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Les triplettes de Belleville (2003)
If you're looking for wildly original animation then this movie is for you
In recent years there has been a boom (probably thanks to globalization) in the release of foreign animated films outside the common market (read Disney,Dreamworks, Japanese anime), mainly European emerging as alternatives for those seeking animation not made for little children. Within this wave comes the french movie The Triplets of Belleville, one of the most original animated films ever made (in the opinion of this writer, of course).
Directed by Sylvain Chomet tells the story of Madame Souza who is in charge of raising her grandson Champion after being orphaned. In search of something that makes him happy, she discovers that Champion's true vocation is cycling and after years of hard training is ready to compete in the famous Tour de France. But in the middle of the competition he is kidnapped by a mafia that uses cyclists for clandestine betting and they're killed if they lose. Thus, Madame Souza begins the rescue of her grandson in the bizarre town of Belleville with the help of the triplets of Belleville, famous stars of music hall in the 20's.
This is how Chomet creates an amazing story full of absurdities and nonsensical situations that works wonderfully and without the need of dialog creates absolute empathy to characters that appear to be designed to cause annoyance. A very curious element is Chomet's decision to portray Belleville (an obvious reference to the city of New York) as a city full of obese people. Although this is meant as a critique of Western society where consumption makes people apathetic and uninterested in themselves.
Moreover, the music plays an important role in this film, without being a musical in the strict sense of the word has incredibly vivid and infectious musical moments, like the opening scene which recalls the glory years of the triplets and in the making small appearances of legends like Django Reinhardt, Josephine Baker and Fred Astaire, in addition the soundtrack composed by Benoit Charest adds a feeling of nostalgia.
In short, The Triplets of Belleville is the perfect example of an animated film that breaks all established and refreshes the genre in an unexpected way.
A misjudged masterpiece
Since Titanic was released for the first time back in 1997 it became a cultural phenomenon: for 12 years it was the highest grossing film in history, winner of 11 Academy Awards, catapulted to fame Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet's careers and made My heart will go on sung by Celine Dion a romantic anthem.
However, with the passing of the years being a fan of Titanic became the equivalent of having bad taste and poor judgment in films. I personally disagree with this highly subjective assessment, since Titanic is the best example of how to make a sweeping epic like those that used to be made in Hollywood's golden age.
Thus, James Cameron uses the tragic sinking of the ship that "not even God could sink" as a backdrop to tell the already iconic love story between Rose DeWitt Bukater, the American girl betrothed to a steel tycoon whom does not love and Jack Dawson, the aspiring artist who has traveled the world in search of his identity becomes a desperate struggle to survive once the ship hits an iceberg and is destined to sink. This aspect of the movie has always been criticized, as Cameron chooses to tell a fictional story instead of focusing on one of the many true stories of the passengers; this is a risky decision that nevertheless works due to Cameron's ability to associate reality and fiction respecting the historical perspective, the chemistry between DiCaprio and Winslet and the unexpected sensitivity with which Cameron tells a love story (something unusual for him, given his previous experience in science fiction movies), it could even be said that without Jack and Rose the film wouldn't have had the same impact and success.
This does not diminish at all the impressive historical recreation not only of the Titanic (for which an almost exact replica of the original boat had to build), but the period in general, and this is not limited to costumes and scenery, but also in the notes on the differences between social classes existing in the early twentieth century and decadence disguised as opulence, which unfortunately have not changed much today.
The sinking of the Titanic has been told numerous times in film and on TV, but James Cameron's version has become the obligatory reference, not only for the reasons already mentioned, but also for the incredible realism and technical accuracy this is portrayed achieving really shocking moments and scenes of high emotional impact that are not quite successful on other versions and that make us partakers of such tragedy as if we were watching it live. This is due to the use Cameron makes of digital technology without being overwhelmed by it, since he understands that digital effects must serve the story and not vice versa.
Special mention to the brief but poignant appearance of Gloria Stuart as old Rose, who serves as the narrator of the story, and gives consistency to the story as well gives it humanity and warmth.
