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127 Hours (2010)
Honest inspiration
28 February 2011
"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.
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Hancock (2008)
A new race
11 January 2011
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…
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Speak (2004)
Sometimes there just comes a great movie...
10 January 2011
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".
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The Town (2010)
Affleck's movie directing growth
24 October 2010
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.
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Man on Wire (2008)
Tell me something
17 October 2010
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".
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Supernatural Love
22 July 2010
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.
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Oh, yes...It's like that
3 May 2010
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.
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Whip It (2009)
Drew Barrymore: the sexy eternal child
27 April 2010
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.
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A freakin' nightmare
15 March 2010
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?
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Alice in Wonderland (I) (2010)
Imagining Tim Burton
9 March 2010
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.
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Up in the Air (I) (2009)
"What do you want?"
15 February 2010
What do we want? Sometimes our life isn't enough to answer that question. We live day by day and we don't have the time. Ryan Bingham is asked, two times by the same person in Jason Reitman's "Up in the air": "What do you want?". He can't come with the answer. He travels through the world firing people for a living and doesn't have trouble sleeping; we hear his voice-in off saying the air is his home, the airports a reminder that everything's fine; we listen to his conferences that are all about leaving any luggage (literal and metaphorical) behind, and yet he seems unable to decide what he wants. He lives by a philosophy. And it appears that it's something he chose and defends, we can tell in conversations with the two women that get in the middle of his systemic, comfortable life. Well, not everything we choose is necessarily what we want.

Ryan Bingham is played by George Clooney as the kind of man you wouldn't want to mess with. It's not the most appropriate thing for his line of work, but Clooney has that ability to make us believe he's the best at what he does and that's what we think of Bingham: unstoppable, flawless, cold hearted man with a perfect smile…And classy too (you know, we're talking about George Clooney here). He did almost the same thing in "Michael Clayton", except for the smile. In fact, Bingham is so confident that he falls in love and is sure that everything will work out fine.

I think "Up in the air" is a very good movie because Reitman makes sure that we never leave that place. He presents a character and provides him with a 'turning point' that any Hollywood movie would end up in plain happiness –in fact, his own "Juno" did just that- and decides to put everything on hold. Every time Bingham is on the ground, whether it is for a family wedding or a job meeting, we can sense that the air is calling him. It's something the movie makes us feel with elements: a melancholic music filled with acoustic guitars, some looks from Bingham, some smiles that don't seem completely right. The trick is that this doesn't have to be something sad. It's just what it is.

We listen to the sound of backpacks closing, magnetic cards beeping, cell phones ringing. That's how it is in the air. A woman, Kate (Vera Farmiga) arrives and sounds like the perfect mate for that safe, suspended life. She seems to share Ryan's philosophy. Then another woman, Natalie (Anna Kendrick), younger, impulsive and willing to learn, sounds like cheap psychology –she has a major in psychology- and promotes, with and without intention (because she's young and impulsive) a version of a "real" life, the life of married couples and kids; the life that seems planned out; the life Mark Loring was so scared of and the life that more than one character in this film don't feel prepared for…Yet the life every man and woman that Ryan fires treasure.

The contradiction is obvious, and it's Ryan's "turning point". But the characters in Reitman's films are never obvious. They are smart, quirky, sometimes weird people capable of resolving contradictions. The script by the director and Sheldon Turner, based on a Walter Kim novel, is insightful and powerfully dramatic without any melodrama. The employees getting fired suffer and speak the truth, we listen to every one of their words and we empathize.

But we empathize with Ryan too, because we can see him wondering. The conversations he shares with Karen on one hand, the (mostly) discussions he has with Natalie on the other, and one particular three-way talk about life and love, are the moments the movie needs us to pay attention the most. The moments without music, the moments in which Ryan hardly says something that doesn't belong to his philosophy, but at the same time the moments in which he thinks or, at least, he's left with something to think about. We can see it in his eyes, even though the conviction of the performances by Kendrick and Farmiga help to generate this effect (performances that, if anything, confirm Allison Janney, J.K. Simmons, Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner should have had more chances in the Awards period with "Juno").

Does Ryan need a second chance? Does he deserve it? Of course "Up in the air" offers more questions than answers, and I don't think that the journey of its main character has anything to do with redemption. With the risk of analyzing something that might not even be suggested by the movie, I think that Ryan Bingham's journey ends once he finds out what he wants. There are a couple of scenes that show people truly delighted and joyful when thinking about the things they want. One involves the perfect J.K. Simmons; and the other one a map of the world with a lot of photographs. I've always believed the world would be different if everyone did what they wanted because I've always known that it's not what happens most of the time. I don't know if it would be a better world, but different…Different is good.
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To laugh...
8 February 2010
Here's a comedy that, undeniably and more than something like "Role Models", contains many elements of Judd Apatow's cinema. It's something that has to be said when you see a cast led by Paul Rudd and Jason Segel, a script that is based on the idea of male friendship and one or two characters who suffer of what I once called –actually, probably everyone did- the 'Apatow Syndrome'. However, it has nothing to do with Apatow and, as in "Role Models", there are some differences to be found and in these differences "I love you, Man" emerges like a good comedy. It's another thing altogether to say that it's a good movie.

What the film carries (we could say 'drags' too) from Apatow is a certain familiarity of ideas. The script by director John Hamburg and Larry Levin centers on Peter Klaven, a lonely man who's about to marry Zooey. The thing is that Zooey and her girlfriends are worried about the fact that Peter doesn't have any friends. It's fair to stop and to say that the Peter character is played by Paul Rudd, in what's an extension of the role established in "Knocked Up" and slightly modified by David Wain in "Role Models": a laid-back man, not very sociable, dedicated to his wife and work, not sure of who his truly friends are. It's a role Rudd plays beautifully; by heart, yes, but it's brilliant. The fact that he meets Sydney and that he turns to be this lovable, sensitive, musical, honest, charming, hippie man played by Jason Segel takes us inevitably back to the character Segel played in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall". Why wouldn't someone become a friend of Sydney? He's cool and he plays the guitar.

Anyway, the thing is that Sydney starts gaining importance in Peter's life and this drives Peter and Zooey apart…And they're getting married in two weeks. There's not much more than that as far as the plot goes, and you know how it ends. So, I don't know if Hamburg was trying to pay Apatow tribute or what. His last directing credit is "Along Came Polly", a film which is far from Apatow land. But the truth is that, at the end of the day, "I love you, Man" is not more Apatow than the things I've mentioned, and Hamburg makes a rare comedy of it by taking some chances…Not without being sentimental, of course.

