Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Les Miserables

I normally just jot down notes in a text edit window before I start taking what I think and working that into more coherent sentences. As I tried to recollect everything I thought about Tom Hooper's Les Miserables, I found myself actually just stating the same word again and again and again. "Heartfelt".

The performances were "heartfelt", the story is "heartfelt", and when I tried to just sum up the experience of the film as I left the theater I kept typing "heartwarming". The film, based on the musical which in turn is based on the Hugo novel, has an incredibly powerful heart to it. It's full of emotion and feeling and an ethusiastic gravitas. As time passed on, I found myself thinking about the arc of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) or the purpose of characters like Javert (Russell Crowe) and Fantine (Anne Hathaway) and so many others. It's almost overbearing to treat this clinically. This film is after all more of an epic than one's typical musical. 

At first glance I questioned Hooper's decisions in the art direction, cinematography, editing, sound, etc. etc. etc. I wasn't sure if I was noticing too much or too little of artistic flourishes. Then again, isn't it best that I not notice them at all? For a script that is told in song where your average transition is over-emoted for a personal effect, should I have to notice what is intended by a close-up here or a tracking there? The trick of the movie and perhaps the biggest credit one can give to the filmmakers is that all-in-all (or perhaps I was in the best sort of mood) was that I walked away with more feeling than thought, more sadness than observation, or even thinking of consequence more than nostalgia.

The play is rightfully hailed as masterful. The movie seemed to understand why (I'll be damned/overwhelmed to try and break that down) and in turn the result is incredibly empowering.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

When the worst comment I can find myself making about a movie, especially a sequel, is that it's just "more of the same" in comparison to its predecessors and the director's previous work- I feel like I'm digging for the negative instead of focusing on the positive. An Unexpected Journey, the first installment in Peter Jackson's prequel trilogy to his own three-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, is a welcome return to Middle Earth. In fact, the instant Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) meets Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), I fondly remembered my experiences of watching The Fellowship of the Ring. It was a start to a grand story of adventure, friendship, and how good should and could triumph over evil.

The first scene of this film features an older Bilbo (Ian Holm reprising his role) getting ready for his birthday party that will set-up the events of The Lord of the Rings. Bilbo is writing down his adventures for his nephew and then the events flash-back to younger Bilbo. Freeman was a great choice for his part. He embodies the charm that Holm brought to the part as well as a hint of uneasiness and a sardonic nature that young Bilbo's elderly counterpart would inherit as he spent more time with the ring. Still, if The Lord of the Rings was the sometimes-dark epic, The Hobbit is the adventure-loving all-ages companion piece. The film is incredibly fun, suspenseful, and the charm that I feel is inherent in Bilbo is also found in Gandalf and the dwarves with the exception of the stoic leader Thorin (Richard Armitage in a performance that hopefully will further his already impressive career from British film and television).

Jackson did choose to use more CGI than practical effects in concerns to some of the sequences, especially when it came to depicting the orc characters. Then again, it adds to the more family-friendly feeling that surrounds the story of The Hobbit. This is about adventure and comradery and the advances in CGI certainly haven't harmed Andy Serkis' return performance of Gollum. The former hobbit almost seems more expressive as well as naturally youthful in comparison to the character we met in The Two Towers.

As I start to finish writing about my thoughts on films from 2012, I'm really impressed with how many great big-budget blockbusters were full of such depth and enjoyment (albeit to varying degrees)- The Hunger Games, The Avengers, Men in Black III, Prometheus, Amazing Spider-Man, The Dark Knight Rises, Skyfall, and now The Hobbit. It's nice to see genre films continuing to be an important part of the public conscience.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Silver Linings Playbook

All it takes are great characters. I've sat through class after class with talk of character creation and development. The more to their lives, the more that comes out in the scene, the more connection an audience can make with a film, so-on and so-forth. In Silver Linings Playbook, one has worlds of family, insanity, sports, and love all colliding together with a fantastic ensemble delivering great performances. They (as characters and actors) all play off of each other so well that it's difficult to imagine Bradley Cooper's Pat without Jennifer Lawrence's Tiffany and vice versa; they also don't seem complete without Robert De Niro's Pat Sr. and same for the characters played by Jacki Weaver, John Ortiz, Chris Tucker, Julia Stiles, Anupam Kher, Shea Whigham, and Dash Mihok.

