Thursday, April 10, 2014

Stanislav's Top 10 Movies of 2013

This is part of our 2013 "Year In Review" series, where our contributors get to share their favorite movies of the past year. Today Stanislav is checking in to give us his picks. 

1. The Act of Killing 

Definitely the best movie of the year and of the last several years, in fact. The movie that has possibly made me think more than any other one. It is not an easy watching experience, but an extremely enriching one. Halfway through I was wondering why I did not quit, but I am grateful I stuck to it. The plot is revolutionary in itself, a concept Kiarostami only dreams of. It is about a bunch of gangsters (or as they call themselves “free-men”) re-creating the killings against the “communists” in 1965-66 after the military coup in Indonesia. These killings (which were partially ethnic cleansing of the Chinese) took the lives of possibly several million people. The killers in this movie boast of having killed at least a thousand. They are given free rein to stage the torture sessions and murders as if they were in their favourite movies, be they westerns, gangster movies, etc. All through the movie, I was hoping for it to be some kind of satire, for it not to be real, but I knew all along that it was. The horror of this movie is not that it shows us a dark part of humanity’s history removed from us in time and space. What scared me so is that it allows us a glimpse – and a very personal one at that – into what it is like to be a person killing others for ideological reasons (or often for no reason at all) without questioning himself. Because it is clear that these people did not question, not until this movie at least. It explains so much of the horror committed in our world. But the movie goes further than this. It not only shows us, but staging these scenes allows the “actors” to see themselves, if only a little. It does more than I could imagine art doing as a meta-tool for self-reflexivity. Hegel’s remark that evil can also reside in the very gaze that perceives the world around it as permeated by evil comes to mind, and on so many levels. What is evil? What role does the gaze play in it? Only one thing remains clear to me: we all need to ask ourselves these questions. Everything else in my world-view was turned upside down by this film. Required viewing for everyone. Should be made mandatory in high school in my opinion.

 2. Her

The reason it is difficult to make science-fiction movies today is that they can no longer follow the structure of the old science-fiction flicks. And it is also why the few that succeed are very original. Her is a love-story between a man and his operating system. It is first and foremost a wonderfully acted, shot and edited emotional romantic movie. While discussions of technology’s effects on our ability to socialize are all the rage, this movie does not get bogged down in simplistic for or against arguments. It seems to not judge at all. It simply documents life as it… Not as it will be, but – really – as it is already. The slight exaggeration of a clearly delineated artificially intelligent ‘entity’ falling in love provides us with the ability to look into an interpersonal relationship as if from outside of a conventional relationship. But just as in Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land – where through the eyes of a biologically human being raised on Mars we are allowed to observe human civilization – the main character is ultimately human, the relationship we see in Her is ultimately an interpersonal relationship in general, because we can no longer easily tell where the biological ends and the technological begins. Thus, granted the viewer accepts the premise, which I had no trouble doing, the rest of it is a very realistic depiction of life after the zero-point of radical transmutation of humans’ perception of the world around them as well as of their interactions – an apocalypse if such a word may be used, an apocalypse we are living at this moment. Without giving anything away, let me just say that it appears to me that Jonze wanted to use the operating systems in his film to show us where we can go, what abilities humans have.

3. The Great Beauty

The Great Beauty is a 21st century version of Wild Strawberries, but without being Bergman-esque in any way. It is about a man getting on in years who has the opportunity not many get to look back at his life and reflect. And like Dr. Isak Borg, our main character seems to regret the life he has lived and is continuing to live. Yet, the movie is definitely a comedy. It laughs at itself, laughs at its characters, laughs at its style. It is the ultimate art-house movie, but goes beyond this even and criticizes art-house. The director did a wonderful job, the dialogue cannot be improved upon, but what touched me most was the reflection upon the pursuit of beauty. The main character, who Servillo does a wonderfully funny job playing, is under the impression that he failed in this life-long pursuit of the great beauty, and although it is a shame he is not conscious of it, I believe that he is wrong.

4. Blue Is The Warmest Color

This one needs no introduction as it has taken countless prizes including the Palme d’Or. It is a simple and very well-told story of love and its decay. I think it could have been a little shorter than the three hours it runs, but pinpointing what could have been cut is very difficult, as each scene, especially the mundane ones, allow one to feel as if present alongside the characters. I did not especially identify with either of the characters, but I certainly felt what they were feeling. This was also due to Exarchopoulos’ sublimely engrossing acting. She certainly has an illustrious career ahead of her. Moreover, she was a great choice for Kechiche’s exploration of female sensuality (the shower scene among many is a visual masterpiece). While the sex scenes seemed a little over the top, I must remember here that I am a prude, and ultimately, I would not have changed them, because they are unique in cinema’s depiction of sex (be it same-sex or not). Finally, I am a sucker for powerful endings, and this one was both powerful and restrained at once, the restraint only serving to enhance the potency.

5. The Past 

Expectations were set very high for Farhadi’s new feature after A Separation. The Past does not deviate far from what we have grown accustomed to from him. No other director can make such a gripping mystery out of a family drama. This one is about what awaits an Iranian man when he comes back to France to sign the divorce papers after having not seen his ex or her children in years. However, it is not so much about him. The characters all take a back seat to the intertwined connections between them. It reflects wonderfully (for lack of a better word) a love that is simultaneous with frustration. A perfectly told story that pays careful attention to the details, such as moving supporting child acting, sets (and weather) that reflect the characters’ states of mind, and just-under-the-surface contemporary political undertones.