You see, Apatow's first idea of cinema was one of a non-stop comedy (you can watch "Anchorman" any time) that slowly evolved into a more complex, dramatic line –probably the result of his own personal life- that, as a director, reached its peak in "Knocked Up". An idea of more developed characters, a detailed treatment of male bonding (friendship, yes), a particular interest in husband/wife relationship and a sometimes excessive sentimentalism recently concluded in complete failure: "Funny People". But what we shouldn't forget is that, no matter how and when, Apatow was always looking for comedy, and we could laugh with his films. Well, "Funny People" is not funny.

All the elements of a modern American comedy can sometimes confuse the viewer or even a director. The good news is that Hamburg knows what he wants his picture to be: a comedy, just a comedy. He plays his cards there and because he does it with balls he succeeds. The romantic elements are very few, the sentimentalism is there, but more as an excuse than ever before during this decade. Meanwhile, the friendship thing is natural and real, but not revealing, as in introducing a new light to the matter.

Where "I love you, Man" has its heart is in the comedy. A comedy that consists in putting the right characters in the right place at the right time so they can say the right things to make us laugh. This sounds redundant, but it has to because it has to be noted that it is planned: the casting is perfect (the two leads of course, and supporting characters by Jon Favreau and Jamie Pressly leading the game; with a nice appearance by Thomas Lennon) and the camera is not too risky so the actors can do what they have to.

But it's not that simple, because the planning includes the complexity of characters, and that's precisely why the actors need to be perfect. Say what you want, but there's not a comic line in the film that doesn't com from one of the characters' sheer nature. The rare quality of "I love you, Man" has to do with the fact that everything that makes us laugh truly seems like something a character, male or female, would say. That character, in that place, at that time. It's basic stuff, but it's rarely seen in a genre that depends, desperately, on moments that are simply there for the sake of a laugh. Here, in a film with not a lot of music, in a film that could be categorized at times of "quiet comedy", we believe what people say. And of course, we laugh.
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Diggers (2006)
What we need
26 January 2010
You feel it. It's rarely that this is an opening statement we can make about a movie. In the case of Katherine Dieckmann's "Diggers", everyone and everything is so transparent, so joyfully alive and in pain at the same time that you can't help but feeling it. The film begins with a death and a funeral...yes, I know, typical, and it hurts even more to say that it happens in the very small Long Island. However, none of the two contrivances are what you'd expect.

Hunt (Paul Rudd), a clam digger, is going to the river so he can make peace with his father (also a clam digger), who shipped out earlier than him and is waiting. He stops by her sister Gina's (Maura Tierney), to get the coffee their dad likes: "Black, three sugar", a nice family detail. When Hunt gets near his dad's boat, he has fallen on the water. His heart stopped. The old man's funeral is not the event itself, but how Hunt's friends (all clam diggers) get to it so we can get to know them: Cons (Josh Hamilton), a drug user who's always complaining about the world and also admiring it; Jack (Ron Eldard), a womanizer who seemingly cares about nothing; and Lozo (Ken Marino), his wife Julie (the beautiful Sarah Paulson) and their kids, a movie family to remember.

There's a beautiful moment, the film's finest moment, which is -not by chance- in the poster. Hunt, Jack and Conso are smoking outside the funeral home in a perfectly composed shot, and some seconds later Lozo comes out the door and joins them to form a beautiful image that we admire to the sound of a gaita. It's funeral music, but the funeral is long over. These people have other issues to deal with: life, work, the threat of a big company, the constant illusion of something mildly better that doesn't betray their ideals. Traditional clam diggers like them would never sell out to a major company.

Between what they hide and what they know (about their lives and about life in general), between what they like and what they don't (love stories, old and new), between what they should and shouldn't do, or what they must do because there's no other way; in a fine line between the promises people make to themselves and the things they settle for, wanders this tale of wanderers. Ken Marino wrote a brilliant, flawed script that asks a lot of questions and makes the viewer ask some more. A developed character piece that ends up in a climax that might be too big for a small place, but nothing makes it less poignant.

Once you've met the characters, you can't leave them behind. You feel it: the need for an answer (like, why do we hurt each other so much?), the solution to the mystery (in another beautiful moment, Hunt stops his boat near Zoey's, a woman he's been watching for weeks..."what are you doing? You broke our silent flirtation", she tells him; and that's a moment of character definition in a perfect performance by Lauren Ambrose), that joy in the midst of the pain.

It says something that Hunt takes lovely photographs, as an amateur; that Gina discovers she wants to live again; that Lozo loves his wife above all things; that Cons is constantly trying to finding a meaning; that Jack may actually mean his love. The performances are splendid, all along, specially Rudd in a role we are not used to see him and proves he can do just about everything and do it right. Marino, who wrote the script and his character, so he understands the 1976 setting feeling enough to create a sympathetic family father that you can love and hate, follows him closely. The roles and performances of Paulson and Tierney are another proof of two immense talents that we don't get to see very often. Eldard and Hamilton: impressive revelations.

We need more of these stories, about feeling. Because Dickmann did a good job with "Diggers", a movie well acted, very well written and developed in every aspect. However, more than anything, very well told. Yes, a lot of well told stories that, if possible, care for characters and understand them, without taking them for granted. And, if it's not much more to ask, no definitive endings. That's what we need
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The meaning of things
25 January 2010
Does Woody Allen really know what it all means? Does he really have this grasp of humanity that few of us are capable of bragging about? Can he really see the whole picture? I don't know, because I don't know what the whole picture is. What I do know, and I appreciate, is that Allen has been trying over and over again, to understand things (that is the world and the people who inhabit it); or at least, he's been trying to say something interesting about them. I also know that he's always succeeded, and that "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" is not a good film because he's not true to himself. It's a movie in which he appears to the viewer as a phony.

On the other hand, something like "Whatever works" is kind of the opposite of what its title and main character profess. Boris Yelinkoff, a once great physician played by Larry David –as much as it hurts to say it- as the Woody Allen of the day, a neurotic, I-hate-everything-in- this-horrible-world man who also happens to think of himself as a genius. It's the Woody Allen of the day because, as always, it's impossible not to think of the Woody persona when we watch a movie in which he's not acting. This Boris is the selected Woody alter ego and professes -to put it in a few words- that come what may, whatever works is just fine.

But this does not apply to Woody Allen the writer/director. While working in London, "Cassandra's Dream" and its moral decisions didn't work so well; in Barcelona, the kissing scene between Javier Bardem and Rebecca Hall, with the Spanish guitarist playing some romantic music in the back, was easily his corniest cinematographic moment in his most disappointing film to date. Luckily, it happens that while in New York again, with a familiar air that refuses to leave behind an opera musical feeling that worked very well for him during this decade, with performances from a fresh and fluid cast that –as much as it hurts to say it- should have had him present, Allen achieves a very good comedy and it becomes clear that it's not 'whatever works'... THIS is what works!

