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Leave No Trace (2018)
Worth Following! (Do Not Watch the Trailer!)
This touching father/daughter-story, which stars Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie, reaches into the disillusioned world of America's current underclass. Citizens who for one reason or another have slipped off the grid and found new ways of sharing time and responsibility.
Debra Granik's work in unison with writer/producer Anne Rosselini is proof that character dramas about love and loyalty will never get old.
In order to avoid giving too much away I want to stop here describing the film.
But I can safely say, that if you've enjoyed "Winter's Bone" you will feel right at home in this movie. It's pace is slow but deliberately so. The acting never misses a beat, the camera respects the characters spaces and lets the story go places, without any plot contrivances or false pretense.
These are the truly forgotten people and they don't belong to any political spectrum but are the ones that need society's clearest understanding without any judgement.
"Leave No Trace" is worth following.
Molly's Game (2017)
A True Tall Tale of High Stakes
Nothing comes close to the rush of winning, at least according to those who have succeeded where others have failed. Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) managed to become a millionaire with a dose of luck, will and endless street smarts. The former professional skier ran high stakes poker-games in Los Angeles and New York and found herself in the middle of a federal investigation, where she was accused of colluding with organized crime.
Being a sucker for great stories of real life characters, it is easy to see what Aaron Sorkin saw in the very true tale of Molly Bloom. The American ethos of being No. 1 combined with the isolation and principles of its heroine make "Molly's Game" a tremendous playing field for Sorkin's directorial debut.
Even though he has dealt with themes of power, loyalty and the darker side of entrepreneurial endeavors in "The Social Network", "Newsroom", "Steve Jobs" and "Moneyball", what sets this story apart is that Sorkin chooses to layer the rise-and-fall of the titular character with questions about business morals and the loss of a more principled economic system, that has been washed away by fast-buck artists and fatalistic devil-may-care attitudes.
"Molly's Game" has a speedy pace, marvelous performances by both Chastain and Idris Elba, as her lawyer, and is directed with a sure hand. Which makes Sorkin's first directorial outing a joy to watch.
It's two-hour-plus running time glides by like a breeze and ends on a corny yet truthful note about the virtues of failure, that is a glimmer of hope in times of struggle, as well as one of the tenets of screen writing.
The fight, the hustle and the failure never end, but then again, so do the rewards in their own funny way. You win some, you lose some, and Sorkin never seems to forget how close he is to the edge.
Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
The Truth in the Rain
To chase after an iconic masterpiece, to imitate or to try and supplant its rightful place, is a fool's errand.
Thankfully director Denis Villeneuve along with his talented collaborators never succumbs to imitating or trying to super-cede Ridley Scott's 1982 landmark "Blade Runner".
Hampton Fancher, who created the story of the original, has crafted a new screenplay with Michael Green, that not only builds on the themes of "Blade Runner", but ties them together with larger questions about the current human state and its challenges.
Ryan Gosling stars as a replicant of the latest generation, who tries to solve a puzzle that leads him into the realm of real and manufactured life, and walks along the same noirish paths that made the original so gripping. Gosling imbues his character with a very compelling façade, which starts to crumble as his humanity takes over his mechanical design.
The equally thrilling performances by Jared Leto, Ana De Armas, Robin Wright, Carla Juri and of course Mr. Harrison Ford, forge a credible bond with the audience and enhance the visual grandeur created by cinematographer Roger Deakins and production designer Dennis Gassner.
And although "Blade Runner 2049" may not achieve the same level of force as its predecessor, it is a tremendously immersive, philosophical and touching experience, that should be enjoyed on the largest screen possible.
The movie's pace is deliberately patient, which may confuse some members of the audience. But by slowing down and observing, the audience can revel in the immensity of the images.
The more we move, inexorably it seems, towards the do-or-die reality of "Blade Runner", the more vital these stories become.
Whatever the box-office-fate of "Blade Runner 2049" will be, the long wait has paid off. It is far more than just a quick cash-in on a cult classic or an overly devoted sequel. It stands on its own and adds many new layers to the question: "What makes us human?"
And it urges us on to find the truth in the rain.
The Thin Line of Survival
400'000 British soldiers trapped on a beach in France, and only one way out. The premise is simple, stripped down and could've have turned into an exploitive, melodramatic war-movie, but instead shows us with great skill the bitter truths of battle.
It does take some nerve to conceive and execute a high-profile movie for the summer season, that owes so much more to the films of Terrence Malick, Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky than the world of franchises that we are exposed to of late.
Christopher Nolan sticks, literally, to his guns when it comes to taking his commercial clout into the uncharted waters and sands of Dunkirk beach. By refusing to stay with conventional narratives or a single point-of-view he immerses the viewer into a level of emotional turmoil that makes us willing participants and helpless observers at the same time.
