Thursday, December 31, 2009

FYC: Best Actor in a Leading Role


Filippo Timi for "Vincere"

Willem Dafoe for "Antichrist"

Sam Rockwell for "Moon"

Tom Hardy for "Bronson"

None of them will ever happen.
But they make more sense in my mind than that Yoda redux Morgan Freeman has been getting so praised for.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Ten Movies That Defined My Decade.


1. Moulin Rouge! (Baz Luhrmann, 2001)

A lot of things can change in the course of a decade.
My love for "Moulin Rouge!" has not.
To prove it, I will close the countdown by copying a post I wrote three years ago when I had a non-movie exclusive blog and had a countdown of movies that had influenced me.
The post has been copied in its original way, but I assure you that all the giddy, childish excitement remains the same.

"Simply put: ever since I saw it for the first time no other film released after, has filled me with so much hope and undeniably vibrant life as this.
Annie Lennox (and Madonna later) wisely proclaimed that "everybody is looking for something", I agree since I'm involved in a constant search for who knows what (happiness, love...who knows?), the thing is that this movie has put a big stop on my search for cinematic perfection.
It spoiled me!
Back in August 01, for a pricey ticket, I attended the premiere in Tegucigalpa.
I knew the songs by heart since it had spawned curiosity in me ever since it began appearing on Entertainment Weekly's seasonal previews (it did in summer 00, later in winter, until it was finally postponed for 01).
I remember going to its website as early as February 01 and the colorful imagery was something I wasn't used to. It screamed kitsch, yet contained a sad honesty that never allowed it to be selfconscious, it just "was".
I bought the soundtrack and fell in love with the medleys the writers aptly concocted from sources as varied as David Bowie, Madonna, Marilyn Monroe, "The Sound of Music" and Hindi traditions.
Sitting in that dark theater room, before the film even began, I was already expecting the images would fulfill the intensity of the sounds.
I was putting a lot of pressure on it and luckily, it went over my expectations.
The minute I saw a red curtain and a tiny orchestra director appear on the screen I knew this was gonna be different.
For anyone who hasn't seen it, there's not much of an actual plot, or at least one we hadn't seen before: writer meets courtesan, courtesan sings "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend", courtesan gets consumption, writer loses courtesan.
Everything about this film is in how its told. Merging MGM musicals with MTV like editing and more costumes and glitter than you can shake a stick at, "Moulin Rouge!" more than often overwhelms you.
There's too much going on at the same time and somehow it still is capable of ringing emotions.
I haven't met anyone who didn't have a strong reaction towards it.
Those of us who love it, are practically devoted to it.
For me it's a quasi religious experience, each time I watch it it feels like going to my "happy place" (even if it sounds ridiculous considering how sad the ending is) but the mere thought of this film fills me with glee and hope.
I worship Nicole Kidman's performance and think Ewan McGregor is so good he's given for granted, I look up to Baz Luhrmann hoping one day I might get as inspired as he was to make this.
This film often pops up in my head when I think of my "favorite film ever" even if I'm too much of a snob to say it's the best one ever made.
There are those who hate the film and one can't blame them.
My dad watched about an hour and said he felt like puking, my mom loved it and so did my grandma who I remember moved me by highlighting the fact that I bring love for film in my veins.
I saw it with her once and as 20th Century Fox's fanfare filled the theater with strendous power she gasped like a little kid, later the film uses the title song from "The Sound of Music", followed by the ubiquitous can-can song. She hummed them and said "Carlos would've loved this!".
Carlos was her brother, my grand uncle and a self professed film buff (he once saw 17 films in the theater in a week!) who passed away more than ten years ago and who I often think would be my favorite uncle nowadays.
I can not force people to like this movie, truth be told I don't even want to.
I just know that almost six years after I first saw it, no other thing on Earth has impressed me as much, touched me as much or filled me with the unadultered sense of wonder I imagine people had watching the first films made.
"Moulin Rouge!" takes the rules, bends them, reinvents them, makes some work, makes some fail, but always, like the bohemian values it praises, keeps faithful to itself.
How wonderful life is, now that "Moulin Rouge!" is in the world!"

-originally published 12/18/06.

I hope you have enjoyed this countdown as much as I enjoyed sharing it with you.
May the following decade be filled with more cinematic gems.

Where the Wild Things Are ****


Director: Spike Jonze
Cast: Max Records, Catherine Keener, Mark Ruffalo
Lauren Ambrose, James Gandolfini, Paul Dano, Chris Cooper
Forest Whitaker, Catherine O'Hara, Michael Berry Jr.

A wave of pure joy rushes over you from the moment the studio logos appear in Spike Jonze's "Where the Wild Things Are", an energetic, achingly bittersweet adaptation of Maurice Sendak's children's book.
Published in 1963 the book was deemed impossible to translate to the screen considering it's made out of ten sentences and pictures. The kind of beautiful simplicity contained in it charms both kids and adults, because they have the liberty of imagining more than they read.
Jonze, who co-wrote the screenplay with Dave Eggers, retains the essence of the book and expands on it without taking away its power.
But how do you expand on a story that depends so much on each person's own world views? Jonze deftly crafts the story of Max (Records) using conventional archetypes and turns him into a little boy who's ignored by his older sister (Pepita Emmerichs) and bullied by her friends who destroy an igloo he's very proud of.
He also lives with his mom (the luminous Keener) who can't give him all the attention he craves and the only reference we see of his father is in an inscription attached to a globe he gave him which reads "to Max owner of this world love Dad".
One night Max builds a fort to protect himself from the sun's imminent death (which he learned of earlier that day at school) and when his mother refuses to enter in it because she's busy with her boyfriend (Ruffalo), Max proceeds to put on his wolf costume and create the ultimate tantrum.
He runs away to escapepunishment and finds a small rowboat floating in a pond. He gets in it and sails until he reaches an island where he runs into a group of strange creatures.
Max identifies with their love for destruction and approaches them with the kind of selfconfidence he lacked in his own home.
The creatures, who have hair, horns and feather, don't seem to scare him at all. He tells them he has magical powers and they name him their king.
Max's reign will have dirt-clod fights, giant forts, rumpuses and also the promise that he will vanish loneliness and sadness from the creatures' lives.
The king identifies the most with Carol (Gadolfini) who like him throws tantrums when his wishes aren't granted and wants everyone to be together and love each other.
This brings him problems with the others like pushover Ira (Whitaker) and his girlfriend Judith (O'Hara) who's the self appointed downer. Or Alexander (Dano) a goat like creature who feels belittled and ignored most of the time.
But Carol's biggest disappointments usually come at the hand of K.W. (Ambrose), the most independent creature in the group who has decided to leave them and move somewhere else creating conflicts in their society.
Max soon realizes that he won't be able to keep harmony long, after all he's just "a boy pretending to be a wolf pretending to be a king".
Jonze's first miracle comes in the way he doesn't really ask us to suspend our disbelief, he gives Max so much confidence that we believe what he's seeing without having time to wonder where did all this come from.
In a way he does for the creatures' island what Victor Fleming made for Oz; as in creating a land of wonder that might exist only within the main character's imagination, but has enough humanity to allow all of us as visitors too.
But Max thanks to Records' phenomenal work also gives the boy a characteristic that's usually hidden in these kinds of films: complete selfishness.
When he first reaches the island the boy doesn't think for one second of going back home, unlike Dorothy, his quest isn't to find a way back but to remain there forever.
He only starts thinking about his past when he realizes that even in this special world he still feels alone.
Despite Records' fantastic performance, Jonze doesn't make the island specifically about him. It's more like a place where to find every kind of archetype from a collective childhood's psyche.
The journey there is like an existential crisis at a time when simplistic reasoning contains the most powerful wisdom. "Happiness isn't always the best way to be happy" complains Judith and the statement makes sense in the context.
The director tries to tell children that they are not alone in the world and attempts to explain to them that the perils that lie ahead are nothing compared to the joys.
When Max hears that the sun, like all things, will die the camera shows us how he looks at his mother and sister with an angst he can't share with them. He's also aware that this is the very sun that scenes later will illuminate a vast desert and make it seem like the most beautiful thing he's seen.
He also reasons with spirituality as he becomes a God to the creatures who blame him for their unhappiness. This exemplifies perfectly the deification of parents in the child's eye.
Max can't fathom that his father both gave him the world (the globe in this case) and then took it away by leaving them.
His probable guilt is projected in the island with the complicated relationship between Carol and K.W. who love each other but can't be together.
Jonze's raw production, aided by Lance Acord's breathtaking earthy cinematography and Karen O and the Kids' rich, cheerful music, doesn't really give us time to sit down and think about the film's psychological observations. It's way too busy having fun and feeling alive.
The film spoils itself in the first ten minutes or so where again like "The Wizard of Oz" it gives us all the references we need to solve Max's puzzle in the island of the wild things.
The emotional connection it makes to that movie is a bittersweet reminder that Max's story might be ridden with perpetual repetition; its events meant to be reenacted forever by generations to come.
Jonze may not know how to solve the issues of childhood, but he tells us the island will be there when we need it.
And if Jonze, like Max, asks too many questions the imaginative answers he comes up with serve to appease at least for a minute or two the alienation that comes with being a child, regardless of how old we are.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire **1/2