It's a very good comedy because it's not merely romantic although it contains romance as its main element. Boris, I forgot to mention an old grumpy man, tells us that he tried to commit suicide once because of love and it didn't work. Oh, yes! He talks to us in what the plot sees as delusions of grandeur, but we know it's Allen talking to us, looking directly at the screen, as he hasn't done in years. No more voices in off or significant shots, this is Woody betting on characters and Boris is his vehicle for it. Repetition has to make clear: Boris is not Allen because we can't see Woody on screen; but that doesn't mean we don't feel his presence, when this time he plays directly with the idea of the movie audience in two crucial moments. Alvy Singer was a bit more intimate; Boris makes everyone part of the picture (literally, the cinematographic framing).

Anyway: love. Comedy. Not a romantic comedy but a movie that makes comic reflections from love. But it doesn't end there. In "Whatever works" Allen also makes room for comments about life that, as messy as they sound, they sound right, as "in place". So, by Allen, through Boris and from love we experience sex, culture, prejudice, racism, the fear of death, science, art and whatever you may think of. The beauty of it is that, because Boris is the storyteller, everyone passes through his eyes as we see them for the first time. The truth is that, for Boris, everyone is stupid and simple-minded; but Allen embraces these stereotypes and develops them fully. That's something only someone who understands characters can do. Allen respects characters, and he respects life.

These are the reasons why "Whatever works" works, unlike what Boris explains. It's also, and this is not a minor detail, the best Woody Allen picture of this decade since "Match Point", a comic high point that plays as the perfect opposite to the dramatic one that the movie made in London was. And, furthermore, it lives with the contradiction of being perfectly simple, only because it doesn't get to be simply perfect. The final explanation of the contradiction: the film is perfectly simple because it's perfect in its whole complexity and yet it appears to the viewer as the movie most simply shot in a long time; but it isn't simply perfect because it's not its turn...because Woody Allen always can do better, and his next masterpiece is just around the corner.
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What have you done?
22 January 2010
It was the same with this other film, "The Accidental Husband", about a woman who ends up meeting someone that's not Mr. Right, but somehow seems right. And it's not only the plot and the outcome that are alike, there's something entirely wrong about the planning of both films, and the decisions they take. It's something that has to do with trying to defy clichés that ends up ruining the clichés they wanted to defy in the first place. Because this movie, "My best friend's girl", does not try to sidestep clichés or to make them slightly different, fresh and/or original (Anne Fletcher's "27 Dresses" comes to mind); the script gives every detail a little turn -sometimes more than one- and frankly, the film becomes confusing.

Jordan Cahan wrote the film, his first screenplay. There's nothing interesting on it except a reference to Norah Ephron, and it's not a reference this romantic comedy should have the right to make. More of a comedy than romance, it tells the story of Dustin (Jason Biggs), who's in love with Alexis (Kate Hudson) and needs the help of his friend/cousin (the family connection intends to generate some kind of sensible, empathetic moment with a plot line concerning a fight that never works) Tank (the comedian Dane Cook) to make her realize he's the one for her. "I'm Mr. Right, but not Mr. Right Now", he cries.

So, this is what Tank does: he makes women spend the worst night of their lives so they crawl back to their ex boyfriends. He does it by cursing the whole time and, basically, as the movie never gets tired of reminding us -one scene involving a telephone discussion which intends to be funny would be a complete waste if Kate Hudson wasn't so believable in her anger-, an asshole. It's fair to say that this is all the comic material that the film has to offer, and the truth is that the jokes never stop and they only work a few times.

Howard Deutch directed the film. He's so interested in generating laughs that he forgets about everything else that's going on in the film. He develops the love story with disrespect, with too many musical montages and with no concern whatsoever for the characters: therefore, the confusion. This is no joke: in the most easy and understandable of genres, the director's narration is incapable of achieving comprehension, and every time a romantic situation is unfolding, we have to ask ourselves a lot of questions that shouldn't be asked. Some romantic comedies are able to make the viewer think, and when they do it right, the viewer complies and wonders; because the film deserves it. In "My Best Friend's Girl", we are not interested.

The gamble of Deutch is on Cook and his ability for comedy. Yes, he's a comedian but that isn't going to make everything he says funny. We've seen him play this kind of role before in another awful, also sort of sex oriented romantic comedy, "Good Luck Chuck": the insensitive, selfish guy who cares about nothing and then meets a woman that changes his life. After watching him in three films (the two mentioned and the mildly better "Dan in Real Life"), my conclusion is that he's not an actor: he's a comedian in movies. He has the charm and sympathy of a leading man, but lacks the tenderness and meditation. It's like he never stops. So here, neither he nor Deutch stop and a couple of the jokes in the film, because of repetition, achieve big laughs.

Anyway, it's the wrong gamble. Not because the director should have chosen another actor to play the lead, but because the take on the genre is mistaken. Why? The director doesn't even begin to understand it. There are romantic comedies that have succeeded by embracing clichés and making, above all, an intelligent use of them. There's no need to put things in a different order, especially when you're not going to do it right. Deutch doesn't understand the romantic comedy because he doesn't see what's going on with it and what should be done. That's why he gives Jason Biggs a role to play himself one more time and the result is terribly boring; that's why he doesn't take advantage of Kate Hudson's enormous talent for the genre (something directors that work with her should always exploit, even though she'll always do the job well); and that's why, unintentionally and because the actor is huge, he gets from Alec Baldwin the best scenes of the film.

However, the fact remains: Deutch didn't know what he was doing, neither technically nor dramatically. The result is a bad movie that's not even visually stimulating to watch, I mean aesthetically. There's not even one interesting idea in that aspect.
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Funny People (2009)
I guess it's not nice, Wright? - shortened review
29 November 2009
First things first: Judd Apatow's "Funny People" is funny. It's funny because it makes you laugh a lot (and that's something you're always expecting from Apatow), it's funny because it's truly about people that are funny, and it embraces that quality. Taking its three main characters, the result is someone that's funny because he's done things over the years that generate an effect on the audience who see him as someone hilarious; someone that's funny because the first impression he gives is not funny at all so he makes you laugh, but he can truly make you laugh because he writes good jokes; and someone that's funny because in her generally conflictive attitude and her constant mood changes, she appears as someone funny, but as in strange or weird.

The problem that I have when a movie done by Apatow is merely funny, as this one is, is that at this point of his career, I'm expecting more than 'just funny'. I have a right to expect that because of two reasons: I've seen it work and I've appreciated it in his previous films as a writer/director, "The 40 year old virgin" and "Knocked Up", and he's made it more than clear that he wants his audience to receive a bit more than a few laughs.

That bit more has taken the form of things like the "Apatow syndrome", which is a particular way of depicting men in films, and particularly friendship. The bond that super-comedian George Simmons, once he finds out he's dying, develops with Ira Wright, at first an assistant and joke writer that progressively transforms into a friend, is the most complex display of the syndrome yet. It's an idea worth exploring, in form, space and time. Another element of Apatow signature is the role of women, transforming men completely and almost opening their eyes into a new world that might not be better than the one they're stuck in but it's worth exploring. Think of Apatow's previous work, and about what Alison and Trish do with Ben and Andy's lives, respectively. Then again, the role that Laura has played (there's an important presence of the past in this movie) or plays in George's life is less clear. It's another idea worth exploring in form, space and especially in time.

