Friday, September 28, 2012

WUTHERING HEIGHTS

Well thanks to a sneak preview, courtesy of BAM, I finally got to see Andrea Arnold's (loose) adaptation of Emily Bronte's classic story: Wuthering Heights - the doomed love story about Catherine Earnshaw and her mysterious adopted brother Heathcliff. And I don't use the term: “loose” simply because Heathcliff is black in this adaptation. Enough hoopla has already been made of that even before the film hit the festival circuit last year. Long before this version came out there’s been tons of speculation of Heathcliff’s ethnicity from gypsy to moor. The problem with Arnold’s version is that the ambiguous race thing gets distracting at times because it becomes more about race than it does the love story (although there is one interesting line in the film - "your mother must have been an African queen and your father a Chinese emperor”). Now...it’s been a while since I've read Wuthering Heights but I don't remember lines like; "Fuck you, you cunts" and I don't remember the Hindley character (Catherine's brother) being a modern day skinhead/football hooligan. That’s part of the problem with this adaptation of Wuthering Heights - It feels like a modern day remake trapped inside of a remake that’s trying to stay true to the original that’s trapped inside of a whole 'nother jungle fever/Othello/tragic interracial Romeo & Juliet love story with mumbly dialogue (sounds like a mouthful, huh?). I mean really tho, watching this kinda made me think; "is this is Wuthering Heights or Othello?" Now this isn't the first time a director has mixed modern day elements in to a period piece (Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette & Derek Jarman's Jubilee come to mind) so I'm not trying to crucify Arnold for doing something that other filmmakers have already been doing for decades. It just seriously didn't feel like I was in the 19th century while watching this. There are a few moments but overall it felt like the story took place today and the characters were just dressed up in dated clothes (which was my main complaint about Coppola's Marie Antoinette). In Arnold's version, almost 60% percent of the story focuses on Healthcliff & Catherine as kids and huge chunks of the rest of the story are left out (literary purists will probably be furious at this adaptation). This is a film that's been haunting me for over a year ever since I overslept through the screening at Toronto last year. As many of you who read this blog know, I'm an Andrea Arnold fan (mostly due to Red Road and her music selection in Fish Tank). For some reason I was expecting a masterpiece (or a misunderstood masterpiece) but what I got instead was a problematic, flawed film with a few beautiful elements (that we'll get in to later). Dammit, I wanted to love this. Chris Funderberg, who warned me about this, wasn't lying in his Sundance write-up. This IS a rough one to sit through- The lingering shots of bugs & mud started to get on my nerves and Its very difficult to understand what the actors are saying half the time due to a combination of mumbling & whispering on top of the thick accents.

At the Q&A after the screening, a silly & jetlagged Andrea Arnold brought up an interesting/reasonable point in reference to all the people who complained about her re-working and/or leaving out so many things from the book. Arnold's reasoning was that the original Wuthering Heights story is so complex and layered that it’s impossible to put all of that in to one film. I guess that’s Understandable (even if that didn’t seem to be a problem for all the other countless film adaptations of Wuthering Heights in the past). The problem I have with her saying that is the film is 130 minutes long, which is more than enough time to tell the bulk of the famous love story between Heathcliff & Catherine (in my opinion). It’s just strange that the adaptation of such a wordy book has hardly any WORDS in this new film version…you know what I mean? I would understand the reasoning/excuse from Arnold if the film wasn’t full of so much void space, dialogue-less moments or lingering/long unedited shots of bugs, animals, hills and the sky. Maybe if there wasn’t so much focus on those things, that some may consider unimportant, she could have used her 130 minutes to focus more on the story. So I’m not buying it. But at the same time, I don’t think that’s exactly what Arnold wanted to do so even if you don’t like this film you can’t exactly call it a total failure. Even though this isn’t the best thing she's done, I think it’s what she's been working for since the beginning of her career. The handheld/P.O.V. perspective that we saw in Wasp is magnified times 10 in Wuthering Heights. The element of the unspoken/conveying something without dialogue that we saw in Red Road was taken to another level in Wuthering Heights. Arnold’s focus/fascination with youth, seen in Fish Tank, is magnified in this adaptation of Wuthering Heights as the majority of the film focuses on Catherine & Heathcliff as children. On a side note, Wuthering Heights may make some of you uncomfortable as there’s tons of serious sexual tension between kids in this (there’s one moment where young Catherine is looking young Heathcliff up & down while biting her bottom lip like she’s sizing him up to make out). Other Arnold staples, like her love for animals, are found in the film as well (although I will say that if you are a hardcore animal lover you may wanna turn your head at certain parts). And with the exception of the song in the end (which felt very out of place), this is her first score-less feature unless you count the sounds of the wind and tree branches scratching up against the windows. Seriously, sometimes it felt like Arnold intentionally picked the windiest days to shoot some of the scenes. It’s like she put the boom mic right up to the wind and just hit record on extra loud. Given the film’s vibe & ambience, I wouldn’t have been opposed to a brian eno/cliff martinez-style score.


I AM an Andrea Arnold defender and there are a few things in this film that I liked. I did enjoy the cinematography overall (but after a while it starts to get a little droning and painful...I mean CUT already). If Arnold wanted to make a book of images & stills from this film and put it out I'd buy it without question. Somehow they managed to make depressing shit like endless rain, grey weather and heavy fog look beautiful...


On the other hand, the cinematography may make some dizzy after a while. The camera work is a little too free sometimes and you could get lost.

This adaptation of Wuthering Heights had..."something". Like, there was an honest attempt at trying to do something different but there was too much emphasis on the atmosphere, ambiance and "look" of the film and not enough attention to anything else. Behind all that thick fog is a pretty empty film.

There's something attractive and fascinating about this film’s cold, isolated, up-close & personal feel that I can’t completely put in to words. You just kinda have to see it to get what I mean. The sound of the wind that’s present through most of the film along with all the shots of the foggy mountains reminded me Valhalla Rising (minus the violence) and I like that kind of atmosphere a lot these days. For further examples check out; The Spirit Of The Beehive, The Nest, la Cienaga, Solaris (specifically the first 10-15 minutes), Japon or Once Upon A Time In Anatolia. The only difference is that these films pull that style off much better than Wuthering Heights. It’s more of a personal preference and I wouldn’t waste my time trying to defend it. I understand if people don’t like that stuff. Unfortunately cinematography and atmosphere is about all I can come up with in terms of things that I really liked about the film (and that’s still not enough). There aren’t any standout performances and there doesn’t seem to be much of a traditional script to comment on. Sure the young Heathcliff & Catherine do an ok job of expressing their fascination and love for one another, but then other times they have no chemistry at all (we all know that chemistry between actors is KEY in a film that doesn’t have a lot of dialogue). I guess if you haven’t figured it out by now - approach this film with caution.

