Monday, June 29, 2009

Moment for reflecting.

With all that's been going on in my country (just Google "coup d'etat in Honduras" if you haven't heard...) my mind has been completely taken away from all that has to do with pop culture, media and even cinema.
I don't blame any Americans who have no idea what I'm talking about, as the American media has remained pretty much uninterested in what's going on. Apparently knowing who will take care of Michael Jackson's estate is more relevant that knowing what is going on a few countries South of Neverland Ranch. I however invite you all to become informed and debate this.
Last night I was trying to stay awake watching "As Good As It Gets" last night, but the accumulated exhaustion, anger and stress from the day made me doze off before Jack took Helen and Greg away for a holiday.
I'm praying that things will come to a resolution soon so that I can return to my normal way of life. For a moment though I've felt selfish in my ignorance of what goes on in the world and all this has reminded me that cinema has withdrawn its attention from politics and change.
Why aren't we watching any more films like "Nashville", "Missing" and "Z"? Why has cinema stopped being political?
It's no coincidence that we have grown in a generation that remains completely ignorant of the world around them. More than ignorant we have remained indifferent and that is something that does more harm than bullets, swords and bombs.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Thursday, June 25, 2009

I Haven't Seen It All.

I was invited by The One Line Review to submit a personal list of what I thought to be the 50 greatest films of all time.
To my surprise I didn't have much trouble coming up with a list that satisfied both the serious critic and crazy fanboy inside me.
I realize however, and judging by what other people have submitted so far, that I've still so much to see!
These lists are great mental exercises and provide a sense of achievement, but they are also stimulating to go out and watch the cinema we haven't seen.
My list of course is subject to change depending on what the future brings.

Here's my take:

8 1/2
A Streetcar Named Desire
All About Eve
All About My Mother
Annie Hall
Barry Lyndon
Bride of Frankenstein
Bringing Up Baby
Citizen Kane
Cries and Whispers
Dancer in the Dark
Double Indemnity
E.T. the Extra-terrestrial
Far From Heaven
Gone With the Wind
High Noon
La Strada
Moulin Rouge!
Singin’ in the Rain
Stardust Memories
Sunset Blvd.
Taxi Driver
The 400 Blows
The Great Dictator
The Lion in Winter
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
The Passion of Joan of Arc
The Piano
The Silence of the Lambs
The Talented Mr. Ripley
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
The Wizard of Oz
Three Colors: Red
To Kill a Mockingbird
West Side Story

What do you think? Is there anything you would've placed instead of my picks? Is it a satisfying list? What should I watch?
Comments are open for criticisms, suggestions, kudos and recommendations.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Oscar Should Wait.

I've just finished watching "Heaven Can Wait", Ernst Lubitsch's 1943 comedy about a man (Don Ameche) trying to justify his life while waiting in hell.
It was one of the nominees for Best Picture in what turned out to be the last year when they had ten nominees in the category.
Until now...
Watching it and then searching for the year's other nominees I couldn't help but wonder what will occur this year. Back then the category was constituted of epics, biopics, light-yet-classy comedies like this one and WWII dramas.
What will AMPAS do to satisfy those slots now?
Out of the nominees from that year, which I've seen, I can only come up with four films worthy of being in the running for the big prize.
And all of those are films that fill the prerequisite slot nowadays as well. Does that mean that Oscar has such influence that we end up only remembering what they want?
If so will future generations flock to their shortlists to see what was happening in our times?
Many films from the Golden Era of cinema have remained lost, damaged or in the best cases are practically impossible to find for wider audiences worldwide.
Isn't this the same thing that's occurring now with Oscar nominees anyways? Half the world never gets to see those movies, not even people living in the States get to see them all.
AMPAS is once again rushing into what seems to be an optimal healing for its slow death, but in the process it's forgetting that quantity has never equaled quality.