Nolan's latest endeavor speaks volumes of his directorial talents, and he puts his often unnamed characters into the impossible world of cruel choices. Tom Hardy, Harry Styles, Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance and Cilian Murphy are familiar faces (Hardy once again spends most of his screen-time behind a mask), but they are merely spokes in the wheel of war, where up means life and down certain death.
The battle and the evacuation of Dunkirk are considered to be some of the Second World War's most disastrous moments for the Allied Forces. Nolan uses the event as a catalyst to show how noble, savage, contradictory and hopeful people remain in the face of death.
Aided and it seems sometimes guided by cameraman Hoyt van Hoytema, production designer Nathan Crowley, editor Lee Smith and composer Hans Zimmer at his most avant- guard, we experience Nolan on top of his game, and during certain sequences as brilliant as never before. And even though certain scenes fall somewhat short and may hinder the general momentum of the film, the overall impression remains strong.
Not least because Nolan leaves us to our own devices. Like the aforementioned filmmakers, who strove to confront and move the audience without merely pandering to their most obvious desires.
After almost twenty years of filmmaking it is fair to say that Nolan belongs into the highest echelons of modern directors. That his choice of material continually eludes easy categorization will add not only to his reputation but to his growth as a storyteller.
The Tempest, the Rage and the Redemption
As the Wolverine James "Logan" Howlett (Hugh Jackman) is fighting his nearing death, a young girl named Laura (Dafne Keen), who shares his mutant genes, becomes his saving grace.
Within this brief description lies the foundation of James Mangold's ode to comics, westerns and tragedies of Shakesperean proportions. One character in "Logan" is even called Caliban and he shares a similar function of sorts as Shakespeare's creation in "The Tempest".
With a tightly structured script by Mangold and his accomplished screenwriters Scott Frank (Minority Report, Out of Sight) and Michael Green (Heroes, Everwood), beautiful photography by John Mathieson (Gladiator), spectacular fight choreography and action set pieces, one almost gets the feeling that this film would be just as thrilling without the heft and legacy of its source material.
The strong performances by Jackman, Keen and Patrick Stewart, who reprises his role as Charles Xavier, are the logical extension of a well thought out movie, that tells a gripping story about parents and children, while making not too veiled statements about the world we live in.
The most existential questions, desires and goals are woven into a strong narrative, that by the end not only our thoughts are ignited and our hearts touched, but also our believe restored that if Hollywood makes an effort, it can produce works of great entertainment and staggering clarity.
This final chapter in the Wolverine saga, which Jackman carried on his shoulder for almost two decades, is now put to rest with a resounding measure of integrity and maturity. It has deserved its resting place among many other great genre pieces.
The Revenant (2015)
A Rare Experience
It is one of the most beaten clichés of movie-marketing to call in the viewer to experience something unusual. When in truth there are very few filmmakers who are able to pull off something like a sensory cinematic experience.
Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu is one of those rare directors. His movies defy narrative conventions ("21 Grams", "Babel") and also visual templates ("Birdman"). Now he has achieved his next big step. A big budget adventure story that is reduced to its most minimal plot-elements while being a truly immersive experience that manages to give a tangible sense of a long-gone era.
Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a tracker who assists a band of fur-trappers in the early nineteenth century. He is attacked by a bear along the frontier of Montana. And after being left for dead finds himself amidst an unforgivable wilderness.
The screenplay written by Mark L. Smith and Iñárritu is a starting point for a film that relies first and foremost on the image and is therefore reconnecting with the era of silent film and the most fundamental roots of the medium. Iñárritu who tried to avoid as much as possible the trappings of computer effects has production designer Jack Fisk, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, costume designer Jacqueline West and his actors pull out all the stops. You are left with images, sounds, faces and languages that force you to reflect on your life two hundred years after the events shown here.
Leonardo DiCaprio manages, not unlike Tom Hanks in "Cast Away", to hold the screen with his presence in a performance that is mostly wordless. From teen-heartthrob to superstar to character actor; DiCaprio's trajectory seems to be about choosing his projects according to the challenges they face. And it must be said that his devotion to the portrayal of an archaic character whose prime motivation is survival is as simple and riveting as can be.
Before he began shooting "Birdman" Iñárritu sent his cast an image of Philipp Petit, the high-wire artist who walked between the towers of the World Trade Center. It was a symbolic gesture of what he and his collaborators were trying to attempt with their movie. "The Revenant" represents another high-wire act by this Mexican iconoclast. It is a successful attempt to resurrect not only a forgotten time, but also some often neglected qualities of cinema.
May it jolt all those timid formula-makers out of their slumber.
