives when it lies indiscriminately to the audience (watch out for the disappearing tattoos in one character that suggest plot twist at times but end up being just continuity errors)
Wahlberg is robotic and the rest of the cast doesn't really help much.
Apparently this Max is all about giving the audience some pain.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Duchess **1/2


Director: Saul Dibb
Cast: Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes
Hayley Atwell, Dominic Cooper, Charlotte Rampling

In the year 1774 Georgiana Spencer (Knightley) was married to William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire (Fiennes).
After becoming Duchess, Georgiana became one of the most influential women of her time. She was a style and fashion icon who also took political matters at hand, despite the fact that women weren't allowed to vote, and supported the American Revolution among other controversial causes.
She also had to endure her husband's distance as he demanded a male heir from her, his constant infidelities and eventually even had to acknowledge his mistress, Lady Bess Foster (Atwell), as part of their family.
Georgiana eventually took a lover as well: Earl of Grey, and eventual Prime Minister and famous tea flavor, Charles (Cooper). If this all rings a bell it must be added that Georgiana was Lady Diana Spencer's great-great-great-great aunt.
The genealogical link invites us to wonder if the film's intention is to point out the Spencers bad luck with royal marriages, lead us to sigh about how little has changed in the role of women or just serve as an E! True Hollywood Story, two centuries in the making.
In what might be as close to a Princess Di biopic as we're getting any time soon, Dibb's adaptation of Amanda Foreman's biographic novel, is a gorgeously designed, fascinating, albeit aimless, portrait of womanhood in both the realms of royalty and society.
Since the characters are at the service of a director and a screenplay who have no real idea what is it they want to say, it's amazing how they deliver such amazing performances.
Knightley, who just keeps getting better and better, infuses Georgiana with a wit and charm beyond her time.
Barely a child when the film starts, by the conclusion she has evolved into a woman who's lived through more than what is expected of someone her age. The screenplay suggests that she was highly effective as a political advocate, but the only evidence we get of this is in the defiance Knightley gives Georgiana.
The film rarely shows us episodes outside her immediate space (Knightley is featured in almost every scene) and because of this our impressions of the character rely on some title cards, other characters' dialogues and mostly Knightley who perhaps doesn't need external help to make us perceive what everyone else saw in the Duchess.
Perhaps the most affecting quality about her character is her palpant disappointment when she realizes that her fairy tale is over. "Does he love me?" she asks to her mother (Rampling) after she learns of her bethrotal. The glow in her eyes as painful as her neglect to wonder if she loves him back.
Her change can be detected years later when she cynically agrees "how foolish of me to think I could converse with my husband", with this Knightley disappears as Georgiana emerges.
Atwell is wonderful as Lady Bess, because in all her Pompadour glory she makes it impossible for us to completely hate her, somehow we even begin to understand her choices.
But perhaps the character that stays with you the most is the Duke. The person we were supposed to see as a monster becomes in Fiennes expert hands as much a tragic figure as the heroine.
At film's start the Duke barely says a word and moves in a predatory way. During the honeymoon scene as he disrobes his wife he wonders why are their clothes so complicated. When she suggests that fashion is the only way left for women to express themselves something in his eyes suggests a sudden sadism in getting rid of them and just getting to the act.
We later begin to grasp the fact that his monstruosity was in fact that of a complete generation in which men were brought up to believe in mysogyny (with much support from the women themselves it must be said).
Fiennes mannerisms let us see that this is a man who finds it easier to express love to his dogs than to creatures he grew up thinking were meant to procreate.
"I love you in the way I understand love" he says to his wife and in one moment of revelation the film turns upside down making us wonder how much, if, either of them are to blame for the unhappiness in their lives.
Fiennes barely needs to speak to provide a touching portrait of why the political currents mentioned through the film are needed in the world.
Their characters are reminders of the need to evolve, which is why it's sad that "The Duchess" tries so hard to be so much at once without being anything.
When Georgiana attends the theater, a group of men sketch her picture which later appears in the papers as if they were winking "Hello" and "People" tabloid-ness from the screen.
We see little of what it is that made these people who they were and in the end the film never does justice to the historical people and to the absolutely brilliant actors playing them.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Coolest Oscars Ever?

