Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Respire (Breathe) Review


Breathe. Relax. Take a second, it's going to be okay.

These aren't quotes from the film Respire nor are they my message for any of the characters. This is what went through my head during and shortly after the final gut punch of a scene left the screen.

Breathe. Relax. Take a second, it's going to be okay.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is a damn fine film, directed by Melanie Laurent whom, frankly, I had no idea directed at all let alone with this level of confidence and precision. Laurent is an extremely recognizable face for me as she stars in the brilliant Quentin Tarantino film Inglourious Basterds, but she remains unseen here as her work behind the camera is beyond impressive. Respire tells the story of Charlie, a teenage girl who is lonely and severely lacking confidence until one day a girl named Sarah enters her life and everything changes. Their connection is deep and their friendship blossoms quickly, giving Charlie the bounce in her step she so desperately needed. 

Their closeness doesn't last. Their connection falls apart. Their relationship becomes unsettling.

Clocking in at under 90 minutes, there is no such thing as a wasted scene in Respire and my goodness does Laurent absolutely own the material. Her camera moves with beauty and ease and every choice feels so damn right. I could go on and on, breaking down multiple moments to really drive home the fact that I am floored right now by the skill demonstrated by Laurent, but instead I will focus on just one sequence that on face value doesn't feel very complicated, yet for me it was jaw dropping.

I have previously expressed how much I am dazzled by a perfectly executed long take, and Respire features one that immediately ranks among my favorites. The camera is outside of the apartment Sarah shares with her mother and it simply and slowly pans to the left, following Sarah through it as she faces the emotional abuse that apparently is the norm inside those walls. No cuts, no twists or turns, nothing special at all about the way we calmly and methodically move to the left, and that is precisely why this scene is so damn incredible. The flow of the camera makes it feel as if we are being voyeuristic, watching the personal struggles of this girl through the windows of her home, and it's simplicity is powerful and haunting.

An incredible film throughout, capped off by an ending that is difficult to shake off no matter how hard you try, Respire is smart, savvy filmmaking.

Breathe. Relax. Take a second. Sounds simple right?

Is it though? Is it going to be okay?


Monday, March 30, 2015

Insurgent Review

Roughly a month ago I finally caught up with last years new hit young adult dystopian thriller Divergent, and my review can be summed up mostly by my final sentence:

"Divergent is a lukewarm bowl of bland but passable punch, and Theo James is the turd floating in it."

Despite this, I expressed some optimism for the franchise going forward because perhaps the first film was merely serving as a decent but completely forgettable way to kick start something exciting and interesting. Perhaps the talents of Shailene Woodley would be given far more room to shine because in order for these types of stories to work, the material needs a star (Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, for example). Perhaps the character Four, played lifelessly by Theo James, would get hit by a train during the first half of the film.

Addressing these in order: no, no, and close call but no again.

I would be lying if I said Insurgent was a complete failure. Thanks to some really wonderfully realized set pieces and intense action sequences, it delivers the occasional thrill but unfortunately those moments are few and far between, and in a strange way they almost do a disservice to the material. 

What I mean is, in Divergent very little occurred to actually get me enthused, so the entire experience played like one giant blob of mediocre and my expectations for more never rose above a simmer. Insurgent utilizes some fantastic visual effects and decently filmed action and because of this I perked up a bit, thinking maybe, just maybe it was about to go in some compelling directions and get me intrigued for the next entry in the franchise. Not only does it not deliver in this regard, the small amount of good makes the bad stick out like a sore thumb.

Bad acting from some, especially the previously mentioned Theo James. Seriously, I am buying zero of what this dude is selling. The emotions of his character might resonate more if it were played by a tuna fish sandwich. I look into this handsome fellow's eyes and search for any sign of a soul but I come up empty.

Bad casting of the very talented Miles Teller in a role that doesn't utilize any of it, and I swear I have seen Naomi Watts be really good in stuff in the past. Just last year she fit in with the brilliant ensemble of Birdman just fine, a film that went on to win Best Picture, but in Insurgent it felt like she was reading off of a really poorly written cue card. She read lines as if the director was yelling cut when she actually showed some emotion, and then he would inform her of his demands to deliver these words as if she had died a week ago.

Insurgent actually has a few scenes in it that I would describe as being "cool", which is something I couldn't say about Divergent. Despite this, I am giving the second film of the trilogy (or is the last film split into two? Who the hell can keep track of these things anymore?) a lower grade than the first, because outside of those moments of cool is a pile of terribly paced, meandering nonsense.


Sunday, March 29, 2015

Kanal Review

Often times you can get a general idea of the type of film you are about to journey through from the tone of the opening credits, and thus it was clear that Kanal was going to be a pretty gloomy beast to deal with when the first thing we see are overhead shots of destruction and devastation, clearly the result of some sort of combat. What we are witnessing is Warsaw, Poland towards the end of World War II, at a time when the strength of the Polish army is diminishing rapidly as they attempt to fight off the Germans. 