Steve Jobs (2015)
Thou Shalt Have no Other Gods Before Me - Unless your Steve Jobs
The deification of technology is the latest in a long line of religious antecedents that belong to man's evolution. So it's no surprise that at the heart of Aaron Sorkin and Danny Boyle's parable Steve Jobs" lies a biblical Job with a contradictory message and the purest belief in technology as a force for good.
Boyle and Sorkin create a character out of a man that is from what one reads not a very accurate portrayal. Nevertheless, for the uninitiated viewer this hardly matters. One: Because they made a movie and two: Because Jobs himself may have been impossible to present as he truly was. What we get in this film, that sustains its momentum over the entire running time, is a talented, tortured and highly ambitious human being that tries to shape the future while negating his past.
Along the stellar performances by Michael Fassbender as Jobs, Kate Winslet as his marketing chief Joanna Hoffman, Seth Rogan as Steve Wozniak and Katherine Waterston as Job's former girlfriend Chrisann, are we entering three different product launch events from 1984 to 1998. A period which is broken up in three acts and works as a fluid play whose rapid-fire dialogue is augmented by carefully crafted visual extensions, precise camera angles and a very effective soundtrack by Daniel Pemberton.
The faith in technology that Jobs possessed in order to change our lives is very much evident, as well as his lack of many of the social skills that balance out a gift which drove him to all new heights.
Boyle and Sorkin focus on Jobs relationship between him and his daughter Lisa. And even if time-lines and events are shifted and invented, the final confrontations are moments of heartbreaking insight that reveal to us the segregating pain of creativity, its necessity and its elusive nature. For this Jobs reached for the stars and found the core of love amidst his life processor.
And yes, I believe that Steve Jobs was an unusual, frustrating and simply ingenious person that no movie or book can do justice. But sometimes it's not so much about how it was, but about how it feels. And this movie that bears his name has more than its share of palpable emotions that instead of simply inform actually enlighten.
El País de los Lobos
"Sicario" describes, with surgical precision, the fatal and bloody desecration of Mexico as a result of its decades long cartel war. And it does so by compressing this almost endless tragedy into a two-hour tour-de-force of filmmaking.
At its center we find idealistic FBI-Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), who is recruited to pursue a Mexican drug-baron. She is being guided by a seemingly untouchable covert assassin named Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). Their investigation and methods are pushed further into unknown territory where justice and morality are no longer valid. The end not only justifies the means, it requires them.
Denis Villeneuve's masterful piece exemplifies not only filmmaking of the highest order, but carves out a place alongside the terrible news reports as a deeply regretful, angry and at times almost unbearable look into the abyss of a socio-political nightmare that is fueled by first world-habit and global economics.
Through the powerful performances by Blunt, Del Toro and Josh Brolin in the leads as well as the excellent supporting cast, do we get a sense of the human cost (physical and psychological), which the war on drugs has taken.
From an exploding prison population, to the destruction of Mexican agriculture, to refugees and a cycle of violence that is beyond barbarity; the pull that "Sicario" exerts over the viewer is undeniable and by skirting the limits of bearable tension, without ever becoming exploitive, it is never giving an inch concerning its subject matter.
Few movies this year will have such a clear and defined structure and unflinching approach towards a situation that appears to be beyond salvation, while showing at the same time, that life nevertheless continues.
Taylor Sheridan's script doesn't miss a single beat and without sidestepping anything frees itself from beaten movie conventions by using familiar elements in an extremely skillful manner.
All these themes, stories and characters are captured through the lens of veteran Roger Deakins (Skyfall, No Country for Old Men) who lets us always know how the micro- and macro-particles of any conflict are inextricably intertwined. We share the vistas of beautiful sceneries while having to witness their downfall.
Whatever ideals the likes of Emiliano Zapata once had, their country has now, as it is described in the movie, become the land of wolves".
Fifteen years ago Steven Soderbergh's Traffic" which earned numerous Oscars, not the least of which went to Benicio Del Toro, made a clear statement about the various strands the drug trafficking business touches. Now, all those years later we see in Sicario" that even the faintest of hopes that Traffic" held onto have been eviscerated.
What now? One might ask.
Before We Go (2014)
Easy to criticize, but done with great compassion
To bash this movie as a "Before Sunrise" knockoff is easy, and maybe even somewhat true. But at the same time it would be missing the point.
Yes Chris Evans' directorial debut is also about two characters who experience a chance meeting and spend a night together. But "Before We Go" is if anything about adult choices and confronting their consequences. The exuberance of romantic love that is part of Richard Linklater's 1995 masterpiece is merely the starting point here. Nick (Chris Evans) and Brooke (Alice Eve) are beyond their college years and try to make amends with elements of their past.
