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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
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.
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" (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!
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.
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
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.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
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.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
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
"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.
"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.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I watched "City of God" for the first time when it was initially
released on DVD in Brazil (didn't get a chance to see it in theaters,
but followed its gradual and glorious popularity, which started when it
premiered at Cannes 2002, out of competition). Since it was officially
released in the US only in 2003, it was eligible for the Oscars the
following year (but no longer for Best Foreign Film, since it was the
previous year's submission and it got snubbed), earning four
nominations in categories no Brazilian film had ever been recognized
before: director (Meirelles, co-director Lund didn't share the nod),
adapted screenplay (Braulio Mantovani, based on Paulo Lins' book),
editing (Daniel Rezende), and cinematography (Cesar Charlone). I saw it
again in 2007, after living in the US for one year, and the impact was
even bigger; just rewatched it last week, and now, more than ever, I
agree with the instant classic status this hell of a film earned.
That does not mean I didn't like it the first time I saw it. I did - a lot. But, at the same time, it felt like deja vu - Brazilians like me grew up used to watching horrible stories like this on the news since we were kids, and although I was fortunate enough to have been raised in a small, peaceful town and never suffered from violence or extreme poverty as the people shown in the film did; Brazilians tend to grow callous of our country's status quo of violent third-world nation. Things are slowly changing for the better, but there's so much work that needs to be done; still, one never loses faith in their country's future.
The first paradox is the movie's title, which is the actual name of the largest 'favela' (slum) in Rio de Janeiro, a beautiful city most regarded internationally for its postcard-perfect beaches, the statue of Christ the Redeemer and the classic "Girl from Ipanema" tune. You would expect "City of God" would be a beautiful place, and although it's part of beautiful Rio, it is far from it. It is a place where hell breaks loose (has had since the 1960's, where the action starts), and the movie focuses on two boys, Buscape and Dadinho, who grow up to be, respectively, a photographer (earning his way out of the favela, not without a price), and one of the most feared drug dealers/assassins in the history of the town.
Another paradox is the frequent misconception of the movie's relevance. The non-linear narrative and stylish, frantic editing are reminiscent of Tarantino's 'Pulp Fiction', and the film was heralded as a "South American Goodfellas". These are fair comparisons, but they can also undermine the film's devastating impact and social relevance behind all the cinematic pyrotechnics involved. "City of God" may be considered a spectacle victim of the MTV fashion (which ranges from the quality of a "Trainspotting" to the stupidity of Michael Bay's extravaganzas), or a movie that uses such modern narrative conventions to tell a painfully brutal real story (that's been repeating itself for decades) in a palatable way. The polished visuals may remind you that you are seeing a movie; but the raw cruelty of seeing little kids having to choose whether to be shot in their hands or feet, just to cite one of the film's most scathing moments, won't leave your mind.
This is not just a film, but a story of chaos on earth, a human tragedy that shouldn't be ignored or forgotten. Some may see "City of God" as an 'action movie', but they will be missing its real meaning, and the power that a good film can have to make us see beyond our general scope of reality.
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