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The Star Wars fandom is dead.
I saw The Empire Strikes Back for the first time when I was four years old. I barely remember it, only vague images of Yoda hobbling around in a fire-lit hut, talking with a funny voice. In the subsequent years, I discovered that Empire was a sequel, and saw A New Hope and Return of the Jedi as soon as I possibly could.
From that moment on, I was hooked. I inhaled Star Wars. I lived it. I had every Hasbro toy, every action figure. I read every expanded universe book, from the Young Jedi Knights books (yes, all of them) all the way through to the epic Heir to the Empire/Thrawn trilogy. I collected the CCG. I had every vehicle, creature and weapons guide book. I played every video game. Star Wars was my life.
And what I loved about it was something very specific: It wasn't the legacy of the Skywalker family, it wasn't the minute and specific details about how the force works, it wasn't the mechanics of whatever form of physics exists in the Star Wars universe. It was the universe itself: its people, its imagery, its boundless creativity. Its ability to whisk you away to a world which you could only imagine; taking that world and making it real. THAT is the magic of Star Wars - always has been, and always will be. And I always felt - naively, it seems - that the Star Wars fandom at large loved the property for the same reasons I did.
Which brings us to 2017, a year in which a faction of the Star Wars fandom - the same fandom I have so proudly belonged to for so many years, that I built my life around - has decided that a film that DARES to show them something slightly different, marginally unexpected, ever so slightly challenge the status quo of what the universe has been up until this point, is some sort of personal affront, and have made it their mission to destroy it.
The negative responses to this film - the level of anger, of vitriol, of pure and vicious hatred - make me sick to my stomach. Look, film criticism is a subjective opinion - if you didn't enjoy something, you didn't enjoy something, and that's fine. If you thought that this film had plot issues, character inconsistencies, bad dialogue, leaps of logic - again, that's totally your prerogative (though I suggest you take a long, hard look back at the original trilogy before you criticize a Star Wars movie of having plot issues, character inconsistencies, bad dialogue, and leaps of logic.)
But to think that a film is bad JUST because it defies your expectations? Because it dares to show you something unexpected? Because it commits the horrendous offense of ADDING to the Star Wars lore instead of just re-packaging what already existed and selling it back to you as something new? Because it features strong female characters? Minorities? These opinions range from pathetically short-sighted to outright sexist, racist, and vile.
And I've had enough. Because this movie had lightsabers. It had epic space battles. It had beloved original trilogy characters actually growing beyond what they were originally, and opening a door to a new chapter in the saga, while closing the door on their own chapter on the way out. It has engaging and likable new characters. It takes us to new places and shows us sides of the Star Wars universe we have never seen before. And more than anything, more than The Force Awakens and Rogue One that preceded it... it re-captures that feeling of watching the original trilogy, of seeing something totally new and unexpected, of being whisked away to a magical and fantastical place a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.
And if that isn't enough for you ungrateful, spiteful, hateful ingrates... I simply don't understand what is. The Star Wars fandom is dead. Because it's just not fun to be a Star Wars fan anymore, if all you get is hate and vitriol and sexism and temper tantrums, and arguments about inane and unimportant minutia, while entirely missing the bigger picture. So, congratulations. You killed the fandom. I hope you're all proud of yourselves.
The Master (2012)
Cements Paul Thomas Andreson as the most consistent director working today
In a broad sense, The Master tells the story of a soulless drifter, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix,) constantly drunk and with no purpose in life, finding sanctuary in the company of The Cause, a cult-like group lead by a charismatic intellectual, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman.) This plot description does not do the film full justice, because with this film, Anderson fully releases himself from the constraints of traditional narrative storytelling. The film is told in a stream-of-consciousness style, loosely linking together vignettes and moments from the time these two men spend together, without any sense of "drive," "purpose" or "goal" in the traditional screen writing sense. It is a style perfectly befitting the emotional and spiritual state of the main character, Freddie, adrift in life with no anchor or sense of purpose of his own. Throughout the film, Anderson occasionally cuts back to a shot of the wake of a slow-moving ship, placing us, the audience, aimlessly drifting through the narrative, just as Freddie is. What results is a series of scenes, snapshots of events, some narratively linked and some not. The film is very subjective, and puts us squarely in Freddie Quell's mind; as a result, no easy answers are given, many questions remain mysteries, and we never get a firmly grounded sense of reality; many events remain ambiguous and keep us wondering as to their fidelity long after the film is over.
The Master is Anderson's most cinematically humble film yet. Gone are the sweeping camera moves, rapid-fire editing and high style of his previous films; even the slow, meticulous, beautifully lit tracking shots of There Will Be Blood are gone. Instead, Anderson submits to a wholly utilitarian shooting style, only moving the camera when necessary to capture action in the shot, and using formal framing techniques and naturalistic (but still very beautiful) lighting to comment on the characters' internal states. That said, it would be impossible to talk about the film's visual style without commenting on Anderson and cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr.'s decision to shoot on 65mm film. This film stock, especially when projected in 70mm, provides the film with an unprecedented sense of clarity and sharpness. The 65mm lenses provide a very unique and distinctly shallow depth of field that adds to the dream-like quality of the film, and helps emphasize the isolation the characters feel. It would be a crime to watch the film on any other format.
All this discussion about non-narrative elements, thematic overtones and film formats is not to minimize what is possibly the film's crowning and most long-lasting achievement: the performances. Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of the most consistent performers working today and an Anderson regular, delivers another powerful, charismatic performance in line with his turn in Doubt. It is, for the most part, an effectively subtle performance, maintaining a controlled dignity peppered with the occasional outburst. Amy Adams delivers a similarly dignified performance. Her character is mostly quiet, observing from the sidelines, but she has her moments to shine in the aforementioned private scenes between her and Lancaster, in which she completely dominates him. But the highlight of the film is without a doubt Joaquin Phoenix's tremendous performance as Freddie Quell. Over the years, Phoenix has, without much fanfare, slowly but surely cemented himself as one of the best actors working today, with powerful turns in many varied films, from his deliciously villains turn as emperor Commodus in Gladiator to his quiet, grave personification of Johnny Cash in Walk the Line. Now, after a four-year absence from narrative films, he returns with what is undoubtedly a career best performance, and one that, with any luck, will win him a much-deserved Oscar. His utter and complete immersion in the character of Freddie Quell has to be seen to be believed. His back hunched, swinging his arms like an ape, his frame thin, his face twisted and distorted, mumbling and slurring his speech out of the corner of his mouth like he is just learning how to behave in society for the first time, and failing. And Phoenix' physical commitment to the performance doesn't stop there, either: he flings himself into scenes of raw violence that look and feel completely real. It is a crowning achievement in the art of acting and "the method," rivaling that of Daniel Day-Lewis in Anderson's previous film, and it further cements the biggest difference between Anderson and Stanley Kubrick as directors: Where Kubrick is known for his actors' cold, removed performances, Anderson has become the most consistent source for high-caliber Acting with a capital A.
It's hard to really explain what makes The Master work even though it lacks many traditional narrative elements that provide most other films with powerful drama, closure and immediate gratification. It's a very subjective experience, and I'm sure many viewers will have difficulty immersing themselves in the film without the typical sense of narrative progression and character goals. For this reason, The Master is probably Anderson's least accessible film. That said, I think it is a testament to Anderson's enormous intellect and directorial abilities that he managed to capture the attentions and fascination of so many viewers and critics. He certainly won me over; although I had more visceral and immediately satisfying reactions to Anderson's previous films, I find that The Master lingers on long after the lights went up in the theater. The film's intellectual ambitions, along with its very unique, eerie tone, will keep me mulling over the experience for days to come. Already I feel the urge to re-visit it and attempt to uncover more of the film's secrets. And that right there is a telltale sign of an instant classic film in the making.
True Grit (2010)
Good ol' fashioned storytelling
As is to be expected, the film has all the classic Coen flourishes, first and foremost its use of language. The Coens have always been impeccably tuned in to language and accents, from the most creative use of swear words in The Big Lebowski and Burn After Reading to the colorful, stylized prose of The Hudsucker Proxy and The Man Who Wasn't There to the very distinct accents in Raising Arizona, Fargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and No Country for Old Men. In classic Coen fashion, the use of language is very much emphasized in True Grit. The characters have a very distinct use of words, lifted right out of the novel and, as it feels at least, right out of the time period the film takes place in. Unlike something like Deadwood which features a very modernized and stylized version of 18th century speak, the dialogue in True Grit sounds completely authentic and, along with the impeccable and accurate-feeling costume and set design, really adds to the realism of the world True Grit creates. Accents are also very important – the harsh Southern drawl that the Coens have always been attracted to is very prominent and plays a very large role in the film.
As has become expected of the brothers, especially in recent years, the film looks incredibly beautiful, mainly thanks to regular DP Roger Deakins' stunning cinematography. All of his trademarks are in place: harsh but very naturalistic lighting, washed-out colors, especially in the outdoor scenes, smooth camera movements, and just a generally beautiful palette he uses to paint the world of the film with. Also very prominent in the film is the beautiful score by Carter Burwell. It hearkens back to his more melodic work on the Coen brothers' earlier films, especially Miller's Crossing. Using themes from classic hymns from the time period of the film, the soundtrack, along with the language of the dialogue, helps add a very strong feeling of authenticity to the film. It is a beautiful piece of music: dramatic but not heavy- handed, whimsical but with a hint of darkness to it. These two long-time Coen collaborators, as well as the costume and set designers, with whom the Coens have also worked with many times before, all deliver top-notch work and show once again just how strong the power of long-term collaboration can be.
Other returning collaborators are a number of the cast members. The Coens seem to have grown distant from most of their long-time regular cast members (Jon Polito, John Turturro, John Goodman, Steven Buscemi, and others), but Coen regulars still make appearances in some of their recent work. In this case, it is "The Dude" Lebowski himself, Jeff Bridges, who makes his triumphant return in a Coen brothers film, filling the very large shoes of John Wayne, who gave an iconic performance as Rooster Cogburn in the first adaptation of True Grit, from 1969. Bridges brings his own unique style and sensibilities to the role, combining his drunken goofiness with the demeanor of a serious and very skilled hunter and lawman. It is a wonderful performance playing to all of Bridges' best abilities as an actor, and it is just a joy to watch. Also playing to his best qualities is Matt Damon, who delivers one of the loosest and most fun performances of his career as Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (or "La Beef", as he is referred to, by himself as well, in the film). Damon is clearly having fun with the role, although like Bridges, he, too, manages to find a very excellent balance between the humor and the seriousness and skill his character has. But the standout performance has to be newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, who beat out 15,000 other girls for the part. Open casting calls often provide disappointing results, as nonprofessional actors tend to be just that – not professional. 14-year-old Steinfeld proves she is a talent to watch, though – she totally commands the screen with her strong-willed, stubborn character, and manages to hold her own against Bridges, Damon and Josh Brolin, who makes a brief but memorable appearance later in the film. It is a fantastic, powerful performance that is an absolute joy to watch. I foresee great things from Steinfeld in the future.
Many people will be turned off by the straightforwardness of the storytelling in True Grit. I have already heard complaints that the film lacks poignancy. But that isn't what it lacks. What it lacks is irony. It's actually quite amazing to see a film so completely and utterly devoid of irony such as this one – it seems like most films these days, including the Coen brothers' recent output, all carry this air of cynicism about them. True Grit hearkens back to a more classic form of plot and character-driven storytelling, and in that sense, it succeeds immensely. Ultimately, True Grit is a piece of pure entertainment – and it is quite an entertaining film: thrilling, engaging, and very, very funny. I have read many opinions claiming that this "doesn't feel like a Coen brothers film," but its storytelling style and techniques actually remind me most of another classic Coen film, Miller's Crossing. That film was also completely stripped of irony and instead focused on telling a good old-fashioned yarn, nothing more, nothing less. So while True Grit is not one of the very best films in the Coen's oeuvre, it is still just a darn good film overall.
