Archive for August, 2011

Blue Valentine (2010)

“Blue Valentine” (2010)

IMDb

bitter sex

A film like this is the positive consequence of many things that have happened in cinema for the last decades. You see, cinema is, of course, a baby art. It’s core, as far as i can see it, is visual narrative. Telling stories in itself started a long time ago. The possibilities that moving images opened are just now being found about. One of the major visual revolutions was the possibility of breaking the narrative, something literature has recently been doing. Citizen Kane was not by far Orson Welles’ best film, but it shook things and broke practically every rule that preceded it. Since than, we’ve had multiple experiments with breaking narratives (something usually incorrectly referred to as “non-linear” story-telling). Kurosawa, Wong Kar Wai made priceless developments after Kane. Welles exceeded himself multiple times. Iñarritu, Kaufman have been playing important games with it. Even Haggis made things that mattered. So now, the book is pretty far from being fully written, but it’s opened. It’s possible to do convincing solid work by mere extrapolation. This film is there. It’s a solid piece of modern storytelling, perfectly referenced to its important predecessors, following through known paths, without actually innovating. But it’s a joy to see how well these narrative principles have stuck.

The really superlative thing about this film is elsewhere. The acting is superb, by Williams and Gosling, yes. They exceed, they do something i’d never seen any of them do in their careers, in terms of commitment, cheer passion, delivery. It works, and that’s a relatively rare thing, so we should celebrate this just for that.

*spoilers* But it’s the subtleties of the story, the sensitivity of its dark corners, the ultimate irony of its twists and consequences that will shake you. Start with a relatively normal drama, about a prematurely pregnant woman, forced to resign to some dreams, but ultimately finding a stable happiness with someone (not the child’s father) who loves her. Years after the relation reaches deep conflict, they split, the end. Now this is fragmented and told by bits. The writing is sensitive, this is solid filmmaking in its own right. But what’s truly painful is how sex is inserted into the traditional drama and its symbolic rules inverted. There are 2 moments of sex on-screen:

One is when the child is conceived against the mother’s wish, with the indifference of the father. That sex is from behind, passionless, mechanic and, in the moment when it’s inserted in the story, painful for us, because we know where it will lead, we know the pain it causes in her future husband, we know how important it will be. So this is a great example of how breaking the story enhances its dramatic effect.

The second moment of sex is a unfulfilled, rough and ultimately frustrated act, in the motel, when we sense the loving couple is on the verge of breaking up. This is missionary sex, but delivered in a fragmented tough way, the way a drunk would sense it, the way 2 desperate people would do it. Again, its painfully drawing the story to an end, which we know will not be happy.

This is one of the best uses of sex on-screen i’ve ever seen. That’s the power of this film.

The trailer is remarkable.

My opinion: 4/5

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011)

“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” (2011)

IMDb

to go, to drift, to arrive

This was an interesting series of film to follow. I don’t share any of the excitement that brought hard core fans of the books into these films for the last 10 years. I never read any complete book, although i did have a very close contact with some very freak fans of the series, so i know what their motivations are. The discussion of these harder fans moves around how each knew film was or not able to grasp all the contents of the book, and produce the image(s) that the book suggested to each reader. Or was it acceptable to leave certain elements of the story that a film Always has to leave behind. I never cared about those arguments, because the films create a universe of their own, slightly close to the one in the books, which can even coincide at some moment, but still autonomous. So in a way, the books are to the films, as Hogwarts is to the real world In the films. Rooted in it, but no It.

What kept me coming to the franchise was the fairly interesting idea of seeing how these films would follow a story than span over 7 years, using the same (teenager) actors, that would grow up with their characters. The main interesting idea was this: the films grow as the characters in it, as the actors that represent those characters And as the target public grows with them. We see the films mature in content, we see the actors get older, we see the fabric of the cinematic world change before our eyes. That was an interesting path, mapped into my own evolution as a viewer in the last 8 years (when i started to watch the films). This was not a linear obstacle free course. The owners of the franchise messed up a lot in the way, but they were trying something never done for those matters, so we’ll have to give them a break.