Director: Lee Daniels
Cast: Gabourey 'Gabby' Sidibe, Mo'Nique
Paula Patton, Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz

"Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire" is the kind of movie that would get made at an NGO to encourage donations for the issues it features. Like those movies it would choose a harrowing topic mostly unknown, or ignored, by society and then invite audiences to make a change.
It would be like a documentary of sorts because it would draw its inspiration from real life, but concentrate on the more dramatic elements to achieve its purpose and very much like those movies, it would never be meant for the people featured in it.
In this movie we have the tragic story of an overweight, illiterate sixteen year old from Harlem called Precious (Sidibe), she's recently been impregnated by her father for the second time and suffers constant verbal and physical abuse from her domineering mother Mary (Mo'Nique).
Precious escapes from her world by daydreaming and seeing herself as a famous entertainer. Things get better for her when she starts going to an alternative school where she becomes her teacher, Ms. Rain's (Patton) protegee.
Set in the late 1980's the movie features a remarkable sense of environment and subtly introduces subjects like AIDS and the slow, but steady liberation of homosexuality.
But as liberal as the movie wants to be, its director grounds it on values that only appeal to the most conservative crowds (again, people who would provide hefty tax free paychecks to the charities the movie asked them to).
It makes Precious and Mary extreme African American stereotypes that spend their time eating pig's feet and fried chicken.
"You plan on putting some food in that frying pan?" asks Mary more concerned with the fried than the food part.
And when Precious spends a day with Ms. Rain which she reveals to be something like they would do on television, she does so by relinquishing her personal biases after she learns that Ms. Rain isn't only a smart saint, but also a lesbian.
This preaching of faux liberal values as the ultimate savior would've reduced the movie to complete cliché if it wasn't for the work of its amazing ensemble.
Sidibe is a natural talent who inhabits this young woman with no regards to how even the screenplay mocks her. She makes Precious ignorant, but willing to learn and dying for the kind of love even she would agree she doesn't know.
While Mo'Nique's monstrous Mary is the work of someone fully compromised with her character, not so much in the uglification as in the attitude; watching her stroke her wig while she dances in her living room is a perverse spectacle not because of her hairy armpits and disdainful unkempt self, but because she doesn't even care about them.
Hard as they try though, Daniels is almost working against them, making Mary throw Precious a television set (only to realize later what she'd done and be sorry for the TV not her daughter) and leaving the black people with lighter skin tones (Patton, Kravitz and Carey) to do the rescuing.
Daniels major problem is his confusion regarding character development and audience expectation. He tries to make Precious a neorealist heroine (quite literally in a scene where she imagines herself as a character in "Two Women" complete with Italian lines and English subtitles) when she has already mentioned that she can't even follow Ms. Rain because she talks like people from TV channels she doesn't watch, which again makes the whole "Two Women" episode bizarre because that would be one of those channels.
This isn't a movie about Precious, this is a movie about what Daniels thinks Precious would think of herself and as such it seems he's the one who has issues to deal with.

The Messenger **


Director: Oren Moverman
Cast: Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton
Jena Malone, Steve Buscemi, Eamonn Walker

Three months before he's done with service, Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Foster) suffers an eye injury that sends him back to the US. He's placed in a casualty notification team for the remainder of his time in the army with Captain Tony Stone (Harrelson) a harsh, detached man for whom delivering news of death is just another duty.
Will, with his baby face and sensitive grunts feels that Tony's inhuman delivery of news is a disservice to the family of people he knew in Iraq. Tony, who has never been in combat, despite having been in the army at least two decades longer than Will has the steely purpose of a robot and tells Will that rule number one in their job is to never make physical contact with the people they're talking to.
With little regard for subtle dilemma, the screenwriters (Moverman and Alessandro Camon) establish a ying-yang dynamic that in another genre would serve as comedic relief, but in an independent moody drama can only mean ominously forced empathy.
In that way we see as Will and Tony deliver news to all kinds of people, each vignette becoming a who's who of multiculturality and familiar background (to remind us of course that the army isn't just made up of people like the main characters).
Before long we also enter into their private lives and see Tony as a recovering alcoholic for whom sex with young women is both entertainment and a way to keep him grounded.
Will enters a troubling situation when he becomes interested in Olivia (an extraordinary Morton) a young widow he delivered the news for.
Before long the film shifts the importance from the families to the messengers by using unoriginal manipulation techniques.
In one scene Will does weights at the gym when his pager beeps him, he continues lifting with anger and sorrow. The exercise meant to represent the weight of the world on his poor Atlas' shoulders is merely a distraction from the fact that the people whose lives he will break into perhaps are the real ones who had no choice to make. Not to mention Will's eye condition which requires him to use eye drops that fall like tears down his cheeks when he's not supposed to cry or feel anything.
Entire families are destroyed by children who enroll and must go to wars they don't understand, but Moverman doesn't understand this.
His movie offers no possibilities for those for whom the very existence of the army and foreign invasions are a mystery.
Harrelson and Foster are quite good in their roles and bring their characters closer to the impartiality the director never bothers to.
Harrelson plays Tony like a time bomb even if the screenplay takes him to the oh so overused element of "he must have a big secret that wounded him and makes him act like this".
While Foster's troubles, we might believe, come from the fact that his ex girlfriend (Malone) is about to marry another guy.
The fascinating limbo that exists in the fact that soldiers can't return to their ordinary lives is lost in the film's big "the Army takes care of you like a family" discourse and what should've worked like an apolitical essay turns out only to be a buddy/road movie that has us waiting when Will and Tony will realize they're maybe alike, share a hug, a beer and move on to the next house.

FYC: Best Actress in a Leading Role.