6. Inside Llewyn Davis 

The Coen brothers did something slightly different this time in my opinion. Like some of their best, a first viewing leaves you satisfied and not much more, but then with time you find yourself often thinking about the movie and anticipating a re-watch. This was a musical/comedy where a folk singer in early 60s New York shows us the inseparability of (mis)fortune and the choices we make. Llewyn’s bad luck does not surprise us once we get to know him a little, but the choices he makes steering him away from even a possibility of happiness do. For its duration, the film teeters on the edge of hope and despair. When Llewyn picks up his guitar and sings, our hopes are renewed, but we are quickly reminded that despair suits him better. The musical scenes are powerful. Oscar Isaac is a great singer. The cast is delightfully quirky (Goodman, Phillips, Driver and the rest all do wonderful jobs of portraying weirdoes). Inside Llewyn Davis just might not be fully appreciated until a couple of decades down the line.

7. Blue Jasmine

Another black comedy about exasperatingly down on their luck Americans. This one by Woody Allen. His other recent efforts have disappointed me considerably, but he has redeemed himself yet again with Blue Jasmine, the story of an East Coast socialite snob (Cate Blanchett) who – after her exceedingly rich husband (Alec Baldwin) is caught, sent to jail for his fraudulent financial activity and commits suicide while inside – goes west to stay with her floozy trusting hippy-esque sister appropriately named Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Jasmine has always disapproved of Ginger’s lifestyle, and continues to do so, even though the ground she thought was beneath her own feet is now obviously inexistent. Blue Jasmine is a portrayal of the sad consequences of people deluding themselves with notions of security and self-importance, and a very serious Cate Blanchett delivers a convincing performance embodying that delusion.

8. Frances Ha 

Frances (delightfully played by Greta Gerwig) is in some respects the modern female version of Llewyn Davis, although as cheery as he is gloomy. She also differs from Llewyn in that she does not have one anchor in her life (Llewyn’s music). She has no anchors, in fact. Frances represents so many young (but no longer so young) people I know today, the ones that believe they are younger than they actually are or younger than the world sees them. She is someone that probably never had a responsible adult ever take her by the hand and show her the ropes, and it is most likely almost too late for that now. What is beautiful about Frances is that despite her naivety (or perhaps rather because of it), she is exceedingly charming and upbeat. This charm does her no good, but it warms the audience’s heart. Frances Ha reminds us of two young Americans to watch: the very original director Baumbach and the enchanting actress Greta Gerwig.

9. Mud

After Take Shelter, Jeff Nichols showcases his diversity by delivering another complex Americana in Mud. It is about two young boys from poor Southern families who search for love and the truth and think they have found someone who will guide them in that search in Mud (played by Matthew McConaughey), a man who is hiding in the woods, seemingly from the whole world. As the film unfolds, and we learn a little about Mud, it turns out that he may actually not be the best guide for the boys, but they take their lessons as they can. Contrasted with the “wisdom” Mud tries to emulate is the wisdom of another character central to the film and its mood:  the river around which all of the action takes place. The river connects everyone and everything and yet also seems to be of another world. In Mud, Jeff Nichols has succeeded in telling another great story filled with symbolism.

10. Stranger by the Lake 

The Certain Regard directing award in Cannes went to this movie, which is usually a sign of something innovative. I failed to do my research before going to the theatre for this one, so let me warn you. There is lots of very graphic man-on-man sex, but as long as it is not a total surprise for you, the sex scenes actually add to a certain raw suspensefulness. Just do not watch it with any squeamish homophobes. The plot is very simple. It is about Franck, a young man looking for love, who finds lust on a summer beach in Michel, a man he witnesses drowning his lover. It would not be completely true to say that fear was the turn-on, and yet, Franck (played by Pierre Deladonchamps, who won the Cesar for most promising actor) continues to see Michel. At 97 minutes, it is a short movie that nevertheless feels like it takes its time to unfold, and I, for one, went from being slightly bored to being on the edge of my seat scared as hell. The last several minutes I must have been holding my breath too, because I distinctly remember breathing out as the credits started rolling. If you are looking for an uncomplicated thriller, and are not afraid of gay pornography, see it.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Nymphomaniac: Volume One +Two

You've really got to hand it to Lars Von Trier, every time one of his movies come out a sudden, intense, stifling conversation happens with all cinephiles. There's those who revile his work and find it pretentious, mean-spirited, gruesome and then there's those like myself who find his made to shock-frustrate-ponder style to be absolutely brilliant when it does hit the spot. Von Trier isn't perfect, he's made his fair share of duds but the core of his filmography (Breaking The Waves, Dancer In The Dark and Melancholia) is the stuff that dreams are made of. In fact, Von Trier is at his best when he makes us suspend our disbelief and dreams big things. The grotesquely dark song and dance numbers in "Dancer In The Dark" or the end of the world planet collision in "Melancholia" vividly come to mind. Here's a filmmaker that wants us frustrated and hating on him, just because it turns him on.

With all that being said his latest is a 4 hour epic about Nymphomania, more specifically a Nymphomaniac played by the ever so reliably brilliant Charlotte Gainsbourg who's become a sort of muse for the director with this being her third straight collaboration with Von Trier. You really got to hand it to Gainsbourg, the positions -sometimes literally- Von Trier puts the female actresses in his movies would probably not be accepted by many. I mean after all, wasn't it Bjork that decided to retire from acting after having to endure a -now- legendary feud with the director. Bjork was even quoted as saying “He needs a female to provide his work soul. And he envies them and hates them for it. So he has to destroy them during the filming. And hide the evidence.” Those aren't rose colored words folks, but they might explain the way Von Trier operates. All of his films have dealt with a female leads put into the most harrowing and inhumane of situations.