The strolling poetry of "Before Sunrise" is turned into an odyssey that throws the couple into various directions. Kismet is of course the essence of the story and it has to be said that the screenplay sometimes struggles with the very basic conceit of a night in New York. But...there are a few scenes that are spellbindingly played by the two wonderful leads and a few truths about love and heartbreak are uttered that remain very real.
It could also be said that the movie delves into certain elements of "Before Midnight", even though it never reaches the depth of that movie either.
Yet "Before We Go" merits a viewing for those introspective souls who put their faith in destiny while being sometimes at odds with their journey.
Inherent Vice (2014)
I haven't read a single line of Thomas Pynchons prose thus far. But after watching Paul Thomas Andersons sublime work based on one of his books, I must say, it would be a sad state of affairs to leave this world without having read some of Mr. Pynchon's words.
This weird tale of corruption, sex, greed, counter-culture and lost chances may rank among the finest recreations of the much epitomized sixties in America. During it's entire running time I had to think about "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" more than once. "Inherent Vice" seems to be strangely connected to Hunter S. Thompsons work and Terry Gilliam's adaption, which also showed the afterglow of this decade of idealism. And both movies star Benicio Del Toro as a lawyer.
Within the plot of a detective story lies a very touching core concerning a generation of thrill-seekers" as Thompson wrote, who were ready for everything except some sort of real intimacy.
The acting is as perfect as can be, and the production design, sound, camera-work are as it has become a trademark of the director and his collaborators, specific and fully realized.
So, after having heralded the obvious, there's one last note to be made. The movie smoothly glides through 1970 Los Angeles in the wake of those societal changes and left this viewer who was not even alive back then, with a deep sense of regret. The atmosphere that "Inherent Vice" exudes is druggy, surreal and yet strangely tied to all the unanswered questions and real tragedies (Altamont, the Manson Murders etc.) that made the revolution come to a screeching halt. What was left were the drugs, some glorious memories but also a feeling of distance. As much as there was a sexual and intellectual liberation, it seems those thrill-seekers" were unable to commit to something tangible. To commit wouldn't have been hip, and to be square meant to be dead. And by evoking such thoughts and emotions, the movie delves into something inherently human and therefore something truly precious.
The Spectacular Now (2013)
A movie about adults, no matter their age
The word teen" is used in copious ways to describe this movie. And as much as it has its place when it comes to defining the main characters, at the end of it I felt as if I've watched a tremendously adult love story. One about care, about doubt, about overwhelming feelings, about responsibility, about basically all the things that a young person should not necessarily burden him- or herself with.
The two leads, Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, carve out a spot in their careers with this film. I heartily believe that in the years to come more than enough people will associate these two with the characters (Sutter and Amy) that they've portrayed here. The late Roger Ebert equaled Miles Teller's qualities in this picture to the ones of John Cusack in and around the time of Say Anything".
And yes, if you've cherished Cameron Crowe's directorial debut you will find yourself wrapped up in this tale. Both movies take their characters seriously and show them within a real context. A life around people who are all trying to keep things afloat.
Which takes me back to the adult love story". Disillusion leads to keeping your emotions under wraps. The love that exists in the spectacular now is the one you let blossom devoid of any intellectual basis. Which makes it the purest, most necessary and mature way of falling in love. Since it goes against the grain of reason, which is where most people beyond their teenage years try to live and very often fail.
It may be called mature or adult to love with your intellect, but as Sutter observes so astutely: I don't see what's so great about being an adult."
One of the answers to that could be, that as an adult you allow yourself to be a teenager with the clarity and calm of experience. Which is what Shailene Woodleys character might represent. The person who awaits her equal, to share in all the moments of wonder and compromise amidst the ever changing colors of a relationship.
Gone Girl (2014)
The Horrors of Domesticity
The basic premise is as old as the movies.
An abduction leads to a media-circus.
Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) comes home one day to find his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) missing. The ensuing search and all the subsequent events, which shall not be revealed here, draw the viewer closer and closer into a complex world of everyday suburban reality and everyday suburban horror.
As if it needed to be pointed out, this balance of reality and horror, or horrendous reality, is the domain of Mr. Fincher. In his clear-cut no-nonsense style he has fashioned a powerful mystery-thriller that lands somewhere between Hitchcock, Lynch, Bergman and Chabrol. Although vastly different directors, they have shared an interest in dissecting reality and human nature.
Profiting from two exceptional lead actors (doubts about Mr. Affleck's acting abilities will hopefully be dispelled), it is Ms. Pike, who reveals herself as an immensely versatile and unpredictable force in this movie. Over more than ten years Ms. Pike has played big parts in small movies, or small parts in big movies (such as Pride & Prejudice", Wrath of the Titans" or Jack Reacher"). Under the guise of Mr. Fincher she excels in every aspect and if any contenders for awards are to be named so early in the season, hers would be one of the first names (next to the outstanding cast of Richard Linklaters Boyhood") to be written down.
