About Grant

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New York, NY, United States
Film director and screenwriter. Cinephile since birth. Director of DREAMS OF THE WAYWARD (2013). Film Studies MA student at Columbia University.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Film Review: "Amores Perros" (2000) directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu 5/5

 Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu's debut film Amores Perros (2000) immediately set Iñárritu on the map of international cinema upon its premiere at Cannes.  Going on to be nominated for best international film at the Oscars, Amores Perros proved to be a film that captured a sample of life in Mexico that translated to viewers across the globe.  Iñárritu would go on to make three more films, 21 Grams (2003) and Babel (2006) which both thematically followed in the footsteps of Amores Perros and concluded Iñárritu's "Death Trilogy", and in 2010 he released Biutiful which covered similar themes of death but lacked his traditional non-linear style.

 Divided into three chapters, Amores Perros is a gripping non-linear drama that keeps audiences at the edge of their seats.  Beginning with a horrific car crash in the streets of Mexico City, the first chapter reverses from that moment and shows the events leading up to the impact.  Chapter one focuses on Octavio (Gael Garciá Bernal) and his growing intimate relationship with his brother's wife Susana (Vanessa Bauche).  Octavio's brother abuses Susana often and doesn't care for their child which presses Octavio to enter his dog, Cofi, into the world of dog-fighting so that he can pay for he and Susana's escape to a distant land.

 The second chapter follows Daniel (Álvaro Guerrero) who is a successful magazine editor and the model he leaves his wife for, Valeria (Goya Toledo).  This chapter primarily progresses from the car crash as it follows Valeria's recovery from the wreckage.  Upon returning from the hospital, she begins to realize that her modeling career could come to an end because of her injuries.  To top things off, Richie (her dog) is stuck in the floorboards of their home and won't come out.  Tensions grow as Daniel begins to regret leaving his wife, and the sound of Richie whimpering underneath them only intensifies their situation.

 The final chapter follows a former political criminal and current hitman known as El Chivo (Emilio Echevarría).  Living life as a seemingly homeless man, this mid-fifties political fighter owns several dogs that follow him through the streets.  While working on his latest "job", on the side he is trying to discover the whereabouts of the family he abandoned decades before.

 Amores Perros is a brutal debut film that is executed with great control and a solid narrative that justly placed Iñárritu at the forefront of the Mexican film world.  The title, Amores Perros, translates to the double entendre "Love's a Bitch" which accurately (and provocatively) covers both aspects of the film: the joy that dogs bring into people's lives and the painful side of love.
 Shot in a hand-held format, Amores Perros not only feels real, but the action on the screen is intensified and the audience relation to the characters is amplified as the camera observes the character subtleties as if it were another person in the room.  
 In Gael Garciá Bernal's breakthrough role, it is clear why Amores Perros has made him one of the most internationally known Mexican actors of today.  His character, Octavio, is the true soul of this film and his performance is a riveting Shakespearean arc that takes viewers to the most joyful of emotions to the lowest of lows as he risks losing his dog in the ring and fights for the affections of his brother's wife.  Though his actions seem at times both wrong and immature, he seems justified with his slum-tainted child-like innocence.
 Featuring a wonderful soundtrack by Iñárritu's regular composer Gustavo Santaolalla, the essence of living in Mexico is further conveyed, and a greater sense of humanity and fragility is channeled onto the screen with his contribution.
 Though not as grand as his 2006 dramatic epic Babel, or as focused as his most recent film Biutiful, Amores Perros is a power house debut film that is both a unique character study and a portrait of the often extreme cause and effect life that we live in.  Without Amores Perros, one of the greatest auteur filmmakers of our time would be absent from the world of film.  Today, the absence of Alejandro González Iñárritu is almost unimaginable as his films both inspire and inform viewers of the human condition.  Further, Iñárritu's films have established himself as a Mexican Ingmar Bergman as he penetrates the soul and reveals the mortality of all.  Death may be an ever-present theme through Amores Perros (and a vast majority of his work), but it is just another aspect of life that he chooses to discuss.  His discussion of death does not flaunt death or violence, but rather pushes audiences to realize the gift of life through the tragedy his characters experience.

