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Song to Song (2017)
When a brilliant auteur goes down
First off, I must say I am not a Terrence Malick hater. On the contrary: I used to worship the man. I even took an entire course in film school dedicated to him, Orson Welles, and Stanley Kubrick. I think the 5 films Malick did in the first 38 years of his career ("Badlands," "Days of Heaven," "The Thin Red Line," "The New World," and "The Tree of Life") are all masterpieces. I even liked "To the Wonder," which was almost universally panned, even though it was clearly not in the same league as his previous films. After the acclaimed "The Tree of Life," Malick (now 73 years old) has been working on several projects in different stages of production. He filmed "Song to Song" immediately after "Knight of Cups" (released last year) back in 2012, and it's only being released now, as a 129-minute film, after almost five years of post-production and at least 8 editors to turn it into something remotely coherent (reportedly, the first cut was 8 hours long). Unfortunately, like "Knight of Cups," "Song to Song" feels like a parody of Malick's work: the extensive, mumbling voice-over narration by all the main characters (taken to the extreme), the stunning imagery of nature and high-end real estate, and gorgeous people literally walking in circles and acting cute (or mean) to one another. The very thin plot revolves, as you heard, around two intersecting love triangles set against the music scene in Austin, Texas. But music doesn't play a great part in this story, and it certainly could have elevated it.
As abstract as Malick's earlier films could be, they all had tangible, rich, philosophical and often universal themes. "Knight of Cups" and "Song to Song" are pure cinematic masturbation. Malick's trick is getting some of the biggest (and best-looking) film stars in the world, and his main actors (Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender, Natalie Portman) have faces that one can easily watch for hours. But not even these great stars can masquerade the emptiness of the film. Mara has the most screen time of them all, being the only true leading character here, while Cate Blanchett, Holly Hunter, Val Kilmer, and Berenice Marlohe are reduced to cameos. There's at least one painfully genuine moment, near the end, featuring Hunter's character, but it only lasts a few seconds; Malick's gaze isn't interested in her emotions. He'd rather show us, for the umpteenth time, Mara and Fassbender being flirty and sexy instead.
I am all about experimental cinema, but when you realize that this is the deepest sort of "experimental" project that Hollywood can put out (made by a revered auteur that movie stars almost pay to work with), you feel even more nostalgic for the daring collaborations between Tilda Swinton and the late Derek Jarman. I know people who deemed "Knight of Cups" a "masterpiece" and will probably say the same about "Song to Song." I try to be respectful of other people's opinions, but I really don't think we're seeing this film through the same lens. I still admire and respect Malick; I just liked his work more when he had something to say. Right now, I see him as someone who can afford to make gorgeous-looking home movies just for his pleasure, but he's a much more interesting artist when he expands his canvas into something we can truly care about.
Le bonheur (1965)
Deceptively simple, brilliantly subversive masterpiece from the legendary Agnes Varda
I have admired the work of the magnificent Agnes Varda ("Cleo from 5 to 7," "Vagabond," "The Gleaners and I," etc.) for years, yet I had never seen "Le Bonheur" (aka 'Happiness,' 1965) until now. It's one of her masterpieces, a perverse 79-minute fairy tale in reverse that is deceptively simple and brilliantly subversive.
Varda's inquisitive camera follows a happily married, attractive young couple with two kids (played by Jean-Claude Drouot, his actual wife Claire Drouot, and their own children Olivier and Sandrine). Everyone is perfectly happy and joyful, until François (Jean-Claude) meets another pretty blonde, Emilie (played by Marie-France Boyer), and decides that he loves her too. His wife Therese (Claire) is oblivious of the secret love affair, but it isn't long until François confesses to her that he's also in love with someone else. He hasn't fallen out of love with Therese; he has simply come to the conclusion that happiness works by addition, not subtraction. What happens next is what Varda explains as "taking apart the clichés" - and does she succeed at that!
I went into "Le Bonheur" expecting a clever, non-judgmental, very French take on polygamy and societal perceptions about love and happiness. What I got was a visually stunning (Varda's work on the color schemes and the cinematography by Claude Beausoleil and Jean Rabier are a feast for the eyes), morally ambiguous, and subtly perverse film that gets under your skin. In "Vagabond," which Varda directed twenty years after "Le Bonheur," one character says to the protagonist, Mona Bergeron (Sandrine Bonnaire): "You chose total freedom and you got total loneliness." François has his own idea of total freedom; a possessive, egotistical kind masquerading as loving and compassionate. Somehow, he defeats loneliness by choosing happiness over grief. The road to his happiness is another discussion altogether, and it's up for the viewer to decide whether or not there's any integrity behind his actions.
