Friday, September 5, 2014

"Life Itself" Proves That You Can't Take Roger Ebert Out of the Movies

When recalling the value and importance Roger Ebert had to him for the memoir Life Itself, director Martin Scorsese instantly begins to choke up. He describes a time shortly after creating Taxi Driver where he heavily abused alcohol and cocaine. He was in a depressive state with suicidal thoughts. When Scorsese was at the lowest of the lows, he was presented a special tribute award for his years as a filmmaker by Ebert at a Toronto film festival. Scorsese's life took a turn at that point. Not only was he honored, but he was reinvigorated. "That night changed it, and it started my life again," he says, holding back the tears behind his trademark thick-rimmed glasses.

A moment like that was part of Ebert's mission. He wanted to raise awareness and champion the big, little and hidden treasures in film, and god dammit, he had opinions as to who these shiny jewels were. The director of Life Itself, Steve James, was driven by the force of Ebert. Looking back at Roger Ebert archives, he gave all of the films James directed at least a three out of four star, and even gave a perfect four to his film Hoop Dreams. It is safe to assume that Ebert and James became friends, as Ebert allowed James to document the last couple of months of his life after fighting through thyroid cancer, which caused the removal of his lower jaw, and a fractured hip. But Ebert wasn't just going to let someone have complete control of his portrayal. He tells James, "This isn't just your film," when the two argue as to what they should show. 

It is hard to tell whose voice we are hearing from in the documentary. There are direct excerpts from Ebert's autobiography, where the movie got its title, but it's hard to tell whose making the decisions. In the wake of Ebert's death, it seems that James didn't want to add anything that Ebert didn't already approve of, besides the interviews from friends, family, and colleagues. At times, it falls into a flat, almost uninspired, typical documentary fashion. There isn't any pop, which I was surprised by, since Ebert was someone who campaigned for creative and unique narrative forms. There is definitely humor in it, because Ebert was a humorous guy, but the humor comes from the characters, and not the filmmakers.

It was probably hard for James to finish the film. He wouldn't want to present a film with too distinct of a cinematic voice, but instead decided to present Ebert's voice. Also, there are difficulties to please someone whose approval carried as much weight as Roger Ebert's; Steve was probably scared to have Ebert rolling around in his grave.  

The film shows how Ebert's opinions affected his personal life, most notably with his fellow At the Movies co-star, Gene Siskel. The two were complete opposites, and half of the film focuses on their relationship. Many people watched At the Movies just to watch two film nerds verbally fight on camera about the artistic value of the new Lassie movie, and the film doesn't skimp on showing those interactions. This relationship turned out to be one of the most influential for the two despite both not wanting it to begin in the first place.    

Siskel's death due to a brain tumor, which he kept hidden from everyone beside his immediate family, shook Ebert. After this event, he dedicated to never keep secrets like that from his loved one and the public, and it's why we have this film. A lot of the film will be a repeat due to Ebert's candid nature during interviews and with his own blogging, which allowed Ebert to work even while on bed rest. At one point, after receiving numerous questions from Steve, Ebert responds back, "Isn't that somewhere in the book," almost pointing out the redundancy of the questions.

Even though some of the film is reiterations, the themes are important enough to reiterate. His relationship with his wife, Chaz, changed the man. Many say during their interview that Ebert mellowed. His blood wasn't boiling, but cooled down to a gentle simmer. Chaz is really the co-star of the film, and she carries on Ebert's legacy. The film touches on the impact Ebert had on the film and critical world, but that could really take up a whole other film. There could be long discussions as to whether it's better to be an Hollywood insider or outsider as a critic, or if Siskel and Ebert's thumb rating system hindered the field. The film wasn't really built for that, despite being totally captivating for a fellow film critic. Instead, the most impactful and touching parts come from those who really knew Ebert, proving that life isn't about your work, but about the joy, the sorrow, and the ties that make up your life.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