The year where I'm assuming "Nine" will win Best Picture at the Oscars brings us a hell of a shocker by AMPAS.
Their Best Picture lineup, which has contained five nominees and remained that way since 1943, will expand starting next year to ten!
AMPAS Presidnet Sid Ganis stated:
"After more than six decades, the Academy is returning to some of its earlier roots, when a wider field competed for the top award of the year,” said Ganis. “The final outcome, of course, will be the same – one Best Picture winner – but the race to the finish line will feature 10, not just five, great movies from 2009.”"
He apparently just saw "Happy-Go-Lucky" and is filled with unreasonable optimism or he has, like most people alive today, lost notion of historic sense and rationality.
Has he forgotten that a wider ballot won't mean voters acquire better taste? Because as much as we can end with a Best Picure lineup like the one from 1939 (I wouldn't know which one to kick out) or something out of the blue like a documentary being nominated in the top race (after all it was back in 1938, in a decennial lineup, when we had our first Foreign Language film nominated for Best Picture), we also could find ourselves with ten "Crash"es, "Frost/Nixon"s and "Ray"s.
We'll see how it all turns out, for now I can't believe that "Up" will be a Best Picture nominee! That makes this whole thing almost seem good!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Here's To You, Mr. Solis.

If my dad was to be played by someone in a movie, it would definitely be Dustin Hoffman. They both share the same distinctively large Jewish nose, even if my dad isn't Jewish, they both remind me of Simon & Garfunkel's "The Sounds of Silence" and they both have a fondness for khaki slacks.
But there's more to my dad than Hoffman comparisons, we also share a special kind of love for Penélope Cruz and Kate Winslet.
We both love watching Biblical epics during Easter- the wonder in his eyes watching the parting of the Red Sea is nothing short of wonderful- we also enjoy dissing Steven Spielberg (we have turn his last name into an adjective for all that is corny and contrived), singing "Moon River" and "The Man That Got Away" and sipping martinis in a hotel bar that reminds us of "Lost in Translation".
There's also things we disagree on; he hated "Moulin Rouge!", I fall asleep watching "Patton" (his favorite film), but then he calls me to say how much he loved "Star Trek" and the blood bonds only thicken more.
He introduced me to Stanley Kubrick, Laurence Olivier and Woody Allen (I still remember how much fun we had watching "Manhattan Murder Mystery", my first Woody) and he never said no when I was twelve asking him to rent me R-rated foreign films.
For all the occasions when we pull off a Henry and Jane Fonda kind of thing, at the end of the day like Scout during dawn sitting at the porch, there's nothing I enjoy more than having him read something to me (his Meryl and Barbra impersonations are genius and he likes my Tyrone Power).
He's my Homer Simpson and my Atticus Finch.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Up ****