The Fighter (2010)
Conventional script elevated by great direction and fantastic performances
After Rocky, Raging Bull, Ali, Million Dollar Baby, Cinderella man, and many others, one begins to wonder how many more boxing movies we really need in the world, and what a new one can bring to the table. Indeed, watching The Fighter, one can't help but wonder what the film can do to renew the genre and bring something new to the table. Unfortunately, the answer is "nothing much". The script is a pretty conventional rags-to-riches story, whose most interesting element is the relationship between Micky Ward and his brother, Dickie Eklund. Luckily, Russell and company recognized that this was the strongest aspect of what is otherwise a good but ordinary and somewhat flawed script, with some problems with flat characterizations and unnatural-sounding dialogue. However, everyone involved in the film tries their best to transcend the script, and for the most part, they succeed.
Russell's direction is absolutely fantastic. His use of the camera – which still has that indie looseness, free-moving and hand-held and gritty quality to it, which really adds to the atmosphere and energy the film tries to capture. His staging of scenes is fantastic and he usually just lets his actors riff off of one another, sometimes sticking to the script but sometimes talking over one another, interrupting, and creating a very dynamic back-and- forth that further lends to the realistic quality of the film and its setting. A fantastic rock- oriented soundtrack only adds to this energy and atmosphere. In terms of bringing something new to the table of boxing movies, Russell employs a very interesting technique of filming the boxing scenes as they were shown on HBO pay-per-view TV in the 90's; cheap video quality, multi-camera set-ups, the whole package. The boxing scenes were all shot over 3 days, which left the crew just enough time to run through one boxing match at a time and just shooting it as if it were an actual match, the cameras capturing everything, including mistakes and mess-ups and spontaneous, uncontrolled occurrences which yet again add to the very loose and realistic style the film attempts to capture. It is a very interesting and unique technique I have not seen used before, and I thought it was a fresh approach to boxing scenes, which have become very conventional ever since Raging Bull.
Ultimately, though, this is a movie about two brothers and their overcoming demons and obstacles in order to succeed and reach their mutual goal, together. Being a character-based film, the success of the acting is a key to the success of the film, and luckily, it is in this field that the film succeeds the most. Mark Wahlberg is adequate in the lead role of Micky Ward. I have never thought much of him as an actor and think that he did an "okay" job on this film; not bad but not particularly noteworthy. However, his supporting cast all shine, and his chemistry with them, especially with Christian Bale, is really what sells the movie for me. Bale's achievement is nothing short of revolutionary. He completely steals the show as Micky's crack-addicted older brother and trainer, a former boxer himself, and a shadow of his old self, except he can still throw one hell of a punch and knows just what Micky needs to do in order to succeed. Bale completely embodies the role and really gives it his all – both in his appearance (hollow cheeks, bulgy eyes, balding) but also in his bravura performance. It is an incredible feat of acting, one of the best I have seen all year; Bale's best work as an actor yet, and totally deserving of all the accolades it will inevitably receive. Also worth mentioning though are the two main female supporting roles, namely Amy Adams as the tough and sassy but supportive girlfriend, and Melissa Leo as the overbearing mother. Both actresses are very much out of their comfort zone, which is just what makes their performances so good. Adams, who has never really shown her tough side like she does in this film, does a spectacular job, and really creates someone human and relatable out of what is otherwise an underwritten character. The same goes for Melissa Leo: her character could have gone the completely one-dimensional villainous way, but Leo adds a certain humanity to the character which just makes her seem more sad than vicious.
Ultimately, The Fighter tells a pretty conventional story in an interesting and not necessarily conventional way. It is a film that could have been over-dramatized and heavy-handed had it been put in another director's hands (see Cinderella Man for an example of over- dramatization), but Russell and his cast reign it in and set out to create a very specific atmosphere and set a particular mood that lends the film a sense of realism and a very unique dynamic energy that, with the help of the fantastic performances from the cast, help carry it above and beyond its conventional script.
The King's Speech (2010)
Visually stunning, beautifully written, fantastically acted; 2nd best film of the year
Despite all of its lavish production values, The King's Speech greatest asset and strongest suit is its fantastic script, written by David Seidler. In the spirit of his contemporary, Peter Morgan (writer of The Queen, Frost/Nixon and other great films), and also The Social Network, Seidler takes what would seemingly be a very trivial anecdote – King George VI of England's speech therapy sessions – and manages to create a genuinely compelling and fascinating drama out of it. Like Aaron Sorkin's script for The Social Network, Seidler manages to take this unconventional premise and find the classic dramatic arc within it. Structurally, The King's Speech is one of the best screenplays in recent memory. The king is faced with a number of obstacles that he needs to overcome in order to achieve his goal, and as the film goes along and he gets help from the people around him, he learns how to change and eventually moves on. I think that recently, many writers have forgotten about the basic elements of storytelling required to create something truly engaging. Many directors these days rely purely on visuals to tell their stories. But film is just as much a written medium as it is a visual one.
However, that isn't to say that The King's Speech doesn't deliver on the visual level as well. Directed with signature flair by up-and-comer Tom Hooper, the film is one of the most visually stunning I have seen all year. Hooper, who has only directed one feature prior to this but enjoyed a very prolific television career, having directed the Elizabeth I mini-series with Helen Mirren as well as the monumental John Adams mini-series for HBO, has, in a relatively short amount of time, managed to develop a very distinct and strikingly beautiful visual style. In this film, he goes all-out with his camera placement and movement: Wide-angle lenses, lengthy steadicam shots, off-center compositions, beautiful settings, gorgeous, naturalistic side-lighting all of these elements come together to create a rich, beautiful, almost Kubrickian visual style. It is exactly the type of visual style I personally enjoy, and it is a thrill to see a director (and cinematographer) take such a loose and dynamic approach to material that otherwise could have come across as very stiff. Of course, the beautiful locations and fantastic and lavish production design and costume design only further compliment the cinematography. Another important element that enriches the dynamics of the film is Alexandre Desplat's beautiful, understated score, which combines his own compositions with fantastic pieces of classical music that really work well to enhance the emotions of the story.
In costume dramas, the acting is often just as if not more prominent than the cinematography, costume and set design, and The King's Speech is no exception. At the center of the film are two monumental performances from two of the greatest actors working today: Colin Firth, whom I still believe deserved the Oscar last year for his sublime turn in Tom Ford's A Single Man, and whom I believe deserves the Oscar this year for his equally sublime performance as King George VI. Firth not only embodies and captures the monarch in terms of his stammer and other mannerisms, but also really breathes life and emotion into a man facing a heavy burden, caught in conflict, having to overcome a large number of obstacles including his debilitating stutter but also being belittled by his older brother and father, not having the faith of his people, and needing to win back that faith with the one thing he can't do: public speaking. Complimenting and almost completing his performance is an equally fantastic turn from Geoffrey Rush, who delivers one of his best performances yet as the king's speech therapist. The dynamic between the two of them is one of the best I have seen between two characters in any film this year; they riff and play off one another in just the perfect way, and their initial animosity turned bonding is simply wonderful to watch unfold. Rounding out the supporting cast are wonderful performances from Helena Bonham-Carter as the king's loving wife (and future Queen Mother), and Guy Pearce as King George's snooty, outrageous brother who is more obsessed with his married American socialite girlfriend than with actually doing a good job as monarch. It is a wonderful ensemble that works fantastically well together, and results in some of the best performances of the year.
Although I would rank it up there with the likes of The Remains of the Day and Atonement, The King's Speech is also set apart from those movies for one important reason: It is funny, and certainly much funnier than I expected it to be. Some scenes had me in stitches on the floor: the cursing scene will go down as one of the best I have seen in any film this year. Whereas many costume dramas are heavy-handed and feature dreary, down endings, The King's Speech is quite optimistic: characters overcome their obstacles and we are genuinely happy to see them succeed. It almost seems like an oxymoron: A British costume drama crowd-pleaser. But The King's Speech is just that: A wildly enjoyable piece of entertainment, with a heart, a fantastic story and script, and beautiful production values, music and cinematography easily make this one of the best films of the year.
127 Hours (2010)
Danny Boyle's best film
There are two main elements that make this story seem like it would never work as a narrative film. Firstly, everyone knows the ending. The film is based on a very widely reported true story that almost everyone seems to know about or at least heard about in passing. And so, must people go into the film knowing how it is going to end. Boyle and company faced a very major obstacle they needed to get over: how will they keep their audience interested in a story they already know the outcome of? In addition, there is the entire notion of dramatic structure. And when you have a story that takes place almost entirely with one character who has his hand stuck under a rock, your dramatic options seem relatively limited. Aside from the one major conflict that is set up very early on, there doesn't seem to be any room for development, further conflict, complications, additional obstacles, or any kind of change whatsoever. The character is quite literally and physically stuck. How do you make this compelling?
Firstly, Boyle's visual style does a pretty good job at keeping us interested. Continuing his streak with Slumdog Millionaire, Boyle, along with cinematographers Anthony Dodd Mantle and Enrique Chediak create an absolutely beautiful and rich visual palette, with dynamic camera movements and angles, beautiful framing and use of color, use of different kinds of cameras for different visual styles – consumer-grade digital cameras to get that extreme depth of field and to have objects literally pressed right up against the lens in crisp focus; wide-angle lenses, fascinating point-of-view shots and other elements that all serve to create this incredibly intense and visceral cinematic experience. The vibrant editing also does its job, with very quick, rapid-fire cuts and some of the best and most unique use of split-screen imagery I've ever seen further adding to the film's unique visual style.
So how does Boyle create dramatic tension in a movie about a man who spends the entire time with his hand stuck under a rock in an isolated canyon? Easy – he takes us out of the canyon. After the accident, which occurs fairly early on in the story, the film's linear reality begins to fragment, and we begin to see what Aron begins to see. Fascinatingly enough, the film never quite makes it clear what we are seeing are flashbacks, visions and premonitions hallucinated by Aron in his desperate situation, or a combination of the two. The fact that the film blurs these lines makes the experience all the more visceral and puts us even further and deeper into Aron's head. The dynamic style of the film as well as the extremely subjective point of view it puts us in helps to create this inescapable feeling of intensity and dread as the film progresses – it is quite simple one of the most intense and nerve-racking films I have ever experienced. Our connection with the character is so strong and the style so inescapable that even events that we know will happen make us feel nervous and uncomfortable. You really start thinking: there is just absolutely no other way out of this situation, and as this truth becomes more and more obvious to Aron, the feeling of dread only intensifies and intensifies leading up to the horrifically graphic climax.
When I first heard about this project, I didn't know if there was anything that could be done. And yet, Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy found an absolutely brilliant way to get around these problems, and ended up creating one of the most compelling films I have had the pleasure to see this year. By removing us from the canyon, the film ceases to be about a character with his hand stuck under a rock, and becomes a film about the character himself. What makes Aron tick? What happened to him to get him in this situation to begin with, and what does he have inside him that drives him to commit this insanely desperate and courageous act he commits at the end, one which my friends and I deliberated for hours whether or not we would be capable of doing, only to reach the conclusion that there is no way in the world we would be able to do what Aron did if we found ourselves in a similar situation. We see Aron interacting with other people, and pushing them away. We see him leisurely ignoring his friendly boss as he leaves the store he works at before he leaves for his hiking trip. We see him ignoring his mother's phone calls. We see him encounter and have fun with the two hiking girls, only to leave them as abruptly and as nonchalantly as he encountered them. In flashbacks, we see a past relationship Aron shared with a beautiful blonde girl when he was younger, a relationship that ended sourly after Aron wouldn't let her in. Even when we flash back to Aron's youth, we see that his relationship with his family was one of silence. Aron lives in his own world and doesn't let anyone in, and it is this rejection of other people that got him in this situation in the first place. However, it is the change he undergoes in the canyon under the rock as he begins to realize the mistakes he has made and yearn again for the human connection he has lacked all these years that gives him the strength to do what he did. And the shots of large crowds of people that bookend the film lend further poignancy to this notion of human connection that is so beautifully depicted in this amazing and inspirational true story of perseverance and survival.
