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Feb 28, 2013

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Feb 26, 2013

Modern Romance

*This post is part of Ryan McNeil's monthly series Blind Spots.

Modern Romance, in and of itself, probably isn't considered a must-watch masterpiece. Though I know of certain critics who think it ranks with the best of all time, it hardly comes up outside the context of great comedies in modern American cinema; but I have a reason for choosing it as my first entry in this series: the man behind the camera is Albert Brooks, a respected and influential figure in American comedy and I shamefully admit to having not seen a single film directed by him. No, not Real Life, not Lost in America, none of them. And I had to start somewhere.

-You've heard of a no win situation, haven't you?
-No.
-Really? You've never heard of one? Vietnam? This? 

Modern Romance is about Robert (Brooks), a film editor whose obsessive, controlling, inherently jealous personality has wreaked havoc on his relationship with his girlfriend and is, in turn, messing with his professional life. Though the relationship is clearly not in its early stages, Robert is uncertain whether Mary is the partner he wants to spend the rest of his life with but he's unwilling, or rather, unable to live without her for even a single day. His girlfriend, Mary (Kathryn Harrold), is an executive at a bank whose seemingly successful professional life is undermined by her attachment to her neurotic partner. Though her dependence doesn't quite reach the extremity of Robert's to her, she's quick to fall for a small gift or gesture and willing to get back together at every turn.

Feb 22, 2013

Getting Around to Argo... Again

With Ben Affleck's Argo poised to take the best picture Oscar home, I decided to give it another go. If you've read this blog during the past year, you know that this film was on my radar long before it came out and I was very anxious about it because of the Iranian connection and the event it covers. I even reviewed the trailer!


I also reviewed the film after its release, when I was disappointed by its lack of cogent politics but impressed by its seamless production values. Today, in my piece at The Film Experience, I've discussed the reasons, merited and unmerited, for the film's success on the awards circuit and my feelings about it. Be sure to check it out here.

Also, if you look to the sidebar on the right, you'll see a new addition under 'The Film Experience by Nathaniel Rogers' that takes you directly to my posts on his website.

Feb 21, 2013

Pictures: Top 20 Films of 2012

Honorable Mention: The Grey

20. Rust & Bone (dir. Audiard) (review)

"Did you hear what happened to me?"

19. Anna Karenina (dir. Wright) (review)

"Romantic love will be the last illusion of the old world order."

18. The Gatekeepers (dir. Moreh) (review)

"You can't make peace using military means."

17. Moonrise Kingdom (dir. Anderson)

"What kind of bird are you?"

16. Queen of Versailles (dir. Greenfield)

"Do you get strength from your marriage?"

Feb 20, 2013

Visionaries: 2012's Best in Writing and Directing

Screenwriters
Runners-up: Michael Haneke (Amour), Alex Ross Perry (The Color Wheel), Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master)

5. Reid Carolin (Magic Mike)

Incredibly layered and attentive to even the smallest characters, Carolin's script digs beneath the surface to transform the specificities of this particular group of men into a universal story about love, ambition and the 'American dream.'

4. Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha)

Comparisons with the quirky humor and incisive look at young, middle-class New Yorkers in HBO's Girls will be inevitable, but the similarly tailored Frances ups that show's game with whip-smart banter and a personality all Gerwig's own.

3. Mark Boal (Zero Dark Thirty)

Mark Boal's screenplay is an astounding achievement of journalism on screen. Structured to maximize the intensity in a mundane affair, Boal builds momentum toward the final climax but allows the film to breathe. It's a comprehensive text, as a character study and a propulsive action film.

2. Miguel Gomes (Tabu)

In lesser hands, the major tonal shift would create an imbalance between the comic absurdity of the first half and the swoony romanticism of the second, but Gomes makes them work beautifully in tandem. Its richness is in the simplicity.