There were just too many clichés that didn’t need to be there like the interracial love angle and the intolerant racist community that hated Heathcliff. Had the casting choices been different (possibly professional actors) and the racial angle been taken out, Arnold could have focused more on the angst and pain in the Wuthering Heights story. There was clearly an attempt at showing that pain of losing the one you love in the last 45 minutes of the film, but due to the actor’s poor/flat performances (especially the actor who played the older Heathcliff) it just didn’t work. I understand Arnold was trying to approach this adaptation differently, but it ended up backfiring. How many film adaptations have there been of Wuthering Heights already? It just makes things worse when unnecessary clichés are thrown in to a remake (which is kinda cliché in itself). We seem to be in an interesting era as far as cinema is concerned. Since the start of this new decade, some of the most talked about films have the most flaws and get the most boos yet manage to bring up more discussion and dialogue among film lovers than perfect/flawless masterpieces like The White Ribbon. Think about it - Uncle Boonmee, Black Venus, Tree Of Life, Post Tenebras Lux, Road To Nowhere, To The Wonder (which will probably split humanity right down the middle just like Tree Of Life did), etc. Even early "best of the decade" candidates like Once Upon A Time In Anatolia have drawn some serious haters. Just like Wuthering Heights, all these films could easily be described as tough or difficult to sit through yet they have "something". They bring out emotions in people (even if its intense hatred). These films have the same amount of haters as they do fans and both sides have valid arguments that make for endless debate & conversation. That’s a good thing as far as I'm concerned. I've had more fun writing about and discussing recent films I don’t like (Road To Nowhere) or am conflicted about (Tree Of Life & Wuthering Heights) than I do recent films I love unconditionally. It feels like I’ve either written about or mentioned the Tree Of Life on PINNLAND EMPIRE more than any other film in the last year and a half. It makes me wish certain directors, which could be described as "tough" or "challenging" like David Lynch, Lodge Kerrigan, the old Lynne Ramsay or the 2002-2007 Gus Van Sant were present right now.
In closing, I'll say it once again - approach Wuthering Heights, which opens at the film forum on Friday, with caution.




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Sunday, September 23, 2012

GERRY: BORING MASTERPIECE (FOR SHARON)

Gerry, Gus Van Sant's improvisational/non-scripted film about two friends named "Gerry" (played by Matt Damon & Casey Affleck) that get lost in the desert trying to find "the thing," was the starting point of his best period of work. Between 2002’s Gerry through 2007’s Paranoid Park, with two other great films in between (2003's Elephant and 2005's Last Days), Gus Van Sant wasn’t the Good Will Hunting/Finding Forester director people were starting to get use to. Film snobs like me are always quick to call an “indie” filmmaker a sellout at the first sign of them making a film that can be enjoyed by more than 10 people. When Van Sant took a break from his style seen in earlier films like Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy & My Own Private Idaho and made award winning/money making films like Good Will Hunting I imagine many people slapped him with the "sellout" label. Usually when filmmakers abandon their indie roots they rarely look back (David Gordon Green, Kevin Smith, John Singleton, etc). But to our surprise Van Sant did the reverse, tasted mainstream success (including a few Oscar & MTV movie award nominations) and went back to his low budget, indie roots. Like I already said before, Gerry was totally improvised, had long continuous uninterrupted shots and to this day is probably the most experimental thing he's done. Furthermore, it’s the most low-key and least preachy of the three films in the loose trilogy it belongs too (Elephant and Gerry being the other two in the trilogy). All three films; Gerry, Elephant & Last Days are based on real life deaths centered around young people. While Elephant was a loose retelling of the Columbine shootings and Last Days was a loose retelling on the final days of Kurt Cobain, Gerry is based on the real life story of two friends that went for a hike in the desert, got lost, almost starved and one of the friends ended up killing the other one. Compared to Columbine and Kurt Cobain's suicide, a random story about two guys who get lost in the desert seems like pretty small news (no offense). Ironically, Gerry kinda got the same treatment upon its release - while Elephant & Last Days were nominated for all kinds of awards (Elephant won best picture at Cannes), Gerry was kinda forgotten about pretty quickly. Maybe there shoulda been some kind of a transitional film between the more traditional Finding Forester and the experimental, Bela Tarr influenced Gerry. Perhaps some fans weren’t ready for such a radical change.

similar shots used in Van Sant's 'Gerry' (2002), 'Elephant' (2003) & 'Last Days' (2005)

I imagine some of you are asking what the “thing” is I mentioned at the beginning of this write-up that brings Damon & Affleck to the desert in the first place. In the first twenty minutes of Gerry, Affleck & Damon keep mentioning the “thing” (a clear example of the improvisation in the film). They never get specific but I imagine its some kind of national landmark, hot spring, totem or some kind of outdoorsy attraction for hikers.


If you're gonna do improvisational films (or a film with no script) sometimes the best thing to do is cast real life friends with genuine chemistry like Damon & Affleck (or at least actors who’ve worked with each other on a regular basis). All the dialogue spoken between Affleck & Damon in Gerry, which at times IS a bit too mumbly, familiar and inside jokey, still seems real & genuine. There's even a quick moment when Affleck is clearly holding in laughter yet Van Sant (Affleck's close friend and next door neighboor) keeps the scene in. But still, this isn’t a film about two friends dicking around in the desert. There's genuine moments all throughout Gerry where our two lost main characters express fear, despair, dementia and even hallucinations towards the end. The first third of Gerry is a little confusing because although Damon & Affleck are very lost without any water or food, it doesn’t seem to faze them whatsoever. But after a couple of days go by, reality sets in and they take things seriously until the final moments of the film when one of them dies. Although this is based a true story, a common analysis among fans of Gerry are that Damon & Affleck are the same person (ala Ed Norton & Brad Pitt in Fight Club). *SPOILER ALERT* In Gerry, Damon is pretty much the stronger one while Affleck is essentially the weaker one (there’s even a scene when Affleck starts to cry out of frustration and Damon gets upset and tells him to stop). In the end Damon survives while Affleck dies. It’s many people’s belief that when Damon strangles Affleck in the end, he’s killing his weaker side in order to survive. This scene rings familiar to the final moments in Van Sant's Last Days after Blake/Cobain commits suicide and his ghostly self rises up and leaves his dead human body behind.