My ranking: 5/5

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Most Important Film You Will Ever Experience (Part 2: Andrei Tarkovsky's "The Mirror")

 Before saying that a film is important, the term "important" must be defined.  Is it artistically brilliant as a film?  Is the film life affirming?  Is the film life changing?  Does the film live beyond its date of release?  Does the film capture a time or a place in society and history?  Does the film challenge the audience?  If it can fit into most of these categories, then it simply must be important.
 To quote the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, "The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good." On that note, the second film in my collection of important cinematic works is:

Andrei Tarkovsky's The Mirror (1975)

 Undoubtedly one of the most important films to ever be released out of the Soviet Union, Andrei Tarkovsky's 1975 film The Mirror was his fourth film and is a visionary work structured between fragmented memories and dream-like apparitions.  Compared to his previous 1972 science fiction film Solaris (which he created to challenge Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey), The Mirror is a complete dive into the deep end. Following the memories of a barely-seen narrator (majority of the film is either captured through the narrator's eyes or is chronicling the way that he perceives his past), The Mirror is a film that everyone can relate to as the "guide" through the film is never formally identified.
 Looking back to his mother and the woman he loves, it is established early in the narration that the unseen dying narrator can no-longer distinguish his lover from his mother as they both have filled a void in his life with passion and care (explaining why the same actress, Margarita Terekhova, portrays both the mother and the lover).
 This film is difficult to decipher, but the narrative is overlaid with recordings of Arseny Tarkovsky's poetry (director Andrei Tarkovsky's father) which aids in delivering poetic context to the often surreal and dream-like events taking place on the screen.  Visually, this film is just as poetic as any piece of poetry, so it is only fitting to have the poetry of Andrei's father informing and further mystifying the events taking place on the screen.
 Combining black and white film, vibrant color, sepia brown monochrome, and vintage Soviet military and civilian footage, The Mirror transcends time as the narrator seems to even contemplate the winds that brought his parents together.
 Recreating paintings and referencing art, this film is as much about art as it is the life and impending death of the narrator (yet the poetic narration boldly claims that there is no death and there is no darkness).  With the film featuring famous artistic works, narrated by poetry, and visually one of the greatest cinematography achievements in film history; every element of this film speaks about art while subtly making commentary on Russian society.  Banned from presenting at Cannes, the Soviet Union also successfully limited the release of the film (as they had done to his second film Andrei Rublev (1966) as well).
 The Mirror challenges the way that life on Earth is lived, perceived, and further self-interpretted.  The concept of time is a constant theme that travels throughout nearly every vision and memory in the film.  Near the beginning of the film, a doctor essentially asks himself "Look at these roots, these bushes.  Did you ever wonder about plants feeling, being aware, perceiving even?  The trees... they are in no hurry.  While we rush around and speak in platitudes.  It's because we don't trust our inner natures.  That's all this doubt, haste, lack of time to stop and think."
 These concepts of existentialism do not only exist verbally in the film, but visually several events are shown happening multiple times but with different outcomes each time.  A table may be prepared for an outdoor meal (as in The Mirror), but a violent wind could easily blow everything over... were that exact gust of wind given a chance to blow at the same prepared table again, the same outcome would occur, but everything would blow away in a new and unique fashion.
 The camera moves through each location as though it is an angelic presence or the Holy Spirit observing the incredible small events that humans perceive as "paranormal" such as doors opening on their own or still objects independently gaining kinetic energy (such as a bowl rolling off of a table).  
Margarita Terekhova floating in Andrei Tarkovsky's The Mirror (1975)
In dream-like visions, the narrator's mother hovers in mid air over her bed as a sparrow flies by... a similar piece of imagery can be found in Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life (2011) which seems to capture the grace and magical qualities of the mother (almost a divine figure) as she floats in her front yard.
Jessica Chastain floating in Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life (2011)
 Arguably, Terrence Malick could never have even made a film as visionary and poetic as his 2011 Palme d'Or winner and best picture Oscar nominee The Tree of Life without Tarkovsky's influence.  Though the films (The Tree of Life and The Mirror) are "about" different things, both films chronicle the memories and visions of life with soul-penetrating voice overs, breath-taking cinematography, and an awareness that life is greater than the physical realm as signs of the supernatural infiltrate our lives daily as a constant presence (and can be used to discover the meaning of life).
 Both films are deeply affecting and masterfully-crafted, but Malick's success is truly at the mercy of the late Tarkovsky who wielded cinematography as an extension to the script throughout all of his work and as a vessel to experience the unseeable in ordinary life.

