Wednesday, August 27, 2008

"I grabbed Penélope and with one motion tore her clothes off. As fate would have it she had not yet changed into costume, so it was her own expensive dress I mutilated. "
- from Woody Allen's faux journal while shooting "Vicky Cristina Barcelona".

Sunday, August 24, 2008

"We were attracted to each other at the party, that was obvious! You're on your own for the night, that's also obvious... we're two adults."

Thursday, August 21, 2008

"I'm not anti-American, I just wish they would learn things."
- Miriam Margolyes on "The Graham Norton Show"

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Star Wars: The Clone Wars *

Director: Dave Filoni

Just when you thought Jar Jar Binks had been the most unnecessary use of computer animation in the "Star Wars" universe (or in the entire universe for that matter...) here comes a whole feature length film that should've been named "Attack of the Greedy Lucasfilm", because it was created with the mere purpose of squeezing every single penny of your pocket.
It tries to set the ground for an upcoming series to be aired in the Cartoon Network during the fall and will force you to wonder if George Lucas ever heard of the terms "straight to video".
Occurring somewhere between Episodes II and III, the film has Anakin Skywalker trying to rescue the kidnapped son of Jabba the Hutt in order to secure an alliance that will free trade paths in order to stop the ongoing clone war.
If you think the premise is yawn inducing, try sitting through it with animation that looks like the Thunderbirds as interpreted by 1980s computers.
The "Star Wars" saga has always been known for its cutting edge take on visual effects, but this attempt at retro is pure disrespect towards the audience.
The characters are wooden and barely register any emotion (making Hayden Christensen seem like Laurence Olivier) and the dull action sequences will have your mind wander off to a galaxy far far away...

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Wanted *

Director: Timur Bermakbetov
Cast: Angelina Jolie, James McAvoy
Morgan Freeman, Thomas Kretschmann, Terence Stamp

Wesley Gibson (McAvoy) is an accountant who works in a cubicle with a boss he hates, has a girlfriend who is cheating on him with his best friend and has fifteen dollars on his bank account.
His life is pathetic, "just like yours" as Wesley assumes of the audience as he addresses us.
One day a mysterious woman named Fox (with that name who else could it be but Jolie?) saves him from a man (Kretschmann) trying to kill him.
He later learns that Fox is part of a secret society of assassins aptly called "The Fraternity", led by the mysterious Sloan (Freeman) who reveals to Wesley that the father he never knew was also a member of their society who was recently murdered by a renegade who betrayed them.
Wesley then is trained to avenge his late father and escape his ho hum life.
Members of "The Fraternity" have the special ability to raise their heartbeats to four hundred per minute, which causes an adrenaline rush so high that they can perceive the world around them in a completely different way and can manipulate time and space; power that Wesley had mistaken with panic attacks (suddenly making Woody Allen all the more comprehensible...).
These assassins can jump off high buildings, walk atop moving trains and curve bullets (which is expected to be the "whoa" inducing element for audiences), they have glamorous badass lives and believe they are fulfilling some sort of heavenly deed with their motto that by killing one they can save a thousand.
The visuals are simply stunning and the action sequences constantly push themselves into "what else can they do now?" territory, McAvoy's geekiness makes for a cute Peter Parker sort of thing and Jolie struts her stuff so well that you don't really need her to do much talking (which she curiously doesn't get to do much of either, she justs sits in the back grinning and narrowing her eyes).
But the film's problem isn't its preposterousness (you are after all sitting in a theater watching an Angelina Jolie summer film...), but the fact that it chooses to be so awfully condescending to its audience and then can't muster up the balls to stick to its hedonist view.
Wesley is supposed to be the everyman, a creature extracted from a version of "Fight Club" for the mentally challenged, but as it exploits the sick nature of violence and murder and reduces it to innocent teenage fantasies one has to also wonder what has made the filmmakers so sure that everyone hates their life?
What if there is someone out there who actually loves sitting in a cubicle working numbers? Why do people need to desire extravagant lifestyles as the only outlook for happiness?
Not to be confused with conformism, "Wanted" assumes every member of the audience has a fourteen year old, gun loving, horny teenager inside of them.
One for that matter, that eventually will outgrow this, atone for his sins and move on to an elightened, yet exciting, life.
If "Wanted" had been made in some obscure Eastern European country and was subtitled, people would accuse it of being subversive and inviting people to become murderers, but because it is American, released during the summer and stars Jolie's breasts, it's just seen as harmless fun.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Forgetting Sarah Marshall ***

Director: Nicholas Stoller
Cast: Jason Segel, Kristen Bell, Mila Kunis, Russell Brand
Bill Hader, Jonah Hill, Jack McBrayer, Paul Rudd