Based on a novel by Matthew Quick, writer-director David O. Russell delivers a beautifully constructed character-driven piece that serves as a great companion to his previous film, The Fighter. Both are about suburban families, friends, and lovers colliding with ones' hopes, dreams, and aspirations. Instead of Micky Ward you have Pat Solitano Jr. (Cooper). Pat caught his wife sleeping with another man and eventually his bi-polar disorder was diagnosed shortly thereafter. Pat wants to get back with his ex-wife, but his world changes when he is introduced to Tiffany Maxwell (Lawrence). Tiffany's sister is friends with Pat's ex and he hopes that through his bond with Tiffany, he can reconnect with his wife. The movie leads to a football game, a dance contest, and probably one of the most heartfelt and relatable on-screen romances I've seen.

The film is part comedy, part drama, part romance, etc. etc. etc. It's a great hodge-podge of feelings and emotions with scenes of what I'm sure to the filmmakers were full of great complexity. Yet it's totally believable that Pat Junior and Senior would be feuding one moment and the next one of them is chasing a neighbor in his underwear. Not to compare to other filmmakers, but O. Russell's films always seem like a Sundance-generation of Stanley Kubrick or Billy Wilder to me (there are others who fit the bill for what I'm describing). Not at all in style. I mean how Kubrick could have a film likes Paths of Glory where soldiers are laughing and then crying at a German singer or Full Metal Jacket where R. Lee Ermey's semi-hilarious rantings lead to Private Pyle's descent into madness; of course Wilder's The Apartment is pretty much the definitive 'dramedy' and some of his other films always had that hint of irony like Ace in the Hole or Sunset Boulevard.

O. Russell is just as seamless at blending the ridiculous with the reality. Spanking the Monkey is as taboo as Flirting with Disaster is screwball. The craziness of war is represented in Three Kings and then I Heart Huckabees is well... out there. The Fighter has the energy of all of those films, but is more straightforward in its focus on typical relationships (brother, mother, girlfriend). At the risk of over-hyperbole, Silver Linings almost feels like a great culmination of much of his work. A guy beats the man his wife left him for, goes to a home for therapy, comes out and believes he can get his wife back? That's irony and O. Russell seems to revel in it as a storyteller.

The film's characters are completely enlightened by their portrayers. De Niro reminds us of how engaging he can be when given such great parts and his crazy football-fan of a father is a welcome return to the thoughtful and sometimes intense performances of us his earlier days. Cooper conveys so much as he moves from confidence to doubt and his acting is incredibly in-tune with Lawrence's explosive, beautiful, and heartbreaking work. In all, it's a damn good movie full of unfiltered wackiness and a 'heart wants what the heart wants' type of romance that I hope others can recognize for its compassionate, loving, and timeless nature.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Life of Pi

Ang Lee's Life of Pi, based on the acclaimed novel by Yann Martel, was a movie which I found to be incredibly... complex. It's a word I feel that I and others use too often, but it's quite honestly the best word to use if I were to begin talking about the story. Even immediately after seeing it two months ago, I found trying to even begin any conversation that would go deeper than just saying how I felt after the film would be too tangled in hyperbole. Instead, I'll in fact just talk about how I feel. Nothing wrong with that, but I'd love to contribute to the discussion about the film's themes and imagery. Then again, when I've read some more scholarly opinions of the story, they just don't ring true to me.

That is perhaps how I know I was changed by the film. It makes such a personal connection with you as the individual that I'm reminded of films like Cloud Atlas and The Tree of Life. Movies that tackle questions about life and purpose through a visual storyteller's eye. Not all questions are answered, but that's the reality of being. Still, like the other two films I just mentioned, Life of Pi is certainly a welcome voice of idealism in a world that has entertainment that can be so dark, nihlistic, and even pompous.

Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) is living in Canada and recounting his life story to a novelist (Rafe Spall) that was referred to Pi by a family friend. Pi claims he can make the novelist believe in god. The story suitably begins here and then flashes back to Pi's youth (with the character being played by newcomer Suraj Sharma). Pi's family owns a zoo and they plan to have the animals transported on a freighter across the Pacific to Canada. When the freighter is shipwrecked during a storm, Pi finds himself alone on a life raft with a tiger whom was nicknamed "Richard Parker" (search 'Richard Parker (shipwrecked)' on Wikipedia for some interesting backstory into the meaning of the name).

An aspect I did find incredibly compelling was the dynamic between Pi and Richard. Richard will eat Pi in a second, but Pi quickly realizes that he must learn to co-exist with the animal. Pi has to survive and push the limits of what he must've thought he could be capable of. Yet the tiger has much stricter limits its as its brain is quite simple and functions on survival inherently above all else. So while trying to tame the limited animal, Pi finds himself thinking about religion, a concept with unlimited potential just in discussion alone. This search for purpose to guide him is what carries the story alongside some incredibly beautiful visuals. Lee and his crew make use of the 3D, knowing best when to use it and when best to not. Like recent famous directors to have used 3D such as Martin Scorsese (Hugo), Wim Wenders (Pina), and Werner Herzog (Cave of Forgotten Dreams), Lee's art comes first to give the imagery a heart before he 'wows the audience'.

Sharma gives an incredible performance and like many new talents, he feels like a breath of relevatory fresh air. How his name hasn't been mentioned more this awards season is a puzzle to me aside from the obvious reason of this being his first film. Spall and Khan also make great use of their limited screen time. They bookend the movie and the final scene is incredibly touching with a great use of score, editing, and a slow push in towards young Pi's face then cutting to Khan with a tear dripping down cheek.

There's a lot in this film to talk about. The feeling you leave the theater with if you are moved by the piece, is certainly easier, more pleasant, and more important to experience than to try and talk about god, survival, 3D, or digital tigers.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013


Daniel Day-Lewis' portrayal of the famous president is parts sullen, exhausted, fervant, and practical. Abraham Lincoln is shown as a deep thinker, a passionate debater, and someone who truly does have a sense of what his role in the world ought to be. I want to use the worst "ghostly" to describe him. He moves from a meeting where he tells stories to his own bedroom where he argues with his wife Mary (Sally Field) and even feels omnipresent even when not in a scene.

Much of the film is set during January 1865 and follows Lincoln's successful attempt to pass the 13th amendment that would abolish slavery. He is also trying to end the Civil War with the southern states thus leaving him at a crossroads. It is almost impossible to have both at the same time and with men dying each week, the public wants the bloodshed to end. Then again, the amendment must be passed before the end of the war if it is to be effectual.

Director Steven Spielberg is at his often best and has done the job of shepherding all aspects of the filmmaking process to their full force. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski's work is suitably muted and John Williams' score once again includes pieces of music that are parts iconic and ultimately moving. The cast is one of extreme gravitas. Kushner's screenplay must be an actor's dream in how oratory and yet never boring it is; it's full of scenes and dialogue that are lyrical in nature.

Of course Day-Lewis stands out, but Sally Field's Mary also provides a stern backbone for her husband even as an independent character all of her own who might blame her husband for never being there during the loss of her son. David Strathairn is fantastic as Secretary of State of William Seward who is at the president's side and Joseph Gordon-Levitt also provides great contrast against Day-Lewis in his role as Robert Todd Lincoln, who is stuck living in an impossible man's shadow not wanting the same life. Finally there is Tommy Lee Jones as abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, a man who will do whatever it takes and whose angry, impassionate, and insulting speeches are delivered with a great intensity. Then there are James Spader, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill, Tim Blake Nelson, Jared Harris, Lee Pace, Gloria Reuben, Michael Stuhlbarg, Walton Goggins, David Oyelowo, Lukas Haas, Dane DeHaan, Julie White, Gregory Itzin, Adam Driver, S. Epatha Merkerson, et. al.