"Snowpiercer" is the "Little Engine That Could" With Axes and Machetes

The gruff looking Curtis (played by a bearded Chris Evans) counts the number of doors that separate him and the rest of the tail inhabitants from the rest of the train, the titled Snowpiercer. He figures that he has to four seconds to get through five doors in order take the train from the rest of the train's occupants who live in a life of luxury. The tail-enders are served only gelatin protein bars and must suffer through the rules and punishments dictated by those at the head of the train. The tail passengers can't just get off at the next stop, for the world has been in an inhospitable ice age for 17 years, and the people on the train are the only humans left alive. The train never stops; it just goes on a never ending loop around the world, and if the train stops, it will never start again. 

This is the set-up for futuristic, dystopian story originally created in graphic novel form by Jacques Lob  Jean-Marc Rochette and adapted for the screen by South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho, making this his first English speaking film. Joon-Ho doesn't edit his East Asian influences in this film. It still contains the over-the-top blood and violence, the campy melodrama, and Joon-Ho's signature mood whiplashing humor. Joon-Ho always infuses politics in his film, and Snowpiercer containing bits of global concerns while depicting the evils of a totalitarian utilitarian philosophy. These themes are always in the background, as much more attention is paid to the action and violence. These scenes are sometimes too long, but they are brutal, quick-paced and bloody. (I mentioned the East Asian sensibility, so there are axes, spears and machetes.) The characters are always shown bruised, bleeding, or swollen eyed (and some are missing a couple of limbs!) 

This epic savageness can border on silly or even stupidity. During a dark reveal about the early months on the train caused half of the audience to gasp and the other half to laugh. (I laughed) It's because the film makes sure that there are no questions left unanswered, and in this highly imaginative setting, some of the answers just end up being beef-witted. 

Some of these feelings may radiate from the lead, Chris Evans, and this is the best acting I've seen from him which isn't saying much. I'm not an Evans hater by any means; I have given him credit for playing a highly earnest yet relatable Captain America. It's just there are many emotional moments for his Curtis that comes off flat, and it may be the dialogue, it may be Evans, or it may be a combo of the both. I was never really invested in his reluctant struggle in being the rebels' leader. 

A good thing is that Evans is backed by a talented, international cast, including Jamie Bell as Curtis's right hand man, Edgar; Octavia Spencer as Tanya, a tail-ender looking for her missing son; Song Kang-Ho and Go Ah-sung, as a drug addicted engineer and his clairvoyant daughter (and also two Joon-Ho regulars); John Hurt as the wise leader of the tail end, Gilliam; Vlad Ivanov as the relentless killer Franco the Elder; and Tilda Swinton as Mason, a head-end administrator fervently devoted to totalitarian ideals (Swinton just chews up the scene in the second craziest make-up I've seen her in this year.)

This interesting cast keeps the film chugging along as the rebels make their way up the mile long train, and it's these moments when the characters find themselves in a new train car that I enjoy the best. When they discover what they've been denied, like sushi and sunlight, you become aware of all that we as First World Americans take for granted. It's these scenes that separate Snowpiercer from the rest of the noisy, action blockbusters, and it will probably be the best action movie of the year despite the deeply questionable set-up. Snowpiercer is all about sacrifices and investigates when sacrifice is too great. When thinking about the film, I ask myself, "What could have changed to make it better?" Despite the stale, gelatin bar taste I get with the film, I wouldn't forfeit much. 

"The Odd Couple" Meets a Holocaust Survivor Story in "Ida"

A mother superior tells the young novice Anna that she must meet with her only relative, her mother's sister, in order to make her vows. Anna questions this task, but she is soon sent out into the 1960's, Communist Poland, where is meets her Aunt Wanda, who is more reluctant towards this reunion than Anna is.Wanda tells Anna that her real name is Ida Lebenstein, her parents were killed in the war, and that Anna/Ida is a Jew.

