Earlier this year, I went to see Joe Wright’s recent take on Anna Karenina. At the onset, I was surprised to learn that his interpretation included painted sets, theater props, and exaggerated choreography, as though the film meant to record a live stage production of Tolstoy’s classic political drama. Wright faced a mixed reaction to his heavily stylized approach, but, at this very moment, I find myself appreciative of his risk taking in the name of artistic vision.
This evening I saw Les Miserables, another classic political drama, one that has already been adapted for the stage quite successfully. My general reaction to the film is overwhelmingly positive. I wept throughout the third act, and found the performances to be some of the most affecting of any I’ve seen this year. Anne Hathaway’s performance as Fantine is haunting—her delivery of “I Dreamed a Dream” hangs in the air as I type.
Adapted from the 1980 musical based on the classic novel of the same name, Les Miserables, directed by Tom Hooper (who most recently gave us The King’s Speech), tells the story of a number of intertwined characters living in 19th Century France, culminating in the bloody 1832 June Rebellion. The central character, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), is an ex-convict searching for redemption through acts of benevolence amid the changing political landscape.
As thoroughly affecting and palpable these performances are, and with the strong story there as a blueprint, I have to wonder what a more innovative director could have done with the material. Hooper relies on the same old playbook for sweeping historical epics—and it works—but where are the risks?
Hooper’s controversial decision to film his actors singing live has paid off, to be sure, bringing a sense of urgency to grand solo numbers. But the uninspired camera work that happens in between these moments is the real problem. What if similar, heavily stylized risks that Wright tried out on Karenina were taken to Les Miserables? It may not have worked, but it also might have brought a stronger sense of connection to the film.
Hooper’s realism has an intense emotional impact, but I wish there were more energy to his direction.Continue Reading »
About a third of the way through Quentin Tarantino’s latest feature-length bloodbath (no surprises there), Django Unchained, a group of pistol waving white supremacists gather one night on horseback in the middle of a Mississippi field, charged with protecting their self-proclaimed right to slavery. It’s a scene that, given a different tone, might shake you to your core. Instead, the theater erupted in laughter as the men comically struggled to see out of poorly designed (perhaps KKK-inspired) white sacks, cursing in lilting southern accents while clunking into one another. By the time the racist mob members decided they had had it with their ill-fitting garb, nearby freed-slave-turned-bounty-hunter, Django (Foxx), and his mentor, Dr. Schultz (Waltz), had settled their score. Ensuing images of blood splattered across a white horse’s back, and across pristine white cotton ready to be picked off the plant by a field slave—which in another movie might evoke somber feelings—serve as a backdrop for this campy epic western.
Notorious for his unflinching use of violence in his films, Tarantino has found the right notes to play with strong storytelling in historical settings. Violence, shrouded in Tarantino’s mockery, is much more palatable when directed towards some of history’s greatest villains. In Inglourious Basterds, he took on the Nazi empire. Here in Django, he takes aim at slave owners clutching to their oppressive societal customs.
Upon his release with the help of the forward-thinking bounty hunter, Django teams up with Schultz to raise some cash and track down his wife—and purchase her freedom. The two take on the south, dancing circles around thick-skulled bigots and charming southern gentlemen. Their greatest conquest lies ahead in the slave-trading town of Greenboro, Miss., where Django’s wife serves a young, ruthless plantation magnate named Calvin Candie (DiCaprio).
Similar to Basterds, Django has emotional pull – for the good guys to win, for human rights, and for Django to be reunited with his wife at last. That Foxx is able to play a vengeful, passionate man with quiet reserve in such an ostentatious film may be the greatest success of his acting career. But Tarantino’s absurdity is the ingredient that holds his unique style of film-making together, and I found myself content to suspend belief for nearly three hours in his latest historical payback drama.Continue Reading »
Levon Helms’ passing this week prompted a viewing of Martin Scorsese’s 1978 rock concert documentary, The Last Waltz in my apartment this weekend.