During the first act I was concerned that I was falling victim to a feeling of war film fatigue, because frankly after seeing so many different versions of cinematic combat I have grown weary of battle sequences unless they have something completely unique to deliver. However, I knew I was in for something different, something fascinating, something special when a group of soldiers with no where else to turn decide their last and only hope is to crawl down into the sewer system beneath the city and search for a way out.

The already cramped tunnels feel all the more cramped because director Andrzej Wajda utilizes space as a vital way to create an ominous atmosphere, zooming in tight on his subjects to make us feel just as claustrophobic and desperate as the soldiers feel. The way the sewer is lit makes their shadows dance across the walls in haunting fashion. On a technical level, Kanal is impeccably crafted.

This is an eerie film that balances an intense feeling of realism with moments of flat out unsettling surrealism, like a nightmare that you wake up from and you aren't quite sure if it really happened or not. Despite being nearly 60 years old, Kanal not only doesn't feel hampered down by genre fatigue, it transcended any preconceived notion I had and managed to feel fresh and memorable.


Closely Watched Trains Review

I have this on again, off again relationship with expectations, and the inconsistency is frustrating. At times I enter a cinematic experience with the perfect, measured mindset and it pays off in spades when I walk away from the film feeling far more impressed than I assumed I would. If I wasn't aware of the genre of the work or the general tone of its narrative, I would watch with a totally open mind and be willing to adapt to whatever is thrown my way.

Then we have the opposite side of that coin, when I saunter into the room and expect nothing less than a total masterpiece despite not knowing a thing about the film, which is really strange when you think about it. Why do I assume this? Simply because it resides in the Criterion collection and has a cover image that screams "I'M BRILLIANT!"? Also based on the sliver of knowledge I have, I am anticipating something either darkly dramatic or cleverly comical and I only want a constant stream of one or another in that moment. 

I have had Closely Watched Trains queued up in my Hulu account for some time now and whenever I scrolled past it as an option, somewhere in my subconscious I assumed it was the type of film that would hammer its fists into my soul, a work of intense power and emotional resonance. Finally last night the mood felt just right for such a movie and I knew it was time. The problem is, Closely Watched Trains was NOTHING like I anticipated it to be.

An antiwar film that is far more of a dry comedy than a dramatic punch to the gut, the setting is Czechoslovakia during the German occupation and the focus is centered around a young man named Milos who takes a job at a local train station, a signalman position that the community believes to be the traditional occupation of his family members to essentially avoid having to do hard work. 

I literally has to pause the film after a little bit to take a break, one of the mental variety in order to remind myself that the weird feeling of disappointment I already had hanging over the entire experience was not the fault of the film or its tone, but rather it was mine for allowing falsely created expectations to make or break a piece of cinema deemed important by many others. So with a clear mind and fresh perspective, I sat back down knowing what I was getting into this time and started it over from the beginning, and you know what? Closely Watched Trains is a pretty damn good film.

Still, being honest, the concept of using the struggle of young Milos with sexual impotence as a bigger picture political allegory didn't quite click with me, but I was thrilled that the entire picture didn't tumble down a path of silly absurdity but rather it hit some pretty intense, dramatic moments with force to keep my mind invested in the story. Also, while the tone at times felt off to me and the primary metaphor of Closely Watched Trains may have slightly missed the mark when viewed through my personal lens, I can't help but admire the fact that director Jiri Menzel tried and for many succeeded. It was a bold and fascinating move, to tie the way an entire country feels when being occupied by an enemy to a young man lacking the ability to achieve sexual satisfaction.

A good film that fell short of greatness, but I'm still proud of myself of recognizing my mistake and starting the film over with a more measured mentality. In the past I would have struggled with the work in one sitting and blamed the film for being silly, when in reality it was my own lack of experience with the Czech New Wave movement that plagued me well before I even pressed play.


Saturday, March 28, 2015

A Separation Review

Despite the statistics proving out its regularity in American culture, I know very little regarding the feeling of a marriage falling apart. Growing up I was surrounded by marital success, with grandparents that spent nearly their entire lives together until fulfilling their vow of death do them part and parents that currently celebrate anniversaries worthy of admiration and recognition, and while I can't put any official stamp on my own relationship with my wife, we are approaching a decade since taking that enormous step and I don't see any reason for pessimism regarding our future. 

I was instantly fascinated by the film A Separation not because of the subject matter, because let's face it, a narrative focused on divorce is not exactly ground breaking for cinema, but rather because of something as simple as a static camera and the way it frames its subjects. We look upon these two people from the perspective of a judge as he listens to their arguments centered around their potential divorce and the always bitter battle for custody of a child. Their mannerisms and body language and the way their words are delivered with passion, its impossible not to buy in. Within minutes I had already let my guard down and I ceased to view this man and woman as merely characters living inside a piece of fictional cinema, and this sets the table for the entire experience. We are the judge and we witness the good and the bad, the truth and the lies, and we weigh their actions with our own moral compass.