Ida is a film about identity, and devotion to that identity when faced with a conflicting background. When Anna learns about her heritage, she goes from wide-eyed to even wider-eyed, pretty much the only expressions she shows in the film. Her irises are inky black, highlighted by the elegant black-and-white the movie is filmed in. We can tell her eyes are like sponges; she is taking everything she sees in. What Anna sees and learns will affect her world view as she visits her family's graves with her aunt. Wanda knows history will unfold as they take this journey. She ask Anna, "What is you find that God isn't there?"

The film isn't completely bleak. There is some humor to the interaction between the quiet, Christian Ann, dressed in her clean habit, and the abrasive, chain-smoking, drunk driving aunt wearing her elegant dresses and furs. Wanda is constantly trying to goad curiosity out Anna with the hopes that she breaks from Christian lifestyle that Anna learned from the orphanage. Their roadtrip across Poland, visiting various sites involving their family's demise, involves a lot of hard-feeling between the two. Neither wants to be around each other, both want their behavior to rub off on the other, and yet their personalities are both needed for the undertaking at hand.

This films deals a lot with duality, highlighted by the black-and-white picture. The clean white snow and the clear, bright sky often meets with the grimy streets and rusty metal signs. Cinematographers Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal's work in the film is sublime. The picture is composed many times with the characters' faces in the lower corners, creating a screen filled with a lot of empty spaces, giving us a clear picture of scenery that has seen its share of ghost.

The film is a slow burn,  which makes it odd that the final act is kind of rushed. It's a shame, really, since Ida is about who Anna thinks she is, and who she wants to become. The film is only 80 minutes long, and I'm sure the director, Paweł Pawlikowski, could linger on her for a little bit longer. I'm saying this out of love for the characters. I was presented with a simple, haunting story where the past can still rattle your soul 20 years later, and I can't help but want to know that everything is going to be all right.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Tom Hardy Gets "Locke"d in his Car, or Something

I'm going to try to keep my review of Locke as pun free as possible, and you'll understand why this will be a hard feat. Locke tells the story of Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy), a concrete construction manager who is about to head home to watch a football game with his family. Also, it happens to be the night before the most important day in his career, but instead of getting some good shut-eye and having bonding family time, he decides to drive the other direction toward London, where he is going to be there for the woman he had a one-night stand with and is about to give birth to his son. The movie is about this car ride towards London.

And that's it. It's only this car ride.

Okay, it's more interesting than that, and you can see quickly see how the title has double meaning (locked in his car, locked in his decisions, locked in responsibility, blah, blah, blah.) Most of the movie features Locke talking with various people thanks to his car's built-in phone system. He has to tell his wife why he isn't coming home, he's yelling at his co-worker as to what he has to do in order to make the next day go as planned, he's tries to lay out the facts to his boss as to why he isn't going to be at work, and he tries to keep his child's mother, a social invalid and emotional wreck, from doing something stupid and involuntarily killing the child. These conversations are tense and dramatic. His conversations with his sons are particularly heart-rending, especially when you learn how important it is to Locke to be a good father. That trait plays a big part in his motivations, and we learn why.

Most of this is revealed about 15 minutes in the film, and then it's just Locke trying to keep his personal life from unraveling and leave his professional life with some dignity. Still, I didn't feel like this story features that big of stakes to be presented in such a severe manner. I am aware that I don't have children or a career that could be destroyed in a minute, so I know that there is some bias in this statement. I just know that if this movie was any minute longer, and it's a tight 85 minutes, it would have been unbearable.

The real stars of the film are Hardy and cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos. Zambarloukos layers the outside through the reflection on the car to show the outside pressure of the world, a major theme in glass bottle stories like this. And Hardy, who is known for being a physical actor who has portrayed Bane, Charles Bronson, and a MMA fighter, is seen only from the mid-waist up. This is completely an acting vehicle for him. He has such an interesting, calm yet assertive manner to his voice, almost like Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood, where he puts up with everyone illogical emotions.

