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127 Hours (2010)
"If I believe there's more than this", sings Dido, that forgotten British lady who gave us great hits and beautiful songs such as "White Flag" and "Here With me". She always had a lovely voice, but these words she's singing in the name of Aron Ralston, the man who got his hand caught in a huge rock while climbing in the John Blue Canyon in Utah. We know who Aron is in a heartbeat; that is, James Franco defines the character in a couple of scenes. This he does not by speaking, but by actions: singing freely, running wild. Aron meets two girls and they sense he could be from another galaxy. He cares about nothing, he has not another person in mind and what he needs and loves is in front of him: big mountains.
That's also what Danny Boyle needs. The mountains and James Franco are sufficient elements to make a whole movie. On the other hand, I think that by now we can agree that Boyle (alongside writer Simon Beaufoy) loves to inspire these days. That's what "Slumdog Millonaire" was and what "127 hours" is: inspiring (and inspired I might say this a lot, but it's true-) filmmaking. If the previous film was about impossible love and rising above the circumstances to achieve the impossible, this new tale is the same thing, without the "love" factor. That is the factor that allowed Boyle to tell "Slumdog" as a fable, with hopeful music, bright colors and beautiful little things (or moments) in the ugliest places. For those who thought this was an erroneous decision, disrespectful towards a country's reality, "127 hours" arrives to prove them wrong.
There's no embellishment here. No other color than James Franco's pale face and the red blood that comes out of his trapped arm. As real as a man who struggles for his life, with no water and food, begging for some sunlight and the response of a raven, the tale while never losing track of its tragic center, that Boyle and the master Anthony Dod Mantle try to represent through various 'desperate' shots, like Aron's tongue seen from the inside of a bottle of water and other camera and mise-en-scene resolutions- takes flight through imagination.
In Aron's situation, in which he tries to rise above the impossible as he thinks about who he is and what he's done in life (painfully- "every moment since the day I was born has brought me to this rock", he whispers-), imagination can be nothing but poetic (it's hard to accept it, but poetry in cinema visual, narrative poetry- can be boring, really boring not always-. Boyle makes it inspiring. I started with that statement so I'll try to get back to it). Aron searches for moments in the past, he envisions people in the dark and meticulously reconstructs a near future. Poetic means inexistent piano melodies in the air, or a beautiful woman saying an "I love you" that no one can hear. Some of the things he experiences are otherworldly.
The most recent movies about characters alone with the world were Sean Penn's "Into the wild" and Rodrigo Cortes' "Buried". The first movie is about a boy who has lived a lie and decides to find truth in standing alone in front of Mother Earth. His personal story has affected him, and before he's completely by himself, he changes (willingly or not; it doesn't matter, it just happens) the lives of the people he meets. Chris (or Alexander Supertramp) has an ideology and talks a lot about it, but it's not the most consistent element of the movie. In "Buried", ideology is everything, powered by a great original idea. A man is trapped in a coffin, underground, and as he tries to survive (there are some good 'survival' sequences), every line of dialogue is spoken to criticize the government. There's no personal story whatsoever, only daggers thrown at the policies towards hostages in foreign land.
Let's recapitulate, because I want to get to the transparent inspiration that lies in the story of "127 Hours". In "Into the wild", Supertramp ends up alone in Alaska by personal choice. You can be inspired by several reasons that can be found in the journey of the film (a road trip in the end), even more if you believe in the character's ideas. In "Buried", the main character is captured on purpose. You can be inspired if you support his political ideas, his will to get out of that coffin or his family waiting at home? There's not real inspiration there.
In "127 Hours", however, Aron being trapped is not planned (this is all the more surprising), but as he goes back on who he is, at some point he even believes it was not an accident. It's that idea what's inspiring. Aron spends 127 hours revising these thoughts. He rediscovers himself as a person and we get to know him as a man who wants to overcome the impossible. What's even more purely inspiring, besides the fact that Boyle fractures the screen and races through the scenery in order to make this introspective journey more exciting (as only himself can); besides the fact that the director has found in A.R Rahman the perfect partner to tell stories that cannot live without music (now without HIS music); and besides the fact that James Franco takes on the role as if it was his own life on the screen; is that unlike a lot of these kinds of movies, Aron does what he does not to prove a point, or to set an example, or because he stands for something. He does it for himself because he wants to. In those hours, he somehow realizes he has to do it. Well
that's when nothing can stop you.