Titanic has not only withstood the test of time but also the unflattering trials of those who call themselves connoisseurs of good cinema and remains one of the greatest epic films ever made.
Love for beginners (not for dummies)
Cinema has always been nourished by stories from real life that may seem unlikely at first, but if they are told honestly and free of pretension not only are credible, but also become endearing. This is the case of director Mike Mills, who in Beginners portrays the relationship with his father, who in the last years of his life decided to take his homosexuality.
Under this context, Mills and his father are played on screen by Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer, who built one of the most poignant father/son relationships in recent years. The year is 2003 and Oliver (McGregor) after losing her mother to cancer, receives the news that his father Hal (Plummer) who is 75 years old has decided to come out of the closet and live to the fullest along with his boyfriend Andy. However, another event will impact their lives forever: Hal suffers from a cancer that cannot be treated. This is how Oliver begins to question his own life and decisions about love, which leads him to meet Anna (played by Mélanie Laurent), a French actress with whom he starts a relationship, but Oliver's real challenge will be overcoming his fear of failure.
With a story of this nature the result could have become a parade of clichés and caricatures, but thanks to the expertise of Mills and his personal experience with the subject it does not happen, and making use of a highly original narrative endows his characters with humanity and puts them in situations that make them vulnerable to others, to themselves and to the future that awaits for them, without reaching levels of shameless emotional manipulation.
Another success Mills's decisions is the choice of the cast, as each role requires an actor to understand and capture the internal conflicts of their characters and serve to them. And they all do a marvelous work: Ewan McGregor finds in Oliver a perfect mechanism to portray the melancholy and loneliness of a man who has become incapable of sustaining a serious affair for fear of repeating the same pattern of his parents. Mélanie Laurent after working for Tarantino delivers a nuanced performance as a woman who, like Oliver has trouble finding love. It is however, Christopher Plummer, the most pleasant surprise, since he injects Hal an energy and vitality rarely seen in an actor of his age,and he's incredibly devastating in the moments of great emotional impact of the history. Needless to say that the Oscar Mr. Plummer won for this film is more than deserved. Special mention to Arthur, the dog of Hal and Oliver, because unlike other animals in movies, is not a gratuitous presence made to win the sympathy of the audience, as he plays an important role in the story and gives a special charm the dynamics of the film. Mary Page Keller also stands out in a brief but significant role as Oliver's mother when he was a child, as she lets us see a bit of frustration and self-deception when there are problems in a couple that are to be ignored (in this case Hal's sexuality).
Beginners is a peculiar but charming love letter to Mike Mills' family in which the message is: in matters of love we always are beginners regardless of how young or old we are. And it is never too late to love.
The Artist (2011)
The Artist... or go back to the basics
It's kind of ironic that in 21st. century in which the movie industry has saturated the cinema with technologies such as 3D and complex visual effects, a silent, black and white movie happens to be the one that won the Oscar for best picture in 2011. Many think that complies with the criteria and the age of most members of the Academy and although The Artist indeed appeals to nostalgia is an Oscar-worthy work.
Reminiscent of classics like A star is born and Singin' in the rain, The Artist goes back to 1927, when George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is one of the most important stars of silent films and nothing seems to stop his splendor. On the other hand Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) is an aspiring young actress who, thanks to a series of coincidences starts a film career with the support of George. However, the situation of both will give a 360 ° turn with the advent of talkies, as the rejection of George to make talkies seems to condemn him into oblivion, while Peppy becomes a star. As if this were not enough, the financial crisis of 1929 hits George's interests severely, although Peppy will try to help him in one way or another.
Although there have been approaches to storytelling without using dialogs in recent years (eg WALL*E or The Triplets of Belleville), no one had taken the risk of shooting a film in the same way they were made in the early years of cinema. The credit belongs to french director Michel Hazanavicius who takes such a risk by telling a story that has been told more than once in a risky format with the possibility of feeling outdated for the new generations, but the result is extremely fresh and charming. Although much of the charm (and the success of the film) has a name: Jean Dujardin: an actor with an overwhelming charisma who surpasses the challenge of conveying all the emotions being experienced by George without saying a single word (not in vain his performance earned him an Oscar). Along him Berenice Bejo also delivers a remarkable performance and devoid of artifice in which both could easily have fallen, plus their on-screen chemistry is remarkable and possibly the impact of the film with other actors would have been different.