If Leo, Kate, Penélope and Baz end up winning, they'll have to pull a Julia once the brilliant Michael Giacchino tries to conduct them out of the podium.
Read more about the Oscar crew here.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Burn After Reading ***


Director: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Cast: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich
Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins, J.K. Simmons, Brad Pitt

Gym employees Chad Feldheimer (Pitt) and Linda Litzke (McDormand) find a disc containing information they assume to be highly classified CIA information.
They link the disc to former CIA analyst Osbourne Cox (Malkovich), who has just been fired from his job and has decided to write his memoirs, to the disapproval of his wife Katie (Swinton) who is having an affair with Treasury agent, womanizer, Harry Pfarrer (Clooney) and has decided to divorce Osbourne.
Dim witted Chad sees the opportunity to get a reward for the safe return of the information, while Linda would finally get the cosmetic surgeries she desires in order to enter the next stage of her life as she sees it, but when they get rejected by Osbourne they approach the Russian Embassy unleashing screwball comedy that gets as dark as the Coen brothers can deliver.
"So we don't really know what anyone is after" goes CIA superior (J.K. Simmons who is in the film for two scenes but might be the ones you remember the most) when one of his employees briefs him on the actions of the other characters. Truth is we really don't know where anything is going, which doesn't diminish the joyful rush of the ride.
"Report back to me when it makes sense" he asks later on with no better results.
Aimlessly, but not purposely, throwing their characters into the plot like mice inside a labyrinth, the Coens seem to be having the time of their lives (and with reason considering their previous film) also providing the ensemble with some of the most entertaining roles they've played.
Clooney, who now seems part of their filmography is at his underrated best, playing a man who has found in sex the thrills he's lacking in his married life. What's wonderful about his character particularly is that the Coend don't turn him into a dislikable sex fiend, just as someone who is looking for what he needs in all the wrong places but has a real soul.
If the Coens planned to create characters exemplary for their idiocy, their plan backfires as they can't help but inject a certain amount of sincere emotional ache in all of them.
When we find Harry is building a gift for his wife we can't help but go aww, when we see what the gift is (where Clooney's eyes sparkle with puppy like fervor) we cringe while we go aww and when he leaves his lover's house offended, sex pillow under his arm, we know this could very well represent his heart.
Malkovich, at his neurotic best, is the poster boy for upper middle class failure. An alcoholic in denial, he moves into his yacht where he drinks and does aerobics as he plans his comeback to the world that shunned him. You laugh at him more than with him, but Malkovich doesn't really care, he's like a human version of Tom the cat.
Swinton is magnificent combining her ice queen qualities with an irresistible sex appeal. With Malkovich she reminds us that familiarity breeds contempt as she is disgusted by everything he does. Swinton doesn't even need to roll her eyes to let us know her apathy.
Pitt's Chad is a genius comedic creation, as the actor vanishes into this bleached blonde muscle machine who smiles when he has no other way of defense.
He never stops chewing gum or moving to what one can only assume is some sort of 90's Eurotrash piece on his iPod, he is ditzy and, scarily reminiscent of some political juggernauts (one whose picture is featured in the film), harmlessly likable.
McDormand's Linda is also some sort of small miracle, the actress absolutely devoid of any vanity becomes this insecure woman whose lack of self esteem comes off as a bizarre, almost admirable determination. "I've gotten about as far as this body can take me" she says and can you really blame her for seeking options instead of just moping?
The Washington D.C. in this film is some sort of bubble where bureaucracy and patriot paranoia gets in the way of common sense.
Everyone seems to think they're part of a bigger picture and with this the Coens (with a wicked eye for comedic detail) poke fun at the mindless fear that pervaded post 9/11 America, Carter Burwell's selfonsciously selfimportant score does a brilliant job highlighting this.
But they also deliver an acute observation of how people face aging; you might very well argue that "Burn After Reading" is a midlife fantasia, both for the Coens who have become filmmakers of whom one expects only great cinema amidst their undeniable flops and of all the characters to whom their actions, as idiotic as they result, might be their last chance of making a difference for self and country.

Old Age and Salmon, Youth and Sardines.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Tropic Thunder **

Director: Ben Stiller
Cast: Ben Stiller,
Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr.
Nick Nolte, Steve Coogan
Jay Baruchel, Tom Cruise
Brandon T. Jackson
Matthew McCounaghey

