In Uncategorized on March 31, 2011 at 7:59 PM
Movie #176 Insidious
(2011, US, d. James Wan)
It’s hard to put the right words around this movie, because at times I felt like James Wan was the absolute worst director to handle this project, but then at others, he felt perfect. I’ll start with the most surface level commentary. This film is more than anything, meant to scare the audience. In that regard, tt went far beyond its pay grade. Comparable to The Ring and The Others in delivering the frights it had with the limited MPAA rating it received, Insidious is one of the scariest films to be released on a wide-scale in the last few years. Sure, it still had its unintentionally humorous parts – most of the non-horror sequences had a layer of this – but the smart thing Wan does in this sense is that he never lets a non-horror scene linger for too long. He sets terrifying sequences in the daytime as well as the nighttime, never allowing the audience to truly settle. And granted, I did see this film with an audience full of USC Film kids – so the humor may have alleviated itself with our presence. Now going back to Wan: I didn’t really understand why, but Wan almost never let the camera stop. Even in dramatic sequences, there’s a dolly on everything. You could almost count the stable shots on two hands. At first, this came off as amateurish (reminding me of the overt gaudiness of many South Indian productions) But apart from the motion, the visuals themselves were actually quite exceptional – considering what they were trying to do. Wan’s camera work tries to recreate the classic haunted house story, constantly sweeping through the rooms with an authoritative eye. Combined with the “modern indie filmmaker shaky camera” feel to it, Insidious‘ look is actually quite unique, as it pays homage to nearly a dozen films – both visually and story-wise. With references to Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Sixth Sense, Signs, The Others, and The Thing, Wan’s film is more than anything a massive homage to his favorite film, Poltergeist. Though based on a weaker script by writer Leigh Whannell, it’s the actors here who really bring the movie to life. No matter how lucky Wan got with everything coming together, it’s simply due to Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne’s talent and serious acting chops they are able to rise above their material and make the audience take the film seriously. Overall, I believe this will be the next big horror hit, in the vein of The Ring.
In Uncategorized on March 29, 2011 at 7:19 PM
Movie #175 Pixote
(1981, Brazil, d. Hector Babenco)
Pixote is a movie with some merit, especially when you consider it in the context of Italian neo-realist filmmaking, but the hardest part is getting over the images that are actually going on the screen. In the spirit of Rossellini or Zavattini or any great neo-realist filmmaker, it depicts “life” (or as little constructed perceptions of “life”) with an unflinching eye. It tries to stay away from emotion and tonal dictations and simply guide the camera to the action, step back, and observe. But what the film is displaying is simply what made me dislike it. I’m not saying it’s a bad film; I just hated it. To me (and nearly everyone in the audience I watched it with), it was just one bad thing to another. With absolutely no redemption in this film at any point to the tragic character of Pixote (played by a non-actor child Fernando Ramos da Silva, who was killed at the age of 14 by Brazilian police), it’s hard to find any watchable quality of the movie. Now granted, stuff like this happens and don’t think I’m criticizing any of that: the fact that real people have gone through the atrocities depicted here is absolutely unimaginable, but from a story perspective, there is nothing worth watching here. At times, I was convincing myself to pay attention just out of respect for the real people – as a social deed of sorts. Nominated for a Golden Globe in the Best Foreign Language Film category, Pixote is a sad, sad film that comes with no redeemable quality. Granted, there are interesting sequences here and there – one where Pixote and his friends begin pickpocketing on the streets is a memorable one as well as the final shot of Pixote walking into the distance on the rail tracks. It’s interesting to see where City of God draws a lot of inspiration but the significant difference between the two films is that the gangsters in City know what they’re doing; here they must learn. And though I hate to bash on a movie because it’s old, consider City a must more affecting and effective account of children on the streets of Rio.
