Monday, December 24, 2012

Les Misérables *½

Director: Tom Hooper
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway
Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen
Samantha Barks, Aaron Tveit

Based on the eponymous musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg (itself an adaptation of the famous novel by Victor Hugo) Les Misérables is a story about revenge, injustice and doomed love...or at least that's what one gathers it's supposed to be about, considering how bloated and lacking in feeling this adaptation is. The film opens with an impressive shot as the camera rises from under the ocean and we watch a group of prisoners raise a ship in the galleys. Among them is Jean Valjean (Jackman), a man about to be released who has been in prison for two decades for stealing a loaf of bread. Keeping a close eye on Valjean is inspector Javert (Crowe) who reminds him he must respect his parole. Immediately a dynamic of abuser and abused is established and we know that Javert will make Valjean's life a living hell.

Yet the problem is that we know this only by default. Les Misérables is one of the most celebrated works of literature in history and people from all ages have come to know it even if they're not fully aware of it (The Fugitive anyone?) but director Tom Hooper depends so much on the audience's knowledge of the novel/musical that he pretty much forgets to make a "movie" to go with the story. Before we know it, we're back with a clean shaven Valjean who has changed his name and become mayor of a small town (how? Why? We never know). His peaceful existence is suddenly threatened when Javert is appointed as guard in his town. This Roadrunner/Coyote dynamic goes on during the rest of the film as life keeps putting Javert in the reformed Valjean's way even when he's trying to do nothing but good. Among his greatest deeds is the adoption of Cosette, the daughter of doomed grisette Fantine (Hathaway), perhaps the most miserable of them all, who dies after selling her hair, contracting an unnamed disease (*cough* TB *cough*) and killing it with a rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream".

The plot spans over two decades and clumsily tries to fit a ridiculous amount of uninteresting events into its overtly melodramatic structure, yet the problem isn't how over the top everything is but how inefficiently Hooper puts it on film. The film is supposed to be grand, sweeping, majestic etc. but the myriad of topics covered in Victor Hugo's historical fiction simply slip through Hooper's fingers. Les Misérables is an epic and simply put, Tom Hooper is no David Lean. He makes it seem as if the historical context exists exclusively in the service of the romantic plots and the Valjean/Javert dynamic. Things just happen and we never truly understand why. But he also fails in giving all these characters a true emotional background. They too, exist there only to serve the director's vision.

Hooper and DP Danny Cohen shoot every scene as if it was being viewed through a smartphone picture application, creating distasteful compositions that contribute nothing more than "style" to a movie that should've been ruled by substance. If the songs weren't loud and dramatic enough, Hooper's camera zooms so close to the actors' faces that it seems he's trying to make a statement about their tonsils. His stylistic choices (why try to develop an auteur vision if it's so inefficient?) often take you out of the movie and you begin to question everything that surrounds it. Why don't characters seem to age if it's been 20 years? Why are Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter still playing their Sweeney Todd characters? Why does Éponine seem to have been written to be the heroine in a telenovela? Why isn't Russell Crowe's fantastic Javert (the only character who seems to have a moral ambiguity) featured in more scenes where he's not being reduced to a sneering villain?

Les Misérables is sure to make viewers just as miserable as its characters, unless they're willing to pretend the movie's over after "I Dreamed a Dream". During the key sequence Hathaway is shot like Falconetti and she does so much with her face and your emotions, that her work should be considered nothing if not truly miraculous.

Friday, December 21, 2012

A Best Of List and Some Bigelow and Naomi.

I attended an event the other day where we watched The Impossible and had the luck of being in the presence of the angelic Naomi Watts. Here's what she had to say to the audience that day.

Here's a list of other things I've been doing:
Read and as always, let me know what you think.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Impossible ***½

Director: J.A. Bayona
Cast: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland
Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast, Geraldine Chaplin
Marta Etura, Sönke Möhring

If you've seen the trailer for The Impossible you may think you've seen it all/enough. The preview notoriously seemed devised to squeeze as many tears as it could from its viewers as it praised the courage of the human spirit, and yes, they weren't lying, the film does highlight a family's struggle during one of the most tragic natural disasters in recent history but when it comes to its actual cinematic qualities the film stands closer to being a horror movie than it stands to being an old fashioned weepie.

Based on the true story of a Spanish family, the film opens a few days before the tsunami that ravaged Thailand on December 26, 2004. We first meet Maria (Watts), her husband Henry (McGregor) and their kids Lucas, Thomas and Simon (Holland, Joslin and Pendergast respectively) as they are on the plane on what was supposed to be a wonderful Christmas vacation. From the start, director Bayona seems to be setting the stage for something unconventional, given that the movie is bookmarked by a similar moment, time by which the characters' lives have changed forever.

It takes just a few scenes into the movie before we hear a thunderous roar and see terrifying waves approach and take everyone and everything standing on their path. Maria and Lucas end up together, trying to make their way to a hospital after she's endured some gruesome injuries. Henry and the younger children also find themselves in the same geographical place and the movie spends most of its time trying to get the family back together. Needless to say so, and this is in no way a spoiler given that the film is based on real events, the family does get back together, but the terrific thing about Bayona's movie is that it's never only worried about reaching this emotional crescendo. In terms of mood, the film is always closer on the verge of existentialist horror than simplistic melodrama.

Bayona gained international fame after directing The Orphanage, a Gothic horror movie that failed because it tried too hard to connect its stylish visual references to the trite plot it tried to impose on viewers. In The Impossible, the director achieves precisely what he seemed to have been aiming for in his previous movie because he proves that the terrors inflicted by nature are always more sadistic and impossible to comprehend than those suggested by the supernatural. The movie then is often a terrifying voyage into the very heart of darkness (it's no coincidence that Maria is reading Joseph Conrad on the plane) as we see some of these characters contemplate if survival is what they really want.