 The Mirror is a mysterious film that challenges audiences to make sense of its content while evaluating the world around them, and to this day is still one of the most powerful and visionary films ever conceived.  Though cryptic and heavily personal, The Mirror is a landmark film that still lives and breathes at the very heart of cinema.

Tarkovsky's The Mirror can be viewed in its entirety for free on Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gCTMM1iZ5Lw&feature=watch-now-button&wide=1

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Film Review: "L'Avventura" (1960) directed by Michelangelo Antonioni 5/5

 Winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes in 1960 (to much controversy at the time), Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni's challenging drama entitled L'Avventura (or The Adventure) is a film rewarding as a narrative, yet disturbingly leaves many questions to the viewers to ponder upon for the rest of their lives.  Starring Monica Vitti as Claudia in her breakout role, this film marks the first film in Antonioni's thematic trilogy on wealth and social structure.
 At the beginning of the film, Claudia (Monica Vitti), her friend Anna, and Anna's lover Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) leave on an exotic yacht trip.  On board the yacht are several other wealthy couples from different age groups.  When the yacht stops at a mountainous island off the coast of Italy, Anna and Sandro get into an argument which pushes Anna to separate herself from the group.  When they are about to leave the small rocky island, Anna is nowhere to be found.  Claudia is determined to find her best friend Anna, so Sandro and Anna stay overnight while the wealthy yacht tourists return to the mainland to alert the coast guard.
 Almost instantly, Sandro is making advances on Claudia even though she tries to reject his embraces (even a kiss).  When the wealthy return to the island the next morning with the coast guard, Anna is still missing and all hope seems lost... but a few boats were seen passing by the day of Anna's disappearance suggesting that she may have been kidnapped.
 The story of the lost woman begins to make headlines everywhere (simply because a story so mysterious sells newspapers quickly), and Claudia and Sandro begin following clues as to where Anna is rumored to have been seen throughout Italy.  However, as the film progresses and Claudia becomes willingly romantically involved with Sandro, the pursuit of Anna leaves the plot of the film almost completely.  Claudia even fears that Anna may still be alive.
 This film is a haunting tale of isolation and moral, but it is also a perplexing look at human interaction and the presence of wealth in society.

 Claudia, in comparison to everyone else in the film, was not raised in a wealthy household.  Her views on life and the world around her are grounded upon the existence of morals.  In comparison to Sandro and the wealthy yacht riders, Claudia follows her heart and intellect where as the others pursue what is easy and ideal.  Sandro essentially forgets about Anna as he pursues the easily accessible Claudia, and the wealthy yacht riders begin to joke about Anna being dead only days after everyone returns from sea.
 Interestingly, everyone in the film is pursuing an ideal.  A woman cheats on her husband with a young artist who seems sexually ideal.  The young artist only paints nudes of women (something he finds ideal).  Similarly hordes of men flock the streets over the sight of a woman who has a rip in the hem of her skirt (so many men are in the streets that a traffic jam ensues and the police have to escort the girl to safety).  All of those men, whether wealthy, middle class, or poor flood the streets in pursuit of the ideal woman.  The man who pursues Claudia, Sandro, sees Claudia as an ideal.  The only character who is not struggling to pursue "the ideal" is Claudia.  Arguably, she does desire love and honesty (exhibited as she asks Sandro if he loves her), but that is a natural desire.

 Beautifully filmed, there are moments of L'Avventura where the world around the characters almost seems to be a character (or a mirror facing the lives of the characters).  Collapsing buildings in big cities could easily be the descent of morality among the wealthy, and the rocky island that Anna disappears on could simply be a metaphor for the rocky relationship between Anna and Sandro.
 This film could easily (in a loose fashion) be called a 1960 Italian prequel to Fincher's 2011 adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (as it deals with similar wealthy figures and the disappearance of a woman on a distant secluded island).  Both films are very beautiful, and the landscape ads an atmosphere to the films that reflects the lives of the characters.
 L'Avventura is the ultimate thriller without a resolution (often without thrills as well), and a film that calls upon viewers willing to examine the lives of people and themselves.  Antonioni is masterful in this meditative work which can be seen from so many different perspectives and on so many different levels, and is for that reason (and its gorgeous visuals) that the film still lives as a fantastic narrative and the film that arguably changed and impacted the art of cinematography forever.