In Uncategorized on March 28, 2011 at 6:39 PM
Movie #174 The Squid and the Whale
(2005, US, d. Noah Baumbach)
I’d seen parts of 2010’s Greenberg with Ben Stiller and I wasn’t too ecstatic about that film, but I’d heard a lot about the director’s previous work, The Squid and The Whale. It’s only 80 minutes long but it’s one of the most true and touching portrayals of divorce I’ve seen on screen. There is no violence, no physical conflict, but just the way a couple and their two kids react to the divorce. It’s a film both jarringly painful to watch but incredibly hilarious. It’s recollection of little details are so pure and real that the audience is often torn between those two reactions: Will Walt’s (played by Jesse Eisenberg) obsession with turning into Bernard turn him into a cheap hack? Is 12-year old Frank’s (played delightfully by Owen Kline) recent surge in crazy masturbation a pubescent trend or is he finding another way to let go of the tension caused domestically? What are the parents’ roles in all of these? Can’t there be one person at fault? These are all questions that The Squid probes over and over again but it does without ever seeming intent on providing the answers, as the best films always do. There are no cheap gimmicks, just real dialogue. The performances are so real – like a coil just about to burst – that the audience can feel every moment of the couple’s relationship in a single scene. The genius of Baumbach’s work is that makes you laugh and cry, but often at the same time. It’s hard not to laugh when Bernard (played by Jeff Daniels) takes the three dollars offered to him at Denny’s by his son’s new girlfriend. But it’s also a moment that is painfully real to watch. As is the whole movie.
In Uncategorized on March 28, 2011 at 8:19 AM
Movie #173 Being John Malkovich
(1999, US, d. Spike Jonze)
It’s always nice when a movie comes along and surprises you in its originality. Being John Malkovich is such a film. It raises existential questions about our place in life through a dark fantastical comedy genre. It also introduces the viewer to the incredible collaboration of Mr. Jonze and Mr. Kaufman. Though in a way I feel this is a work where they are both getting into the shape of things and finding their singular voices, it is still a showcase to their individual talents. Being John Malkovich is about fighting the feeling of unrequited love – either through kidnapping, through violence, through depression, or more commonly, through the entering of a secret portal on the 7 1/2 floor of a major New York City highrise that leads directly into the mind of John Malkovich himself. It’s about a puppeteer named Craig Shwartz (played cooly by John Cusack) who feels like mastering the brain of Malkovich would be the greatest trick of all time. He does, but the movie doesn’t end there. In fact, it seems very intent on answering every single logistical and creative question imaginable, even going as far as “What happens when Malkovich himself enters the portal?” But Jonze, in a smart move, knows the film is more than that and much more than its creativity: its about – to borrow a few thoughts from Roger Ebert – spending a lifetime in our own skin and wanting to pay to be in someone else’s. It’s about the chance to start fresh. And the chance to be someone new. And the chance to experiment. A chance so often missed in the monotonous lives of the regular being. Intertwining this theme in its filmmaking style, Being John Malkovich is a funny and unforgettable treat into the mind of a creator who shows no intent on formula or pattern.
In Uncategorized on March 28, 2011 at 7:13 AM
Movie #172 Don’t Look Now
(1973, US, d. Nicolas Roeg)
I can kind of see why this film has a lot written about it: it was among the first elusive occult thrillers that could be considered part of art cinema as well. I get that. It’s just hard not to see the film in a modern context. From today’s perspective, the acting borders much too often on completely cheesy, the editing is atrocious, there is no subtlety at all about the thematic content, and most of all – the scares are far too predictable. However, these are all the things that made it praiseworthy in its original release. As I try to put myself into the shoes of an original viewer, there are still some faults with the film. In my opinion, it had the potential to be an incredible thriller. Released just a few years after my favorite movie of all time (Roman Polanksi’s Rosemary’s Baby), Don’t Look Now employed the opposite trick in terms of its editing. Rather than being subtle, it was overt, extreme, and at times, completely unnecessary. It was this editing that ruined that thematic core of the film. Based off a short story by the talented Daphne du Maurier (a writer I will always thank my AP English teacher for introducing me to), Don’t Look Now was executed in adept hands but cut in the wrong ones – an effect that often produced more laughs than cries. But if you take that out of the picture, it suddenly becomes a very touching portrait of what grief does to people. Using that as the primary thrust of the film, Don’t Look Now is also a huge homage to Hitchcock. Employing classic Hitchcockian tools of direction and misdirection, cuts, and tension-building sequences, the film raises its own standard quite effectively. I won’t make too much notice of its incredibly long and erotic sex sequence – perhaps too long – but all the while, another stamp to the film’s audacity to provide audience’s with a unique treat.