To some, Gerry is a sleep aid. There's really no fancy way around denying it. It’s boring. A misunderstood & boring masterpiece but…key word: boring. Far from the Bourne Identity or Gone Baby Gone. Let’s just say this isn’t a date movie. ...Or is it? To somewhat socially inept clueless movie nerds like myself this IS a date movie. This film holds a lot of personal sentiment to the emperor of PINNLAND EMPIRE. I took my now-girlfriend to see this at the Museum Of The Moving Image almost exactly a year ago today and she still kept me around for a year (love you, baby). To people with a better understanding of film, have a long attention span, don’t easily fall asleep or love The Brown Bunny (there’s many similarities between the two films), Gerry is an underrated masterpiece that needs a second chance. I'd raise my eyebrow if someone said this was one of the 50 best films of the decade or something like that, but it is on the short list. Although this film is kind of under the radar it’s pretty easy to come by. Maybe give it a chance after a few cups of coffee.




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Sunday, September 16, 2012

TIFF 2012 HIGHLIGHT #6: POST TENEBRAS LUX (BEST MOVIE OF TIFF)

"Reason will intervene as little as possible" - Carlos Reygadas

Within the first two scenes of Post Tenebras Lux, Carlos Reygadas' latest film that would make Andrei Tarkovsky proud, I was immediately reminded of Uncle Boonmee, To The Wonder (which I'd just seen the day before) and The Tree Of Life. In one of the film's earliest scenes we see an animated glowing red demon lurking through a house at night and right away you're reminded of the ghostly red-eyed figure at the beginning of Uncle Boonmee who lurks around in that same slow creepy way. The heightened sounds of the crickets, wind, tree branches and other night time sounds are also reminiscent of not just Uncle Boonmee but Apichatpong Weerasethakul's overall style. The comparison to Terrence Malick, which many critics made after seeing Post Tenebras Lux at Cannes, is also pretty understandable. After all, Reygadas' new film does deal with extreme stream of consciousness centered around a family in the same surreal/dreamy style as The Tree Of Life minus the loud classical music. In my opinion it actually takes that exploration into the stream of consciousness to the next level. The non linear style not only bounces back & forth between what might be the present and what might be the future but there are many moments that'll have you scratching your head and/or contemplating long after it’s over (this film has been stuck in my head for the last four days). Post Tenebras Lux also has some of the same dreamy elements as Alexander Sokurov's work (specifically Moloch & Taurus). But all Tree Of Life/Uncle Boonmee/Sokurov comparisons aside, this is still very much a Carlos Reygadas film with his own ideas. Before the screening at TIFF, lead actress; Nathalia Acevado advised the audience to feel the film rather than try to understand it right away. May sound like pretentious crap to some of you but after watching this I couldn't think of any better advice. I don't mean to sound so dramatic but Post Tenebras Lux, which does have a plot, feels more like an actual dream than any David Lynch film could imagine being with the exception of Inland Empire and Mulholland Drive (and this is coming from a hardcore David Lynch fan). It’s as if Reygadas finally discovered a way to record dreams, daydreams & random thoughts and project them on to the screen. It’s obvious many of the thoughts and feelings in Post Tenebras Lux belong to Reygadas himself and the fact that he cast his own children and used his actual house in the film (he developed the first ideas for Post Tenebras Lux while constructing his home) just kinda confirms the personal feel. The opening scene where we see the little girl (Reygadas' real life daughter) running and playing in the field looks like a personal home video rather than an actual movie...



Post Tenebras Lux                                                                                Uncle Boonmee
My only worry when it comes to Post Tenebras Lux is that although I do think it’s a frontrunner for best film of the year (along with The Avengers which couldn't be any more opposite) more people will be turned off by it than turned on which is a shame because this felt like a masterpiece right away. If I told you this film featured scenes of bath house orgies, a dog being viciously beaten, blood raining from the sky and a man literally ripping off his own head (and I assure you, all of these things happen in the film) you'd probably be either turned off or get the wrong impression. But trust me when I say you shouldn’t. I guess the best I can do is to reiterate what Nathalia Acevado told us which is to feel rather than try to understand it so much.


Post Tenebras Lux centers around a family (Juan, Nathalia and they're two children) living in a beautiful modern house in rural Mexico. Juan seems to have a temper (yet he doesn't take it out on his wife or kids) and belongs to some kind of a 12 step anger management group. He’s also having marital problems highlighted by sexual frustrations with Nathalia (in one awkward scene they go to a bath house together for sexual pleasure and in another scene they have an argument after Juan makes a strange announcement that he wants to have anal sex with her later). Eventually Juan has a near-fatal encounter with another member of his anger management group (or is the encounter fatal? The film is intentionally vague about that). Post Tenebras Lux deals with elements of redemption, good versus evil and obvious stuff I already mentioned like anger and how it can either control or take you over, family, marriage and dreams. Some great films have the ability to make one think of elements in their own life and Post Tenebras Lux kinda did that with me. Living far out in a rural area away from New York City (although with plenty of modern technology at my disposal) is a random fantasy that pops in and out of my head from time to time. There's this belief in the back of my head that living in a nice house away from the big city, like our main characters in the film do, that all the problems in the world will be greatly diminished and I'd be in paradise. Clearly that's ridiculous and Post Tenebras Lux helps to emphasize this ridiculousness by showing the anger issues, marital issues and the dangerous encounter Juan has. Simply running off to live far away from things doesn't make life perfect. And I really can’t mention enough about how much this film feels like a genuine dream. The most noticeable element of Post Tenebras Lux is the look of the film. Reygadas intentionally distorts things with an almost blurry/double vision POV perspective with all four corners of the screen having this watery effect to it. As one critic already pointed out: imagine watching a movie with beer goggles on although not as distracting or difficult to see through.


