Monday, January 21, 2013

Love: Amour

Amour is one of those films you go to because you have to, it's a strange responsibility and one you suspect you owe yourself, but you're not sure why.  To desire to see Amour, I think, to actually show up when you know, deeply, what's in store and have no illusions to the contrary, is a form of emotional masochism.  Then again, I've long been of the opinion that just about all of Austrian director Michael Haneke's films dabble in a masochist aesthetic. His films are the sort that deny you the ability to passively watch.  Resistance is futile in a Haneke film; you will be absorbed. You will be turned, addressed, and trapped inside what's often a cold, strangely frightening depiction of the world. Funny Games, The Piano Teacher, and The White Ribbon all have managed this is particular ways, but none hit as wrenching a note as Amour.  It's a film as strikingly beautiful as it is painful, a relentless gut punch that makes you see stars and keeps pummeling you until you're beaten into a weirdly transcendent submission.  I hated and loved it, feared it and cried through it*, desperately wanted it to end as soon as it began, spent the hours after seeing it feeling like a fatalistic pile of crap...and yet I must insist you subject yourself to this torment immediately.
Amour is the ultimate downer, yes, there are no two ways around that.  Haneke's film does not mince words, and its presentation is entirely straightforward: this is a story of love and death, of what love looks like when carried through to death.  The set-up is one that filled me with dread from the outset, and if you can make it through the film without wanting to put an end to the future or reminiscing about lost relatives, you may want to find a therapist as soon as possible.  In the film, Haneke boxes us into a luxe Parisian apartment and confines us there.  We open confronted with the fact of impending decay, aware that this is what will happen, and from there are taken through the sad progression of events leading to the macabre ritual of the opening scene.  This small world is inhabited by Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), an elderly couple surrounded by the totems of a life lived together. During breakfast one morning Anne freezes, completely unresponsive, only to snap back torturous minutes later with no memory of the incident.  It's the first ring in an inevitable downward spiral; a process so deeply affecting because it's so familiar. Over the course of the film we will watch as Georges struggles to take care of Anne, as Anne becomes imprisoned by her body, and as their daughter (Isabelle Huppert) flails helplessly at the periphery, not capable of understanding just what's happening in her parents' house.  The horror of Amour is that it is what happens, that it happens to everyone.  The beauty of it is in the presentation.    
Amour possesses a placid assurance, a strange calm which -when broken- resonates with a power unlike just about any damn thing out there.  There's not a hint of melodrama here, no sentimentality, nothing to latch on to for support or which will allow you to remind yourself it's "only a movie."  The score is absent, silent, and music is used only to evoke memory.  Anne was a piano teacher, after all, and the silence that follows the loss of that skill weighs down oppressively over each room of the apartment. Haneke shows us something that feels unbearably real. This is an inside glimpse at what it's like to be heartbroken over and over and over again, to feel helpless as death comes rushing on. You will grow to care for these people. You will understand these characters in ways you did not think possible.  Emmanuelle Riva delivers an extraordinary physical performance, a regression almost unbearable to watch.  She has a face that will make you tear up at the thought of it once you've seen the film, and the fight she shows us could be considered an act of cruelty against those unprepared. Riva, perhaps coincidentally, starred some 50-years ago in what I've previously listed as my favorite sad movie, Hiroshima Mon Amour. She sold it there just as she sells it now, and as bleak romantic leading ladies go, she's certainly been under-appreciated.  Here, though, it's the realistic purity of Anne's relationship with Georges that convinces us, and Jean-Louis Trintignant has been snubbed for the Academy Award nomination, certainly.  Riva gets the brunt work, but Trintignant has to hold it together.  We can gauge Anne's condition through Georges; watch as daily routines become increasingly disrupted, see as contentedness gives way to fear, fear to concern, to hope, to frustration, anger, bitterness, and acceptance.  Amour is a thing of terrible beauty. A hypnotic, frightening monster, but a gentle one. Though it may be at your own peril, watch this film.  You won't soon forget it.

*Note: consider that I don't usually cry in movies, and was recently called heartless for rolling my eyes about Les Mis.  Prepare to bawl.