'Nymphomaniac' is really no different. Split into two volumes, with the first one already out and the second one coming out on friday, the films are an absurd series of sexual vignettes that only promote the harsh, frustrating style we've come to know from Von Trier. Gainsbourg plays Joe, a self diagnosed nymphomaniac that in both volumes recounts the erotic experiences she's had the last three decades from troubled, horny teenager to disturbed, criminally minded adult. It's a heavy voyage that justly needed to get split into two. After the first chapter ended I was happy I didn't have to sit through another 2 hours of tormented sexuality, I however happily dove into the second chapter a few days later but came out feeling the same way. It is probably how Von Trier intended to make you feel, downright dirty and wanting to take a shower immediately.

I know there are quite a few film fests that have screened the -now infamous- 5 and a half hour cut Von Trier intended to release worldwide, to which I say thank the heavens we didn't get tortured into that one and some sane studio head decided to split the film in half. Of course, I know quite a few people that would have sat through the entire damn thing but did they really know what they were getting themselves into? Of course I'm acting like the two Volumes are disastrous, which they are not, it's just that I'd like some sort of justification to be made for such a film with such little subtlety to be this long. I guess the answer lies in the fact that we are dealing with a director that is as explosively unpredictable as the characters he writes for the screen.

Both volumes have brilliant moments, one of which comes courtesy of a 10 minute acting lesson from Uma Thurman herself - a scene typical of Von Trier in its distressing, brilliant uncomfortableness. Another very funny one involves Gainsbourg, frustratingly not able to orgasm anymore, deciding to pick up two African guys who don't know a word of english and having sex with them. There are many other flashes of brilliance from Von Trier throughout both volumes but one wishes that he could have maybe taken the best scenes from both volumes and made one good 2 hour movie out of it. The subject matter and story are just not worth the 4 hours of investment and the feeling of excess is very apparent throughout the running time.

Monday, March 31, 2014

"Under The Skin" changes cinema in 2014

Jonathan Glazer's "Under The Skin" comes out in a week. It will polarize people, anger them, frustrate them. Others will get blown away by its vision and call it brilliant and say there hasn't been anything like it. If that's your type of movie then by all means go ahead and watch the film, because it is my type of movie and ever since I saw it more than 6 months ago I couldn't get it out of my head. It did cause the most walkouts out of any movie I've ever seen, and that's saying a lot, but again aren't you intrigued? I do think Glazer does push it a bit too far at times, testing our patience, but most importantly we get rewarded with a picture that is visionary and extreme in its uniqueness.

Much press will be made about how naked Scarlett Johansson gets in this picture, so I will come out and lay it to rest and state that yes she does get naked and yes it is needed for the kind of story that is being told here. One about seduction, humanity, extra terrestrial life etc. Have I lost you yet? I hope not.   Johansson is an alien sent to earth to seduce as many men as possible into her car and then kill them. The repetitiveness of the film's narrative might have turned off many but i had a blast watching Glazer's film. Its originality and absurdity is what I liked the most about it and of course Johansson who is just perfect for the part. She's had a real comeback of sorts lately with this and her voice work in "Her", indie queen in the making perhaps? maybe that's pushing it a bit too far but I like what she's been doing with her career of late and I do hope it continues the way I think it will.

What Glazer has accomplished here is quite remarkable and shouldn't be forgotten. He's made a picture that defies all cinematic conventions and has reinvented a new kind of language. He showed real promise with his first film "Sexy Beast" back in 2000, a cerebral and intense film that paved the way for Ben Kingsley's best performance. He followed it up with "Birth" which was kind of all over the place and not as successful as I wanted it to be and now he's really surprised me with this one, an out of left field vision that will really put many people off guard. I don't know if I've actually managed to convince you to see this film and I didn't really want to reveal too many details because a) there isn't so much to reveal plot-wise and b) whatever that needs to be revealed shouldn't really be revealed if you want to fully experience this film for what it is. After reading what I have to say about "Under The Skin" I think you'll figure out if this picture is for you or not.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Wes Anderson's world in "The Grand Budapest Hotel"

Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel" comes out with a storm of expectations. The 9pm showing I went to on the weekend was packed with 800 people waiting to see what his next quirky vision would be like. Suffice to say he didn't disappoint the least bit with this new one. It's not just the distinctive visual and narrative style that makes this an incredible achievement, it's also the fact that he has infused his obsessive dollhouse-like world with real heart and passion for character. Moreso than usual, something I haven't seen from a Wes Anderson film since quite possibly "The Royal Tenenbaums" back in 2001. It helps that the film is anchored by a remarkable Ralph Fiennes performance -maybe the best of his career?- a theatric yet compassionate performance that is filled with depth and persuasiveness. To mention Fiennes as a Best Actor contender this early in the game would be foolish and understandably irresponsible but he is so good in "The Grand Budapest Hotel" that it would be a real shame if he gets forgotten amidst the October-December awards shuffle of contenders.

It's not just Fiennes, the entire cast is uniformly good, as expected with any Anderson film, he even finds the time to sneak in long time collaborator Bill Murray for 10 minutes. It's just that kind of movie, one where anything goes and the fun comes in watching the director perform a balancing act with his odd narrative structure. And what a balancing act it truly is. In fact, in this and every other picture of his the story itself is only secondary to its execution. Anderson juggles three different timelines and eras and plays around with the assortment of characters he has created in his little dollhouse. From the fake sets to the lightning quick camera angles, to the OCD-like attention to detail, his movies are not for everyone but those willing to give Anderson a chance might get rewarded.