A noteworthy aspect is the recreation of the decade of the 20's and early 30's, including the Oscar-winning music written by Ludovic Bource, which contributes to creating the atmosphere that the film aims to create by sticking to the way music was added to silent films.
However, the only "but" to this movie is Uggie, George's faithful pet and if it is a crucial part in history, feels like a forced element to cause empathy in the audience and looks too trained and that takes away spontaneity.
In short, the artist turns out to be a return to an extinct type of film that is both innovative and endearing and works as a perfect way to bring silent movies to new generations.
It's not about sex, it's about shame
Brandon seems to be successful in life: a steady job, a nice apartment, good friends and success with women. But something prevents Brandon from having a relationship that lasts more than four months, this incapacity is due to the fact that Brandon is a sex addict: to casual encounters with strangers and prostitutes, to pornography (both during and after working hours), to masturbation. And to some extent he seems to have his addiction under control, until her sister Sissy arrives unexpectedly looking for a place to live for a while.
Under this premise British director Steve McQueen delivers a fascinating character study which explores how modern life (in which new technologies play a major role), increasingly isolates people and makes them unable to establish emotional bonds with others. In the case of Brandon, a hunter in search of pleasure and not love, the arrival of his sister will make him prey of his emotions and will make him face his reality.
One aspect that has caused controversy is the way so raw and explicit to show Brandon's sexual encounters, however this becomes a necessary element, since it is through them that you can see Brandon's need and desperation as Sissy is more involved in his life. Special mention deserves the dynamics established between them, since it is fully nuanced and can even be uncomfortable to witness but is devastatingly emotional(especially in the last minutes of the story).
However, the most important element for the success of the film lies in the performances: in the hands of less committed actors Brandon and Sissy's conflicts would be unconvincing, but McQueen wisely chooses Michael Fassbender (both had previously worked together on Hunger), who literally bares body and soul to take Brandon's emotions to the limit and does it so impressively in a brave and courageous performance (and unfortunately the Academy possibly considered too intense for consideration in their nominations). Meanwhile Carey Mulligan proves to be one of the young actresses with the best prospects and acting range nowadays: her rendition of the classic song New York, New York is an utter delight as well is one of the best scenes in the film.
Shame, in the end (as in most character studies) does not seek to create empathy for the characters, but rather wants us to reflect and ask ourselves how we would react in similar situations.
WALL*E: a love story not only for robots
Pixar has raised the modern animation to new highs in the last decade with hits like Toy Story (and its amazing sequels), Monsters inc., Finding Nemo and Ratatouille, among others, that can be considered now as animated classics.
However, their success lies not only in achieving first-class entertainment with some of the most advanced technology in order to achieve the most outstanding animation, but also in telling stories that adults can relate to easily (like parenthood, childhood fears or the pains of becoming adult): in other words, animation stops being seen as entertainment for children WALL*E, a curious story that goes from science fiction to romantic comedy as it used to be done in the silent era of cinema (and whose biggest influence is Chaplin) is one of Pixar's most remarkable achievements so far.
The year is 2116 and the earth has been abandoned by humanity as a result of excessive levels of pollution. The powerful company Buy N Large (which is given to understand is the one that rules the Earth at that time) has a cleaning program with thousands of robots programmed to collect debris. This program failed and only one robot remains standing after 700 years. This little robot called WALL*E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth) develops a great sense of curiosity for the material things humans ever enjoyed on earth. However, one day he meets EVE, a mysterious search unit sent by the human for which WALL*E develops an attraction that will take them even to the very space and it decide the destiny of the human race.
Thus, it unfolds a very captivating and genuine love story that in the wrong hands could have been absolutely ridiculous or misplaced, but thanks to the ability of Andrew Stanton (the director of the movie) and his team the audience creates a total empathy for WALL*E and his curiosity to know more about the world (and EVE, of course).