A new race
It's not so difficult to realize, on a first glance, the intentions "Hancock" has as a motion picture. It has Will Smith in the lead role and as a producer; it's an action picture with a lot of adrenaline and visual effects; it's, and this is never a little fact, a superhero movie. This said, it's also easy, with one look, to notice that the film presents a turn on the typical superhero plot development. We've got to be fair: the script by Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan is original and character driven, but "Hancock" is not the first recent film that tries to bring something different to the superhero table; animation plays with the concept of superheroes all the time, and this will continue to happen. However, when it comes to live action and in an era of mature "Spider/Iron/Super/Bat Man", "Hulk" tales (which never lack sense of humor), John Hancock represents a new race. Precisely because he didn't came from a comic book and because his story doesn't necessarily emulates the steps of the other stories, this is also a race of superhero film we won't see very often.
Always comic but never a parody, "Hancock" presents us a man with powers, who fights crime and saves lives but has recently lost his popularity. We look at him and we sense something profound in his eyes. He's not a millionaire, or a doctor, or a lawyer He's just a man, an immortal human being with a lot of strength who drinks all the time and isn't able to do his job right. But is this his job? We don't know anything about Hancock, but Smith never plays him with a pose: too smart, too cocky, too serious, or too drunk for that matter. There's a short sequence, with beautiful music by John Powell, in which we see Hancock by himself. He's not comfortable with who he is, and it's never the film intention to mock him, even when everyone keeps calling him an 'asshole'.
Therefore, on a second glance, it's once again easy to perceive that story and characters mean more to Peter Berg than the bad guys Hancock has to fight (or what I call 'events'). There are a few action sequences, but they are not necessarily impressive. It seems to me it's always more about what Hancock will do, for him, in each case, than the shock the audience will receive, visually and in terms of sound. At the same time, there's a more detailed construction in the conversational scenes. Missing elements and unsaid things in the dialog combined with strong looks on one hand; unexplained warnings on the other. Of course, this is not entirely serious or dramatic, but it's obvious and transparent. Always comic, the movie has silly musical montages and there are comic touches in a lot of situations but the actors are when it comes to drama- well directed, focused (specially Jason Bateman); and if I don't tell you anything else is because there's a story worth watching and the way things unfold is natural and not at all definitive. Also, even though it's a short ride, when it's over it's not like there was a big case closed, a mystery solved or a lot of people saved in an event. There's just life, with its (sad) comings and goings, and we want to know more about the people whose lives we've witnessed for a while.
Everything in the film is, nevertheless, completely entertaining, given the fact that Will Smith is a winning actor who understands what the audience wants, in any genre he's doing; and because Charlize Theron is beautiful and we can't take our eyes off of her. I saw in "Hancock" other things, specific elements I chose not to mention that made this for me a different, enriching experience. The elements are there. You can think of them as part of an uninteresting whole or you can give them more credit. Anyway, is as The Dire says: when there's a good story
Sometimes there just comes a great movie...
It might be the effect of watching a lot of bad films in a row but the truth remains: sometimes there just comes a great movie. Jesssica Sharzer's "Speak" is one of those pictures that gets everything right. Like "Thirteen" or "The virgin suicides", it chooses characters, explores their environment and takes care of covering every aspect of a heartbreaking story. A heartbreaking story told, shot with respect is not the only thing these films have in common. The most important characters are girls, and the writer/directors are women. This can't be a coincidence. However, what changes is the point of view. Where "The virgin suicides" was seen through the eyes of boys and "Thirteen" was a whole new (extreme at times) experience for a high school girl, "Speak" takes a step back. It's a humbler movie; neither entirely poetic nor filled with the emotions its main character is desperate to express.
Melinda (Kristen Stewart) has done something terrible and is starting the new school year without friends. She wants her friends back, but something else happened and it's making very difficult for her to walk calmly around the hallways. There is a reconstruction of events, poetically narrated, which includes images that represent the bliss of adolescence and its biggest fears at the same time. The music, a fantastic score by Christopher Libertino, works perfectly when we witness the past and also Melinda's everyday life. When her mother (Elizabeth Perkins) wakes her up and she's screaming, she says: "Don't worry, the boogeyman is gone". Melinda knows this is not true. She walks around with ghosts and talks only when necessary. We have the privilege of listening to her thoughts, but the movie title is precise about it: Melinda can't speak up.