It's important for an actor to take small projects like this, especially for one who has notched some big blockbusters on his belt. I doubt this film will win any awards, and I don't think it really should, but Hardy does drive this film and makes the slim story interesting and watchable for anyone who has the patience.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Did I Check In or Check Out at "The Grand Budapest Hotel"?

Wes Anderson certainly has a bag of tricks that he puts in all of his films, and saying that is a cliche. His style has become so distinct, he makes for a strong case for auteur theory. (Check out the SNL spoof, The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders, the Wes Anderson horror film. It's pretty spot on.) The mise-en-scène in his films are composed to hell, perfectly framed, and contains so much character to the backgrounds that it becomes campy. The Grand Budapest Hotel is the screenplay that Anderson wrote by himself, a first for him, and it seems that having a co-writer caused him to edit down, because in TGBH, he throws all of his devices in there, and guess what! It worked. TGBH turned out to be my favorite of his films.

A part of this is because there isn't a clash between aesthetics and story. The characters are distinct and likable, not common in other films like Rushmore and Moonrise Kingdom. Many of the main characters in Anderson's other films I would describe as capable losers. They're depressive, smart, and egotistical, while the tone is less than serious. 

That is not the case here. Ralph Fiennes portrays legendary concierge M. Gustave at the titled hotel. Gustave is loved by everyone and anyone who he has met, particularly rich, older widows (who happen to also be blonde.) He develops a mentor/pupil bond with the new lobby boy, Zero, played purposely flat by newcomer Tony Revolori. They are connected by the fact that they are both orphans, and fall into a grand misadventure involving a prison break, World War II, Communist, and a fictitiously famous painting Boy with Apple, who is bestowed to Gustave after one of his eldest, um, "customers", Madame D, is mysteriously killed. 

I have to mention Tilda Swinton, who played Madame D, and she was completely unrecognizable in probably the greatest old lady make-up I've seen. It's humorous when you figure out who it's her, but it also irked me a bit because I know that it's hard for older actresses to get work, and I don't know why they would spend so much time and money on transforming Swinton unless it was for a laugh, and it's more of a chuckle at most. 

The other Anderson players show up in various ways, but the story here is pretty much focused on Gustave and Zero, and there is little time for extra character development, which is fine. It's always nice to see Bill Murray, but I don't need to know much about M. Ivan, a member of a secret club of concierge. That's all you really learn, and that's all your really need to know. Still, every character that shows up is fleshed out and play their part in the evolving story.

This madcap of a story is shockingly Anderson's most violent film, involving lacerated fingers, heads in boxes, and cats being thrown out windows. I have to say that I love this kind of light-hearted macabre ever since watching the short lived TV series Pushing Daisies. The film never falls into a depression despite it's dark nature. Yet, despite the lightheartedness and straight up goofy nature of the presentation, TGBH holds up some universal themes, and is Anderson's most profound piece of work. By the last two minutes, I began to get choked up, and as the credit rolled, I began to cry: a new trick to add to Anderson's repertoire.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Hayao Miyazaki's Final Flight in "The Wind Rises"

Hayao Miyazaki is often called Japan's Walt Disney, or compared to British animator Nick Park, but these associations are pointless. Miyazaki has a style, ideas, and themes of his own, and he has made Studio Ghibli an international and cultural significant studio. His last film, The Wind Rises, is his most quiet and his most down-to-earth film. It follows the 10 year journey of Jiro Horikoshi, the chief engineer of many of Japan's fighter planes during World War II.

This may seem like an odd final film for someone who has created magical worlds involving bathhouses for spirits and giant wolf gods. It only takes a couple of watches of Miyazaki's other films to understand that he is inspired by high-flying, fast paced action, and The Wind Rises doesn't lack any of it. The flight sequences are kinetic and dramatic, as expected, and they are the real reason you would want to view the film on the big screen. There is great joy seeing Horikoshi's projects soar, and his failures explode with a crackling energy. Many of these action scenes contain sounds effects created by human voices, which is both entertaining (during the Kanto Earthquake of 1923, the ground sounds like it has indigestion,) and distracting (the plane propellers sound like children making plane noises.)