The Social Network (2010)
A timeless story of friendship, loyalty, greed and betrayal
I just want to get this out there right away and put the cards on the table so to speak: When I first heard about it, I had very little faith in this project. I was stupefied, confused by the thought of what attracted all this talent to this seemingly trivial story to begin with? Why would David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin possibly be interested in the story of the founding of Facebook? Surely they could have found something more important, more meaningful to apply their efforts to. After seeing the film, though, I realized that, of course, Fincher and Sorkin knew what they were doing all along. And furthermore that labeling this as "The Facebook movie" is really an insult to what Sorkin and Fincher were trying to and have succeeded in achieving with this film.
First and foremost, I have to take a step back and admire this film as a technical achievement. Despite seeming to be a departure for Fincher in terms of content and subject matter – which it is and then again isn't – the film is very clearly and undeniably a Fincher film. Re-teaming with his Fight Club director of photography Jeff Cronenweth, Fincher manages to create and capture that really unique look all of his films have. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous – once again, Fincher proves that he is probably getting the best results in digital photography out of any other director working in that medium, and this film, shot on the RED One camera, looks absolutely beautiful, from the framing to the camera movement to the lighting and on to the look and the feel of the depth of field the RED captures.
Sorkin's script is also an impeccable achievement and showcases, once again just what a genius this man really is. From a structural standpoint it employs a very effective use of a framing device – the Zuckerberg lawsuit depositions, which introduce the various characters and lead into "flashbacks" of the events being discussed. It really lends the film a Rashomon air and intensifies the mystery behind the Zuckerberg character and what exactly transpired in the creation of this phenomenon, Facebook. Sorkin also demonstrates an acute awareness of character construction, and manages to create a loathsome protagonist we hate and are frustrated by but yet we still end up sympathizing with. Most of all, though, it's a showcase of Sorkin's impeccable writing style and knack for writing dialogue with a very unique sound and rhythm. I saw Fincher refer to it as "Sorkinese" in an interview, and this is a really good description – it is certainly very unique to Sorkin and the scripts he has written, and it is also certainly a completely unique language – one which normal people in our real world do not speak, but that just sounds great on screen. The rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue remains one of the highlights of the film for me, and the script is certainly a shoo-in for Oscar consideration.
The film is also a rare showcase of pure acting prowess, and features a very interesting and eclectic cast of young actors stepping out of their comfort zones and delivering some truly phenomenal work. The casting of the film is quite a departure for Fincher, who has enough clout to gather the biggest names working in the business. Instead, he opted to go for a cast of relative unknowns or up-and-comers, and really make stars out of them. First and foremost to be mentioned is Jesse Eisenberg, an actor I have personally been a fan of since The Squid and the Whale in 2005 and one whose work I have continued to enjoy since then. However, no matter how good he was in those previous films, none of his previous performances compare to his amazing achievement on this film. Stripping away his signature goofiness and neurosis, Eisenberg plays Zuckerberg as a cold, calculated and determined genius who knows what he wants, is very confident and forward-looking and will stop at nothing to get it. His counter in the film is Saverin, played brilliantly by Andrew Garfield, a name we will be hearing a lot more of of in the next few years: Saverin is a far more sympathetic character, more warm and inviting – these traits only increase the impact of the tragedy of Zuckerberg's betrayal of their friendship.
Many pundits and commentators have designated this to be the "film that defines our generation", and truly a "product of its time" in the most literal sense of the word. However, I'm not sure I like this designation, especially since once you watch the film, you very quickly realize that this isn't a story about the founding of Facebook; it's really a story of friendship, ambition and betrayal, a character study of this fascinating individual whose actions in the film happen to depict the invention of an online social networking site that gets out of hand and puts all of his relationships, especially that with his best friend and business partner, in jeopardy. All of the themes mentioned above are universal and can be applied to a number of fantastic films and works of fiction over the centuries, and that, I think, is the greatest achievement of the film.
A Single Man (2009)
There is a curious bond between film and fashion design: both are fundamentally visual art forms. Before the addition of sound in the late 1920's, motion pictures were just that: moving images, pure visuals in essence. Unlike in novels or plays, the film medium forced artists to tell their stories visually, and to use words sparingly. In a similar manner, fashion design can also tell stories, although the types of stories woven into clothes are far more abstract than the more straightforward plots of films. Another element that ties the two together is that both film-making and fashion design are worlds in which art is directly tied with profit making: no matter how strong or deep the artistic ambitions of the work, at the end of the day, your goal is to sell tickets/clothes. This commercial element separates both film and fashion design from the other fine art forms. And what better a marriage of these two worlds than to have an established fashion designer direct a motion picture.
And the results more than show: A Single Man is a deliciously visual film, in which Ford seems far less interested in telling a story through words, and instead, shifts his focus to establishing a mood, a character, emotions and feelings and thoughts are all mixed up in a primordial soup of images. Essentially, A Single Man is a character study, taking place over a single 24-hour period and depicting the impact various individuals in various degrees of romantic involvement with the protagonist. We have his lover, killed in a car crash, the scars of which burn so deep that they drive George to suicide. We have George's best friend for life, infatuated with him but whose feelings are not returned, as she is of the wrong gender for George's taste. And finally, a young student of George's, representing perhaps a fleeting hope of a future love, of the simple naivety of the future generation. All these characters drift in and out of the film as we see events through George's point of view, and it is quite a unique one at that.
In order to solidify our connection with George, Ford employs what may be one of the most interesting uses of color I have seen in a recent film. The entire movie is de-saturated and drained of color, to emphasize George's dreary existence. And yet, every once in a while, something will literally brighten up George's life: the smell of a wild flower or the perfume of his secretary, his friend's green eyes, or the angelic, beautiful face of young Kenny, so full of hope and joy. Memories of his time spent with his deceased lover, on the other hand, are presented in stark black-and-white, beautiful memories but deadly and dreary to dwell on. It is a stroke of visual genius that is more than complemented by the fantastic and sleek cinematography, and top-notch 1960's period production and costume design, with an astute attention to detail, no doubt stemming from Ford's own personal familiarity with vintage clothes.
But the true crowning achievement of the film is its central performance. Colin Firth is nothing short of mesmerizing as the hollow George, drifting almost dream-like through what he thinks will be his last day on earth. It is an incredible, admirably subtle performance, in which Firth perfectly captures every gesture, every restrained emotion, and truly delivers a fascinating character study worthy of the greatest actors. Firth has always stuck to more lighter, romantic comedy fare like Bridget Jones' Diary, Shakespeare in Love, Love Actually and Mamma Mia!, but I had always felt the potential was there. But he truly shines in this role: I think it's safe to say that it is the single finest moment of his career, not to mention my personal pick of the best lead male performance of 2009. Another performance really stands out, and that is Julianne Moore as Charley, George's platonic friend for life. It is a slightly more showy performance as Charley is characterized by an overtly sympathetic and bubbly personality, despite her loneliness and her tragically unreciprocated feelings towards George. It is an excellent performance that perfectly compliments and enhances Firth's turn, and I am surprised that Moore didn't get more attention for it.
A Single Man is not a film about story, but rather, about a man, and more broadly, about a man in a certain time and what that means considering the context. It's the 1960's, the sexual revolution is just beginning, and open homosexuality is becoming more and more commonplace. It is not an issue that is overtly discussed in the film, but it is an important theme that is quite prominent. Where does young Kenny stand in all this? Does his seduction of George stem from genuine romantic feelings, or is he simply part of the "hip, bohemian" revolution, experimenting sexually but nothing more? George was deeply and genuinely in love with his life partner, and yet it is hinted that his parents did not approve. Ford takes the correct approach and does not bring up these themes and implications directly: rather, he lets the visuals, the images, and the characters' actions speak for themselves, and the result is a remarkable piece of film-making, especially considering that it is a directorial debut. If Ford ever considered a career change, this would be the perfect field for him.
Difficult to watch, but totally rewarding
This is not an easy film to watch, and not only because some of its themes and ideas get so far under one's skin that it becomes quite an uncomfortable viewing. It's a long, dreary, slow-paced film that places almost no emphasis on plot and instead focuses almost exclusively on characters and how they go about their lives and react to certain events that unfold over a relatively extended period of time, for a film at least. It is also in a foreign language that, no matter what, does tend to create even the slightest bit of alienation from non-native-speaking audiences. What I think is interesting is how Haneke exploits this alienation from the audience and takes it a step forward in order to further emphasize his point. The film is shot in stark black-and-white, which automatically alienates the audience because it makes us aware that we are watching a film – after all, the real world we live in is in color. In addition, Haneke has the film accompanied by a dreary, deadpan voice-over narration that, although spoken by a character in the film that experienced them firsthand, is alarmingly detached from the events depicted in the film. All of these elements serve to create an alienated and sterile environment, which serves as the launching point for Haneke's deeper themes.
There have been numerous films made about the dark underbelly of a seemingly perfect and pastoral American life: films like Blue Velvet, The Ice Storm and American Beauty portray settings that seem to embody the perfect example of the American Dream and the pursuit of happiness, but these settings are revealed to have dark secrets and nothing is as pure and wonderful as it seems. Similarly, Haneke sets his film in a seemingly perfect environment: a picturesque small village in rural Germany, in which all the townsfolk are good Christians who do their jobs, go to Church and whom all know one another. And yet, as the film progresses, this village is struck by a series of tragedies, events that expose the darkness within all the town's characters. The good doctor who had an unfortunate accident with his horse turns out to not be a very good doctor at all – he verbally abuses his mistress and sexually molests his teenage daughter. The baron is a victim of numerous crimes, against his crops, his barn and eventually his son – but could he have deserved it? He seems to rule the entire town – everyone works for him and he controls everyone's fates with a wave of the hand, and if that's not the perfect embodiment of daunting totalitarianism, than what is? Even the good priest is seen to go to alarmingly extreme measures to educate and discipline his children. What is most notable about the film is that, unlike the film's American counterparts, Haneke's The White Ribbon is completely uninterested in plot. By the end of it, we never know for sure who committed the crimes that the townspeople find themselves subjected to. We hear multiple theories, but none of them are ever verified. Haneke places far more emphasis and importance on the characters and how they face these troubles; the fact that someone committed them is not as important as the fact that they transpired in the first place.
Although it is a heavily allegorical and character-driven piece, another very important element that must be mentioned when discussing this film is a technical one: the cinematography. Some people were surprised this little-seen foreign film managed to nab a much-coveted Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography – but it whole-heartedly deserves it. The cinematography is nothing short of divine. Every frame is fastidiously staged, down to a T: the lighting, camera movement, composition and dynamics are pitch-perfect, and if there is one thing that must be said about the film is that it is absolutely stunningly beautiful to look at. The stark black-and-white photography lends it an air of otherworldliness; the lighting and delicate camera moves become almost ghost-like. It is certainly one of the most beautiful-looking films of 2009.