1. Tony Kushner (Lincoln)

Erudite and exhaustively researched, the respected playwright's new cinematic work is an engaging and layered work; one that portrays Lincoln as an accessible everyman while maintaining his larger than life character, an antihero clothed in immense power.

Feb 16, 2013

Motifs in Cinema: The Dichotomy Between Fantasy And Reality

"Motifs in Cinema is a discourse across several film blogs, assessing the way in which various thematic elements have been used in the 2012 cinematic landscape. How does a common theme vary in use from a comedy to a drama? Are filmmakers working from a similar canvas when they assess the issue of death or the dynamics of revenge? Like most things, a film begins with an idea - Motifs in Cinema assesses how the use of a common theme across various films changes when utilized by different artists." 

Andrew has a knack for providing us with great motifs to explore for this series, but for the second year running, nothing piqued my interest as much as the dichotomy between fantasy and reality. At the risk of coming off as incredibly conceited, let me quote myself from last year's article to illustrate why I remain so interested in this topic: "Fantasy, in the strictest sense of the word, is inseparable from the cinema. What are fictional films if not the fantasy of those who imagine them, write them and act them? What is fantasy if not the imaginary world we immerse ourselves in for a few hours in the dark?"


All cinema can essentially be boiled down to that word: fantasy. It's all unreal and imagined. Take a film like Argo, for example, that tells the true story of a landmark political event, and yet, remains so infused with the glorification of the proceedings that it becomes difficult to suspend disbelief when the Iranian forces are chasing the airplane on the airport tarmac. On the other end of the spectrum is Holy Motors, so unhinged from reality that all presumptions about the real world are destabilized and fantasy becomes the default mode of thought. Monsieur Oscar permanently lives in purgatory between fantasy and an alternate reality.


Feb 14, 2013

Magicians: 2012's Best in Crafts

In my review of the year's best in acting I mentioned how difficult it was to narrow the performances down to a list of 20. In a foolish attempt to put myself through even more struggle, I've decided to limit my choices in the crafts categories to just ten. Most people seem to think that the below-the-line elements are apples and oranges. How can one compare the work of the sound engineer who mixed the final tape of Les Misérables with the costume designer who designed the hats in Moonrise Kingdom? Where is the common ground between the artistry of Alexandre Desplat and the wizardry of the team who worked tirelessly to create Richard Parker?

The reality is that the work they do shares little but their purpose is the same. They all want the film to succeed. For me, the quality of crafts work in a film comes down to the answer to one question: how does it serve the whole picture? The below-the-line elements have to be at the film's service. They should all gel. They should enhance each other and the performances. And often times, it's a sign of their strength if they don't call attention to themselves individually. With that in mind, I decided to group them all together here and try to judge them on that basis. Naturally, a list this short doesn't allow me to include everything I like. The sound design and music in Tabu, the cinematography in Amour, the sound design and cinematography in Killing Them Softly, the editing in Zero Dark Thirty, the sound work in Looper, and the musical score in Beasts of the Southern Wild were the biggest among the exclusions. In the end, here are the ten I simply could not do without:

10. Production Design and Costume Design in Moonrise Kingdom

Filled to the brim with memorable individual frames, but also coherent as a fully realized universe of its own and a visualization of the youthful energy of the film's leads, the design team bring to the screen Wes Anderson's unique vision with remarkable artistry and colorful pizzazz.

9. Production Design in Beasts of the Southern Wild

The bayou-set world of Beasts is so integral to the narrative that it becomes difficult to distinguish the design as a separate entity a few minutes into the film, but that's the greatest triumph of the designers. The low-key, knots-and-bolts quality of the production enhances the authenticity of The Bathtub.

8. Production Design and Costume Design in Anna Karenina

The costumes and settings in Joe Wright's visionary adaptation not only evoke mood and emotions, but very often they become the storyteller. That Wright manages to conceal the financial limitations of his film with such creative energy is in large part thanks to the contributions of his design team.