In case my overabudance of praise hasn't been noted, in any ranking I've come up with for the movies I've seen in 2012, Lincoln sits at the top as my favorite. It's almost fascinatingly aware of the importance of the events it is depicting (as I'm sure the actual Lincoln was) and yet at no point is there a sense of false pretense, that the film is trying to be preachy even though it functions as a fantastic history lesson on passing an amendment/bill. It's a historical dramatization, but it's far from dry. The film is truly a character piece about a man who looked so outward to others, but struggled and then suceeded in looking inward to himself- something a common man, which Abe started out as, can aspire to.

Monday, January 7, 2013


The 23rd James Bond film has all the correct elements that makes the franchise recognizeable and yet there is still a certain unique vision behind this installment that if anything only furthers the panache one expects. The film is classy. The film is stylish. Thankfully, this installment has the correct mix of action-blockbuster-ism and significant character development. With similar revamped series such as Jason Bourne and Batman also having installments this year, Skyfall finds a way to move the saga a step forward while still harkening back to what makes the films work for so many people.

I suppose it's interesting then, that so much of this film has to do with the past of several characters as they stand concerned for their futures. When a mission goes awry and the identities of numerous MI6 agents are compromised, a former agent of M's (Judi Dench) known as Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) attacks the British government all with the intent of revenge against his former boss. Bardem plays Silva with such an enigmatic and villainous flair, that his sheer commitment to his goals places Bond (Daniel Craig) in a position that forces the agent to turn to his own past. This all of course progresses naturally under the direction of Sam Mendes (most notably of American Beauty) and the screenplay by John Logan (having recent success with Hugo). Craig, Mendes, and Logan have determined that part of this film's structure should certainly include some future-shock anxiety. Bond's job is considered a young man's game, but in a brilliant sequence during M's trial hearing as Bond rushes to stop Silva's attack, M posits that all the anxiety a government might feel about their current troubles should only come back to one ideal- if they are doing the right thing, they will perservere.

As silly as an anology this might seem, Mendes seems to hold to the same ideal that if having faith in a character like Bond and that his own directorial vision is right for the story, than the result is both a breath of fresh air with a sense of familiarity. Mendes' regular cinematographer Roger Deakins is doing some of the best work of his career. For example, the finale in Scotland in particular in how the fire plays against the dark sky is especially evocative of the mood that Mendes seems to want to hold over the final gambit that M and Bond play against Silva. The scope of the camera image is always wide, giving characters and props enough room to move throughout a frame. Even if it's a dialogue-based sequence like Silva's introduction, Mendes and and Deakins aren't afraid to "go big or go home".

Mendes also decides to have more action sequences than action scenes. The opening for example moves from sneaking around a building, to a car chase, to a shootout, to a motorcyle chase, and to a fight above a train. While the second act of the film concludes with a chase through the sewers, through the subway, onto the street, and ends with a shootout in a coutroom. The action carries just as well as the dialogue does and that is perhaps the most complimentary thing I can say about the pace with which this movie settles into.

Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, and Ben Whishaw all join the cast in what is sure to be regular roles. Stepping away from Bond's fight with QUANTUM (should that ever continue) has allowed the series to almost present another re-evalution (with Craig's first outing perhaps being the last significant film) of where the series can go. As a filmgoer, it was pretty exciting, even more so as a Bond fan.

Friday, January 4, 2013


Pilot William "Whip" Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is considered a hero by many. He was flying SouthJet commercial airliner 227 to Atlanta when a mechanical malfunction occurred. He was able to glide the plane to a softer landing by flipping the aircraft upside down. Only six perished in the crash with the others were able to call themselves survivors because of Whip's bravery and ingenuity.

Pilot William "Whip" Whitaker might also be considered a criminal by many. Shortly before the flight, he was in a hotel room coming down from a hangover and while still drunk, he snorted several lines of cocaine hoping to wake him up enough to be able to do his job. Although the plane crash was due to faulty equipment, it's pretty common law that such a job as that of an airline pilot that is undertaken while under the influence, is against the law.

