Sunday, December 29, 2013

Thor: The Dark World

When I walked out of Thor: The Dark World, I asked a friend what he thought. His answer, "well... that was a movie." I laughed, but come to think of it, that about sums up how I felt.

Looking back on my thoughts for the first Thor film, I think I was just more surprised with what Kenneth Branagh and co. were able to get right as opposed to looking for things that bothered me. I always felt Thor would be the most difficult character to capture on screen. Do you just make it a PG-13 version of 300 and feature Thor and his viking comrades? Do you show Donald Blake walk into a cave with a stick and then suddenly turn into a superhero? Since Marvel Studios was planning for Thor, Iron Man, the Hulk, and Captain America to be part of an Avengers film, the idea of focusing on both Asgard and Earth actually led to the first Thor being an enjoyable fantasy-action movie. 

This sequel, feels quite similar to the first. There's some action with the sensibility of your average video game, but the characters and performances (especially in concerns to Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, and the chemistry between the two of them) keep everything moving. Only in retrospect did I realize how the film plodded along and how forgettable it all actually is because at the time of the movie I was too busy saying "oh, that's kind of cool" (I think it helps that I am such a die-hard comic book fan).

Back to the reaction of 'oh, just another movie'... this unfortunately just feels like another placeholder for Avengers 2 similar to how Iron Man 3 wavered between being its own singular adventure and still being a part of a larger universe. I'm curious as to when Marvel will decide to return to the world of Thor because there are some interesting plot threads left open, but sadly it seems we'll have to wait until 2016 at the latest.

12 Years a Slave

The shot I found most astonishing in 12 Years a Slave is a long take that takes place somewhere near the last third of the film. The slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) has disobeyed the master of the plantation Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). She is tied to a post and is to be beaten. Epps decides to make the story's protagonist Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to be the one to lash her bare back with the whip. Solomon whips her a few times and Patsey is screaming and crying. At a point the camera will rest on their faces before pulling back to show the surroundings of the scene. Solomon is distraught and eventually he can't do it any more so Epps steps in and finishes the job. With each rapid lash of the whip we see skin come flying off Patsey and red lines of blood and flared scars take shape. Many of the supporting characters of the film are watching as Epps is screaming in a bloody rage. The camera never cuts and Hans Zimmer's subtle, but effectively haunting score plays through the entire moment. The reaction I felt was along the lines of, 'How can this be a movie? That felt so real. The skin flew off her back and there was literally no pause in the moment....'.

The film is full of other long takes similar to director Steve McQueen's previous films- Hunger and Shame. He then cleverly chooses when to cut and that is well after the pain of the moment we are witnessing has not only just settled in, but has become unbearable to watch (the scene where Solomon hangs being a perfect example). McQueen, a former artist, directs like a poet. His films wash over you and certainly feel timeless no matter the era of events. He loves to focus on discomfort and men who are trapped in solitude, which seems to be a big theme of films this year other then disrupting the American dream; that theme being of people in isolation (see Gravity, All Is Lost, Captain Phillips, etc.). The story of 12 Years a Slave follows Solomon from person to person as we the audience discover alongside the formerly free man what this "new" world entails.  The emotional performance of Ejiofor holds everything together despite the constant changing of scenery. Solomon is a character that is forced to rarely speak and mostly feel, so Ejiofor uses his eyes and mannerisms to make us understand Solomon's despair and misery from excruciating moment to moment. Other mentions to cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, screenwriter John Ridley, composer Hans Zimmer, and performers Fassbender and Nyong'o are deserved who just like Ejiofor, it'd be hard to imagine the film without their participation and talents.

It has been well documented that the films that end on an unsure and even sad note are sometimes the more effective. For a story to remind us that not everything is right in the world seems more poignant than everything being tied up neatly in a bow. Solomon does make it home to his family and that final scene is incredibly powerful and certainly one of the greatest scenes in a film that I've ever witnessed, period. He is happy, but he still went through such apalling hell that even though the character may seem content, we the audience still have to live, like Solomon, with the atrocity of nature we just witnessed. Storytelling at its best.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Captain Phillips

The one aspect I was most impressed with after watching Captain Phillips was how director Paul Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray chose to make us feel something for both sides in the conflict. It's surprising that I should feel anything at all really as the film is somewhat procedural in its nature, but that is what makes the film have an impact in the first place. We observe Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks in another incredible turn) interact with his crew and later as he lies to pirates to keep them safe. We observe Muse (Barkhad Abdi, a revelation of a performance) come from an impoverished land where crime is his only out and later as he attempts to get the upper hand on Phillips by taking him hostage aboard a lifeboat. We empathize with them both. We understand who they are, what they are doing, where the come from, and why they are doing what they need to do. By the film's end when both characters have had their sensibilities shattered, emotion just naturally comes seeping into the film's fabric of a storyline and character arc. Michael Mann recently complimented Greengrass on his latest film and rightfully so as this film's structure somewhat reminds of Mann's The Insider. That was another film that might've felt driven by plot as you watched it, but the nature of events then leads to a deeper understanding of each singular character.