You see, Judd Apatow's main characters evolve movie after movie. Not as in they become better men, but as in they stand in places of more experience in their own movie time, which for us viewers is a time that establishes distance between the movies. George Simmons, protagonist of "Funny People", in this chronology, is the most evolved specimen. Andy was a virgin, lacking in romantic and even friendship experience; Ben was more covered in the friendship department, and though not a winner in the romantic side (Apatow characters will never entirely be), capable of spending a night with a beautiful girl, getting her pregnant and assuming the responsibility. George is beyond all that: he's had love and lost love, the same with friendship, and he might not even make the comparison because he's a superstar. Andy and Ben were ordinary workingmen. It takes an intelligent director to give the role of George Simmons to Adam Sandler.

The first thing we might think is that there has been a removal and that the 'Apatow syndrome' is now located only in Ira Wright, whose best friends are played by Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman, so it couldn't get more Apatow than that. But we're wrong, because Ira and these guys are more than workingmen. They have aspirations, they want to be stars, they want to be comedians and they live with that everyday. It also takes an intelligent director to take an actor he trusts in and change him completely from one film to another. Seth Rogen's Ira Wright loses not only the weight and stupidity of Ben Stone; what also disappears is the lack of ambition. Ira wants to make it, and even when he knows he's not the best, he fights for it, even if it takes betraying his friends.

That's why there's no removal. The environment has changed. In Hollywood, George Simmons encounters Ray Romano, Eminem and James Taylor among others, but he still is the most evolved Apatow being. All alone in a big mansion, about to die, he has to re-connect. This re-connection is, in "Funny People", the 'extra' thing of an Apatow movie: a careful dramatic development that has to complement the comedy, sometimes surpassing it because it's excessive but never being out of place, because it has to do with the characters.

Well, this 'extra' doesn't function here. Maybe this was too personal for Apatow: we can see that the environment is the one he's lived in and it's no minor fact that this is his longest piece to date. Maybe he had more to say and he tried to make it clear in less time; or maybe his combination of elements wasn't planned correctly this time. The things I've always found inspiring and mentioned as distinctive like the movie references or the posters hanging in the wall are excessively used here: that particular characteristic looses its charm.

The same goes for the characters in general. Eric Bana's appearance is funny but it messes with the natural order of the characters; of Apatow characters in general and of the characters in this movie, precisely because it's not natural. And yes, of course it's nice to see Apatow's wife playing an important character again...And his little girls. He gets the best out of them. What is not nice is to not identify with their tenderness, to not feel their happiness and their pain...Or George's for that matter, or Ira's. I can't pretend that there was something where nothing happened.
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What I expect to watch...and it's not as simple as it sounds
29 November 2009
I look up to the FUC. The Argentine cinema university is a place where I'd study the art of film-making, and I acknowledge the merit of its students and what they've done: independently, the reference is Mariano Llinás and his "Historias Extraordinarias"; while among things done entirely by the FUC and its students, "Sólo por hoy" is a master's work (and a masterpiece, I convince myself every time I watch it again). With a background like this one, it's not so crazy to expect a lot from "Fantasma de Buenos Aires", the latest full-length feature the university has crafted.

Directed and written by Guillermo Grillo, the film is recognizable. It's ours; because the language and references to the country's past are too many that probably an audience from outside would feel out of place. That's fine by me because I laughed with some jokes (that have to do, mainly, with the language) and some moments and reactions that are typical from this part of the world. And that's the first good thing about the movie: director Grillo is not afraid of making a fool of himself. He trusts his material and he bets on quiet scenes that involve one or two actors in dark, apparently dangerous places. The most recognizable of these is a room with a bar that, if the characters and their story were from any other place, the fact that the movie is ours would be completely lost.

It's just that it's ours because it tries hard to be; Grillo's trust works to his favor here too. If you've lived in or visited Buenos Aires, you might recognize some places (street names, bus numbers), but the problem is that this feeling of belonging doesn't last too long; and it's like the movie carries itself to that room...To that bar in which reality doesn't matter that much. Tomás (Estanislao Silveyra) ends up in the little room because he plays a game –the "game of the wineglass", we call it here- with his friends. In Claudio's (an impressive Juan Diego West) big house they try to summon a spirit, and after they talk to him, the wineglass they were using accidentally breaks. "Now the spirit stays in the house", one of them says. They run off and the day after Tomás finds himself there, talking to the spirit of Canaveri (Iván Espeche).

In the little room they both make a deal. Canaveri has unfinished business in the city and Tomás wants to know some things about the afterlife. What they decide is that the ghost will live in the boy's body for a few days, and his particular manners and how different they are from the contemporary Buenos Aires and, even more, from Tomás' personality, will drive the movie forward. At this point two plot lines are functioning: the sort of mystery of Canaveri's unfinished business with the past and the relationship of the ghost with the boy. The third plot line involves the romantic feelings Tomás has for Cecilia (María Paula Brasca), his friend Claudio's sister.

The thing is that, to Grillo, these three directions are equally important. He does well in trusting his actors because they generally do a good job, and he does well in trusting his story because it's not boring and, as mentioned before, it's funny. I think he plays it wrongly when he doesn't find a center for his piece. The movie, which has the name of a city in its title, gives us a fragmented version of this city. We can identify Buenos Aires, and that makes "Fantasma" ours (partly), but this is a Buenos Aires that shows specific corners, selected areas that don't let the enormous city breathe. It's like feeling you belong to a place without being capable of sensing the place itself. In "Sólo por hoy", Ariel Rotter never explored every inch of Buenos Aires, but somehow, because of what he was telling and how he told it, the city was breathing in our faces.

The romantic story and the relationship between the ghost and Tomás don't work for similar reasons. We don't know who these characters are; if they are in high school or college, if they live alone or with their parents, if they have any other life apart from the inner circle the film presents. Their personas, as the city Grillo shows, come to us in a fragmented way, and there's no trace in the film that might explain why this could be an intentional decision. A few conversations about careers, a few discussions about what to do with the spirit when that wineglass hits the floor...The rest is smoke; it's sadly meaningless.