The entire cast is extraordinary, with little wonder Holland infusing his scenes with liveliness and controlled fear and McGregor achieving a new landmark in terms of his wonderful screen presence. He has a small miraculous moment where he turns a phone call into a heartbreaking representation of true suffering. Is there any other actor whose tears pierce our hearts in this way?  The film however belongs to Watts, who takes on this character with ferocity and soul. The physical struggles Maria goes through are nothing compared to the way in which Watts emits primal screams - sometimes just using her eyes - as she faces the possibility of death and the even worse idea that she might leave her child alone.

Usually films about real life tragedies trivialize the emotional impact precisely by assuming that the universal can always be found in the specific. Bayona knows that the story of this family isn't the story of "everyone", in  fact he makes a point out of letting us see the physical context of the story we're watching. The director is aware that his movie wouldn't have been made if it didn't portray Caucasian, upper middle class fear, after all  stories of foreign tourists were among the most famous in the wake of the tragedy and there is something quite subversive in how he knows this and uses it as a way to challenge our ability to identify with characters as an audience. At all times we're aware that there are people suffering around these families, that their pain is in no way lesser than the ones of the characters being played by the movie stars. We see people from all walks of life being reduced to wandering souls trying to find the will to stay alive, even despite their better knowledge, but the film doesn't concentrate on them and it seems in a way the main characters are unaware of this fully, but isn't this desire of self-preservation actually quite truthful? Aren't our loved ones the objects of our worries and distress when tragedy strikes?

By the time the film ends, Watts has a moment where Bayona allows her to externalize everything she's been holding in for the entire movie. In a single scene she lets us see how the world has changed in a matter of days, we know that she might be leaving the place of the tragedy but that the pain will probably never leave her mind. We see how for the first time she's opening her eyes to a world she had been prepared to ignore. Bayona is merciless without being cruel as we both pity her for the amount of nightmares that will haunt her for as long as she lives and envy her strong need to stay alive if only because that's the thing she knew how to do best.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Space Travel with Jeff Pinilla.

Last year I was invited to become a Grand Jury Member of the Beneath the Earth Film Festival - undoubtedly one of the most exciting outlets for new filmmakers - among the 2011 winners was the charming After Ever After directed by Jeff Pinilla. I interviewed Jeff back then and have kept an eye out for his career since, only to realize this dude is one hard worker. Jeff is currently working on a new project which is sure to capture hearts and imaginations. Here's what he had to say about it:

Hi Jeff, What have you been up to since we last spoke?

I believe we last spoke in 2011. Since then I have been working on numerous commercials and films including a few that helped earn me 6 Emmy nominations in the New York television market. Although I lost with these 6 entries, I learned the value of being amongst some of the greatest talent in the number 1 market. These commercials and promos also went on to win me 4 Promax gold awards at the Promaxbda Award Show in Los Angeles. Along with this, I was also awarded with the "Ron Scalera Rocket Award" which is an award given to anyone working in the industry for two years or less and is doing outstanding work. Recently, I documented a local news team while they were out covering Hurricane Sandy and after posting my 22 minute piece on Vimeo, it accrued over 82 thousand views in a matter of days. The project was titled "The First 36 Hours".

What inspired you to develop this new project?

This new project had been in development for two years. It all started when I saw a sketch for one of my co workers clothing company that involved an astronaut with his arms around two mermaids. The first thought I had was "this is so outer worldly and unique. This is an astronaut that doesn't belong" and the idea flourished from there. I later spent an entire afternoon watching my old home movies and I saw this young version of myself, so innocent and full of joy, that I began to feel a bit nostalgic and so I tied in to the visual treatment I had been giving to my story. It made sense to make this story of an astronaut on earth be about a child longing for his innocence.

Your story is seen through the eyes of a little girl. How important do you think is to show more children's points of view in movies?
I think children are the only ones who have a real perspective. Their brains aren't muddled with opinions or references and their take on everything is purely unbiased and unfiltered. The beauty of children and the way they see things is that their imagination allows them to have a certain perspective on heavy subjects, such as death, which we touch on in this film.

Equally, how important do you think it is to tell stories from a female character's perspective?

In our film, our character goes through a rapid phase of growth which we capture on screen. Almost overnight, the death of her brother changes her. A young girl doesn't decide to become a woman... Life, circumstances, and the mental shift of coping with grief have chosen it for her. This is a side rarely told from a theatrical standpoint. We all know we grow up, and we know women experience it much differently than men, but we never see it told from the eyes of the child before the woman.

Why should people contribute to your project?

This project is much more than a film. After the last two years, there has been this journey I've been on with my storytelling that has allowed me to garner the nominations and rewards that have allowed me to gain a different perspective and appreciation for life. None of this would have ever been possible without the support of my own colleagues, peers, and family and I want to keep them along in this journey for as long as I can. This fundraiser isn't about 1 dollar or 10 dollars but rather about the amount of people that take a look at this idea and say "I believe." As a filmmaker and as a storyteller, there's no better feeling than knowing you're doing something not just for yourself or by yourself, but with the people that stand by your side.

Head over to Rocket Hub where you can contribute to help Jeff make his movie. I'm sure it'll be worth it. 

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Breast Actress.

Sometimes I get pissed at Helen Mirren for being so awesome, yet today watching her receive a lifetime achievement award during the European Film Awards ceremony I couldn't help but allow my heart to fill with joy for the amount of awesomeness she brings to it. I discuss her and other winners (go Amour!) at The Film Experience.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Killing Them Softly ***

Director: Andrew Dominik
Cast: Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Scoot McNairy
Ben Mendelsohn, Vincent Curatola, Richard Jenkins

Last time writer/director Andrew Dominik and Brad Pitt worked together they created a searing portrait about the perils of fame for fame's sake in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. The movie's elegiac tone glorified a past that had allowed violence to become romantic - something the Western genre seems keen on perpetuating - which is why it feels almost shocking to see how unromantic Killing Them Softly is from the get go.