Often times when I fall in love with a movie, I will gush about its cinematography or I will get lost in the melodic, majestic score, but not so here. It isn't that the film did anything wrong on any technical level, it didn't, but when it all boils down it is the craft of writer-director Asghar Farhadi and the across the board brilliant performances from the cast that have me inspired by its seemingly effortless and flawless execution. When a single person is able to put pen to paper and pour their soul onto the pages, resulting in a screenplay that feels almost too good to be true, and that very same person has such a confident and precise ability to deliver on their vision, it's truly inspiring to watch it all unfold. Prior to this screening of A Separation, I was unfamiliar of the talents of Farhadi, but it was quickly clear I was watching something special and he is obviously the most vital reason as to why.

Every single member of this cast should be applauded for their ability to take the words they were given and not only bring them to life, but do so to such an extraordinary level that you could feel the pulse of every angry exchange, every quiet moment of contemplation, every tear that fell from their eyes. A Separation is bursting with life and realism throughout, featuring characters that are so damn human it practically hurts. Farhadi deals us a fair hand because no bias is shown at any point. We aren't weighed down by an overbearing message or phony, exaggerated characterizations to push our opinions in either direction, but rather we empathize with the very real people on display dealing with very real hardships and its left to our own morality and our own conscience to decide how we might react under similar circumstances. 

A Separation isn't about right and wrong because I never really saw things in such simplistic terms. A Separation is about what it means to be human, to be flawed, to have the ability or inability to love and respect and communicate. A Separation is essential, masterful cinema.


Jauja Review

As I continue to explore fascinating foreign language cinema, the types of work I used to unfortunately ignore, I have found myself constantly puzzled and being forced to sleep on a film before being able to form a coherent thought or two to start my write-up.

In other words, it has been an amazing and rewarding time for me and my understanding of the medium lately, and that continues with the gorgeous new film Jauja. The final frame left the screen and there I was, staring at a spot on the wall as I contemplated what I had just seen. A shit eating grin plastered on my face, I'm sure.

Jauja debuted last year at the Cannes Film Festival and has been seen at other fests and released in other countries since, but it is finally getting its limited release here in the United States just now. I recall catching wind of some very positive word of mouth months ago and being annoyed at just how long it would be before I could see it.

It was worth the wait.

Director of Photography Timo Salminen puts a very unique spin on this film with the way it is framed, using a 4:3 aspect ratio with rounded corners that brought a surreal feel to the entire experience, as if I was watching an old slideshow of moving photographs rather than a film. By utilizing this approach with the landscapes that make up the setting of the picture, the result is an overall haunting and spellbinding enigmatic movie that is difficult to wrap my head around.

A friend and fellow cinema enthusiastic mentioned a similarity to the Australian classic Picnic at Hanging Rock by Peter Weir, which I watched and reviewed for the first time recently, and I definitely could feel those vibes flowing through Jauja. At one point a mangy dog plays an important role as to literally what direction Gunnar (Viggo Mortensen) takes going forward and I couldn't help but notice that it looked like it had walked out of the "Zone" in the Tarkovsky masterpiece Stalker and headed straight for the desolate landscapes of Jauja

I have no idea what previous pictures played a role in influencing this fascinating new work from Lisandro Alonso but it's easy to tell that the lifeblood of incredible work from decades past is flowing through the veins of Jauja. Some may find the languid pacing to be more trouble than its worth, and at times during the first half of the film I will admit it felt as if very little was actually happening, but for me the methodical movements within a frame and the way shots would linger on seemingly nothing all added to the mysticism that I completely fell in love with.

It's early and literally dozens of pictures are still on their way to try and surpass it, but as of right now Jauja is my favorite film of 2015.


Friday, March 27, 2015

The Music Room Review

Satyajit Ray is one of those names that has always been somehow both on and off my radar simultaneously despite his status as cinematic royalty. When I heard his name, various titles of his films would immediately pop into my head, yet I had never pulled the trigger on actually sitting down and enjoying one. The time has finally come when I changed that and The Music Room seemed like a fine place to start.

Exquisitely crafted from start to finish, even with the small sample size of his career achievements I instantly could tell why the work of Ray continues to be so highly regarded to this day. The Music Room tells the story of Biswambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas), a man who leads a lavish lifestyle and he enjoys every bit of it, using the music room in his home to bring people in and inflate his already massive ego. As the culture in India begins to change, Roy is unwilling to adapt and continues to spend his dwindling fortune on this one room, a fleeting attempt to maintain relevance and power while the world around him moves in a different direction.

Unfortunately while much of the film had me completely invested in the world created by Ray, I would at times lose focus when music was being performed, as I expected these to be only brief sequences inside a picture only roughly 90 minutes in length. They were far from brief, lingering on and on and my mind would drift away. However, The Music Room would earn my attention right back in a hurry as what would follow would be perfectly acted, gorgeously shot cinema.

For a long time I kept Satyajit Ray on the outskirts, refusing to let him in. Opening the doors to The Music Room was a wise decision.


Thursday, March 26, 2015

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives Review

Let me start by clarifying one pretty important thing: a have absolutely no idea what Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is about. I have seen a lot of bewildering pictures over my 30 plus years on this planet, and this is at or near the top of the list of being utterly head scratching cinema. 