What I like best about Anderson's films is how they get better with each subsequent viewing. This one is no exception, the attention to detail and the uniqueness of it all will most likely make secondary viewing as essential as any of his previous films, particularly "The Fantastic Mr Fox" and "Moonrise Kingdom" which at first seemed distant but slowly revealed themselves as fantastic art by looking closer. Which is why having a final opinion on "The Grand Budapest Hotel" after one viewing is just not fair to its creators and to the film itself. There is a lot to digest upon first viewing and I find that with Anderson, moreso than any other director working today, watching his films a second time plays an essential and integral part in understanding his language and body of work.  What I do know is that this is probably the first great movie of 2014 - anything else of high quality come out?

Monday, March 17, 2014

a few mini reviews

★★1/2 (R)

I had a few problems with last year's "Prisoners", most of which having to do with its pacing and its total resemblance to most of David Fincher's filmography. It was as if director Denis Villenuve was trying to out-Fincher Fincher, which we all know is impossible. Nevertheless the film was interesting and so well shot by Roger Deakins that it earned him another Oscar nomination. Being a big fan of Villeneuve's previous pictures - especially the Oscar nominated"Incedies"- it still came off as a major letdown. Of course "Enemy" which again stars Jake Gyllenhall is a more moody and ambitious picture even if it has one of the more ambiguous and confusing endings I've seen in recent memory. Gyllenhall plays a Toronto professor that finds out he has an exact look alike living in the same city. It’a film very much inspired by Cronenberg but that also lets Villeneuve bring his own voice to the picture. This is smart, sexy, mysterious filmmaking that bites more than it can chew. My personal advice is just go along with it and don't let yourself ask any questions until the house lights come back on. It is another addition to the doppelgänger genre which has existed in cinema since the very beginning with "The Student Of Prague" in 1913.

★★1/2 (PG-13)

It's really no surprise that Liam Neeson is starring in yet another action vehicle, it seems like that's all he's been doing as of late, what's most surprising is that his new film "Non-Stop" is actually not that bad. It's a murder mystery whodunit set on a plane that is relentless in its action, although I could have done without the convulted finale which just had me rolling my eyes in anger. Then again the thrills that came before it were never less than thrilling. Neeson has become a real natural in this game, his tall, imposing, everyday-man presence the right fit for what has become a stalled genre in the movies. The action movie has just not really been the same for, oh I'd say, 20 years? And it doesn't look like Arnold will really make a successful comeback plus don't get me started on Sly who's jingoistic attitude towards the action movie is repulsive at best. Who else do we have? Jason Statham who's limpingly carried the torch since those Crank movies jolted audiences more than 8 years ago. Neeson is in a class by himself: a mature, professionally trained actor with, shock, charisma. In "Non-Stop" he more than takes hold of the screen, he commands it. He plays an Agent that is sent texts by an unknown villain who threatens to kill off one passenger every 20 minutes if 150 million dollars is not deposited onto a bank account. Yeesh talk about a dilemma but all joking aside I'm a sucker for whodunnits and there are plenty of suspicious characters on that plane. It is a real shame that Julliane Moore signed up for this though, she is highly under utilized and it feels like she just doesn't belong here. Dear Julianne, PLEASE stick to what you do best and make movies that invigorate and provoke. In other words just let Neeson do his job alone, ever since he starred in 2008's Luc Besson penned "Taken" -still the best action film he's done-  he's proven he's the best a this game.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Long Take and "True Detective"

"A long take or oner is an uninterrupted shot in a film which lasts much longer than the conventional editing pace either of the film itself or of films in general, usually lasting several minutes. It can be used for dramatic and narrative effect if done properly, and in moving shots is often accomplished through the use of a dolly or Steadicam. Long takes of a sequence filmed in one shot without any editing are rare in films" -Wikipedia

That pretty much explains everything. The long take has long been one of the toughest shots to create in cinema. Firstly it takes lots of precision, a well calculated storyboard and a first class cameraman -amongst other things. Watching Episode 4 of HBO's brilliantly frustrating "True Detective" a few weeks ago got me back to thinking about this legendary cinematic shot. Episode 4 ends With Cohl and a gang disguised as police, trying rob a stash house, shooting one of the residents, and stirring up the neighborhood's inhabitants in the process, resulting in an outbreak of gunfire and chaos. With the actual police on their way, Cohle holds a guy at gunpoint and tries to escape the house and make his way through the projects. This is all done in one continuous 6 minute shot. Brilliantly devised by director Cary Joji Fukunaga and his ace cameraman Adam Arkapaw.

It really is just an amazing display of just how far we've come over the years, in that possibly the best shot of the entire year might come -not from cinema- but from Television. I'll ponder more on "True Detective" once the series ends but for the time being I wanted to delve more into the best single takes I've ever seen. One that comes to mind right away is the opening of Robert Altman's "The Player". The film's opening shot -which took more than 15 takes to nail- lasts for 7 Minutes and 47 seconds. Of course, any female will tell you this, it's not about the quantity but the quality and the quality on this one shot is incredible. A self-referential introduction to the world of make believe, the opening single take sequence to Altman's masterpiece is a formula bending ode to the classic single shot of "Touch Of Evil" (look below). Altman's wonderful analog parlor patter follows the scenery as the storyline unfolds between storylines. Clever quickly turns classic as the film is established something more visual flourish than acerbic satire.