7. Cinematography in Skyfall

Roger Deakins relishes the opportunity to flex his muscles in several showy sequences - the neon-lit tower in Shanghai, the lantern-clad casino - but his true mastery of lighting and his painterly instincts are also evident in Skyfall's more understated moments.

6. Musical Score in The Master

Building on the same platform that shaped his indelible score for There Will Be Blood, Jonny Greenwood's string arrangements are appropriately dissonant. The compositions are fragile and haunting, like a window into Freddie's soul.


Feb 12, 2013

Thespians: Top 20 Performances of 2012

Narrowing an entire year's worth of great performances down to just a small shortlist is never easy. If you've come across my lists from previous years, you already know that I don't limit my selections by screen time (leading/supporting categorizations) or gender. Great works of art are not bound by arbitrary setups like those. Despite being lenient with such classifications, I still couldn't find room for all the works I loved. I can't quite believe that I left out Rachel Weisz's aching performance as the adulterous wife in The Deep Blue Sea. Ditto Simon Russell Beale's tender turn as her husband. Paul Rudd was at his very best in Wanderlust and Julianne Moore would have certainly been included if Game Change had been released theatrically. Finally, Tessa Ia (After Lucia) and Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild) both had to carry the weight of their films and gave astonishing debut performances. Alas, I had to cut the list at some point.

20. Liam Neeson (The Grey)

Neeson portrays a character whose resolve is as steely as his imposing physique, but he gives him a human side that reveals itself in different forms throughout. It's a layered creation and fascinating in the way it enriches the screen persona Neeson has shaped for himself in the past few years.

19. Yilmaz Erdogan (Rhino Season)

Erdogan's villain is as vulnerable as he is menacing, which makes this portrayal of a sexually repressed, morally indecipherable character all the more terrifying. He perfectly captures the psyche of religious fundamentalist men in post-revolutionary Iran, those whose rise to power was catalyzed by the very norms that impeded them in the pre-Islamic era.

18. Nicole Kidman (The Paperboy)

Yet another adventurous, challenging undertaking by American cinema's most audacious actress. And yet another successful turn. Kidman brings subtlety to a character whose every trait is unsubtle and makes an inaccessible woman incredibly sympathetic. She's in command of Charlotte; it's Charlotte who's absolutely unhinged.

17. Amy Adams (The Master)

It's a reflective performance, one that slyly changes tonal course over the film. But despite the space she leaves for the audience to interpret her character, the subtext remains the same for me throughout: she's The Master to all. Peggy blends into the background but her controlling presence is always felt.

16. Nina Hoss (Barbara)

Who knew there could be so many facets to the poker face? Nina Hoss's ice-cold titular anti-hero is anchoring one of the most challenging films of the year, but she does so with grace and gravitas. Hoss shapes an imposing persona for a character who's treading on thin ice on the inside. The performance is mesmerizing from start to finish.


Feb 8, 2013

Mama

Grade: D+

In his indispensable book, Making Movies, Sidney Lumet states that the most important decision he has to make before starting the production of a film is to determine what the film is about in the first place; not the plot of the film, but what its themes are, what it means, to him and to the audience. He goes on to say that certain films are only about the plot and that's okay if they can make you feel scared or emotional or whatever else. Lumet's words were ringing in my ears as I watched Mama, the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain's latest effort in dominating all cinema, because the harder I tried to figure what Mama was about, the more confused I got.

The plot of the film goes something like this: a man kills his wife and drives his daughters away from home. An accident steers his car off a snowy path and he finds himself in a haunted cabin. His intention is to kill his daughters before committing suicide, but he's snatched away and killed by a mysterious creature who then feeds the daughters cherries out of the dark to keep them alive. Five years later the girls are found by their uncle who never gave up his relentless pursuit. They've developed bestial characteristics and after a brief transition period under supervision, they're left with their uncle and his girlfriend (Chastain) on the condition that they remain subjects of a psychological study. Mama being a horror film, things predictably go awry as the girls continuously interact with the unknown titular character.