Director: Pete Docter, Bob Peterson

At first glance "Up" seems deceptively simple. Lonely widower Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Ed Asner) decides to fulfill a promise he made to his wife - while escaping a retirement home appropriately called "Shady Oaks"- and travels to Venezuela's, fictitious, Paradise Falls. He uses his house, which is propelled by thousands of balloons, as transportation.
He ignores that there is a stowaway on board; little boy scout Russell (voiced by Jordan Nagai), who was hoping to get his "Help the Elderly" badge by assisting Mr. Fredricksen.
With this premise you immediately wonder how the hell will the filmmakers keep afloat an entire feature length film using this.
But once again the miracle workers at Pixar succeed and deliver yet another landmark of animated filmmaking.
Working with a marvelous screenplay by Docter, Peterson and Thomas McCarthy, "Up" is an example of storytelling economics. There isn't a single scene, line or character that isn't necessary. The opening sequence, which could've made an entire movie on its own, has Carl as a kid, his jaw dropping to the floor in a movie theater as he watches a newsreel featuring famed adventurer Charles Muntz (voiced by Christopher Plummer).
After leaving the theater and reenacting Muntz's quests he meets a fellow adventurer named Ellie. After that moment they become inseparable, until the very end.
In under ten minutes or so we watch entire lives unfold before our eyes. This sequence is done with such care, attention to detail, and guts (there is a small bit with a doctor that's perhaps up there with Bambi's mom's death in terms of emotional pain) that it's incredible how visually the filmmakers are able to convey so much.
We really don't need to listen to extensive dialogues to know when these characters are happy, sad, worried and mostly we never doubt why they are together.
But for every ounce of sentimentality and simplicity in the story, there is a deeper, slightly darker aspect that gives it equilibrium and makes it more human.
Because even if "Up" starts out as a tale of boundless love, it evolves into a melancholic ode to a feeling of incompleteness.
Every character in the film is missing something or someone, all of them are trying to get to someone who's out of reach.
Carl talks to his house and refers to her as Ellie, little Russell often talks about how he misses his dad (we can assume his parents are divorced), Muntz, is looking for the recognition he was denied during his prime.
There's also an exotic bird named Kevin in search of her babies and a talking dog named Dug (voiced by Bob Peterson) who is in constant search of someone to call master (his line of "I just met you and I love you" is one of the most heartwarming dialogue creations in recent memory).
In this way, the images of the film compliment the feeling of void within the characters. The landscapes in "Up" obviously had to be epic, and the animators (both in the 2D and 3D versions) make sure we feel like the young Carl watching newsreels.
But within all the beauty, detail (the textures have to be seen to be believed) and vibrancy they also infuse every frame with different codes and symbolisms.
From the very first scene when the house takes off we are overwhelmed by the magic of it all, but something also tugs at our hearts when we watch it hover above the city and into the clouds completely alone.
As the house first approaches an immense thunderstorm it transforms into a metaphor for each of the characters we will meet; all by themselves, going head on into the unknown.
The feeling of desolation and regret in the film feels Bergmanian in a way. Carl might as well be Professor Borg from "Wild Strawberries" looking back to his life to see where he went wrong and why he is where he is at the moment.
This is of course a Disney film, that perhaps doesn't mean for little children to be all existential on their way back home, and Carl achieves the redemption he needed to, literally, turn the pages of his own book forward.
There is also a Bergman sense of dualism in two of the main characters. It's suggested that Carl and Charles are two sides of the same coin (even their names come from the same etymological root which simply means "man"). Not only do they "meet" through cinema and media, which now more than ever have achieved postmodernist going on metaphysical ways of bonding complete strangers.
But they also share their old age and regret. Charles begins as a role model for Carl, but as the plot advances and we look back into their respective lives we find that they might have been influencing each other all the time (at least in our minds).
For all the adventures Charles has with exotic lands and far off places, Carl is also living "adventures" of his own in his life. Things that none of them will get to experience in the same way.
Ironically they both look at their lives with a sense of loss and with this we are reminded that life is about priorities. We can never live it all, but we have to make the most out of what we get.
"Up" is all about how life constantly drags us down, but nobody will leave the cinema walking on anything but clouds.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Duplicity ***

Director: Tony Gilroy
Cast: Julia Roberts, Clive Owen
Tom Wilkinson, Paul Giamatti, Denis O'Hare
Thomas McCarthy, Carrie Preston