**Additional note: no joke, there were only one or two 'groups' of people in the screening. Everyone else in the theater came alone. Why? Because you absolutely will not want to talk to people after this ends. Also, you are probably going to be doing some struggling.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Under 250: Beyond the Black Rainbow

At this point it's been a few weeks since I excitedly realized Beyond the Black Rainbow awaited me on Netflix. After taking in the hallucinatory quality of the starkly beautiful opening sequences with multiple, texted exclamation points, the rest of the film plodded on to ultimately disappoint.  Visually, Black Rainbow is a stunner.  The film seems to exist, in a way, as eye candy for those seeking a rehash of the B-movies inspired by the aesthetics of spartan Kubrickian science fiction.  It's a hazy drugged-out experience that moves in slow motion to synthesizers and which lures in one half of its audience purely because of the clarity of its aesthetics and the other part because they've just took a bong hit and are looking to have a deep philosophical discussion on something that may not have real philosophical meaning at all.  The film is set in a rather nightmarish version of 1983 where a girl is held captive and mute by a quietly deranged scientist at a 'commune' called Arboria.  It's a flimsy, flimsy plot built off of mind games and psychological torture, and the film plays out like a contained, dead-end version of 2001 (minus the cosmos); hypnotic, but uspeakably boring.  It's the first effort of director Panos Cosmatos, and I'd like to give it the benefit of the doubt.  Perhaps it's that film school concept that just had to be shot before moving forward, maybe it's the THX 1138 that comes before the storm.  Cosmatos has potential (and a great eye), but after a captivating beginning, it slowly unravels to leave the viewer unsatisfied.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Like: Rust and Bone

It's a bad sign, I think, when the emotional intensity of a scene in a serious drama gets a major boost from a Katy Perry song.  It's not much better when a film pulls in a sudden poignant voice-over to attempt to deliver its final blow. It's a far worse sign, perhaps, when a drama requires truly far-fetched, criminally underused plot elements to differentiate itself.  Rust and Bone is a film guilty on both counts.  It aspires to devastating realism, seems to want to put forth a lovely poetic thesis on the qualities of the human soul, and while it finds several beautiful small moments, they never seem to collide with the intensity or resonance Jacques Audiard desires.  I left Rust and Bone exhausted and bored, frustrated by the ways the film seemed to think it was constructing something meaningful out of the deliberately evasive. Audiard's work has left me cold before, and it's possible I'm just not a fan of his style of storytelling, but Rust and Bone had enough strong moments and impulses towards plotting to make the sketchy bits seem comparatively minor while the exact details felt so over-the-top arbitrary that the seemingly raw emotions depicted fell utterly flat.  
Marion Cotillard puts in a strong but underwhelming performance as Stephanie, a killer whale trainer who loses her legs in, yes, a freak killer whale accident. She's the more interesting character, frankly, but the film is unevenly more devoted to the tediously pathetic lifestyle of Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), a shitty vagrant father turned bouncer turned big box store security guard turned underground kickboxing champ. Ali meets Stephanie at a club when she still has her legs, he helps her out, and for some reason she decides to call him up in her depressive funk post-amputation.  From there, the film attempts to balance the curious crashing intersection of the lives of these two characters, odd because they've seemingly forced themselves together.  It was unclear to me at any given point why they persisted in any one direction. Love isn't the answer, or at least not the whole answer, and those who choose to refer to Rust and Bone as a romance are simplifying its narrative in the extreme. So, they force themselves together. Ali helps Stephanie, and these scenes of their connection have the most power. Stephanie grows as a person, we can see her character coming to terms with her situation, opening herself for the possibility of a new life, and this is largely thanks to Cotillard's abilities as an actress.  Stephanie shows us what it is she gets from Ali. The ways in which he is a distraction, a safe haven, and a possible love interest.  There are really lovely moments in which we see the way he takes time to bring her to the beach, to place her in the water and allow her freedom without pity.  There are equally lovely moments in which they awkwardly engage each other sexually, and we can see something change in Cotillard's face.
That said, while Stephanie pulls focus, her story is an accidental entanglement in a very messy Ali-centric story. Rust and Bone is based on the work of writer Craig Davidson, and while I don't believe I've read Davidson's work it seems very possible that the fictions are filtered through male protagonists and Stephanie was never meant to dominate quite so much. So, while Stephanie grows, we are subjected to weird subplots mentioning the mother of Ali's child using her son for drug smuggling, the relationship between Ali and his grocery cashier sister, the ways in which Ali is an immature and negligent father, the illegal surveillance operation he finds himself involved in, his violent tendencies and life on the kickboxing circuit, his attempts to go pro, and an irritating sequence involving a stupid decision on a frozen pond. If that sounds like a lot, it really is. Ultimately, while the pieces are too sloppy, too matter of fact and humorless for us to fully embrace this half-strange world of kick-boxers, amputee whale trainers, and grocery store spies.  The more it piled on, the more cloying and silly it seemed, which is a shame. There are very real elements here, very beautiful, assured performances and moments of cinematographic brilliance, but ultimately the film is a jumble of broken bones that never heals the way it should.