For those of us with a limited familiarity of rock music of the 1960s, The Last Waltz is a stunning introduction to some of the greats. Scorsese sits across from members of The Band in relaxed, candid interviews in their California studio, while also capturing Bob Dylan, Van Morrisson, and Joni Mitchell, among others, on stage alongside The Band in a phenomenal farewell concert.
Though he is widely known as a feature director of mob violence dramas and grandiose biopics, Scorsese also has an impressive stock of music documentaries under his belt, and, even more impressive, The Last Waltz was his first dive into the genre. He has since told Bob Dylan’s, the Rolling Stones, and recently George Harrison’s stories on screen, in No Direction Home, Shine a Light, and Living in the Material World, respectively. He has also demonstrated a keen interest in rock and roll music through his soundtrack inclusions for his dramatic feature films.
The Last Waltz oscillates between the euphoric energy of the farewell concert and the sobering interviews as The Band members recall the good times and the bad in their life on the road. Though their love for the music they made together is entirely genuine, their fatigue is transparent, and it seems like the time is right to break up The Band. Scenes from the enrapturing final concert leave no room for doubt that The Band chose to quit while they were ahead. As they prepared to put down their instruments, Scorsese masterfully preserved their final concert on screen for us to enjoy many decades later, highlighting some of the greatest musicians of that generation and The Band that shared the stage with them.Continue Reading »
Last week I crossed two films off my List of Films I Often Lie About Not Having Seen.
Now, I don’t think I have ever actually had to lie about this fact; rather, whenever someone mentioned The Godfather trilogy, I’d nod my head in agreement and venerate Francis Ford Coppola’s films as best as I could. I never acknowledged or corrected someone who wrongly assumed that I had seen them. In rare cases, I’d admit to the oversight, and then endure a 30-second lambasting…Never. Again.
Fair warning: If you, too, have never seen the Godfather trilogy (Well, Parts I and II. I have yet to see Part III, and that task is for a day when I feel I can stand Sofia Coppola’s acting, which may not come for years), I caution you in reading this post as there will be minor spoilers. And I mean it. I somehow managed to stay in the dark and experienced the film’s thrilling twists and turns with their intended impact. I’d hate to deny you that same experience.
As with all great narratives—and The Godfather‘s is one of the greatest—the story is layered and can be interpreted from many different angles. What I found most compelling in my first viewing was Michael Corleone’s (Al Pacino) trajectory. The Godfather is, from the beginning, a story of Michael Corleone’s demise—his loss of innocence and the erosion of his moral character.
Watching Part I and II side by side offers a striking comparison of both Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) and his son Michael (Pacino) in the family role of “Don Corleone,” the highest member of a powerful Italian mob enterprise. Part I shows us Vito in that role, and later in Part II, we see Michael pick up where his father left off. Both possess the cold, ruthless disposition that presumably any mob boss would need, but Michael is not his father, and his actions in the second film fray the tailored edges of the Godfather image Vito created.
Mario Puzo, the author, and Francis Ford Coppola (who wrote the screenplay together) carefully lay the groundwork for this transition long before it is executed on screen by Pacino. Perhaps Michael’s aggression comes from his military background, or because his outlook is narrowed by a privileged upbringing (unlike Vito’s gradual ascension to wealth and power after having immigrated to the United States an orphan from Italy). Though his impression at the beginning of the film is that of an attractive, angelic-like young man, Michael’s propensity for violence bubbles to the service when he volunteers to kill two enemies of the family involved in a heroin trafficking operation. He successfully carries out the operation, and at that moment, it really feels as though there was no turning back for him.
Many references are made to Vito’s wish that Michael would never travel down this path to become the Godfather. The eldest brother Sonny (James Caan) was the presumed heir, but his death in Part I changes everything, and Vito feels the loss of Michael’s innocence as he is called to the role (passing over his older brother Fredo, who is treated as simple-minded and incapable) as much as he feels the loss of his first born.