Of course Altman or "True Detective" wouldn't have have been able to perform such brilliant feats without their groundbreaking predecessor Orson Welles' "Touch Of Evil", one of my very favorite films of all time and one of the best directed movies I have ever seen. The film opens with a three-minute, twenty second tracking shot. On the U.S.-Mexico border, a man plants a time bomb in a car. A man and a woman enter the vehicle and make a slow journey through the town to the U.S. border. Newlyweds Miguel Vargas (Charles Heston) and Susie (Janet Leigh) pass the car several times on foot. The car passes the border then explodes on site.

I can't name all of them but I'm only mentioning the ones that have really stood the test of time. Take the complexity of any long take and combine it with a moving vehicle and you get the mesmerizing 4 minute long take from Alfonso Cuaron's incredible "Children Of Men". A specially designed car was used that allowed crew to slip in and out of the vehicle , remove the windshield and replace it, and still get around the entire car as if it were really happening. There have been very few camera tricks as impressive as this one in the last 2 decades of cinema.

If "Touch Of Evil" is the grandfather of long takes then Martin Scorsese's "Goodfellas" is the next generation. Giving us the perspective of being alongside Ray Liotta as he brings Lorraine Bracco to the Copacabana club both propels the plot and the character into the gangster lifestyle. Shot eight times, Scorsese was forced to film this way since the club wouldn't allow them to enter the short way. The result is movie history.

Monday, February 17, 2014

"The Lego Movie"

 Was it Raphael that once said that "art is first and foremost visual"? Whatever the case is, many artists focus upon that which they find visually attractive, intriguing and interesting. As such, it shouldn't be the least bit surprising that beautiful women... the female body... sexually attractive women (or in the case of homosexual artists such as Michelangelo, Donatello, Caravaggio, etc... beautiful men... sexually attractive males bodies) are among the most painted subjects in the whole of art. Sexuality... Eros... the "erotic"... is one of the central themes of all art. If there is a difference in Modern art it is that artists have no longer needed to mask... or "perfume" the erotic/sexual content... to justify it by presenting it in the guise of a Biblical narrative (such as Adam and Eve or Bathsheba) or a Greco-Roman narrative such as Venus and Adonis, Danae, or Diana and Acteon.

All this and I'm about to talk to you about "The Lego Movie", which seems like a highly unlikely candidate to compare with Raphael's quote but it isn't. What directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (21 Jump Street) have given us is in fact a visual feast, of course there's nothing erotic or sumptuous about the images presented but it is a great example of what a modern movie can bring with an imaginative vision and real artists at the helm. Lord and Miller have made a movie so loaded with visual pleasure that it will take 2, 3, 4 viewings to fully grasp every hidden upon hidden visual quirk. In fact the plot of the film gets set aside for the sheer visual pleasure of the movie. You can watch "The Lego Movie" on mute and still enjoy it tremendously, which is not to say the dialogue doesn't work, it does. The jokes have an edge and are bitingly written by Dan Hageman and Kevin Hageman who both share a screenplay credit.

The plot on the other hand is secondary, you're not buying a ticket to "The Lego Movie" to get engrossed, you're going to the theatre to watch visual imagination unfurl in front of your very eyes. In fact if the damn thing weren't so visually arresting I wouldn't have even given a thought about writing this review. All this to say that yes, the glowing reviews this colorfully subversive film has been getting are all warranted. The artistic process here is very apparent and the work ethic clearly shown. What Lord and Miller's brick-blocked world of a film does is accurately and effectively recreate the creative space that is possible in animated movies, but really just movies in general. It's a landmark in animation that might just change the game and that's really saying something.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Phillip Seymour Hoffman 1967-2014

It was really too early for anyone to write such a piece on Phillip Seymour Hoffman, he had so many more years of brilliant acting left in him but alas the man had his demons and they got the best of him in the end. Let that not detract the fact that he was one of the greatest actors we are likely to ever see on screen in our lifetime. A man so engrossed with the characters he played and wholly dedicated to his art that at times he could carry an intensity that scared the living daylight out of you.

As Truman Capote in Capote Hoffman brought forth all the quirks and nuances of the great writer he portrayed. It was to be his only Best Actor win but what a performance, filled with depth and a sense of time/place that is very hard to match in any movie today. He elevated Benneth Miller's movie into an amalgam of fiction, non-fiction, tragedy and repentance. In The Master he fictionalized a Ron L Hubbard type of man and made him humane, caring and understandable. That scene where Hoffman interviews, questions, debates, Pheonix's character is as brilliant as any scene in any movie I've seen in the past few decades. Hoffman could do that.

Those are just examples of his brilliance. The way he took his job so seriously and with such heart, that doesn't come too often in Hollywood. He was a unique talent, an actor for the ages. I always looked forward to his next endeavor and to think it won't happen is a sad thought .

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Lina Wertmuller's inglourious "Seven Beauties" (1975)

Lina Wertmuller's Seven Beauties is an ugly movie. I do mean it as a compliment. Wertmuller is a female italian director who's films aren't the most heartwarming. She has consistently tries to break societal taboos over her long illustrious career, her films not always well received. Seven Beauties is the best film of her career and justifiably made her the first female director to ever get nominated for a Best Director Oscar. Tackling the holocaust, WW2 and Italy's ugly role in this bloody war can be seen as something of a risk given Italy was still in a state of shame for what they had done form 39-45. The taboos tackled by Wertmuller were indelibly cringed in an air of shame.

