Dec 27, 2012

Recent Screening Update

Killing Them Softly (dir. Dominik)
Lacking the poignancy of Dominik's last film, but just as beautifully stylized; lacking the subtlety of that film, too, but compensating with bitter comedy, and an absolutely killer last line. (B+)

Bernie (dir. Linklater)
You wouldn’t know, spending time with these plastic characters, that Bernie is based on a true story. Black tries his best but he can’t wipe the faux sheen from the film's face. (C)

Tabu (dir. Miguel Gomes) (thoughs)
Pure magic incarnate and far and away the best film of 2012. Tabu's enchanting love story and subtle study of post-colonialist aggression puts the audience in a delirious state that's hard to shake off. (A)

Amour (dir. Haneke)
It creeps up on its audience as slowly as death itself. A heartbreaking, disturbingly frank portrayal of everlasting love in the final days of life. (A)

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (dir. Jackson)
A thin children's tale stretched over three unbearably bloated and hideous hours. Repetitive and aimless plotting only strengthens the feeling that Jackson's decision to extend the films to a trilogy is motivated by $$. (C-)

Silver Linings Playbook (dir. Russell) (thoughts)
Glaringly flawed, but directed with verve and acted with passion. Russell oversimplifies mental disorder to quirkiness, but exhibits even greater prowess at touching the heart than he did with The Fighter. (A-)

Anna Karenina (dir. Wright)
Enhanced by Wright's vision and the need to creatively overcome financial restrictions, Anna Karenina is vivid, original, luminous and with the exception of Vronsky, superbly performed. Marianelli's score is the best show. (B+)

Dec 24, 2012

Monday's Words of Wisdom

"Congratulations, Peter Jackson. You are George Lucas."
- Kris Tapley
This will, in all likelihood, remain the most poignant review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey ever written.

Dec 21, 2012

Magic of Cinema in Tabu

Of all the films I've seen this year, Tabu is the only one I'm willing to throw the coveted M word at. Perhaps not coincidentally, it's also the hardest one to write about. I tried at first, but then gave up, even though I'm brimming with thoughts and emotions on this unique, exemplary piece of filmmaking. And in a rare case - in fact, if my memory assists, the only case I can recall - I have had no desire to read anyone else's thoughts on the film either. Not because it isn't worth the time or effort. Au contraire, it's occupied my mind completely since I watched it, its images etched in my memory and its words sweetly whispering in my ears like music. But this is a joyous feeling that I quite like to keep undisturbed from critical scrutiny.

Tabu is separated into two episodes, completely different in tone and narrative form. The first - a look at a curious relationship between the elderly and wealthy Aurora, her African maid, Santa, and their well-meaning neighbor, Pilar - is formally challenging and thematically absurd. The second - a look at a younger Aurora through the memories of an old lover - is poetically narrated and dreamily shot. Between a story of romance and a critique of White colonialism in Africa, between Lisbon and the hills of African mountains, between sequences of sparse, surrealist storytelling and passages of continuously narrated reveals, director Miguel Gomes finds the perfect sweet spot: enough of everything to give the story depth, but not too much of anything to complicate the darkly comic love story.

Scene after semi-silent scene, shot after resplendent shot, Tabu exhibits more and more of everything I love about cinema as it confidently experiments with the fundaments of the medium. But the startling camera work that signifies so much about each character with the games it plays with light and focus, the effective shift to 16 mm in the second episode of the film, the sonic structure that utilizes ambient noise to perfection, and the beautiful performances that blend so well into the atmosphere should all be experienced first hand. It's a niche item, surely, and one that audiences might find puzzling especially during the first episode; but surrender yourself to it and you'll be lost in an enchanting world of longing and passion, with no easy way out.

Dec 16, 2012

Interview: Michel Franco, Director of After Lucia

Over at The Film Experience, I've interviewed Michel Franco, the director of Mexico's foreign language film submission and Cannes Film Festival's Un Certain Regard winner, After Lucia. It's a terrific film, possibly my favourite of the year, and I had a blast talking to this fantastic director. It's definitely a director's film and one of those that grip you and trap you within their world and don't let go when the curtains close. It's a must see, really.