The film opens with a stunning sequence in which the camera follows Frankie (McNairy) as he walks through what seems to be a storm of waste. The scene is inter-cut with fragments of a vintage speech given by then Senator Barack Obama, and the sound seems distorted at times. Immediately Dominik reveals to us when the movie's set and how it'll be a vision of the chaos in America as interpreted by the violent clash of sounds and images he bombards us with.

Frankie then meets his friend Russell (Mendelsohn) and the two attend a job interview of sorts where they agree to rob a Mob protected card game. Things of course don't work out too well for them and soon they have not one, but three exterminating angels trying to hunt them, the most notorious of all being the suave Jackie (Pitt), a middleman between criminals and their debtors sent to restore balance in the fragile underworld.

The film's biggest purpose seems to be drawing parallels between the crime world and politics which tend to be seen as "legal crimes". This is a movie about people with unconventional jobs trying to make a living for themselves. The tone is dark, but the dialogues can be hilarious, leading to a series of confused chuckles; can we really laugh about these matters? The film's most stunning sequence features a brutal beating under the rain, in which the rites of violence seem both messy and beautiful. When in a latter scene, DP Greg Fraser recurs to slow motion we find ourselves in the presence of a film where we are supposed to see the aesthetic values of cruelty, reminiscent perhaps of how sometimes we're fascinated by how a wild predator devours its prey.

Killing Them Softly is by no means a perfect movie and the director gives his audience little chance to digest the movie on their own terms. We are constantly shown political videos that seem out of place, given that the movie could've spoken as an allegory without drawing such obvious parallels. For its harsh view of America, as the country once again seems to be entering a hope and change renaissance, the movie will prove to be quite difficult to sit through, its pessimism perhaps only "rescued" by its brilliant cinematic values.

Head Over to PopMatters...

...and read my review for In the Mood for Love.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Hiatus is Over...

After what have been two very hectic months I've been neglecting this blog like there's no tomorrow. However I just remembered my domain is turning 9 this year and what better way to celebrate him than by actually posting in him? So, without further ado, here's an interview I did with Cheyenne Jackson over at PopMatters.

If his clever responses aren't enough, then distract yourself with his beautiful face and biceps. Also, the shirt he's wearing epitomizes what's been of my life recently...but more about that later. What have y'all been up to during my absence?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Keep the Lights On ***½

Director: Ira Sachs
Cast: Thure Lindhart,  Zachary Booth
Paprika Steen,Julianne Nicholson, Souleymane Sy Savane

Writer/director Ira Sachs has expressed how his newest movie Keep the Lights On is a completely autobiographical take of his relationship with literary agent Bill Clegg; yet even without knowing about the real life details, the movie’s lived in specificity would’ve still made viewers think they were witnessing an unadulterated form of artistic confession.

Shot in yellowish hues by Thimios Bakatakis, the film opens during a late New York City night that seems extracted from a 1970’s dream. It’s 1997 and we see Erik Rothman (Lindhart) trying to hook up over an anonymous telephone hotline; he describes himself, his tastes and reveals his location in hopes of someone who will be able to host. After several attempts he finally finds someone who isn’t flaky. He reaches Paul’s (Booth) apartment where after a mere glance they proceed to engage in passionate intercourse. Before Erik leaves, Paul tells him not to get his hopes up, he has a girlfriend.

In almost any other kind of movie, this would’ve been the first turn of the screw: will the charming Erik be able to conquer young Paul’s heart despite his not being out of the closet? In this film however, we are presented with something much more fascinating as it shatters our need for a traditional structure. The next time we see Paul and Erik they are together. We don’t know what happened to the girlfriend, we don’t know if/how Pault dealt with his situation, all we know is that they’re a couple and that Paul likes doing crystal meth when they have sex.

Keep the Lights On isn’t a “story” as much as it is a mosaic of a relationship. We follow these two characters for over a decade and we see them struggle with work, interpersonal issues and addiction. Sachs doesn’t linger much on specific problems as he does on more general arcs, the most prominent of all perhaps being Paul’s drug addiction. However to mention the film as a movie about drugs would be to disregard Sach’s artistry and his ability to study and develop characters without reducing them or us to easily digestible stereotypes.

We are not supposed to know everything that happens to these people, after all in real life how often can we say we get to know every little thing about someone else? And perhaps this is the movie’s point. In the end Sachs isn’t as interested in sharing his story with the world as he is in dissecting the essence of a love affair. What are the things we keep once they’re over? How do these events play in our heads when we revisit them?

Sach’s cleverly makes Erik a foreign documentary filmmaker. Cleverly, because in his relationship, Erik is an adventurer trying to conquer uncharted territory but refusing to drop his expedition. Throughout the film Erik is working on a movie about gay artist Avery Woods (who you have a desire to Google from the instant he’s mentioned) and we see how Sachs tries to use art both as a demon and an exorcist. It’s hinted on many occasions that Erik’s work often pushes him away from Paul, yet the director asks us: how would I be able to deal with this if it weren’t with my art?