At times it is not clear if Michael truly loves his family, or if he loves them because the loyalty that ties them all together is all he has ever known. He is paranoid, and quick to act on a suspicion that someone might be against him, an affliction that ultimately leads him to order the death of his loving, yet dim, brother Fredo (John Cazale). Perhaps what is most chilling is that he brings his targets close, giving them the false hope that he has forgiven them, before he calls for their execution, as is the case for Fredo, and earlier in the film for his brother-in-law Carlo (Gianni Russo). Under Michael’s regime, the Corleone operation feels much more destructive and unstable.
I’m eager to watch these films (and perhaps Part III, too) a second time to take in this complicated narrative from another angle; but in the meantime, I’m taking in Al Pacino’s performance as Michael Corleone and filing it under one of the best on film. Michael’s transition to the role of the Godfather and the demise of his moral character transcends every expectation I had for the films.Continue Reading »
Of the directors in favor of using 3D technology in their films–James Cameron, Michael Bay, Guillermo del Toro–I’m surprised to see Martin Scorsese added to this list. But there’s a first time for everything, and Martin Scorsese has just released his first 3D picture, Hugo, an adaptation of Brian Selznick’s best-selling novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret.
I did not see the film in 3D and therefore cannot comment on its effectiveness. I can, however, comment on the remarkable 2D film Scorsese has made, perhaps his best since Goodfellas.
Those expecting an emotionally shallow family film will be sorely disappointed, as Hugo is an exquisite adventure drama, and a poignant homage to great cinema from one of the best directors of our time. Scorsese delivers the story of teenage orphaned boy Hugo (Asa Butterfield) living in a train station, with only a broken automaton to remember his father by. As he roams the station by day looking for missing parts to engineer the automaton back to life again, he evades arrest by the militant Inspector Gustav (Sascha Baron Coen) and aggravates toy shop owner Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley). When the second act turns to reveal that Papa Georges is in fact innovative retired film director Georges Méliès, the film deepens through Scorsese’s discerning lens, igniting the screen with a grandiose tribute to an important moment in the history of special effects in cinema.Continue Reading »
Bear with me as I try to discern my way through a review of one film out of four that I saw within a 72 hour-span .
Review: Like Crazy
In truth it’s not so difficult to separate and recall my feelings towards Like Crazy from my Thanksgiving 2011 theater marathon, because the film is so deeply personal, I’ve been wearing it around like a too snug, itchy sweater for the past week. A romance like this is extraordinarily rare, though I went into the experience perfectly content to sit through a schmaltzy, infantile mess. Some may find it so, but I can only fault a handful of moments with that label. I absolve the film for those flawed moments because the rest are strikingly beautiful, but with the right amount of restraint.
There’s a scene somewhere down the jumbled, on-off relationship’s course where Anna (played by Felicity Jones, who recently took away Best Actress at Sundance for this role) sits across from Jacob (played by a slightly less charismatic Anton Yelchin) in a spacious subway car. He’s surrounded by luggage, she’s forcing a smile at him as the two make their way to a London airport to say yet another long goodbye. Moments later, we see Anna get into another subway car, densely populated, to go home, having just left Jacob at the airport to depart for Los Angeles. She struggles to find a space of her own in the crowded car. There are no tears, no musical cues, no embellishments that might indicate that she won’t see the man she loves for several months. Her everyday, everywoman struggle to navigate a busy public transportation system during rush hour is much more potent and heartbreaking than any crying scene could have been, and it’s part of why this film cuts so close to the bone with its audience.
Anyone who’s ever been in love will find a moment in this film, latch on, and enjoy the connection that Like Crazy has to the real world.Continue Reading »
My commitment to this blog has been bimonthly at best this year. My commitment to film may be worse than that these days. But now that November is in full swing, my trips to the theater should become more frequent. So, I suppose I’ll just dive right in:
Review: J. Edgar
There was a time, maybe five years ago when I would defend Clint Eastwood’s work as firmly as any fledgling movie buff of the ‘aughts could. Million Dollar Baby came out in theaters at a time when I began to notice the skill of an actor transforming into a character, or a director’s ability to create atmosphere on screen that made me feel a certain way. Eastwood was one of those directors, and I awaited his films’ release dates with great anticipation.