A major issue some people had with Post Tenebras Lux when it showed at Cannes (where it was booed) was that they felt the film came off like a bunch of half explored/half thought up ideas thrown together. I can kinda see why someone would say that off of one initial viewing but to me Post Tenebras Lux kinda came off like a beautiful sketchbook from an amazingly talented artist. And not some cheap notepad with doodles on every page. I'm talking about one of those nice hardcover art store sketchbooks used by people like Robert Crumb. There's a reason sketchbooks from famous artists are sold for tons of money (if you remember in the Robert Crumb documentary his sketchbooks were auctioned off for so much money that it allowed him to move to France and live). Having a sketchbook is something I'm familiar with as I was an Architect major and sketching, although I wasn't good at it, is a huge part of the curriculum. Once again the film has me dipping in to my own personal life (architecture). A sketchbook may seem like a bunch of random drawings from page to page but when you look closer you see a lot of the same elements, figures and techniques on most of the pages that tie everything together. That's what Post Tenebras Lux is to me. The glowing red demon we see at the beginning of the film seems out of place at first but then we see it again towards the end. A lot of the scenes in the film have that same blurry and disorienting look to it. The man ripping his own head off seems random at first but it’s clearly a scene about redemption and a comment on anger and how it can control you. Sure there's other random elements throughout the film (that all carry some important meaning as random as they may seem) but what makes it grounded at the same time is that it does have a very personal, semi-autobiographical plot. Like I said in my To The Wonder write-up (which in my opinion felt like a first cousin to Post Tenebras Lux) - the majority of people who end up seeing this film are probably somewhat familiar with Carlos Reygadas so you should kinda know what to expect without this review I just wrote. True, this is his most experimental film but it still has elements from all his previous work (especially his last two features). When the credits rolled I heard everything from: "what the hell did I just watch?" to "wow, I think that's his best film".



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Thursday, September 13, 2012

TIFF 2012 HIGHLIGHT #5: SPRING BREAKERS

Harmony Korine is a lot smarter than people give him credit for. He may never appeal to the widest of movie audiences but he does know how to make the kind of movie that sounds too good to pass up. Just listen to plot of Spring Breakers - Three young girls rob a chicken shack with a realistic looking water gun (and a hammer) to get money to go on spring break in Miami. The robbery turns out to be a success, they go to spring break and have the time of their lives but end up getting arrested after they’re caught with a bunch of cocaine on them at a party. To the girls' surprise they end up getting bailed out by local drug kingpin/rapper: "Alien" (played by James Franco in an amazingly awesome performance) out of the kindness of his heart. As it turns out Alien is just a nice guy and has no ulterior motive for bailing the girls out other than wanting them to stay, hang out and have a good time with him. Due to Alien's gangster lifestyle some of the girls are frightened of the world they're being exposed too (guns, drugs, strippers, thugs) and over time two of the girls leave and go home (one actually gets shot in the arm from Alien's drug rival played by Gucci Maine). But the two girls who do end up staying with Alien are loyal and gung-ho. Together they decide to retaliate against Gucci Maine in a Scarface style shootout finale. There's a cameo from professional wrestler Jeff Jarrett, James Franco sings a Brittany Spears Cover and performs fellatio on a gun. This film will also probably get mentioned in the same breath as Pussy Riot because the girls wear a similar ski-mask style outfit towards the end of the film (but if I’m not mistaken Spring Breakers was in post production long before the Pussy Riot business). Harmony Korine fan or not, are you honestly gonna tell me you aren't the least bit curious to see this after what I just told you?? Even train wrecks (which some people may consider this film to be) can be fun to watch, right? Oh and just to be clear I don't consider Spring Breakers a train wreck at all. I thought it was great. At first you may think the person responsible for such a ridiculous sounding plot must be insane but in my opinion this was all carefully crafted by Korine. And when you actually watch the film and how it was executed you'll see it was done with care and wasn't just randomly slapped together in an effort to get some cheap shock value. There's a maturity in Korine's post-Julien Donkey Boy work that gets better and better with each film.


If you're gonna see this movie for anything (or need another selling point) see it for James Franco and his show stealing, K-Fed/Riff-Raff inspired performance (I'm not a fan of Franco, K-Fed & Riff-Raff, but the fact that I get to laugh at all them rolled in to one character makes me happy). His sinister yet goofy platinum filled grin will be embedded in your mind long after the movie is over. And sadly I have to report there is no Werner Herzog cameo. Actually, had Werner Herzog been cast in this movie it would put Spring Breakers on a level of awesomeness that no one would be able to comprehend so maybe that was a good thing. These days with the rise of all that random cartoon network/Tim & Eric-esque humor, Harmony Korine's style seems to be a little more accepted & appreciated by people than it was in the 90's (I guess that makes Gummo & Julien Donkey Boy ahead of their time?). Having James Franco as well as Skrillex involved in this movie may expose Korine to slightly wider audience.

This film isn’t without a few faults I have to nitpick at. For some reason I’ve been extra critical of my current favorite directors and their most recent work these days (Lynne Ramsay/We Need To Talk About Kevin, Todd Solondz/Dark Horse, Michael Mann/Public Enemies, etc) and Harmony Korine is no exception. I have two beefs with Spring Breakers. First is the repetitive dialogue - For a 100 minute movie there’s about 20 minutes worth of an actual script in the film. The characters constantly say the same lines over & over to point where it gets really annoying. I enjoyed Spring Breaks a lot but part of me felt like it coulda easily been 30-45 minutes long (then the other part of me quickly checks that negative part and I’m reminded of how awesome Spring Breakers is). With the exception of Trash Bumpers, Korine has been doing nothing but short films for the last couple of years. Is he just having a hard time adjusting back to the feature length format after all these years of doing shorts? My next issue is the soundtrack. This is more of a personal problem, but whatever. I don't like dubstep music and Spring Breakers is chock full of that shit courtesy of Skrillex. But what's weird is that it goes perfectly with the movie so that creates a strange paradox for me. I also hope Harmony Korine is done with his obvious parodying of materialistic, gangsta culture now. We've seen it in his Cat Power Music video and his last two short films. Don't get me wrong it was fine in Spring Breakers but at this point to continue down that path is like beating a dead horse. We get it: mixing predominantly "white" things with stereotypically "black" things is ironic and funny. Let’s move on.
But putting all that aside, I’m sure you guys reading this had already made this film a priority on your must-see lists half way in to reading this write-up.

SPRING BREAK!