In addition, the environmental reading that gives the film fits perfectly for this times when is required to create environmental awareness. A message that children and adults can perfectly understand.
The Dark Knight (2008)
When The Dark Knight goes beyond
In 2005, filmmaker Christopher Nolan took the superhero movies to a new level with Batman Begins, a film that gave Batman the dimension required: an obscure , prey to his traumas who decides to clean Gotham City of evil, thus establishing a parameter that seemed difficult to overcome, and yet the sequel, The Dark Knight transcends it and reaches new heights in which goes beyond the "comic-book adaptation" label to make a film closer to the Scorsesian tradition or to the police dramas made during the 70's.
In this new story, Batman continues his fight against the mafia in Gotham supported by commissioner Jim Gordon and the new district attorney Harvey Dent. But a threat looms over Gotham in the figure of The Joker, a minor criminal who begins to climb the criminal pyramid with its lack of scruples and his twisted mind does not stop him to get rid of whoever stands in his way. This is how Bruce Wayne begins to question the not only the thin line that separates him from the justice and acting under their own rules, but also how far can he go in order to stop a rising and very dangerous evil.
Needless to say, Nolan's vision for the Batman saga is cruel, violent and dark. However, this time takes the limit (just like the actions of the characters in the story) thanks to the presence of the Joker played by the late Heath Ledger, who created a villain for the ages (who also won the Oscar for this performance). Without doubt one of the most powerful villains of the last years and possibly a defining performance of the 00's.
But the rest of the cast also deserves attention: Maggie Gyllenhaal (who effectively replaces Katie Holmes), Michael Caine as Alfred, Bruce Wayne's unconditional butler, and especially Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent, the prosecutor who promises to restore peace to Gotham and Gary Oldman as the chief Gordon.
Visually Nolan has created a film that will be taken as a reference not only for movie adaptations from comic-books but also for action films, by achieving spectacular scenes superbly filmed thanks to Nolan's team of excellent collaborators (Lee Smith in the editing, Wally Pfister in the cinematography, etc.) who have the ability to have the audience at the edge of their seat.
Nolan has set a very high standard and we'll see if he's able to top it when The Dark Knight rises in 2012
La môme (2007)
Deconstructing Edith Piaf
This is the story of Edith Piaf, icon and legend of the French music who immortalized many songs including the famous song La Vie en Rose. However, Piaf's life was a life full of tragedy, loss and excesses that eventually consumed her when she was only 48 years old.
This is how the French director Olivier Dahan takes us into the world of Piaf from its origins in the slums of Paris, her rise to fame under the nickname of "Little Sparrow" and her debacle due to illness and addictions. All this under the optics of the biopic but with a very unconventional twist having a non-linear structure, which gives the movie a different dynamic (although this might be confusing for some viewers).
However, the real driving force and soul of the film is the monumental Oscar-winning performance of Marion Cotillard, who unlike other performances based on real characters, it transcends the mere act of imitation and becomes Edith Piaf delivering the portrait of a woman who despite her physical and personal tragedies became the inspiration for thousands of people through her voice and singing. And by the way she gives us one of the most spectacular and powerful performances in recent years.
In addition, the extraordinary work of characterization (especially in the last years of life of Piaf) and the production values (art direction, costume design, the use of Piaf's songs) give more credibility to the magnificent incarnation (or reincarnation?) of Edith Piaf in a film that easily could become another lifeless biopic
Welcome to the 60's (or how to make a remake that actually works)
In 1988, the cult director John Waters made a musical-type approach to his childhood in Baltimore that resulted in the film Hairspray, which in turn resulted in a successful Broadway musical a couple of years ago.
As expected in the wake of the recent spate of film adaptations of stage musicals, the adaptation/remake of Hairspray was expected and unlike earlier tries that gave extremely poor results (Rent, The Producers, The Phantom of the Opera) Hairspray works and exceeds the expectations of seeing a musical at the height and claiming the genre after several setbacks.