And those dates have come one after another almost every year since MDB‘s release, and the films have been getting much, much worse. Eastwood is wearing thin (literally–sometimes I wonder if his skin will break like saran wrap stretched too far, but I digress). My assumption is that he is pushing himself too hard, rushing through his projects, taking on too much work (please PLEASE stop scoring your own films). His recent work has been collectively too long (read=rushed through the editing process), uneven in tone, and meandering towards perplexing conclusions that seem slapped on and unsatisfying. These troubles make for a disappointing J. Edgar biopic, but most frustrating is the watered-down, sympathetic version of a complex figure in history.
I’ll own up to some ignorance on my part–though I do have a B.A. in history, I did not know very much about Hoover before the film (in fact, I suspected that my friend and I were going to see a film about this guy). I had no knowledge of his political background, his legacy, or anything. J. Edgar is not a political drama or epic biography. It is a portrait of a man struggling with self-loathing from societal expectations, though not a good one.
This side of Hoover is certainly interesting, though in a film structured as the sweeping historical biopic Eastwood had us anticipating, it feels like it doesn’t belong. J. Edgar would be an ambitious project for any filmmaker, but Eastwood’s rush job leaves us with a frustrating, scattered picture, with no real attempt to show us any convincing version of J. Edgar Hoover.Continue Reading »
Dearest readers, I am fully aware that I have had nothing to offer you but radio static over the past few months.
You see, it’s mostly my fault. Sometime shortly after the Oscars, I find myself wandering aimlessly without any films to be excited about. Sure, I can look towards the next year, but it’s very difficult to discern what may turn out to be good. And on another note, hype seems to situate itself on the shoulders of big blockbusters – the Captain America‘s and the Cowboys and Aliens of the world, not the good stuff that must find a charitable (and loud) voice around festival time. The truth is that there’s just not much to talk about in the off season, and when I’m not enthusiastic about something, it’s just not worth writing about. This is mostly my fault, but it’s also the fault of every studio that releases their movies in this way (but that is a rant I have delved into before and will spare you from at this time).
So what is there to catch up on? I have seen a few films so far this year. Some were quite good, some were quite bad, one was very good, and some were very bad – like when a friend and I decided on a whim to catch Red Riding Hood. I spent another impulsive evening watching Water for Elephants. I saw many things that were very middle-of-the road for me – entertaining enough to warrant an afternoon in the a/c (Super 8, X-Men: First Class, and Bridesmaids). I also saw the one big blockbuster I was really anticipating (mostly nostalgia for the books), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which turned out to be much better than expected, with a formidable turn by Ralph Fiennes (who doesn’t really get to show his worth in the series until this film).
Another film I had been waiting YEARS to see is Tree of Life, which Terrence Malick finally released after what seemed like a decade in the cutting room. Like so many of Malick’s fans, I have mixed feelings about the whole production, but they are mostly positive feelings. Focusing on the central narrative of a 1950s Texan family helps, as all the other stuff feels disassociated. To see this film in mid-May, at the very least, offered something unique and unexpected.
Fresh out of a successful run at the Cannes film festival last May, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris drew me into the theater twice this summer. If you want further thoughts on that, you could scroll down and read my review of the film.
And then, just when I needed to see something to get me excited about movies again, I found Beginners a few weeks ago at the local arthouse theater in Cambridge. Christopher Plummer takes on the role of a gay man coming out in his 70s following the death of his devoted yet complacent wife. This beautiful story is told from the perspective of his son, played by Ewan McGregor, who grapples with the sudden change in his father’s life. I saw Beginners back in August and I have not seen anything else since.
