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

Head Over to The Film Experience...

...where I discuss AMPAS' bias against modern movies and Best Cinematography.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Head Over to PopMatters...

...where I discuss Marion Cotillard's Oscar chances in the new blog "Statuesque".

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.