"Speak" gets everything right because Sharzer keeps it real. It's an important detail in films like these that things don't get out of hand. Disbelief may cause distraction, but here the camera is not flashy, the dialogue is not excessive, the key moments are not over dramatized; the economy of resources in general is astounding and seems intentional. What we know about the multiple characters is from what Melinda thinks of them in particular moments or what she directly says to them in important situations. The rest we have to figure out for ourselves (specially the relationship of Melinda with her parents, also an important detail in movies like this one). The movie never explains or anticipates too much because its story depends on what we find as we watch it. Proof of this fact is the most outspoken character, and art teacher played by Steve Zahn, who has a typical bohemian/philosophic/life lesson intended speech that for any viewer may sound like bullshit. Art plays a big part in "Speak", but it's not due to the art teacher's words It's simply because of the direct relationship Melinda experiences with art and how it widely affects her; a relationship mainly generated by the art teacher.
Kristen Stewart is amazing. The depressive look on her face she has completely mastered finds its inception in "Speak". High school, lack of satisfaction, quirkiness that is sexy, a world of questions inside a world of unresolved problems and, in the end, some kind of kindness. You could say by now that she's typecast, but if I didn't say it before I dare anyone to find any other actress who can do it better. The close-ups of Stewart here are plenty and I find it hard to write (this means 'try to explain') how two eyes that seem lost in the middle of nowhere can transmit so much. I've already praised Stewart so. I'm a bit tired. Go and watch it for yourselves.
"Speak" is a fabulous experience, though not the happiest. You don't imagine how good it feels when a movie understands that there's nothing more left to show; that the story has been told and the screen needs to go black. I envy the way this film resolves its ending, when nothing else can be said. And don't forget the movie's called "Speak".
The Town (2010)
Affleck's movie directing growth
Ben Affleck's second film is one of the best movies of the year. I'll try to tell you why. First off, it's better than its predecessor "Gone Baby Gone". I find impressive that Affleck decided step it up in almost every aspect: "The Town" runs longer, cuts deeper, increases in action scenes and in character development. We remember more characters and the romantic relationship at the center of the film is given more time and because the script is morally consistent, "The Town" is one of the few crime movies in which we care more about the criminal's life than the success of the robbery of a bank or a truck. Dramatically, it's irresistible.
Talking about increasing risks. After years of trying to build a better reputation as an actor by participating in films that wouldn't stain his image, and after directing a film that gained him respect even when his acting skills weren't as recognized still, Ben Affleck decides to be himself the star of the show. He plays Doug MacRay, an expert robber that works with a very skilled gang in Charlestown: instructed by The Florist (Pete Postlethwaite), they tackle the best jobs in town and, because something always goes wrong, in the middle of a bank robbery, they take the manager, Claire, (Rebecca Hall) as a hostage. They drop her in some beach and start watching her to make sure she doesn't say anything to the police. Because she knows, we know. Doug starts seeing her and later on Claire recalls the robbers told her to walk until she felt the water: "It was the longest walk of my life; I thought I'd fall from a cliff".
Doug starts dating Claire because his impulses tell him so. He can't fight it. Women in both of Affleck's films tend to present this quality that goes beyond beauty: either they are independent and kind, women you want to fly to heaven with; or self-destructive and troubling, women you inevitably want to save. The common factor is that they are both very vulnerable. Both women co-exist in Doug's life, and we can see that he's trapped; he wants to do something. But at the same time, "The Town" is about the things we can't help. I mean, of course, the things we shouldn't really do when we think about them.
Name a character and I'll point out a weakness. The script of the fillm, based again on a novel and written by Affleck and Aaron Stockard alongside Peter Craig, provides characters with huge moral dilemmas. In "Gone Baby Gone", this aspect made its crowning way towards a climatic ending, and it worked. Here it's all over the place, because every decision is apparently life-changing, because every conversation holds a secret. Because the past, never absolutely revealed yet always present, is devastating.
Writing always from the heart but this time without the intention of generating impact, Affleck might have achieved his best screenplay. The genre conventions we find in the story are the ones that make the movie 'activate' (to just say something), but a whole different thing makes the movie breathe. The way Affleck has of capturing, again, a specific place and making it his own. He masters a special mood (thank you for that score again Harry Gregson- Williams), he dominates the codes, he drives the streets and he walks the roofs in order to leave no doubt that he knows, again, what he's talking about.