Peter Bretter (Segel) is an average looking, music composer who happens to be dating hot TV star Sarah Marshall (Bell).
Sarah works in Crime Scene, a CSI type of show where she plays a sexy investigator who must deal with Billy Baldwin's smarmy one liners and later having her life commented by Billy Bush.
Peter watches all this from a distance knowing that despite the fact that he's the guy always hiding behind the spotlights and flashes, when the day is over, he has that woman in his house. Things change when Sarah breaks up with him after she falls in love with British rockstar Aldous Snow (Brand).
Shattered by the breakup, Peter goes on a one night stand frenzy, only to be left feeling emptier. Then, by the suggestion of his stepbrother Bryan (Hader) he takes a vacation to Hawaii, only to realize Sarah is staying in the same resort with her new man.
Following his male pride he decides to stay and face her, seeing the events as a sign from God he has to get over her.
During his stay he meets a colorful array of characters, including stoner surfer Chuck (the reliably scene stealeing Rudd), obsessive waiter Matthew (Hill), southern virgin Darald (a hilarious McBrayer) who's having a hard time satisfying his new wife's sexual needs and beautiful hotel receptionist Rachel (Kunis), with whom Peter sees the opoortunity of falling in love again.
Mixing raunchy humor with more emotional moments this film successfully continues the style that has made Judd Apatow (a producer here) and company so popular.
It seems as if these men are compiling pages of wisdom to aid men in future generations, as they deal with issues most hetreosexual males will go through at one point or another.
What makes their movies work in a way chick flicks never have, is that the things they put in practice are drawn from real life experiences.
While other romantic comedies always seem to rely on the need to blame someone for what goes wrong and assume its characters always need to be with someone else, Apatow's take on relationships infuses them with just about the same amount of romance and cuteness as of pain and melancholy.
Take for example the characters here: in some other movie the fact that this man, who is certainly not the most attractive specimen out there, is dating what is conventionally described as a hot girl, is never the issue they deal with.
We never know why and how they got together and when the time comes for them to break up, the very smart screenplay makes us empathize with both their sides.
Even when Peter calls Sarah "the devil" we know better than to just throw judgment around.
The ensemble makes the film work wonderfully; Segel has just the charisma to pull off some difficult moments and overcome them making us root for him, while Bell is simply delicious, showing us a side of stardom that few actresses would have gone for.
Brand's kind of careless, self parody humor that mocks European values fits perfectly with the rest of the cast's "all American goodness".
But the film's real treasure might lie in its painfully honest, too real to be completely funny screenplay, that even masters the tough art of creating uncomfortable silences in movies.
Some lines coming out of the characters might sound as lines you've said before in the exact same situations, or some, for that matter that you will start using from now on.
And the film only fails when it tries too hard to make its poinst, like a scene where Segel bares it all physically, assuming it will do the same emotionally.
A film that contains such wise words along with hilarious heartbreak should know better than to go and do that.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Reprise ****

Director: Joachim Trier
Cast: Anders Danielsen Lie, Espen Klouman-Høiner
Viktoria Winge, Henrik Elvestad, Sigmund Saeverud, Pal Stokka