There's only a step from the sublime to the ridiculous, or so goes the adage which perfectly helps describe this film.
What begins as a satire of the most cynical, rarely seen, kind, slowly descends into a film you no longer laugh with, but at (or sometimes just cringe), as it proves that Hollywood has mastered the art of blockbusters, creating stars and draining a clever idea until its just left stale.
The plot centers around the shooting of a Vietnam war film called "Tropic Thunder" that has brought together three of the brightest male stars available.
Action superstar Tugg Speedman (Stiller), scatological comedian Jeff Portnoy (Black) and five time Academy Award winning, method actor, the Australian Kirk Lazarus (Downey Jr.) who is playing an African American by going blackface.
Their very different screen personas are established in the absolutely brilliant prologue (to which the rest of the movie sadly never lives up) in which things as seemingly inocuous as trailers deliver some hilarious, cleverly conceived critiques on the roles of actors, audience perception and studios in the ultimate concept of cinema.
Later we see director Damien Cockburn (Coogan) as he struggles to capture the action while the actors' egos are the only ones in full battle.
When he is threatened by a studio executive (Cruise in "look at me being funny and showy in a fatsuit" mode) he decides to follow the advice of the mysterious John Tayback (Nolte), who wrote the book the film is based upon, who suggests that the only way his cast will get the work done is if they go to real war.
They take the cast to the middle of a jungle infested with members of a drug gang who assume the actors are DEA agents, while the actors think of them as really good stuntmen.
When things start getting out of control Speedman decides this will be the role of his career and goes forward with the guerrilla shoot, while Lazarus tries to convince the others that they are no longer in a movie.
Stiller (who wrote the script with Etan Cohen and the amazing Justin Theroux) makes an intriguing first impression with his "war as a game" take on how the media has made us perceive violence.
When one of the actors spills his fake guts after being shot, the scene makes for an uncomfortable moment where some audience members will laugh out loud at the silliness of it all, while others will wonder when did it become normal to laugh at guts being spilled.
Perhaps Stiller was trying to point out how people react to different genre stimuli and go "this is a Ben Stiller film, so this is supposed to be funny", leading us to examine carefully the way in which we process information regarding the channel and medium.
But the problem is that most of the film suffers because of this, you wonder if it's trying to be bitter, morbid, smart or just going with the flow.
It offers some funny observations on various industry types (and the film is probably enjoyed more by those who know about the trade) but it never lets us forget the fact that these very people greenlit this and allowed it to be made.
The Academy Awards are a major source of gags in the film and while the writers honestly think they are one step ahead of the organization by revealing how it chooses to award people, truth is you can almost touch the fact that in this blasé take, they are also demanding the Academy takes notice of them and it is so with almost every other thing in it.
Except Downey Jr. who aptly owns the film with a performance that is always a step ahead of the others. Playing "a dude playing another dude who's playing a dude" he brings a certain dignity to something that could've resulted highly offensive and obscene.
Lazarus' love for the craft (he never leaves character even as the others endure personal hell) highlights what is both great and wrong about film, giving Downey the distinction of being the rare kind of figure who can be box office draw while preserving artistry.
That we never think of his "blackface" as his character or as Downey Jr. as Lazarus is a testimony to an actor at his very best.
"Tropic Thunder" is sometimes too clever for its own good, like the popular kid at school who hides his geekiness to preserve his coolness, it knows it can do better, but chooses to settle. It encompasses itself perfectly with Kevin Sandusky (a scene stealing Baruchel), a young actor who ends up becoming the leader in the background because he knows how to balance different parts of his personality. During a key scene he confesses to Lazarus that he became an actor because of him, while acknowledging to Speedman that he also watched his action movies repeated times. Sandusky, like the film, is both its attack and its salvation, its most fervent admirer and fiercest enemy and as war itself the results are rarely a laughing matter.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Ain't It the Truth?


''I just wish sometimes that we'd have more stuff like 'Doubt' in the summer, but that's against the laws of Hollywood.''
- Meryl Streep

The glorious Meryl Streep, who has had one of the greatest years of her career thanks to her "who would've guessed?" blockbuster star turn in "Mamma Mia" as well as her yet-to-be-seen, but sure-to-be-great role in "Doubt" might very well achieve the rarely seen double whammy of box office heroine and Oscar winner (number 3 for her) in one year.
Robert Downey Jr. was supposed to get it with "The Soloist" and "Iron Man" but well one of those went wrong.
Streep and Downey Jr. are both featured in "Entertainment Weekly"'s list of "Entertainers of the Year" along with other film, music, literature and television figures who remind us that 2008 has actually been an outstanding year for entertainment and arts.
And we're not even deep into Oscar season yet!

There is Such Thing as Revenge.


There is simply no conceivable way for someone like Steven Spielberg to remake this.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Another Woman?


Woody Allen sometimes makes Gena Rowlands and Mia Farrow seem indistinguishable.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Citizen Slade.


"It doesn't matter what a man does with his life, what matters is the legend that grows up around him"
Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor) in "Velvet Goldmine".