As I mentioned earlier, it is not easy getting through this film. It progresses at a snail's pace, takes its time with every scene, is intentionally emotionally distant and requires a substantial intellectual investment from the viewer; but it also a tremendously rewarding film for those who do choose to make that investment. Haneke paints a harrowing portrait of a small and simple village that loses its innocence, so to speak, in the face of a rapidly changing Europe in the early 20th century. Secrets are revealed, dark secrets, and moral values are shaken to their foundations never to be the same again. But the worst part is that we witness the decline of the young generation, who represent the future – and it's not accidental that the film ends on the devastating news of the outbreak of World War I.
Shutter Island (2010)
Much more than just an atmospheric psychological thriller
Martin Scorsese is one of the greatest directors to have ever emerged in the history of film, and it is a joyous miracle that such a legend is still working today. Not only that, but these last few years Scorsese has really reached the peak of his career: he finally won an Oscar and his last few movies have been the most financially successful of his entire career. As a direct result of his legendary status and lengthy career, Scorsese has definitely earned the right to make whatever movies he wants to – If he shot excrement for an hour-and-a-half I would probably watch it. Luckily for us, though, his advanced years and many films, some of which are masterpieces of modern cinema, have not hampered or decreased the quality of his film-making in any way – in fact, his last few films were made with uncharacteristic energy and vitality for a director nearing his 70th birthday. His latest film, Shutter Island – his first narrative feature since his Oscar win for The Departed four years ago – is perhaps a bit of a departure from his usual fare and style. But it is still undeniably a Scorsese picture, as it transcends its genre and features many of the characteristics that identify his previous films. It's just a little harder to find them this time.
Before delving into the more debatable aspects of the film, I first want to mention its undeniably successful aspects, which are mainly cosmetic but are most prominent indeed. Scorsese's visual language has always been highly stylized, but this movie puts even Goodfellas and The Aviator to the test, and serves to be one of Scorsese's most hyper-stylized films yet. And with the aid of one of the greatest and most unique cinematographers working today, Robert Richardson, it also becomes what is ultimately probably Scorsese's best-looking film. Richardson's trademark style of direct-from-above spot-lighting, diffusion lenses and overexposure work overtime on this film as we drift between reality and dreams with a wink of an eye. But it's not just the cinematography that's at work here: we are treated to fedoras and trench-coats, characters puffing on cigarettes every chance they get, dripping sewers, rusty iron gates, flickering lights, creaking wood: This is Scorsese's ode to the old film-noir mystery thrillers from the 40's and 50's that he probably meticulously studied and analyzed at film school and that no doubt influenced his film-making from the beginning. Accompanied by an impressive collection of creepy and ominous musical selections, the whole thing plays out like a grand old-fashioned, highly stylized detective movie. But that's too simple for Scorsese, and the film quickly reveals itself to be far more than just that.
Another greatly impressionable element of the film is its acting, specifically the lead performance by Leonardo DiCaprio. Leo was always talented – there's no need to look any further than one of his earliest film roles in What's Eating Gilbert Grape for a testament to his abilities – but he has truly blossomed as an actor under Martin Scorsese's wing. His performance in Gangs of New York was a little uneven, but no less than two years after that film came out he delivered the finest performance of his career, in The Aviator. This is his fourth collaboration with Scorsese and in it he delivers one of the finest performances of his career: it is a ferocious, bombastic and intense performance that despite its grandiose is still filled with subtlety and finesse: DiCaprio has a complex character to play and he nails every gesture and every motion. Like his other recent films, Shutter Island is blessed with an incredible ensemble cast filled to the brim with famous names as well as lesser-known but immensely talented character actors who really bring an extra quality when Scorsese lets them go all-out. In terms of the major supporting performances, both Mark Ruffalo and Ben Kingsley do a fantastic job at playing simple but crucial characters whom we learn know more than we may have thought, and who keep that knowledge subtly under wraps all throughout. There are also a number of character actors who only have one appearance but who really stand out and totally steal their individual scenes, including Jackie Earle Haley, Patricia Clarkson and Elias Koteas.
At first glance, Shutter Island seems like an excuse for Scorsese to demonstrate that he is also capable of delivering highly stylized genre cinema: A good, old-fashioned, moody, atmospheric psychological thriller in which the fedora-and-trench coat-wearing detective finds himself caught up in a massive conspiracy. But fairly early on, when the World War II flashbacks begin to kick in, we already start to feel that there is something more at work. At first I was a little turned off by the film's finale, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it served a greater purpose. Scorsese is too good to have his film revolve around a "twist" ending: rather, it becomes a direct continuation of and sheds important light on the nature of the main character. So ultimately, what starts out as a particularly thrilling and stylish piece of genre fiction, eventually reveals itself to be a fascinating and resonant character study. I knew I could count on Scorsese to deliver something more profound than just another exercise in style. And while not quite on the level of his most powerful films, it's still good, and definitely better than any other director could have done with the source material.
The Lovely Bones (2009)
Biggest disappointment of the year: a big mess
It really is quite a big mess of a movie: some of it is just imbalanced, but some of it is just plain bad. Not one element of the film is consistently good in any way. Its flaws start on the most basic of levels: the storytelling one. I had not read the novel this film is based on, but I had heard the praise it received, and when I heard the premise, it immediately piqued my interest: The basic idea of a girl helping her family com to terms with her untimely and sudden murder from the afterlife sounded to me like an exceptionally interesting subject to deal with, and what could have proved to be a very unique and imaginative take on the depiction of a family coping with indescribably tragic grief. Indeed, the scenes in the film that deal with the family's reaction to Susie's murder provide the briefest moments of genuine emotion in the film; other than them, the movie never seems to find any emotional consistency. It will go from long and indulgent depictions of Susie wandering around her personalized heaven and meeting other figures in this afterlife that help guide her along the way, to police procedural scenes that portray the detective's investigation of the case, to a comic interlude in which Susie's eccentric and outgoing grandmother takes control over the household while everyone else is falling apart, to suddenly becoming a thriller as Susie's sister decides she will break into Susie's murderer's house in order to collect evidence against him, to a really bizarre scene in which Susie seems to possess the body of another girl in order to bid one last goodbye to the boy she loved. The movie is sprinkled with other strange scenes that lack any coherency or explanation in the context of the film, such as one scene in which Susie goes through a laundry list of her killer's past victims for no apparent reason, or another brief but totally unexplainable moment in which Susie's young brother explains to his grandmother that "Susie is in the in-between": in the mythology of the movie this is true, but how the little brother knows this information is entirely beyond me. Without going into too much detail so as not to spoil it, we are shown a scene tacked on at the end of the film of one of the characters meeting his demise, that it just seems so pointless that I just have no idea why it was included. All of these scenes seem so out of place that the movie as a whole consequently ends up feeling completely cold and emotionally detached: save for a few fleeting moments, nothing at all in the film feels in any way genuine.
This was one of my most anticipated movies of the year. Everything looked like it was lining up to be something truly special: Peter Jackson returning to his Heavenly Creatures roots and telling a domestic and real-world-based story injected with a fantasy element but, for the first part in more than a decade, not actually existing exclusively in a fantasy world. A story based on a critically acclaimed novel. An all-star cast of genuinely talented individuals. What we ended up getting, though, is nothing less than the biggest disappointment of the year. I combed it from beginning to end and honestly, the film has very few redeeming qualities at all: the two aforementioned performances remain its strongest point, while the rest of it just turns out to be a big, self-indulgent, emotionally detached, inconsistent and incoherent mess. Jackson made so many bad choices as early as the conception stage that I still can't believe this is the same director that brought us the Lord of the Rings trilogy, so fine-tuned, so perfect, every element flawlessly lined up. This film never seems to know what story it wants to tell: is it a murder mystery? Is it a family drama? Is it a romance-from-beyond-the-grave? I certainly don't know, and it doesn't seem like Jackson does either. Even the writing is stiff: many sequences are accompanied by very overt voice-overs by Susie, which are clearly and obviously lifted directly from the first-person narration of the novel (again, I haven't read the book, but I know it is written in first person, so I assume these passages are lifted directly from its pages) and while the first-person stream of consciousness style works well in a novel, in the film, it just comes across as flaccid, sloppy writing as Robert McKee so eloquently put it in Adaptation. The lame performances. The digital shots. The bad CGI. The overall lack of any heart or passion. I really wanted to like this film, but the more and more I think about it, the more I realize that there really isn't much to like about it at all. And the fact that it's such a missed opportunity and that I anticipated it so much makes it all the worse.
Up in the Air (2009)
A fascinating character study and so much more; the best film of 2009
A major part of what makes this film so successful and effective is its simplicity – and watching it, one is surprised at just how incredible simple it really is. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Reitman does not employ fancy cinematography, visual flair, eccentric music, gimmicky storytelling, or any particularly noteworthy or conspicuous elements to tell his story. It is a very simple and straightforward film – what makes it remarkable is the extraordinary depth and richness that simplicity conceals. First and foremost, the film serves as a resonant and fascinating character study. In the vein of the greatest character studies, Reitman portrays and explores every nook and cranny of the man that is Ryan Bingham: and he is quite a fascinating character indeed. We are introduced to him as a man who lives what can be described as a life of complete freedom: he calls no place home except the skies; he finds such purely joyous pleasure in the details of hotel rooms, car rental services, airport security procedures, efficient packing and travel, membership cards and loyal customer clubs and frequent flier miles. We glimpse his closet at one point and see that he has at most three or four shirts. His apartment, which he spends less than a few days at a time in, is completely bare. Most importantly though, Ryan has no major human connection in his life: not with a romantic partner, not with his co-workers, and not even with his own family. But while most of us would look at such a life as quite miserable, Ryan couldn't be happier or more content with his choice.
But Ryan is thrown off balance when technological advances threaten to ground him for life, and when he meets two women who enter his life: the first is a young, fresh-out-of-college employee who is partnered with him on the road so that he can "show her the ropes"; the second is a free-wheeling woman whom he meets on the road and sees as his counterpart: free from responsibility, reveling in her success and her "exclusivity" in the form of various membership cards which the two excitedly compare. Most importantly, though, she seems interested in only the most fleeting and casual of human connections, but as their relationship develops, Ryan seems more and more interested in something serious and seems to think that their relationship is headed in that direction. If Reitman treats Ryan's character and the events in his life with utmost maturity and profundity, he manages to find an even more reflective and meaningful resolution: he avoids simple and one-dimensional solutions and provides us with one that is far more thought-provoking and multi-faceted, in which some aspects of Ryan's life and his relationship with his friends and family change, while others end up being too late to change. It is a fascinating, resonant and really significant study of the human condition, what is important in our lives, what abstract terms such as relationships, family, love, freedom, and all these other ideas mean to us as individuals, and so much more.
With Up in the Air, Reitman proves that a truly great movie can be made with nothing more than great performances and good writing. Reitman does not employ visual gimmicks, untraditional storytelling techniques, or any other such prominent elements that make some of the best movies ever made as good as they are. Watching Up in the Air, I didn't get the feeling that I was watching something really groundbreaking like I did when watching There Will Be Blood two years ago, which shook me to the core. Up in the Air didn't feel like something revolutionary or important as I was watching it; the cinematography is good but not particularly showy, as is the editing. The design and look of the movie are all pretty standard, rooted in reality and not flashy. The musical score is effective as are the song choices; but again, the soundtrack doesn't particularly stand out – which is why the fact that this movie is so resonant and deep and meaningful is all the more impressive. Three elements in the film do particularly stand out, though. The first is the performances which, like I mentioned, are career highs for all involved, and just totally full-fledged and fascinating and incredible pieces of work. The second is the screenplay that, while fairly straightforward, conceals so much multi-layered depth and significance and is written so well, the dialogue simply jumping off the screen with such vitality and exuberance. It is a film that works on so many levels; it is at once hilarious and genuinely funny and intelligent while at the same time genuinely and poignantly emotional and dramatic. It is at once a multi-faceted character study and an important testament to the current economic climate of our world. It is enjoyable, charming, funny, touching, thought-provoking, poignant, moving and all in all just one of the most full-fledged and genuine cinematic experiences of the year. The third is what brings it all together, what takes a fairly simple premise that could be so easily underplayed by any other director but that brings out everything that makes the movie as good as it is, and that is the director, Jason Reitman. Building up a strong reputation with his past two films, in his third effort, Reitman brings everything together, and directs the film with such focus and maturity and confidence, completely devoid of irony or preciousness and serves to create what is, in my opinion, the best film of the year.