Throbbing with life and passion, "Reprise" successfully taps into the feeling of limbo that comes with figuring out what the hell you're going to do with your life.
For twenty something, best friends Erik (Klouman-Høiner) and Phillip (Danielsen Lie), it's becoming writers.
When the film begins they stand in front of a mailbox holding their manuscripts with the hopes of getting published.
Months later, for Phillip the dream has come true, along with instant fame, a complicated relationship with his girlfriend Kari (Winge) and mental disease.
For Erik, rejection has led him to push himself harder and live a low key life that includes a girlfriend (Silje Hagen) he has decided to dump when one of his books is published.
After Phillip is released from a mental institution he decides to stop writing, while Erik begins to get the attention of a publishing house.
If nothing so far sounds original, it's probably because it isn't, but the way in which director Trier delivers the events turns the film into a time bending, mood changing, emotionally challenging account of the twists and turns of life and how a lifetime can be contained in an instant.
The actors are splendid and make you feel as if you're actually watching people who've known each other for years.
Danielsen Lie delivers moving work as the introspective Phillip (think Dustin Hoffman in "The Graduate"), he makes obvious that fame isn't something for everyone and that living up to expectations might be worse than a sophomore slump.
The energetic Klouman-Høiner gives Erik an enigmatic edge; you never really know what his intentions are and with the rest of the male cast he brings to life the ties that come with male bonding (including the inherent competitive spirit which can go from healthy to plain vicious).
During one scene he's hanging out at the beach with his friends and is surprised by a woman (Rebekka Karijord) he might work with. After sitting with them for a while and listening as they talk about pranks, make fun of each other and act carelessly, she asks Erik "what are you doing hangoing out with these people?".
He doesn't know what to say and the actor perfectly conveys the feelings of his character. He knows that eventually he will outgrow these friends (and this makes him feel guilty), but he also acknowledges the fact that without his experiences with them, he wouldn't have anything to write about.
Does he owe his art to his friends? Or is his lifestyle preventing him of becoming all he can be?
The screenplay by Trier and Eskil Vogt, is a delightful collage of witty lines, pop culture observations and more traditional "coming of age" moments, that honestly should make this one of the definitive films about life transitions.
It's impossible to watch "Reprise" without wondering about your own life choices and more than once the film will seem to be reading your mind (like the very adolescent notion that the mind is confined by geography).
Erik and Phillip wonder if it's fair to write about life experiences and in one of the film's best scenes Erik is placed under a spotlight that amkes him wonder if his words match his thoughts.
One could very well say that for Trier, the film does the same job: he might have drawn inspiration from his life for it, but it would be a disservice to assume everything is autobiographical.
Or would it? Does art need to come out of some random point in the universe? In this way, the film constantly seems to be writing itself in front of our eyes.
Infused with nouvelle vague spirit, Trier pays obvious homage to Francois Truffaut's "Jules and Jim", but it subtly moves into Alain Resnais territory, especially scenes set in Paris, where the barely there love between Phillip and Kari and the recreation of memories evokes "Last Year at Marienbad".
With a remarkable visual style, obsessed with all the what ifs, might bes and will bes of its characters, Trier does constant flashforwards, flashbacks and everything in between to try and grasp at everything going on in these people's lives.
Because of this, the film turns into a living organism of its own, shaped like one of the characters it talks about. It has a hyperkinetic mood to it that never knows what path to choose, it drags a bit in the middle when it gets melancholic and self conscious, but immediately picks up from this episode by doing what a 23 year old would: getting drunk at a party with LeTigre blasting on the stereo.
Vibrant, sweet spirited, restless and also very cruel, "Reprise" might not always get everything right, but never gives up. For a film about young people, it shines with the maturity its characters lack, but it's never condescending to them.
While other films would send us flying out of this phase with a loving pat on the back and the assurance that everything will turn out for the best, this one doesn't bother, because it knows it can't promise something it won't be able to fulfill.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor **

Director: Rob Cohen
Brendan Fraser,
Maria Bello
Jet Li,
John Hannah,
Luke Ford
Isabella Leong,
Michelle Yeoh

Set fourteen years after "The Mummy Returns", this new adventure has the O'Connells, Rick (Fraser) and Evy (Bello) living a quiet life in England, while their son Alex (Ford) uncovers the tomb of the legendary Emperor Han (Li) in China.
Looking to put some excitement back into their lives, Rick and Evy sign up for a special mission and in Shanghai discover that there's a plot to bring back to life the emperor their son found.
Soon enough they are all involved in an exciting chase that has them travelling through the Himalayas, battling a Terracotta army and looking for the mysterious Shangri-La.
If we can make it with CGI, it will happen, seems to be the ongoing motto of the film, which features a constantly renewing mummy, who like most of the film has lost the thrilling sense of surprise and tries to impress by exploiting its resources.
The film is often at its best when it captures the interaction between Rick and Evy, with Fraser relying on his great charm to convince us he does this as a lifestyle and while it's tricky to get adjusted to Rachel Weisz's change, Bello reinvents Evy, as a less bookish, more strong willed woman just coming to terms with the power of her sexuality.
Li is used as a token martial arts expert and Hannah, as he has in previous entries, pretty much steals every scene he's in as well as Yeoh, who has the presence of a grand dame of cinema and happens to know how to high kick.
While the previous entries (particularly the first one, which was a breath of fresh air in the adventure blockbuster) had the situations unfold at the service of an innocent, exciting story, every scene here seems to have been made for the mere purpose of leading to a gargantuan battle between dead armies, which sadly is less impressive than director Cohen thinks and the film sometimes tries too hard to impress its audience.
The original "Mummy" was bold enough to create terror with shadows and the appearance of a shaky hand wrapped in bandage, while this one with all its explosions, chases and effects never musters a gasp.
Whatever happened to this film that made it think of wonder as an archaelogical artifact?

My Secret Love.

Gender roles in the revisionist Western.