Visually stunning as one would expect from Fincher, with an immersive soundtrack by Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross and an editing rhythm that cuts like a knife through the tissue of the story and its characters, Gone Girl" leaves no doubt about its craft and the deceptive nature of its source novel by Gillian Flynn. The author adapted her book into a tightly wound screenplay, that adds fuel to an already burning analysis of modern marriage and human frailty.
The themes are familiar to Fincher, but he assembles them in an expertly fashion. And we are left wondering, amidst the suspense, about many of the so called estimable American values of the 20th century, that have now come crashing down under the weight of an economic, political and spiritual crisis.
Out of the Past
Sifting through the endless words that have been written about Robin Williams' untimely death, my focus seems to be on his work.
The things you see between 8 and 14 years of age leave some of the deepest impressions. To this day I remember when I first saw "Awakenings" in early 1991. I was 13 going on 14 and the movie, the performances but especially the subject matter touched me immeasurably.
It is one of the few films and books that complement each other, in the best sense of that word. Both are unique in their own way, but depend on the other. The movie conveys many emotions and truths that the book sometimes buries behind its analytical character. And the book gives us a real sense of what the day-to-day struggles of these patients were.
Robert De Niro and Robin Williams fulfill similar functions, because as individuals they are very much opposites and yet represent a complete picture of empathy and desire.
Remembering the scenes, the book and my life, the sadness over Mr. Williams death starts to unfold. Not because of a personal connection but in recognition that to live means to be aware. And that sometimes the simplest things, as they are described in this film, can be the hardest.
To review "Awakenings" is to review ones own life. To see, feel and be able to accept.
"The ending is sad," the real Leonard L. once observed, and with this sadness I cherish Robin Williams who was alive....and awake.
Life Itself (2014)
For the Life of Us
What a strange profession it is to write about movies. You're depending upon the creativity of others, slouching through an endless quagmire of mediocrity that was made with desire and passion and in the end you are supposed to give an opinion about someone else's blood, sweat and tears.
And still, there is more to it all than just that.
Life it could be said, is a bombardment of opinions about your decisions, your passions, your failures and your victories, that'll never end until the lights go out.
Steve James' documentary about Roger Ebert seems to know this. The movies are our life, and we are the movies. Not to mention the books and songs, the poems and paintings, the photographs and dinners we read, see, hear and eat.
Life Itself" is not a celebrity portrait, but the story of a famous person who shared in all the aspects of what makes up being human. Mr. Ebert's love for life, for the movies, for the people who made movies, even those he hated, stemmed from a deep recognition that in the end, we as a species need each other. As mainstream as this basic philosophical realization is, it is ultimately unavoidable.
In a stark and unflinching way, without ever becoming trashy, has Mr. James fashioned not the story of an icon or a spokesperson but of a human being with an insane amount of passion.
Mr. Ebert's dependence on the heart and passion of others came full circle by giving back as much as he could. Which meant trying to let everyone know which movies were worthy, necessary and longing for our attention.
Life Itself" is not just about a gentlemen from the mid-western part of the United States. It is if anything about a citizen of the world, who tried and sometimes succeeded in showing us that to be human was a noble endeavor, if we chose it to be that.
And he summed it up once, as profound as anything I've ever read, in the last paragraph of his review about Searching for Bobby Fisher". Which was directed, incidentally, by Steven Zaillian who co-produced this documentary.
At the end, it all comes down to that choice faced by the young player that A. S. Byatt writes about: the choice between truth and beauty. What makes us men is that we can think logically. What makes us human is that we sometimes choose not to."
And I believe, life is ultimately made up of choices, not opinions.
A Masterpiece in Time
3 hours and not a boring second. Richard Linklaters "Boyhood" transfers an idea that could have a been a disaster into something groundbreaking, heartwarming and very true.
The story around Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as we follow him from age 7 to the beginning of his college life is a fine tuned and superbly executed movie, that has gained its momentum whilst being shot over 12 years.
The earmarks that make up the coming-of-age of a human being are often so small they are passed over by the enormity of historical events. Yet for Linklater it's exactly those moments which pass so quickly that make up a life. And which he is able to capture like nobody else before him.
The authenticity that a twelve year shooting schedule brings is mined to its very core, and it will be hard for anybody watching not to be reminded of those moments when everything tilts and you actually grow up.
The acting is simple and very effective, the camera never lingers but respects its characters by observing them from a certain distance, and with every passing year we move closer to the ever liberating understanding, that life is one hell of a ride, although we have no way of knowing where it goes.
Not Untold, But Essential
The American Century as the 20th century came to be known, has closed its curtain for more than a decade now. But the consequences of what transpired in the second half of it, will be felt for quite some time to come.