A Serious Man (2009)
The Coen's most cerebral film to date: fascinating and impeccably well-made
It is certainly an odd bird of a film. The Coens start it off with a pre-credits stand-alone short depicting an old fable of a Jewish couple being visited on a cold, winter's night by a Rabbi who may or may not have died three years prior; in classic Coen style, when the brothers couldn't find an existing fable that fit what they wanted to tell, they made one up and wrote it entirely in Yiddish no less. Afterwards the actual film begins and the connection between the Yiddish short and the 1970's-set story is never really made apparent. The story launches us into an intricate world constructed partly of memory and partly of historic events, a stylized version of the Coen brothers' childhoods if you will; rich with period detail but also with more dream-like imagery. The story itself is highly allegorical. Larry Gopnik finds the American dream falling apart around him. His brother is a mathematical genius but is also a sociopath and a slob who sleeps on Larry's couch and constantly finds himself being brought home by police officers for illegal gambling. His son is rebellious and disrespectful, smoking marijuana and listening to Jefferson Airplane and Santana on a transistor radio while in Hebrew class. His wife leaves him for his best friend. And all the while, Larry tries (and ultimately, pretty much fails) to understand why all this is happening to him. Is it the world that is changing around him? Or has he done something wrong? Is it his drifting away from his faith? Perhaps it is he who is unfaithful to his wife, gawking at his promiscuous neighbor from his vantage point on the roof of his house while she sunbathes? Is he letting his son slip away, or is his rebellion simply the natural evolution of American culture at the time, drifting away from faith and values and tradition and plugging into the pop culture information stream. The film raises these questions and many more, and doesn't seem particularly interested in providing answers for them. Rather, it tries to craft an understanding of the period and of the culture, perhaps to indicate the huge gap between where things were then and where they are now.
I've gone on about the film's themes and ideas and haven't even mentioned its technical elements, which are definitely worth bringing up. After a one-film gap the Coens are back with their regular cinematographer, Roger Deakins, and the return to form is quite apparent. "Burn After Reading" was shot by Emmanuel Lubezski, another one of my favorite working cinematographers but whose work on that Coen film was pretty generic; the visual language in "A Serious Man" just emphasizes the great rapport the directors and Deakins have acquired over the years. It's a highly stylized and gorgeously shot film, featuring the Coen's usual style of a constantly moving camera with many smooth dollies and crane shots, and also Deakins style of indirect lighting and asymmetrical but aesthetic compositions, and all of it combined serves to create a uniquely rich visual style that has come to be identified with and be expected of the Coens. I have recently pointed out a trend in the form of the "indie period drama", independently-produced films with an indie aesthetic (and budget) which are nonetheless rich in period detail and accuracy. A good number of them this year have been set in the 1960's, interestingly enough, and as expected from the Coens (who are no strangers to period settings), the details in the set design, costumes, cars, language, behavior and everything are exceedingly accurate and detailed. Also worth mentioning are the fantastic performances. As I mentioned before, the film lacks the heavy star-power that has characterized many previous Coen efforts, but the cast is still packed with familiar faces audiences have seen in the background on TV and elsewhere, who really get a chance to shine here. Particularly worthy of note is Michael Stuhlbarg, who completely embodies the role of the neurotic protagonist whose world is crumbling around him. Topping it all off is yet another effective and memorable musical score/recurring theme (as it often is in their films) by Carter Burwell, the Coen's most loyal and frequent collaborator.
"When the truth is found to be lies / and all the joy within you dies / don't you want somebody to love / don't you need somebody to love?" Thus goes the classic Jefferson Airplane song that serves as a recurring motif throughout the film, and I think it pretty much sums up, albeit very simply, what the film is really about. Larry perhaps finds out that the truth he has believed in all his life, invested his faith and tradition in, is not what it seems. Judaism has let him down, specifically his community's leadership, and all he wants is somebody to love. But his brother is a degenerate. His wife left him. His neighbor seduces him but he knows that it's not love. His son is a lost cause and drifting very rapidly away from him; his daughter is already long gone. What's left for him to do? "I've tried to be a serious man," he pleads. By that he doesn't mean someone who is humorless, but rather, the term refers to someone who is serious about his Jewish faith and about allowing that faith to guide their life. But he is let down, time and time again, and finds himself lost and delirious and jaded. The film's quite abrupt and startling ending further emphasizes that nobody, especially not Larry, can stop the storm that is about to sweep over his life, and mo matter how he's led it, how much he's invested in his faith, his culture his tradition, his values – all of it is meaningless in the ever-changing seas of the world that surrounds us.
Predictable story and stock characters do not hamper this unique cinematic experience
With this film, Cameron has truly pushed the envelope in terms of computer-generated imagery, in ways that special effect companies could only dream of when the first motion-captured computer-generated character, Gollum, hit our screens back in 2002. Avatar features a 40%-60% divide in which a majority of scenes in the film take place in entirely CG-created environments, and I have to say that, objectively, it is absolutely impossible to tell the difference. Whereas so many movies are still struggling with convincing, realistic CGI – computer-generated creatures, animals or other imagery are always painfully obvious to me – it is absolutely stunning to see a film in which the CG-generated imagery is so photo-realistic, laypeople could easily mistake the 12-foot-tall blue aliens featured at the center of the film as really good make-up jobs. The effects team behind the movie has managed to include an unprecedented amount of detail into the CG-created environment and characters that every frame of the film has something fascinating to notice, be it the wrinkles and imperfections in the Na'vi skin to background movements in the deepest reaches of the CG jungle. And the fact that Cameron blocks these scenes just as he would in live-action, utilizing the same camera movements and a surprising amount of "handheld" photography, makes the effects work even more impressive and convincing. The greatest achievement of the film, though, is definitely the motion capture work. Throughout film history I have only ever encountered two entirely CG-created characters that convinced me so much with their emotions and evoked such a strong emotive connection that I had completely forgotten they were computer-generated: Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the aliens from this year's District 9, specifically Christopher Johnson, Wikus' sidekick. But with Avatar, Cameron has managed to create an entire population of CG-created characters that, with the help of the latest motion capture technology, move, behave and most importantly, convey emotions and facial expressions in an almost eerily realistic way, leagues ahead of the expressionless faces in other motion-capture films. If anything will be said about this film down the line, it will be that it was no less than a groundbreaking technical achievement.
What's so great about Avatar, though, is that it isn't just a technical achievement. Anyone could find a way to showcase the latest special effects technology without investing in anything else besides the technology. But Cameron is a storyteller, and he sets out to use these new, groundbreaking techniques to bring the mass audience something they have never seen before. Cameron is no stranger to pushing the envelope in this way: The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgement Day and Titanic were all groundbreaking films that pushed computer-generated imagery to higher and higher levels; but what made all those films work was the fact that they showed us things we had never seen before. The scale of the Titanic. The mechanics of the Terminators. The expansive underwater world. In Avatar, Cameron and his design crew set out to create a world we have never seen before. I have read a few articles criticizing the art design on the film, from the creatures who are all pretty much weirder counterparts of Earthbound fauna, to the ecosystem which is basically just a larger-scale Earth jungle. While all of this may be true, I still think that the world is so rich, from the Na'vi culture to the look and feel of the alien plants and creatures, to the fascinating secret the planet and the Na'Vi keep which is revealed to be a strikingly clever and interesting concept, that it is absolutely impossible to dismiss it as anything less than breathtaking. And the envelope-pushing special effects and 3-D photography only help to immerse the audience into every detail of this new and incredible world Cameron and crew have created.
All this admiration is not to say that the film is not without its flaws. Cameron is very open about the fact that he makes movies catered for mass-audience consumption. What he won't mention and what is also probably his biggest flaw is that he totally underestimates said audience, and writes a script using an over-simplified version of a very familiar premise, stock characters, cheesy dialogue and shameless kitsch thinking that these are the only ways to sell a story to the general public. I think that the box office success of films such as The Dark Knight prove that the mass audience is hungry for meaty, intelligent, deep blockbusters, but Cameron is a romantic and a classicist at heart, and he goes with what's familiar and what he knows will work. The plot of the film, after all, is really just another version of the Dances with Wolves/Pocahontas story but set on an alien world and in the future – ignorant white man is sent out to spy on indigenous culture by infiltrating their numbers, only to fall in love with the values they represent and lead them into battle against his previous comrades. Every plot development is entirely predictable; every element introduced in the first act is so conveniently brought back in the third to help the protagonists. Cameron can't resist including a romantic sub-plot, inspirational speeches, or cheesy and totally kitschy exchanges. He also can't resist making his antagonists so inhumanly evil that they become nothing more than exaggerated caricatures of evil. But I can't deny that I wasn't nonetheless swept away in the epic adventure, and the films visuals are just so rich and so new and so unique and beautiful and mesmerizing and inspiring, and its technical achievements so weighty and grand and important, and the set pieces so effectively put together, so thrilling and sweeping and action-packed, and the performances and motion capture work so pitch-perfect (except for Sam Worthington, who for some reason still just annoys me), that it's impossible not to treat this film like the groundbreaking cinematic event that it is.
Good and effective, great performances, but generally run-of-the-mill
For the past decade or so, Clint Eastwood has had one of the most consistently high-quality outputs out of any director working today – and aside from Robert Altman and maybe one or two more earlier in the decade, he is also the oldest one of the bunch. It was an absolute treat to see a director reach the twilight of his career and bloom with the vitality and energy of a young director just getting his big break. Eastwood's films this past decade have been big, potent epics of emotion, from the Shakespearian characters in Mystic River to the down-and-dirty determinists in Million Dollar Baby to the subtle honor of the stars of Letters from Iwo Jima. Eastwood was always so careful in selecting his powerful, dramatic subjects over the past few years – which is why the vanilla-coated glossiness of Invictus seems completely out of place in his oeuvre.
The strongest aspect of this film is without a doubt the cast. To Eastwood's credit, subject matter like this – big, epic historical biopics – do usually tend to ham it up when it comes to acting and very often enter the level of theatrics and over-performing. Luckily, Eastwood is at least too smart to fall into that trap, and both lead actors in the film – Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, who actually plays more of a supporting character, but no matter – deliver quite subtle and yet totally effective performances, despite the fact that they are playing larger-than-life characters with real-world counterparts. This renders the performances less bombastic and showy than what has come to be expected from these types of roles – I especially expected Freeman to turn this into one of those "roles of a lifetime" things – but they are still emotionally powerful and admirably subtle turns from two of our greatest actors, especially Damon who is most effective and one of the most underrated performers working today.