There's no doubt for me that Varda was a true visionary, and I'm so glad that, at 87, she's still working and sharing her brilliance with us. "Le Bonheur," in its apparent simplicity, is more complex and multi-layered than 90% of the films released in our day and age. 50 years after its initial release, it hasn't lost its panache, and still inspires new acolytes, like myself. The Criterion DVD edition, released a few years ago, has some great bonus features, such as recent interviews with Varda and the cast (including the Drouots, still married after 5 decades and claiming that the film helped their relationship!). 10/10.
A technical wonder, a visual stunner
James Cameron has called Alfonso Cuaron's GRAVITY "the greatest space film ever made." I want to believe he means... "after 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY," although that should be a given, right? Nonetheless, Cuaron's follow-up to his brilliant CHILDREN OF MEN (2006) is another landmark in the sci-fi genre. The premise is simple, but the execution is what makes it a work of art. Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a biomedical engineer from Illinois, and astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), must find a way to survive after an accident leaves them lost in space. The universal themes of survival and resistance (in space!) give room for Cuaron and his troupe to create some of the most beautiful visual effects you'll ever see.
As of 10/04/2013, I have seen only 3 films that have used 3D technology to really complement storytelling: Wim Wenders' PINA (2011), Martin Scorsese's HUGO (2011), and GRAVITY. However, even though GRAVITY is just as impressive technically as the aforementioned titles, it is my least favorite of the three because of its lead actors. Clooney is just being Clooney, and although this is the best Bullock has ever been, that hardly means much to me as I think she's a very bland actress. That soulless stare remains there, and I can't help but wonder what someone like Jessica Chastain could have done with this role. In Sandra's defense, I can also say she doesn't compromise the overall quality of the film too much, but she is my major complain about it (there's even an obvious "Oscar scene" written just for her).
GRAVITY may just fall short of masterpiece level, but it's still a fascinating film for its technical achievements. If the Academy does not recognize the work of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki this time, they never will. Go see it in 3D as it's supposed to be seen, and enjoy the ride.
Don Jon (2013)
Solid directorial debut by the most likable American actor of his generation, Joseph Gordon-Levitt
"Don Jon" (formerly known as "Don Jon's Addiction") is the feature directorial debut of the talented and ridiculously charismatic Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He also wrote the script and plays the title character, a young man from New Jersey who's developed: a) an unhealthy addiction to porn; and b) such unrealistic expectations about sex and love (and sex) that not even a "10" like Barbara (a hilarious Scarlett Johansson, in what is easily her best work since "Vicky Cristina Barcelona") can satisfy him in real life.
"Don Jon" reminded me of a great, half-forgotten French film: Bertrand Blier's "Too Beautiful for You" (1989). In that film, a wealthy car dealer (Gerard Depardieu) who has everything including a beautiful wife (Carole Bouquet) falls for his plain, slightly overweight secretary (Josiane Balasko). "Don Jon" is also like Blier's film in the sense that Jon finds his "10," yet he's still unsatisfied. Both films are very different in tone, aesthetics, and geography, but they delicately touch in the realm of our own emotional misconceptions and immaturity. We live in a world where our ever-growing concern about self-image, and the belief that we must abide by unattainable beauty standards in order to find a decent match, have grown so out-of-hand that all we ever do is find obstacles to getting to know anyone who doesn't meet our own ridiculous requirements. We are always waiting for the illusory perfection. Levitt sharply illustrates this issue by way of porn addiction; it might be crude for some, but he manages not to fall into excessive vulgarity or toilet humor.
Also featuring the always wonderful Julianne Moore in an important role, plus Glenne Headly (I've missed her on the big screen), Tony Danza, and Brie Larson as Jon's parents and sister, respectively; "Don Jon" is worth the visit. Here's hoping for more JGL directorial efforts!
The Master (2012)
"I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but above all, I am a man, just like you"
Paul Thomas Anderson has grown as perhaps the greatest American auteur of his generation. At 42, this is his 6th film (following 1996's "Hard Eight", 1997's "Boogie Nights", 1999's "Magnolia" - my all-time favorite -, 2002's "Punch-Drunk Love", and 2007's "There Will Be Blood"). Like the late master Kubrick and the aging master Terrence Malick (who, coincidentally, just debuted his 6th film, "To the Wonder", at the latest Venice Film Festival where PTA won the Silver Lion for Best Director), he isn't the most prolific of filmmakers; but his perfectionist creations, cerebral yet strikingly cinematic and emotional, always leave an indelible mark (polarizing audiences but usually earning critical acclaim). "The Master" is no exception. Shot on 70mm film, it is not so much of an "outside" epic as you'd imagine - although every single image is stunning and perfectly composed (courtesy of cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., who replaced Robert Elswit, Anderson's usual collaborator). It closely resembles "There Will Be Blood" in tone and content, but it stands on its own (Jonny Greenwood is once again responsible for the score).