Despite this, I really, really enjoyed it.

Uncle Boonmee is suffering from acute kidney failure and his days are sadly numbered. What little remains of his life he wishes to spend with his loved ones, including the spirit of his late wife and his son who has been missing for some time, but he returns...as a monkey with glowing red eyes. With them, Boonmee explores his previous lives in a search for answers as to why his time is ending with such an unfortunate fate.

Okay, so I suppose I can't say I have no idea what it is about, that seems like a lie. Clearly the concept of reincarnation is vital to the story, but what occurs along the way is what has me baffled. Director Apichatpong Weerasethakul crafted something enigmatic and completely fascinating here, and being that I am open minded regarding the topics of life, death, ghosts and the possibilities of an afterlife, I was pulled in early by this one and the film never let go.

Rather than becoming frustrated by such unique, confounding cinema, embrace it. I will eventually come back to Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and see if I can start peeling back the layers.


Maria Full of Grace Review

I hear about it flipping through news networks on cable constantly. The drug trade. The war on drugs. The cartel. All of these things are just words to me, at most a sub plot to a dramatic television series as I do not experience anything related to them during my daily routine. It has been over a decade since I have even seen a substance deemed illegal, the hazy days of high school long in the rear view mirror, so what might be a devastating reality for some feels like mere news filler and political talking points to me. It isn't that I don't care, it's a fact of human nature that a person is far less likely to invest emotionally into a world they never physically see.

Over the course of roughly 100 minutes, Catalina Sandino Moreno made me care. In what was her debut acting performance in the lead role as Maria, she successfully brought a sympathetic human face to the concept of using a person under desperate financial circumstances as a drug mule, and it is effectively heartbreaking in the film Maria Full of Grace. With each capsule she must ingest I could feel a strange sensation in my own throat, as the discomfort in her eyes felt so genuine and unsettling.

Writer/Director Joshua Marston delivers an unflinching, believable picture here, but what shined the brightest throughout for me were the performances with Moreno up front and center, the powerful and real face of the film. I may flip through the news channels without a single word resonating, but Maria made me care.


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring Review


For some it is a word that invokes fear, as nothing is worse than being separated from the hectic flow of civilization. For some a city made up of millions of people and towering skyscrapers is something to strive for, an ideal place to reside. 

Not me. The tranquility on display during the film Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring filled me with envy. The picturesque setting was like something I would dream of at night, only to wake up and wish the sandman could take me right back the next time I closed my eyes. In the film, a tiny house floats on a peaceful, secluded lake, and inside this Buddhist monastery is an elder monk and his young apprentice. The story is broken up by seasons, or rather sections of the life of the young monk in training, and it is told in a shockingly peaceful, eloquent manner considering director Kim Ki-duk is widely known for telling violent stories. 

I found it impossible not to be relaxed by the atmosphere and flow of this film, which is both a good and a bad thing. Good because it perfectly suited the intended tone and the lifestyle of the characters, bad because my first attempt at viewing Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring resulted in me falling asleep halfway through and waking up on the couch with neck pain. It isn't that the film is boring, it is anything but, but its methodical nature and smooth style of storytelling plays almost like a sound machine intended on making us drift away on the lake with them.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring is beautiful, plain and simple. It's gorgeous to look at and it is a fascinating way to portray what is essentially the circle of life. I may have fallen asleep the first night, but I couldn't wait to pick it up where I left off when I awoke.


Tuesday, March 24, 2015

No Review

"Based on a true story."

When those words appear on the screen either during a trailer or prior to the start of the film, they carry a lot of weight with them. Whatever follows, no matter how seemingly unbelievable and absurd the story appears to be, the viewer now has those five words lingering in their mind throughout, a reminder that common sense needs to be left at the door because reality is being depicted up on that giant screen. 

Sometimes, though, the true story tag is put on a film that is far more fiction than fact. Sometimes that common sense you were asked to ignore was correct all along, the belief deep down that what you are seeing couldn't possibly be accurate is proven right, and usually finding this out invokes anger in people. 

My question is, why do you care?

Joel and Ethan Coen famously started off their Oscar winning film Fargo with the proclamation that it was based on a true story and then later admitted that it wasn't. They explained that by doing so, they were hoping people would be willing to suspend their disbelief in the story and you know what? It worked, and I think it is was a pretty brilliant move because at the end of the day, the goal is to deliver the best cinematic experience possible, to entertain and enlighten with a story and the characters that occupy it, whether it be completely by the book truth or a work of absolute fiction.

The Pablo Larrain film No depicts the 1988 campaign to remove Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet from office when a referendum was voted on with a simple yes or no answer. Yes means Pinochet remains for another 8 years, no gives the people of Chile a freedom from oppression that they never dreamed possible. Both sides are allowed to air 15 minutes of advertising on television each day to try and sway the vote in their direction, and the film follows a man named Renè (Gael Garcìa Bernal) as he deals with threats due to being at the forefront of the "no" movement.