The main character Pasqualino, playfully rendered by Giancarlo Giannini, is a POW that will do anything to survive in the prison camps. Even if it means sleeping with the obese, ugly and hated Nazi commander. The scene in which he performs sexual favors to the commander is as disturbing as cringe inducing as it is brutally funny. In flashbacks we see Pasqualino's life as a small time hood in Naples. These flashbacks are meant as a way for us to find out how he got into this very situation with the Nazi commander. Pasqualino ends up killing his sister's pimp, then -in an unforgettable scene- tries to find a way to dispose of the body, dissecting it with a chainsaw and placing its parts in a suitcase. Pasqualino eventually gets caught. Pleading insanity he is sent to an asylum where he lives his days frustratingly.

Wertmuller wanted to push buttons with her film. Make people as uncomfortable as possible. She tries to make the obese and ugly Nazi commander as obese and ugly as possible to make us cringe at how desperate Pasqualino truly is. Here is in fact a very desperate man that goes at arms length to get himself out of situations. Another example is the aforementioned dissection of the pimp, a brutally funny Tarantino-esque journey into hell. Wertmuller shoots these scenes with no restraint, she goes over the top purposely and some didn't take to heart her style back in 1975. Too bad, Seven Beauties is a landmark of cinema and clearly inspired Tarantino to re-write WW2  history himself with Inglourious Basterds. 

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Gabby Hoffmann in "Crystal Fairy And The Magical Cactus"

Gabby Hoffmann is so god damn good in Crystal Fairy And The Magical Cactus. Directed By Sebastian Silva, who also made the equally good Magic Magic earlier in the year, the film is one a kind and wholly original. Gabby Hoffmann is stunning in it. She is remarkable in every scene she's in as a free spiritied, zen-like woman who embarks on a road trip with 4 guys who are looking for the San Pedro psychedelic cactus in Chile. We've all met someone like Hoffmann's Crystal Fairy -yea that's her name- and the details she brings to her performance are really just remarkable. Same goes for director Silva who has made a film that deserves cult status in the years to come.

Jamie, as played by a neurotic and aggressive Michael Cera, is a coked-up drug enthusiast that just wants to find the cactus and scratch it off his bucket list. When Crystal Fairy abuptly embarks on his road trip with the guys tension ensues and the mission is almost scratched off. Cera and Hoffmann go at each other head on, Jamie is a nervous wreck meanwhile Crystal Fairy is at peace with herself and demands that Jamie just relax and let the moment seep in. A last minute reveal at film's end wasn't necessary but the rest of the film is incredibly real, all due to Hoffmann's elegant portrayal of hippy personified. In a year of great actresses giving amazing performances (Adele! Blanchett! Gerwig! Delpy!) Hoffmann deserves to be on the short list. Her performance is built to last,

Friday, November 29, 2013

The MPAA, NC-17 and politics

With Blue Is The Warmest Color getting the dreaded NC-17 rating and 50 Shades Of Grey almost destined to nab it in 2014, I was thinking back on some of the most memorable NC-17 rated films since the rating got introduced more than 20 years ago. Before that there was the X rating, which was just as bad and meant for a provocative experience to say the least .. Many of these films didn't even deserve the NC-17 they got. Martin Scorsese's upcoming The Wolf Of Street had to be trimmed down because the MPAA was about to slap it with an NC-17. Yikes. Even a master filmmaker like Scorsese is having a hard time dealing with the MPAA bullies.

Most of the time it has to do with the sex, other times it's .. actually 99% of the time it's the sex. You get Hollywood films where heads get blown off and those movies always get away with it easy, but you have two people having their genitals showing and the MPAA is up and arms over it. Talk about stupidity. I'd rather have my children watch two people having sex than a guy's head getting sawed off -Saw anyone? And then there is debate as to how violent movies are responsible for all these school shooting and mall shooting happening around our neighborhoods. Maybe if those kids were watching people having sex instead of a mindless Stallone vehicle maybe it wouldn't have turned out so bad.

Listen, I'm not for censorship of violent films. I just think it's funny that sex is still a scary thing in the States and that meanwhile out there in Europe there are nude women in bus ads. Talk about societal advancements, those Europeans got it going on. i just find it ironic that for a country that seems to be scared of sex -"oh the children", "GOD is looking down on you"- there really is less of a strict restriction from the MPAA on violent, big blockbuster movies. I mean, how shocking is it to watch a vagina? as compared to, for example, watching a woman getting her face busted in by her boyfriend in The Expendables (an R rated film by the way ..) Slapping an NC-17 rating on a film with sexually graphic scenes prevents some people from watching -for example- Blue Is The Warmest Color, which is one of the best films of the year or last year's underseen but brilliant Killer Joe.

Here are notable films that have gotten the rating since its inception back in 1990.

Bad Lieutenant
Lust, Caution
The Dreamers
Killer Joe
Where The Truth Lies
Bad Education

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Kechiche, Adele and la couleur Bleu

There isn't much that's hidden in Blue Is The Warmest Color. The film's director Abdel Kechiche has taken much heat for not only having his film run more than 3 hours but also for shooting scenes of graphic sex involving his two female leads. It's more than just sex that runs through Kechiche's film but the sex is important. That's one thing I don't think people seem to be getting. Of course Kechiche shoots them in such a sensual, male-gazing kind of way and -yes- he seems to be getting away with a lot (no wonder his actresses said they felt used during the shoot). However I do think these sex scenes represent an integral part of the overall story.