However, I think that what disappoints me the most is related to the visual search. The general confidence possessed by Grillo makes him forget about shooting, and the shots of "Fantasma de Buenos Aires" are plain, uninspiring to the point that I might have seen them as the product of laziness. If we can't connect to the characters and there's not even a visual mood that represents them, or the situation they are in, or the people they are related to, or anything else that could be perceived from the film without being necessarily expressed in its shots, then a movie becomes trivial. "Fantasma" is not bad; it's just trivial. And that's not something I expect from the FUC.
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Eagle Eye (2008)
This time, let's stick to directing
22 November 2009
The story, after an introduction with a typical killing in Arabian soil, seems exciting. A guy, Jerry (Shia LaBeouf), and a woman, Rachel (Michelle Monaghan), are forced to escape from wherever they are so they can meet. A woman they don't know talks to them from any near phone and appears to control every street screen, traffic light and security camera in the city. What works here, more than this total control that the title aims to express, is the adrenaline; the weird experience of having to do everything you're told or losing your life.

"Eagle Eye" is another movie from D.J. Caruso, whose intelligence is still intact but is running out of ideas and inventiveness. The first scene, almost in plain desert, with security decisions being made and a call to the president, is something we've seen so many times and it's done with a lack of commitment that shocks. I don't know why Caruso may think that by having a powerful development he can fail to impress when his film has just began. Never mind; the director still delivers and knows how to keep you on your seat.

However, as I said, the ideas do not flow. In Caruso this is not the same situation as with any director. He's never too original, but combines his elements well. With "Eagle Eye" this strategy is coming to an end, as by the end of the movie there's not a single shot that can be remembered for its construction or for its use to generate impact (the ending is lovely though). It's fine, I don't blame him: it's an action-packed film, and his first one; but a lot of action scenes are difficult to understand, the point of view of the 'eagle eye' which is this total control that can locate anything anywhere becomes repetitive -technically and dramatically- after a while and Brian Tyler's score is (there's no doubt at the ending) a nice "M:I" rewrite with subtle melodramatic touches.

So what survives this time, I guess, it's the thought of the adrenaline and some unexpected moments that Caruso and the team of screenwriters still manage to achieve. And what survives is so effective that makes for a recommendable viewing, especially when Caruso's casting choices are never off. Here, LaBeouf is less convincing than in, for example, "Disturbia", but alongside Monaghan's photogenic perfection, they both construct together a killing action duo that has to be good because they have no choice. And they are not good, but as the movie advances they turn more and more clever and they resolve situations by doing things they clearly haven't done much before: using guns, running and driving fast cars. It's fair to say, in case my reference seemed too simple, that this "no way out" feeling works better for Monaghan, whose work is really heartfelt and at times touching.

Our not typical every day heroes are confronted by the highest level of United States intelligence, who always arrives a little bit late to every situation (funny commentary on a working effectiveness that's not effective...Is Caruso the only effective thing here?) and is led by Billy Bob Thornton. It's a weird acting choice for the man who does what he can in a role that finds him a little monotonous. Also carrying on the intelligent investigation we find a Defense Secretary played Michael Chiklis (from "The Shield"), who is definitely not in his element, and an army agent played by Rosario Dawson that might just be the film's best portrayal.

At this point, I don't know why I mention performances when, more and more, D. J. Caruso seems to be only about the hype. We'll see how it works for him in the near future.
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Dedication (2007)
When something is weird...
10 November 2009
Independent American Cinema. I always end up writing introductory paragraphs for this complex term. I think I know how it goes, and a lot of people do. The thing is, that when you encounter a film like "Dedication", you find yourself decomposing the terminology again. Of course it's not a necessary thing to do, but it's interesting. Justin Theroux directed the film, his first and only one still. Judging from his background we can say that he understands and respects independent productions, therefore I don't think his film is in any sense a mockery or a reinvention of the notion. I remember the introduction of Tamara Jenkins' "The Savages"; it was a joke, but a sort of internal one...Her film was proudly independent.

Well, "Dedication" is also proud of being independent. It's obviously done with a low budget, it's filmed in real locations, it contains screwed up characters, a lot of intelligent (or apparently intelligent) lines, music and soundtrack that comes from nowhere and a generally depressive mood that tends to define a big part of these productions. But, above all, and this is not something we see in every indie picture, "Dedication" is weird. I don't precisely mean this in a general way.

You see, firstly, it's a romantic comedy. Neither clearly romantic, nor instantly funny, it encounters two characters in desperate situations. Writer Henry Roth (Billy Crudup) has just lost his best friend and illustrator Rudy (a pleasant Tom Wilkinson) and is forced, because of legal issues, to finish his next children's book along Lucy Reilly (Mandy Moore), a young girl who landed a drawing job. Besides the unclear presence or existence of the company he works for and the strange nature of his boss (Bob Balaban), Henry is a man with a lot of complexes. In a vibrant scene (one of the few in a slow movie), he tells Lucy all of his virtues and defects, or something like it. Billy Crudup portrays the character... Weird. Later on, Lucy encounters her mother (Dianne Wiest), a manic individual with changing personality, and after they discuss their life situation and, when a bit later, we see Henry talking to his dead friend, we understand both characters have serious issues.

But this is not the kind of story in which two souls with no way to go in life find each other and fall in love. Screenwriter David Bromberg and first time director Theroux know better. The characters have met in peculiar circumstances and those circumstances will remain. The 'get to know' process between Henry and Lucy is not what we see in a usual romantic comedy, but wait... I'm not trying to say "Dedication" isn't your typical romantic comedy; in fact, I'm not sure if I even consider it a romantic comedy. I think, as I stated before, that the film is weird. However, the problem is that, as if "indie" and "weird" were meant for each other, Theroux's movie is proudly weird.

OK. The good thing about this is that, by being weird, the film is disinterested, and it grows more disinterested by the minute. This ends up in unconnected moments and actions without explanation performed by the characters. They are cold to each other but soon they begin to find love; they meet other characters that make the viewer think of structures of the usual romantic comedy and soon these characters fade away. They don't disappear, but they don't seem to fit entirely in the mood of a film that would have no notion of time if it weren't for a deadline to finish the book. The characters go from one extreme to another and are not completely faithful to their personalities, but somehow it feels right. I don't know if I make myself clear; this is a film you have to watch. On the downside, some shots and resources are too forced and repetitive, some editing effects don't fit and some musical choices are just too much. This last part is a personal opinion about a personal search of a director in his first film, something I always respect.

I believe the film only cares about Henry, but Theroux –an actor- gives too much freedom to a Billy Crudup who delivers a performance that's not entirely convincing. On the other hand, it's to Mandy Moore's credit that we sympathize with her character. Lucy is her weirdest and most ordinary creation (yes, it's weird because it's ordinary), and she makes for the kind of girl a troubled individual would fall for, kind of what occurred with Anna Paquin's role in another indie called "Blue State"; directed by Marshall Lewy, also a first film and with a lot of similarities to "Dedication". Then again, what's wrong here is that the sort of crusade Henry does for love, in the typical romantic comedy fashion, is something he could do for any other girl. The movie presents Lucy as "the one", but the truth is that someone like Henry could find lots of Lucys (not a thousand, we might say, but a few more in the life he's got left).