Not sure how this movie will fare in terms of release dates and such to qualify for the Oscars. It's a shame that Italy chose to submit something else though, cause as far as they go, this is the best movie from 2009 I've seen and Giovanna Mezzogiorno gives a performance of such power and beauty that it must be seen to be believed.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Invictus **


Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon
Adjoa Andoh, McNiel Hendriks, Scott Eastwood, Julian Lewis Jones

The reason to revisit history is usually to learn something from it or to examine it with a critical eye. Clint Eastwood's reason in "Invictus" is merely to recreate and reduce it to a simplistic, almost fablesque succession of events featuring important people.
The film centers on Nelson Mandela's (Freeman) attempt to end post apartheid tensions by uniting South Africa through its rugby team, the Springboks, and most specifically by crowning them champions of the 1995 World Cup.
When the film begins Mandela has just been released from prison and wins the presidential election. He takes over a country still divided by racial differences and asks Springboks captain Francois Pienaar (Damon) to win the championship.
Apparently all it took for the team to succeed was Mandela's request because then they go on a winning streak as they become loved by both white and black audiences.
Eastwood doesn't care in exploring the use of sports as a way for political manipulation; were the Springboks cause or consequence of the divisions? And if so how did they exactly make people who had hated them, represent their country?
The film has no regards for subtleties and the main arc is exemplified in the fact that when the movie begins black and white people play different sports divided by a road and when the film ends they're hugging each other and cheering.
If Eastwood doesn't care for historical complexities he does a much worse job encompassing what the people represented.
Mandela as played by Freeman is a copy of what the political figure seems to be on television, but he lacks the depth to become a credible human figure.
The Mandela in "Invictus" is a fictional creation that exists only for the purpose of delivering a unifying message to help the plot move forward.
Eastwood makes him a combination of a saint and Yoda who delivers grandiose lines like "forgiveness liberates the soul" in the most awkward situations.
There's also an element of extreme fantasy as Eastwood expects us to see Mandela leaving a government meeting to hear match results as something inspiring and not irresponsible.
History made sure that Mandela's tactics aren't disputed, but the film lacks dramatic responsibility because we never really expect the result to eb anything other than victory. Not only because Eastwood trivializes and patronizes history, but because we can't fathom Mandela as someone who would leave the entire fate of his country on a rugby match.
For him to become one of the most important figures of the twentieth century he at least had to have a plan B right?

Josh Birdwell: the Queer Quaker?


Anthony Perkins, like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, was the kind of actor whose characters you have trouble disassociating from his personal life.
It may be that like them he became iconic for playing a specific type of character which led the media to obsess with every aspect of his life.
Watching "Friendly Persuasion" I had the notion that his character's arc was an exact parallel for Perkins' sexual orientation.

Perkins plays Josh Birdwell the eldest son of a Quaker family (his parents are played by Gary Cooper and Dorothy McGuire). His religious upbringing demands he gives unconditional love to everyone and refuses to engage in any violent acts.
This bring him trouble because the movie is set during the American Civil War and the men in his community refuse to enroll and murder other soldiers.
Considering that being a soldier was the prototypical characteristic of a man, Josh begins to feel uncomfortable for not acting like society demands him to.

Like a gay man confounded by his sexual awakening he begins to feel shame for not fitting in with the rest. It's important to note that even if he plays a Quaker, other Quaker men in the movie have very strong reactions towards the war. When a soldier irrupts in their service to ask them to enroll, he looks down when he's approached by him.
While his friend Caleb (John Smith) has a more direct response as he states that he would like to go against his religion to fight in the war.

In a latter scene the whole family goes to a fair where Josh is asked to wrestle a man to win a bet (both big no nos among the Quakers) he refuses when Caleb agrees to take his place.
In this scene Josh becomes fascinated by the way in which his friend manages himself.

When Caleb actually begins to win the fight Josh seems confused as in whether to cheer him or feel ashamed for not being the one up there.

There is also an expression of desire in Perkins' face as he watches an extremely macho ritual unfold before his eyes.
It's easy to believe that Josh had never seen two men involved in such an intimate kind of contact before. Perkins himself was experimenting with homosexual affairs during this time, but like most actors of his time he wasn't out.

When Josh and Caleb get bullied by men who mock their different way of life it's evident that their religion can be exchanged for almost any other issue related to minorities.

Later in the movie Caleb goes with his father to visit a friend of his. Immediately her three daughter corner him with the idea of snatching him as a husband.
During these years Perkins was making his film debut and becoming a heartthrob all over the world.
Like Josh, Perkins was intimidated by women. They created an anxiety in him which he didn't know how to control.

During the whole scene of the visit Josh seems absolutely terrified of the girls in question. It helps that they look like Cinderella's stepsisters.
Curiously there is a very Freudian presence in this scene in the shape of the father portrait hanging in the back.
Can this be a reminder for Josh and Perkins to act according to patriarchal traditions?
During the filming of "Friendly Persuasion" Gary Cooper tried to get his daughter to date Perkins absolutely ignorant of the fact he was gay.
Allegedly he later was awful to the young actor and barely spoke to him. It can be said that in a way Perkins had to fulfill son roles in and out of the movie with Cooper.

When Josh listens to war stories from his sister's beau, he begins to feel guilty for not adhering to what he thinks he should be doing.

Josh decided to enlist going against his mother's wishes, but making his father feel like he grew a conscience.
This decision is highlighted as being a return to masculinity for Josh. Note the framing of this moment. He makes the decision but we don't see his face as he walks down the stairs. Just the rifle. To point at the obvious phallic-ness of the weapon would be too easy.
But what's important is how the scene hides his facial expression. It was as if Perkins was regaining his social status by hiding his true self (the face in this case).
In the same way Perkins had his first heterosexual affair years later with actress Victoria Principal who was almost twenty years her junior.
He then got married and established a traditional family, but it has always remained a mystery why did he do this.

"Friendly Persuasion" might suggest as a sort of premonition that Perkins would give in to conventions and deny his true self.
The scenes where he's in battle show him fitting in among the others, but looking completely empty and distressed.

When he finally kills a man (his true self perhaps?) he suffers and is close to death but is granted a second chance at life.
Hollywood was suggesting that to justify being "different" you have to go through some sort of moral tunnel, if you survive it you can remain in their world by getting rid of everything you were.

Friday, December 25, 2009

She Said It Better Than Anyone.


May you all have a fantastic Christmas.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Summer Hours ***1/2


Director: Olivier Assayas,
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling, Jérémie Renier
Edith Scob, Isabelle Sadoyan, Valérie Bonneton, Dominique Reymond
Kyle Eastwood, Alice de Lencquesaing, Emile Berling