In Uncategorized on March 26, 2011 at 10:15 PM
Movie #171 A Single Man
(2009, US, d. Tom Ford)
A Single Man is a great example of the cheesiest message in a film being put to the best use. It’s proof that no matter how cliche a theme is, if it’s done right, it still has the potential to impact you. A Single Man is about living in today and treating every day like it’s your last. Colin Firth plays a gay university professor in Santa Monica in 1962 whose lover has just died in a car crash. The film’s events take place over the course of a single day – a day at the end of which, Firth plans on killing himself. Throughout the day, he begins to see reasons to live again and begins to second doubt his decision. Let me be clear: The film is not cheesy; in fact, it’s one of the “realest” portrayals of homosexuality and depression I’ve seen so far. The magic of the film comes from the subtlety and the performances. Ford’s direction is both subtle and direct, subjective and objective. It is a compliment to a debut director who obviously knows what he’s doing. The real star of the film, though, is Mr. Firth. Winner of the Venice Film Festival’s prestigious Best Actor award and nominated for an Oscar with his performance, Firth delivers every line with a poignancy and regality of a studied man and the pain and loss of a broken one. It is a performance both quiet and loud, delicate and provoking. The only real downfall with the film, in my opinion, lies with the editing. For the most part, it was ok, but there were moments strewn here and there that really brought attention to itself for no reason at all. And small slips here and there in a film to be considered in the Oscar race contention should not be taken lightly.
In Uncategorized on March 23, 2011 at 11:36 PM
Movie #170 Limitless
(2011, US, d. Neil Burger)
Limitless is a film with so much more potential than it showed. It’s about a pill that allows humans to access 100% of their brain power, as opposed to the 20% we do our whole lives. In fact, I think it would have made a pretty great short film. However, instead of being good, the film just comes off as cool. If that was the intention they were going for, then good for them. But I have a feeling that the filmmakers thought this film was a lot smarter than it actually turned out to be. But if they were going for “good”, then boy oh boy, were they far off. First off, hire a new writer. The logic of the sequence of the events after taking the pill that Bradley Cooper’s character goes through is completely off. He’s a writer one day and a stock market genius the next. What? It’s supposed to advance our mind not make us superheroes. Secondly, the film far too often falls into pitfalls, relying on completely unnecessary violence and murder sub-plots to pull itself out. Limitless shouldn’t be about who killed the innocent girl but about the repercussions of perfection. Finally, the soundtrack – by far the worst element of the movie. A note: ripping the slowest song from the NHL 11 soundtrack and putting it on fast-paced sequences will not captivate a filmgoer. But all this is said if they were trying to make a critical success. If not, again, good for them. As a star vehicle, Bradley Cooper proves that he does have chops and a little range and a whole lot of star-power. The cinematography, though at times excessive and a little showoff-y, does have its moments, particularly in an (overused) effect of a never-ending shot. Apart from that, this film is nothing to write home about but it does it have its originality going for it. Strewn in with theatrical films based of one thing or another or sticking to formula this way or that, Limitless stands out as an original venture, and that’s definitely worth praising.
In Uncategorized on March 23, 2011 at 10:06 PM
Movie #169 Chaos Theory
(2008, US, d. Marcos Siega)
The problem with romantic comedies is that even when they’re a little different, they’re the same. And though they’ll always remain a favorite genre of mine, it’s very easy to overload on them. Chaos Theory is a decent (at best) film with an always-likeable Ryan Reynolds, its biggest problem being that it just leans a little too much on being safe. The movie has potential. It’s occasionally laugh-out loud funny and the core of the second-act conflict lies is quite promising, but like all romantic comedies, it falls too easily in the the trap of being predictable, thereby ruining any real chance of character development. There’s nothing more to say about the film – it’s about a guy named Ed who has a tick with writing down his every plan on notecards and having to perform all the tasks on the card. He’s a motivational speaker who gives speeches about time management and when his well-meaning wife (a wasted performance by Emily Mortimer) sets the clock back 10 minutes in their home, everything starts going wrong. But who cares about the plot? We all know what happens. Like usual.