In this particular aspect (and in the rest of particularities you might find in the movie), I'm not praising "Dedication" for sidestepping –or at least fooling, because that's the game of the movie; it goes completely overboard with the cliché but then does something unexpected that, we can tell, is not thought with the intention of omitting a formula- the clichés of a genre, I'm embracing its general disinterest (I applaud it), which concludes in a weirdness that the movie also embraces. And I'm not even saying it's a good film.
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Another one of the bunch or not?
10 October 2009
There are far more "Little Miss Sunshines" or "Sideways" than we might think. Good movies like the two mentioned titles, I think, because of time and place (and other factors, of course; but it depends on the year) end up occupying a privileged position they might not completely deserve. I men, they do deserve it; it's just that there are many movies that could share the same luck. I think Mike Cahill's "King of California", (not) coincidentally produced by Alexander Payne, is one of those films.

Not planning to blow our minds in any way, with a true love for cinema and his characters, writer/director Cahill delivers an intimate, delicate and complex story in his directorial debut, set in the sunny sceneries of Los Angeles, California. After we've experienced a rich use of music, filled with amiable guitars and acoustic songs that reflect the piece's mood, it's not until the very end that Miranda (Evan Rachel Wood) makes clear that we are, indeed, in California; but we have the film's title in our head and, even so, it doesn't seem to matter where the events take place. Miranda becomes responsible for the narration, as we go with her to a mental institution. His father is leaving the place and moving back in with her. She calls him Charlie (Michael Douglas). Charlie believes there's a treasure hidden somewhere; he wants to look for it and his daughter, not without reason, accepts he's totally mad.

What's important, though, it's that the environment is sunny. We all know by now, as viewers, that independent American cinema deals very much with dysfunctional families and beings. Therefore, we don't need it to get darker than the first impression we have because it will always be more interesting and original to see something falling apart in the light of day than amongst a disturbing and (maybe) forced obscurity. Jonathan and Valerie Faris knew this very well, Alexander Payne is a master in the subject and Mike Cahill also seems to understand how the 'device' (if you want to give a name to it) works.

That said, it's also fair to admit that it's not always that a father-teenage daughter relationship is the core and reason to be of a movie. It's typical to expect that kind of development as a subplot, and most of the time it's very superficial. In "King of California", Miranda and her father are the only existing players. Of course, there's the obligatory contact with the outer world, but the fact that Charlie is insane and his daughter ends up following him anywhere makes one believe they might live in a parallel universe...That is, until from time to time a cop or security guard warns them because of the wild activities they're performing (this is something you have to watch).

Michael Douglas is one of the best, or the few veteran actors -Alec Baldwin comes to mind- at doing something quite complex to achieve and difficult to explain: laughing of themselves. Douglas came up with this during this decade, partly, I believe, because it builds credibility, to an extent. It's easy to perceive: it involves laughing all the time; and in a movie like this one it's delightful to see Douglas having the time of his life. And Evan Rachel Wood is always a good companion, as a daughter mostly, bringing out the best in his pairs (Holly Hunter in "Thirteen", Mickey Rourke in "The Wrestler", Joan Allen in "The Upside of Anger") and illuminating every scene she's in.

It's a very difficult theme to manage, this kind of relationship as the center of a picture. There's the risk of too many scenes with tears and references to the past that might be unnecessary in the first place and indicative secondly. Pay attention to the flashbacks in "King of California" to seek for a precise and effective creation of emotion through the resource. I compliment Cahill and expect more from him next time.
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The secret of Juan José
15 August 2009
In my country, Juan José Campanella is synonym of 'cinema of the highest order'. The director works in USA and from time to time he brings a new film. We know, dramatically, what we're going to watch: Ricardo Darín in an important role, a lot of sentimentalism, references to the country's past, a love story. And technically, if it's the highest order, there won't be any complaints. When the film ended, the people in the movie theater started clapping.

"El secreto de sus ojos" tells the story of Benjamín Esposito (Darín) and his need to tell the story of a case that wasn't completely solved 25 years ago and had an important impact in his life. A woman raped and killed and a husband with the surname Morales (Pablo Rago) who went every day to every train station in Buenos Aires to see if he could find the killer. "You have to see his eyes; they are in a state of pure love", Benjamín professes in front of Irene Hastings (Soledad Villamil); his boss and the woman he loves.

There are things we never forget, Campanella knows well, and that might be the film's most important declaration. We expect from the director a powerful love that grows with the years, as we saw with Darín and Villamil in "El mismo amor, la misma lluvia"; we expect characters with inner ghosts, things to hide and things to hold on to; we expect total control over the language of the environment (in "El mismo amor..." it was a magazine staff, in "Luna de Avellaneda" the neighborhood club), a knowledge of the customs and the way of speaking of characters that makes for day-to-day comedy. In this aspect, the casting of Guillermo Francella as Pablo Sandoval is crucial. Taking the place of the best friend role always in charge of Fernando Blanco, the comedian plays a drunk with a lot of respect for friendship. His change of look, the measurement of his composition and how he enlightens it with comic touches make for one of the year's best performances.

That's about everything we can expect. The fact is "El secreto de sus ojos" is a very good movie because there are things we don't see coming. The film contains a treatment of a police investigation that hasn't been seen in our cinema for years. In his riskiest picture, Campanella flirts with thriller, mystery and real action (handy-cam included); he acquires true tension and a sequence in a soccer stadium is the best example of it. He understands when silence is required and when the loneliness of the characters –each of them with a rich, mysterious private and inner world- must be seen fully. It's quite embarrassing in fact, because Darín as a director tried to achieve something like that with "La señal". Even though it's obvious Campanella took no inspiration from that film, everything that went wrong there can be seen here, improved. And Soledad Villamil is no femme fatale. I take a risk, however, and defy you to tell me if, because of image and makeup resemblance, and disposition of images and voice in off, the movie towards the finish line doesn't take direct inspiration from Chris Nolan's "The Prestige". It's quoting it somehow, at least.

It's very moving to watch excellent performances from recognized actors. We've seen them on screen so much, we know what they do, we admire them and respect them and, as with Campanella, we tend to know what to expect. However, sometimes they enchant us with every face in every frame, with every word in every conversation. I'm trying to explain to you the feeling of what Villamil and Darín do in this film: it's enchanting and contagious, purely human (as it occurred in "El mismo amor..."), but at the same time moving, simply because they're not unprofessional actors that fit in the look of the film, or young actors with expressive faces, or newcomers that take our breath away: they are Ricardo Darín and Soledad Villamil. Campanella has a lot to do with this, because he knows how to make them work together and he made an effort so they would not repeat what they had given us in the other film I've mentioned.