As to the film itself, it's not that it's bad in any way; it's a really good and effective drama that depicts an important event in world history and covers a lot of emotional and political ground in a very simple and concise premise. There are some truly powerful scenes – such as the first time Freeman's Nelson Mandela steps onto the Rugby field and is met with a pretty noticeably equal mix of cheers and boos from the crowd. My one real problem with the film is that it takes a very important and complicated political atmosphere – post-Apartheid South Africa and the reconciliation efforts on the part of Nelson Mandela to bring the blacks and the whites together and to unify his country – and just blatantly over-simplifies it and sugarcoats it. And I think that the screenplay is to blame: its lack of harmony and emotional balance is really noticeable. I felt that scenes depicting the racial tension suffered from the "Crash" effect: put the problems so dead center – and solved them so easily and without too much suffering – that they never really got the heart of it. I also felt that something was a little off in the rugby scenes: Eastwood has shown a newfound energy and vitality in his recent films, but the scenes depicting the rugby games in the film just felt stiff, and lacked the immediacy of better-edited sequences in the likes of Friday Night Lights. To sum it up, I think that when a science fiction film manages to deal far more seriously and deeply with the same themes as an important historical drama such as this one, something is definitely lacking.
Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
For an hour and a half, Spike Jonze made me feel like a kid again
Script-wise, this really is somewhat of an anomaly. Its actual plot, as I explained, is fairly simple, and it spends most of its time in Max's head, or more specifically, in the magical world he's created – it might be one of the longest narratives that take place in the dreamscape of the human subconscious. The film starts off with a bang, portraying just what it feels like to be a kid, ignored by his mom and sister, no one to play with, and left to go on adventures in his imagination by himself. I love the fact that Max is a genuine, full-fledged child, quite unlike the wise-for-their-age depictions of children that we often see in movies: he cries, he screams, he has tantrums, he thinks that the world revolves around him, his imagination runs wild and he doesn't think of the consequences of his actions. All of these elements and emotions are crucial for understanding of what we see Max experiencing with the Wild Things. I was really impressed that the film didn't take a simplistic approach to the monsters – Jonze and Eggers could have gone the direct route, had every monster represent an aspect of Max's life, be it his absent father, his busy mother, his sister or the friends he doesn't have – but they are too smart to do that, and instead, the Wild Things as a collective serve as an extension of Max's inner emotions. They also cry, scream, have tantrums over trivial things, think the world revolves around them, and of course, they too run wild – literally! It's just such a majestic and beautiful allegory as, through the monsters and their own conflicts and feelings, Max starts to realize that actions do have consequences and that he made a mistake.
Aside from its incredibly rich emotional palette, the film is also a technical marvel. The cinematography is loose, lively and, well – wild; Jonze goes the indie route despite his major studio budget and shoots low-key with lots of frantic, hand-held shots, coarse jump cuts and just a very loose visual style altogether with the camera jumping around, tracking different characters and, like Max, having a difficult time to capture the full picture thanks to the chaos going on. The production design is also spectacular and really imaginative; almost all of the imagery in Max's imaginary world is inspired directly by subtle visual cues from his real life: the straw ball on his bedside table becomes a massive fortress, the model in his room made of egg cartons becomes Carol's model of his dream city, and the list goes on. The entire package is topped off by a simply magical soundtrack with original songs by Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and frequent Coen Brothers collaborator Carter Burwell that totally captured what the film was about, the childlike nostalgia. Another really impressive technical achievement is the creation of the Wild Things. I have no doubt that most directors these days would go the full CGI route; Jonze, the classicist that he is, insisted on using physical, tangible models – suits created by the Jim Henson company. Originally the faces were meant to be animatronic but the heads proved to be too heavy, so Jonze and crew opted to create the faces in CGI – and it couldn't have paid off more. I am a huge supporter of traditional puppets and animatronics, but the Wild Things need to convey so much emotion, and animatronic faces would have just felt lifeless.
With this film, Spike Jonze has achieved something truly incredible: for an hour and a half, he made me feel like a child again. And I don't mean superficially – he didn't just make me sympathize with Max and feel for him; Jonze genuinely made me remember what it was like for me to feel what Max is going through. Obviously, my circumstances are different than his, most people's are – my parents aren't divorced, I don't have older siblings, and so in regards to that, perhaps I've never really felt Max's pain. But I still saw a lot of myself in him. I used to pretend that the carpet was lava, too. I used to play with LEGOs and build models and forts and feel that my parents were too busy to give me the proper attention that, at age 10, I felt I deserved, especially with two younger brothers hogging it from me. I, too, imagined fantastical creatures and lands and wrote stories about them. The film portrays enough very general and universal feelings and emotions a child often emulates that I think anyone can potentially have the same nostalgic reaction. In all, Jonze's film is a totally unique emotional experience unlike anything I've ever experienced in another film; I was transported to a time that everyone always looks back on in nostalgic longing, and, perhaps for the first time, I realized just what it was that I felt back then, and how it influences me now.
Stunning performances but emotionally inconsistent
I should start out by emphasizing that I disagree with much of the criticism the film has been receiving. A common disparagement condemns the movie as "emotionally manipulative" and "superficially inspirational", much like other films that fall into the category of the "inspirational dramas" depicting stories of individuals overcoming obstacles and hardships that many people seem to hate. Well, I personally found that the film portrays a reality far too bleak and dismal and brutal for it to possibly be considered "inspirational"; in addition, while the film ends on somewhat of a high note, even that is laced with misery and becomes the lesser of two evils for the protagonist. Another criticism of the film – and of the book it is based on – is from the opposite end of the spectrum, and blames the film for portraying TOO bleak a situation to the point of exploitation. I personally found the scenario portrayed in the film to be strikingly realistic, and I think that people who are too ignorant to realize that such a grim existence can feasibly be led in 21st century America need a serious wake-up call.
One aspect of the film that deserves all the praise in the world is its cast, specifically the performances of its lead actresses and the surprising and unexpected quality of these performances considering the particular thespians involved. First and foremost, we have the breakout role of Gabourey "Gabby" Sidibe, portraying the overweight, twice-pregnant and illiterate protagonist, Precious. The performance is a revelation both because of how convincingly Sidibe reacts to and interacts with her brutal day-to-day existence, but also because of how completely removed it is from the first-time actresses' actual life. It's always impressive to see a performer convincingly convey difficult and profound emotions that they probably would never feel themselves in their real lives, but for a first-time actress to convey these emotions is particularly incredible. Precious' life is populated by three prominent adult characters; two of which see past her daunting exterior and genuinely want to help her, and one who does the exact opposite. Mariah Carey plays a social worker who takes a personal interest in Precious' case and, in the film's most dramatically gut-wrenching scene, makes a genuine attempt to bridge the gap between the teenager and her monstrous mother. Carey has only ever acted in two or three other films, including the atrocious vanity project "Glitter", but in this role, she de-glams, puts on a convincing and raspy accent and actually manages to deliver a surprisingly well rounded and convincing performance. Paula Patton plays another alternate mother figure in Precious' life, her teacher at her alternate school who takes a particularly personal interest in Precious, to the point of letter her stay at her home when she has nowhere else to go. Unlike Mariah Carey, Patton never did anything to totally remove my confidence in her acting abilities, but then again, she's never actually given what can really be considered a "good" performance, which is what makes her tender and genuine turn in this film most impressive. But the scene-stealer is without a doubt Mo'Nique, probably one of my LEAST favorite "comedic" performers who totally redeems herself and manages to deliver a frighteningly convincing performance, incredibly transforming herself into Precious' villainous, sadistic and purely evil mother. It is an incredible and difficult and extremely brave performance, and is even more impressive considering that it's coming from the star of "Phat Girlz".
The performances are rich and incredible enough to hold up dramatic scenes, but not the narrative as a whole, which, as I mentioned before, suffers from a series of bad directorial choices made by director Lee Daniels. The film's biggest flow is emotional inconsistency: in an attempt to portray Precious' inner feelings, Daniels injects strangely conceived fantasy sequences at key dramatic moments in which Precious imagines herself as a glamorous and famous personality. While the intention of these sequences is clear, their abruptness just totally jolts the audience out of the emotional flow of the film, and they just seem out of place. For a similar reason, Daniels chooses to set grim and dramatic scenes to oddly inappropriate songs and musical cues, which once again just feel forced and out of place, and interrupt the emotional resonance of the scenes. Other than that, the film just seems poorly done at times, or simply unfinished: the cinematography is inconsistent and often features zooms and loss of focus that don't feel like stylistic choices but rather just like mistakes. In addition, the editing is quite disjointed at times, and many cuts interrupt musical cues in the middle or otherwise are just so sudden and jumbled that they completely ruin the dramatic flow. Finally, I just felt that while many separate scenes work wonderfully and are emotional and genuinely gut-wrenching, they are just too loosely connected for the film to actually carry a consistent dramatic arc throughout, as it jumps between Precious' brutal home life to her newfound support in her classroom to her day-to-day activities to her inner fantasies. For example, a major dramatic reveal near the end of the film end sup completely ignored and thus irrelevant to the dramatic arc. As I mentioned earlier, the performances are absolutely spectacular, but the inconsistencies in the film's tone and its jumbled and odd editing take away from what otherwise could have been a genuinely affective film.
An Education (2009)
Indie period film lends newfound vitality and edge to rigid genre
I think that a major contributor to this film's edge as opposed to many other more rigid and less passionate films is its director. I have written extensively about directors changing their styles or taking their films in a more mature direction in previous reviews, but in this case, it's a full 180. Lone Scherfig started her directing career along with her fellow Danish colleagues in the Dogme 95 movement that so defined Danish cinema of the past decade-and-a-half, and here she gives us An Education, which is not only her English language debut but also a film so calculated and technically precise that it is practically the exact opposite of the loose, gritty, un-planned and chaotic nature of Dogme 95. I don't like to judge the actual change in direction because I'm sure that out there someone thinks that Scherfig "sold out" and that her Dogme 95 work was far more interesting and unique, but if anything, and as I have already indicated in the past with directors such as Paul Thomas Anderson and David Fincher, I think it's impressive just to see that a director is capable of making such a drastic change in their style while still retaining their uniqueness and voice.
As a period film, this is without a doubt one of the best I've seen in recent years. It takes place in London of the early 1960's, and its attention to period detail is second to none. As with the best of its kind, the film absolutely excels in the fields of production design, set construction and costume design, and this film struck me as particularly accurate in getting all the nuances right, not only in the set dressing and props but also in the mannerisms, speech patterns and behavior of the characters in general – obviously I don't know for a fact that it is completely accurate as I didn't live in 1960's London, but the film does carry an air of authenticity that really lends it that extra edge. The movie is also gorgeously shot, with luscious and fluid cinematography by John de Borman, and features a sweeping musical score by Paul Englishby that befits it perfectly and is so good that I would gladly listen to it on its own.
But in a film like this, as it has always been from Gone with the Wind to Sense and Sensibility to Pride and Prejudice, the period setting, production design, costumes and cinematography are nothing without convincing performance, and in that field, this film once again really excels. The cast is headed by newcomer Carey Mulligan, and she is truly a revelation. For such a young actress, she manages not only to carry an entire movie on her shoulders in the starring role, but also manages to create a unique and compelling character. Jenny does not merely drive the plot; she has her unique quirks, her speech patterns; she speaks fast and cynically, and often injects French words she is studying at school into her sentences. These are the little details that really make a convincing, three-dimensional character, and although only 24, Mulligan totally nails it. Co-starring with her is Peter Sarsgaard, who delivers a far more subtle but still effective performance as the thirysomething playboy who sweeps her off her feet. Sarsgaard is an actor whom for years I have described as "underrated", and from Shattered Glass to Garden State to Kinsey to Jarhead, he has delivered an eclectic series of successful and under appreciated supporting performances. For someone unfamiliar with him, it would be impossible to notice that he's actually American, and I think that an American actor who is capable of convincingly playing a Brit is one of the most impressive and difficult acting achievements.