EDIT: 1/13: After reading back over my own review I decided that while I didn't find the film nearly as brilliant or interesting as many others, my commentary generally veered further towards a 'like' than a squalor. So, I've upgraded the film's general ranking slightly.

Love: The Impossible

After the release and domination of Precious, 30 Rock built a plot thread around the outrageous Tracy Jordan receiving Oscar recognition after starring in an emotionally overwhelming fictional film called Hard to Watch: Based on the Novel "Stone Cold Bummer" by Manipulate.  It's a small joke that I've thought of multiple times in the couple years since, and The Impossible is the latest entry in a line of 'hard to watch' films gunning for statuettes.  Whether you succumb or not, you will feel the urge to cry during The Impossible. You will feel it multiple times throughout the entirety of the film. Chances are you will want to look away from the screen, you will feel some painful little rock growing in the pit of your stomach, you will suck in air and grit your teeth at the depictions of physical pain on screen, you will be riveted and trapped by the film's peculiar brand of hope-addled misery.  You should be. The simple truth is that while The Impossible is flawed in a very specific, detrimental way, it's also a tremendously capable and deeply effective film you're not likely to forget.  It's a 'true story' that - while oddly focused-  does manage to personalize a much larger tragedy and make it accessible to the viewer half a world away.
The Impossible is a story from the Indian Ocean tsunami that hit the coastlines of several Asian countries in 2004. As you may recall, it was a devastating event, one of the worst natural disasters in recorded history, with staggering death tolls climbing past a quarter of a million and a wake of incalculable destruction. Countless people lost everything, but The Impossible focuses wholly on the experiences of one family of tourists and is based on the first-person account of the real-life Maria Belón. Belón's family has been Anglicized here, their surname changed, their skin and hair washed out in shades of blonde to be headed up by picture-perfect proxies in the shape of Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor. We watch in horror as this everyday family unit travels to Thailand for the Christmas holiday only to be torn apart, physically ravaged, and left searching and suffering for their missing pieces.  It's a harrowing journey, and one that flirts as dangerously with uplifting, maudlin melodrama as you might expect.  What's impressive, though, is how thoroughly The Impossible commits to the depiction of struggle, and how the film blends genres we often assume are disparate to build something that is powerful in spite of its narrow focus. Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona previously directed The Orphanage, and it's no logical leap to say that The Impossible is just a horror movie of a different kind.  It's a disaster-action-horror-family drama film that subjects the actors and the viewer to surprisingly extreme depictions of turmoil in the name, perhaps, of showing you just how bad things can be.
The actors walk and limp about for much of the film looking as though they were extras escaped from Hostel or Saw; bloodied, wounded, mottled with painted textures and sunburns that will make you flinch when you see them.  As Maria, Naomi Watts delivers a fascinating, physically demanding performance.  We are made privy to Maria's direct experience of the tsunami, we ride the waves with her, are plunged beneath the rising water, thrown against sharp metal detritus, into drifting trees, cars, and walls.  The sequence is impressive in its intensity and truly frightening, and Watts makes us believe every second of it. As her eldest son Lucas, Tom Holland also delivers a convincing, strong performance as a child struggling to stay strong through we see in every glimpse that he is terrified, that he does not know what he will do from second to second.  While the film has several really phenomenal visual moments, the acting is what makes The Impossible possible. Watts, Holland, and McGregor turn in brilliantly controlled performances with superficial material that walks a fine line between the repellent and the saccharine. They have gone in search of a way to make the true events have a biting edge that reads as emotionally rich instead of simply manipulative. 
I appreciated their efforts, and though the outcome is ultimately predictable, I was repeatedly surprised by the way the film subverted the action genre to create tension and suspense where there would otherwise only be waiting and sadness.  Of course, the film is flawed in a way I found ethically confusing.  As I mentioned already, The Impossible reads as a Hollywood whitewashing of a global catastrophe. While Belón's story is a gripping account, it seems strange to me to focus not only on a family who remains together, but also on a family who is capable of escape and who can leave the ravaged coast behind as mere memory.  Yes, their story is amazing.  They're tremendously lucky and, thankfully, driven as a unit.  They are the sort of people who can, I suppose, teach us something about that old 'strength of the human spirit' chestnut. To its credit, too, I believe that what The Impossible ultimately offers is an insight into tragedy. We are shown what it's like to live through this, the chaos and heart ache breaking out while we're watching coverage from our couch, and we are left to imagine what it would be like to have that happen. But, The Impossible is too populated with tourists, a little too interested in one family's misfortune to show us the lives of the people left to deal with the fallout. 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