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a troubled and troubling drifter who becomes the right-hand man of Lancaster Dodd (actor extraordinaire Philip Seymour Hoffman), "the master" of a cult named The Cause in post-WWII America. Their strange, ambiguous relationship is the center of the film. "The Master" is a thought-provoking indictment of cult fanaticism and lies sold as religion, which has caused controversy and concern among Scientologists even before its release. By not mentioning real names, Anderson is capable of broadening the scope of his story and making it richer - and subtler - than a straightforward "Scientology flick" would have been. Like his previous films, there's more than meets the eye at a single viewing, and his attention to detail pays off (there's also a visual homage to Jonathan Demme's "Melvin and Howard", another favorite of Anderson's, in a motorcycle racing scene). Hoffman is as good as ever, and Amy Adams is highly effective (slowly depriving herself of cutesy mannerisms) as his wife. David Lynch's golden girl Laura Dern has a small role as well. But this is Joaquin Phoenix's hour, all the way. River Phoenix's younger brother has become a fascinating actor himself since Gus Van Sant's dark comedy "To Die For" (1995), and, after his much publicized "retirement from acting" and music career hoax in 2009, he managed to come back with a performance for the ages, which shall culminate in Oscar gold. As for Anderson, it is unsure whether the Academy will finally recognize him as he deserves. His films may still be too outlandish for the Academy's taste (he's announced his next project will be an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's crime novel "Inherent Vice", a seemingly less ambitious project he hopes to make in less than five years). Regardless of Oscar numbers, we can rest assured that in a world where PTA gets to make such personal and original work and find his audience, there is still hope, and room, for intelligent filmmaking.
An Emotional Race
I was born and raised in Brazil. Although I'm not a big sports fan (not even soccer!), something I always get made fun of for, I remember vividly the 1st of May, 1994, the day Ayrton Senna died; even though I was only 6 years old. He was indeed a national hero, whether you cared for Formula One or not.
This is a solid, often fascinating documentary about a man's passion; in Senna's case, racing for the win. He won the F1 World Championship three times. His tragic death brings to mind the protagonists of Darren Aronofsky's two latest films: Randy "The Ram" (Mickey Rourke) in "The Wrestler" (2008), and Nina Sayers (an Oscar-winning Natalie Portman) in "Black Swan" (2010).
Still, I wouldn't call this a story about the search for "perfection." Senna's main appeal is its emotional journey. Brazil is a land of so many paradoxes, and so are its people. At the same time we can laugh at our own adversities (poverty, bad politics, crime history, etc.) by seeing the best of everything; Brazilians tend to inherently suffer from low self-esteem and disguised hopelessness which is only defeated at moments of national heroism, often in sports (Pele in soccer, for instance). I'm not saying Senna was a martyr of any sort. I believe he deserved to be called a national hero because of his talent, passion, and the way he entertained and made an entire nation proud. I never personally cared for Formula One, but I still remember the (sometimes annoying, but always nostalgic) friction noise of the racing cars we all saw on TV every Sunday morning. And the victory song that Brazilians will always associate with Senna. This film brings both elements (alongside some great footage) to introduce all these facets of Senna to a larger audience; and for others, like me, to celebrate the life of a true national hero.
I watched this film after a friend highly recommended it. The gay film festivals and critics' awards and nominations it's been getting are much deserved.
Russell (Tom Cullen), a young gay man in Nottingham, UK, picks up Glen (Chris New) at a nightclub. They have a one-night stand but realize they share much more than animal attraction. They spend a weekend together trying to figure out whether or not they can turn this into something "concrete".
"Weekend" is part of the 'brief encounter' subgenre I am a big fan of. It's a 'talkie' for excellence; if you love films like "Lost In Translation", "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset", you'll probably be smitten by this as well. A naturalistic approach to filmmaking - especially to such a dialogue-driven narrative like this - is very hard to pull off; but writer/director/editor Andrew Haigh knows how to create sparks. Special kudos go to the excellent protagonists, Tom Cullen and Chris New, whose on-screen chemistry is palpable, moving, and simply a pleasure to watch. This is a weekend you shouldn't sleep through.
Shiny happy people holding hands...