My ranking: 5/5 stars

Special Effects Vs. Special Affects

Ingmar Bergman's Cries And Whispers (1972)
 I find it interesting what impresses the masses these days.  Sadly, "special effects" has become a household term that has nearly become synonymous with "really great movie".  Sure, special effects have expanded the scope that movies can be created within (in my opinion, the perfect recent example of excellent special effects would be Peter Jackson's The Lord of The Rings films), however, as films have become slapped with "3D", something must be asked of the people that saw Avatar more than once on the big screen:  "Did you actually like the story?"

 It's fascinating how many people refuse to watch a film because it is in another language, yet a film like Avatar (which contains a fake language that is subtitled in the BS font Papyrus) earns over a billion in the box-office.  At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself why the movie was being made.  James Cameron can do as he pleases (and will), but a film like Avatar with a massive budget and advertising aimed directly at receiving viewers because of the marvelous new 3D technology (originally first used in 1936) cannot be taken seriously as it was essentially made to earn loads of money while serving as a 162 minute commercial for 3D.  Sadly, the year 2010 was besmirched by this, and so was the reputation of film.

 "The greats of film" - such as Ingmar Bergman - told completely original stories (several of Bergman's films cannot even be categorized in a genre properly).  Often demonstrating wildly unbelievable camera work and imagery (such as in his 1966 film Persona), his cinematography changed the film world forever.  Rather than banking off of the camera technique, the film used the camera style to enhance the psychological events taking place on the screen instead of serving as a gimmick to attract viewers.  Bergman's cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, won two Oscars for Bergman's films Cries And Whispers (1972) and Fanny And Alexander (1982), but not because of advancements in technology and special effects, but rather because of the way that his cinematography evoked emotion in the guts of audiences around the world.

Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt (1963)
 Jean-Luc Godard filmed his 1963 Contempt (Le Mépris) starring Brigitte Bardot (the Megan Fox of her day), but he did not use the fact that Bardot was in the film as an excuse to exploit her body (until producers asked him to).  Today, directors like Michael Bay choose to use sex as a tool to get audiences to see his films (Transformers (2007) etc), but his films will not live on the way that Godard's landmark film Contempt has.  Godard's work is the definition of artistry, and even though the producers requested a little skin, Godard managed to use it to his advantage by propelling the theme of his Odyssey-alluding film forward with her Venus-like forms.
Akira Kurosawa's Ran (1985)
 Akira Kurosawa - the director whose early films inspired George Lucas to create Star Wars - adapted Shakespeare's King Lear in his epic film Ran (1985).  After facing heavy financing issues from Japanese studios, Kurosawa still managed to use over a thousand extras and had several battle scenes (one iconically exceeding 10 minutes).
 Stanley Kubrick implemented the use of over three-thousand lbs of explosives in his anti-war WW1 film Paths of Glory (1957) starring Kirk Douglas.  Though the explosions are grand and powerful, they were only used to capture the reality of the war for the French soldiers in the trenches (and not a single German soldier is killed on the screen throughout the film... or ever implied to be killed in general).

 Through all of this, it should be clear that special effects and elements that can be perceived as "gimmicks" do have a place in film, but it is when people such as Michael Bay, James Cameron, and Roland Emmerich abuse CGI and use it as a gimmick that it suddenly becomes wrong.  George Lucas has used Star Wars as a gimmick in itself for the past 30+ years.  Star Wars is an oddity in the sense that it has taken from the greats (specifically Kurosawa), but in the past decade Lucas has allowed for his brain-child franchise to poorly build upon itself.
 Today, film essentially needs to be critiqued by the source.  Is the film you're watching a ploy to earn a few extra bucks, or is it a new masterpiece?  As a director, you can have the greatest special effects in the world, but if your story is lacking then why does it matter?
 In the words of director Alejandro González Iñárritu, "It's where I really invest - Not in special effects, but special affects."