Beneath that surface, Mama isn't really about anything. It attempts to be, but its mythology is so muddled that every road it embarks on hits a dead end. What is the film really trying to say about motherhood, for instance? It seems to be the main theme here insofar as, well, it's about motherhood, but it doesn't have anything particularly intelligent to say about it. Is characterizing Annabel (Chastain) as a rock musician meant to emphasize her nurturing instincts in contrast? Is her motherly affection for the kids who bear no relation to her meant to create a sense of empathy between her and the mysterious Mama? What, if anything, is Mama's deformed figure meant to convey? Is it the burden of her guilt, her mental disability, or is it just because this is a horror film and if the mystery is revealed to be a woman in human form the audience won't find it horrifying enough? All these are actually small problems that sidestep the biggest issue - that a fairly satisfying first act veers into an unacceptably misconceived fairy tale with no thematic resolution.

Of course, Mama doesn't necessarily have to be about anything if it can perform its one main function - to scare us - but the problem is that after a while, Mama fails in that respect as well, for the structure of the film is set up entirely episodically. Each episode begins during the calm before the storm, in which one adult - most often Chastain, but in a couple of sequences her boyfriend or the psychiatrist - is at peace with the two girls until a noise or a shadow creeps in, anxiety settles in, the source of the distress is searched for to no avail, we get a glimpse of the mysterious Mama and the sequence almost invariably ends with one character looking off camera to a corner of the frame. With the aid of overused sound effects that induce cheap thrills, these sequences are somewhere between eerie to terrifying at first, but they become less and less effective with every repetition, until they are completely subdued by the actual appearance of Mama. At that point, the whole enterprise becomes a total farce, partly because of the reasons stated above about the mythology, but also because the visual effects on the spectral presence that is so crucial to the narrative are laughably awful; because the creature that is meant to look menacing enough to scare us and gentle enough for the kids to connect to looks like neither. She's demented and disfigured, but purposelessly conceived, with no regard to what meaning she's meant to evoke in the viewer.

To be fair to the film, there's a little bit of good in it too. Chastain, with the weight of an ungodly wig on her shoulders, still manages to give depth to a poorly written character. Her Annabel strikes just the right balance between protective and fragile and the 'punk chick' image surprisingly fits her like a glove. There are interesting moments in children's transition from their animalistic form, thought I wish they'd been fleshed out more. And there is one death sequence in the cabin in the woods that is genuinely frightening despite being as predictable as the weather in The South Pole. But that's about as far as I can go with the merits without stretching it to the cool tattoos on Chastain's arms.

Feb 7, 2013

Perfection


Feb 6, 2013

Oscar's Best Short Film Nominees

At The Film Experience, I've discussed the ten films that are nominated for best live action short and best animated short at the Oscars this year. Both categories have their fair share of duds, but they also include a couple of films that are truly Oscar-worthy. You can read about the animated ones here, and the live action ones here; Join in the conversation with your favorites and predictions.



Feb 4, 2013

Monday's Words of Wisdom


Fellow Torontonian, Corey Atad, who writes at Movie Mezzanine has discussed the responsibility of documentarians to stick to facts in their films in a piece titled 'Honesty in Documentary'. The discussion is prompted by his experience with Searching For Sugar Man after he found a number of details were omitted from the film. I'm writing about it because no piece this year has changed my opinion of a film as much Corey's has. I simply cannot look at Sugar Man the same way anymore.