If someone had told Orson Welles in 1941 that his "Citizen Kane" would be remade more than half a century later as an ode to glam rock, he probably wouldn't have believed it...or he would've loved the idea and endorsed it completely.
Todd Haynes' "Velvet Goldmine" is supposed to share only the narrative structure with Welles' masterpiece, but on a closer look, the film is a precise dissection of what many consider to be the greatest film ever made.
While the tag of tribute, reinterpretation or copy is subjective, truth of the matter is that Haynes owes to "Kane" much more than a backbone; and the beauty of "Goldmine" lies not only in watching how he touches a holy grail, but how his views reexamine the classic film and even help us watch it with different eyes as he "dares" to question Welles' choices.
"Kane" was written by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Welles after Mankiewicz came up with the idea of telling the life of a public figure through the eyes of those who knew him as opposed to traditional, chronological biographies.
They settled on media mogul William Randolph Hearst who for the screenplay became Charles Foster Kane: tycoon, womanizer, debaucher, greedy, insecure and madly ambitious.
The film, which begins with Kane's death, follows a reporter as he interviews people from his past including his former business manager (Joseph Cotten), his ex-wife (Dorothy Comingore) and some of his advisors in order to discover what his last words meant.
"Velvet Goldmine" also begins with a death, that of glam rocker Brian Slade, who at the height of his popularity stages his own demise, a fake one, but a death nevertheless (Although technically the film begins with Haynes introducing the idea that an other worldly Oscar Wilde was the first glam rocker).
Reporter Arthur Stewart (Christian Bale) is sent a decade later to investigate whatever happened to him after that event by interviewing people from his life, including his former business manager (Eddie Izzard), his ex-wife (Toni Collette) and former glam rock star Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor).
We first learn about Slade through a television show (Kane's life is revealed to us through a newsreel) and then the plot moves backwards as each character reveals a piece of his life.
It's widely known, or at least understood, that Slade is shaped after David Bowie (especially during his Ziggy Stardust era) while Curt is a hybrid between Iggy Pop and Kurt Cobain (think of him as a sensitive streaker).
So the first thing to ask ourselves is if this is a direct comparison between Hearst and Bowie, Kane and Slade, or if Haynes is simply finding equivalents in terms of influential power during different eras.
The individual cases might come off looking shallow, especially because they live up to being similar only in small, random details like the fact that both Kane and Slade marry flashy, trashy girls (who are later interviewed in the same fashion in the remnants of a bar) who have grown to become jaded women.
Neither film tries to hide the identity of the people who inspired them (note how they stress the words American and trailer park when Slade first sees Curt, as if to make clear it can't be other than Iggy), matters which were incendiary in terms of the fact that Hearst tried to destroy every copy of "Citizen Kane" and Bowie asked none of his songs to be featured in the film despite acknowledgment that this was a completely fictionalized version of a period in his life.
If there was nothing of the truth to be found in any of the films why would someone go to the lengths of trying to stop its release? Slade himself endorses activities of the kind when he says "Nothing makes one so vain as being told one is a sinner."
And for the filmmakers what truth was to be found in these stories?
"Kane" was supposedly a revenge against Hearst on part of Mankiewicz (after the tycoon stopped inviting him to his parties), Welles just played along for subversive fun's sake, but nothing in Haynes filmography or biography tells us that he had any special interest in Bowie or Iggy.
Curiously the effect is reversed in the histories of the narrators. The reporter investigating Kane remains anonymous throughout the film, we never even see his face, he's more of a device if anything; while Arthur Stewart not only was a fan of glam rock (fact which seems to embarrass him in the 80's) but was also emotionally involved with the movement so much that one of the film's most haunting scenes has him masturbate to a Brian Slade record cover as if it was a religious experience.
What difference does it make then how much we know about the subject we're investigating about? How do our perceptions and objectivity change when we have any emotional connections to our subject?
For the reporter in Kane, albeit fascinating, the mogul ends up being nothing more than an assignment. For Arthur on the other side, the investigation becomes the completion of a soul search he began decades before.
But in the end it's debatable if the reporters learn more about their subjects or about themselves.
On a stylistic level "Kane" is still unrivaled in terms of technical prowess (the only thing missing in it is CGI, but Welles probably was already machinating something similar in his mind), while "Goldmine" evokes the qualities of 60's and 70's filmmaking.
From Richard Lester to exploitation and quasi documentaries (technique which also proved effective in "Kane"), but perhaps the film is better known for its dazzling musical sequences, which like a loophole into the characters' minds and emotions, threads them to the rest of the narrative.
Watching "Velvet Goldmine" should feel like both the hangover and the drunkenness, its observations on hedonism as fascinated as they are opposed to it.
What's true is that both films concentrate on eras that had gone by, or would soon (Hearst died ten years after "Kane", same time that the characters in "Goldmine" take before they start investigating Slade) and both look at them as if to find relevance with the present and the future.
After all what is "Goldmine" other than a nostalgic take on artistic evolution?
For Haynes it's obvious that some of the best things have already been done and what better way to prove it than to use a classic film as model to talk about an almost vanished music genre?
Another of the issues to explore about "Kane" is how much of Welles was in Charles Foster Kane. From his upbringing to certain tics and specific details about his life, which lead you to ask why would he decide to create a hybrid of himself and someone he obviously didn't like that much?
Haynes isn't as notorious a character as Welles was, but one can guess that he must have put a little of himself into the characters. Then again he has Curt utter the line "a real artist creates beautiful things and puts nothing of his own life into it".
But maybe this is looking too much into things that are better left off as experiences. After all Haynes himself washes his hands, or triggers our imagination, when he quotes Nathan Brown in the fact that "meaning is not in things, but in between them".