Of course much has already been written about Greengrass's cinematic style. His use of handicam is matched by no one else. Along with cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (United 93, Green Zone, The Hurt Locker, The Wind That Shakes the Barley) every move feels almost choreographed. So many other filmmakers just use the shaky camera to create a sense of chaos and their intent seemingly ends there. Greengrass takes it a step further as he brings us right into the middle of the situation to understand not just the story, but to place us alongside these characters. Every shake, every zoom, and every rattle feels intentional. Whether it was the car chase in The Bourne Supremacy, the storming of the cockpit in United 93, or the final foot chase in Green Zone- Greengrass seems to operate the monopoly on skillfull handicam work without any doubt.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Machete Kills

Machete Kills is certainly crazier than the first installment. It's parts Southern noir meets Moonraker (there's a sentence I thought I'd never type). Unfortunately for me (and based on conversations with friends, I seem to be showcasing the less popular opinion), crazier doesn't equate to funner in my opinion. I thought Robert Rodriguez's 2010 Machete film was hilarious. It was clever and with this sequel I was hoping that I'd get more of the same. Sure, Rodriguez is intelligent and creative enough to know that more of the same shouldn't really be the answer. Give the audience more, more, and more of something different with enough of the DNA of the first to compliment what has come before. Yet I can't say why, but there are a few cases of where I'm comfortable with a similar experience when it comes to some film franchises. Take Peter Jackson's prequel Hobbit trilogy to his Lord of the Rings trilogy. You could complain about it being just that phrase of "more of the same", but when "the same" is so damn good, maybe you shouldn't mess with it.

Where Machete was over the top with a certain restrained sensibility (because lets face it, exploitation movies did look like and were actually made for dirt cheap), Machete Kills throws that out the window.  If the first was Rodriguez making the exploitive version of a Mel Brooks parody, then this is if Mel Brooks became possessed by a money-grubbing studio head (and I don't mean for that to sound as insulting of a criticism as it might seem). Machete Kills still delivers something of a good time because its satire is now includes that of sequels and blockbuster-filmmaking. Gone is the R-rated and endearingly constructed parodical storyline of the first. Here the film moves from scene-to-scene, over complicates the plot, and amps the spirit of the first film to an 11 on the 1-10 scale. Maybe Rodriguez is a mad genius in a sense. Where the first film was trashy with a wink, this film is trashy with a nod and I had a little trouble getting behind it all.


Just about every film lover I've talked to is praising Gravity for its technical wizardry. Director/co-writer Alfonso Cuaron has showcased a care for such visual intricacies with his previous work, most notably Children of Men. His love for the long take and how to pull it off organically certainly places his work in an elite group of films made by Orson Welles, Martin Scorsese, John Woo and Robert Altman. Gravity seemingly uses the long take not just to contribute to the feeling of weightless wandering that space constitutes, but it also makes what is lately used far too much as a gimmick, actually feel like it has a place in storytelling- that being 3D.

Martin Scorsese (Hugo), Werner Herzog (Cave of Forgotten Dreams), Wim Wenders (Pina), and Ang Lee (Life of Pi) are the only filmmakers in recent memory that made accomplished movies that featured the technology, but one thing always bothered me about the conceit and that was the editing. Fact being that movies are made up of a series of edits and that when the shot that had leaves falling down in the background suddenly switches to a shot of leaves not falling down in the background and those said leaves were being "enhanced" by 3D, it's quite distracting. The 3D here works so effectively because (like those filmmakers I mentioned above), Cuaron also knows when not to overbear us with the visual effect. Debris will come flying all of a sudden, but it feels natural because when there is a cut, that debris has passed out of the frame for the moment.

The camerawork itself is something be in awe of as well. Emmanuel Lubezski (Cuaron and Terrence Malick's regular cinematographer and a five-time Oscar nominee for A Little Princess, Sleepy Hollow, The New World, Children of Men, and The Tree of Life) moves the camera so effectively and organically through space that the feelings of weightlessness, buoyancy, and ranges of speed all feel like a singular part of one's viewing.

