May 27, 2012

Trailer Time: Argo

Less than a year after Asghar Farhadi brought Iran to Hollywood with his piercing dramatic thriller, A Separation, Ben Affleck is doing the opposite and taking Hollywood to Iran with Argo. Set during the 444 day hostage crisis in Tehran, Affleck's period political thriller tells the story of a fake film crew who enter Iran to take 6 of the American hostages back with them under disguise.

Iran-themed films taking Hollywood by storm?
Part of me, as an Iranian, is excited to see Tehran in a major Hollywood production, though the film is actually shot in Istanbul, Turkey and the disastrous mistake of showing one of city's most iconic mosques in the trailer when it's supposed to stand in for another location promises more ignorant missteps in the architectural department. To the film's credit, however, I have never been to a city that resembles my hometown more than Istanbul does.
The other part of me dreads the prospect of seeing the film in full. The hostage crisis is, by all accounts except the one given by the far right conservatives of the Iranian regime, a scar on the face of Iranian history. It's an event that accelerated Iran's isolation from the West and became a blatant example of the government's disrespect for international diplomacy. I haven't seen the film so it'd be presumtuous of me to accuse it of anything, but there really aren't many ways the story can be spun and none of those will bolster the image of Iranians in the West.
It's disappointing that with so many years gone after the crisis, this film should come a mere few months after Asghar Farhadi's pitch-perfect Oscar speech pleaded for a better understanding of Iranians as "people who respect all civilizations and cultures." 
The politics aside, Ben Affleck has been maturing as a director and this trailer gives us every reason to believe he can conjure up something as exciting as The Town or Gone Baby Gone. The film will be released in Canada on October 12th.

May 23, 2012

Finding Pixar, Ep. 4: Boo

Welcome back to my retrospective on Pixar in anticipation for Brave's release. So far we've looked at Toy Story, A Bug's Life and Toy Story 2. Today, it is my pleasure that Mayukh, one of my favourite bloggers and another member of Team Experience, has decided to contribute to the series with his brilliant piece on Pixar's fourth film, Monsters Inc.

Mayukh and I differ on our level of enthusiasm for the film and the studio's work in general, but we do agree on one thing: Boo is one of Pixar's most complicated and essential creations. His look at the character is so critical I almost wish I could convince him to give the same treatment to every one of their films. 

I have realized that different screenings of the film over time have changed my relationship with this character but I've always connected with her one way or another. The changing perspective I've had on her from the time I first saw the film as a thirteen year old to my last revisit a few weeks ago is summarized in Mayukh's closing paragraph:

"Pixar’s best films are the ones in which they begin to question what we, as humans, lose when we grow up – what we abandon in this transition to cynical, jaded adulthood. What's so gently sad about Boo is that we know she'll grow out of this odd, fantastic fixation she has on some anthropomorphic creature that's a product of her storybook mind. As she grows older, she'll no longer be the judge – the world around her will definitively teach her who is and isn't a monster." 

I can only absorb this gentle sadness today but with regards to Pixar's earlier work, perhaps up to and including this film, I will always maintain a careless and childish connection with the world they occupy because my first encounter with them happened before I, myself, made that transition to my cynical adulthood. 

Mayukh has an interesting way of thinking about Boo and there's plenty to chew on before this closing paragraph, including a comparison between Pete Docter's views on the "outside world" and Terrence Malick's morality in The Tree of Life! You can read his full piece here. And check back as I go through the remainder of Pixar's catalogue with the help of more guest bloggers!

May 21, 2012

So. Freakin'. Excited

You may remember how high Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master ranked on my most anticipated list this year. It's ranked nearly as high on every such list I've seen on the internet. Well, today we get our first look and it appears to be expectedly magnificent. My heart is racing. October can't come soon enough.

May 19, 2012

Finding Pixar, Ep. 3: Great Scenes Coming Back

Welcome to the third part of my Pixar retrospective and apologies for the long delay between episodes. We’ll finish this before Brave comes out, I promise. You can see the first two episodes here and here. Today we’re on to Pixar’s third film and back in trilogy territory.  

Toy Story 2 has the unenviable position of being the second installment in a trilogy that begins with the film that started it all for Pixar and ends with one of the greatest animated films – or films of any kind, if you ask me – ever to grace the silver screen. Luckily for us, it lives up to the standard set by the bookending episodes. Despite the similarity of its narrative to the first film, Toy Story 2 is still representative of Pixar at their most exciting, adventurous, witty and hilarious. 