For those who know the works of Gore Vidal, Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, Oliver Stone hardly adds anything new to the imperial history of the US of A.
Yet Stone still manages to create something that future students of history and especially the widely uninformed masses of the United States should see. These ten episodes are essential viewing for future generations of Americans and Western countries in general, because they show how the hegemony of the western world has been on a decline for some time now and even more importantly, where it all began.
To quote Gore Vidal more than 15 years ago: "Europe began as the relatively empty, uncivilized Wild West of Asia. Then the Americas became the Wild West of Europe. Now the sun, setting in our West, is rising once more in the East".
Things will change, as they always do, and Oliver Stone, less furious and idealistic, has with this TV-Series cemented something of his legacy, that will infuriate some (politics and history do have that effect on people) but will certainly inform a good many more people.
"The Untold History of the United States" is not so much a leftist but a humanist view of the world. It ends with John F. Kennedys words how we all share this planet, and thus it should be clear to everyone, that now matter what century lies ahead, if it is not a human century, humanity will have a very limited future ahead.
La vie d'Adèle (2013)
Too long and too good to ignore
Teenager Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) is still going to school when one day she sees art student Emma (Léa Seydoux) at a cross-walk. Unsure of her life, her emotions and her sexual identity does Adèle begin to go look for that vision with blue hair.
The ever present magnetism does its work and these two young women start a passionate and deeply intimate love affair which tests their own emotional depths and even reality itself.
By all accounts, Abdel Kechiche's adaption of "Le Bleu est Une Couleur Chaude" is too long. It has a number of scenes, including the very explicit sex scenes, who manage to convey a level of intimacy that is one of the rarest things in cinema these days, but they loose some of their power because the camera lingers on for too long.
This important critique aside, "La vie d'Adèle" is an engrossing, breathtakingly acted love story that removes any kind of gender questions and presents the unfiltered beating heart of young love.
It elevates those moments of pure joy and profound emotional understanding to a universal level, that makes this experience at times too much to bear. Not because of what is shown but how familiar all these emotions are to so many people on this planet.
"La vie d'Adèle" gives to the lucky few the assurance that if your life is sparred by the heart-break of your first truly idealistic love and you manage to take said love into the world of everyday relationship or marriage you have one of the rarest gifts in life. To the many, who had to concede their first true love to the higher forces that life presents, Kechiche and his two lead actresses provide a very touching mirror into those moments where reality tips to the side of momentary bliss only to pull the rug right out from under us.
And as it is with the exquisite pain of a broken heart, you don't forget a movie like this.
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Where Human Flaws Make a Rotten Core
Brilliantly acted, superbly written and as one would expect from a picture by Martin Scorsese, it is a masterclass of directorial craft.
Showy when it needs to be, but also quiet and contemplative. "The Wolf of Wall Street" is the equivalent of something like "Good Fellas" or even more so "Casino" but set in the world of finance. The suits might be more expensive but the people who wear them are just as sick and violent as their street-mob counterparts. Sardonic in humor and unflinching in showing the depravity of its characters, it marks somewhat of a different approach to the world of stock-trading than Oliver Stone's "Wall Street".
Where Stone seems more in line with Bertold Brecht who considered theater (or in this case film) a moral institution, does Scorsese take the position of the omnipresent observer of the dark side of the American and in many cases the human dream.
Leonard DiCaprio gives another stellar performance of great intensity and even greater tragedy while this tale of corruption, greed and self-righteousness unfolds.
It's a vast panorama that shows how during the last twenty-five to thirty years gullibility as well as our innate greed make all of us accomplices in this never-ending pyramid scheme far away from any reality.
One could almost hear Scorsese's clerical background come to the fore again, according to which nobody is without sin, and therefore we are all susceptible to corruption.
It is our decision on which side we choose to live that makes the difference. For every individual but also society as a whole.
The power of a single scene
Although it is as close to an insult to pick out a single scene of a movie and recommend it on the basis of that, there is also some truth to that. Especially since the rest of the movie is decently if not revolutionary crafted, "42" written & directed by Brian Helgeland still earns repeated viewing because of one very powerful moment.
For the uninitiated I will not spoil it, just to say it is a brief confrontation between Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) and Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) in the basement of a baseball park.
Those who've already seen the movie will know which scene I'm talking about. For in it Helgeland, Boseman and Ford manage to distill the importance of Jackie Robinson as a historic figure while showing him at his most vulnerable. And it is in that moment that all the strengths of the movie come to life because if the rest of the writing, acting and technical achievement hadn't been thought through this moment would ring hollow. But Helgeland and his collaborators have done a fine job in giving this American icon not only a fitting tribute but show him as the one thing all icons start out - a conflicted, strong, passionate and frail human being.