The characters, and their involvement in a story that we need to see told show the growth and the natural flowing of a director who's as generous as every great actor/writer/director that, from time to time, decides to be the hero. That generosity is expressed in a way that we can realize he's the main star but everyone who stands by him is perfectly chosen to shine and still not surpass him. That's why Jeremy Renner turns in a stupendous performance as Doug's best friend, a fine step to follow his Oscar nomination; that's why Affleck gives Blake Lively of "Gossip Girl" the up to now- part of her life; that's why John Hamm feels at times underused and a bit caricaturized as a federal agent; and that's also why major names like Postlethwaite and Chris Cooper have only a couple of scenes.
I believe these are the right calls, by a director so confident that in the end truly becomes the brightest (in intelligence and in light) star. I honestly think Affleck's performance is the winning one: I believe in everything Doug says and does and I root for him all the way. I found myself touched by "The Town", a film not intentionally made for that effect, but with all the elements in place to end up causing it. If you don't agree with all this none sense, it's only fair to say the film is a part action, part crime, romantic and dramatic feature with family/friendship subplots
Straightly told, visually appealing, Hollywood-ish if you prefer. That should also be enough if you want to make one of the year's best films.
Man on Wire (2008)
Tell me something
The event? It's there, for everyone to read about it. It occurred, of course. You can 'Google' it and now there's also Wikipedia. Let me say that I find it amazing that James Marsh took the time to reunite the protagonists of the event, interviewing then with the objective of getting the most amount of detail possible. Also, when finishing this raw material, I admire his intelligence in the editing room that makes such an easy telling event so much more.
Don't get me wrong; I'm not suggesting it was easy to put a wire between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and walk through it as if nothing during 45 minutes, no. I'm merely suggesting that it's easy to tell what happened: I mean, you can read it in the previous sentence. With the director's editing work, this very short sentence becomes a movie. The process comes to light; the characters recall their feelings and their admiration towards Philippe Petit; a love story surfaces; a friendship story surfaces; a rivalry surfaces. The video and photographic material seems infinite, and most of the movie is, naturally, carefully measured edition because the original footage shot by Marsh involves this somehow fictional recreation of the night and day in which everything happened. The rest? Videos and photographs, taken and shot by the real Petit and his, well His crew.
I should complain about the use of music, sometimes too repetitive, at times too obvious. The way these people tell the story is so natural and pure they seem hired storytellers, almost reading a memorized acted script. I suppose this could be possible, and even though I assume is not, there's no need to accompany the talking with the "appropriate" music and/or sound At least not all the time. Some moments (a few ones, with Petit talking, non-stop) in which the screen is in this aspect- invaded by complete silence, are among the best parts of the film.
And I'm not so disappointed by the musical use because I can see there's true emotion in the movie's center, and with or without music, stretching for it or not, this stands out. What could have been avoided though is the illogical use of photographs and video material to justify or illustrate specific moments of the tale. We found repeated images because of this and it makes you think the filmmaker may not have complete confidence in the effect of pure, heartfelt spoken words.
Because there is a chance that Marsh may have missed the true heart of his documentary, right there in the middle of all the incredible human experience that's presented to us. There you have Phillipe Petit, an artist. A person who was taken to psychiatrists that insistently required an explanation for the things he had done. A crazy little man with a soul so innocent and pure; someone who believes in the beauty of a little moment. It's amazing just to look at him, so convinced that he can make the world better by risking his own life.
All of this, I don't know. I just assume. Part of some documentaries that are fascinated with a persona has to do with transmitting this fascination to the viewer. I said it all over: I'm not quite sure how amazed by Petit the director truly is. It doesn't matter because the artist's presence is so strong that it becomes inevitable to try and see inside him, through his art. Sometimes this is the only way possible, especially with artists. They don't choose to do what they do, they just know they have do it; and watching them doing, and listening to them speaking about themselves doing it is all anyone should need.
I don't need to read Phillipe Petit's biography any more than I ever needed to read Damien Rice's, or Fito Páez's, or Sofia Coppola's or Woody Allen's (to put some cinematographic examples). It's all there: in the songs, in the movies, in their art. Phillipe Petit, a man who sees a picture of two gigantic Towers being built and knows they're building them for him, is the living proof one of many, surely- of this fact that I believe a lot of people take for granted. We pretend we know about it, we assume we understand, and yet we keep watching and listening and we keep asking: "Why? Why?".
Shut up. There is no "why".