So they chose Columbus for the first 2, a master of children’s films, someone whose mind specifically works to understand how children’s heads function, visually, and narratively. Both his films had a theme, visual, cinematic. Than the third one, probably the best, added notions of time and space as one, and called to do it a master in that cinematic kingdom, Cuarón, the best director to work on this franchise. Azkaban was a maturing film, evolved like a teenager would, and added cinematic deepness into the seducing yet flat world of the first 2. Cuarón gave us the best Hogwarts and the best cinematic use of the story. The dramatic shift came after that one. Numbers 4 and 5 were absolute disasters, suffering from the same mistakes that any bad teenager movie suffers, pretending to be special and appealing to the uniqueness of each one’s personality while being itself a boring copy paste sub product. This was bad, i was really sorry that Yates wouldn’t follow the leads of the first 3 films, he broke a chain. But he redeemed himself in the 6th installment, and he did that rooting once again the series on space. Hogwarts again, but with a new vision. That was a fascinating film which, coupled with Azkaban, gives us 2 great visions of cinematic space. After that the story required that the next film would be disembodied, and it was. I talked about that one elsewhere. It was an interesting move, though not specially powerful in the end.

And we get to this film. As it was expected, this would be merely a conclusion. It had to be grand, it had to have fireworks, flashy scenes, dramatic kills, suffering, pain, redemption. It had a battle, central to the film, where all the forces collide, all the tensions are released, all the schemes come to an end. It’s modeled after the third lord of the rings, and it doesn’t bring much to the table, a mere conclusion, certainly required, but not so much interesting.

One thing is interesting though. We have a great number of loose ends that are tied up in this film. Dumbledore’s brother, Snape’s past, Harry’s “half death”. How each of this knots is tied up to the larger narrative uses interesting narrative cinematic devices. Dumbledore whose image is reflected in a piece of mirror Harry carries with him. Snape through the pensatorium, which basically creates a film inside Harry’s head. And Harry’s death, although lame on the way the set has been taken care, which slides two characters (one of them already dead) into a 3rd abstraction, over the abstraction which is Hogwarts and the magical world, in relation to the “real” non magical world of the film, in relation to our real world as viewers. I’m sorry that the film had to spend so much time in battles and grandeur to allow itself to explore these devices.

I wouldn’t call it essential nor even close. But i won’t harm to spend to spend time with this franchise, and watch it as a whole, in its context.

My opinion: 3/5 (for this film)

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José e Pilar (2010)

“José e Pilar” (2010)

IMDb

crossed roads

It’s so hard to make an engaging documentary. The usual process is to make the facts of stories you’re supposed to be told into a coherent narrative line, even if in reality that line isn’t so clear. That will provide the audiences with a story, something to follow. But how you follow that story is usually in a more external way than how you watch fiction, because in documentary you can’t or won’t have the same devices to fold you into the thing. You have always that trick on reenact some stuff, if the theme is history. That’s lame to me, and lazy.

Now here you have something really interesting. The film shows us countless excerpts of the lives of the 2 protagonists throughout the course of about 2 years. The film is presented as a reportage, more than a documentary, meaning that images are what you make of it, words come up apparently loosely. No bent narrative is delivered to you. Or so it seems.

Underneath this apparently random display of images, there’s a subtle layered structure. The life of the couple José/Pilar in the period of the film mapped to the story of the elephant in the book Saramago is writing. The story that this film displays mapped into the larger story of Saramago’s life, with all its weight in the story of literature and Portuguese culture, as we get it in between the lines in several moments of the narrative. The whole idea of journey and encounter mapped into the love story of José and Pilar.

And ultimately, as the title denounces, that story is central here. The idea of a pair of people bound by the art of one of them, who chooses to share it, allow the other half to be a part of it. Live as one, that’s the beautiful part of the story. I’m glad they chose to share a bit of that story with as, by allowing us to get into it.

His art matters. He is a humanist, has profound ideas, truly powerful ideas, and changed language, invented a new way on which people can express.

There is one moment when the metaphor for journey mapped into people’s lives is perfect: in Saramago’s hometown, one street has his name, another street which crosses the other one has her name. Crossed paths.

My opinion: 4/5

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Gulliver’s Travels (2010)

“Gulliver’s Travels” (2010)

IMDb

laziness

Someday i’ll have to stop seeing films like this. Every 2 hours i spend watching stuff like this is 2 hours i don’t spend watching something that’s really worthy. On the other hand, if you’re a serious viewer, you’ll have to have your dose of ordinary stuff. It’s a good exercise to understand why things are bad, i think, many times much harder than knowing why a gem is so good.