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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

TIFF 2012 HIGHLIGHT #4: TO THE WONDER

This movie must be special because I actually liked it right away. For a (recent) Terrence Malick movie that means something. It took me a couple of years to even warm up to The New World (and I still haven’t fully let go of the fact that it tries to legitimize a romance between a grown man and a 14 year old girl) and it took me a few months to like The Tree Of Life. To The Wonder isn't Malick's first time exploring romance or love in his work but this is the first time he’s made a film pretty much solely based on the subject (along with elements of religion, faith, etc). At this point I imagine anyone who ends up seeing To The Wonder has more than likely seen Tree Of Life (or at least heard stuff about it) so you should know what to expect when you go in to this. This film is very similar to Tree Of Life (although a bit shorter in length). It has more than its share of scenes where we see characters playing in and wandering through tall fields of grass, whispery/poetic voiceover, people frolicking on a beach and standing far apart from one another while looking off in to the distance trying to pretend they don't notice each other. Actually, you could almost say it takes place in the same disoriented, poetic, mumbly universe as Sean Penn's character in The Tree Of Life. The same thing I said about PT Anderson's The Master applies here: if you're a Terrence Malick fan (especially his work starting from Thin Red Line on) chances are you'll enjoy this movie. If you aren't a Terrence Malick fan and/or had issues with his last film it’s probably best if you don't watch this and save yourself the aggravation. I liked this very much but if you've read everything I’ve written on Terrence Malick so far (minus The Thin Red Line piece for the pink smoke) you'll see that I'm not above pointing out his faults and being honest with you about him. There's hardly any direct dialogue spoken between the characters, Malick starts a scene in mid-conversation and cuts the scene off in mid sentence (although you're given enough information to know what's going on). The up-close (almost) "jazzy" camera work might annoy the fuck outta some people and some moments in the film DO actually come off like a student film directed by someone in their early twenties (the only problem people may have with that is Terrence Malick is almost 70 which may be unacceptable to some).
Now that I've spent all this time pointing out some of the not-so good qualities, why don't I talk about what I DID like about it - I liked the poetic style of the film and I like that a director with the style of Malick made a romantic story like this. Roll your eyes all you want but that's just my thing these days. There's plenty of recent films about a relationship being put to the test or on the verge of ending (Blue Valentine, A Separation, etc). At this point we get it already: couples have a hard time communicating, they fight over pointless shit, want different things, and there's those scenes where they have a crazy relationship-ending argument at some point in the film. You can only write that kinda stuff so much before it gets tiring. Malick handled things differently. I like that he used less straightforward dialogue than any other film he's done and still managed to convey the feelings he was trying to get across like love, tension, miscommunication that feeling of being lost, etc. I also enjoyed the cinematography and Javier Bardem's presence...
If you're anticipating this film as much as I was, reading all the reviews from Venice and checking up on the IMDB page on a regular basis (maybe even lowering yourself to read the idiotic IMDB message board discussions) allow me to clear some things up - yes, quite a few actors got the axe. There's no sign of Rachel Weisz, Jessica Chastain, Amanda Peet or Michael Sheen. All their scenes were cut. And contrary to what some say, Ben Affleck IS very much in most of the film. Rachel McAdams' appearance borders on being an extended cameo as opposed to a co-starring role. And no, this film isn't more experimental than Tree Of Life. It’s pretty much the same exact style minus the CGI dinosaurs.
At its core, To The Wonder is pretty much about a strained relationship between a man; "Neil" (Ben Affleck) and his wife "Marina" (Olga Kurylenko). Shortly after moving from Paris with her daughter to live with Neil in Oklahoma, Marina has a hard time adjusting to life in boring middle America, doesn't know how to fully express how she’s feeling, so her sadness, combined with Affleck’s inability to open up, adds a huge amount of tension to their relationship to the point where they push apart from each other for a while. Marina goes back to Paris temporarily due to her visa expiring and while she’s away Neil rekindles an old flame (Rachel Mcadams) that seems to be doomed from the start. Neil & Marina eventually reconcile but go right back to pushing away from each other and fighting shortly after (there's quite a few scenes of them in the same house together in different rooms avoiding each other). The other story within To The Wonder deals with a commonly explored character in film: The priest who's losing his faith and doesn't wanna hear people's problems anymore in the form of Father Quintana (Javier Barden). Neil & Marina seek some kind of spiritual guidance from Quintana (at separate times) but just like with everyone else he’s empty inside. Because Bardem is such a great actor (and in my opinion was great in this) he makes the Father Quintana character pretty intriguing and its probably my favorite part of the film. But to some, his performance may come off like a mumbly confused guy wandering around town, scowling and thinking deep thoughts to himself. The ending left a lot to be desired as it suffered from the same problem as The Tree Of Life - it could have ended at any random moment in the final 10-15 minutes and it wouldn’t have made a bit of difference (hey, I love the movie but I couldn't look myself in the mirror if I tried to pretend it didn't have any issues). At the end of the day To The Wonder really comes down to preference and how much Terrence Malick one can tolerate. It’s just as easy to love this film as it is to be cynical towards it. Personally, I enjoyed it very much and would definitely watch it again.

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TIFF 2012 HIGHLIGHT #3: THE MASTER

After watching The Master on Saturday, my friend John Cribbs jokingly said that it almost made him want to become a scientologist. Obviously he was joking (I hope) but that statement still holds some weight. Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film isn't exactly the scientology bashing movie that most of us thought it would be (or at least what I thought it would be). Sure it shows some of the bullshit behind the self help belief system known as "the cause" (a belief system clearly based off of dianetics/scientology) and it does hint at things like embezzlement and fraud, but overall I didn't think this film was as critical as it should have/could have been, and it didn't go as deep as it could have gone. Actually it doesn’t make scientology, cults or mindlessly following someone seem so bad. Not to say that Anderson should have made some anti-scientologist propaganda movie but The Master could have been better (I understand that I'm in the minority with this belief but it is what it is). And hey, maybe I set myself up and built up all these expectations for a movie when I shouldn’t have (lord knows I had a lot riding on this and wanted it to be great).
I have other issues with this movie like some of Joaquin Phoenix's mannerisms, the lack of Laura Dern's screen time and the ending, etc. It just lacked soul in a lot of parts. I know some of you reading this just wanna hear that it’s a masterpiece, and it isn’t my intention to ruin this for you guys but overall I was disappointed (although I will probably see this again in the theater). Now - this is the first major exploration in to the world of scientology on the big screen so I do give some credit to Paul Thomas Anderson for taking on the subject (even if he did kind of half-ass it in my opinion). If you're already a fan of Anderson you probably won’t be disappointed, and I imagine there's a lot to be excited about; this is his first film in 5 years, there was some uncertainty as to whether this movie (which passively deals with a touchy subject) would ever get out of post-production hell, and its Anderson & Hoffman's first collaboration in a decade.
However, if you AREN'T a PT Anderson fan (and I've heard some understandable reasons as to why people aren’t) this probably won’t do anything to sway your mind about him. For those of you familiar with his work, The Master is closer in style to There Will Be Blood (with a few dreamy elements from Punch Drunk Love) than anything else. Naturally there's some slight Altman influence (has there even been a PT Anderson film to NOT feature some influence from him?) but The Master is also reminiscent of Kubrick's style as well.