The Time Traveler's Wife (2009)
When a movie introduces a supernatural element from the beginning, from its title, it's easier for the viewer to forgive a real world in which a human being travels through time without being able to handle it, like in "The time traveler's wife". Evidently, that's not the only thing we'll forgive. For example: Henry (Eric Bana), the film's main character, appears anywhere completely nude and sometimes his travels are too arbitrary in favor of the story. Besides, Henry is a man who doesn't work or do anything which is understandable given his condition-, and his travels make him encounter specific people in the most random places. Of course his work can't be to travel in time, and the film sustains one or two facts that prevent the viewer from getting totally lost; like the fact that the events that happened can't be changed and the fact that Henry tends to travel to places where important things happened in his life. However, what I try to point out here is that during the movie ride the viewer has a hard time finding explanations for how this supernatural thing works. In fact, when Henry meets Clare (Rachel McAdams), she makes an effort to explain. It's not enough. And she's the love of his life (alright, maybe there's a third fact: the movie is very insistent in the connection Clare and Henry have; some kind of larger than life thing).
It's fair to say that the story, based on a novel by Audrey Niffenegger, is mainly about love: about meeting your soul mate so early in your life that you instantly comprehend the sacrifices love will imply. The subject the movie raises in relation with love is worth the attention. You see, for once Eric Bana's lack of charm works positively. Henry is a man who knows things at times and sometimes knows nothing; he is capable of loving but never able to shake off his condition. Therefore, he lives with it and a constant sadness invades his face, inevitably. On the other hand, in Clare we have a girl who has idealized someone her whole life and now gets to have him for good, with everything that comes alongside this fact. She smiles constantly, she's so incredibly happy, and even when the person she's always dreamed of disappears, she fights internally to keep that smile on her face. It's the perfect role for Rachel McAdams. The actress plays it effortlessly and helps her co-star to achieve a certain chemistry that, for this movie, seems right.
Robert Schwentke, who directed "Fightplan" a few years back, does the best he can with the material. The script is by Bruce Joel Rubin, who won an Oscar for "Ghost", so we can deduce that Schwentke didn't hold back on the cheesiness. A few scenes are genuinely romantic, constructed with tears that the camera emphasizes and a choice of original score (a fine work by Mychael Danna, in a film that is more connected with music than it seems to be) that, from the beginning, sets an intense and melancholic mood that the movie embraces with every image.
But the movie spends more time embracing Henry, and his condition, and the ways around it. "The time traveler's wife" is indeed a romantic movie, with beautiful, sunny (literally) moments; but romance always feels a bit left aside. This is where I believe Schwentke makes a mistake, not taking full advantage of his actors, and giving the tale a narrative rhythm that, while enjoyable (with effort, I might add), is never comfortable for a viewer who wants to connect with what's happening on screen. We pay attention, we want to be there, with the characters and their issues but the movie moves too fast and disconnected, never giving us the chance.
Oh, yes...It's like that
Michael Haneke is still asking the same questions. The context, the people involved in the stories he tells, they don't matter; or at least not as much as what lies behind them. We can easily discover this if we try to read the script of "The White Ribbon", an original story by Haneke that is told, from the beginning, by the voice in off of a teacher. Eventually we learn that this teacher is a part of the story, but he doesn't even remember it well. We could imagine any other details if the images and the settings weren't the ones we see on screen and we were left only with the narrated dialogue.
There's a small village, apparently normal and functional, when suddenly strange accidents begin to happen. That's all we need to know about the plot of Haneke's latest adventure: an adventure for him, to shoot, an adventure for the viewer to experience; a very particular adventure that doesn't have any element we might identify with the word 'adventure' in cinema. But it's always nice to remember that cinema itself is an adventure; and that comes before any genre definitions.
With absolutely no music and with a beautiful, classic black and white cinematography (thank you Christian Berger, for providing a work that we don't need to detail in words because it's right there), Haneke deploys his cinematographic strategy. The strategy has to do, naturally, with the questions he's going to ask. What's important is that it is cinematographic. Viewers, critics, people in general have always been discussing the same thing: how filmmakers leave the viewer wondering, without being able to understand some things when a film is over. Why did this character do that? Why did that character say that? Why did the other one left that thing in that place?
There are directors who have always offered more questions than answers, providing a way of filming and a depiction of characters that justify not knowing. I think the Richard Kelly of "Donnie Darko", or most of David Lynch. These authors not only talk about many things; they also try to distort life, the nature of things as we know them. I mean, they are the guys we shouldn't ask "why did you put the red rose in that drawer?" or those types of questions that they probably can't answer. The eternal discussion mentioned above also has to do with the fact that we can't pretend a director to control every decision and visual aspect of a film.