- This post is part of "Musical of the Month" hosted by Nathaniel Rogers of "The Film Experience".

Monday, November 10, 2008

Quantum of Solace ***


Director: Marc Forster
Cast: Daniel Craig
Mathieu Amalric, Olga Kurylenko, Gemma Arterton
Jeffrey Wright, Giancarlo Giannini, Judi Dench

It is only logical, and fair, that as times change so do iconic film characters along with our perception of them. James Bond, once the symbol of nihilist Imperialism, decadent sexual freedom and the alpha male role model of choice by men and women has evolved, in just two films, into the ultimate kind of movie character: the human one.
Kicking off (literally) where Martin Campbell's "Casino Royale" left off, this film starts with a chase sequence along Lake Cuomo, Italy, as Bond (Craig) transports Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) to be interrogated about a recently discovered organization called Quantum.
After revealing that they have people "everywhere" White makes a surprising escape with the aid of an MI6 double agent.
Preoccupied with the intelligence leak, Bond is given precarious clearance to follow their only lead, which takes them to Haiti and a man named Dominic Greene (Almaric) who on the surface looks like an environment friendly philantropist, but might also have deep ties with Quantum and their involvement in a coup d'état set to occur in Bolivia.
While the plot is a continuation of "Casino Royale", especially in Bond's search for the truth behind Vesper Lynd's betrayal and the uncovering of the big bad guys, those expecting a thematic sequel will be highly disappointed.
While "Royale" was all about class and unconventional, almost diplomatic, ways of accomplishing the mission, "Quantum of Solace" isn't afraid to get down and dirty.
In fact it's what it does most of the time; it features action sequence after sequence where Bond moves with disdain for anything that gets in his way, including boats, planes and cars, along with several people who he kills before interrogating (in what becomes a sort of dark joke within the plot).
Fighting hard against what obviously becomes a revenge, Bond must battle with himself without jeopardizing what might be one of the most important missions of his career.
At times the film is a throwback to the first Bond movies in terms of visual style and design, especially with the trademark Bond girl that comes in the shape of Agent Fields (Arterton). Still no Q or Monneypenny though.
But in other elements the film is almost in the extreme opposite of the corniness found in the elaborate plans of the villains which were more about being a pain in the ass for Bond, than actual machiavelic devices of destruction.
In Greene and his truly chilling plan, we find ourselves before the first Bond villain who might exist in real life. Greene moves among political and economic circles where the policies being dealt among the "bad" and "good" guys are scarily reminiscent of dealings going on in actual governments.
CIA agent Felix Leiter (Wright) must face the fact that sometimes the job isn't exactly made of the idealistic dreams kids are brought upon and even M (Dench) finds herself deciding whether to compromise her duty as a British citizen or as a human being.
While everything in "Casino Royale" was more cerebral (which makes simply puzzling and outstanding how they managed to make poker seem so exciting) this film works at a more visceral level.
It's almost rebellious; even a staging of Puccini's "Tosca" shines for the unexpected, bizarreness of its postmodernist setting.
"Quantum of Solace" is at the core a clash of the old and the new, a juxtaposition of encountered feelings, even the theme song (which weirdly pairs Alicia Keys and Jack White) is a collision of elements that shouldn't work together, but somehow do.
"I find you horribly efficient" reveals Bolivian agent Camille Montes (Kurylenko who could kill anyone with her sumptuous tan) to Bond after finding that he, like the labyrintine plot and Forster's somewhat unsteady direction, always manage to get the work done.
Most of the film relies on the power of Daniel Craig who has completely made the part his own and has become a true force of nature. In the previous film he acted like a man who falls in love going against everything he believes in, here he plays James like a wounded animal.
He is as ruthless as he is charming, which might work against the idea of Bond as a perfect hero and bring him down to Earth as an imperfect human being with an inescapable ambiguity.
He doesn't bother with being glamorous and makes his way relying on a selfconfidence that makes impossible for anyone to say no to him. His behavior is so uninterested at times that he doesn't even lust after Camille, setting a sexual tension the film more than lives up to.
The only other person who competes with Craig here on terms of screen command is the always magnificent Dench whose character has become more of a central player and one might even say the source of some Freudian subplot regarding how to deal with authority when you care about them.
While the screenplay (by Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis & Robert Wade) works hard to turn Bond into a globalized version of what he used to be, Craig (who relies on everything he can as an actor, just watch his deliciously wicked smirk after he know he did something wrong) never lets the iconic character completely vanish.
Scarily appropriate for the time of its release, "Quantum of Solace" is sometimes uncomfortable to watch, its attitude becomes blasé and one might argue it follows its lead character's mood.
As the world faces economic recession and there is underlying fear everywhere, a scene where Bond checks himself into a luxury hotel despite a request to be subtle comes off as a disturbing moment of indifference, even if the plot then turns in his favor as he becomes a sort of Socialist hero.
The series now faces the dilemma of going back to the escapism it lived by, or moving forward with the gritty realism that has become staple for action films this century.
Whatever their choice is the truth remains that Craig has become someone you will follow, sometimes even despite what your best judgment tells you.