A few have commented how the performances are one of the film's shortcomings. I'd have to somewhat disagree. Certainly this movie can be taken as a visual feat and crowd-pleaser, but what Stone (Sandra Bullock) is experiencing is not just survival, but also a passage of grief. The space station disaster is not the only disaster of her life and the events of Gravity are an analagous representation of body and mind being affected by sudden life-altering chaos. On the nose? Yes. Does it work? I'd say so.

Every piece of this movie feels perfectly orchestrated and at no point do I feel the filmmaker emerging to say "hey, by the way, you are watching a movie." Instead, the film is what the other greats of the year are: a fluid experience.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Don Jon

The most impressive thing about Don Jon, the directorial debut of actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who stars as Jon in the film), is how the story's progression feels incredibly intuitive and natural. Assuming the first draft of the script and the final cut of the film out of the editing room resembles Gordon-Levitt's vision, one can see the film doesn't really make any pretensions. It's meant to be very funny, boisterously high-spirited, and therefore just all-around quite entertaining. Dare I say that this debut (that I'm not quite sure how universally adored, hated, or accepted it is) kind of has a certain Robert Altman-esque flavor to it? Not so much in style or content, but in how the film feels as pastiche (meant as a compliment) as it feels wholly original? This is an R-rated comedy that I'm sure could've been pitched to an investor as Steve McQueen's 2011 film Shame meets Saturday Night Fever and because it never lets up and relishes its own little microcosmic world of its lead character, it never seems to lose steam.

Except perhaps at one point as the film winds down towards its conclusion. Jon is a guy who has trouble with relationships because although he can have any girl he wants, his porn addiction prevents him from being able to appreciate or build intimacy with his most recent beau, Barbara (Scarlett Johansson). Throughout the film, Jon is taking a class to impress his girlfriend and keeps running into a woman named Esther (Julianne Moore). Without ruining too much of the film, Jon eventually accompanies Esther back to her place when his relationship with Barbara is not really working out. The film then takes a dramatic turn that although is handled in a manner that doesn't make it feel overly sudden, I felt like it sort of halts the film's preppy pace. At least the ending is redeeming and meaningful despite feeling forced by that random bit of drama I just referenced.

At the end of the day, Don Jon is a movie about movies and whether they are adult or not, there is a small bit of subtext about how those smatterings of pop-culture have an impact on our personal lives. As the year winds down, it's nice to see a hardened (no pun intended) and freshly put together piece of entertainment.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Grandmaster

I was on an Asian cinema kick a few years ago as I discovered more foreign and authored films. It started with the new wave of talent from South Korea with directors like Park Chan-wook (Joint Security Area, Oldboy, Thirst), Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder, The Host, Mother), Kim Ki-duk (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring), and Kim Ji-woon (I Saw the Devil). From there I investigated directors from other countries whose American films I was appreciative of such as John Woo's Hard Boiled or The Killer and Ang Lee's Lust, Caution or The Wedding Banquet. Sampled a variety of other films that had won awards overseas such as Tokyo Sonata, Last Life in the Universe, Cyclo, Audition, Not One Less, and many others. When it came to Hong Kong, aside from Woo, I just up, went, and delved into the work of Wong Kar-wai, a director whose cinematic legacy seems to practically have been already written.

His films are foremost beautifully shot and frankly their cinematography (most shot by Christopher Doyle, although this most recent one is by Philippe Le Sourd) is like nothing I've ever seen. All at once lush, dark, monumental, and fluid- he realizes that film is a visual medium. He loves to tell his stories through montage, voice-over, silence, and constant visual trickery (for lack of better terminology). When I first watched In the Mood for Love... something just didn't click. I wasn't sure if I liked it. I grasped at straws about why the film was made the way it was, why the film was presented the way it was, why the story was told the way it was, etc. etc. etc. Then I watched 2046, Happy Together, Chungking Express and by the time I revisited In the Mood for Love... I still may not understand where Wong comes from, but I do really love where he takes me. His work is shocking in an ethereal way. His movies have a certain sensuality to them not just visually, but in how Wong draws you in with all the aspects of filmmaking that a director has under his or her control. In the Mood for Love now stands in my eyes as it seems to stand in the eyes of many others as quite possibly the most definitive film that has captured romantic love onscreen in its bare form for all its good and bad. Upon my second viewing, I already felt a lump in my throat when Tony Leung's character steps up to a ruined wall and rests his head against it so he can whisper into a hole and then cover up that hole with mud.