In essence, there is nothing wrong with being innovative in documentary cinema. It is appreciated, in fact. John Grierson, one of the earliest pioneers of the form, referred to his own aesthetics as the "creative treatment of actuality." Corey mentions examples of other films that present their story creatively, bringing up Waltz With Bashir as a great example, but he's asking whether that type of creative control over the material is allowed extend to the facts therein.
"Anytime we walk into a film we are making an implicit agreement. If I go see a fictional film I expect that it will be a fiction. I suspend my disbelief and allow the story to do what it wants. When I walk into a documentary, that agreement is different. There is an implicit expectation that no matter how much slant or bias or editorial influence is being had on the subject, at the very least the film is presenting factual information as accurately as possible. Sometimes accuracy is difficult to achieve, but distorting facts is a no-no."
When I watched the film myself, I was quite taken with it. I find it heartbreaking and heartwarming in equal measure, but I was quite surprised at how Rodriguez remained completely unfazed by his new found success. Though the omissions aren't huge, the fact that Rodriguez had been aware of his success in places like Australia explains why he wasn't at all shocked by the warm reception he received in South Africa.In Corey's words: "The fact is, Rodriguez was not as obscure as the film claims, nor was he as difficult to find as the documentary implies. It’s not an outright lie, but it is a lie by omission, and the information was clearly left out in order to juice the drama in Rodriguez’ story. It’s still an incredible story, just not as incredible as the filmmakers would have you believe going on their account alone."

I can't help but feel cheated a bit, having realized that my emotional reaction to the film wasn't entirely merited, and I've slowly and quietly slipped Sugar Man out of my top 20 films. You can read Corey's piece here. I couldn't recommend it enough.


Next up is perennial favourite, Nick Prigge of Cinema Romantico, who has summed up the narratives overtaking this year's Oscar race in a 100% accurate, 137% hilarious piece titled 'Emerging Oscar Storylines.' I don't agree with his predictions entirely: I refuse to believe Argo can win best picture until I see Affleck jumping up and down on the Oscar stage with a little golden man in his hands and I don't think Tommy Lee Jones is a lock. Then again, I've predicted both of those categories exactly like him, so what the hell is up with my disingenuous disagreement? I am, however, entirely consumed by the idea that Michael Haneke may have an agenda of snuff films.
"The story of Best Actor is that there is NO story. Daniel Day Lewis will win. He will win because he floats in the regal ether above the pedantic stories of the Academy. Hype rolls off of him. Backlash is frightened to death of him. Twitter is powerless to stop him. Daniel Day Lewis is Daniel Fucking Day Lewis and that is why he will win."

You can read his piece here, and if you don't, you deserve the same twitter hate attack as Anne Hathaway.

Feb 3, 2013

Highlights: 2012's Best Film Ending...


... is After Lucia (directed by Michel Franco).

Words can't quite describe how shocking this terrifyingly prolonged long take is, and of course, I'm not willing to explain it at all because the less you know about this marvelous film, the more you'll enjoy its many twists and surprises. After Lucia is not short on disturbing or thought-provoking images, but this bone-chilling finale puts the audience in an inescapable turmoil that lasts long after the curtains have closed.


All 'Best of 2012' Entries...

Feb 2, 2013

Highlights: 2012's Best Scene...


...is the abortion sequence from Prometheus.

In an otherwise entirely forgettable film, this sequence shines like a bright star. Revisiting the film many months after my first encounter, I realized that I'd perfectly stored this moment of rapidly escalating tension and unsettling, edge-of-the-seat pressure in my memory; and it's really impossible not to. Performed superbly by Noomi Rapace, whose edgy intensity is a perfect fit for the role, these few short minutes were a reminder of what a capable director Ridley Scott is at his peak. If only the rest of the film could measure up to this...

Runners-up:
Consoling the dying man in The Grey.
The house burning down in Something in the Air.


All 'Best of 2012' Entries...

Feb 1, 2013

Highlights: 2012's Most Underrated Film...


...is Brave.

Pixar has got a lot of flak for choosing a "princess" story for their first film with a female protagonist, but that criticism misses the point. Brave wasn't just any other princess story. It had grander ideas and twisted our expectations of the subgenre on its head. I would love to elaborate on the idea, but nothing I say can be as eloquent and all-encompassing as this brilliant piece by Lili Loofbourow of The New Inquiry. I urge you to read it and give Brave another shot if it didn't work for you the first time around.


All 'Best of 2012' Entries...