It’s been a slow summer with a few pleasant surprises mixed in there. Needless to say, I am ready to forge on to another great year for movies. It really has only just begun, as festivals are in full swing, and the good stuff is on its way.
Unknown Critics may start to look a little different. I’m planning to start reviewing again, and often. Some of my friends have graciously offered to contribute, and I hope that you’ll find their voices as insightful as I do. A new Black Swan or The Social Network is right around the corner, and I can’t wait to relish in what the season has to offer.
Cheers.Continue Reading »
Review: Midnight in Paris
Notre Dame. Montmatre. Sacre Coeur. It would be unfair to say that the streets of Paris serve as a backdrop for Woody Allen’s latest romantic comedy Midnight in Paris. Rather, the city itself takes center stage, playing the role of life-changer to Owen Wilson’s neurotic screenwriter/novelist/lovable doofus/youthful Woody Allen-substitute. Paris walks into the protagonist’s life, overwhelms the screen, and tricks the audience into believing that Midnight in Paris is Woody Allen’s return to his 1970s heyday (it’s not). Nevertheless, I’ll be the first to admit that I am more than happy to be tricked by Allen’s magical characterization of the City of Lights in Midnight in Paris.
Early on in the film, Owen Wilson’s character Gil and his fiance Inez (played by Rachel McAdams) visit the Versailles Palace on a sunny afternoon. They are accompanied by Inez’s former professor Paul (Michael Sheen) and his girlfriend Wendy (Mimi Kennedy). Inez flirts with Paul, who pedantically serves as unofficial tour guide. It’s all so familiar to Allen fans. Meanwhile, Gil, a successful screenwriter working unsuccessfully on his first novel, takes in the palace with a warm sentimentality that drives the film through the heart of Paris marked by nostalgia and the romantic past.
The same adulterous entanglements that occupy much of Allen’s filmography are at work here, and McAdams’ Inez is the “obnoxious shrew” at her worst (and I don’t mean that in a complimentary, Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona kind of way). Paris‘s female actors struggle with their surface-only, flat characters, and the adultery is worthy of an eye roll among tired audiences.
Shortly after the scene at Versailles, Midnight in Paris picks up the pace when Gil finds himself wandering the Parisian streets at midnight. He whimsically joins a friendly party in their vintage car and soon discovers that he is now in 1920s Jazz Age Paris, carousing with artists and expatriates including Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, and Salvidor Dali. In the wrong hands, such a scenario would never have worked, but Allen lets the campy atmosphere simmer and the absurdity never seems unreasonable. Gil takes the advice of his new friends and revisits the problematic novel he’s been working on. The more Allen pushes the boundaries into 1920s Paris, the more enchanting and endearing Midnight in Paris becomes.
Despite grating flaws in the female characters and a frustratingly contrived ending, all is forgiven for Midnight in Paris due to its nostalgic energy and the overwhelming charm of the main character—the city of Paris. Allen has proved time and again that he thrives in character studies about tourists in his favorite cities, and it’s safe to assume that he truly loves Paris.Continue Reading »
I remember when bloggers decried the 2008 Best Picture nominations for including two films (Frost/Nixon and The Reader) virtually nobody had seen. The exclusion of excellent, widely seen movies like The Dark Knight led in part to ten Best Picture slots in 2009. But with 10 Best Pictures to see, moviegoers can’t shell out for them all, and so some nominees have smaller box office than ever.
During their theatrical run, The Kids Are All Right and 127 Hours grossed around $21 and $18 million. Winter’s Bone landed at $6.5 million, lower than any nominee since 1983. Since sales have shifted to DVD and Blu-ray, those numbers are locked. On one hand, the ten slots give a boost to extremely limited releases—Winter’s Bone played in only 141 theaters, compared to Toy Story 3’s 4,028 screens. But while a few pictures gain momentum, how much can we say the others really benefit?
More after the jump:
Continue Reading »