The period film has been a long-standing genre practically for as long as there has been narrative cinema, and throughout them, many directors, from Cecil B. DeMille to William Wyler to James Ivory have defined the genre and crafted seminal works that feature the absolute cream-of-the-crop of production values, costume design, cinematography and musical composition. But recently, a new generation of period film directors, including Saul Dibb, Jean-Marc Vallee, Tom Hooper and Edgar Wright has invigorated the genre by crafting period films with a newfound vitality and a certain edge to them that totally obliterates the rigidity and restraint so commonly identified with the genre.
Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Tarantino remains a force to be reckoned with
Inglourious Basterds still features that unique Tarantino voice that rings out from the dialogue, the non-linear storyline (in this case division into chapters, much like Kill Bill), the virtuoso camera work and, of course, the prominent soundtrack. And yet, it is a film that also incorporates a lot of firsts for the director. First and most prominently, it is Tarantino's first period-set film. Which is surprising, considering how his movies all feature throwbacks to genres and styles associated with past decades. Despite this, Tarantino's scripts are always very heavy on pop culture references, and so it was definitely interesting to see him take his exceedingly modern and contemporary writing style and apply it to a period film. The results are a fantastic and fascinating mix of old and new; there are no direct anachronisms per se, but the characters in the film do speak in a very "hip" and modern style that nobody in the 40's would possibly speak in. In fact, the dialogue is great and unique because nobody would speak it today either – it carries that certain Tarantino quality to it that's hard to put a finger on but that provides his greatest and most unique stamp. And yet, despite its utter disconnection from anything remotely realistic, Tarantino does make one conscious decision that lends the film more realism than most others in its genre: he chooses to have foreign characters speak their dialogue in their native language, which results in a vast majority of it spoken in French or German with subtitles. It's actually quite reassuring to see a mostly-subtitled film such as this one still be very successful at the box office, since many pundits (and Hollywood producers for that matter) seem to think that subtitled films don't sell.
It's not just the dialogues that are succulent and well-written in the film, but it's the scenes themselves. The film is actually very uniquely structured, featuring very few scenes overall, but long ones that take their time building up. The scene in the basement pub stands out in particular as a simply brilliantly constructed scene lasting over 20 minutes, starting out slow and establishing the dialogue and characters, and slowly building up to a brilliant climax which I will not go into detail about here, but suffice it to say that it ends in a set-up that Tarantino has used before. Without going into too much detail, the set-up is tied in with the style of the film in general. Despite it being a WWII-set war film, the film is constructed and stylized much more like a Western, from the parallel plot lines building up to a single climax to the soundtrack composed almost entirely by Ennio Morricone arrangements (another potential first for Tarantino – Morricone was originally supposed to provide Tarantino with his first original score, but eventually he ended up using old cues from past scores by the legendary composer). This all serves to create a fascinating, genre-bending script that straddles Nazisploitation, Spaghetti Western and Tarantino's own unique style.
Ultimately, the most fascinating aspect about this film is just how audacious it turns out to be. Without going into too much detail, by the end of the film Tarantino completely changes and disregards history as we know it, to a point that the film itself becomes this big, epic fantasy. Its reception in Israeli was consequently uneven. Many critics derided it for taking an insensitive attitude towards what is probably the most serious and atrocious event in modern history, the Holocaust, and for reducing it to a schlocky Jewish revenge fantasy. Despite the critics, the film has gone on to become one of the most popular and successful films currently playing in Israeli cinemas, and the public reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. I think that stylistically and story-wise, the film isn't quite up there with Pulp Fiction and perhaps not even with Kill Bill, but in terms of Tarantino's ambition and where he ends up taking it, the film becomes one of his most fascinating ventures. It's thrilling, well-made, impeccably shot (by Robert Richardson, a Tarantino veteran and one of the best cinematographers working today), fantastically acted, irresistibly entertaining, absolutely hilarious, and in all it's just a big, epic, audacious and unique piece of entertainment that reminds us, in case we have forgotten, that Tarantino is a force to be reckoned with.
I Love You, Man (2009)
A genuinely funny "bromantic comedy": Paul Rudd is the man
It's official: Paul Rudd is the funniest actor working in movies today. He carries with him such a unique screen presence and charisma that it's simply incomparable to any performer today. In recent years, he has become a veteran of the Apatow-style R-rated comedy films, and often manages to steal scenes from the likes of Will Farrell, Steve Carell, Seth Rogen and others. It was only recently, though, that he "graduated" from scene-stealing supporting roles to leads, and the results are simply fantastic. Interestingly, his two latest leading roles were in films that were Apatowian in spirit but technically not produced by him, and it is in these films – Role Models and the more recent I Love You, Man, that he really shines.
After introducing Paul Rudd, I want to take this opportunity to introduce another term that has come to prominence recently: "bromance" or more accurately, the "bromantic comedy". This is essentially a film about two guys bonding in which the female characters support from the side and the platonic relationship between the male protagonists is central. In discussions of this sub-genre, many pundits go back and try to label classic films as "bromances", from the "buddy cop" films of the 80's and 90's and through to Apatow's earlier productions. I think that this discussion is quite ridiculous, because while many of these films may feature "bromances", i.e. bonding relationships between two male characters, I Love You, Man is unique in that it is literally a "bromantic comedy": the characters meet, have a rocky start, hit it off, enjoy each-other until they become overbearing, have their third-act slump, say that they "think they should stop seeing each other" and, of course, end up resolving everything and making up (at a wedding, no less). It's the classic romantic comedy formula, except it depicts the platonic friendship between two male characters, and it does so wonderfully.
Paul Rudd gets (and deserves) all the praise in the world for his turn in the film, but one mustn't neglect the other actors, especially his co-star Jason Seel, who was also a background performer in various Apatow films until he rose to prominence thanks to his lead role in last year's Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Paul Rudd had a brilliant supporting role in that film as well, and I think it's interesting to note the role reversal these two actors pull off this time around. In Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Segel played a neurotic, shy, awkward wreck of a man while Rudd played a laid-back, pot-smoking surfer dude; this time around, Rudd is the neurotic, shy awkward wreck while Segel is the laid-back, easy-going "living life" dude. I think it's a testament to these actors' talents that they can do both, and it's perfect proof that they aren't one-note as they are often accused of being.
Eventually, as it is with other recent similarly-styled films such as Forgetting Sarah Marshall or Knocked Up, the plot is quite irrelevant and what is important are the characters, and even more so, the comedy. And this film doesn't disappoint in that department; the banter between the characters is absolutely hilarious, their often ad-libbed gags are brilliant, and I don't think I've ever seen anyone play awkward quite as well as Rudd in this film.
Drag Me to Hell (2009)
A clever throwback: A good, old-fashioned time at the movies
Over the past decade, I couldn't help but notice that Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson have been following very similar career paths. Both started out directing zero-budget, hilariously schlocky and highly stylized horror films, eventually upgrading and by the turn of the century directing big-budget studio-produced fantasy films. Jackson lent his unique vision and style to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, while Raimi's Spider-Man films featured a fascinating combination of low-budget horror sentiments and stylistic choices with enormous-budget production values. Now, after he finished his original Spidey trilogy (and before moving on to the upcoming sequels), Raimi went back to his roots and delivered a good, old-fashioned schlocky horror entertainment. And boy does he deliver.
Unlike the two Evil Dead sequels, this film isn't a straight-up horror comedy, although it is quite hilarious. It's not a parody, though, and doesn't feature visual gags or jokes or anything like that. But rather, it just features scenes and concepts that are so over-the-top, one can't help but to laugh. In fact, this film can be seen as the exact opposite of "modern" horror movies: those films push the gritty realism of the situations they depict (even if they are usually nothing more than cheap torture and gore), while in this film, Raimi makes a point to emphasize the mythical, fantasy element and how over-the-top it is. By not taking itself seriously, the film leaves itself room to basically do whatever it wants, and stylistically, it really feels like a throwback to a more old-fashioned style of horror entertainment. It's not even that intense a film – it's rated PG-13, features no nudity or gore (but it does feature a lot of gross-out scenes featuring various insects and liquids) and most of its scares come from its sound design and editing.
Speaking of the sound design and editing, the film is a technical wonder. Because it's so stylistically over-the-top, Raimi has the freedom to do what he wants with his camera, and the film features some really well-shot and well-crafted scenes and sequences that greatly intensify its sense of style. Probably the most inspired technical element of the film is its sound, from the brilliant sound design and effects to its pounding musical score which is also one of its biggest throwbacks to an older-fashioned style of film. The performances are also top-notch; good casting choices led to actors who don't phone in their performances but rather invest a lot of effort, both physical and emotional, into their roles, and the results are most noticeable. Alison Lohman particularly stands out, and she's also an underrated favourite of mine so it's great to see her get meaty leading roles like this one. Justin Long can be absolutely hilarious when he wants to so it's still strange for me to see him in completely straight-guy roles such as in Live Free or Die Hard, but it actually works in this film.
Ultimately, what makes this film work so well is that it never takes itself seriously. Raimi uses the best stylistic flourishes at his disposal to lend it an atmosphere and feeling of an older and more classic type of horror film, a film that isn't really scary at all (except for a few jump-out-of-your-seat scenes which are just part of the throwback) but one that works on a purely entertaining level as an old-fashioned good time at the movies.
Away We Go (2009)
Well-made, enjoyable, quirky, but not groundbreaking
It's always great to see good directors develop and go in different directions. Just in the past few years, I've seen some of my favourite directors "evolve" and direct works that are quite uncharacteristic of their previously established styles, be it David Fincher with his emotional and romantic The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or Paul Thomas Anderson with his monumental character study There Will Be Blood. Sam Mendes, one of the most fascinating and talented directors working today, has so far delivered four very precise, calculated, ambitious and large-scale films, which is why it was interesting to discover that he of all directors was behind a quirky, lax, unhinged indie dramedy.
Actually, after watching the film, Mendes' style is quite noticeable. Although it's a very loose and small-scale human comedy, the film's aesthetic is still very formal, featuring symmetrical compositions and fluid camera movements. The lighting is top notch and in general it's an indie film that has a very high-quality look, clearly Mendes' stamp. Mendes is a very interesting director in that sense, because despite his being one of the most visually striking and prominent directors working today, with his last four films being among the most gorgeous-looking films in recent memory, his origins are on the stage, and that background is actually very prominent in this film.
Plot-wise, this film tells a story that we have all seen before – the road trip movie. Specifically, it's a film about unconfident people going out on the road in order to discover themselves. And yet, screenwriters (and novelists) Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida manage to craft unique and identifiable characters and through their journey create what is essentially a parable about relationships and self-discovery. The main couple is expertly played by John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph, who really play against type: Krasinski is known as the quiet and awkward Jim on The Office while in this film he is very confident, outgoing and funny; Rudolph, on the other hand, is known for her outrageous roles on Saturday Night Live while in this film she plays a more mellow and peaceful character. The story establishes a series of supporting characters who are also expertly played by a very impressive supporting cast; Maggie Gyllenhaal and Allison Janney particularly stand out as friends of Krasinski and Rudolph, respectively, who provide very opposite views about life and long-term relationships.
Ultimately, this is a fun, well-made, enjoyable, quirky little indie film; it's funny and charming and light-hearted while also delivering an interesting and thought-provoking parable about marriage, long-term relationships, life and the various approaches couples have to all those things. That said, I think that the film might even be too quirky and precious for its own good; these elements that often lead to such fantastic films as Little Miss Sunshine or Juno to get derided by the cynics don't often bother me, but in this film, I think that it's preciousness kind of takes away from the audience's connection with the characters. I can't quite put my finger on it, but all I know is that while the film is good, I felt a much stronger connection with the characters in another indie film from this year, (500) Days of Summer.