You can read my interview here. Don't forget to chime in with your thoughts!

Dec 15, 2012

Is A Spike Lee Comeback In Store?

*This review was originally posted at The Film Experience.

In the late 80s and early 90s, Lee became one of America’s most influential cinematic voices and directed two masterpieces that remain among his very best work to this day: Do The Right Thing and Malcolm X. But I think it’s fair to say that none of his recent films, at least since the 2006 double punch of When the Levees Broke and The Inside Man, have been able to enter public conversation or the awards race. Fiction projects like Miracle at St. Anna were coolly received and documentaries like If God is Willing... didn’t make a dent either.

He's on my mind after watching his Michael Jackson documentary Bad 25 and for the first time in a while I felt like he was on to something special. The film, which originally screened out of competition in Venice, is quite different from the other nonfiction entries in Lee’s oeuvre and it isn’t particularly innovative in its construction. A song by song breakdown of Jackson’s follow-up to his record-breaking Thriller, Bad 25 is effectively a straightforward examination of the production of the 1987 album through exhaustive research and interviews with several key collaborators with the King of Pop. But the collection of these extremely entertaining memories tell a different tale about Michael Jackson, and one that is sadly overshadowed these days by the events of his later life.

Lee, who knew Jackson personally and directed music videos for him, doesn’t attempt to address any of the controversies that surrounded the singer’s life. His celebrity is of course a prominent feature and it’s impossible to overlook given that Bad was produced at the height of his and the genre’s popularity. Jackson himself was obsessed with the idea of repeating Thriller’s success and that was a central aspect of Bad’s formation. But Lee wants to revisit an artist’s work, not his personal life and he does so with diligence, delving into his creative process and referencing tabloid myths and legends only sporadically and when they are discussed by Jackson himself. The creative process, like that of any other great artist, is absolutely fascinating to watch; and it’s interesting to get this amount of exposure to his methods through his peers.

My favourite part of the film is the interview and accompanying archival footage about that famous Bad music video. Partly because as a film fan I lament the fact that I didn’t live through the golden age of music videos and partly because Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker (director and editor of the video, respectively) make a great interviewee duo, I was entirely immersed their collaboration with the singer. Jackson referred to his videos as films and the Bad's production was treated as such, with a character-driven story and elaborate set pieces. That Bad also marks the acting debut of an exuberant Wesley Snipes is the icing on the story’s cake.

If I hesitate to call Bad 25 Lee’s return to form because his role as the director is incredibly understated here. His personality, so often at the foreground in his nonfiction work, has taken a backseat. This is a film about Michael Jackson and he’s content not to interfere. Then again, that’s exactly the stuff great directors are made of. They know when and how much their voice needs to be heard. Lee understands the magnitude of Jackson’s star and he’s happy to let it shine.

Dec 10, 2012

SAG Ensemble Predictions and Wishlist

My last piece over at The Film Experience is ten days old now but I completely forgot to link to it here. As the title suggests, it's my predictions for SAG's ensemble award which will be announced later this week, and a wishlist of what films I would like to see nominated.

Head over and join in with your own predictions.

Dec 7, 2012

Unholy thoughts on Holy Motors

If I’m being honest, I didn’t like Holy Motors as much as everybody else seems to. It’s not a film that can be dismissed easily, but it’s frustrating how adamant it is in undermining itself, always remaining one step behind its ideas and never quite achieving what its visionary facade promises. I enjoyed watching it quite a lot, but feel like I left the film empty-handed; there really isn’t much to mull over. Leos Carax’s film appears very enigmatic on the surface, but is actually very clear about the details of the stories it’s telling, and suffers from their weaknesses and incoherence. It goes so far as to explicitly explain Oscar's occupation and intentions - though his employers or his audience are never revealed - but it never convinces us to care about him or enjoy his work any more than he does. It is disjointed, rather than segmented, in its narrative and this lack of connection from sequence to sequence prevents Motors from making an emotional impact. It’s clearly a deliberate choice to make these episodes wildly different, but a choice that doesn’t pay off in the end.

Dec 5, 2012

In Defence of Flawed Filmmaking...