After the endless labyrinthine mind games of "Michael Clayton", anyone would've guessed writer/director Tony Gilroy was in for something a bit lighter. On the surface "Duplicity" seems to be just that, but look closer and you will find an even more twisted, character driven film that's absolutely relentless with the audience and even harder on itself.
It opens in Dubai where MI6 agent Ray Koval (Owen) seduces Claire Stenwick (Roberts) at a party. He ignores that she is CIA and wakes up eighteen hours later with a headache and some classified documents gone.
Upong finding her years later he melancholically reveals "the last thing I remember before passing out was thinking how much I liked you.".
Apparently she sorta feels the same and they reluctantly begin an affair (their trust issues rival the ones the actors shared in "Closer") . Flash forward a couple more years later, they both have quit their national agencies and have started working in corporate espionage.
They infiltrate rival cosmetic companies fighting for the release of a mysterious, revolutionary product, with the plan of getting the formula for themselves, selling it to the highest bidder and retire to a life of luxury.
With this basic premise Gilroy unfolds a complex, sometimes slightly confusing, game between the companies and the leads.
He exploits every single character and actor to the max, giving them some amazing dialogue and providing even the most conniving of them with a distinctive kind of swagger. Giamatti, all introverted cockiness and Wilkinson, pure evil corporate Zen, are perfect as the company tycoons who despise each other; and in one scene Carrie Preston almost steals the film from Julia herself as a horny travel agent.
But the best is obviously saved for Julia and Clive, who have undeniable sexual chemistry and bring to the screen an overwhelming sexiness tied with mistrust that makes the film worth the ticket.
Owen is all James Bond (with a bit of Clooney) as he follows this woman around in order to have her for himself, while dealing with the fact that he can't forget what he did to him.
Roberts, whose mere presence nowadays is enough of an event, does her character a la "Julia": all playfulness and awkward sensuality, but this time let's slip a lil' something extra (gasps! a flash of boob!) along with a more mature approach to acting.
In a wonderful scene as Claire rehearses a meeting with Ray, she teasingly asks "so you're directing me now?", in one of those postmodernist moments her image has become part of, we don't know if she's giving her character a nuance, or actually stating that she is Julia Roberts.
The same goes for the film which is so full of twists and turns that we don't really know what exactly is it trying to say.
Can it be about the troubles of consumerism? The danger/wonder of corporate evolution? Truth is that what Gilroy does best, besides messing up with your head, is conceal an ultimate truth in something that appears to be everything but. As with "Michael Clayton", which was arguably about the search for one's self in the midst of mid-life crisis, "Duplicity" is about the complicated nature of romantic relationships and what they're built upon.
Claire and Ray are essentially figuring out what they are in the midst of corporate wars, even the way the rival companies exaggerate their strategies is a metaphor of how couples tend to over dramatize everything, especially when it comes to trust.
Throughout the film it is suggested that Claire and Ray end up in these games because perhaps subcosnciously they want their relationship to fail and stick to what they know how to do best: their jobs.
Gilroy's Hitchcockian ability to layer a specific concept with genre conventions makes "Duplicity" the equivalent of a Katharine Hepburn/Cary Grant romantic comedy as if done by J.J. Abrams.
Unfortunately Gilroy screws the MacGuffin and by revealing something that remains fascinating only when unsaid, goes way over his head, as if trying to find the essence of what makes love what it is. He forgets that half the thrills are within the search.

Get Ready to Jump!

Monday, June 1, 2009

Snuck Up On and Stole [His Life].

Henry King's 1939 film "Jesse James" may not be very mentioned in the pantheon of great Westerns, might be the fact that other more notorious films were made that year which have "stolen its thunder" so to speak, or maybe because it's not groundbreaking overall. But in all its right it features one of the greatest scenes in the genre. One so full of tension, impending doom and so much visual richness that it really has to be seen to be believed.

Jesse James (Tyrone Power) has returned home after more than five years and has decided to move to California with his wife (Nancy Kelly) and son (Johnny Russell).
As he's packing, he receives a visit from his old friend Robert Ford (John Carradine) and his brother Charles (Charles Tannen). They come to inform him that his brother Frank James (Henry Fonda) is putting together the gang for one last heist.
Anyone who knows their history (or saw the movie with Casey Affleck) knows where this is heading...

As Jesse begins to ponder if he should go back for one last job, the mood becomes somber and we see his wife sobbing and staring out the window.

Just as Jesse's eyes sparkle with the idea of one last job, we listen to his son yell from outside, calling him. Jesse stand sup and approaches the door.

Charley reminds him that he's wearing his pistols and can't come out like that. For a moment we wish he wouldn't get rid of them (which forces us to question why is it that we root for Jesse James if we're reminded all the time that he's a criminal).
He obviously takes them off and goes outside to help his little boy.

He asks the bigger kids to treat the five year old with more care.

"We didn't hurt him Mr Howard" says one of them (they all ignore they're in the presence of the legendary James) "we just killed him. That's part of the game"

"He's like Jesse James" he adds..."he's gotta die!"

Little Jesse plays along and dies.

Upon, literally, watching his own death Jesse reflects.

In the space of about three frames he comes to terms with his entire life of wrongdoings (in the name of justice? Revenge? It makes no difference now).
Power was never the most expressive of actors, but in this scene he musters so much emotion and "life" that he convinces you he was better than he ever would be again.
Is it his own doing or the inevitability thrown upon his character?
The children leave and he picks up his son.
He enters the house, gunless.
Robert Ford awaits.