Sunday, March 28, 2010
FILM #12: 'Persepolis' (2007--08)
Directed by Marjane Satrapi and based on her own memoirs, this witty animated film loudly presents a perspective of Iran most Westerners would be seeing for the first time. Clearly the title character--like Miss Satrapi--is from the upper educated class but that doesn't make the writing less authentic. In an age where Pixar is defining the way 3D animation can be juxtaposed to great story-telling, its heartening to see the old 2D stuff still holding its own.
More stunning though is the in-depth analysis of life in Iran. What Satrapi makes clear is that the lives of the youngsters are the same anywhere they are and that it takes more than a revolution to alter that. Her story is also caustic and brilliant in the satire juxtaposed to the comedic interference of divinity in the state of things and sexual tension. References to other cultural icons (Michael Jackson, 'Che' Guevera ect) and the suppression of the Western life is explored exquisitely throughout the ninety-plus minutes that we watch Persepolis grow up to the point of becoming her own woman and, finally, our headstrong feminist hero.
FILM #11: 'United 93' (2006)
Nearly ten years after the horrific events that brought down the Twin Towers, Paul Greengrass' film feels just as fresh and disturbing. I still feel this was the best film released in 2006 because Greengrass' signature tension makes watching the action almost unbearable. Utilizing real aviation personnel and relatives of those who perished adds authenticity but the sequential order that he assembles is simultaneously non-judgmental and sacrosanct.
Thursday, March 25, 2010
FILM #10: "Amores Perros" (2000)
Jagged in its flashbacks and with obvious homage to Pulp Fiction, Amores Perros consistently and brilliantly challenges film convention. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's direction is simply sublime as he tackles three interlinked vignettes that explore cause and effect, greed and envy, ambition and family life. It also deals with consequences of actions that touch not just your own situation but the lives of others. Inarritu's style is disjointed , poetic and captures the perfect Latino, smarmy ethos that has come to be expected: blood stir-fries into a frying pan, ect.
The first vignette slyly deals with family strife so intense that the brothers end up clobbering each other, in essence over a woman. The second vignette centers of Valeria (Goya Toleda), a supermodel who is having an affair with a married man. Opposite the apartment where they live is a giant poster of her leggy beauty but this soon becomes a curse after a car crash leaves her in a wheelchair. The third vignette deals with El Chivo (Emilio Echevarria) and his abandonment of society. All three stories are brutal in the depiction of human life yet stunningly tender towards dogs...
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
FILM #9: No Country for Old Men (2007)
Adapted from the Cormac McCarthy novel, the film settles into its 1980 West Texas landscape poetically and, in the form of the local sheriff, Ed Tom Bell (the ever solid Tommy Lee Jones) philosophically. Brilliantly directed by the Coen brothers (Joel & Ethan), ‘No Country for Old Men’ is a thrilling expose on the changing value of violence and the slow realization of such. The attention to detail is sheer poetic and, like the film itself, volatile: Chigurh shoots Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) while the telephone rings and then speaks to Moss mindful to lift his legs as Wells’ blood spreads thickly on the floor. The beauty of the film though lies in its conviction that one repudiates violence at one’s own peril and that we have to acknowledge its presence as a way of life. Sheriff Bell realizes the enormity that faces him and has no option but to admit openly that the level of crime is beyond his handling. Chigurh is the killer of a new time, one that can walk away unscathed to fight new battles or at least pay his way out of complicity. He, not the law, is the one with his hand on the pulse of this new world. That makes ‘No Country for Old Men’ frighteningly real and a modernistic take on the evolutionary process of crime that will likely smudge our paranoid lives, one way or the other.
Monday, March 22, 2010
FILM #8: 'Moulin Rouge' (2001)
With 19th century Paris and its nightlife as the backdrop, Moulin Rouge perfectly captures the essence of human need versus desire. Nicole Kidman earned her first real critical recognition as Satine,the ambitious courtesan. She clearly wasn't ideal for such a role but as the film progresses we literally see her coming into her own. Baz Luhrmann's dizzy direction subdues its wow factor after an hour but it is afterwards that the love story takes true shape and starts to unspool. The songs are chaotic, loud and non-traditional but its lovely energy and a huge plus. BUt it is Kidman that rises most effectively especially when required to take duplicitous action. The scene where she lashes out at Zidler (the ever excellent Jim Broadbent)is stunning and shows how quickly her ambition turns to love.
