Wednesday, October 15, 2014

"The Trip to Italy" Proves that Sometimes It's About the Destination & Not the Journey

UK actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are in Italy eating their first meal of the trip. They're going on a Italian restaurant tour for The Observer, which they did four years previously in Northern England. Coogan talks about how he's surprised that The Observer wanted them to do this again, despite the good reviews of the first article they wrote about their previous trip. He notes that sequels are never as good as their predecessor, except for The Godfather: Part 2, which they both agree is the exception.

And so begins the sequel to the very meta, post-modern The Trip. The Trip to Italy features, again, Coogan and Brydon, playing themselves, albeit exaggerated and altered versions of themselves. The sequel is very much in the same spirit as the first. They travel to restaurants and hotels, eat food, and discuss life, celebrity, and the craft of acting. It's like My Dinner with Andre, but with discussions about the appreciation for Alanis Morissette and Michael Buble.

We see a little growth change in the characters since the last film. Coogan has decided that he he'd rather spend more time near his son and cancel work on his TV show to do so. Gaining fame and glory is no longer a priority. Brydon, on the other hand, who was the solid family man before, promises to be a more frisky tom cat this time around due to being out of the country where his notoriety is less distinct. It turns out that his relationship with his wife has turned cold since they've started raising their child. This sort of characterization is surprising and much needed, as they act as foils to each other, but the roles are reversed this time around.

The change of scenery is much need, too. It is absolutely beautiful. James Clarke, the cinematographer, framed and lit everything gorgeously, and to the often looked over but completely necessary location scout who picked the greatest beach locales in Italy. Not only did the setting prove to be breathtaking, but it played into the boys (I will call them "boys") conversation of artistry and death. The loose connection between all of the stops was Lord Bryon, whose debaucherous lifestyle is both admirable and cautionary. There are many motifs of the afterlife, causing the two to contemplate, causing obvious middle aged panic. A visit to the site of Pompeii not only signals a time of reflection, but results in Brydon doing his "Man in a Box" routine (and it's probably the most hilarious segment of the movie.)

The problem with The Trip to Italy is that these gags and scene go on way to long. Most of the movie is extended pop culture imitations that turn into a pissing contest between the two. They rehash their Michael Caine and their James Bond; it was all cute the first time, but this was redundant. I was bored for the first for the first half hour because it was just a repeat. They end up switching it up throughout the movie with some Robert Di Nero and Al Pacino, but I was fatigued by the end. I know that I can chalk it up to not being exactly my sense of humor, but these impersonation tirades are comparable two friends who won't let a good joke die.

The sequel was totally made for the big fans of the first, but it's a lost cause for those who opposed The Trip, or even those who kind of enjoyed the original. The spices are slightly different, but the dish is the same. It's a shame because there is an obvious self-awareness in this series. I just wish the creators could push that keen perception outwards and look through the audience's eyes. If only they followed Coogan's advice from the start and saw the folly in doing a followup.

Monday, October 13, 2014

"Boyhood" is an Epic, Slow Burning Look at Growing Up

While high school senior Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is developing his personal photographs in his high school's dark room, his photography teacher comes in and doesn't just tell him to get his ass back in class, but lectures Mason on the importance of responsibility, growing up, and passion. "Who do you want to be, Mason? What do you want to do?," he asks. When Mason says he wants to spend his life being a photographer, his teacher ultimately says that that's not gonna cut it.

Richard Linklater's Boyhood features many scenes like this. It makes sense, as the film is about growing up, and it may be the most extreme look at growth spurts, acne, personality change, and the apparent hypocrisy of adults. For those of you living under a rock, Boyhood took twelve years to make because the filmmakers got together every year to revisit Mason and his family. In the course of a little under three hours, we see Coltrane develop from a kid to a young man heading out to college. There are some recurring characters, but the four that we show up in every chapter is Mason; Mason's mom, Olivia (Paticia Arquette); Mason's sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater); and Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke). Throughout the movie, Mason moves through various towns, gets readjusted through various schools while his parents (they're separated, by the way) change careers and relationships.  

The changes in the film are surprisingly drastic at time, and the editing in the film is clever and signifies the passing of time. Short hair becomes shaggy hair, and there is one humorous cut where it seems like Mason has doubled in height. It brings back memories of awkward phases, and while I didn't relate to Mason so much, I felt sentimental of the growing process.

The creators pepper in pop culture to help set the movie in the appropriate year that both makes me feel joyful of the being transported to that time, and also old. "Umbrella" is playing in the background while the characters are at a bowling alley; Mason and his friends debate as to whether Yoda or General Grievous would win in a fight; Samantha watches the latest Lady Gaga video on her phone. The use of these cues are smart, because when you get out of high school, years just seem to meld together, yet we have time stamps in our heads that help us find our footing in our memories.

I wish that some of this wit also translated more into the dialogue and characters. I say this with a grain of salt because what we're dealing with here is teenage boys, and let's face it, teenage boys are dumb. I know, I was one. I was also a gay teenage boy, so I can say that I was not guilty of a lot of the drivel that I heard in grade school and in Boyhood. I think that's some of the point. This "talking shit" discourse is sadly part of male adolescence. I'll blame society, but I won't be too preachy.

The acting is questionable at times, too (I'm looking at you, Patricia Arquette.) She talks like she has a question mark stuck in the back of her throat. It kind of works because Olivia is a character who doesn't know exactly what she wants, and when she thinks she has some clarity, it backfires in her face. She is the greatest example of adults that don't have all of the answers, which is one of the film's greatest themes.

Mason is also kind of a blank character. He's not a Harry Potter, who ultimately dictates the series of actions and reactions in his life. Mason, like most children, just has to stay steady like a rock while the parents control the realty around them, whether these are good or bad decisions. This may not result in an interesting character study for some, but I enjoy the creators' honesty in the portrayal. Mason is also very much an observer in the film. He doesn't say or do much for most of the film, but his growing interest in photography and his contemplative nature shown in his late teens is logical.

Boyhood does present an easy, smooth, and subtle transformation in the characters, which I applaud the creators in doing. It would be easy to present Mason as joyful kid, then an obnoxious tween, then a rebellious teen. The whole set up of the film may seem like a lot hype, but when you have the same actors playing the same character over many years, not only do you have an epic story, but you have truthful transitions. Many people, myself included, are the same person as when we were six, only more emotionally and intellectually knowledgeable, and it's hard to capture that fact when you have multiple actors playing the same characters.     

Boyhood isn't as successful as Linkleter's other time-shifting films, his Before trilogy, which were two magical romance stories and then an aversion to them. It has been advertised as being the greatest exhibit of growing up, but it's a little to ordinary to capture that title. That is not to say that Boyhood isn't important. In the most acute way, it's drawn from the Youtube videos of people taking a picture of themselves everyday for a fixed set of time. Boyhood satisfies our need for nostalgia and narcissism, and thanks to digital filming, may be the first in a new wave of coming-of-age presentation.  

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.