The fact that Fernando Castets didn't write the film calls our attention; the script was written by the director and Eduardo Sacheri. It also calls our attention that Campanella himself edited the movie. Is this film-making of the highest order? I believe so, in our country, and speaking of something commercially successful too. It's the only movie seen by many people that can generate interest in revising the director's previous work and, who knows, maybe other national pieces.
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Saved! (2004)
Choosing Jesus
11 August 2009
The teenage comedy might well be a dead genre, if we think about the predictable titles it brings to screen and, no offense, the fact that most of them are vehicles for stars like Lindsay Lohan and Hilary Duff. Anyway, I'm not the kind of person that rejects clichés (you know I love romantic comedies), but every time a film of this genre reduces a bit the degree of stereotypes and introduces something original and fresh I tend to automatically think of it as a good movie.

There's a reason why movies like "10 things I hate about you" are so well cast: Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger understood the game better than Hilary and Chad Michael Murray. When "Saved!" opens, we see the sky and the acting credits: Jena Malone from "Donnie Darko", Patrick Fugit from "Almost Famous", the long lost home alone Macaulay Culkin...Anyone who doesn't think Mandy Moore is a good actress should stop reading right now. Director Brian Dannelly knows who to choose. And he chooses Jesus. The characters attend a Christian school.

The obligatory condiments he includes in his script, co-written with wit by Michael Urban. There's a thoughtful girl properly called Mary (Malone) who looses her virginity because she thinks Jesus told her to –you wait to see why because it's hilarious-; there's a Jesus freak, Hilary Faye (Moore), who is more devilish than heavenly; and her cripple brother Roland (Culkin). Finally there's Patrick (Fugit), who really likes Jenna and wants to do her good; but he's not an ugly looser like it happens with this characters. Dannelly doesn't go that far.

This is the kind of movie where everything means something and maybe something more. Images are sometimes charged with symbols, the characters' lines are usually open to multiple interpretations. Movies that do this are usually annoying, but in "Saved!" it doesn't bother because that's precisely the film's point: believing in the higher power, being connected, save and being saved. And if you don't want to forgive the metaphors, check out the language of the teenagers: palpable, smart but not unreal. Honest.

When characters in teenage comedies speak this way there's room for things that begin to appear naturally: laugh (which you don't get from every 'comedy' these days), tenderness, sympathy, guilt, sadness. Let's just say that when Dannelly chooses Jesus, his "Saved!" is also saving itself from being awful. With religion as a main context, he gets the freedom for the symbolism and a precise soundtrack choice that exists only to accompany the feelings of the characters (the finest example of this use is Zach Braff's "Garden State"); besides the developing of a plot line concerning an adult relationship. The players are Martin Donovan and the superb and beautiful Mary-Louise Parker, in the kind of process two adults would live throughout a whole season of "The O.C". Dannelly doesn't have the time for that, and with the religious focus he achieves something surprisingly mature and, consequently, quite great (pay attention to the last scene; the last time Donovan is on screen).

Jena Malone is the extraordinary done by the ordinary. It's what she's always done, because she looks so normal and is so tiny that you never expect what she can do...And she does a lot. Culkin's return to the screen, if anything, is graceful. Constructing a performance entirely with looks and winning one-liners, the star child seems like a newborn; a talented newborn. About Mandy Moore, she's great because she understands her character is a stereotype and she refuses to be one: she believes in Hilary Faye as Hilary Faye believes in Jesus. And Patrick Fugit is just kind of magical, as is Eva Amurri, who plays the ludicrous Cassandra: another stereotype that is not. If you think carefully, the cast could be the only reason movies like "The Girl Next Door" are good.

As you may realize, it's not easy to write about a teenage comedy. It's not easy to watch one, it's not easy to tolerate it and it's very difficult to find a good one. "Saved!" also has a senior prom, and it's also at the end of the movie; it's just that at that time we've already learned that it is not any movie.
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Into the Wild (2007)
Welcome to wherever you are...
27 July 2009
It's a fact that some images are so beautiful that justify the whole viewing of a film. That's what I thought of "Into the wild" the first time I saw it: I found it beautifully shot, owner of breathtaking images that tried to dissimulate its dramatic and ideological imperfections. I also thought of it as a film where ideology and drama where the same thing. Now, on a second viewing I've found a lot more, primarily because I was able to separate the dramatic part from the ideology. Ideologically, I still think it's pretty basic, but it's so dramatically powerful that it buries the ideals, or something like it. We worry about the fate of a character whose life choice (which involves living by himself in Alaska with the sole company of nature and nothing else as a final destination) has been defined by an ideal –a philosophy- and yet I find the places he goes to, the things he witnesses and the characters he encounters, more interesting than the words he speaks and the quotes he cites from a dozen books.

This is probably because there are hundred guys out there who want to do what Chris McCandless (a phenomenal Emile Hirsch) did, for the same reasons too; but it's his life that Sean Penn decided to show on screen, and his work as a director is so dedicated that we have to end up caring. Penn faithfully adapted Jon Krakauer's homonymous book and personally interviewed the McCandless family to give full life to a side that the book may have left untreated. Chris relationship with his parents was difficult, he had to live many lies for many years and he could only find comfort in his sister Carine. Jena Malone plays tenderly this role that has her more as a narrator than someone with a physical presence. But that's enough for the viewer to get and idea of who Chris really was, without the philosophy included, something Carine didn't understand completely.

And that's also enough for Penn. With Malone's voice, Eric Gautier's ("Diarios de Motocicleta") photography, Eddie Vedder's powerfully sang songs and the accurate casting for the marvelous supporting characters; the director commences the journey. Shot entirely on location and without the use of risk doubles whatsoever, "Into the wild" emerges as a liberating road trip, and one that Sean Penn, eternal rebel, probably did (or would have done for that matter) when he was young. If the man was younger, I bet he would have also starred the film.

In part, this is why the movie also has a documentary feel, with honest moments of Hirsch almost improvising and looking at the camera that give a sense of intimacy; with conversations overheard, or observed from a distance, as if being closer meant prying. The sceneries, all beautiful and not only admirably shot but also shot with admiration, seem as something discovered for the first time; and some people who appear to describe them are surely from the whereabouts.

I don't really know if Chris actually learns anything in his journey, his ideals being so simple (something questioned by the people he meets) and him being so stubborn. He feels there's nothing new to be learnt, but what does occur to him is that he discovers. He discovers the places we experience with him, places of extreme materialism, places of extreme misery, and the balance; he discovers, with Jan (Catherine Keener, brilliant) and Rainey (Brian Dierker, very natural) that one person can have an enormous impact on others, even if it's for a few days; he discovers, with Tracy (marvelous Kristen Stewart, watch how she can't take her eyes off of him) that there's a room for romance even if we don't want it; and that one can be someone's last chance for happiness, as an old man (Hal Holbrook) expresses.