If doing Hugh Jackman fails...


...there's always Charlize in what will surely put Nicole back on the Oscar race by default.
Read the story here.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Hunger ****


Director: Steve McQueen
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham
Stuart Graham, Brian Milligan, Liam McMahon

The human body becomes the ultimate weapon for the defense of personal beliefs in Steve McQueen's politically charged, crude masterpiece about the 1981 hunger strike in Belfast's Maze Prison.
The film begins as more and more IRA members are sent to prison, demanding that the British government treats them as political prisoners and gives them different care.
But "there is no such thing as political bombings" commands Margaret Thatcher over the radio, giving the prisoners no choice but to protest in any way they can.
Forms of protest included spreading their feces all over the wall, refusing to wear prison uniforms and eventually the title strike which lasted for more than six months and cost the lives of ten prisoners and just as much prison guards.
It is here where the film centers its attention on Bobby Sands (Fassbender) as he leads the strike and even becomes elected for Parliament as the prisoners battle the British government.
But even if the second half of the plot seems to be biopic material, McQueen's approach to it is so unsentimental that Sands' identity might as well have remained anonymous, without lessening the impact of the film.
As political films go, "Hunger" is by far one of the most complex examples released recently, in terms of how it never chooses sides, but somehow evades being tagged as lazily ambiguous.
When the film starts we meet Davey (Milligan) who has just been taken to Maze and proudly remains true to what his beliefs demand of him.
As we see the treatment he receives from the guards and the complete loss of human dignity he goes through we're led to identify with him.
But by doing this aren't we identifying with someone who has certainly committed a crime and is there for a reason?
The camera also follows guard Raymond Lohan (Graham) as he prepares to go to work and must check his car for bombs and later move in some sort of trance knowing that this might be the day when he dies at work.
We also identify with him, because regardless of what he's made to do, he is after all a man performing tasks his job demands. Later on, during one of the film's most brutal moments we see the naked prisoners take a beating in order to search them for smuggled items (which a previous, fantastically choreographed, scene confirmed as truth), one of the guards, not more than a boy, sneaks to the back where a single tear falls down his cheek amidst hellish noise and screams.
By portraying two sides of a completely unequal battle with documentary like techniques, the film gets to the core of what politics are supposed to be about and beyond those matters it grasps at humanity. Nobody watching this film will be able to just pick who was right or wrong.
In terms of cinematic qualities, "Hunger" also comes as a force to behold. When it starts we somehow expect it to be either the story of the first characters we meet or a quasi-documentary about IRA prisoners.
At first most scenes unfold around the relationship of Davey and Gerry (McMahon) who become cell mates and must deal with the precarious living conditions they're given.
The plot seems to move nowhere during the start, making our imagination plot if this is going to be an escape film or something like "The Green Mile" considering the guards aren't portrayed as villains either.
Then during the first time the camera takes us out of the cells to the visitors hall we see Sands and only then the film begins to focus on him.
As if the camera was being held under the same rules as the prisoners, especially those under the "Five Demands" they requested of the British government, involving free association with other inmates.
Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt's work is magnificent, because every camera movement is key to the action and the underlying meaning of what's occurring.
In what will become the film's trademark moment, and one of the most daring scenes ever filmed, the camera stays still for almost twenty minutes (roughly one quarter of the film's entire running time, brave considering the first quarter is almost completely devoid of dialogue as well).
Bobby has requested a visit from a priest (Cunningham who is splendid) and they discuss the moral, social, political and religious implications of the upcoming hunger strike.
"The Brits have been fucking up everything for centuries" goes the priest as the scene is handled with an informality that makes it both comfortable to see, but uneasy to deal with.
After this, the plot will take a dark turn giving Fassbender a chance to push his thespian skills to the limit. His eventual physical change is almost impossible to watch as his body deteriorates, but his fervent spirit remains the same.
"If God doesn't punish you for suicide he will for stupidity" says the priest, to which a serene Sands replies "and you for arrogance".
Nobody leaves "Hunger" unscathed, not even those who are just being witnesses.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Kiss Me.

Alphabet Meme.


I've been tagged by Sir Michael Parsons of "My Stuff and Cr*p" in this "name a film per letter" meme. Would surely make for a great drinking game...