Our two lovebirds Emma and Adele don't have much in common. Emma loves art and hanging out with pretentious-talking artists and doesn't really care about making as much money as possible in life. Whereas Adele -as much as she loves to read and talk art- is more earthbound and finds having a steady job and healthy salary to be of the up-most importance. That's why she pursues her passion of teaching at a daycare. These ideal are reinforced when we get to meet the parents of both young girls, they end up sharing the same common ideals. Adele's parents reinforce the question of yes, art is great but where does one's salary come from if you make it your living. Emma's parents on the other hand love art and don't mind that their daughter is putting it at the forefront of her life.

These two girls have practically nothing in common except for one thing, the lust they have for each other is tremendously intense. Sex drives their relationship. So much so that Emma finds Adele to be a kind of muse for her paintings. That is why I find Kechiche's reason for having such graphic sex scenes not out of the ordinary. Kechiche is trying to show us how these two girls can only connect in the bedroom. Outside there isn't much chemistry. Sure, they talk a lot about philosophy -Sartre!- and literature but one feels like Adele is being forced into these conversations more than passionately seduced by them. 

It is then no surprise that their union ends up fizzling out. Sex can no longer hold it together because at the end of the day it takes more than just passionate sex to make a relationship work. It takes a bond that is more than just about sexual desire. That is where Blue Is The Warmest Color hits its rough patches, we knew the end was coming and that Adele -still immature and baby-faced- would be heartbroken by a relationship that was all style and no substance. 

Crying ensues. The film picks up again once the two girls meet up at a coffee shop to bid their adieux's to one another. No clothes are taken off but the sexual chemistry is still there, Adele licks Emma's fingers and puts her hand between her legs. All this in broad daylight, in front of people. This scene is more sexual and provocative than any of the nudity-laced ones we had seen prior. Emma finds a way to control herself and tells Adele that it's too late. She knows that it takes more than just sex to make a relationship work. Of course, it is an important part of any relationship but Adele and Emma are two different people that somehow ended up in a relationship. Sex held it together. 

The color blue is firmly placed in almost every scene involving Adele. Emma's hair color is blue. From a scarf to the park bench where they have their first kiss, the color is subtly -or for some unsubtly- utilized to evoke the state of mind of her character. She is deeply and firmly in love and the color cannot escape her every move. It isn't up until the breakup that Kechiche decides to replace that color with red to show the vast emptiness that Emma has had on Adele's life. 

In the film's final scene we are in an art gallery at Emma's show, Adele shows up all dressed up and -to my eyes- not really sure why she is there. It is clear that Adele wants closure but how to get it. She sees Emma's circle of friends, her new girlfriend and the pretentiousness that reigns all around the room. That is more than enough for Adele to finally find closure. She knows this world is not for her, she is more than happy with her job teaching kids. In fact, just like her own self, she has graduated to teaching first graders. A subtle indication that she is growing up just like the kids she is teaching. A final shot of her walking away from the gallery is all we really needed to see to know she will be alright. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Dallas Buyer's Club

The physical transformation Matthew Mcconaughey succumbs to in The Dallas Buyer's Club is one for the history books. Forget about the more than 40 pounds the actor had to lose to portray Ron Woodroof and think more of the way he completely delves into the mannerisms and tics of a homophobic, female loving, bigot that finds out he's HIV positive and has 30 days to live. That's what happened to Woodroof in 1985, just as the disease was taking its toll on not just the population but -SHOCK- Hollywood as well. In the early moments of the film lone star cowboys gather around the back shed of a rodeo to see the headline in the paper which reads "Ron Hudson dead of AIDS". Not many people wanted to believe it was AIDS that killed one of the most masculine actors Hollywood ever produced.

Woodroof wasn't a saint. In fact he was the complete polar opposite, a man so bigoted and endowed with his radical principles that even after the doctor tells him he's dying of AIDS he blatantly responds "I ain't no queer". So the story goes, Woodroof eventually realizes that he does have AIDS and is consequentially rejected by friends and co-workers. What must a man do next? That's where the story gets interesting. AZT was the big drug of the moment to combat the disease back in the 80's. The FDA was making clinical study after clinical study to look at the effects the drug had on AIDS patients throughout the country.

Woodroof tries it and finds his illness worsening. From there on in he travels to places as diverse as Mexico, Israel, Japan, China and Sweden to find the latest breakthroughs in medicine to combat his HIV -and others in the process. Opening up a Dallas Buyer's Club inside a rundown motel room gets Woodroof going and sets up a chain of events which eventually make him one of the top black marketers for AIDS medicine. The FDA obviously disapproved of his actions. Set out legal lawsuits against Woodroof to put a stop to his rebellious ways.

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, the film has a gritty, docu-drama feel to it. The momentum it builds up in its first half can however not be maintained in its second half. cliches come to Valee's film at a furious pace, so does the presence of Jennifer Garner who's vastly underutilized as a doctor that defies her peers' orders and backs up Woodroof's case. What makes this film are its performances. Jared Leto as a transvestite that becomes Woodroof's partner is a standout. But it's Mcconaughey, skeletal and gaunt, that gives us a fearless, impassioned performance that can be qualified as artfully resonant. He deserves every award that is coming his way. He has never been better.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

A little note

Sorry for the lack of posting in the last few weeks, my hands have been pretty full of late but I plan on catching up with you very soon. I have still managed to catch up with a few goodies at the cinema and will tell you all about them in the coming week or so. 2013 is shaping up to be one hell of a movie year.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Better late than never; My Top Moves of 2012

1) The Master

P.T Anderson's masterpiece is almost unexplainable. A reinvention of the cinematic language with a never better Joaquin Phoenix. The backdrop is scientology but that's only the backdrop for a much more complex movie. Some of the time I was wondering what exactly was happening on screen yet I was never less than riveted. Bold, innovative and infuriating, "The Master" is a landmark movie but one that will likely divide its audience in half. Too bad, I was hypnotized by almost every single frame of its puzzling, schizophrenic narrative.