Whip finds himself continuing to battle his alcohol addiction as a review board comes close to discovering the truth about his condition. Even after the man has already consumed a bottle too many, he still maintains that "No one else could've landed that plane, except me." Denzel Washington brings out many facets that can be found in John Gatins honest character-driven screenplay. From the cocky attitude, to the lying, to the anger, to his internal grief... Washington's performance has an aspect that was perhaps on the outskirts of his more volatile roles such as Alonzo Harris in Training Day- a sense of control that brings about the audience's sympathy. Whip is such a layered part and Washington (reminding me of Gene Hackman) is able to transition from out of control rage to a quiet demeanor without any false pretense.

Immediately after, I thought that Flight was first and foremost just a performance film. A movie where most of the draw comes from an enigmatic character. I then think of the other talented involved in back of the camera. Director Robert Zemeckis knows exactly where to put the camera and direct actors as to move the stry along. It's extremely impressive how he and his usual collaborators draw parrallels between a literal crash landing and a man hitting rock bottom in his life. Certainly,Washington does a lot of work, but I almost feel like I'm understating the decisions made by the artists behind what the audience can see. The rest of the cast is great as well, especially Kelly Reilly as a drug addict whose story mirrors Whip's descent.

Flight is a painfully honest movie that is somewhat quiet after the first fifteen minutes, but even without a plane crash taking place, the movie feels as nailbiting as a fantastic character-driven piece.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas is an epic. Based on David Mitchell's novel, it moves from genre to genre to genre and with each one, every aspect of the filmmaking process is at its zeinith. The directing, acting, writing, music, art direction, cinematography, editing, sound, visual effects etc. etc. etc. There is such thought and care put into the film at every conceivable turn and it's not just one good movie, it's really six good movies that form one pleasant experience.

The film's stories are in fact connected as the cast portrays different characters in each of the segments. It should be noted that the segments are cut together as the film jumps back-and-forth between them. How the film's writer-directors Tom Tykwer & Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski chose when to move from one parallel moment to the next, I can't even begin to venture a guess. Like any visionaries, they saw the story in a manner that they could understand and tried to find a way to tell to an audience what they envisioned. The editing is almost hypnotic and reminiscent of scenes from previous Wachowski films like the planning scenes right before the third act of The Matrix Reloaded or the building to the climax in Speed Racer.

The cast is also incredibly competent. Each mini-film has its own world and its own set of rules and style. It seems that all the actors (Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, James D'Arcy, Zhou Xun, Keith David, David Gyasi, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant) are fully committed to each role in a manner that is refreshing, fun, and what must've been professionally challenging.

So what did I think the film was about? Well I first think of each of the stories.
1- South Pacific Ocean, 1849- American lawyer Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) is on a boat to San Francisco where he must keep a slave (David Gyasi) hidden from a malevolent crew.
2- Edinburgh, Scotland, 1936- Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) laments to his lover (James D'Arcy) about working as an apprentice to a decrepit composer (Jim Broadbent) whom he enters into a feud over who composed a piece of music. Robert discovers the diary of Adam.
3- San Fracisco, California, 1973- Investigative journalist Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) discovers a nuclear conspiracy with the help of Robert's former lover, now an old man.
4- United Kingdom, 2012- Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent), a publisher (who was reading an adaptation of Luisa's adventure), becomes entangled with gangsters so he hides at a nursing home where he then attempts a comical escape from its oppressive grounds.
5- Neo Seoul 2144- Clone Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) joins a resistence movement against an oppressive government. She feels empowered after watching a outlandish film version of Cavendish's exploits.
6- Hawaiian Islands, 2321 (post-apocalypse)- Tribesman Zachry (Tom Hanks), who worships the religious figure of Sonmi, embarks on a journey with a woman (Halle Berry) to possibly uncover the truths about what led to the world's state of being.

A costume drama. A love story. A conspiracy mystery. A comedy. A science-fiction adventure. A post-apocalyptic tale. Six genres and six stories with a through line that includes themes of love, kindness, and freedom. To me, the movie is about finding oneself, but realizing that those around us who we care for are just as important. Similar to The Matrix and Run Lola Run, Cloud Atlas functions as almost a wake-up call to let us know that both the individual matters within the scheme of society. Not only is Cloud Atlas freeing in how its narrative is artistically approached, but it is perhaps most freeing in what I perceived its message to be to its audience.