Lars von Trier is the only director with two films in my all-time top 10 list: "Breaking the Waves" (1996) and "Dogville" (2003). The same way "Dogville" remains the most psychologically disturbing film I've ever seen, Trier's "antichrist" (2009) is easily the most sickening cinematic experience I've ever had. Lars is polarizing even among his most ardent fans. I would never watch antichrist again, for it feels like it was made just for shock value - something I despise.
But the first true thing about Lars is this: you will love or hate his films, but you shall never be indifferent to them. And that to me is, in and of itself, an important quality. With his latest effort, "Melancholia", Trier more than redeems himself from "antichrist", making one of his greatest and most unforgettable films.
"Melancholia" is, like most of von Trier's work, divided into chapters; in this case, just two. The first half is "Justine" (Kirsten Dunst, magnificent), a beautiful but clinically depressed young woman on her wedding day with the sweet, gentle (perhaps, too gentle), and handsome Michael (Alexander Skarsgard). Trying her best to look happy ("I smile, I smile, and I smile"), Justine fails to please most around her, especially her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg, always fascinating) and her prick of a husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland); not to mention Michael himself. Other smaller but essential characters are Claire's son (Cameron Spurr), Justine and Claire's parents (the wonderfully bitter - as always - Charlotte Rampling, and John Hurt), Justine's boss (Stellan Skarsgard), his clueless nephew (Brady Corbet), and Trier's perennial friend and collaborator Udo Kier as the wedding planner (and the closest to a comic relief here).
The second half, "Claire", focuses on Gainsbourg's character's unraveling at the idea that Melancholia - "a planet hiding behind the sun" - might collide with Earth. As Claire and John - the shiny happy people we all strive to be - face despair, the morbidly sad Justine becomes more and more... peaceful. Von Trier has publicly declared his struggles with depression in the past, and he builds his film on the fascinating concept that depressives tend to feel more at home at times of intense distress (and possible catastrophe), while the "normal" people have a harder time facing or even considering tragedy. As someone who's been struggling with depression/bipolarity for years, I can personally relate to this.
Whether or not you're familiar with depression, "Melancholia" is a hypnotic piece of cinema - from the breathtaking images (by Portuguese cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro), to the formidable performances, and the beautiful soundtrack (pieces from Wagner's opera "Tristan & Isolde" are the main theme). Von Trier's work, in my opinion, speaks for itself. He is, above all, a provocateur. He may fail miserably at his attempts at humor and be socially awkward, but I do not believe he is a bad guy - let alone a Nazi (regardless of his infamous remarks at this year's Cannes). One does not need to be a great man in order to be a great artist (in this case, filmmaker); but I do believe a sense of humanity must be inherent in the work of any great artist, and humanity is something I see dissected, questioned, and exquisitely represented in von Trier's oeuvre. And, if the world is indeed going to end in 2012 (which I don't believe, but you never know): as long as it ends the way von Trier predicts, I'm okay with it. See this film at all costs.
The Tree of Life (2011)
On Malick's "Tree of Life"
Last Wednesday, I watched Terrence Malick's fifth feature (in a career that began almost four decades ago), "The Tree of Life", for the second time. I saw it for the first time on opening night at a local theater this past summer, where I brought two friends (who brought two friends of theirs) with me, and we were all fascinated by it. There were definitely not more than twenty people attending the screening, and I saw at least three people walk out during the first half hour of its 139-minute runtime.
"Tree of Life" is, without a doubt, the most polarizing film of 2011. Visually and existentially speaking, it's a "literal" film. Its non-linear, absolutely unique and personal narrative (experimental and visually stunning, Malick's trademarks), however, left many viewers baffled. A movie theater owner in Connecticut even wrote an open "no refund policy" letter to warn patrons that this is an art film, and they would gain a lot from seeing it - but shouldn't get their money back if they decided not to watch it until the end.
Winner of the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, I can't stop relating "The Tree of Life" to Lars von Trier's haunting, mesmerizing, and absolutely gorgeous meditation on depression and the end of the world, "Melancholia", which I also saw for the second time this past weekend and competed with Malick's film at Cannes. Although both films are different at the core topic, they are both existential, visually hypnotic pieces; somewhat experimental, and with extraordinary use of classical music. They're the two most unique cinematic experiences I've had all year so far; and I would argue, two masterworks for the ages.
Although I agree that only time can tell what films are the real classics, it is hard to deny the power of a film like "The Tree of Life", and its impact on the audience and critics. Made with an estimated $32 million budget, it made only $13 million at the American box-office. It is not a financial success by any means, yet people cannot stop talking about it. Now available on DVD, word keeps spreading out of what an astonishing film/what a massive piece of crap "The Tree of Life" is. There's no middle ground. People love it or hate it. But they're never indifferent to it (except those who walked out after twenty minutes, but I don't think they have the right to say anything about a film they didn't see; although it's arguable that this is not a sign of indifference but rather ignorance).