The Master is loosely based on the early days of L. Ron Hubbard and the birth of his self-help/faith based belief system known as dianetics or as it’s called in the film: "The Cause". In the film Joaquin Phoenix plays "Eddie Quell" - a troubled alcoholic drifter with a talent for making homemade liquor. After one of his co-workers drinks too much of it and falls under some kind of alcohol poisoning (he may or may not have died), Eddie, worried he’s gonna get blamed, goes on the run and hides out on a cruise ship that turns out to be under the command of Lancaster Dodd aka "The Master" - a charismatic writer & intellectual who's in the midst of writing his second novel. Dodd is also in the early stages of developing a belief system that he feels will push mankind forward (at the start of the film he already has a small following staying with him on the boat). Naturally there are skeptics of Dodd and his belief system (Dodd's own son being one of them) and some even feel he’s on the verge of creating a cult.
Lancaster Dodd is immediately fascinated by Quell and takes him under his wing (the story is told from the perspective of Quell instead of Lancaster Dodd). Dodd (clearly modeled after L Ron Hubbard) is obviously drawn to someone like Eddie Quell because he represents that kind of insecure, vulnerable, lost soul that a cult leader would prey on. That's really the best I can come up with because other than that his fascination with Eddie Quell is a little weak and underdeveloped in my opinion. I’m a little annoyed at what Anderson chose to criticize about Hubbard in The Master and what he chose to leave out (perhaps he has no choice). There's no mention of Hubbard/Dodd's fraudulent past, the child molestation accusations or the fact that he was pretty much just a science fiction writer who tried to present himself as this higher power.
I almost want to say South Park did a better job at calling out scientology than The Master did (sorry to be so hung on scientology as The Master is about a whole lot more but c'mon - it's the scientology angle that attracts people). Sure the Lancaster Dodd character is a bit transparent at times but overall he doesn't seem like the worst guy in the world when the real person he was based on was pretty terrible. There has yet to be a PT Anderson film since Boogie Nights that hasn’t grabbed a few Oscar/Golden Globe nominations and I’m sure The Master will be no exception (especially in the acting department). And still, The Master isn't without some highlights (a lot of the shots are beautiful, Phoenix is great in the scene where he flips out in the prison cell, and Hoffman has these great little outbursts). Both Hoffman and Amy Adams do a great job and, in my opinion, deserve whatever praise they get. It'ss Joaquin Phoenix that I felt was the most problematic (although not all the time). Certain aspects of his performance bugged me Some of his mannerisms and movements were unnecessary and distracting like he was overdoing it as the loose cannon/tortured soul. Like he was trying too hard to be "different".
Once again I hope I didn't mess up any anticipation for some of you but this is one of those films that people can mindlessly praise (HEY, kinda like scientology) if they don't take a step back and really think about what they just saw. There was a lot of material and meat to work with and I think Anderson left a lot of important shit out. This is just one (awesomely handsome) man's opinion. I know at the end of the day all of you reading this will go see it when it comes out so let me know what you think.

Monday, September 10, 2012

TIFF 2012 HIGHLIGHT #2: SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

If you woulda told me that one of my favorite films at this festival so far was gonna be a romantic comedy starring Bradley Cooper, Chris Tucker and a modern day Robert Deniro (who before I saw this felt he should consider retirement) with more than its share of clichés, I woulda probably laughed at you. I enjoyed the Fighter very much (David O. Russell's last film) but part of me felt he was doing it for a paycheck (or possibly another chance to yet again work with his muse: Mark Wahlberg). It was unlike anything else Russell had done. Outside of The Fighter showing a dysfunctional family (a common thing in Russell's film) there was no sign of incest, existentialism, twisted humor or all the other things commonly associated with his work. But when I read the synopsis and saw the cast of his latest film: Silver Linings Playbook, I was convinced he pulled a “David Gordon Green” and sold the fuck out. But I was wrong. I now think making The Fighter helped Russell get his style across to a more mainstream audience (without compromising his style too much) now that he has the platform to do so thanks to all the attention The Fighter got. In Silver Linings Playbook Bradley Cooper plays; “Pat” a former high school teacher that's recently been diagnosed with bipolar disorder after an incident where he almost beats the man who was having an affair with his wife to death. He’s wound tight, has many quirks beyond his bipolar disorder, doesn't want to take his meds and has pretty much no filter between the shit he thinks and what comes out of his mouth (in a scene where he first meets the love interest, played by Jennifer Lawrence, he bluntly asks; "so, how'd you're husband die?" instead your typical; "nice to meet you"). After a stint in a mental hospital in Baltimore Pat goes back home to Philadelphia to live with his parents: Dolores (Jackie Weaver) and Pat Sr. (Robert Deniro). Early on in the film we come to find out that it was only a matter of time before Pat had some kind of a violent outburst and he’d been holding a lot of shit in for a long time. His wife’s infidelity was just the tipping point. Now that he’s out of the mental hospital he’s trying to get his life back together and reconcile with his wife (who doesn’t really seem to want him back) but things get complicated when Pat meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) - a depressed widow who’s on the verge of losing it. After a few awkward encounters the two form a strange friendship (Jennifer even offers to help Pat get back with his wife) but it slowly turns in to an attraction and Pat has to choose between Jennifer (the woman who really cares about him) or trying to get back with his unfaithful wife who may or may not even want him back (she has a restraining order against him and makes no effort to see him when he gets out of the mental hospital.