But first here are the rules (I'll obviously skip number 6):

1. Pick one film to represent each letter of the alphabet.

2. The letter "A" and the word "The" do not count as the beginning of a film's title, unless the film is simply titled A or The, and I don't know of any films with those titles.

3. Return of the Jedi belongs under "R," not "S" as in Star Wars Episode IV: Return of the Jedi. This rule applies to all films in the original Star Warstrilogy; all that followed start with "S." Similarly, Raiders of the Lost Arkbelongs under "R," not "I" as in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Conversely, all films in the LOTR series belong under "L" and all films in theChronicles of Narnia series belong under "C," as that's what those filmmakers called their films from the start. In other words, movies are stuck with the titles their owners gave them at the time of their theatrical release. Use your better judgement to apply the above rule to any series/films not mentioned.

4. Films that start with a number are filed under the first letter of their number's word. 12 Monkeys would be filed under "T."

5. Link back to Blog Cabins in your post so that I can eventually type "alphabet meme" into Google and come up #1, then make a post where I declare that I am the King of Google.

6. If you're selected, you have to then select 5 more people.

Now, here are my films:

All About Eve
Bambi
Casablanca
Double Indemnity
Evita
Far From Heaven
Gigi
The Hours
The Incredibles
Judgment at Nuremberg
Kiss Me Kate
Love is a Many-Splendored Thing
Meet Me in St. Louis
Notorious
The Others
Pride and Prejudice
Quantum of Solace
A Room With a View
Singin' in the Rain
Todo Sobre Mi Madre
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
The Virgin Spring
The Wizard of Oz
X-Men
You Can't Take It With You
Z

Friday, November 7, 2008

Random Prayer.


Please G-d, let this film be as good as these women deserve.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Election Day the Earth Stood Still.


[Regarding the landing of a space ship in Washington D.C]
Mr. Harley (Frank Conroy): "Why doesn't the government do something, that's what I'd like to know".
Mr. Krull (Olan Soule): "What can they do? They're only people, just like us."
Mr. Harley: "People my foot, they're Democrats!".

Watching "The Day the Earth Stood Still" I couldn't help but notice how some of its themes remain relevant to this very day. Forget the thinly disguised allegory about Communism, it's more about how humans are harming the planet and how even in the 50's there was more hope in the Democrat party. Today we pretty much stand in the same place.
On a day which could be a turning point in modern history I encourage American citizens to go out, vote and make a difference. The rest of the world is relying on this choice as well.

"Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer, the decision rests with you"
Klaatu's (Michael Rennie) final words before leaving Earth.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

High School Musical 3: Senior Year ***


Director: Kenny Ortega
Cast: Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Tisdale, Lucas Grabeel
Corbin Bleu, Monique Coleman, Olesya Rulin, Bart Johnson, Alyson Reed