These things are all the same, and conversations in the film are few because this time images say more. The construction of the film works that way, and works well because it shows us its moment of total silence -the days Chris spent in Alaska living on a bus- combined with the rest of the story, so that it doesn't become tedious to watch it all at once (we've all seen "Cast Away"). Remember that Sean Penn is an actor, and his film has the dramatic power to survive on images only; but he knows without words we wouldn't be able to feel the way every character feels about Chris, regardless any philosophy: we don't want him to go away.
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Joshua (2007)
Devilish Greatness
12 July 2009
What a pleasant surprise. There are movies that know exactly the 'how', the 'when', the 'who' and particularly to whom. There's a way of making good movies, a way every filmmaker should consider, and that's the way of not leaving the viewer outside the story. Believe it or not, when the viewer gets involved (for better or worse), everything is better. We may want to stop watching the film or take their eyes off the screen, or shout, or whatever; but the important thing is something is working.

Director George Ratliff certainly knows this way, and in "Joshua", his first full-length fiction project, he exploits it: there are times, believe me, in which we become the characters. There's no big sound tricks, no more score than strong piano notes at the right moments (courtesy of Nico Muhly) and some weird noises. However, the impact comes from Jacob Kogan's face and his performance; always an important element if you want to make the viewer believe a little boy can be really mean.

Kogan plays Joshua, of course, and his role implies much more than a spooky face, a face that he doesn't even have because he's, although special, a normal kid. The script by the director David Gilbert never hides this fact and holds on to it to make accentuate the suffering of a family that's falling apart, that can't take it no more and that, we suspect, it might all be because Joshua intentionally wants to harm them. But we don't want to believe it, no one would want to believe such a thing, less so in a film where there's no prophecy from hell or religious implications whatsoever. In fact, Joshua hasn't even been baptized because his parents have different religions.

Brad (Sam Rockwell), a working man who wants the best for his family, and Abby (Vera Farmiga), a housewife who suffers a lot at home but won't accept that a nanny watches her children, have just had a daughter: Lily. If you must know how well Ratliff handles suspense, time in the movie goes by announced by the days of life of the little girl (and that strong piano note). The screen goes black and we read the numbers; sometimes only a few days have passes, sometimes weeks.

The timing of the director never fails, and the movie runs its time slowly but intensely. The elements of the house that once were so bright, start getting darker: the cries of Abby become louder, the hours at Brad's work become tougher, the social environment seems suffocating for a family that chooses to build their life at home, with the exception of dog walks in the park and occasional visits to museums. And I'm not telling you everything.

There are two key characters, played brilliantly by Dallas Roberts and Celia Weston, whose importance is (intelligently) not completely noticed. Then again, this is because we can't notice it. Ratliff handles the 'how' and the 'when' so perfectly because he knows how to handle the 'who'. We see Brad fighting for his family, constantly saying "it's okay, it's okay", and Sam Rockwell's work is fantastic because he plays such a nice guy that gradually turns into, well, Sam Rockwell (or the Sam Rockwell we've seen on screen so much); taking a very realistic and humane attitude towards the heavy problems going on in his own house. Then the focus changes, and it's all about Abby (Vera Farmiga's disintegration is also admirable), or it's all about Joshua; and that focus determines everything else. This way, the suspense works, and the 'to whom' also changes, with the constant and never forgotten provocation towards the viewer.

Answers? Hints, maybe, but nothing concrete. And as a viewer, a movie that defies me without helping me and also defies the standard genres, with the bonus of making me feel something, is more than I can ask for.
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Making room
11 July 2009
Terry George takes a step back, from his previous, brilliant effort –the film "Hotel Rwanda"- to show us something perhaps more intimate, or less universal (war is, after all, an universal issue): the life of a family that, all of a sudden, gets ruined with the death of their son Jason. Us, the viewers, instantly know who committed the murder: Dwight Arno (Mark Ruffalo), a lawyer. But Jason's father Ethan (Joaquin Phoenix) doesn't, and his eagerness to find out makes him angry and drives him away from his beautiful wife Grace (Jennifer Conelly) and his daughter Emma (Elle Fanning). After all, there's one thing that Ethan and us share in knowledge: the guy knew he hit something, and hesitated for a moment... But then he drove away.

It's a wise choice that the viewer knows who the murderer is, but we can't give the director credit for it, because it's something that comes originally from the novel in which the film is based (Terry George co-wrote the script with the novel's author). However, we can give George credit for some of the few wise choices in "Reservation Road", like giving Mark Ruffalo the part of Dwight Arno. Ruffalo's always been great at carrying burdens; as an unfaithful husband ("We don't live here anymore"), a passionate lover ("My life without me") or a grieving husband ("Just like heaven"). The difference is that this time the burden is one of the main focuses of the film, and the great actor's effort is bigger.

But it makes me sad to say that he doesn't work as hard as the man who carries the film on his shoulders and makes it a memorable experience: Joaquin Phoenix. His kind, passionate and moving performance slowly takes us through a film that without his presence would be difficult to watch. And this is because it's not an easy movie to shoot. The small town feeling it expresses is not faithfully treated: the camera only goes to places the story requires, leaving aside any other indication of the actual location where the events are occurring; and in those places, the camera approaches particular things to underline what's about to happen, things like a seat-belt or a cap. It's a way of filming that's not good for the story or the characters; it makes everything more predictable and empty.

Altogether and with time, the movie loses credibility. A family is being destroyed but we only see it inside their house or in their talks with other characters, which are no other than the murder himself, or his son or his ex- wife (a solid Mira Sorvino), who teaches piano lessons to their daughter Emma; not to mention the police. So what about the rest of the world? Is it possible that there's no one else to talk to? The film's only couple of wide shots, I'm almost sure, are a shot of dozens of cars at the exit of a baseball game and one of a family home seen from a street light. Dwight goes with his son to baseball games and talks only to him, his mother or the police; Ethan stays at home and talks to people on the Internet who have lost their children the way he did. The rest of the conversations both men have with anyone are only in the film so we can see how disturbed they are inside: voices fade away, the surroundings lose focus. Another thing the movie loses is tension; tension that can be felt the moment of the accident and is never recuperated. How are we supposed to feel tension if every aspect of the movie is conducting our feelings, wherever they're going?

Let's just say that there's a way of filming the suburbs, kind of what Sam Mendes does, that requires showing the viewer at least the essence of a place where peace is disturbed. And if that essence is the family and not their environment, well, it's not enough with a scene full of smiles and lovely music and family love. It's probable that we're going to need more, which is why it's not also enough with great performances. I hate to go into comparisons, but Terry George knows that: not so long ago he showed us hell inside hell, peace inside that hell, and hell inside that peace. And, this is very important, he was a mere observer, who didn't tell us where to stand. That's also why I love the moral dilemma of "Gone Baby Gone" so much. In "Reservation Road", there are no bad guys, or good for that matter. There can't be: the movie doesn't allow it.
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