However, and although this may not be true, Haneke always seems in control. This is related to the fact that the world he depicts can never make the viewer doubt what we call verisimilitude. The village in "The White Ribbon" is a possible place because its basic way of functioning and the people who make it function are the things that make any small village function, with a system that prevails in many places of the world today, whatever the technical development. There's a Baron (a landlord) and his wife, there's a Pastor and his wife, there's a Doctor and his family, there's a Farmer, there's a school and there's a Teacher. Yes, as I said and as it occurs with every story, things happen. But I leave the development for the viewer's enjoyment.
Let me just say I admire "The White Ribbon" for several reasons, all which have to do with the same thing. If we think for a minute, Haneke is talking to us about the most basic things and feelings in life, those that come from the core of human relationships and kids can understand and explain in an early stage of their lives (it's not casual that many of the characters some very important- in the film are little kids). But he does this with such rigor and command of the cinematographic language that everything acquires a new dimension.
One can never question that "The White Ribbon" belongs to a high level of movies we tend to relate with art, or whatever...It's designed that way. And within that design, among the mysteries floating in every perfectly composed shot, we understand. The ending arrives and comprehension arrives with it in a magnified form; magnified by the experience of the (a) movie. Michael Haneke (whom I consider, as you may perceive, a very generous filmmaker) is still asking the same questions, never offering answers about a (our) world that sometimes finds its most complex representations entangled with what's most simple and pure.
The questions this time around sound a bit more like assertions. Not definite statements but warnings. And I believe (or I would be contradicting myself and this review) that these warnings are also in the level of the basic things, and they are only a few, maybe one. Yes, of course we had our suspicions, but learning about it like this makes it resonant, powerful...Utterly unbearable.
Whip It (2009)
Drew Barrymore: the sexy eternal child
Drew Barrymore has seen everything. She's been everywhere, she's worked with everybody; she reached the top, fell all the way to the bottom and, patiently and professionally, tried to climb again. Last year she collected very important awards for her wonderful performance in "Grey Gardens", and she also directed her first film, "Whip it", which is very much like her: charming, fresh, winning, sexy in that very particular way Barrymore always made us think about 'sexy'. Some friends laugh at me when I say Drew Barrymore is sexy; I know she's pretty, but she's sexy too.
Beautiful and confident as Barrymore, Bliss Cavendar is the hero of the film. She's played by Ellen Page, who reminds us of Barrymore not because of her role choices or acting abilities but because she has that special naturalness: not the one that makes you great (anyone can achieve greatness something more related to what others think and rarely aware of the truth inside people-, sooner or later, even if they don't deserve it), I mean the naturalness that doesn't question the fact that someone has been born to live on the screen, forever. Barrymore is that someone, and so is Page.
But the hero Bliss is a particular being. Particular because she innerly defies the suffocating nature of a town in Texas named Bodeen. The film's opening scene is the setting of a beauty pageant. While all of the girls look like Barbies ready to be locked in a box, Bliss is in the bathroom with her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat, revelatory) resolving a situation involving blue hair, if you know what I mean. And it's not that Bliss isn't beautiful (I said she was, didn't I?) and smart; she can win any beauty pageant but she just doesn't believe in it. Still, she does it because it's important for her mom (Marcia Gay Harden, moving as usual). Also, it's not that she's this rebellious, bright, somewhat revolutionary teen that wants to change the world. She wants to get out of Bodeen, plain and simple; and so does her best friend. Wait, I still haven't mentioned the best part about the main character. Bliss perfectly knows what she doesn't want, but she still hasn't found what she wants, what might or not- define her in some way. We see her working in a diner, and then lying in bed. We can tell that she isn't unhappy, but she isn't happy either.
As a director, Barrymore is wise enough to present Bodeen not as the dumb little village it could have been presented as. I guess Shauna Cross, the film's writer and the author of the novel it's based on, knows that a town like this is not always as we watch it on film. But Barrymore holds the key card. She's seen enough to understand there are conventional plot developments that can't be skipped. Hell, she even knows that the dad played by Daniel Stern has to be kind of primitive but good-hearted as no other character in the movie. However, she fights. No, not to bring something new (in that case, the roller derby, a sport and main event of the movie, is unexplored enough): she fights for something pure, honest. The transparent connection she's always conveyed as an actress makes "Whip it" the movie she would have chosen to make but could never be real until now. Now she's the boss.