The main critic hurled at "42" is that it has played things too safe and by the numbers. But I believe it is this old-fashioned style that actually manages to bring out the most inspirational aspects of Robinson, the things he had to overcome and what his place in US history means.
Yes, this is an old-fashioned movie, but then again, baseball is an old-fashioned and timeless game.
To the Wonder (2012)
Love is an ancient mistake...
...wrote french author Victor Hugo and Terrence Malick's "To the Wonder" seems at times to agree and at times wanting disprove that quote. As ancient as the mistake of falling in love appears to be, as unavoidable and necessary it is. In his impressionistic style which will enrapture some and drive most insane, this latest piece of work by one of America's most unusual filmmakers continues his exploration of emotional truths, identity, intimacy and individual freedom which leads us into ever changing emotional states.
Without a clear structure or narrative but accompanied by breathtaking images, a very expressive music and ambient soundtrack and extremely subtle performances, are we drawn into the lives of a business man (Ben Affleck), a Russian expatriate (Olga Kurylenko), the daughter of a farm owner (Rache McAdams) and the priest of a small town in Oklahoma (Javier Bardem). Their thoughts and struggles on love, commitment, God and marriage along with their the fights and atonement are presented in fractured moments that reveal the various elements of human contradiction which constantly tear us in two directions at the same time. We want freedom and comfort, love and domesticity, desire and stability. The compromise lies in accepting which side of us is the one that defines us the most and if we can live, at least partly, with the lack of the other, in order to achieve as Bardem's Father Quintana puts it:"The love that never changes."
Amidst this metaphysical and highly personal journey Malick gives us not only a sense of the "wonder of love" but also celebrates our sense of wonder in general. Our ability to be overwhelmed by our emotions for another person, nature or even God.
"To the Wonder" is a film about faiths in many shapes and strives for that forgiveness that elates our disappointments and resentments in order to finally love in a state of personal liberty and acceptance.
A movie for a few with a theme for everybody.
Chasing Mavericks (2012)
Having Michael Apted and Curtis Hanson, two filmmakers with a number of wonderful films under their belt, credited with a movie about surfing speaks to both my passion for film as it does for the sport, which "Chasing Mavericks" portrays.
Jay Moriarty's story certainly merits a movie about family, friendship and a passion for the ocean. The basic strokes of what the movie could've been are also present, and the actors do their best to lend some weight to what drives a few out into some of the biggest breakers of the world, and what drives many others into the ocean to find their own limits and confront their fears.
As a surfer I was also glad to see that a feature-film was finally concerned with what it takes (training, preparation, study of the ocean) to go out and catch the biggest waves you dare. No babes-in-bikinis here like the cheese-festival that "North Shore" and "Blue Crush" were.
Unfortunately these efforts are undermined by a coming-of-age story that is just too much by the numbers. Budgets always dictate structure and content, but the rough edges of the characters have to be more precisely drawn so that people who neither surf or are over the age of sixteen can relate to the story.
The heart of "Chasing Mavericks" is certainly in the right place and along with some absolutely breath-taking surf-photography the wisdom that the story provides might appeal to you.
At the same time there's too much of a cookie-cutter-structure and the real demons that possess a surfer to charge into the unknown are only slightly referenced at.
The screenplay leaves too many ambivalent aspects out or skirts them and thus the actors, trying their best, come off as bland and stereotypical.
So...I'm still waiting for a modern feature-film representation ("Big Wednesday" aside) of "what surfing is", but "Chasing Mavericks" is, although another missed opportunity, a decent step into the right direction.
Django Unchained (2012)
Blazing Saddles of Django
Mel Brooks comedy classic "Blazing Saddles" was the first thing that came to mind while watching "Django Unchained".
And I'm obviously not alone in that.
I read the screenplay beforehand, and aside from a couple of scenes, the comedic touch wasn't that evident. Thankfully Tarantino cut out a number of very vile rape-scenes, whose omission do nothing to soften the grueling and abhorrent behavior that shows man's cruelty towards man in all its gory-glory.
The movie is too long for my taste. The last third could've been cut shorter, and some earlier scenes run on a bit too long. But aside from that, the script is tight, the art- and camera-work superb and the performances are spellbinding. There is not one loose chink in the ensemble chain. Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx have an unusual chemistry together, which is most evident in a very brief sequence where Django throws back the morals of his bounty hunting liberator Dr. King Schultz, and we make a first big step towards ambivalence.
The other pairing is that of Samuel L. Jackson and Leonardo DiCaprio. The former playing a black servant with the demeanor of a pure blooded white racist, and the latter presents himself as the most educated, tasteful and wealthy form of fascist ideologue with a scientific predilection. Tarantino does have a profound sympathy for the devil.