No is criticized by some for being a highly fictionalized version of what really happened, a perfect example of this being that Renè never actually existed. He is nothing more than a character created for cinema, but why this fact is upsetting to people I do not understand. Perhaps the truth simply isn't as interesting as fascinating lies, and the end result of this film is certainly just that, with top notch performances across the board but especially from Bernal in the lead. He is naturally charismatic and the perfect fit for the role that may, yes, be fictional, but his inclusion is vital in the success of the film.

At first glance I was bothered by the rather ugly look to No due to the quality of camera being used to film it, but as it continued on I realized that it was a crucial factor in making the movie feel authentic. It truly looks and feels as if this was filmed in 1988 when the actual vote took place, and this somehow manages to make the story feel tense and exciting despite the fact that we know exactly how it will conclude from the moment we press play.

No is a well crafted, smart film that serves as both a political drama and also a satirical look at how marketing and the media are able to manipulate people into believing the message they wish to convey rather than the truth. Ironically, this is kinda like the film itself as it distorts reality and tells a more interesting and cinematic story than what really occurred, wanting the audience to care about their fictionalized version of events.

Which, when the end result is this good, is just fine with me.


Monday, March 23, 2015

Grave of the Fireflies Review

Until my daughter was born, my own death was the scariest thing in the world. 

It's a surreal and almost unacceptable concept, the idea of ones own mortality, and until that life changing day back in October of 2007 it was the most haunting and unsettling thought I could have. When I heard her first cry, when I saw her tiny face and hands and feet, when I held her for the first time, nothing was more beautiful and yet terrifying at the same time. She was a person that would live her life in the same world I had occupied for 23 years at that point, a world full of hate and anger and judgement and bigotry and violence. A world where a day doesn't go by without someone committing unthinkable actions to an innocent life simply trying to go about their day, a final breathe taken but unappreciated because in a just world there would be millions more to follow.

I had only known her for minutes, and yet I was more in love than I had ever been before. Any selfish concerns I had quickly melted away, but what replaced them was even more troubling than before. I was literally holding her precious life in my hands and from that moment forward I have been petrified to let my guard down, to let go and leave her vulnerable to an unforgiving world.

Grave of the Fireflies is one of the greatest efforts in the rich history of Studio Ghibli, and that is saying something. Drop the word animated, it's irrelevant and demeans what I am about to say as it is often times looked upon as inferior to live action cinema. Grave of the Fireflies is one of the greatest war films ever crafted, a true masterpiece in every sense. 

Despite the backdrop of war and the fact that its impact on an entire region is central to the story, at the heart of this film is an intimate tale about two kids trying like hell to survive at a time when doing so is challenging to say the least. Hardly a day goes by without the warning sirens echoing through every corner of town, a harrowing sound that forces innocent people to flee their homes in a desperate search for safety. Surrounded by death and dealing with a shortage of food, teenager Seita and his young sister Setsuko may initially just be fictional animated characters but as the story develops they feel more and more human before our very eyes. 

I believe the reason for this is because while they may be a work of fiction, what they represent is unfortunately not. When war is declared, bombs are dropped on general areas taking with them far too many lives undeserving of such devastation. Even if they survive the attacks, the normalcy of their lives and their means to continue on are destroyed. For every bad guy that perishes, the hope and purity of a child is taken from this world and I can't think of anything more heartbreaking. It literally makes me hurt inside, to think of a little girl like Setsuko wondering where her mother is, forced to find any form of shelter to protect her from the outside world. The body of a child falling apart with each passing day without food.

As tears fell from my eyes, I imagined my own daughter under such circumstances, crying out for help with no one there to provide it. The thought destroyed me. I wanted to reach through the television and help Seita and Setsuko as if they were my own. I wanted to remind them just how beautiful the fireflies are to take their minds off of the anguish of reality. Grave of the Fireflies is such a powerful achievement I couldn't even fall asleep for a while after it was over. I was still mourning the loss of fictional characters because somewhere behind their hand drawn artistry stands real people struggling to stay alive.

"Why must fireflies die so young?"

My heart is broken, but my eyes are wide open. Grave of the Fireflies is extraordinary.


Funny Games Review

I wake up on a weekend morning and I think to myself, I need to watch a film. I need something light and fun, the type of picture that puts an extra bounce in my step to carry me throughout the day.

A highly regarded film by Michael Haneke called Funny Games? Sold!

Uh oh.

This is a painfully brutal movie, one that tells the story of a nice, photogenic family on vacation at their cabin and then everything changes after a young man comes to their door and asks if they can borrow some eggs. It's harrowing stuff and while I admire the fact that on so many levels the film works the way it should, as my eyes were glued to the screen and I truly felt the pain of their experience, I would be lying if I said I "enjoyed" Funny Games. I didn't. It lingered in mind throughout the rest of the day, which in this case in not ideal.

I understand and appreciate what Haneke was trying to do here, to make a statement about the way violence is portrayed in society and the inclusion of the character of Paul breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience was clever and interesting, but I still have to separate the two sides of the equation and weigh the quality of the craft against how I personally felt about the whole thing. I still don't feel quite right. 

A good film that I will likely never watch again.