It helps that Erik is played with such sense of wonder by the extraordinary Lindhart, who combines a stunning physical presence with a surprising childlike behavior. He breaks our hearts as we realize that his love for Paul is perhaps just as dangerous an addiction, yet he remains so human throughout, that when one of his friends confronts him, we can’t help but relish in his weakness. Erik, more than Paul even, is a character we want to know in real life and Lindhart’s beautiful performance makes us believe we just might after leaving the theater.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Pitch Perfect ***½

Director: Jason Moore
Cast: Anna Kendrick, Brittany Snow, Rebel Wilson, Anna Camp
Alexis Knapp, Ester Dean, Hana Mae Lee, Skylar Astin
Elizabeth Banks, John Michael Higgins

Movies about young people are often petty, predictable, condescending or a combination of them all, which is why it's always a real pleasure to find one that defies expectations and the limits of age group. You know the kind...Sixteen Candles, Mean Girls, Bring It On, Easy A, Clueless. On paper, Pitch Perfect had all the makings of a bomb: a movie about a group of female a capella singers who recruit the new tough girl, who then proceeds to show them how it's done while discovering she too has a heart.

The group in question are the Barden Bellas led by prim control freak Aubrey (Camp) who favors Ace of Base and flight attendant uniforms and the tough girl is freshman student Beca (Kendrick), an amateur DJ who only joins the group to show her dad she has some social skills. After a shameful event last time they went to regionals, the Bellas are hard at work trying to regain their old glory and start taking on "unconventional" members; besides Beca, they make room for soft spoken Lilly (Lee), seductive Stacie (Knapp) and the full figured Fat Amy (a scene stealing Wilson).

Throughout the movie it's pretty obvious where things are headed for, but there is not a single second here that doesn't feel fresh and original. Director Moore works Kay Cannon's screenplay (based on a book by Mickey Rapkin) in a way that we get to know the characters well enough without recurring to overdone expositions or cliché (Banks and Higgins are phenomenal in short parts). There is a scene where the Bellas decide to have a heart to heart that's underplayed in all the right ways. There are lines and dialogues that you know you will be quoting for years to come and even the musical selection is rather supreme (hits from Madonna to Kelly Clarkson make key appearances). The cast is excellent; all the actors create an enviable synergy that works because, just as in the plot, it takes the best from people who couldn't be more different if they tried.

The best part about Pitch Perfect is realizing its pleasures aren't merely Glee Stockholm Syndrome, but that through heart and wit it injects new life into something trite and overdone. The film truly has nothing new to say and it doesn't reinvent any art forms, however it does what it does so well, that just like the pop songs it pays homage to, it gets under your skin and there will be nothing you can do to help yourself from moving to its beat.

Trouble with the Curve ***

Director: Robert Lorenz
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Amy Adams, Justin Timberlake
John Goodman, Matthew Lillard

Clint Eastwood is an American institution. Like all institutions, his importance seems to be inexplicable to some and unquestionable to others. Trouble with the Curve is the first movie in almost twenty years where he hasn't directed himself and his first starring role since what everyone thought would be his swan song, yet these facts will most likely be overlooked in light of the icon's recent "coming out" as a true political conservative. Therefore the film will most likely be examined, digested and analyzed as a representation of this "new" phase in Clint's career: the one where he came back to bite Hollywood in the ass. Impartial and objective as we may try to be, we are only human after all.

As humans, we might find ourselves rolling our eyes when veteran baseball scout Gus (played by Eastwood) grunts, mumbles and growls at every sign of modernity, delicateness or attempts by his daughter Mickey (Adams) to reach out to his "human" side. We might also find it preposterous to realize that Gus is nothing but a perpetuation of the Clint persona: a brutish cowboy from a long gone era who in the end has a real heart. Yet, despite the undeniable reactionary nature of this movie (essentially an antithesis to last year's Moneyball in how it defies the idea that computers are better at baseball than humans) there is something utterly charming and even pleasurable about how the movie shapes itself like old fashioned entertainment.

Unlike most recent movies that take place in the world of sports, this one realizes that not everyone will identify with balls and bats, so it allows its characters to take over and win the audience's love. Eastwood might be doing his usual shtick, but few actors are as selfless when they play a caricature like Clint is. Adams is of course enchanting as usual; watching her play off against Clint is a delight, particularly because he had the potential to eat her up onscreen. Rounding up the cast is Goodman in a best friend/jolly man role, Lillard as a douchy scout trying to steal Clint's throne and Timberlake as Adams' love interest.

The movie seems devoted to making us realize that nothing is as good as old fashioned American values, yet even within its delusion (there's a subplot about immigration that is both uplifting and offensive) it remains completely true to itself, to the point where we can't help but enjoy ourselves and embrace it despite our best knowledge. Almost everyone with half a brain will leave the theater thinking Eastwood is so reactionary he's scary, but the same people will probably want to have a beer with him and listen to his stories...and that's the trouble with institutions.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Head over to PopMatters and read my review of The Good Wife, Season Three. Are y'all watching this show? If not, get ion it!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Brave ***

Director: Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman

It’s a shame that sometime in the last ten years, the word “Disney movie” became associated with old fashioned, sappy and obsolete when compared to more progressive animation studios like Dreamworks, Blue Sky and especially Pixar. Although the quality of Disney Animation Studios did diminish (sadly taking down their 2D branch) the true thing is that the house of the mouse remained loyal to what Walt had once envisioned; making magic in our world seem possible.

The old sing and dance cartoon flicks that once made the studio the most groundbreaking filmmakers in the world, became object of parody. But how many of us still treasure the countless times we saw Peter Pan and Dumbo growing up? And how have we come to realize that despite their undeniable profundity and complexity, Pixar movies will never truly relit that first spark of awe ignited by Disney classics?

Pixar’s sophisticated filmmaking techniques have spoiled us yes, but sometimes it’s still refreshing to let ourselves be enchanted by a simple (not to be confused with simplistic) fairytale. Brave, might be the most effortless film to be put out by the Pixar brand, and it truly feels much more like a “Disney” movie than one made by the people behind Wall-E and Toy Story, but this in the end doesn’t seem to matter much. Despite the film not being the melting pot of “will-they-pull-this-off”s Pixar has made us used to, it still contains the sincerity and deep love of storytelling that has made them such beacons of creativity.