 2) Zero Dark Thirty

Forget about the Bin Laden raid which ends the movie. What counts in Kathryn Bigelow's film is how they actually got to the most wanted man in the world in the first place. The procedural work rivals that of "All The Presidents Men" and "Zodiac" but unlike those films feels current and relevant to its time. A great performance by Jessica Chastain infuses every frame and Bigelow, a great action director, proves her worth once again after her excellent "The Hurt Locker". What she does here is just tremendous.

 3) Killer Joe

William Friedkin's "Killer Joe" got the dreaded NC-17 rating upon its release. Rightfully so, a lot of the stuff we see is quite honestly shocking, especially its disturbing finale, which blurs the lines between good and evil. Matthew Mcconaughey is scary good as a crooked cop that rivals Harvey Keitel's pervert in "Bad Lieutenant" in a performance that will be talked about for years. Friedkin directs  with flair this tale about the dark side of humanity and how far we would go for the sake of greed. If you want to get provoked, just like all the other films on this list, seek this one out.

4) The Dark Knight Rises

Forget about the flaws -which includes an unworthy twist near the end- Christopher Nolan's conclusion to the greatest superhero trilogy ever told has many high points and an ending that satisifies the epic 8 year journey. Part of the problem people had with the picture was how unrealistic it was. I wouldn't consider putting the words realistic and batman in the same sentence, so why complain? "The Dark Knight Rises" was as close to a movie event blockbuster as we got in 2012 and even if it didn't meet the expectations set up by The Dark Knight in 2008, it came pretty close to matching that noir masterpiece.

 5) Prometheus

Ridley Scott's prequel to his "Alien" is the kind of movie I love. Filled with ambitious ideas about creation "Prometheus" can be seen as a great bookend to last year's "Tree Of Life". It is a deep, satisfying, visually rewarding experience. It asks questions that most filmmakers don't dare to ask and is acted and directed in such high fashion. I just wish Scott would forget the idea of making a sequel to a movie that asks us questions and dares to not answer them by letting us ponder it through long after the movie's end.

6) Looper

Joseph Gordon Levitt stars in director Rian Johnson's science fiction tale about loopers, time travel and murder in an original and visionary mind bender. Following it might be a mind fuck but the high that comes out of it is contagious. This is a brilliant movie experience, its an wholly original and entertaining idea, writer/director Johnson has managed to successfully transpose to film without, it would appear to a layman, pressure or interference from external sources.No matter how much of a good time you will have watching this film (and you will), Hollywood could stand to learn much more from it.

7) Rust And Bone
8) The Sessions

Here are two fantastic films that deal with sex in two very different ways. Hollywood, pay attention you migth learn a thing or two about real human interraction.

Marillon Cotillard excels as a woman that loses both her legs but still ends up finding love in the form of a mixed martial artist. Director Jacques Audiard proves that "Rust And Bone" was no fluke by making a hard edged film about tragedy, love and forgiveness. The sex here is frank, real and unflinching.

Who says paraplegics can't have sex. John Hawkes and Helen Hunt make a fantastic team in this true life story about a middle aged paraplegic that wants to experience sex for the first time and decides to hire a sex surrogate to fullfill his needs. "The Sessions" is sweetly rendered and never mocks its subject matter.

9) Moonrise kingdom

It took me a few viewings to fully grasp director Wes Anderson's small scale masterpiece. Just like any of his other films ("The Fantastic Mr. Fox","The Royal Tenenbaums","Rushmore") a second -or even a third- viewing of "Moonrise Kingdom" is mandatory to fully appreciate the little details that infuse every frame of Anderson's film. Story is secondary to the atmospheric 1960's world Anderson creates from scratch. His eyes and ears to detail are what makes him so damn good at what he does. Some may complain Anderson hasn't grown and matured in style over the years but I'll take his whimsical vision over most other so-called filmmakers.

10) Skyfall

For a film that happens to be the 23rd installment in a movie franchise that was supposed to run its course a long time ago, the latest James Bond thriller Skyfall is a surprisingly original treat. Daniel Craig's third outing as 007 is unlike any Bond movie we've seen before. It looks back on the first 50 years of Bond, then shows him to us again in a new light and sets him up nicely for his next 50 years. Just like Casino Royale the film could use a good edit but some of the scenes stand as some of the very best of the franchise. All credit must be given to director Sam Mended ("American Beauty", "Road To Perdition") and director of photography Roger Deakins.

11. Compliance, Craig Zobel

12. Brave, Mark Andrews

13. 21 Jump Street, Phil Lord

14. Seven Psychopaths, Martin Mcdonaugh

15. Jack Reacher, Christopher McQuarrie

16. In Darkness, Agnieska Holland

17. Haywire, Steven Soderbergh

18. Lincoln, Steven Spielberg

19. Premium Rush, David Koepp

20. Life Of Pi, Ang Lee

21. Miss Bala, Gerardo Naranjo