85th Annual Academy Award Nominations

It wouldn't be the Oscars without a film I'm dead set against in the running.  This year, Les Miserables has accumulated a few too many for my liking, undoubtedly earned after the same trail of tears that allowed Extremely Loud to sneak into the Best Picture category last year.  I won't complain too much, though, as the nomination is offset by the films I generally expected to find, and recognition has been given to several unexpected (and deserving folks).  Frankly, I'm of the opinion that it was a largely mediocre film year.  Sure, there were quite a few solid dramas, but very little that seemed visionary or tremendously exciting.  In general, the directors and actors we expect good things from followed through on our expectations, and there was much to like but not enough (in my opinion) to love. Lincoln, for example, is the big winner here.  Spielberg's film leads the pack with 12 nominations, with Life of Pi trailing just behind at 11.  Pleasant surprises include big love for Amour and the tiny, interesting (but a bit overrated) Beasts of the Southern Wild.  The snubs?  No Best Picture or Director nods for the critically adored and beautiful Moonrise Kingdom and The Master, no director nods for Tarantino or Bigelow, a shut out on John Hawkes and Marion Cotillard, and Leo is ignored again.

Ah well, time for me to go tally up my League points.  We'll see what happens when the Oscar telecast airs on February 24.

The full list of nominees is after the jump.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The 35 Most Anticipated Films of 2013 pt. 2

16. Only Lovers Left Alive (TBA)
Directed By: Jim Jarmusch 
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, John Hurt 
One-Sentence Reason: Though Michael Fassbender was replaced by the Loki, Tilda Swinton as a vampire cannot be ignored.

17. Twelve Years a Slave (TBA)
Directed By:  Steve McQueen
Starring:  Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender, 
Brad Pitt, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson, Quvenzhane Wallis 
One-Sentence Reason: McQueen and Fassbender join forces again,
 this time with a period setting and a massive cast.

18. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For  (10/4)
Directed By: Robert Rodriguez/Frank Miller 
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Clive Owen, Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, etc. 
One-Sentence Reason: That still is from the first Sin City, let's all admire its terrible noir beauty.

19. Labor Day  (TBA)
Directed By: Jason Reitman
Starring: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Tobey Maguire, James Van Der Beek 
One-Sentence Reason: I trust Reitman to deliver a tonally unique comedy.

20. Side Effects (2/8)
Directed By: Steven Soderbergh 
Starring: Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum, Jude Law 
One-Sentence Reason: The thriller is supposed to be Soderbergh's last theatrical film. 
Let's hope that's not true.

21. Man of Steel (6/14)
Directed By: Zack Snyder
Starring: Henry Cavill, Russell Crowe, Michael Shannon, Amy Adams, Diane Lane 
One-Sentence Reason: Well, with Snyder at the helm it's at least bound to be a visual stunner, right?

22.  The Wolf of Wall Street (TBA)
Directed By: Martin Scorsese
Starring:  Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey
One-Sentence Reason: Scorsese and DiCaprio make a run for another set of Oscar noms.

23. Kick-Ass 2 (6/28)
Directed By: Jeff Wadlow 
Starring:  Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Chloe Grace Moretz, Jim Carrey, Jon Leguizamo
One-Sentence Reason: If only to see how they'll deal with a now even more precocious Chloe Moretz.

24. Snowpiercer (TBA)
Directed By: Joon Ho-Bong 
Starring:  Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Alison Pill
One-Sentence Reason:  The emerging concept art is promising, as is the mix of people involved.

 25. Anchorman: The Legend Continues (12/20)
Directed By: Adam McKay 
Starring: Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, Kristen Wiig, Christina Applegate 
One-Sentence Reason: I love lamp.

26. I'm So Excited (TBA)
Directed By: Pedro Almodovar 
Starring:   Paz Vega, Penelope Cruz, Antonio Banderas
One-Sentence Reason: The teaser trailer suggests the colorful, comedic, campy Almodovar of old.

27. Now You See Me  (6/7)
Directed By:  Louis Leterrier
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Morgan Freeman, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Michael Caine
One-Sentence Reason: Magician Robin Hood bank robbers and why is Jesse Eisenberg's hair so shaggy?

28. Before Midnight (TBA)
Directed By: Richard Linklater
Starring:  Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke
One-Sentence Reason: The closing of a trilogy, the end of a long conversation.

29. Pacific Rim (7/13)
Directed By: Guillermo Del Toro 
Starring: Idris Elba, Charlie Hunnam, Ron Perlman 
One-Sentence Reason: A big, heaping lump of scrap metal that could be a new Avatar or the next Battleship. 

30. The  Grandmaster
Directed By:  Wong Kar Wai
Starring: Tony Leung, Ziyi Zhang  
One-Sentence Reason: Because we've waited long enough already, 
anything will be better than My Blueberry Nights.