Set in Scotland, the film centers on the unorthodox Princess Merida, a hot headed beauty who’d rather spend the day horseback riding and shooting arrows, than learning how to sew and training to find the perfect husband. Her mother, Queen Elinor, finds herself in a constant battle with her daughter who refuses to conform to tradition; it doesn’t help that her husband King Fergus seems almost oblivious to everything going on around them.

When Merida defies the rules and refuses to choose among the candidates offered to her in marriage, she and her mother undergo the ultimate kind of battle. The central twist in the film can easily be deduced by anyone who knows how these “try to have some empathy” movies work and when it unfolds, its familiarity somehow makes it feel quite refreshing. The rest of the movie plays out like a well told bedtime story (legends and storytelling are a constant theme in the screenplay) until it surprisingly transforms into something more profound: it’s an oft-touching dissection of the loves our mothers have for us.

Without being preachy or overly sentimental, the film tackles the right balance between what society expects of men and women. The film is filled with stunning action sequences that become even more exciting because of the heroine’s beauty. They do not stimulate the mind in the way watching Angelina Jolie or Sigourney Weaver kicking butt do; they make endless adventure seem possible for people regardless of their gender and sexual orientation. While the “mainstream” lesson might have something to do with how we each own our destiny (which in itself isn’t a shabby lesson at all), the more subversive subtext in the film allude to how women must often battle harder than men and always find themselves at stakes with men and other women. It’s lovely to see a story so devoted to womanhood, especially because of how it comes to represent an entire history of female liberation. See how it reminds us that more often than not, women are the real authority figures in the household, and regardless of how cute they are, isn’t it interesting how Merida’s triplet brothers don’t get to utter a single word in the movie?
By subverting our notions of what a Pixar movie should be, isn’t Brave in a way (from its very form), alluding to the battles faced everyday by women who feel they have to live up to standards created by and for men?

The powerful feminine force behind Brave is especially obvious when compared to the short film that precedes it. In Enrico Casarosa’s La Luna we see the patriarchal system at its most obvious and the dichotomy created by the juxtaposition of the short and feature films, will make for fascinating post-screening conversations among all family members. Will little boys and girls want to be like the nameless boy of La Luna or like Merida? The time will come when the answer won’t really make a difference, only then will we know we are living in a truly brave world.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

GBU: "Prometheus", "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen" and "The Amazing Spider-Man".

The Amazing Spider-Man (dir. Mark Webb) ***
The good: It might have felt like an unnecessary reboot but every cast member and line of dialogue brought something utterly refreshing to the series. Andrew Garfield has an adorable quality to him that makes him perfect to play Peter. Emma Stone should be in every movie!  The director made an excellent use of symbolism, this was the first time in the series that truly sexualized Peter's transformation, when he first realizes he can shoot spider webs we find ourselves before one of the best executed symbols of ejaculation (and a teenager's need to do it 24/7). 
The bad: Action scenes weren't half as interesting as moments between Gwen and Peter.
The ugly: Why can't Spider-Man movies have good visual effects? Sigh.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (dir. Lasse Hallstrom) *½
The good: Emily Blunt and Ewan McGregor. Also, Kristin Scott Thomas having fun!
The bad: The absolute lack of chemistry between Ewan and Emily.
The ugly: The contemptuous way in which the movie observes the Middle East, the lack of coherence between characters and their motivations. The fact that it's a romantic comedy with no comedy or romance.

Prometheus (dir. Ridley Scott) ***½
The good: A thinking person's blockbuster. The ensemble was ace! Charlize Theron was delicious, Noomi Rapace announced her arrival as an international action heroine and Michael Fassbender proves why everyone's all over him. The best thing in the movie is that it exposes passionate ideas only to pull the rug from under us and remind us that sometimes it's not about the answers but about the sublimity of awe. Why not embrace the beauty of creation and acknowledge the fact that we might never ever fully be able to grasp its magnificence?
The bad: the Alien connection did feel a bit forced.
The ugly: N/A

The Dark Knight Rises **

Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard
Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Morgan Freeman

Contrary to popular belief, Christopher Nolan might very well be the least imaginative working director trying to pass himself off as an auteur. Movie after movie he proves that his need for self-indulgence often interferes with his delivery; his two last movies being grandiose exercises in incoherence. With The Dark Knight Rises he unintentionally forces us to ponder on a basic aesthetic conundrum: should all ideas be put on some sort of artistic medium?
The question arises from Nolan's absolutely reactionary statements, given that The Dark Knight Rises practically borders on fascism. The director suggests that any sort of social uprising comes in detriment to the development of capitalism and that only the rich can save the day. If this was 18th century France, Nolan would be on his way to the guillotine.
Perhaps the notion that art should be limited to "good ideas" is fascist in itself, but it's not meant as censure, instead it intends to explore what is it precisely that constitutes art. Nolan's fascism isn't bad from a purely aesthetic level, but it's offensive as "art".
Leni Riefenstahl's ideas and support of the Nazi party might have marked her as an "evil" figure but no one watching "Olympia" or "Triumph of the Will" can say that they fail as art. Riefenstahl challenged the format of the documentary and despite her supremacist thoughts, she encompassed the beauty of the human body in a way that hadn't been achieved since the Renaissance.
Then we come to The Dark Knight Rises and not only are Nolan's ideas disturbing, but his execution is absolutely clunky. Every cut and dialogue aim to contribute to an operatic feeling, but the only crescendo in the film is suggested by Nolan's tasteless use of aural and visual tricks. Why does the villain Bane (Hardy) need to sound like a Darth Vader parody? Why does the tribal chanting that obnoxiously permeates the film have to be related to the Middle East? Why is such great effort made to remind us about the goodness and inherent kindness of billionaires? How is this ever really about Gotham City and not about Bruce Wayne (Bale) trying to save his status as a symbol of power (penniless or not)? What exactly does Nolan have against women (especially those named Marion Cotillard)?
The Dark Knight Rises fails as spectacle, as entertainment and other than for Anne Hathaway's scene stealing turn as Catwoman (she seems to be acting in a vastly superior film) the only thing rising in this installment are its director's delusions. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

GBU: "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel", "Wanderlust", "Total Recall" and "Dark Shadows".