Immediately after Silver Linings Playbook won the audience award at TIFF, an intense backlash started against it by critics who hadn't taken to the film. And the rapid escalation in the number of people who claimed it was a serious contender for Oscars only made matters worse. At the moment, I think Silver Linings Playbook might actually be the most divisive film of the year, even ahead of The Master.

It's an understandable position on the critics' part, as Playbook is by no means a perfect film. In fact, it has enormous flaws in both its conception and execution that would under any other circumstance be incredibly grating. There are moments where one can point to specific decisions in camera work or directing that hurt the film. There can be legitimate complaints about its treatment of mental disorder or its practice of tired romantic comedy tropes. From virtually any angle, this is a film that, on paper, should not work. And yet, it totally does. Because, every now and then, comes along a film that reminds me why I love films in the first place. It reminds me that I watch them to be moved, and to be affected and to live with its characters beyond the two hours I spend in the dark of the theatre. Silver Linings Playbook is that film. Not because I can dissect it and analyze it with what I learnt in university film classes, but because it's honest and moving. Because it can look at itself and like everything about itself without reservation; the loving part and the slutty part and the crazy part. All of it. And I commend it for that.

The beauty of Playbook is in the unpredictable energy of Tiffany's dishonest cries of "he's harrasing me," contained within a performance (by Jennifer Lawrence) that is so at ease with the character's insecurities and her unsubtle sexual allure that it becomes reminiscent of the greatest works of Barbara Stanwyck. The greatest moments in the film aren't the work of a director who creates calculated set-ups, but one who reaches inside his actors and finds their deepest human instincts; like when Dolores gently kisses his son on the forehead, or when the father swells up as he opens up his age-old wounds in the attic, and more often than not, in Pat's confused, heartfelt and sky-blue gazes into our soul. It's a film full of nuanced performances that, under Russell's (problematic but) gutsy direction, breathe a new life into an otherwise generic story with their compassion. Russell may well be the greatest humanist working in American cinema today; a director not with his eyes on the viewfinder but with his heart on his sleeve.

Dec 4, 2012

Oscar's Documentary Race Cut to 15 Films

Over at The Film Experience, I've looked at the 15 films that have been shortlisted by the Academy in the documentary category. It's a list that, as usual, leaves off several critically acclaimed titles and proves that the new voting system hasn't really made that big an impact on the race yet. Of my three favourite documentaries this year, The Gatekeepers has made the cut (my review), Queen of Versailles (which I just saw) has not and Stories We Tell (my review) was not eligible. The most endearing surprise is the inclusion of Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb's This is Not a Film, which you may remember was one of the best films of 2011 in my opinion.

You can read my thoughts on the whole list here. And please join in with your comments!

Dec 3, 2012

Monday's Words of Wisdom

"And since the movie is basically the "Oscars for Tony and Helen" show, let's go ahead and end with them: both are perfectly satisfactory, neither is revelatory: Mirren can do this kind of character in her sleep and very much seems to have done just that, rousing herself only for the florid Oscar clip scene that showed up so big in the trailer ("all they can see is the Great and Glorious genius AL-fred Hitch-cock!!!"), while Hopkins, considerable more alert and robust in his unashamedly hammy performance, resembles the famous director not at all: his makeup is a joke, but of course that's not the actor's fault, and while Hopkins gets the positively dehydrated sense of humor down, and in the film's opening nails a perfect "good evening", he doesn't come even close to capturing the psychological dysfunction that the movie wants us to see there, very clearly preferring to play a more avuncular Hitch than the screenplay apparently has in mind."
- Tim Brayton
Tim Brayton, as I've noted long ago, is one of my favourite writers, and I can always depend on him for articulating my thoughts in ways much more eloquent than I can ever hope to do on my own. The excerpt above is taken from his brilliant review of Sascha Gervasi's Hitchcock, which you may remember I mildly liked if only because it made for a fun double bill with Psycho. I noted in my own review that "Hopkins is never Hitchcock; he's Hopkins playing Hitchcock. And the same can be said of Biel and Johansson, unfortunately" so I think Tim's right on the money with this one. I do wonder, though, if Mirren and Hopkins have what it takes to be in the Oscar race despite their clip-ready performances. This is far, far from their best work and both have been well-rewarded in the past.