That's why the music -by The Section Quartet- plays, mostly, as a silent soundtrack, without talking for the characters. That's why the characters, mostly, don't even talk themselves (there's a beautiful love scene, shot underwater, that begins with pure gestures and concludes the same way, with expressive looks and absolutely no words), except for 'Hot Tub' Johnny Rocket (played by Jimmy Fallon who, well directed, is actually good, and achieved the best performance of his career alongside Barrymore in "Fever Pitch"), the narrator of the roller derby games, a necessarily unbearable character that goes against the quiet nature of the film. That's why Bodeen is never really Bodeen and the sermons are never sermons (the conversations between Bliss and her parents, which are many, are short and potent, never aiming for a certain dramatic impact that only occurs inevitably- towards the end and between the parents, or when the parents are on their own). That's why there's a character that sings played by a singer, Landon Pigg.
I mean I might be exaggerating but I think Drew Barrymore is probably the only person who can gather a supporting cast that includes a female stunt double (Zoe Bell), a rapper (Eve), a SNL comedian (Kristen Wiig), two probable skaters who never did a film in their lives (Kristen Adolfi and Rachel Piplica), a relatively unknown comedian (Andrew Wilson) and an Oscar nominated actress, among other things. Of course Barrymore plays a role, but a very little one, graciously exaggerated to the point that the viewer is never waiting for her appearance. Even when it's impossible to miss a moment created by her, entirely for her, in which she shouts "food Fight!", the Barrymore that directs also proves to be selfless and lets her actors shine.
Oh, yes, they shine, in the never-ending tale about finding yourself. The moment in which Bliss meets three roller derby players, something cracks; in her and in the movie, who makes way for one of its few slow-motion shots. When you know what you want, that's when you become sexy. The thing with Drew Barrymore is that she knew it all along.
Shutter Island (2010)
A freakin' nightmare
For all the movies we've seen this last decade about men with mental problems, delusions and so on, Martin Scorsese's "Shutter Island" is the first one that doesn't try to be too cool and modern. In fact, it inhabits its time so well, that if it weren't for some of the main character's recurrent dreams, we could easily think it's happening in this time and age. But the year is 1954, and there's still this little contradiction. Scorsese, a wise and experienced director, doesn't intend to make a period piece in which we should feel 'as if we were in 1954'. No. Because this is the adaptation of a novel, and because he knows cinema and genres like few out there, he gives U.S Marshals Teddy (Leo DiCaprio) and Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) a couple of film-noir type classy hats when we first meet them and also charges the film with a musical feeling that, without being to invasive, takes us back to classic eras. However, the truth is that he is just plain interested in setting the premises for a freaking nightmare; and that's an idea that ultimately makes him and the movie more modern than anyone else.
No one is pretending in "Shutter Island". This is not a movie that has been improvised, shot with some kind of 'let's see how it goes'. It's not the director's usual territory, but that doesn't mean that he's going to step on new territory with trembling hands. No, the one who does that will be Teddy, in a ride that haunts and frightens the viewer, confusing him at the same time. Teddy and Chuck arrive to the Island to resolve the disappearance of a demented patient, but once Teddy finds out about a conspiracy, there's no way back. "Shutter Island" grabs you and never lets you go until the last minute. Scorsese's always been good at that.
Still the territory remains new and unexplored for the viewer: it's Scorsese's slowest (yes, it's the word) film in years; there are few specific sets and locations, there's few action and very few characters to meet. We realize when leaving the theatre that the camera doesn't leave Teddy for an instant and that the director's highest interest is to keep track of everything that goes on in his conflicted mind. It's almost claustrophobic, but in the end it works because the interest the film has for Teddy is genuine and there's never an intention of fooling the viewer. No mind blowing script trick to generate an unforgettable ending, no speeding things up to jump into easy conclusions; "Shutter Island" is the first movie of this kind that ends circularly and because of character. This means the film starts the end credits and we know it hasn't ended but we believe it, because of the things mentioned above. This is easier to understand if you've seen films like "The I Inside", "The Butterfly Effect" and "Secret Window"; the last two not bad films, just movies that reached its conclusion in a convenient and abrupt way, not gradually.