31. Spring Breakers (3/5)
Directed By: Harmony Korine
Starring:  James Franco, Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens
One-Sentence Reason: Because if Korine is on the scene, it should be a disturbing kind of trash.

32. Elysium (8/13)
Directed By: Neill Blomkamp 
Starring:  Matt Damon, Jodie Foster
One-Sentence Reason:  What happens when District 9 director Blomkamp actually has a budget?

34. The World's End  (10/13)
Directed By: Edgar Wright 
Starring:  Simon Pegg, Nick Frost
One-Sentence Reason: The three aforementioned guys, together again.

35. Mood Indigo (TBA)
Directed By: Michel Gondry 
Starring: Audrey Tautou 
One-Sentence Reason: Delightfully quirky Gondry makes a romance
 with the woman who played the delightfully quirky Amelie.

Honorable Mentions/Givens: Iron Man 3, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The 35 Most Anticipated Films of 2013 pt. 1

1. The Great Gatsby (5/23)
Directed By: Baz Luhrmann
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire
One-Sentence Reason:  It was on the list last year, and Baz Luhrmann 
knows how to make a big, glittering, old Hollywood spectacle. 

2. The Place Beyond the Pines (3/29)
Directed By: Derek Cianfrance
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ray Liotta
One-Sentence Reason:  An atmospheric looking crime saga with Gosling in 
badass mode and a Suicide song in the trailer ("Che"): hell yes. 

3. Stoker (3/1)
Directed By: Chan-Wook Park
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode
One-Sentence Reason: Chan Wook-Park hasn't let us down yet,
 and his English language debut looks nothing but ferocious.
4. To the Wonder (4/12)
Directed By:Terrence Malick
Starring: Rachel McAdams, Ben Affleck, Javier Bardem, Olga Kurylenko
One-Sentence Reason:  Because I'm still talking about Tree of Life like it came out yesterday.

5. Nymphomaniac (TBA)
Directed By: Lars Von Trier

Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgard, Willem Dafoe, Shia LaBeouf 

One-Sentence Reason:  Admit it, even if you hate Von Trier, you want to know how he's going to pull this sex-addled story off.

6. Ginger & Rosa (3/15)
Directed By: Sally Potter

Starring: Elle Fanning, Alice Englert, Annette Bening, Christina Hendricks

One-Sentence Reason:  Sally Potter's style, 1960's London milieu. 

7. This is the End (6/14)
Directed By: Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg

Starring: Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Paul Rudd,
 Emma Watson, Jason Segel, Michael Cera, etc

One-Sentence Reason: A meta-fiction starring a bromantic all-star line-up and 
brought to you by the very two men who lived Superbad.

8. Only God Forgives (TBA)
Directed By: Nicolas Winding Refn

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas

One-Sentence Reason:  Gosling reunites with his Drive director,
 moves to Bangkok, kickboxes. 

9. The Bling Ring (TBA)
Directed By: Sofia Coppola

Starring:  Emma Watson, Leslie Mann, Taissa Farmiga

One-Sentence Reason: Perhaps the most face-value story-driven film 
Coppola has worked on since The Virgin Suicides, it will be interesting
 to see how she handles hacker teenagers.  

10. Star Trek: Into Darkness (5/23)
Directed By: J.J. Abrams

Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Benedict Cumberbatch

One-Sentence Reason:  We all just want to live long and prosper.

11. The Zero Theorem (TBA)
Directed By: Terry Gilliam

Starring: Matt Damon, Ben Whishaw, Tilda Swinton, Christoph Waltz, David Thewlis

One-Sentence Reason:  A Gilliam film is always a gamble, but his imagination
 is one worth taking a chance on.

12. Inside Llewyn Davis (2/13?)
Directed By: The Coen Brothers

Starring: Garrett Hedlund, Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman

One-Sentence Reason:  The Coens take on the 1960's folk music scene, 
continue their relationship with the family Flynn and cast the dude from Tron: Legacy. 

13. Gravity (10/18)
Directed By: Alfonso Cuaron

Starring: George Cooney, Sandra Bullock

One-Sentence Reason:  At this point? Because the anticipation 
has been building for about two years.

14. Monsters University (6/21)
Directed By: Dan Scanlon

Starring: (voices of) Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi

One-Sentence Reason:  I love a movie that uses college as a setting, 
I love a Pixar film, I love monsters. Done.

15. Her (TBA)
Directed By: Spike Jonze
Starring: Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Joaquin Phoenix, Samantha Morton
One-Sentence Reason: There aren't nearly enough feature length films 
from this idiosyncratic director.

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