Now, since I'm done with my usual ranting about the filmmaker, I'm a little troubled to discuss Wong's latest film, The Grandmaster. Mainly because I saw what is seemingly the dreaded "American cut" and maybe something is wrong with me- but I really liked it. I'm sure the Hong Kong cut or the directors cut will elevate the film's quality to me, but I actually really, really, really enjoyed what American producers Bob and Harvey Weinstein presented in theaters here in the States (although I wonder if those expository title cards were in the place of actual footage, but I thought the titles helped with the film's sense of grandiose history). The film is based on the true story of martial arts legend Ip Man (Tony Leung) and touches on his rise to prominence as well as his relationship with the daughter and heir of another grandmaster of one of the many forms of martial arts, Gong Er (Zhang Yimou). Tony Leung is like the antithesis of many American actors whose faces can scream different emotions. Somehow, Leung can tell a story with his acting and yet his face is like a stone carving (the scene in Cyclo where he walks down the hallway to Radiohead's Creep being a perfect example). Leung seems to be much like his character where a motion or word of his never feels wasted or misused. Zhang Ziyi who became famous after her breakout performance in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, handles her role oppositely to that of Leung in that she is very forward with her feelings. 

So this movie keeps moving from fight to fight with historical reference points about war and family alongside talks about martial arts and philosophy. Towards the end when Gong Er is ill and finally reunited with Ip Man at a table, their late confession of love becomes one of the most powerful scenes I've seen this year even though it's handled with such subtlety amongst such a grand plot. The scene features the two tragic characters just sitting there and not moving much and the scene ends with a smile when Gong Er says "To say there are no regrets in life is to fool yourself. Imagine how boring life would be without regrets." With that line of dialogue and with the entire film at that line's back, the film gives me an out-of-body feeling. That feeling that I just experienced art that has somehow contemplated life and all of its ins and outs. These characters find peace, perhaps unlike other characters from Wong's films, and I think that is proof enough that Wong still has so much more to say about his own legacy.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Blue Jasmine

Mention Woody Allen and most will think of his comedies, but he has shown over the course of his career (consisting of nearly a film a year since the 70s) that he is equally adept at films more dramatic in nature. His 1992 film Husbands and Wives is one great example. One can't watch the film and not keep in mind the director's high publicized personal crises and problems of the time and that makes the scenes between Allen and his ex-wife Mia Farrow ring all the more poignant and painful. Another great example of a Woody Allen drama is 2005's Match Point which features some of the most sexual and violent scenes in the filmmaker's career. These are the sort movies of his that might make you think you are not watching what has come to be named a "Woody Allen film". That being said, some inklings of the director's auteuristic tendencies sneak their way in and Allen's latest film Blue Jasmine is no exception to his dramatic ouvre.

The film has been described as Woody Allen's A Streetcar Named Desire mixed with Almodovar mixed with a ripped-from-the-headlines story about Bernie Madoff's family. The story is about Jasmine Francis (Cate Blanchett) whose husband (Alec Baldwin) was arrested for white collar/financial crimes leading Jasmine to abandon her very rich and elegant lifestyle in New York City to live with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), in a more blue collar family apartment in San Francisco. The film is full of so many great scenes to talk about and I wish I had written this response closer to when I first saw the film, but to touch on a main point- Jasmine is mentally ill. She talks to herself, breaks into hysterics, stares into space, drinks, pops pills... this all sounds like it could be a classical comedy about a rich woman having to make due with a less-than-wealthy lifestyle, but Allen handles it as seriously as he can.

Of course, the true center of the film and what makes the movie work is the performance of Cate Blanchett as Jasmine. She is equally oft-putting and yet I feel the need to care for this woman. There is something about how Blanchett draws us in; this is another incredible high-point for her already illustrious career. The film also works in part thanks to Sally Hawkins (see Happy-Go-Lucky from Mike Leigh to witness Hawkins in another brilliant performance) whose ability to see silver linings and conquer her problems despite great hardship makes her the perfect antithesis to Blanchett's icey characterization. The rest of the cast is great with an honorable mention to Andrew Dice Clay (I never thought I'd say that I was so moved by a performance from the guy who shouted "Hickery Dickery Dock"). Then there's the ending- part downer and part fulfilling. It's just nice to have seen another great Allen film so soon after Midnight in Paris.