The theme of the film, dedicating your life to your passion and your craft, is most likely to resonate more as a final film to a long legacy. Horikoshi often has trouble with designing the perfect plane that will be used for massive killing, and he notes at time that his creations would be flawless if he didn't have to worry about the weight of the guns. The dream sequences where there is discussion between Horikoshi and Italian designer Giovanni Battista Caproni are significant as they voice this struggle. Also, the characterization of Caproni makes for the most humorous scenes in a rather soft movie.

This plot point is put in the background when Horikoshi begins to romance his soulmate, Naoko, who suffers from tuberculosis. While this story is without a doubt achingly sweet, even for a jaded viewer like me, it does cause a sudden shift in the purpose of the film. At times, I felt like I was watching two different films. I thought it was about planes and passion, but then it became a film about love and death. The two storylines may have been merged together better if the lead character was more charismatic. Horikoshi is such a blank slate that the other characters in the scene control the mood. Horikoshi isn't strong enough to anchor us to these two stories and act as a bridge, but luckily the animation and the bigger, historical picture fastens the viewer into Miyazaki's vision.

One thing I love about the animation is the lack of computer animation, which Miyazaki has never really delved into. CGI is the quickest way to date a film. Just look at the first Toy Story and Toy Story 3. Miyazaki's hand drawn animation makes his entire filmography feel like they came from the same era, which is a trait that most auteur's can never achieve. Miyazaki has traits that all filmmakers hope to possess, and it is noted again in this final film. Like all of his films, this last one is bittersweet, epic, and spellbinding, even when rooted in a historical dramatics.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

"Gloria", I Think They Got Your Number

I blame Gloria for having that damn Laura Branigan song in my head days before I saw it and days afterwards. It's a very fitting song for the movie with lyrics like "I think you're headed for a breakdown, so be careful not to show it," and I wonder if the song actually inspired the movie, or at least, the main character.

When I saw the previews for Gloria, it was kind of presented as a sort of romantic comedy that would be the Argentinian equivalent of a Nancy Meyers movie. It's more subtle than I suspected, and it contains a lot of nuance. The first half really takes it's time presenting Gloria, played perfectly and bravely by Paulina García. That first half can become tedious. The pace is a little too slow, and the story doesn't really seem to be going anywhere, but the film picks up in the last half.

We see Gloria, who is divorced woman in her fifties who battles loneliness by visiting dance clubs and taking laughing workshops, crave companionship, a trait more potent than she realizes. This comes out when she starts seeing Rodolfo, an older gentleman who wears a waist cincher and is controlled by his two daughters and ex-wife. He's more than a mess, and the fact that she is drawn to him speaks volumes about her.

There's a scene where Gloria's ex-husband's wife offers he marijuana, and Gloria kindly declines because "I'm a little scared of losing control," and we see what happens when she does. The character is so youthful and energetic that I found it fascinating that she seemed her oldest when she acts like a reckless twenty year old. Getting black out drunk and making out with strangers is not cute no matter how old you are, but these scenes are pretty humorous. Actually, the film does offer a lot funny moments thanks to having a lead character that isn't afraid to laugh at herself. 

The main drive of the film is Garcia and the script written by Gonzalo Maza and Sebastián Lelio. The latter directed the film and presented a nondescript mise en scène, but his vision could have been edited down a little bit. There's a little too much fat in and between scenes. Still, Gloria is a great character study for those with the patience to see it through. It's not often that we see an honest representation of a woman who is without a husband, whose kids are living their own lives, who suffers through bad relationships, and experiments with drugs without presenting her as a joke. She's still a hero, despite her flaws. Gloria is amusing, thoughtful, surprisingly erotic, and is accessible for everyone.

Now, here's the song Gloria, because I want you to suffer, too.