Sunday, March 22, 2015

Picnic at Hanging Rock Review

I used to always seek out as much information about a film before seeing it, under the mindset that prior knowledge would lead to a better comprehension during the experience and thus a more rewarding one.

Lately I have been doing the opposite, knowing nothing but the title at the moment I pressed play and I gotta tell you, comprehension is overrated. I could get used to this.

Picnic at Hanging Rock, a film from 1975 by director Peter Weir, is one that seems to defy any hope of comprehension upon a debut viewing. If you were able to watch this only once and claim to know exactly what was happening at all times, claim to have a complete understand of its thematic significance, I actually don't envy you, I feel sorry for you. The befuddled feeling I had as the story moved towards its conclusion was oddly exciting and instead of feeling like I had completed a journey when it finished, ironically I know I have only just begun.

The year is 1900 and on Valentine's Day, a group of female students and their teachers decide to go on a picnic at a location known as Hanging Rock, but not everyone returns back to the school when some of the girls and a teacher of theirs seem to completely vanish and no one knows how or why. The film almost feels like a dream, a surreal experience that is difficult to put into words, a lyrical and brilliantly crafted picture that almost certainly will get better with age and revisits. 

One part horror, another part mystery, an alluring mysticism and seemingly a whole lot of sexual repression. The recipe that created Picnic at Hanging Rock.


Friday, March 20, 2015

A Hijacking Review

Odds are we aren't going to see a documentary that takes place on an actual ship during an actual hijacking by pirates, right? That seems like a long shot, to happen to be prepared to film in that moment and to be allowed to continue doing so throughout the ordeal. 

Assuming I am right and such a project won't be unveiled in the near future, you should find a way to see the Danish film A Hijacking, directed by Tobias Lindholm, a man who may not yet be a household name but seeing it attached to this got me personally excited because of my passionate admiration for the 2013 film The Hunt, which Lindholm co-wrote. At first glance of the premise you may think to yourself, oh, it's a foreign Captain Phillips (even though A Hijacking was actually released a year earlier than that film). I will be honest, I had the same thoughts, that I was going to witness an action packed intense Somali pirate film in the same vein as the Paul Greengrass work, but A Hijacking is a far different beast than that one.

What really drives the plot here is actually the negotiation between the pirates on board the ship and the company that owns it, which may not sound riveting but trust me, it is. Waiting for the phone to ring, listening to the frustration as the financial stakes offered are vastly different than what is demanded while knowing that lives are on the line, and trying to see a situation like that from multiple points of view. Surprisingly, it is literally edge of your seat cinema as I found myself scooting forward and leaning in, as if I was waiting for life changing news myself.

The reason this film works so well is because of the writing, and I could feel the maturity and discipline of the dialogue and the pacing. While vastly different films in terms of plot and setting, the sensibilities of The Hunt are evident throughout A Hijacking, allowing a natural realism to seep deep into your soul rather than attacking the audience with phony feeling and poorly executed tropes. Everything about this film felt real and because of that, I literally felt a bit shook up and all I could say as the credits rolled was "Wow."

Imagine you are one of the hostages, your life hanging in the balance each day. Not knowing when you can return home and see your loved ones. Your boss says he will do everything he can to ensure your safety, yet you remain in danger for months.

Imagine you are the spouse of a hostage, not knowing if you will ever see the love of your life again. Through your tears you demand answers, as there is no price too high if it means bringing them home. All you hear is the corporate answer, the fact that they can't discuss specifics but rest assured, they are doing everything they can to ensure their safety, to bring them home.

Imagine you are the CEO of the company and your ship is hijacked. The lives of your crew members are in your hands, but you still have corporate interests to take into consideration. Inevitably a ransom will be paid, but for months you play the game to make the number get smaller and smaller, and with each low-ball offer that incites anger on the other end of the phone, you must sit and wonder if anyone has died as a result. With each passing day you must continue to look a spouse in their tear filled eyes and tell them you are doing your best to bring everyone back safe, but can you sleep at night knowing your actions could mean they never come home again?

A Hijacking is crafted so expertly that I was able to see the film from all of those points of view at once. What separates the very good film from the truly great one are the seemingly minor details, a filmmaker who knows when to let a scene breathe and allow the emotions to linger in the air for an extra second or two rather than cut away to something new. 

A Hijacking is truly great.


Thursday, March 19, 2015

Focus Review

Watching Focus when I did, coming off of the cinematic euphoria still lingering from Waltz with Bashir, a film which caused me to gush about how highly I value innovation in filmmaking, didn't do it any favors. This is a movie void of innovation, the type of work that I could have easily headed to the restroom during and not been concerned that I missed anything of importance because frankly, nothing that happens really matters at all.

Do you want to know what aspect really didn't do Focus any favors? It isn't timing, even mentioning that is giving it more credit than it deserves, presenting a fallacy that I could have waited a few extra days and seen it from a different perspective. No, the biggest disservice to Focus is itself. It's a pretty poor film.