Unlike most musicals, Moulin Rouge risks everything by segueing into real drama. Not content to be faithful to source material, Luhrmann earns full marks for presenting something fresh and contemporary. We get to see the various characters as complicated human beings they really are and not just mere one-dimensional products for the audience's amusement. No other musical in the decade dared to keep its ethos so firmly rooted in reality.
Sunday, March 21, 2010
FILM #7: 'The Dark Knight' (2008)
Undoubtedly the best comic book adaptation ever and forever immortalized Heath Ledger as the sadistic Joker. Don't be fooled though that his masterful performance is the only brilliant thing about the film. Critics have raved about it because of Christopher Nolan's impeccable direction of this moralistic tale. The peformances are uniformly great: Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent (aka Two-face) is an underrated yet sublime performance. Whereas previous Batman films were merely comedic and not too designed towards real menace,Dent is allowed to violently transform by loss then rage into the very monster he sets out to rid Gotham City of. Gary Oldman loses himself as Commissioner Gordon, a man who sacrifices much and often to meager returns. Then there is Ledger of course, as the Joker, a cautionary reference about what can go so very wrong in a non-caring society. A deserving Oscar winning role for a timeless performance and a great film that shows that comic adaptation can work just as well as anything else out there.
Saturday, March 20, 2010
FILM #6: "The Hours" (2002)
Based on Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize winning book, the film basically shows the effect of the novel 'Mrs. Dalloway' has on three women (including the author Virginia Woolf). A tremendous task in print but translated succinctly unto screen without as much as a glitch. As Woolf, Nicole Kidman transforms into a dowdy unrecognizable entity and delivers, through a scene at train-side, some stunning work. Julianne Moore's aesthetics works wonderfully as tormented 1950s housewife Laura Brown and then there's the peerless Meryl Streep as the modern woman who keeps everything together as Clarissa Vaughan. The acting is top notch, especially Ed Harris as Richard, a writer dying of AIDS.
Stephen Daldry directs the interconnecting scenes with such mastery and punctuates it all with a thrilling score by Phillip Glass. Armed with this juxtaposition the film demands a sort of intimate attention from viewers. It's all interlinked by several factors but the resonant point is that we all have surges of despair, hopelessness and even self-doubt. The sadness of how all three main characters deal with these personal tragedies can be heartbreaking but also one can choose happiness and carry on. A hard choice to be sure but one that is as vital as breath.
FILM #5: "Pride & Prejudice" (2005)
The film that made Keira Knightley a star and what a revelation she was as Jane Austen's heroine Elizabeth Bennett. Austen's novel has been adapted several times before but what this film manages to juxtapose so superbly is the state of relations in 18th century England to how things are currently. The nuances of the characters are very familiar especially surrounding the issue as marriage. The issue of love and its choice though is wonderfully creased in Knightley's performance and in stark contrast to that of her mother, Mrs Bennet (played with great frivolity by Brenda Blethyn).
The film also shows the awkwardness associated with the stern austerity of the times and how characters steel themselves or rebel against what is expected from them. There is a winning out of the heart and not the strictly sane choices one must make. Beneath its formality and even Judi Dench's awesome and small role as Lady Catherine de Bourgh is a reality that the love of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy (Matthew MacFadyen)must face and overcome. In the end, the story is timeless and a winning formula to make a great film. The adaptation though isn't afraid to shed its starchy inclination to look beneath personalities to reveal the living, breathing thing that is hidden beneath.
FILM Four:Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
The film is pretty much akin to 'American Beauty' in theme and style but 'Sunshine' manages to gather towards a collective likeness of characters and a sympathethic centre. Acceptance here is won the hard way. This is because the Hoover family, despite all their flaws, is pretty damned likable. The scope of the acting brilliantly manages to make this possible. Breslin absolutely shines and there's hardly a female lead that can charge into physical despair as ungainly or quickly as Collette. Kinnear has the look of a man desparately trying to remain calm while his fears slowly consume him.