Following three years of complete media ubiquity "High School Musical" has made it to the silver screen and lo and behold, to the surprise of those unfamiliar with the television films and albums, it makes for a fantastic movie!
Set in East High in Albuquerque, the film jumps straight to the action as we meet or rekindle with Wildcats', the basketball team, captain and school heartthrob/jock Troy (Efron), his girlfriend, the smart, lovable Gabriella (Hudgens) and the rest of the gang including the deliciously wicked diva Sharpay (Tisdale), her brother Ryan (Grabeel), Troy's best friend Chad (Bleu) and the introverted musical composer Kelsi (Rulin) as they approach graduation day.
Most of the plot centers around Troy's decisions regarding his future, as he must choose between his basketball career, following Gabriella or reveal his actual love for performing arts and the possibility of a scholarship at Juilliard.
As all of them face turning point stress, drama teacher Ms. Darbus informs them they will be part of the spring musical which will be based on their experiences as they face the near future.
"We'll call it 'Senior Year'!" she announces, setting the meta mood, which fueled the previous entries in the series and relieves the plot from coming up with an actual musical to be created.
Consequently the musical moments are either inspiration or rehearsal for the final show as well as a sort of show in itself with us as the final audience (who eventually watches the audience watching the show...).
It's like Charlie Kaufman meets Hannah Montana as the explosive, hyper energetic dance and song moments explore teen angst through the eyes of a chaste boy band lyricist.
Being a Disney product the film couldn't be more manufactured and predisposed for massive consume even if it came in a fat free, shiny, plastic wrap.
The songs are catchy but forgettable, the dialogues aren't exactly Shakespeare, yet you can't help but enjoy its sincere need to entertain and even better, not feel as if it should be a guilty pleasure.
Most of this is owed to the cast, especially Efron who, as the reincarnation of Gene Kelly in a boy band member, owns this movie in every single way and perhaps could convince you of anything relying on pure movie star charm.
He is a fantastic dancer and whenever he's onscreen you can not take your eyes off him, if the screenplay wasn't already rooting for him, he'd somehow make his personality win you over.
Grabeel and especially Tisdale often come close to stealing the movie from the star as the Evans siblings.
Gabreel's ability to pull off Ryan's style and personality without recurring to cheap clichés is remarkable. Tisdale on the other side makes an artform out of her bitchy giddiness and in a subplot with a British student (Jemma McKenzie-Brown) gets her very own "All About Eve" moment during which she falls, gets her comeuppance and later shines all over again.
In their showcase number "I Want It All" Gabreel and Tisdale evoke Marilyn Monroe, Bob Fosse and Busby Berkeley as they celebrate the wonder of overachieving celebrity dreams with a production so sleek and perfect that their ability to preserve a sort of joyful innocence is miraculous.
The same can be said for the rest of the film which seems to occur on an alternate universe.
"High School Musical 3" has teenager parties without beer kegs and bongs, tongue-less kisses, boyfriends who sneak into their girlfriend's rooms to take them pizza and absolutely no bullies. The weird part is that the film doesn't even try to pretend we have to believe this, we somehow just do. The energy of the performers is so positive that cynicism isn't even an option.
It's not as if they're performing with a wink and they're not suggesting some sort of nostalgic throwback either.
Their political correctness is part of the appeal and the film's nostalgia only comes in the realization that this might be the last time to get on the bandwagon with these actors.
One in college there is obviously no more high school musical and although the film suggests that a sequel is probable (with McKenzie Brown and Efron redux Matt Prokop in major roles) it's the end of a mini era for fans of the original.
"This is the last time to get it right" sings a commanding Efron during one electric sequence and for talking about the transition from this to other kinds of roles he perhaps couldn't be more right.
It's not by chance that the film ends with a falling curtain, after all it's up to us to deem who of the performers are worthy of following to other projects, but for a bunch of hopeful stars of tomorrow they do put on quite a show.

Can't Take My Eyes Off of You.


Everyone else in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" is watching Marilyn.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Edge of Love **


Director: John Maybury
Cast: Keira Knightley, Sienna Miller, Cillian Murphy, Matthew Rhys

Loosely inspired on events in the life of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (Rhys), "The Edge of Love" is a period romance striving hard to become this year's literary masterpiece, specifically "Atonement" (hell, even their ad campaign compares itself to Joe Wright's film).
It opens in London during the Blitz were the luscious singer Vera Phillips (Knightley) performs in an underground venue, almost making people oblivious to the horrors going up above them. She runs into Thomas at a bar after a decade long absence. The poet was Vera's first love and as she starts to rekindle her feelings for him she meets his wife Caitlin (Miller).
Despite their inherent rivalry the trio begins a strange relationship, even moving in together, until Vera begins receiving the attentions of dashing soldier William Killick (Murphy) who she consequently marries to the disapproval of Thomas and without being convinced she really loves him.
William then is sent to combat, leaving his wife behind as she battles between who is it she really loves, with the hopes she chooses him in the end.
What should've been a traditional romantic plot is turned by director Maybury into a stale essay of the consequences of war and an unflattering portrait of Thomas.
Most of the events seem like excuses for cinematographer Jonathan Freeman to lens everything in a stunningly beautiful light; and truly who are we to complain when everything looks as if a vintage postcard had come to life?
But while the actors look at their best, the characters remain drained of any real emotion and motivation.
This happens because most of the plot turns around two notions: first that Thomas exudes such charm and is so irresistible that he can inspire two smart women to live in platonic poligamy while truth is that Rhys' performance is so uninspired that he can't even pass off as even talented for most of the film, much less impossible to live without, and we're supposed to buy his mad genius just because others say it's there. The second notion is that William is such a disposable character that the simple hope of an "I love you" can be the engine for his life.
In a way Thomas is a modern character, extracted from a contemporary film while William plays out like a Robert Taylor character of the era.
And it's truly a shame that the film fails to involve us emotionally because the women are exquisite. Miller had never been so visceral and rapturous, she almost disappears into Caitlin and in some demanding scenes she underplays her every move.
Knightley on the other side just keeps on growing as a performer, here she sings, beautifully (Angelo Badalamenti's compositions suit her perfectly) and during one key moment after an air strike hits London, she goes from frightened to sensual (and convinces you that she must be cast in a musical soon!).
The rest of the film has her rehashing her role from "Atonement", especially every time she whispers that "come back to me" line; but near the end you realize her character has turned into a full blown woman.
Maybury's debut film was also a free spirited take on the life of a celebrated artist, they both were visually daring and had some remarkable performances, but were emotionally drained.
It's sad and disappointing that "The Edge of Love" barely stays on the sidelines.

A Different Shade of Keira.