While not as laughably terrible, I was reminded of the train wreck of a film Now You See Me from a couple of years ago. Focus attempts to razzle-dazzle you with some fancy con artist scenes in which they are robbing people with ease, which is odd because in actuality it all looks oddly clumsy, but regardless it's all just nonsense and noise to mask a terrible screenplay and an overall narrative that can't possibly carry the weight of a worthwhile dramatic feature. 

While Will Smith is by no means bad in Focus, he also isn't great either. He just sort of is, and despite his top billing he is pushed to the side by the star and saving grace of the film Margot Robbie. Nevermind the fact that she is beautiful, that much is obvious to anyone but on its own that factor isn't inherently enough to make a film more enjoyable. I mean hell, Hollywood is filled with beautiful people that litter the landscape of cinema released every damn weekend. The reason Robbie is the star of this film, much like in her scene stealing performance in The Wolf of Wall Street, is because of the fact that her abilities as an actress make her seem so real and honest, even in a movie like Focus that as a whole feels anything but. I can't wait to see her take on more and more projects that will properly challenge her and show her range.

If it wasn't for Margot Robbie being a constant presence throughout the film, I likely would have fallen asleep. She might be a shining star, but Focus is still a turd.


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Waltz with Bashir Review

How does one quantify the importance of innovation in the world of filmmaking? To some it might mean very little, as a traditionally told story and endless amounts of regurgitated tropes play mighty fine for them, but for me true innovation is something I can hardly describe my admiration for with words. Hell, I even admire an attempt to be bold and daring that ultimately fails because at the very least something fresh and exciting was attempted rather than a director playing it safe.  

Waltz with Bashir is innovative. Waltz with Bashir is bold, fascinating, heartbreaking, surreal yet all too real at the same time. Waltz with Bashir truly is unlike anything I have ever seen, and that is a wonderful thing.

I have gained a reputation at work for being the "movie guy" so I will often times get asked "Hey Scott, what did you watch last night?" as a way of sparking up some small talk. "Waltz with Bashir. It's an animated documentary from Israel." I answered today.

You can imagine the puzzled looks I saw as a reaction, and I can't blame them. An animated documentary? How does that work?

It works. It works so damn well.

Ari Folman served in the Isreali Army during the 1980's and fought in the Lebanon War, yet he has trouble remembering a single thing that occurred during that time in his life. He decides to get together with friends and survivors of the war to try to piece together moments that he has somehow forgotten, or perhaps pushed out of his mind intentionally to avoid the pain of memories. 

Initially it seemed like a strange decision to take such haunting imagery and animate it, and one of the most raw and powerful aspects of documentary filmmaking is the ability to see real people talk about real events or real feelings. To remove that factor might seem like a misstep, but somehow the power and the pain is still there, simmering behind their eyes as they recall the horrifying nature of war. If anything the striking visual style of the animation captivated me in a way that felt totally unique and the result was a soul stirring piece of cinema.

The last few moments of Waltz with Bashir will linger with me for quite some time thanks to an artistic decision that reminds us just how real everything that occurs during the film is, even if we try to trick ourselves into believing otherwise. So how do you quantify the importance of innovation? You don't. All that matters is if what is presented means something to you, if it stirs up that profound feeling when you experience something that stays with you for some time to come. 

When innovation and execution come together as brilliantly as they do in Waltz with Bashir, it's extraordinary.


Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Grandmaster Review

A match made in heaven.

I won't pretend to have a complete understanding of the entire filmography of Wong Kar-wai, but a specific pair of films which he directed are absolutely remarkable achievements. In 1994 he unveiled a special piece of cinema titled Chungking Express and then in 2001 his absolute masterpiece In the Mood for Love, and a familiar face starred in both of those films, an actor by the name of Tony Leung.

When I first heard that the duo would be reunited yet again for The Grandmaster, based on the life story of Ip Man, I couldn't have been more excited. Now that I have seen it, I can't quite put my finger on whether or not I would call the film a success. I suppose it depends entirely on your definition of that word.

Under normal circumstances without entering the experience with such grandiose expectations, I would highly recommend The Grandmaster without hesitation. The performances are terrific, the direction from Wong Kar-wai is stylish and on point, and the Oscar nominated cinematography by Philippe Le Sourd is as lush and gorgeous as expected, like visual poetry, so stunning that it alone practically makes the entire movie a must see.

My problem with The Grandmaster is that it pales in comparison to those films I mentioned above, along with another I didn't include because I don't hold it in the same elevated regard called Days of Being Wild. While the photography along with costume and set designs are masterful, the story itself doesn't really accomplish enough to hold my interest throughout. It sort of methodically meanders and because of this I was using my mind to wonder when the next compelling scene would arrive rather than be entirely invested from start to finish.

So would I still consider Wong Kar-wai and Tony Leung a match made it heaven? Absolutely I would. While flawed, The Grandmaster still achieved plenty enough for me to enjoy it. On a technical level this film was practically handed down from the gods, but the lack of story to match it feels like a missed opportunity.


Cronos Review

Back in 1993, long before he took us on a mystical journey through Pan's Labyrinth, introduced a wider audience to the world of Hellboy or brought his vision of massive Jaeger vs. Kaiju battles to the big screen in Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro released his debut feature film Cronos, a wonderfully unique take on a vampire tale, and thank goodness for that unique factor because honestly, I'm just about vampire'd out at this point.