The most sublime aspect though is the pageant itself. After barely just registering Olive in the show, even Steve realises the error of doing so. The pageant has a talent section but centres mostly on physical beauty. As the decidely imperfect audience claps on their perfect, doll-like girls parading in swim-wear and gowns, "Little Miss Sunshine" hits its darkest cues. When Olive dedicated her dance routine to her grandfather, the emcee asks of his location, Olive matter-of-factly replies that 'he's in the trunk of our car'. Of course grandpa had died the night before of a drug overdose and they had 'kidnapped' the body from the hospital and stored it in the back of the van. Olive hasn't yet learned shrewdness on this level. Sh'e more astute with her competition however: sensing her chance of winning slipping, Olive does an astonishing dance/strip routine to MC Hammer's 'U Can't Touch This' record. The moment, while totally humorous, presents a challenge to so many societal norms and raises impertinent questions but doesnt dwell on them. All these instances involve Olive as the main reason of change but it's a change of idealism for the others, not for her. Her desire to win or at least to be the most competitive she can be finally rips through the crafted fabric of confliction that surrounds her childhood. To this end, all parties directly involved in her life recognise the blame they share and accept it humbly. They realise how confusing their secular actions have been on her all along. The film tries to patch this issue up by having Steve finally choosing to support his kid, and by extension his flawed family unit over his own blinding and selfish ambition. What it isn't able to band aid however is how greatly the damage to Olive has already manifested.
Thursday, March 18, 2010
FILM THREE: "4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days" (2008)
Winner of the prestigious 2007 Palm d'Or, the film which tackles teenage abortion was directed and produced by Cristian Mungiu. Set on the dying days of Communist Romania, "4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days" achieves perfectly what one is to expect from a foreign-language film: a mirror into the soul that links us all. In Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) we are introduced to the thinking mind of a young woman who becomes her friend's (Gabita) only hope out of an abortion. Both actresses shine as naive yet tough-thinking women trapped in a circumstance that is new to them and one that will have dire consequences even if it cements their complicated friendship.
Through it all though, Olitia has grown up and starts to envision a future whereas Gabita retreads into herself. We see the naked truth lurking through actions and Mungiu lays it all on the line in a non-judgmental way. Yet, one cannot watch this masterpiece and view the issue of abortion the same again nor view the grimy contacts and values being eroded as merely essential to build this plot. No, we're witnessing the lives of millions of women around the world and the pain and ultimate personal price being paid.
Sunday, March 14, 2010
Every director dreams of updating their favorite old neglected movies. Universal’s 1941 horror film, The Wolf Man invokes such sentiment for many Hollywood types because the sad tale of Lawrence Talbot has never really stuck despite several recurring features about the character. I’m not sure if this remake is a dream pitch for Joe Johnson (Jumanji, Honey I Shrunk the Kids) because he only got involved after Mark Romanek left the project. Then again, I doubt this matters much to a man who knows how to dumb down any film and make big bucks in the process with one simple formula: bigger, faster, dumber.
We first encounter Lawrence (Benicio Del Toro) as he returns home to Talbot Hall because of his brother’s gruesome death. He isn’t readily recognized by the manservant and his father, Sir John (Sir Anthony Hopkins) eyes him rather suspiciously. Lawrence is also back to meet his brother’s wife Gwen (Emily Blunt) who asks him to investigate the manner of the death. It is rumored to be an animal killing and the locals are frenzied with panic. That is in contrast with the calm of his father’s mansion, which mirrors the state of their relationship: run down and left carelessly attended. Sir John doesn’t outwardly seem to mind the state of things and from the start we almost suspect why. But the state of Lawrence’s mind remains closed to us and, unfortunately, remains so for much of the film.
In the midst of this family strife Lawrence becomes the victim of a wolf bite and the indifference that the town was treating him with turns into outright aggression. Only his noble family name keeps them in check but finally, after much tension, his father yields and he is locked up for fear he will become a werewolf when the moon is full. Here the film encroaches upon classicism by in one hand having Sir John defend his son then in another betraying him to psychiatric evaluation. In this interplay, Sir John is in control up to the point where he visits Lawrence in his cell and, finally, reveals all. It is a calculation meant to break his son’s mental resolve but The Wolfman literally lets off its leash when it doesn’t. This leads into a series of events that begin with the obligatory beast transformation scene. It’s neatly done with ghoulish effects but once Lawrence is away from any moral constraint we begin to lose interest in him. He becomes that monster, an uncouth beast that strays away from the classicism that he was brought up in.
This leads to what sinks The Wolfman: its determination as to when Lawrence should exude bestial behavior and when he should not. Johnson doesn’t patiently dwell on either scenario though because there is action to dish out. And, sure enough, there is no other type of night in the village so we get to rush straight to all the gore and heavy innuendo. And, as no one apparently remembered that there was a man-killing beast before Lawrence got bitten, the lack of awareness of the townspeople plays out expectantly. This doesn’t include the Gypsies though, who, of course, get the xenophobic blame.