That bar of quality is not a surprise to anyone. What did surprise me after re-watching the film, however, was that the two sequences that I remembered most vividly from my childhood remain the standouts today. 

The first one, Woody’s repair job by the old toymaker, is one of Pixar’s most dazzling visual achievements and an embodiment of their obsessive attention to detail. It’s a significant piece in the plot as well, since we’ve seen Woody worrying about how Andy might treat him if his arm is torn off and despite the repair, the tear comes back near the end of the film to teach the audience an existential lesson – though as is always the case with Pixar, the lesson is taught in disguise and without any preaching. 

The second and the more important sequence is Jessie’s story about her owner Emily. It shook me as a kid and still gives me goose-bumps now, but if I say it is an important scene it is for two reasons. First, because it’s a direct inspiration, in terms of narration and visuals, for one of the terrific sequences in the third film: Chuckles’ story about Lotso’s background. Second, it had an immensely moving two-fold effect on me as a kid. I did not want to become Emily so I vowed never to give up my toys – you can imagine how that’s turned out 13 years later – and I also did not want to become Jessie. Again, this existential question – what do the toys mean if they’re not played with - has been a central theme in the series and Jessie’s relationship with Emily epitomizes it. I will discuss that theme and how it transcends the toys when I get to the third film, but this touching moment visually realizes Jessie’s identity questions and it’s a beautifully crafted way of showing the transition to adolescence. 

The transition of Emily's room from childhood to her teenage years

May 8, 2012

The Avengers

Grade: C

There’s a moment in The Avengers where Loki (Tom Hiddlestone) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) come face to face in Stark’s extravagant penthouse in his personal New York skyscraper. As RDJ calmly pours himself a drink, he looks at Loki and utters the dreadful words “There’s no version of this where you come out on top” with his holier-than-thou, cooler-than-thou and generally just much-better-than-thou delivery. This is essentially my major problem with The Avengers and all the Marvel feature-length advertisements that came before it. There really isn’t any version where Loki can come out on top and the pre-existing awareness of that fact drains these superhero films of any excitement.

Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight – a film I’m not as fond of as the rest of the internet, but nevertheless acknowledge that it is the qualitative measuring stick with which one can judge the genre – went through the whole routine as well. Peace is disrupted by a villain; check; reluctant superhero comes to rescue the planet; check; endless action sequences follow; check; hero defeats villain but leaves room for sequel; check. Yet, in Joker, Nolan and Heath Ledger presented us with such unpredictable energy that we wondered at every turn whether everything would come out differently. Loki lacks that type of chutzpah.

It’s not even the villain I can blame entirely. It’s the entire genre that feels so worn out and tired, though I shouldn’t make it sound like I’m blaming the film for the sins of its predecessors, because The Avengers is definitely not without its problems either, the biggest of which is that it’s tailored to suit the attention span of a 2 year old. Anyone accustomed to recent Hollywood genre fare shouldn’t be surprised by the rapid cutting and indiscernible movement in the action sequences, but if having to wrap your head around shots that last less than two seconds on the screen wasn’t enough, here you get the added bonus of wondering what the hell the other five superheroes are up to while you’re watching one of them tangled in his own scuffle.

I’m baffled by the overwhelmingly positive critical and audience response to this film. “Pure entertainment” is the phrase I’ve heard over and over again from anyone who’s seen it, but I’m not exaggerating when I say the film felt like a two-hour bore to me. It’s not without its moments of course. Mark Ruffalo’s performance is a reminder of the versatility he can possess despite the apparent ease he shows in all his work. The Avengers’ Hulk is really as good as the superhero has ever been and then some, visually and contextually. The effects are predictably top-notch. Whedon’s screenplay is surprisingly coherent for a film with four central heroes. The pacing is solid. And no sane heterosexual man should ever complain about a film with endless shots of Scarlett Johansson in tight spandex. But alas, none of this is enough to save The Avengers from its predictability. Four years and a few films later, the franchise has definitely overstayed its welcome. Everything feels so been-there-done-that and sadly, the end product doesn’t live up to the hype and the box office tag.