My relationship with the sub-genre was tedious at best to begin with, and with the popularity that was ushered in from the True Blood series and Twilight franchise I had officially pushed anything involving a vampire off to the side into a category called "Not Interested". Last year Jim Jarmusch and his wonderfully deadpan comedic stylings brought the solid film Only Lovers Left Alive to the table and I appreciated its very interesting take on just how boring it could be to live forever, but rather than a potential revival of my interests it felt like an anomaly.

Thus I knew it may be a challenge to approach Cronos with an open mind, but I reminded myself of two things: Guillermo del Toro has earned enough of my admiration to be worthy of my trust that if anyone could make me entertained by vampires again, it would be him, and that this is a film released over 20 years ago, not just another lazy effort to catch on to a fad before it is exhausted from overkill.

GDT delivered. Cronos is a clever, entertaining gem.

The film tells the story of a man named Jesús Cris, an antiques dealer who happens to find a device inside an old wooden statue of an archangel. Jesús somehow accidentally activates this object and it grabs hold of his hand, doing all sorts of damage by the time he is free of it. Soon after the cravings begin, beginning a transformation for Jesús from a mortal man to a blood thirsty vampire.

I found it interesting to see del Toro making a little girl a central character of the film, much like in his crowning cinematic achievement Pan's Labyrinth. He has publicly mentioned his deep love for the masterpiece The Spirit of the Beehive by Victor Erice and I could feel the influences here again, this time in the shape of Jesús' granddaughter Aurora. Her presence adds an important component to the story, that piece of emotional attached Jesús still has to the mortal world, and his continuing desire to protect her despite his transformation keeps his character feeling rather human despite the fact that his physical appearance indicates otherwise.

As a directorial debut from Guillermo del Toro, Cronos is a pretty great work, a film that really makes you wonder if immortality is all it's cracked up to be.  


Monday, March 16, 2015

Oslo, August 31st Review

In the life of a recovering drug addict, every single day marks an important step on the journey to success. Just making it from morning to night with their sobriety still in tact is something to be proud of, an achievement that cannot be understood nor fully appreciated by those who do not struggle. The sun rises in the east and a pair of eyes open, but rather than being filled with the brightness of optimism and normalcy, those eyes shroud a pain and self doubt intended to be hidden from the world. 

The Norwegian film Oslo, August 31st follows a day in the life of a recovering drug addict named Anders, released from a rehab facility to allow him to attend a job interview. This is a film and Anders is fictional, yet I was openly rooting for his success as he met with the editor of a magazine in hopes of reviving his writing career. I don't believe it was because of any attachment to the character itself but rather the understanding that Anders represents something so much more than a single human life. Anders is every person hoping to turn the corner in life after dealing with a mistake filled past, and nothing is easier to root for than a redemption story.

The interview is going well and the editor is clearly impressed by Anders until he specifically asks about a sizable time gap in his work history, a piece of his life in which the only thing that mattered was the addiction that nearly destroyed him. Anders continues to demonstrate a noble level of honesty by owning up to this fact, only it derails his own confidence and leads to him storming out of the interview. We will never know if the editor would have hired him because of the assumption by Anders that it would ruin his chances. This is a pivotal moment, and its clear things aren't heading in the right direction.

When Anders attends a party that night, he encounters a fair amount of familiar faces and their glances and stares are far more telling than words could ever be. Even though he is fighting to stay on a path to recovery, to repair his fractured life, the stigma cannot be washed off so quickly. How horrifying, to feel so exposed in the presence of people you once called friends, to be judged for mistakes of your past rather than being greeted with optimism for a better future. If you look at the screenshot above, what do you see? At first glance it is a nice moment between a man and a woman, but the context of the movie demands you look closer. Anders is literally surrounded by temptation in the form of alcohol and the failure one feels from seeing a former lover who has since moved on with someone else. The placement of everything in this frame is no accident, and its through these subtle messages that director Joachim Trier strongly conveys the difficulty an addict faces trying to find their way through life without relapsing. 

The more we get to know Anders and his plight, the more heartbreaking his story becomes because it all feels so damn real. I wanted to reach through the screen and grab him, tell him it would all be okay. Remind him that there is still hope in the world no matter how hopeless it seems. Assure him that the sun will come up tomorrow and it will look so much brighter and feel so much warmer if he is able to face it sober. 

It's never too late to start over, to embrace a fresh perspective and move forward in life rather than regret what is behind us, but that is easy for me to say. I don't ever feel the urge to drown my sorrows in a powder or a bottle. I don't know what it's like to see the world through the eyes of someone who feels like the world is collapsing in on them and there is no good way to turn. 

I'm lucky, but there are plenty of people in the world who aren't, and I am sure the profound story of Anders would resonate with each and every one of them. Do yourself a favor and find a way to see Oslo, August 31st and appreciate the smart and sympathetic filmmaking on display from beginning to end. It's a really special film.