(500) Days of Summer (2009)
A film that stays with you; charming, funny and beautiful
First and foremost it should be mentioned that the film is extremely well-made, despite its crew being composed mostly of first-timers. Marc Webb, the first-time director, has years of music video and commercial experience behind him, which explains how well-made and good looking the film is. But the fact that he managed to craft such a taught and fluid feature-length film is nonetheless quite impressive and almost surprising. In any case, I expect great things from him in the future. Fact is, this is an entirely indie film but without an indie feel; it's very well shot and professionally made, and I think that just adds to its genuineness. The film also features many elements that distinguish it from just an average film telling the same story: split-screen, frequent breaking of the fourth wall, a spontaneous song-and-dance number, animation, and of course the non-linear storytelling (with a number on screen indicating the position of the scene portrayed out of the titular 500 days to boot) are just a few of said elements that lend this film much of its uniqueness.
But ultimately, what makes this movie as special as it is are its characters. I have always said that a film begins and ends with its characters, and as far as I'm concerned, a good, plot-less character study will always be more interesting than a great story with uninteresting characters. And in a film like this, which eventually tells a pretty simple, straightforward and mundane story that we've all seen and heard before, the characters are key to distinguish it, to make it stand out. And this film succeeds more than most others in defining and presenting real, grounded, three-dimensional and identifiable characters. First-time screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber do a fantastic job at defining these characters, but the credit lies with the actors for embodying them and breathing the life into them that radiates from the screen. I have been a long-time fan of both of the leads, especially of Joseph Gordon-Levitt who over the years, be it in Mysterious Skin or in Brick, has carved himself a niche as one of the most interesting and consistent young actors of his generation. Zooey Deschanel has always been wonderful, from her small supporting roles in older films such as Almost Famous to her more recent status as a leading lady, but this is the first movie of hers I've seen that really gives her a chance to shine and portray a fascinating and full-fledged character. Both performers really stand out in the film, and the supporting cast does a great job as well.
With films like this, it is easy to appreciate the technical accomplishments, from the spot-on cinematography to the fantastic performances. But a true, emotional connection with the audience is something rare, and very personal. This film connected with me. I just felt a very strong affinity to its characters, and to the situations it put them in. What I love about movies of its type is that it portrays circumstances that are all-too-familiar, drawn from real life, and totally identifiable if one goes through similar experiences in one's own life. I think that anyone who has had experience with sour relationships or with unrequited love can identify very easily with this film and its characters. Or perhaps some people will identify with Summer; people who have found themselves in relationships, basically, in which their feelings weren't as strong as their partner's. Some moments in this film are right out of life – the moment shared by Summer and Tom outside the bar, when she's just standing there waiting for him to kiss her but he hesitates and they end up parting ways. And the film flawlessly portrays the characters' feelings as they go through these motions and find themselves in these true-to-life situations.
This is an indie film, but it doesn't feel like one. It's whimsical, but never precious. It's stylized but never unrealistic. It's very small-scale but it never feels cheap. Eventually, what makes it work so well as a film is the fact that it takes a very simple story and situation, drawn from real life, and portrays it in a way that is cinematic enough to keep our interest, but realistic enough to resonate and stay true to life. It's a film that doesn't reach for the stars, doesn't feature a meaningful plot or story and doesn't convey some big message; rather, it's a film built on moments, beautiful and wonderful moments that make it so special: the narration, the song-and-dance number, Summer's glances at Tom and her reactions to his behavior, the dialogue, the two lead performances, the genuinely hilarious moments and jokes (I neglected to mention that the film is also really funny!) the music, the Belle and Sebastian and Smiths references, the non-linear chronology, the split-screen sequence showing Tom's "expectations" on one side and the "reality" as it actually unfolds on the other, the moments that just totally capture exactly what the real life situations they depict feel like, such as the aforementioned bar exterior, or the encounter on the train. It's one of those films that stays with you, that you want to go see again and again, to take that journey with the characters one more time, to get to know them even more, and to look into their lives and see so much of your own.
Another masterpiece from Pixar
Looking back, I can't help but to immediately notice a very interesting pattern in my past movie reviews. This is the third Pixar movie I have written a review for, and this will also be the third consecutive time that I will open the review with the following sentence: Pixar have done it again. Once again, they have proved that no animation studio – and no live action studio either, for that matter – can come anywhere near the sheer and utter quality of their entertainment, purely and simply put. Pixar have proved once again that they can take a concept and premise that doesn't sound particularly attractive at first, and turn it into a masterwork of cinema. They have proved that unlike their animation studio contemporaries, Pixar don't need celebrity voices and characters specifically designed to be packaged and ready for delivery to toy store shelves, and they certainly don't feel the need to patronize their young audience members by injecting into their films jokes that only parents can understand. And they have proved once again that unlike most live-action studio output, it is still possible to create compelling, dramatic and irresistibly entertaining cinema from original screenplays without falling into formulas, clichés or any other kind of compromise for the sake of the audience. In short, Pixar have once again proved that they are the best film studio working today, period.
So what makes a Pixar movie tick? What makes this studio's output so consistently better than that of pretty much all the other film studios today, animated or otherwise? I think the answer can be summed up in one simple but crucial word: characters. For Pixar, as for all the great screenwriters both past and present, a film begins and ends with its characters; create compelling and identifiable characters and you can pretty safely bet that an equally compelling story will come along with them. Within the first ten minutes of this film, you know you're in for something different as you see Doctor portray in a completely dialogue-less montage an entire life-long relationship, from the shy childhood beginnings of our protagonist Carl and his soon-to-be-wife Ellie and through their ups and downs, hardships living a complete life together, and finally her eventual death, all the while their childhood dream hovering above them but never quite coming to fruition. It is a heartbreakingly beautiful and poignant sequence, probably the best ten-minute block Pixar have ever created, and while the film does take a slightly different direction from there, it doesn't cease from still bringing up very poignant topics throughout, including hardships of old age, unhealthy obsession, divorce, a child's rejection by his father, and other such resonant, real-life experiences that one wouldn't expect to see in a children's film. Here within lies Pixar's secret, which is additionally exemplified in the story and the humor in their films as well: they don't patronize their young audience members by providing two planes of existence in the film – jokes and plot points for the kids and another set for the adults – but rather, Pixar manage to find the subjects, plot points, visual gags and jokes that both children AND their parents can relate to. For example, I'm nowhere near being a parent yet, but I can imagine this film serving as a very good starting-off point for important parent-child discussions, such as divorce, deteriorating old age of grandparents, and where babies come from.
The bottom line is that there is simply no studio quite like Pixar. Only they could represent more genuine human emotion and feelings in a silent, 6-minute short film than any major Hollywood production of the past 10 years (the short preceding the film, "Partly Cloudy", is one of Pixar's all-time best in my opinion, in terms of hilarity but also in terms of poignant emotional resonance). Only they could take a premise of a man tying helium balloons to his house and flying it to South America and turn it into one of the most dramatic, compelling and irresistibly entertaining films of the past few years. Only they could take a film whose protagonists are a grumpy, sour 80-year-old widower and a chubby, 8-year-old obnoxious Asian child and turn it into one of the most massive box office successes of the year. And for that, they deserve all the praise in the world, and them some.
The best in the series so far - the last half-hour in particular is incredible
A fact too many filmmakers and producers tend to forget lately is that the single most important element of making a successful film is a compelling plot and characters. While the previous entry in the series, the fifth, perhaps suffered from too much plot and characters, this latest installment, with its substantially longer running time, reaches a very satisfying balance. Sure, many sub-plots and entire sequences are lost in the adaptation, but this is an understandable and natural event, and necessary to condense the plot and keep things moving along. But more importantly, the filmmakers and screenwriter Steve Kloves know where to keep the focus for most of the duration of the film: its characters. At least in its first couple of hours, the film is essentially a character study, building up the relationships, feelings, thoughts and emotions of its three (already-not-so-young) protagonists – Harry, Ron and Hermione – while also devoting substantial time to develop and explore the emotional conflicts of a fourth character who was always so flat throughout the first five films but finally fulfills and even surpasses his potential this time around – Draco Malfoy. I was overjoyed that the film took the time out to develop his character and portray his emotions and conflicts, and it added an extra compelling element to an already very rich film.
These first two hours, besides showcasing some fascinating and excellently done character development as well as some darker but quite important and gripping plot points are for the most part quite light-hearted and humorous, and better than any other film in the series showcase just what life is really like for these hormonal, developing teenagers, on top of all their burdens. The fifth film was rather weighed down by its focus on plot and the conflict and emotional burden of the characters, but the fourth film, my second favourite in the series, dabbed quite successfully into this territory. Now, the sixth builds upon and expands these themes to provide some of the most enjoyable and certainly the absolute funniest scenes in the entire series. But it is in its final half hour that this film truly and utterly surpasses anything else previously achieved in the series. The shift in tone to dead-serious and quite somber and emotional – not to mention totally gripping, thrilling and quite scary – from the funny and light-hearted first couple of hours is most appropriate and expertly done, and the important plot developments that unfold in this final half hour are without a doubt the best scenes of the entire film series so far; they are just absolutely, no-holds-barred, purely magical and hauntingly beautiful cinematic moments that take the film and the series in general to a whole new level of compelling drama. Harry isn't dealing with trolls or giant spiders or dragons or anything of that sort anymore – he's dealing with massive, life-altering, burdening emotions, and it's all so absolutely compelling and thrilling that I can't stop thinking of the half hour alone.
Over the years, this franchise has become an absolute haven for the best of what two very distinct groups of film industry employees have to offer: classic British actors and technical craftsmen. Starting with the first group, I want to heap endless praise on all the actors who appeared in the film – and it's quite a large ensemble. First and foremost, the three lead actors. It is an absolute and indescribable treat to see how much these three young performers have developed as actors and honed their talents to perfection from the first film when they were just 11-year-old children. Watching the entire series, it is impossible not to notice the immense leaps and bounds in talent, charisma and prowess these three make from film to film, and in this one, all three of them deliver absolutely spectacular, emotional and honest performances – they've really outdone themselves, and I salute them for that. Also worth mentioning is Tom Felton, who was always quite enjoyable but harmless as Harry's smug, tormenting bully in the previous five films but who this time around finally gets his shining moment, and showcases some really, really great and most impressive acting chops in an emotional, intense performance I don't think anyone thought he had in him. And then we have one of the most impressive, talented and encompassing supporting ensembles, composed of literally the best of the best that Britain has to offer in terms of acting talent. Many absolutely fantastic and classic performers are unfortunately (but unavoidably) underused in this entry, although most of them have already had moments to shine in previous films – Helena Bonham Carter, Timothy Spall, Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane and David Thewlis are just a few, but there are plenty more. But a few of these supporting actors get to take center stage in this film, and particularly worth mentioning are Alan Rickman, Michael Gambon, and Jim Broadbent. Broadbent's casting was a stroke of genius as he manages to take a rather unsympathetic character from the book and really change him and shape him into his own, adding this whole crusty old British countryman element to it and really making him quite endearing and fascinating. Then we have Alan Rickman, who has always added something interesting and absolutely divine to the franchise, and who with his sharp punctuations and long pauses between words makes Snape one of the most effectively sinister characters in any film of the genre. And finally, we have Michael Gambon, who was always effective as Dumbledore since replacing the late and great Richard Harris in the third film but who really outdoes himself and draws from the kind of acting chops he's always shown throughout his career and that awarded him the title Sir to deliver his best performance in the series, and perhaps what is the single best performance of this film in particular.