By its definition a museum is a place where objects of permanent value are preserved and displayed, but how we deem something valuable and museum worthy is the nature of Olivier Assayas' touching exploration.
"Summer Hours" starts during the celebration of Hélène's (Scob) 75th birthday, she doesn't look a day past fifty but is contemplating what will happen once she's dead.
She inherited a country house from her uncle-a famous painter-who filled the place with invaluable art pieces and furniture.
Hélène lives alone except for her maid Éloïse (Sadoyan) and takes advantage of her birthday celebration to talk serious matter with her children.
Jérémie (Renier) the youngest, lives with his wife (Bonneton) in China, the middle one, Adrienne (Binoche) is an artist who lives in New York with her boyfriend (Eastwood).
Only Frédéric (Berling) the eldest remains in France and is supposed to take care of the estate after his mother's demise.
The three of them spend the celebration ignoring her wishes, out of children's fear of their parents' death or in a rush to get back to their lives, and leave reassuring themselves their mom will live forever.
She obviously doesn't and after she passes way they must return to take charge of the estate.
The second in a series of films commissioned by the Musée d'Orsay, "Summer Hours" then takes a turn as the children decide to get rid of the collection to aid themselves financially.
With a plot meant for melodrama (should they sell their childhood memories?) Assayas crafts a lovely meditation on life that doesn't involve a single false move.
Hélène's death is treated in the most unceremonious of ways (making us wonder if she felt like a museum piece herself) and the subsequent meetings with museum officers and lawyers are treated like adult transactions.
The issues are never reduced to arbitrary tantrums and unnecessary dramas, Assayas treats us like the characters treat each other. For some their decisions might seem heartless and rushed, while others will identify with the painfulness of growing up portrayed so unaffectingly by the great actors.
Throughout the film we observe how they each appraise their own lives. For Adrienne her mother's objects are weighed down by the past while Éloïse sees them as souvenirs of a life well lived. In the film's most touching moment she fills a vase with flowers and places it on her employer's desk.
"Empty vases were like death to her" she says, ignoring the fact that, minutes before, said vase was discovered to be a priceless piece by a famous artist.
This may be the whole point of Assayas film; is art valued because of the memories and personal experiences we put to it or is it some sort of sacred concept defined by abstract concepts?
Once we're dead, and even when we're living, our memories can't be displayed in museums, but their value to us can be as worthy as a million dollar antique we might own.
"Summer Hours" invites us to spend a little more time contemplating the pieces next time we're in a museum, at one time those too belonged to someone who imprinted them with memories.
But we must also treat those at home as if they were pieces of invaluable art.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Ten Movies That Defined My Decade.


2. Volver (Pedro Almodóvar, 2006)

A ghost story where the worst demons are regrets, a bittersweet homage to Italian Neorrealism by way of Magnani and Loren, a referential love song to the movies (but then again what Almodóvar isn't?), a colorful rehash of "Mildred Pierce", one of the most heartbreaking portrayals of motherhood of all time, a delicious melodrama...
Few things during the last decade gave me as much pure cinematic delight as "Volver".
The movie may thrive with movie-ness, but it's also an emotional powerhouse. The first time I saw it all I wanted to do after the show was over was to go outside, call my mom and tell her how much I missed her.
It's unusual for me to have such a strong emotional response to anything and this unexpected outburst of melancholy made me want to revisit "Volver" to see what was its mystery.
I've seen it more than ten times after that (it's one of those movies I pop in the DVD when I've nothing else to do) and still haven't been able to figure out how Pedro embedded all this passion into it.
The movie lingers dangerously between the sublime and the ridiculous, with its twists becoming preposterous to some and perfection incarnate to others.
Some people find the denouement laughable while it movies me to tears.
But more than my actual devotion to this movie (which could easily swap places for number one depending on my mood) this also provided me with two of my other obsessions of the decade.
First it introduced me to what then became my favorite band: Saint Etienne. You really got to leave it to Pedro to choose just the right piece of music for the perfect scene and create magic that will haunt you after you leave the theater.
And it also started my infatuation with Penélope Cruz. Those of you who don't believe in second chances, this woman was at the bottom of my actresses list (the jokes I made about her movies...) and in two hours she became a revelation. I have seen few performance with the kind of earthiness, sincerity and star charisma Penélope has in this one.
It's good that she's made a case out of doing great things after this, I hope she won't ever go back to things like "Bandidas".
Now back to "Volver" I was also surprised by how it marked an evolution in Almodóvar's work. This is the first movie of his' where emotions and references go hand in hand, one doesn't overshadow the other. He was the only director this decade who consistently delivered a better movie each time. As much as I loved "Talk to Her" then came "Bad Education" and just blew me away. When "Volver" came I was in heaven.
Dammit, now I have the sudden urge to go see it...

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Vision.


Everyone who comes here knows I need no excuse to post something about her...
And this won't be the last time this week as she places prominently in one of my two most influential pictures from the decade as well as my upcoming review for "Broken Embraces".

A Discovery.



Jason (Udo Kier) finds what Medea ( Kirsten Olesen) has done in revenge for his betrayal.
Lars von Trier shows us how you adapt Greek tragedies.

Couple More Thoughts on "Avatar".


This post may contain spoilers so do not read if you haven't seen "Avatar".

After watching the movie for the second time and in 2D there were some points I noticed the first time but had no opportunity to insert in my official review seamlessly.
Each of those points would've demanded I wrote a different review about the movie, so this will be an idea of what those would've looked like.

  • I couldn't help but wonder if "Avatar" isn't a naive attempt to recreate nature in all of its splendor or if it's in fact a threat of things to come.
    Thinking about "WALL-E" earlier today I remember how much I was stricken by the fact that in the movie the humans aboard the ship have to learn about Earth through images and that they in fact have never seen anything like it before.
    With the creation of planet Pandora which is obviously an Earth ripoff is James Cameron announcing to us that there will come a time when we will only see CGI vegetation?
    Why then would he bother recreating something we can see for free? Was his desire just to emulate nature?

  • What was going on with Jake Sully's narration? When the movie began it instantly reminded me of a Raymond Chandler novel and/or film noir.
    Cameron suggests that when he mentions Jake's brother being killed and for an instant make us think that there's more to that than what is mentioned and there might be some big conspiracy behind it.
    Jake's sense of humor as a narrator also seems worthy of Philip Marlowe (the nods to the economy made me chuckle and hope it'll all be fixed by the year 2154).

  • I hadn't noticed that the film starts with practically the same image it ends with. This whole idea of rebirth and succeeding lives makes for an interesting subject in two different perspectives.
    On one side there's the whole need Jake had to fill an empty role, first with his brother and then with the Na'vi (you could even say he was trying to fill the role of a soldier once he became disabled). This gives the film a fascinating psychological background because Sully is always trying to live up to something.
    His trials are almost Steinbeck-ian in their cyclical nature. Are we supposed to think once the movie's over his issues are done and dealt with?
    There's also the whole idea of rebirth seen in a spiritual way. It's easy to guess that Cameron extracted his ideas from actual native groups and the naturalist view as well as their idea that everything is reborn gifts the movie with an illuminating point of view.
    Cause there's also the problem Dr. Grace (Weaver) encounters when she tries hard to decide whether it's magic or science in there.
    Watching Weaver's inner struggle is a thing of beauty and when she says there must be a biochemical element in Pandora, we might as well be watching someone converting, which leads me to my next point...

  • As rousing as the whole Toruk episode is with Jake fulfilling a sort of prophecy and winning his place among the Na'vi I couldn't help but wonder if this was another naive move by Cameron's part or is there something else beneath this.
    From the minute Neytiri (Saldana) tells Jake the story of her grandfather's grandfather mastering the beast it's beyond obvious that Jake will be the next one to fulfill this role.
    But how much of this is Cameron following "how to write a screenplay" rules and how much is it a subconscious attempt to subjugate his own creations based on Imperialist thinking?
    When everyone is cheering as Jake arrives to save the day, very few people must be asking themselves why didn't any of the Na'vi try to accomplish this feat before?
    Cameron paints them like a civilization waiting for this prophecy to be fulfilled by a foreigner (something that reminded me of the Incas) and it's somewhat awkward to see Neytiri's panties get in a twist as she sees this man who just betrayed her a few scenes before is now her hero.
    Is Jake Sully the one meant to fulfill this mythical role (Joseph Campbell would have a blast with all the codes in this movie) or is he merely a clever "white guy" using the natives' stories to get his way by manipulating them?