Casting Bradley Cooper for this role was an interesting choice. Given David Russell's history working with Mark Wahlberg and the kinda of character Pat is ("the confused crazy guy"), you’d think Wahlberg would be the first choice to play Pat. I actually appreciate that Russell decided to go with someone else even if I was a bit sceptical about Cooper. I didn't think he had it in him to portray someone that's bipolar but he actually did a great job (although Cooper’s portrayal IS more comedic than realistic). His timing and how he plays off the other actors in the movie is great and he’s got plenty of memorable moments and some great one-liners. Chris Tucker also surprised the hell out of me in his supporting role as; “Danny” - Pat’s friend who’s also suffering from some kind of manic/obsessive compulsive disorder. I didn't think he was capable of doing anything outside of making fun of Chinese people (the Rush Hour saga) or weed humor (Friday) but he proved me wrong. Chris Tucker is ok in doses as opposed to an entire movie and Russell sprinkled him throughout the film instead of shoving him down our throats every second like Bret Ratner has been doing since the late 90’s. Robert Deniro also managed to not play his regular one-dimensional self (which is what he’s pretty much been doing for the last 10+ years) and pulled off a very solid performance. What’s also a great about Silver Linings Playbook is that Pat and Jennifer aren’t the only ones with "problems". Just about all the characters in the film have some kind of problem, issue, repression or baggage and Russell does a great job at showing that (Pats father is borderline OCD and has a gambling problem). His direction is great and he sets up all these different atmospheres in the film. All the scenes involving Pat and his family are shot up-close & intimate and really hammers home his (somewhat) chaotic home life while most of the scenes with Jennifer are funny and light (minus a few key scenes that are kinda heavy). And Russell ties everything together with a great ending involving a dance competition and an important Eagles/Giants football game.
I know it’s only day two but Silver Linings Playbook has been the highlight of the festival so far (I’ve seen nine movies so far). But keep in mind I have yet to see Iceman, To The Wonder, Spring Breakers, Argo and Something In The Air so that remains to be seen...



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TIFF 2012 HIGHLIGHT #1: OUTRAGE BEYOND


As much as I loved Outrage (one of the 20 best films of last year) I honestly didn’t think it would spawn a sequel (or a possible part three, judging how Outrage Beyond ended). As I mentioned in my Toronto preview for the pink smoke, almost everyone from the first movie died. My initial thoughts upon hearing of an Outrage sequel was: why make a sequel with damn near all new characters? Just make a new movie. But Kitano manages to pull things off nicely. With the lack of good and/or overrated mafia/organized crime films in recent years (Gomorrah and The Departed to name a few), Outrage and Outrage Beyond are a breath of fresh air to the genre. Over the years I’ve become a HUGE Takeshi Kitano fan mostly due to the discovery to his brilliant film; Sonatine (1994). I'll see just about anything he directs and/or acts in (especially his grittier work like Boiling Point and Violent Cop). He gets a pass on certain things that I give other filmmakers tons shit for and I don't fully know why (but hey at least I recognize my hypocrisies). He has this ability to tap in to my dark sense of humor unlike most directors working today. Anyone familiar with Kitano's career should know that not many modern Japanese actor/directors have the same kinda range and versatility as him. From violent existential gangster films like 'Sonatine' & family-oriented films like; Kikujiro to his darkly comedic portrayal as a twisted teacher in the post-lord of the flies/pre-hunger games/kids killing kids on a deserted island cult Classic; Battle Royale - he's kinda done it all. So basically what I’m trying to say is that I’m kinda bias when it comes to his work so take that for what its worth. But at the same time I DO understand that he’s an acquired taste and not everyone "gets" him. Take the audience at the TIFF screening the other day for example - by the time Outrage Beyond was over, I noticed a good chunk of the audience had thinned out.
Right off the bat I will say that watching Outrage Beyond made me miss the presence of "Mizuno" - (Otomo’s right-hand man played by Kippei Shiina who was killed off in the final moments of Outrage). Besides Kitano, Mizuno made the film so much more enjoyable for me with his evil performance kinda reminiscent of Michael Madsen in Reservoir Dogs. At the end of Outrage, a film you obviously have to see in order to follow Outrage Beyond, main character: Otomo (Kitano) is locked away in jail (although presumed dead by his enemies), all of his crew has been killed off (with the exception of Ishihara, who double crossed him in order to join forces with Kato who's now in charge of all yakuza activity after secretly killing off his predecessor at the end of Outrage). Outrage Beyond doesn’t really give any kind of summary of the first film or a brief synopsis for those who haven’t seen the first part. It really dumps you right in the middle of things from the start. As you can tell from the description, the plot can be a lil difficult to follow as there's a ton of double, triple & quadruple crossing.


In Outrage Beyond we pick up with Otomo after he's been let out of prison early (thanks to Kataoka, the corrupt police commissioner from the first film) so he can join forces with his former yakuza rival: Kimura (the man who's face Otomo slashes up in the first movie) to bring order back to the Yakuza that's become way too corrupt and infested with younger members who don’t show respect to the older generation of Yakuzas. Yes I realize it sounds odd saying that an illegal crime organization like the Yakuza has become TOO corrupt but in Takeshi Kitano’s world, the bad guys (yakuza) are the good guys and the good guys (the police) are really the bad guys. Kitano’s last two features have kinda drawn heavily from that vintage gritty world of old school Scorsese where dirty cops take payoffs and people get bumped off at the drop of a hat. And speaking of people getting bumped off, Outrage Beyond has quite a ridiculous body count in the final 45 minutes of the film (I honestly lost count). The few reviewers from the Venice film festival who reported that the murders were substantially less than Outrage must have not stayed for the last half of the movie (there's a particularly tough murder to watch that involves a drill). Now I will not lie, the first hour of Outrage Beyond does border on being rather tedious and boring. But if you can hang in there and manage to pay attention (it’s a bit difficult to keep track of who's who with so many characters) the last half of the film is a great payoff.
Outrage Beyond also makes a few subtle references to past Kitano films like Violent Cop and Sonatine.
Kitano's lead performance is just as laid back and apathetic as the old school ex-yakuza boss who's grown tired of the same 'ol boring life of execution style murders, finger chopping and double crosses ("there's even a moment when he utters the phrase: "I'm getting too old for this shit"). He has that "old man who doesn't give a fuck" swag in Outrage Beyond. He barks back and talks shit when a gun is pointed in his face and shoots people without blinking an eye. His stone face DOES make it difficult to determine whether something is supposed to be funny or not but I think that's part of what I like about him so much.
Unfortunately because there are so many characters in this film it’s difficult to remember another standout performance besides Kitano's. If you happen to be in New York City or the tri-state area there's a strong chance this will probably end up playing at The Japan Society just like Outrage did last year.