This being a Joe Johnson film, The Wolfman swerves into patented goofiness instead of blossoming into an adult thriller. The writing of the film—courtesy of David Self and Andrew Kevin Walker—is shockingly wooden. This is disappointing because both are responsible for two good films that The Wolfman tries hard to be all at once: Road to Perdition and Sleepy Hollow. There are shades of Poe’s novel, The Fall of the House of Usher thrown in as well. A lot of this feels like filler though, especially the scenes where townspeople are involved because you already know they’re not integral to the plot. Lawrence’s beastly destruction is expanded emptily upon them. So as they flee before him--ensnared in his pointless rage--we patiently wait for the inevitable outcome.
Which-- when the film finally centers on it, starts to unravel tangibles that go beyond the average horror flick. The film builds upon the issue of familial tension but once there, Johnson leaks the air out with less-than-convincing gaffes as well as Lawrence’s psychological issues. Benicio Del Toro doesn’t translate well into this character. Here, buried under Thriller-like make-up, we don’t feel his torture. Neither can Hopkins light any spark with scenes involving other characters. As Gwen, Emily Blunt is a fresh revelation. She is easily the most believable character trapped in the dire circumstances here. She stands between the family and sure ruin, eviscerating pain superbly as a woman grieving for a dead husband while battling growing sexual tension for his brother. The final scene, when his need literally has caught up to her own, is cheese-free only because of the silent terror Blunt is able to convey with her painted face, giving greater credence to the terror that courses through her body.
For therein she comes to the pivotal moment of The Wolfman: confrontation with the beast. It is an all-too obvious bloodlust that she realizes must be handled. As the terror creeps up on her incrementally Johnson’s close-ups are far more effective than at any other point in the film, a telling indicator that he’d been plodding down the wrong path all along. As Gwen arrives at her conclusion, Lawrence is ever so gently betrayed again. ‘Look at these eyes, you know who I am’, Gwen tell him as he closes in. The words are empty because the moon is full and her voice thick with resignation and panic. The Wolfman thus revolves around choices and the quickness of them. If his father has realized this at the earliest stage of the film then it is left up to Gwen to arrive to such a conclusion lastly and most decisively. Alas, between both controllers of his fate, Lawrence gets irretrievably lost. So too does the film; no matter how hard he tries to reach out to be included.
Friday, March 12, 2010
FILM TWO: "Gangs of New York" (2002)
Though it's tempting to forget it now the fact is that if this Scorcese effort had landed a Best Picture Oscar then we'd all be singing its praise. Nonetheless, time has been kind to its vision. Sure, the design now seems a bit cartoonish and the writing scripted too tightly for significance but amid all this lies some of the best acting done by all principals involved. Jack Nicholson may have cost Daniel Day-Lewis an Oscar but as Bill Cutting he is in his element...it's a seminal performance. The ever excellent Jim Broadbent plays the sleezy politician (Mr. Tweed) and even Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz shine uniformly.
Of course, this is a Scorcese film so it questions its own motives even as it invites examination of 19th century America: what is stood for and how it went about achieving its immortality. As well as how quickly all that can be dissolves in the space of a mere few minutes.
Monday, March 8, 2010
A superb Disney/Pixar animated film that juxtaposes smart, innovative (art) direction with a big heart. The story centers on Remy, a rat who can cook. He learns the culinary art among other things from Gusteau, a famous French chef who returns from the grave to inspire Remy when he becomes separated from his colony and washes up under Paris, near Gusteau's once-famous restaurant. Remy sneaks into the restaurant and eventually helps Linguini transform it into the toast of the city again.
Under Brad Bird's superlative direction every scene gives way to another breath-taking one, especially those of Remy avoiding detection in the restaurant and while being chased by the dastardly de facto chef, Skinner. Bird takes us on an enthralling journey that forgoes the usual sentimental approach while maintaining a firm story. It's effective with both dramatic and comedic moments. The best scene no doubt features the self-important critic Anton Ego, brilliantly voiced by Sir Peter O'Toole, who literally gets an eye-opening meal that takes him back to warm memories. As his pen falls to the ground in slow motion, the moment is superbly documented for us to be at one with his joyous surprise