  • Last but not least, in Cameron's defense I was watching the movie and suddenly started wondering on the nature of what makes a screenplay good.
    Considering how much James Cameron's screenwriting work gets trashed by critics and audiences.
    It's true that not everyone can be Woody Allen or Pedro Almodóvar, but a screenplay's magic is not only found in its dialogue. The Academy has spoiled us to have that misconception.
    Watching the lovely flowers and animals in this movie I suddenly had the notion that James Cameron actually sat down and wrote all of these details down for the visual effects people and the rest of the crew to bring them to life.
    Therefore a screenplay can't merely be judged by what we see, in fact it can't. AMPAS should sit down its members and have them read every screenplay to make the vote fair.
    If not they should choose to reward "line delivery" instead.


Monday, December 21, 2009

The Ten Movies That Defined My Decade.


3. WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)

Who would've guessed that the decade's most romantic film would have almost no dialogue and its protagonists wouldn't even be human?
Not me for one. When I first saw "WALL-E" I was moved beyond my wildest dreams, I left the screening elated and mildly depressed wondering how on Earth had the filmmakers been able to stimulate the brain, eyes and heart at the same time.
The story of a robot who becomes one of the last inhabitants on planet Earth (read my review here) had a direct ecological message, as well as mentions of obesity, consumerism and indifference.
Some of its elements were deemed as part of a liberal agenda on Hollywood's side and truth is that Disney is after all a capitalist company, so yeah they will want to make a buck out of current issues if they can.
But the beauty of "WALL-E " wasn't in its obvious discourse but in its subtle, delicate undertones. How it drew people to the movies again and have them not complain about lack of unnecessary dialogue.
The first part of the movie is like a symphony you just need to sit back and relish in and then there's the fact that the entire movie itself plays like a crash history of motion pictures with WALL-E going from playing Charlie Chaplin to Keir Dullea in under two hours.
If to this you add the enigmatic, but nostalgic, inclusion of Babs in "Hello Dolly" you have everything to make one of the most unique movie experiences the decade gave us and the one animated film made I'd put in my own time capsule.

Max Manus **


Director: Espen Sandberg, Joachim Rønning
Cast: Aksel Hennie, Nicolai Cleve Broch
Agnes Kittelsen, Ken Duken, Christian Rubeck, Kyrre Haugen Sydness

It seems that every country in the world has its own WWII story to tell, in "Max Manus" it's Norway's opportunity.
The biopic is centered on the title character (played by Hennie) who became the most important leader in the Norwegian resistance movement during the German invasion.
As would be expected the film follows his actions chronologically with the directors amping up the action sequences to fill the movie with some suspense (even if you just need to go online and look up his life to know how it all ended).
Mostly touted as the biggest movie to come out of Norway the film tries too hard to tap onto Hollywood-esque sensibilities and the result is a by-the-numbers film, completely devoid of any personality or soul.
The production is handsome and period accurate, but the characters are flat and uninteresting. Resistance members are good and their violence is always justified, sometimes even stretching events to make them look braver, while the Nazis are practically demons or James Bond villains who say things like "torture like a symphony consists of different movements" before they proceed to inflict said torture on the heroes.
The Nazis only avoid complete ridicule because of Duken who plays Max's biggest antagonist with the right sense of vampirical sadism and elegant charm.
Hennie is effective in the lead role, but we never see beyond his surface to fully comprehend who Max Manus was.
The movie tries in the last minute to examine the loneliness of the postwar soldier (what to do? who to be? once you're no longer in service) only to end with a smirk that seems to say hey if they make a movie about you, it can't be so bad.

Crush of the Week.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Samson and Delilah ***


Director: Warwick Thornton
Cast: Rowan McNamara, Marissa Gibson
Mitjili Napanangka Gibson, Scott Thornton, Matthew Gibson

Samson (McNamara) and Delilah (M. Gibson) are aboriginal teenagers living somewhere in Central Australia.
Their town is the kind of place that defines middle-of-nowhere; a main street, a couple of houses, a clinic on a trailer, a payphone and inhabitants stuck in a routine that repeats itself every day.
Delilah lives with her grandmother (M.N. Gibson) who makes art which is later sold in the great cities. Samson sleeps and inhales petrol fumes most of the day and has a crush on Delilah.
He follows her around town trying to gain her attention while she ignores him.
But they have something in common: every night Samson blasts his radio using his brother's (M. Gibson) amplifier, while Delilah shuts herself in the community car where she listens to a tape of Mexican band music (how an Ana Gabriel tape ended in the middle of the Australian desert is one of the film's most charming mysteries).
Their connection through music gives us a clue of the next turn the movie takes, as tragedy strikes them and they run off together looking for better luck in the city.
This trip isn't some sort of walkabout or metaphorical rite of passage, with it instead the director begins to present us with opposing statements that will engage in fascinating dichotomy.
Thornton makes the most out of images and sounds to create an unorthodox film. There is almost no dialogue, but with things like ambient sound we are informed of all we need to know.
He uses these elements to create a feeling of otherworldliness that enchants while reminding us that it's difficult to unite two worlds.
Not only Samson and Delilah's (who at first he makes out to be a refreshing romance) but also ours from the people we're watching.
The cultural differences offer the kind of richness that make us ponder on how much might be an ancient tradition and how much is screenplay invention.
Thornton's naturalistic approach gives the film the kind of accessibility we would expect from an anthropological documentary without the emotional urgency from Bresson.
Everything in "Samson and Delilah" is set to clash with each other, there's the nature of their names and the fact that they still seem to linger on ancient spiritual traditions.
The fact that it's a movie about aboriginal people that doesn't accuse the rest of Australians for any issue; it's a movie embedded with codes we are more than willing to invest our time in.
Like one of the tapestries made by Delilah's grandma, this movie is beautiful to behold because of its apparent simplicity, but looking closer there's such an intricate level of detail and interconnectivity that we are never quite sure of what we just watched.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Avatar ***1/2


Director: James Cameron
Cast: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana
Michelle Rodriguez, Stephen Lang, Giovanni Ribisi, Dileep Rao
Joel Moore, CCH Pounder, Laz Alonso, Wes Studi, Sigourney Weaver

