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.