In Uncategorized on March 18, 2011 at 9:34 PM
Movie #168 Lost in Translation
(2003, US, d. Sofia Coppola)
Lost in Translation is a movie about the friendships we are able to form with the people who know the least about us. It’s about the seemingly perfect and honest relationship someone can have with a complete stranger. The strangers of course are Charlotte and Bob Harris. Both are from different worlds and different struggles yet both, through sheer coincidence or fate, have checked into the same hotel in Tokyo. Bob Harris (played by Bill Murray) is a Hollywood movie star shooting a whiskey commercial (“for relaxing times, make it Suntory times”) and who is just about as lost as his new friend Charlotte, a young new wife to a busy photographer. Both are lost in the physical and the emotional sense. Harris’ own relationship with his wife has become one of a forced happiness. Charlotte, on the other hand, blurts out to a friend over the phone for no apparent reason that she doesn’t “know who she married”. Cue their meeting. As the two strike an unconventional and unformulaic friendship through the streets of Japan, they begin to share their own bits of wisdom about the world, aid in each other’s personal discoveries, and most of all find a bit of comfort in a place that screamed loneliness to each of them. To the casual viewer, their sudden friendship may seem implausible or at worst, random. But Coppola is not interested in methodical structure but the true spark that exists with people – not sexual but emotional. In fact, one of the film’s smartest moves was ridding itself of any sexual relief that could have occurred between the two. She instead takes the harder journey – creating an emotional climax between two characters who cannot possibly have sex. Bill Murray here is fantastic, creating a persona that for once is not Bill Murray. Where he could have easily made the crowd roar with laughter by being himself, Murray instead is silent – allowing Bob Harris to create himself – and completely deserving of his Oscar nomination. Johansson, as well, is in a once-in-a-lifetime role in which her sexuality is overshadowed by her naivety and questions about the world. For the second time in a row, Coppola has managed to create a consistent tone here: this time a little more mellow. As Charlotte and Harris begin to have fun, the viewers are taken on a similar journey, through the visual tasting of Coppola and her sublime musical selection. Nominated for Best Picture and Best Director and winner of Best Original Screenplay, Lost in Translation is not a movie for everyone – but it is a movie for those with an open mind.
In Uncategorized on March 18, 2011 at 6:44 AM
Movie #167 The Virgin Suicides
(1999, US, d. Sofia Coppola)
One of the strongest feature film debuts in movie history, Sofia Coppola has created more than a series of images in The Virgin Suicides – she created a tangible emotion that doesn’t wimper or betray us throughout the 96 minutes of this film. One of the most tonally consistent films I’ve seen all year, Suicides grabs you by the collar and takes you on an incredible and dizzying journey into the lives of a group of sisters in a suburban home. The time: 1974. The location: Grosse Point, Michigan. The incidents: Their suicides. One of the most interesting stories I’ve seen so far, Coppola (daughter of Francis Ford) extracts more than a disturbing and chilling story out a seemingly cheap story. Capitalizing on the novel’s use of details and mood, she instead paints us a portrait of the most regularly twisted world the characters live in, all the tiny inconsistencies they must deal with, and the invisible obstacles only they can feel. The strangest part is that writing this review right now sends chills down my spine (I often feel this way when describing disturbing events) but while watching the film I was taken by the sheer beauty Coppola was sending my way. Told through the voices of a group of boys who lived through that time (and voiced by Giovani Ribisi as a sort of leader of the “Greek Chorus”), The Virgin Suicides is not a hopeless tale but an illuminating one. For while the film only provides perfunctory reasons as to the suicides (the mother’s hysteria, the father’s inability to connect, the losses of love), it’s easy to forget that the main characters aren’t the Lisbon sisters. The main characters are us or “we” (referring to guys), as Ribisi would dictate during the narration. The movie is as much about the male’s loss of innocence and the male’s confusion as it is about the girls’. In fact, in a world strewn with so much doubt, it is little wonder then the Lisbon girls begin their own death clocks. As Roger Ebert puts it,
In a way, the Lisbon girls and the neighborhood boys never existed, except in their own adolescent imaginations. They were imaginary creatures, waiting for the dream to end through death or adulthood. “Cecilia was the first to go,” the narrator tells us right at the beginning. We see her talking to a psychiatrist after she tries to slash her wrists. “You’re not even old enough to know how hard life gets,” he tells her. “Obviously, doctor,” she says, “you’ve never been a 13-year-old girl.” No, but his profession and every adult life is to some degree a search for the happiness she does not even know she has.
Filled with an air of “bitter poignancy”, The Virgin Suicides is not only an example of Kirsten Dunst’s finest acting work, but also of Coppola’s stunning promise as an auteur free from her father’s shadow.