There's a fascinating paradox at the center of "Avatar". On one side we have an open critique to how big corporations treat the environment, colonialist invasions and the destruction of ancient cultures but on the other side the movie itself is a product of an industry that has endorsed those very things throughout its existence.
Yes, movies made within a system can be critical and question said surroundings, but "Avatar"'s sense of self grandiosity makes its message sound almost ironic.
With lesser movies-in terms of audience expectation and several years of hype-there's always the benefit that comes with novelty, but "Avatar" has been surrounded by "most expensive movie ever" stories and there are few people in the world who don't know that James Cameron made the most popular movie of all time before this one.
Fortunately for Cameron, few will find the time or energy to finds flaws in his newest epic. The man sure knows how to tell a story and with "Avatar" he once again proves he's also the best at taking us right into the narrative.
Set somewhere in the future the film tells the story of Jake Sully (a wonderful Worthington), a paraplegic marine deployed to planet Pandora on a special mission.
He has to become a link between humans and locals called Na'vi-blue feline like humanoids with slender bodies and tails-who are against the invasion of their planet.
The human colony is in search of a powerful fuel called "unobtanium" for which they have to destroy forests and mountains so they plan to achieve diplomatic success by using half-Na'vi, half human creations named avatars which are accessed by putting the chosen human in a technological trance and uploading their consciousness onto the avatar which they can control during said "sleep".
Blinded by the possibility of having a movable pair of legs, Jake takes on the mission unprepared for the ethical dilemmas that will come from it.
He enters the Na'vi community where he's reluctantly taken in by Neytiri (Saldana), the leader's daughter, who's chosen to train him in their ways.
Before long Sully is working for three teams. There's the human scientists fascinated by the biological richness of Pandora who are led by Dr. Grace Augustine (played by Weaver, Cameron's sci-fi muse by excellence).
There's also the military team led by Colonel Miles Quaritch (Lang) who care little about the Na'vi as long as they can complete their mission and the Na'vi themselves who begin to take Jake as if he was one of their own.
Cameron lacks profound writing abilities (seriously the word "unobtanium" itself spoils the whole thing) and his story takes all the expected routes as Jae falls for Neytiri and has to decide if he will remain loyal to his army or his newfound beliefs. The movie most often feels like a CGI adaptation of Disney's "Pocahontas" as the Neytiri represent Native Americans (James Horner's score doesn't help dispel this notion as he recurs to tribal instruments and motifs that recall "Titanic"'s intense romance) and humans are the British in this case.
And the plot is plagued with inconsistencies we're supposed to take for granted like Weaver's strong willed character being shocked by the discovery that the soldiers are willing to kill the Na'vi in order to take over their land.
But Cameron is a sly player and what he lacks in writing genius he more than makes up in visual grandeur and with "Avatar" he doesn't just make us feel like his visuals are distracting us from plot holes and cliché, he pulls off something greater: convincing us that these things shouldn't
even play part of our viewing.
The director makes a deal with us: if we wanna take in his mastery of technological craft, we have to give up his inefficiency at achieving character depth.
He mostly gets away with it because "Avatar" is just magnificent to behold. Cameron's CGI innovations virtually create a photorealistic planet where every little thing is a world unto its own.
Scenes set in Pandora's jungles are like alien editions of National Geographic documentaries, with every plant and animal something exotic and beautiful to behold. Cameron has a ball showing off his creations and relies on huge "Out of Africa"-like vistas to make us try to understand the scope of this planet.
It helps that the Na'vi are nature lovers because this gives him the chance to concentrate on every little organism of the place. He's also spectacular with action scenes because unlike other directors he let's us see what's going on.
This makes sense given the hard work the effect team put behind a movie that's mostly made of computer images, Cameron evokes the magic that made our jaws fall to the floor as children and when one of the characters says "you're not in Kansas anymore" he's not only paying tribute to the wizard, he's also reminding us the long way we've come from 1939.
It's just sad that because of his story this comes with the tragic realization that if Pandora was real, we would already be destroying it.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Moon ***


Director: Duncan Jones
Cast: Sam Rockwell
Dominique McElligott, Kevin Spacey

In the near future the moon has become the most important source of energy for the Earth. Lunar Industries has established itself in the satellite from which they extract helium-3 and send it back to Earth.
Sam Bell (Rockwell) is the latest employee to be stationed at lunar base "Sarang" where his only company is a robotic assistant named GERTY (voiced by a wonderful Spacey) . After a three year contract he's only two weeks away from returning home where he left a wife (McElligott) and daughter.
But as movies have taught us, it's always in the final days leading to dischargement that things begin to go wrong.
So it is for Sam, who begins seeing strange things around the base and starts wondering if he will be able to return to his planet after all.
Duncan Jones' debut film is a marvel to behold and a remarkable technical achievement. The effects were made using models instead of CGI, consequentially giving the movie a humanity and sense of wonder that computers rarely achieve.
With many stylistic nods to "2001: A Space Odyssey" Jones makes it clear that he's not intending to revolutionize the medium, but is refreshing a genre that often suffers from staleness. Jones proves he has an exceptional eye for detail and Gary Shaw's cinematography provides some breathtaking scenes.
Then there's Rockwell who gives an absolutely brilliant performance. He has to carry most of the film's weight on his shoulders and he's magnificent.
He infuses Sam with a hopeful weariness that gets only more heartbreaking as the movie reaches its suspenseful climax.
Like watching the effects, watching Rockwell is mesmerizing, he owns the screen every minute and has no trouble getting down and dirty when the screenplay asks him so.
If Jones hadn't recurred to a crowd pleasing criticism to bureaucracy in the end, "Moon" would have been an almost perfect movie that dealt with the moral issues that rise in the face of technological advancement.

Since She Went Away.


Academy Award winner Jennifer Jones has passed away today at the age of 90.
One of the most unconventional, and underrated, stars from Hollywood's Golden Era, Jones made waves when she became involved with legendary producer David O. Selznick who shaped her career and became the love of her life.
He gave her the role that would change her life as Bernadette Soubirous, the French peasant who claimed the Virgin Mary had appeared to her. It was that movie where she first used the name Jennifer Jones (she was born Phylis Isley).
Selznick cleverly decided to introduce "The Song of Bernadette" as Jones' screen debut (she'd been in a few small things before) and it worked because she ended up winning the Best Actress Oscar.
Her performance as Bernadette is a mysterious star turn given how introverted and quiet she is. But watch the movie and several hours later you will still be haunted by the bittersweetness of her smile. She is brilliant in it.
She leaves behind a legacy of wonderful screen performances.
Go and catch up with them.

SAG Nominations.

Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture
An Education
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
Nine
Precious

Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role
Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Helen Mirren, The Last Station
Carey Mulligan, An Education
Gabby Sidibe, Precious
Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia

Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role
Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
George Clooney, Up in the Air
Colin Firth, A Single Man
Morgan Freeman, Invictus
Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker

Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role
Matt Damon, Invictus
Woody Harrelson, The Messenger
Christopher Plummer, The Last Station
Stanley Tucci, The Lovely Bones
Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds

Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role
Penelope Cruz, Nine
Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air
Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air
Diane Kruger, Inglourious Basterds
Mo’Nique, Precious

Bronson ***


Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Cast: Tom Hardy
Matt King, Edward Bennett-Coles, James Lance
Hugh Ross, Katy Barker

How would you feel if a movie about a sociopath didn't care in the least if we understood his behavior or not?If you would feel offended or cheated then "Bronson" is not the movie for you.
It's a perversely entertaining portrait of Britain's most violent prisoner: Michael Peterson, better known as Charles Bronson.
He took on the name of the famous action star in his bareknuckle boxing days on the advice of his agent. This also happened during one of his paroles; the man has been in prison on and off for thirty four years now and as the movie let's us know, there is no programmed date for his release.
Since redemption, at least in the terms of our society, is out of the question for Bronson, director Winding Refn approaches him not like a story to tell, but as a fascinating subject which you only watch, because you can't interpret it.
From the beginning Bronson let's us know he doesn't blame his parents for his violent nature and the movie never tries to dig deep into what might have gotten him started.
Some people perhaps never got rid of their animal instincts and their nature isn't comprehensible for the rest of us.
In that way Bronson's love for confrontations can only be compared to a wild animal and even those usually have self defense motives.
We are left then watching this man take off his clothes, grease himself up and provoke the prison guards-by kidnapping someone usually-to get into a fight with him.
Something makes him thrive violence and the results are compelling to say the least. Hardy's performance is a work of art in itself.
Considering he doesn't have a real plot to follow and the movie becomes a monologue most of the time, his performing abilities are stunning.
With his bald head, upside down mustache and imposing physique, he often recalls a cartoon villain and Hardy provides him with enough charm to make us feel guilty for rooting for a criminal.
Watching him it's impossible not to be reminded of Malcolm McDowell's iconic Alex from "A Clockwork Orange" (and the director makes no secret that he was highly influenced by Kubrick's work) but his grin makes for a slightly chillier effect because we remember he's playing someone that's actually alive out there.
He addresses the audience like the ablest of hosts and Hardy encompasses Bronson's wish of fame and stardom to such a degree that we begin to wonder if somehow deep inside Bronson hasn't already accomplished his mission by becoming so notorious?
The film's aesthetic wonders and spot on musical choices (when they play the Pet Shop Boys "It's a Sin" it's impossible not to let out a chuckle) also serve to remind us that we're living in a world where violence no longer takes much of our thoughts.
We have become so used to it that "Bronson" becomes a sort of voyeuristic guilty pleasure.
"You don't wanna be trapped inside with me sunshine" he says.
But we are and we like it.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Sin Nombre *