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Thursday, September 6, 2012

AFTER THE WEDDING

Like I've said in previous entries, even movie fanatics like me miss a few important or good films from time to time. In this edition of "best films I missed..." we take a look at a fantastic film starring my newfound mancrush: Mads Mikkelsen (a PINNLAND EMPIRE favorite) – An actor I’m convinced isn’t just the most underrated actor working today but must have some kind of a speed/cocaine problem due to the insane amount of films he does each year. In fact, the only other actor to match his output (besides the obvious Michael Madsen) would have to be Michael Fassbender (another underrated actor and mancrush of mine). Anyway, enough about all this mancrush talk...

Putting aside the trickery & button pushing of Lars Von Trier (Denmark’s most prominent director) you'll see that many of today’s Danish filmmakers have a talent for tugging at the emotional heart strings with films like: Open Hearts, Brothers (the original), Things We Lost In The Fire, Pusher 2 (a film that wasn’t really about drug running & gangsters), Fear X etc. Sure not all of these movies are "great" (or even good for that matter) but at least there's a genuine attempt at trying to make an emotionally moving story. After The Wedding is the kinda movie you can legitimately call an "emotional rollercoast" without feeling guilty or even slightly corny. Writing about Susanne Beir's 2006 surprise Oscar nominated film; After The Wedding is kinda difficult without spoiling it but it’s essentially about secrecy and how things we thought were in the past can come back in to our lives. For two decades "Jacob" (Mads Mikkelsen) has been running a struggling orphanage in India and hasn’t even thought about returning home to Denmark. But when a rich philanthropist with a hidden agenda ("Jorgen") wants to invest a ton of money in the failing orphanage, Jacob is forced to return back to Denmark to seal the deal. But shortly after returning to Denmark he discovers he has a daughter he didn’t even know about. What unravels after that is a series of secrets & lies and we come to find out that things are more connected than we thought. Trust me, there's a lot more to the story but it would be wrong for me to spoil this for those of you who haven’t seen it. And just so you know, After The Wedding is available on the Netflix instant queue, so... *HINT HINT* Standout scenes include the moment when Jacob realizes he has a daughter (followed by the scene where he confronts his ex-girlfriend who kept the secret from him), the scene when Jorgen's wife discovers the secret he's been keeping from her as well as the last 10-15 minutes. After The Wedding is a well acted, emotionally draining film with an amazing ensemble cast. The standout performances come from Rolf Lassgard (the millionaire philanthropist with a few secrets of his own) and Mads Mikkelsen in an underrated leading role. Lassgard's loud & abrasive performance is evened out by Mad's more toned down and internal performance. You can count the number of times Mads raises his voice with one hand, whereas it seems like Lassgard (with his deep base-heavy voice) is yelling and crying through what seems like the entire last half of the film. He also brought depth to a  typically empty type of a character (loud, fat, wealthy philanthropist). When Jorgen's character is introduced he comes off like a somewhat egocentric asshole, but by the end of the film you realize he's a stand up guy and you wanna shed a tear for him.



After The Wedding is a testament to how talented Mads Mikkelsen is and how well he can adapt to any genre (which makes my anticipation for Thomas Vinterberg's The Hunt, a role which got him best actor at Cannes this year, even greater). To the general movie-going audience he's known for films like Casino Royale, King Arthur & Clash Of The Titans while to people like me he's known for the films of Nicholas Winding Refn, Flame & Citron and Adam's Apple. If you notice, what’s making today's prominent/breakout actors & actresses so in demand is their ability to adapt to any kind of genre. Besides Mikkelsen and Fassbinder, actors like Michelle Williams, Jeffery Wright, Vera Farminga, Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin, Tom Hardy & Joseph Gordon Levitt manage to bounce between indie/art house and commercial films pretty seamlessly.
And Mads Mikkelsen's status in Hollywood is only about to get bigger as he's not only been taped to play the villain in the next Thor movie, but he'll also be playing a young Hannibal Lecter in an upcoming U.S. television series (not sure how I feel about that one, but whatever)

I would really like to jump out of a helicopter one day (as a stunt). In Denmark you can’t make these big action movies, so I hope I get to do it somewhere else someday - Mads Mikkelsen


What I also love so much about After The Wedding is that Susanne Bier keeps the stuff about the orphanage to minimum and doesn't play in to the white guilt angle about the noble white guy who feels obligated to help the poor struggling brown people. But she still throws in a few scenes here & there to remind us of why Jacob came to Denmark in the first place (there's a subplot about Jacob and his father-like relationship with one of the Indian children back at the orphanage).
This movie also sheds light on the importance of having a father (or father figure) in ones life (especially in the life of a young woman).
After The Wedding is part of the growing number of good "art house" films from around the world that are crossing over in to U.S. theaters that TRULY represents world cinema (with the obvious exception of UK Cinema which gets grouped in with American cinema come award season). Films like; Dogtooth (still can’t believe this was nominated for an Oscar), The White Ribbon, A Separation & Monsieur Lahzar are all further examples of this. You have no idea how many times year after year I make it a point to see as many films from around the world as possible only to find myself scratching my head at the recognized and nominated films that I either haven’t heard about or aren’t that good that end up getting nominated for awards or shown in the theaters.
Including After The Wedding on my list of best films of the last decade MAY be a stretch but it at least makes the shortlist and is a must-see.



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MY 2012 TIFF SCHEDULE & FAVORITE MOVIES OF THE 90's CONTINUES ON...

Hey guys! I'm headed to Toronto tomorrow night. Make sure to check out what movies John, Chris & myself will be watching (and avoiding) while attending TIFF

And while you're on the pink smoke site, don't forget to read the latest entries in our ongoing Favorite Movies Of The 90's...

Favorite Movies Of The 90's: Part 4A
Favorite Movies Of The 90's: Part 4B

And for those of you curious as to what specific movies I'll be checking out at TIFF (or if you're in Toronto and feel like stalking me), here you go...


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