This is pretty trivial and simple as far as this: a film deliberately tied up in every convention for the romantic comedy genre these days. Over that, it’s a film where Black (a talented guy) is free to explore all of his slapstick and gestural moves we already know too well by now.

But this is remotely related to an incredible book, a very important work in the story of literature. It deals with parallel worlds, multiple realities, physical transformation of the world, a kind of mental flexibilty remarkable for its day. It’s mind-blowing in its own corner, and you should spend time with it. This film is as lazy and useless and as much a hack as Black’s character: it quotes the stuff but does absolutely nothing with it. Every possible interesting thing is a chewed product coming from other stuff.

My opinion: 1/5

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Death Wish (1974)

“Death Wish” (1974)

IMDb

bending the mood

This is an ordinary film experience, rooted in a number of cinematic common places and character conventions, enhanced by a sublime soundtrack.

The character is what it is. I think Bronson’s stereotype of the lovable thug was invented here. Previously there was what Leone made of him, overcoming his obvious limitations as an actor by clever close-up framing, impeccable timing and editing, and sound environment. That’s what Leone did, by the way, with a great number of other actors. Here he invents the tough guy, bit by some tragedy in the past, overcoming it by violence, isolation, and “doing the right thing”. This is his seminal character, and it lasted long enough to allow Bronson to become a sort of a pre-Stallone kind of character. That’s why this character was remade another 4 times after this one. So this justice maverick was at this point a kind of a new iteration of a character archetype that goes a while back. That’s nice. I suppose that’s why this film is still mildly celebrated today.

But what makes me truly excited here is how Herbie Hancock handles the music. He is an important person, someone who bridged spacial moody jazz from Miles to our days, and pushed some sound and improvisation boundaries further. Here he does so with film music. He bases his music on a notion that Vangelis with masterly explore in Blade Runner: it’s about musical themes, it’s about environment. You can pick up the mood and use music to build it, or you can pick up the specific emotions of the plot points, and enhance them through music. Here he does both. New York by night, and suspense. The main character, whom we follow endlessly being an architect, someone who bends the environment through buildings, as much as Hancock bents it through sound.

Vincent Gardenia’s character is memorable.

The roughness of the rape/killing scene is also remarkable. The visceral grittiness of it sets perfectly the mood for the story.

My opinion: 4/5

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A Life Less Ordinary (1997)

“A Life Less Ordinary” (1997)

IMDb

expectations

This is not a good film. It’s enjoyable according to a number of things you can get from many other films. Conventional comedy values built around romantic stories. Escapism in recognizable form for anyone vaguely used to Hollywood.

But this is a little bit more than that. It’s part of a trilogy of films featuring a trilogy of interesting artists: Boyle/Hodge/McGregor. This set of films was important for it established the basis of 2 interesting and important careers (Hodge in the meanwhile seems to have deviated from interesting stuff, let’s hope he comes back). What they did was what one might call experimentalism, or even theoretical experiments leaked onto practical products. Of the 3 films, this is probably the less interesting. It’s not especially entertaining, and even as an experiment it’s not especially interesting. The point was to pick up a specific genre, romantic comedy in this case, and twist it or at least give it a new edge. The result falls a lot behind what, say, the Coens did in Intolerable Cruelty.

Still, McGregor would become a powerful actor, one of the best, and Boyle is always worthwhile no matter what he does, and he’s done some impressive stuff since. So, this film becomes a sort of an historical artifact if you want to do archaeological research of their careers.

What you learn here is that from the beginning Boyle trusts his intuition, and that vein prevails over how he rationalizes his film conceptions. Those intuitions may be really powerful or come to nothing (like here), but he’s always willing to take the chance, and i appreciate him for that, i’ll want to see anything from him. And you learn that McGregor, already back here was self-conscious as an actor. He knows he’s acting, so the question is not so much to be “real” (as an obscene amount of actors always try to) but to deliver the acting while acknowledging it. That’s probably the more fundamental theme of the art in the last century. As far as cinema acting goes, Ewan McGregor may be its state of art.

But this film, unless you place it in the perspective of their makers future, is pretty much useless.

My opinion: 2/5

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