Director: Cary Fukunaga
Cast: Edgar Flores, Paulina Gaitán
Tenoch Huerta, Kristian Ferrer, Diana García

"Sin Nombre" is a cautionary tale about the trials and tribulations of being an illegal immigrant or Central American.
Without questioning the sociopolitical contexts that trigger each country's behavior, debut director Fukunaga concocts a romanticized version of why the American dream exists for people south of the border.
For people like Sayra (Gaitán) it's a way to be reunited with the father she barely knows. She travels from Tegucigalpa, Honduras through Guatemala and Mexico aboard a train in which her personal safety is always at odds.
In Mexico there's gang member Willy aka El Casper (Flores) who flees his hometown after killing one his fellow gang "brothers".
He boards the same train Sayra's on and together they form a quasi-romantic bond as they deal with the consequences of their decisions.
Fukunaga's intention to convey the perils of illegal immigration are respectable, what's truly offensive is the selfrighteous way in which he delivers his story.
He comes up with every single cliché that would make tourists want to stay away from Central America and seems fascinated by the ritualistic violence of the gangs El Casper runs away from.
Deep inside Fukunaga isn't really interested in his characters, he's just interested in keeping them away from the United States.
He fills the movie with background details that might pass inadvertedly by people who don't speak Spanish or for people flattered by their faux social consciences.
The movie's soundtrack includes songs that might sound as popular Latin American music to people just following the melody, but listen carefully and the lyrics are talking about why immigrants should stay in their home countries and in a puzzling moment when the characters are referred to as "newcomers" in a shelter, the English subtitles choose to translate this as "immigrants", giving the impression that they are this before being people.
It's curious that Fukunaga then tries to redeem El Casper in the film's final scene-he does so in a river of all places (talk about lazy metaphors for purity)- because all throughout it's been obvious that the director in a way believes they all deserve what they're getting.
The movie's reactionary discourse all along has been saying "you live in hell, but you're better off staying there".

The Maid ***1/2


Director: Sebastián Silva
Cast: Catalina Saavedra, Claudia Celedón, Alejandro Goic
Andrea García-Huidobro, Mariana Loyola, Agustín Silva
Mercedes Villanueva, Anita Reeves

It's refreshing to see a Latin American film that's not about gangs, illegal immigrants, drug trafficking or a lazy attempt to recreate Hollywood genre flicks.
In "The Maid" Sebastián Silva delivers a dark comedy through a social prism that might hit too close to home for some viewers.
Saavedra stars as Raquel, a maid who has been working for an upper middle class Chilean family for more than twenty years.
When the movie starts the family celebrates her birthday and after a moment of joy she remembers that she will have to clean up after her own celebration later.
In a way she's been living a borrowed life where she performs cyclical activities-and has been doing it for who knows how long-but will never be a real part of the family.
"The children adore me" she reassures herself when someone asks her about her life. Weary, bitter and feeling obsolete, Raquel depends on painkillers to get her through the day.
Pilar (Celedón), her employer, notices she's not feeling well and decides to hire extra help to make Raquel's life easier.
But Raquel sees this as an intrusion and makes life a living hell for several women who come to work in her "turf".
The practical solution might seem to dismiss her, but Silva taps onto something very particular of Latin American culture and the family's decision to keep her surprisingly makes sense.
Can it be loyalty, pity, some dark secret, gratefulness or an anthropological phenomenon? Silva doesn't reveal how he makes the film move so smoothly even when it lingers on soap opera territory from time to time.
He ably gives the film a somber mood-Raquel's behavior is borderline psychotic sometimes-and we're always expecting for something to happen, only to have the plot move in a completely different direction.
Much of this is owed to Saavedra's terrific performance. In an ensemble that thrives with naturalistic brilliance, she masters the art of flirting with camp, but pulling back in time to make the character complex and not insane.
As a woman entering her forties she embodies a quiet midlife crisis that lets loose in moments of loneliness. Raquel gets pleasure out of torturing the family's oldest daughter (García-Huidobro) and ignoring new maid Lucy (the fantastic Loyola).
When she decides she's had enough of the family cat she puts him inside a drawer while the family searches frantically. Saavedra treats these scenes with such delicacy that it might cross the viewers mind that they are fantasies.
Her performance makes us question the nature of having servants. These are people we let in as strangers into our homes and usually give for granted.
But they acquire a certain kind of power, the one that comes with knowledge. When Raquel finds conspicuous stains in the eldest son's (Silva) bedsheets every morning, first she smiles feeling that in a way he's confided in her.
Later she's upset she has to wash them daily and tells Pilar. This kind of conflict between the concessions and attributions she's given makes Raquel live in a constant state of limbo.
One that she may be forced, by emotional and economic needs, to live in.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Séraphine **


Director: Martin Provost
Cast: Yolande Moreau, Ulrich Tukur, Anne Bennent, Nico Rogner

Séraphine Louis (Moreau) is a peasant working as a cleaning lady in the town of Senlis. She goes about carrying a basket and talking to trees and plants. Her odd behavior is frowned upon by the bourgeoisie who have no idea that the simple creature would become one of the most famous exponents of the Naive art movement.
She is discovered accidentally by German art collector and critic Wilhelm Uhde (Tukur) who would become her patron until her death after WWII.
The handsome production extends over three decades as Séraphine evolves from rudimentary painter to demanding, but Provost's direction feels stilted and aimless.
When he should've been trying to tap into what makes this woman want to paint, his events are very matter-of-fact and reverential.
He just shows us things; we see Séraphine stealing candle wax from a church to make her paint and we see Uhde kicking his male lover (Rogner) out of bed to avoid being seen by his friends.
But he never really goes beyond this and the reason of the film's existence is often left up in the air.
Provost's lack of aim, which he might've considered impressionist storytelling, is compensated by Moreau's committed performance.
Her Séraphine is an introverted force of nature, she singlehandedly convinces us that this woman might be more than meets the eye.
It's because of her that the for a moment the movie makes us wonder if her work was divine intervention or a stroke of insanity.
Otherwise the movie passes as inconspicuously as the peasant did in Senlis.

Here to Stay.