- "I made a mistake about his gender, not his talent!"
Paul Harvey (Henry Miller) in "Calamity Jane".

Released exactly one year apart from each other, "Calamity Jane" and "Johnny Guitar" challenged the standards of the American film genre by excellence: the Western.
Both bend genre conventions and extract completely new ways of watching cowboy flicks particularly the fact that both share strong willed women as heroines, who can shoot like the devil and stand up to any man, along with more psychoanalytical, sapphic interpretations than there are fleas in a rodeo bull.
"Calamity Jane", a Western musical (talk about box office bomb potential for our times...) was done in response to the great success a few years prior of the Western musical "Annie Get Your Gun".
Doris Day plays the legendary Wild West heroine seen by most as the local tomboy. She spends her time in saloons and fighting indians who terrorize the area.
After a performer turns out to be a fiasco at the local saloon, Calamity gets one of her toughest missions as she decides to go to Chicago and look for a female entertainer to satisfy the male population requests.
Without thinking for a second that she might be able to fill the part herself, she goes to the big city where she is often confused as a man. She finds Katie Brown (Allyn Ann McLerie) a beginner singer who she takes back to Deadwood, only to have her become part of a love rectangle as they both fight for the affections of Lt. Danny Gilmartin (Philip Carey) and Wild Bill Hicock (Howard Keel).
In Nicholas Ray's "Johnny Guitar", Joan Crawford plays saloonkeeper Vienna; a revolutionary urbanist who wants to build a new town around her business, but becomes the target for villagers who want her to leave once and for all.
When she is accused of a crime she didn't commit, she is aided by the title hero (played by Sterling Hayden) an outlaw/troubadour with whom she shares a past.
"I've never seen a woman who was more like a man," says one character about Vienna, but in truth he could have also been talking about Calamity.
Both women exert more power over the other characters (and the audience) than anything else in their films and while this may have to do with pure star wattage, the truth is that in a deeper sense both films are poignant sexual critiques about what was arguably seen as a man's thing.
With the Hayes Code slowly becoming obsolete, the 50's paved the way for the sexual revolution that would follow in the next decade and while Hollywood was pretending to play along with the rules, filmmakers were beginning to challenge conceptions and infused their films with unintendedly controversial elements.
A sequence in "Calamity Jane" features a female impersonator who is eventually discovered, but only after he's stirred the hormones of some of the audience members.
Once they discover their mistake they begin to boo at him. The film of course plays this like a "ha ha" moment, but never lets go of its not so subtle commentary on how social standards were sustained as long as they appeared to be the real thing.
You can't stop wondering if they were booing at the fact that the performer was a man, or that he stopped singing after the discovery.

The leading men in both films, play supporting roles to women they know they never will be able to handle.
Wild Bill affirms to Calamity "I Can Do Without You" and mostly stands in the back as she does all the hard work (including their eventual romance), while Lt. Gilmartin exclaims "just untie me!" after Calamity saves him from a group of indians all by herself.
Johnny Guitar on the other side tries to regain back his masculinity by asking Vienna to lie to him about how much she needs him.
"Lie to me. Tell me all these years you've waited. Tell me." he asks.
"All those years I've waited. " she exclaims without an ounce of truthfulness.
He know she's lying, she knows as long as she says it out loud, he'll be alright.
And of course where there's a strong woman, there's a rumor of lesbianism.
When "Johnny Guitar" became an icon for the French auteur movement, psychoanalysis was going through an explosive difusion.
The film's bizarre mood and the use of color became alleged allegories for everything, from McCarthy-ism to supressed sexual feelings. "Johnny"'s villainness comes in the shape of Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) a woman as asexual as Vienna, who is seeking to regain her throne as the butchiest of them all and encounters a personality as defying as her own, which might, or might not, stir feelings of identification in her that she confuses as attraction leading to hatred...
And if all that sounds over the top, there's the theory that "Secret Love", the Academy Award winning song from "Calamity Jane", is not precisely about Jane's newfound affection towards Bill, but of her more introspective feelings towards Katie.
When the film has Katie movie in with Calamity for "protection" you wonder if it's protection from the town boys, bandits, indians or from social prejudice.
Regardless of the sexual orientation of the characters, both films are proof of how the artform thrives with possibilities that go beyond mere entertainment and how genre can constantly be reinvented.

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

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

...And Woody Created Woman.

Penélope Cruz, Scarlet Johansson and Woody Allen at the Los Angeles premiere of "Vicky Christina Barcelona", August 4, 2008.

Friday, August 1, 2008

September in August.

"That's my problem, I always wanted to live".
- Lane (Mia Farrow) in Woody Allen's "September".