Since writing full reviews - and even Short Takes - has become almost impossible (until someone pays me maybe...hehe) we'll give GBU a try and rank the Good, the Bad and the Ugly of recent films I've seen. Let me know what you think of this new experiment and as always thanks for reading!

Total Recall (dir. Len Wiseman) *½

The good: It's always nice to see Colin Farrell onscreen, although he's made it clear that he now fares much better in smaller works (see Ondine and In Bruges). Also that body, wow!
Also, give Kate Beckinsale more villainous roles, she was delicious in this!
The bad: why bother remaking a movie when you'll just remind audiences of why the first one isn't even much of a classic to begin with? 
The ugly: the whole Asian-meets-futuristic aesthetic felt old in The Matrix and that came out almost 15 years ago, in this movie it just was awful to watch.

Wanderlust (dir. David Wain, 2012) ***

The good: this Aniston/Rudd reunion reminded us what made them so great to watch in The Object of My Affection back in 1998. Their chemistry is spot on! Wain's screenplay (co-written with Ken Marino) is a treasure chest of one liners and manages to be funny without being too crass and insensitive.
The bad: just nitpicking here but the ending was slightly facile.
The ugly: N/A

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (dir. John Madden) ***

The good: Judi Dench. Maggie Smith. Tom Wilkinson. Bill Nighy. Celia Imrie. Penelope Wilton. Ronald Pickup. Enough said. This cast is to die for and it's great to see real grown up movies are still being made. Dench's soulful performance was worth the admission ticket. How can an actress do so much with so little?
The bad: too many plots means we always end up craving more from the best, like Wilkinson's character.
The ugly: why does Dev Patel keep playing Indian stereotypes?

Dark Shadows (dir. Tim Burton) *

The good: Michelle Pfeiffer needs to be in more movies! It was also nice to see Helena Bonham Carter pushing her shtick to new places and Eva Green was simply to die for! (No pun intended)

The bad: the Burton-Depp thing has been old for almost a decade now, it's time to stop them!
The ugly: Burton's aesthetics seem to be getting more self indulgent with each passing film, in Dark Shadows the settings were so contrived that we couldn't allow ourselves for a moment to see the fantastical in all of this, everything felt just so stale.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Sheet-y Saturday (on a Sunday)

Where we take a look at posters for upcoming features.

All eyes are set on Kathryn Bigelow's followup to the astonishing The Hurt Locker and considering she's once again dealing with boys' territory she might just blow our minds again. So far the campaign for Zero Dark Thirty has been rather tasteful. This redacted teaser poster for example forces us to look closer, to examine more and considering she isn't even showing us any of the famous faces in the movie, it's safe to assume Bigelow is on her top game. 

Only god knows what this movie's about, but why - one wonders - is it falsely advertising the actors in it or have the actors been so photoshopped they look unrecognizable?
Why does Uma look like Katherine Heigl? Why does CZJ look like Keira Knightley and why oh why does Dennis Quaid look like a Tom Cruise impersonator? The horror! (Said horros is clearly expressed in Gerard Butler's WTF face)

Thursday, August 9, 2012

3. Examine all windows.

“I just wanted it to look like a dream.”
- Buster Keaton on Sherlock Jr.

Slavoj Zizek made a great point of how the human mind is the most complex cinema projector. We "see" things on the "back" of our head, which are then projected towards our consciousness. This idea was rarely seen with such efficiency as it was in this movie.

Upon realizing the movie in front of him has changed, the "ghost" of the sleeping projector realizes he's in for something different. Which brings us to my fave shot:

He points at the screen trying to call out his "owner's" attention but fails to do so, in the process reminding us of how the deepest secrets of the mind (the ones we often turn into traumas) are usually there and are usually pointing at us to see them and fix them. This can also remind us of more spiritual ideas and you have got to love how Keaton goes even more meta and sets a frame within a frame, within the larger frame of our mind which determines how we are decoding what we see.

- This post is part of Nat's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot".

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Wandering Eye.

Recently I was contacted by filmmaker Shiphrah Meditz about her upcoming movie called The Dying Eye which will be shooting in Edinburgh this year and has an interesting crowdfunding campaign going on at the moment. As you all know I rarely discuss upcoming projects here, but I found her project enchanting to say the least and I really liked the fact that she has set up a whole blog devoted to the filming of the movie.
Let's all wish her good luck and donate some cash to help her achieve her goal. Be sure to visit her blog for updates. Few things are as fascinating as behind-the-scenes adventures.

Style Sunday.

I've said it before and I'll say it now again: why can't Kate Beckinsale be as interesting an actress as she is a dresser? This simple Dior sheath speaks for itself.