The greatest film ever made turns 70 today.
Join me in the celebration by clicking on the picture to read a piece I wrote about it.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Fish Tank ***


Director: Andrea Arnold
Cast: Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender
Kierston Wareing, Rebecca Griffiths, Jason Maza

Mia (Jarvis) is a fifteen year old living in the poorest part of Essex. She shares a small apartment with her mother Joanne (Wareing) and sister Tyler (Griffiths) with whom she doesn't get along well.
She dreams of becoming a dancer and spends hours listening to hip-hop, R & B and then practicing her moves in an abandoned apartment. She's a loner of sorts and in one of the film's first scenes we see her hitting a girl in the face for not inviting her to join her group.
Things begin to change when Joanne brings her new boyfriend Connor (Fassbender) home. "You dance like a black" he tells Mia when he catches her dancing in the kitchen, "that's a compliment" he clarifies.
Connor might be the first person who's said something nice to Mia in years and when he takes the whole family for a ride and then carries Mia to the car after she hurts her ankle, we just know where this is going.
Everything Mia does has the bigger purpose of helping her escape from the sad life she leads and everything writer/director Arnold does has the purpose of making us wonder how many times can Mia's heart be broken.
Arnold and cinematographer Robbie Ryan capture this woman's sad existence and encapsulate her existence into a fish tank of sorts, Mia's always looking from the inside out, longing for better things to come.
In an unsubtle metaphor for freedom she becomes obsessed with releasing a chained horse, kept in a lot by caretaker Liam (Maza) who she's convinced is actually starving the animal.
Arnold isn't very good with storytelling subtleties and overcharges specific moments with unnecessary details (a scene has Joanne dancing to a rap song that states "life's a bitch and then you die") but she proves to be great with actors.
Jarvis, in her film debut, is a naturalistic wonder that would make the Dardennes and Bresson proud. She makes Mia someone so mysterious that you have to wonder how much exactly has she gone through.
Even if her explosiveness is a force to be reckoned with, she's at her best in more introspective scenes where she just can't hide from herself anymore.
"You look nice when you smile" says the predatory Connor and he's right cause Jarvis has the ability to make Mia someone completely different with a simple mouth movement.
She does great work with Fassbender (quickly becoming one of the most interesting actors out there) who makes a seductive charmer out of Connor.
From the minute he appears onscreen we know he won't be good for Mia, but like her, we can't help but fall for his scheming. To the point in which we wonder how much exactly are we contributing to his plans.
Both actors have the one quality that the entire movie lacked which would've made it perfect: fearlessness.
Watch one scene where Connor puts Mia to bed. He carries her and takes off her shoes. She's awake and peeks to see what he will do next, when he takes off her pants as well she keeps quiet and we have to wonder if he knew she was conscious. This is the film's best scene and the one that encompasses its themes the best.
But Arnold chooses to rely more on forgiveness and in a latter panic inducing scene set in the Essex marshes, she gives Mia the redemption she deserves, but perhaps doesn't really need.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Ponyo ***


Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Very few living directors can convey such a sense of wonder in film as Hayao Miyazaki. Having never given up on hand drawn animation, the Japanese genius comes up with things you can only try to imagine.
Every frame in his movies is filled with a delicate, exciting balance and every element is a wonder to watch.
In his latest film he takes Hans Christian Andersen's tale of "The Little Mermaid" and turns it into a simple story with a green message.
Sosuke is a five year old who one day finds a curious goldfish in the sea. He names her Ponyo without knowing that she is in fact an ocean princess. When he cuts his finger, she licks it and gains the power to become human.
However, in crossing this threshold Ponyo unleashes a natural imbalance which threatens to destroy the world. It's up to Sosuke and Ponyo to fix this, by making the ultimate choice of love.
Much more simplistic than anything else he's done, Miyazaki seems interested in making little children understand what he wants to say.
This often leaves more mature viewers stuckwith plot holes, lack of dramatic tension and a rushed climax that underwhelms.
Despite of this Miyazaki still embeds his movie with complex themes which remain mostly ignored by the dialogues and tease the audience.
Like the inverse situations we see with Ponyo and Sosuke's familiar statuses. Sosuke lives with his mother, while his father works in a ship.
Ponyo thinks her father keeps her "prisoner", but he's just trying to keep the planet safe, while her mother-a giant goddess called Granmammaren-maintains the seas in peace.
In this way Ponyo becomes Sosuke's oceanic compensation for a missing father figure (think Steven Spielberg's "E.T. the Extra-terrestrial").
There's also the lovely balance between the fantastical and the realistic. Miyazaki for instance imagines tsunamis to be provoked by giant fish-waves on a mission.
He deftly sets the two in a single frame, where they remain separate, yet together, as human characters only see the water and not the fish.
This makes for a fascinating dialectic between how mythology and modern life have been able to survive side by side.
In cultures, like the Japanese, this is stronger than in the Western world and rarely has a movie comprised this state in such a beautiful way.

While Watching the European Film Awards...

For those who think the Golden Globes are awkward, the European Film Awards' ceremony would result in the strangest beast of them all.
I had never seen them until yesterday afternoon and while the European Academy hasn't gained the worldwide recognition the Cannes, Venice and Berlin Film Festivals have, they have been doing some remarkable work for the past two decades.
Their picks in any year make AMPAS look like they're rewarding high school productions, alas still nothing in the world compares to the glitz and glamor of Oscar so let's move on...
These are things that caught my eye about the ceremony:


Danny Boyle, who's still collecting awards for "Slumdog Millionaire" looked so confused the whole evening!
I mean it's understandable when the ceremony has no real official language-there were speeches in at least four different languages, with no subtitles-and Boyle seemed like he didn't even know when they were talking to him.
When "Slumdog" won People's Choice, he was applauding excitedly until someone pointed out to him that he should be onstage accepting the award...

David Kross, who was nominated for Best Actor in "The Reader" embodied that sort of effortless, I-hate-you-for-it sexiness that people in our continent work so hard to achieve.

Kate Winslet won Best Actress for "The Reader" and since she wasn't there, director Stephen Daldry accepted on her behalf.
I hate when nominees don't attend ceremonies. The Actress category featured Winslet, Penélope Cruz and Charlotte Gainsbourg, none of whom attended. Even the host made a joke out of it pointing out how they were such terrific actresses they could even play invisible women.

The weirdest part of the whole thing was how instead of an orchestra they featured a band called Bauhouse who used film clips, music and words to create completely new musical pieces.
The campiest of them all featured Marlene Dietrich, with whom they created a trip-hoppy, oddly sexy piece of post modernist music.
This use of classics: sacrilege or genius?

Isabelle Huppert got a World Cinema Award and upon starting her speech and wondering what language to speak in she declared "cinema is the language of Europe".
She's perfection!

David Kross, and his iPhone, looked so good...

Look at the nominees for Best Director! Michael Haneke won for "The White Ribbon", but just wow!

The Europeans are not afraid to show explicit stuff on TV. They even go for full frontal in the clips featuring the nominees.
Can you imagine that ever happening at Oscar?
The FCC would implode!

Anthony Dod Mantle who won Best Cinematographer for "Slumdog Millionaire" and "Antichrist", wasn't in the ceremony and sent a weird taped speech.
However after the clip ended, they still went ahead and called Danny Boyle to accept the award for him. Danny of course had no idea what was going on...

Michael Haneke's "The White Ribbon" swept the awards. Gotta love the look on the presenters' faces as they obviously don't understand his speech.

When AMPAS fears anything Sean Penn has to say (tape delay was invented just for him) the EFA's went ahead and featured a commercial starring him!
It didn't happen during a break, they actually announced they would air a commercial in the middle of the ceremony and gave path to Penn's World Food Program ad which criticizes the bail outs and the Iraq invasion openly.
Then they proceeded to cheer it.

Why aren't all screenwriters as handsome as this one?

See what I mean about Kross?

Michael Haneke accepting the award for Best Film.
I really can't wait to see "The White Ribbon".