Malick is an auteur, a truly fascinating artist (like Von Trier, Kubrick, Bergman, Welles, Murnau, Altman, Fellini, Godard, and a few others) unafraid of taking risks, provoking and instigating us as an audience, and elevating the film experience to another level. "The Tree of Life" begins with a passage from the Book of Job: "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation... while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" In the Bible, Job is a man tested by God after Satan wagers Job only serves God because of His protection. When Job loses everything - family, wealth, health - he will rather curse himself than God. That was also a concept explored in the Coen Brothers' searing "A Serious Man" (2009). But "The Tree of Life" is not a black comedy, but rather a poetic testament, like Malick's films tend to be.
The main character, Jack O'Brien (played as a child by Hunter McCracken, and by Sean Penn as an adult), whose initials are, not by chance, J-O-B, is unhappy in spite of what it seems to be a very (financially) successful life. His childhood memories (growing up in 1950's Texas) are what we see for most of the film - paralleled with images of the foundation of the earth itself, from the black void to the damned dinosaurs. It's not hard to realize Jack is Malick's alter ego. Like Malick, Jack has two younger brothers, and one of them died at a fairly young age. Such loss was obviously devastating to the patriarch, a domineering Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt), and a loving Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain), a woman who used to believe in taking "the way of grace" through life - in other words, to never ignore traces of divine glory in the world. Except sometimes the way of nature brings such obstacles and tragedies our way that the scars won't easily heal - you want to die with the loved ones you've lost. Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien are the pillars of Jack's foundation; his brother's death and his father's severity, the crosses of a lifetime.
"The Tree of Life" provides more questions than answers. It is, after all, a meditation (and not an analysis) on the human condition. And there lies its richness. Groundbreaking as few films these days are, it's no wonder it's been compared to Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" (Malick even hired Douglas Trumbull of '2001' to design the film's visual effects - Life was Trumbull's first film since 1982's "Blade Runner"). Time will tell how this Tree will stand, but it has, right from its birth, some deep roots in film history.
J. Edgar (2011)
G-Men and Daffodils, Yesterday and Today
"Some people are so precious -- all this hoo-ha about bad role models and positive images! Of course gay people are murderers, bigamists, drug addicts and nasty people -- just as much as heterosexual people are all of these things. What it all boils down to is, we are all people, and we all have the same human desires. It just happens that some desires go this way and some desires go that way. It's sad when people are oppressed. But it's a question of rising above it. Personally, mentally and, if you have to, physically. " Jaye Davidson, famous for "The Crying Game" (1992), when inquired about the way homosexuals are perceived in the media.
Dustin Lance Black, the talented screenwriter/filmmaker who won a much deserved Academy Award for Gus Van Sant's "Milk" (2008), is responsible for another dense, non-linear, and utterly fascinating biopic of a controversial American figure, the first director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972).
Harvey Milk, the openly gay rights activist, was an American hero who deserved and needed to be rediscovered by the world, and the Black-Van Sant-Sean Penn teaming succeeded on that wonderfully. Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio), on the other hand, was a more enigmatic - and definitely less honorable - figure who abused his power to gain fame and admiration (which made up for the emotional emptiness of his upbringing and whole life). Also, Hoover was, as many believe, a closeted homosexual who had a long-term relationship with his protégé, Clyde Tolson (played by Armie Hammer, "The Social Network"). That, obviously, is a big part of this story. But while "Milk" was about somebody who fought for civil rights, "J. Edgar" is a look into the darkness surrounding somebody who, repressed and unloved, used the politics of fear and abuse of power to make a name for himself. Black-Eastwood-DiCaprio manage to humanize Hoover's figure yet without ever trying to conceal or apologize for his despicable acts.
This brings me back to the Jaye Davidson quote with which I started this review. Gay people are no better or worse than heterosexual people. Harvey Milk was a hero, Edgar Hoover was a tragic - yet undeniably guilty - man who used his intellect for less than honorable purposes. This is a great film about a man who did some terrible things, on a large scale. In Black's own words, it's a cautionary tale. It's also a fine coverage of some important moments of American History in the 20th century. At heart, it's about choices. The young men and women out there are capable of becoming Edgars or Harveys, Anita Bryants or Rosa Parkses; it all depends on what they are taught to believe on: the value of power, or compassion.
Also starring Naomi Watts as Helen Gandy, Judi Dench as Anne-Marie Hoover, and Josh Lucas as Charles Lindbergh. 137 min.