Friday, August 3, 2012

To Rome with Love ***

Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Alec Baldwin, Alessandro Tiberi, Alison Pill, Ellen Page
Fabio Armiliato, Flavio Parenti, Greta Gerwig, Jesse Eisenberg
Judy Davis, Penélope Cruz, Roberto Benigni, Woody Allen

When watching the newest Woody Allen movie, it's almost impossible not to bring up familiar issues; the most prominent of all being, of course, how Woody always brings up the same issues. However with each passing film, it becomes more obvious that even if his themes become repetitive, they are never dull and a so-so Woody Allen film is still leagues ahead of anything else being done.
Take To Rome with Love for example; after the delight that was Midnight in Paris, it seems almost "mediocre" in comparison to the pure joy exuded by the previous one and the deftness with which it wove different eras and stories. Yet the truth is that in each European city, Woody has made a movie that reflects the city's personality through his own neuroses. 
Time and time again, he has exclaimed that his movies aren't autobiographical, and it would be easier to believe him, if he hadn't created a persona we have come to assume is the real Woody Allen.
In Rome, he plays Jerry, a retired musical director, married to a psychoanalyst (played with extreme gusto by the oh-so-ever-fabulous Judy Davis). Jerry is recently retired and according to his wife, equates this with being dead, therefore he sets his hopes in his daughter's (Pill) future father-in-law (Armiliato) a mortician who also happens to have an extraordinary voice.
Obsessed with turning this man into a star, in the process regaining back "life", Jerry dares to stage a version of Pagliacci that defies all good taste and after the critics speak unfavorably, his daughter goes "he's been called worse".
This fighting spirit, which acknowledges how Jerry didn't manage to please critics, might as well be meant to represent Allen's career. For all we know, what if the time-travel concept of Midnight in Paris had been deemed ridiculous? Or what if the ghostly themes in Scoop had been universally praised?
What we come to understand is that he isn't as obsessed with the result as he is with the creative process and that might very well be the unifying theme of the movie; how people are in a constant search of creation.
Besides Jerry's story, we have three other plots that make up the film: there's newlyweds Antonio (Tiberi) and Milly (Mastronardi) who get caught up in a misadventure borrowed from Fellini's The White Sheik and involves movie stars and prostitutes (played by Luca Albanese and Cruz respectively). We also meet John (Baldwin) a famous architect who becomes the voice of the conscience to the young Jack (Eisenberg) as he struggles between staying with his girlfried (Gerwig) or going after her free-spirited friend Monica (Page). Finally there's Leopoldo (Benigni in an unusually restrained performance) an everyman who one day wakes up to realize he's become famous.
All of these stories are told effectively and all seem to represent something that Woody might've wanted to explore further (perhaps on a feature length?) and the film's biggest flaw might be precisely that it wants to cover too much.
The forced finale of the John/Jack story for example (which echoes of the brilliant Vicky Cristina Barcelona) make it seem as if it's the resolution what matters the most and not the fact that we are never told if John is the older version of Jack, or if he's just a "friendly" manifestation of his subconscious or perhaps some playful spirit. Nuances like the Bergman-ian fact that Jack and John are practically the same name, get lost in the tangle of overwritten dialogues and awkwardness from Eisenberg and Page who never fully bloom as truly sexual creatures. 
Then there's the delicious ode to home as seen in the newlywed story, which might not be linked to any other plot (none of the stories ever cross paths) but shares a theme with Leopoldo and his sudden overdose of fame. Allen is a wry observant and lets us know he's aware of how all the Kardashians of the world are occupying spots that once were allotted to people who earned their notoriety on positive terms. 
The movie as a whole, despite its golden cinematography and constant reminders of the city's beauty, can't help but be tinged with bittersweetness, something Allen must've gotten from Fellini's La Dolce Vita, which also made us wonder about the price we pay for fame and reinventing our humdrum lives. 
While Fellini's masterpiece had almost nothing pleasant to say about our society and even declared at one point, everyone would give their backs to purity in the name of hedonism, Allen's take is meeker and shall we say humbler? He is aware of the destruction and chaos, but he makes us look at Rome, with its gorgeous ruins and timeless architecture, and asks us if this isn't worth trying a little harder for.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

There's No Business Like Men Business.

There was a time when "chick flicks" got studios so excited, they even allowed them to become the first movies to feature new technology. How to Marry a Millionaire was the first movie shot in the widescreen CinemaScope despite not featuring a single "epic" moment. 

This would've been the 1990s equivalent of allowing a Julia Roberts movie to be the first to be shot and projected digitally or the early 2000s equivalent of having the first 3D movie be a Nicholas Sparks adaptation (yes, I know...) so let's take a minute to celebrate a time when women sorta kinda-ish ruled the system.

Now, for my favorite shot...
How to Marry a Millioanire is extremely chick flick-y and you can certainly trace something like Sex and the City all the way back to it. Which is why, my favorite shot features the three protagonists literally becoming maneaters as they gulp down huge sausages. 

The sly shamelessness with which  Jean Negulesco shows us how these women defy all social norms and have come to own their sexuality is the more subversive because he sets this scene against a city backdrop and what are skyscrapers if not tributes to the male erection? Yet instead of turning the ominous structures into signs of peril, the film playfully suggests that all these men are only awaiting for these women to capture them. To top this joyful celebration of the women gulp down their hot dogs with champagne.

Truly, what's not to love?

This post is part of Nathaniel's Hit Me with Your Best Shot series.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Violeta ***

Director: Andrés Wood
Cast: Francisca Gavilán, Thomas Durand, Christian Quevedo
Gabriela Aguilera, Roberto Farías