Every aspect of the film is handled with the most of care so Teddy's journey really seems gradual. Even the recurrent dreams in all its different shapes, which are bound to upset and tire you, appear as completely necessary. There's no trick there; just great film-making by a fantastic crew. The cinematography of Robert Richardson, Thelma Schoonmaker in the editing room. And DiCaprio's performance (another giant work) helps a lot, considering that he continues to hold the title of "Hollywood's most intense look" and that he might be, right now, the only Hollywood star capable of delivering a tour-de-force with complete conscience of his range; of where it starts and where is the limit he shouldn't exceed. I go crazy with Clooney's abilities, but I know it's himself and it's effortless; I love Depp's eccentricity but I admit that this decade in movies he's been long gone from the real world as we know it; I admire Day Lewis' excesses, but I still can't be touched by a performance that's so intentionally over the top (I could go on with the names, believe me).
But DiCaprio...He always seems to be trying really hard and his face a lot of times looks like suffering itself. And that's what makes him real. That's why we choose to believe the things he experiences here and in so many other movies could be happening to him. He's not so out of reach; he doesn't even start to buy what's going on himself. Someone like Jack Dawson with the chance of boarding the Titanic? Really?
Alice in Wonderland (2010)
Imagining Tim Burton
It's a challenge for someone like Tim Burton to do an adaptation of the Alice books by Lewis Carroll. You see, Burton has never been and could never be recognized for his writing, most of which he doesn't do. What I mean is that he always starts from scratch, as he bases his movies on things to create especially breathtaking worlds. His art has always been more on the visual side than on the storytelling, and in many ways his "Alice in Wonderland" is a confirmation of this and of his talents as an author; his capacity to remain unchangeable through everything.
He doesn't have to, but apparently he wants to and, if anything, his "Alice" is the new expression of a co-existent universe that persists among all of his films. This universe is also coherent, because visually it has a special, recognizable mood, always accompanied delightfully by Danny Elfman's original music. Seeing Alice opening that little door and entering Neverland is not very different from Ichabod Crane's recurrent dream in "Sleepy Hollow", or from Edward Bloom's arrival to Spectre in "Big Fish", for that matter.
What else can I tell you about a story we all know? What else can I suggest than going in and see for yourselves what Tim Burton has made with it, visually? Cinema being a visual art and Burton being a visual master, the result is, and this should be a unanimous thought, one dazzling set after another, with a particular choice of color and light that should be related to the characters who inhabit each one. The most interesting of these choices might be the normal world Alice lives in; a boring, organized, aristocratic, choreographed London that Burton shoots with irony, occasionally transforming it into something more edgy with the thoughts of Alice's imagination (imagination is the key to every Tim Burton movie).
If you don't know the characters, any review should say nothing about them so the movie ride becomes a bit more unpredictable and surprising. It's clearly a story that screenwriter Linda Woolverton (who wrote "The Lion King" among other Disney features) thought about once and wrote without expecting many changes, and probably Chris Lebenzon treated the editing process the same way.
The story and its development, obvious and rudimentary, adds nothing new to the table. But the movie reminds us that the co-existence of a whole universe among all the Burton films is not only visual; this universe also exists thematically. Maybe the director was never able to sustain a complete story he doesn't achieve it here- and maybe now I realize (I was telling Grillo) the reason I love "Big Fish" so much is because, like I said in my review, it's a "collection of beautiful scenes that don't cease to amaze us"; therefore so many little stories that don't have to be explained and completely resolve, have more weight than the story of a man and his son that is the movie, which, by the way, is the movie's point: "The man becomes his stories".
But that man, Edward Bloom, was one of Burton's outcasts, nostalgic and imaginative (again, the key to any Burton movie), constantly going back to his childhood years, where unresolved dreams and issues always awaited the mentioned Ichabod Crane, and an Edward who wanted to have real hands, and a Willy Wonka who wanted his father to be proud of him. In this way (and there's probably things I'm missing that will come back soon or revisiting the director's films), it's perfectly clear that the Mad Hatter (the most developed character in this movie; there always has to be one above the rest) has lost his head and is always looking for a sense of 'whatever you wanna call it' in his life; you can see it in his crazy eyes. With or without Alice. Before and after her.
And some people still wonder why Johnny Depp is the absolute protagonist of the film.
Special note: The portrayal of Alice by Mia Wasikowska, which will never be recognized, is one of the best performances you'll ever see in this genre. The idea of a child who wants to dream but knows that it should be impossible at a particular stage of life; a constant disbelief for everything she sees that can be perceived in her look and annoying tone of voice; a little girl who's becoming a woman but knows her father spoiled her too much and it will be difficult to change that and accept maturity. A girl without self confidence, even when she knows she has all the answers.