The story revolves around Tracy Turnbland (the wonderful Nikki Blonsky), who despite living with overweight dreams to join the group of dancers from the Corny Collins Show, and when the opportunity to audition comes, she must make aside the prejudices of his overprotective mother (played by a brilliant John Travolta) and the channel manager Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer), who above all seeks to privilege her daughter Amber. On her way, Tracy will find out not only the prejudices towards overweight people but also the racial prejudices prevalent at the time, and she will find love personified by Link Larkin (Zac Efron), the star dancer of the show.
Thus, the director Adam Shankman takes us to an era in which a teenager's dream translated into dance and being part of the latest fashion through costumes and retro art direction that really makes you feel you're watching the 60's, great choreography,the performances of a sensational cast in that absolutely no one is out of place (and by my surprise, in which they all sing and do it very well) and a catchy soundtrack and full of energy and an honest reflection on racial discrimination (which in fact works better than some "Pseudo-adult-manifests-on-racism" like Crash)
Without doubt, Hairspray is a major surprise in every way: a big and great musical with big songs and a big ensemble cast.In other words, is big as its protagonist.
Glee: a TV show like no other
TV and musicals are a combination that rarely works, mostly because it's quite hard to find a balance between a good plot and the music without being too overdone or exaggerated. Glee is the proof that it's possible to find that balance and besides, it's entertaining as hell.
Created by Ryan Murphy, the mind behind TV hits like Nip/Tuck, Glee tells the story of Will Schuester, a Spanish teacher from the McKinley High School, who used to be part of the Glee club in its glory days, but now it's about to be finished due to the lack of good results in the competitions. In order of bring those glory days back, he decides to take charge of it and recruit the best singers from the school. The problem is that a Glee club is also considered the club for all the socially rejected, where end those who can't fit in other places. Will and the members of the club are determined to change that. But thing won't be easy thanks to the interference of the head coach of the cheerleaders: the merciless Sue Sylvester, a tough woman who's not ready to share the glory nor the school funds.
That's how through music we'll discover the dreams and aspirations of the members of the club: Rachel Berry, an incredibly competitive and stubborn girl who also happens to be the best singer of the club and has the obsession of being the best in everything she does. Finn Hudson, the popular boy who joined the club almost by accident who's also the most conflicted of all. Kurt Hummel, a gay boy who was born to be part of anything related to show business and found in the Glee club the chance to achieve it (and also struggles with the fact of being gay in a town where being gay equals being a freak). Mercedes Jones, the all-attitude woman who waits for the right person and the big opportunity to proof she's a great singer. Artie Abrams, a guy in wheelchair who's been struggling to be accepted regardless of his condition. Quinn Fabray, cheerleader who was Sue's spy at first but then she got pregnant by Puck, the official heartthrob and womanizer of the school and Tina, a girl who hides herself from the rest of the world to protect herself. And this is only the beginning because as the show grows there are more characters and we'll see everything: from love hexagons to challenges and tributes to huge pop stars.
Now, instead of making characters that easily can be seen as walking clichés, Ryan Murphy let us know that like in real life, teenagers are not perfect and they also make mistakes and sometimes their actions are hard to agree with (in other words these are not one-dimensional characters). And that's an element that gives this show a special value and differentiates it from other TV shows with similar plots.
Part of the success of Glee lies also in the actors, most of them unknown in the TV world , but with solid careers in theater and some of them part of successful Broadway shows (like Lea Michele and Matthew Morrison) which speaks of the need of having actors instead of stars, people able to give their characters the credibility they require and the talent to sing and all of them do both things wonderfully (even some of the characters, especially Sue Sylvester played with delicious malice by the extraordinary Jane Lynch are in the way of becoming iconic TV characters)
And finally, the most important element of Glee: the music. All the cast members make great covers of already existing songs and some of these renditions actually match the original versions. But not only that, most of these songs are perfectly integrated to the story and even when some are a mere excuse to see someone sing, they're completely infectious and entertaining.
Hopefully this show will keep a high level in the upcoming seasons and while the first season ends let's enjoy this vivacious and vibrating celebration of the best in us and not giving up in the search of our dreams.