"I will sing wherever there is someone who will listen" says Violeta Parra (Gavilán) when asked about her venues of choice and through Andrés Wood's stunning Violeta (in Spanish poetically titled Violeta se fue a los cielos) we are exposed not to a "biopic" character, but to a woman whose desire to create was stronger than her ties to family or societal norms.
Framed within a TV interview Parra gave in Argentina, the film uses this relatively traditional structure to then travel back and forward in time to tell us her life story. Done with the impressionistic style Olivier Dahan only wishes he'd achieved with his chaotic La vie en rose, this movie transcends biopic-ness to enter something much more profound, it is both poetry and psychological analysis turned into film.
While it obviously intends to paint a portrait of who this woman was, it does so not merely by listing chronological highlights, but by wondering what they meant to her, how they affected her creative process. "Creation is a bird without a flight plan" exclaims Parra, portrayed by the seductive Gavilán as an explosive creature, often overflowing with passions. Where a less talented performer would've turned Parra into an exercise of mimicry, Gavilán infuses her with impressive energy, creating little moments in the performance that can not be considered anything other than brilliant. She gives herself to this character and has no problem exploring Parra's body issues (the scene where she grabs her stomach as if asking god why can't she be young again is chilling and heartbreaking). For those unfamiliar with Parra, she will display a range of emotions that will undoubtedly send them looking for her work, wondering if she was this vibrant and powerful.
The answer will of course be yes, since not only did she establish a revolutionary folk movement in South America, but she also became an example of creation that went beyond the laws of men. The movie has no issue in showing Parra was no angel, audiences might leave the film wondering why she abandoned her children for so long, why she didn't become more of a martyr and why doesn't she fit the characteristics of artists whose lives become movies?
Wood chose an atypical style to craft his film and makes it become a magical realist musical. There are never moments of sudden epiphany where we see how Parra came to create this and that, instead he uses her legacy to trace back the emotional and psychological states that she was in when she made them. It might sound ironic to bring this up, but the movie could have no sound or dialogues and still be powerful, because Wood's images speak just as loudly as Parra's music (that he chooses not to use her most famous song during any key scenes is truly admirable).
Violeta is an homage to a great artist, which at the same time seems to be competing with her work. This doesn't mean that Wood undermines Parra's music (or her graphic arts) but that he loves film with the same intensity that Parra loved her own devices, and would by no means let external factors deter his own creation.

Style Sunday.

Queen Cate stunned NYC audiences with her seemingly delicious turn in Uncle Vanya and those of us who can't see her, still get to be stunned by her amazing style. She rocked the post-show red carpet in this pencil skirt and lovely top by Givenchy. Notice how she's practically wearing no makeup! Ugh, this woman constantly shows us how it's done...

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Group Hug.

I once saw a documentary on F.W. Murnau which explained how much he worried about creating universes that went beyond the confines of the filmstrip and what it recorded. This is why in movies like Sunrise he came up with elaborate set pieces which showed constant movement. Therefore we see people appearing from the sides, below and all possible places that made it seem as if the story being filmed was taking place not only to service the camera, but as an actual slice of life.

This is something that has never worried Wes Anderson. His movies are miniatures that take place in half-recognizable settings that we're supposed to think of as universal. The New York City of his The Royal Tenenbaums instantly springs to mind, particularly because its artifice never highlights the town that other artists obsess about. Anderson's obsession with perfect framing and symmetry often give his movies an unavoidable touch of whimsy and despite the fact that his work is extremely self indulgent, my favorite shot in this movie seems to add a bit of heart to this insularity.

I love how even if he's placed Margot and particularly Richie in cherubic positions next to their mother, he has cut off Chas' head, not only representing his need to cut off from any sort of Tenenbaum curse, but also to highlight how his intrusion to ask for money seems to disrupt the almost pastoral shot he had established. That Chas then proceeds to leave the frame, reminding us of a larger world outside the Tenenbaum house, is absolutely brilliant.

- This post is part of Nat's Hit Me With Your Best Shot series.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Queering in the Rain.

If someone "inceptioned" the wet dreams of Rainer Werner Fassbender and Jean Cocteau, and asked a young Todd Haynes to make a movie out of them, the result would be Pink Narcissus. This avant garde gay landmark is often more conservative and forced than it wants to be, its lyrical qualities only subverted under the fact that despite its subject matter, it's r(b)arely erotic.

For all its use of phallic imagery, blowjobs and ejaculations, the film results rather tame and more often than not seems to wander too much into its own self indulgent qualities. Being about the fantasies of a hustler (Bobby Kendall) and having them play out like a Pasolini-meets-Fellini version of Skinemax soft porn seems to subtract queer out of the equation more often than not. The one thing that pervades in the film and makes it an interesting experience however, is how director James Bidgood shows off his cinematic influences throughout.

Director Bidgood famously removed his name from the film after he felt that the editors had butchered his work, when the truth is that it's the editing that gives the film a dreamlike quality. See for example how the editor juxtaposes "random" body parts, in this case the belly button and an eye, so that we're transported to Un Chien Andalou and Psycho in a second. The film may not really tap into the real sexual desires of a gay man, but it explores how films themselves can evoke the sensual world.

This feeling continues when on the Times Square fantasy, the director relies to neon (as well as inventive sight gags) to remind us of the overwhelming experience that can be NYC, something audiences had seen years before in the playful Singing in the Rain.

"Gotta dance!"

The references to the classic musical continue in further scenes, as Pink Narcissus seems to explore the same color palettes and borrows from the movie's musical structure.

"Singing and dancing in the rain..."

Notice the similarity between the painted skies, which not only relish in their obvious staginess but also never fail to inspire the romantic in us.

"You were meant for me..."

All of these cinematic winks bring us to my favorite shot:

Remember that scene in An American in Paris where Gene performs the famous ballet? I have never truly loved that movie, but I'm endlessly fascinated by how Gene recreated the most famous moments in French art.

And what is the shot above, if not an homage to the simple beauty of impressionistic painting? You're almost half expecting Bobby to put on a tutu and pose for Degas. Gotta love how the shot makes a superb use of the gorgeous male figure without taking away from the rest of the scene's beauty. The clothes rack could very well be out of a Matisse painting and it's only during this scene where Pink Narcissus manages to combine painting, cinema and classic humanism to remind us that beyond the confines of our testes, art can usually help us achieve the most glorious kind of orgasm.

- This post is part of Nat's Hit Me With Your Best Shot series.