Equally strong and mostly omitted in the reviews is the couple in distress. Foxx and the beautiful Kerry Washington fashion a whole romance out of very little cloth, and are seen only briefly together. Yet, their marriage and the reasons for Djangos journey are obvious and never simply implied. These two truly love each other.
Nothing is as serious as comedy, and nothing as funny as dying. What "Django Unchained" does, next to inciting a long awaited discussion on the slavery past of the United States, freed from political correctness, is entertain and shock in equal measures. And it makes you actually wish for a straightforward comedy written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. Now that would be a truly blazing saddle.
A painfully brilliant journey to the emotional center of a Post-9/11 Earth
To summarize "Margaret" would be like summarizing a pond in a forest. It is about all things at once and one thing in particular. Add to this confusion the observation that what this "one thing in particular" is depends on the viewers individual point of view.
To read that Kenneth Lonergans second movie was fraught with troubles on the productive as well as the creative end somehow doesn't seem to be surprising after you've watched it.
"Margaret" is, not unlike its heroine Lisa Cohen (an astounding accomplishment by Anna Paquin), a very uncompromising film. It gives us a sense, and almost an overall conclusion of the first decade of the 21st century. A decade of fear, grieve, revenge, blame, hypocritical use of political correctness and ultimately a decade of deep sadness about what the madness on both sides turned the world into.
It is also an unflinching look at the way society and life somehow seem at odds with each-other. The basic premise of a high school girl whose involvement in an accident leads her on a difficult journey to find her own and the worlds moral center, is very much emblematic of how the western world started to confront outside forces from other societies and the random nature of how the balance of power can shift into unchartered waters.
Roger Ebert once wrote about Oliver Stone's JFK: "(It) is a brilliant reflection of our unease and paranoia, our restless dissatisfaction." He surmised that this movie wasn't about facts but about an emotional state.
In a calm, brilliantly acted and superbly crafted movie, Lonergan achieves a similar feat. He produced a movie about our present, and through it shows that the emotional state of this past decade will linger on for a long time.
Whatever our political views, our perception of right and wrong, our moral values and ultimately our failings as human beings are, Lonergan shows, as he did with "You Can Count On Me", that to accept that we are human and have a need for resolution and redemption in places where none is to be found, may turn not the world at large, but the one in us, towards a better tomorrow.
In the years after September 11th I sometimes had to think about the last line of Alan Pakula's film "Presumed Innocent": "There was a crime. There was a victim. And there is *punishment*. "
"Margaret" to me is about that punishment. Our need for it, and the pain it causes those who exact it.
The People Speak (2009)
The First Review, what a shame!!!
Not one person even recommends this wonderful documentary by one of the United States most cherished historians. This seems to be a truly sad state of affairs.
I first heard of Mr. Zinn, like many Non-US-Citizens (I'm Swiss/Algerian) through a plug by Matt Damon's character in "Good Will Hunting".
After loving Gus van Sant's movie for almost 15 years and doing some research about Mr. Zinn I have now watched this movie and the Matt Damon-narrated "You Can't be Neutral on a Moving Train".
All I can say to people around the world and especially Americans, "SEE IT". It's more than worth it, to see history with a different pair of eyes, different view-points and a healthy dose of hope for humanity.
The words that are being spoken here are as true and relevant as they ever were. The passion by Mr. Damon, Viggo Mortensen, Morgan Freeman, Sean Penn, Marisa Tomei, Josh Brolin, Jasmin Guy and many others is clearly visible and audible.
I truly hope this review will be useful to you :-) Because "if we do act, in however small a way, we don't have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory." Thank your Mr. Zinn for your words, thoughts, inspirations and to the many people involved in the making of this documentary.
Serge Zehnder 10 February 2010.
The Social Network (2010)
The Binary Society
Title, money and beauty are the three forms of aristocracy as director Preston Sturges once observed and they are the governing forces of our society. Connected to all three forms are curiosity and jealousy. Both are very powerful human emotions that give people a certain false sense of power and "raison d'être". Facebook the website/phenomenon is primarily built on it. Curiosity and jealousy intersect in unexpected ways, desires are triggered via mouse-clicks and somehow a whole new way of existence is created and released.
What's even more powerful, David Fincher, writer Aaron Sorkin, the work of the entire cast and crew rounded off by an amazing score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross completely captured all the above mentioned aspects.
But the ultimate feat, that "The Social Network" manages to achieve, is to show to an entire generation of internet users that no life can be lead if identity is not based in reality. Every life has a profile, not every life is profiled to have a soul. Mark Zuckerberg seemed to have grasped this and, according to the film, failed to choose the right side of this equation.
Now this is one hell of a movie.