Cries And Whispers

Friday, February 17, 2012

Film Review: "Se7en" (1995) directed by David Fincher 3.5/5

 In the film that established American auteur David Fincher as a filmmaker with great ability and vision, many of the themes that would span his career are found within this singular 1995 work.  Se7en, starring Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt (in his first of 3 films with Fincher) is a suspenseful modern noir that follows two detectives across the span of seven days as they hunt for an elusive killer whose daily victims represent one of the seven deadly sins (hence the title).  This film is not perfect, but is an enjoyable film that clearly paved the way for his more memorable films like The Game (1997), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) and The Social Network (2010).
 Set in a dark and dreary New York City, the crime noir element is prevalent from the beginning.  Rain is ever-present, and walls in many of the victim's homes are old and peeling.  Even things as innocent as a lamp shade give off a sinister vibe in this low-lit thriller.  New to the city, Detective Mills (Brad Pitt) and his wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) are having trouble adjusting to their new life, but when Mills is assigned to work with aged Detective Somerset (Freeman), he becomes highly involved in the investigation of the seven deadly sins killer.
 Finger prints from the killer can never be found, and hidden messages and clues revealing his motives are intricately concealed in his highly pre-meditated murder scenes.
 Visually, this film is an early version of the typical Fincher style.  Highly decorative and detail-based-locations add the fine-realism that his films always possess.  With swooping camera angles and penetrating well-framed shots, the cinematography in Se7en bares a sophistication that reflects the detail-based occupation of the detective protagonists while revealing the haunting methods of the killer.  
 Though Fincher never writes his own scripts (Andrew Kevin Walker wrote Se7en), he is always heavily involved in the story and is a perfectionist during the shooting of his films.  Howard Shore provided the score (a similar score to his soundtrack to The Silence of the Lambs (1991) from four years earlier), but the opening title sequence features a remixed version of the Nine Inch Nails song "Closer" which is a career foreshadowing to Fincher's most recent two films that feature soundtracks by the Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor.

 The first two acts of this film are a joy to observe, but where the film falls apart is the ending:

 At the end of the film, the killer - only known as "John Doe" - turns himself in after only five victims in his chain of seven deadly sins have been found.  Desiring for the world to see his final two murders (which he claims were intricately hidden), he makes a deal with the detectives stating that if they escort him to a disclosed area of his choosing that he will show them the final two victims and plea guilty of murder instead of pleading insanity.  Naturally, the detectives agree and take him to the location.
 It's broad daylight in the middle of a desert (very similar to Alfred Hitchcock's 1959 film North By Northwest) and a van pulls up meeting the two detectives and the restrained John Doe.  Detective Somerset leaves Mills to guard John Doe so that he can check the content of the van.  Inside the van is a box, and within the box is the head of Detective Mills' wife.
 Mills begins to sob as he pulls his gun out and points it at John Doe against Somerset's will.  Frankly though, this scene does not work well on an emotional level.  
 Earlier in the film, Detective Mills' wife met with Detective Somerset at a coffee shop and revealed to him that she was pregnant and too afraid to tell her husband because she didn't want to raise a child in New York City.  This occurrence is never mentioned again and Mills never finds out that she was newly-pregnant until John Doe reveals to him that she was when the box with her head in it is opened.
 Had Se7en been more about the personal life of Detective Mills and his wife as they struggled to conceive a child, this would be a much more emotionally impacting sequence, but because her pregnancy was dwelled upon so little and it was a surprise to Mills, we end up with a man crying on the screen with an audience that thought the film would end in a less-predictable manner and cannot connect with the emotion presented before them.
 It was predictable to have the head in the box, and it was expected that when Mills inevitably pulled the trigger and killed John Doe that Mills would fulfill John Doe's seven sins killing spree.  It would have been far more impressive for Mills to have let John Doe live with the intent of letting him suffer in prison for life compared to him giving into emotions.
 Yes, Mills is the young inexperienced detective, but the dramatic tension could have been elevated even further with John Doe shocked that Mills refuses to give into his violent natural impulses... but that's not how it ended.

 Se7en is an enjoyable film, but nowhere near as brilliant as his future work.  Fincher's films are almost notorious for their wonderfully devised endings, but Se7en falls flat when it could have been a dramatic moment.  Without a doubt, that is his loss.  
 Though this film is better than most in the genre, the ending is unforgivable in my mind and presses me to recommend Jonathan Demme's The Silence of The Lambs or Fincher's latest masterpiece The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011) as far superior mystery crime-thrillers.

My ranking: 3.5/5 stars

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Most Important Film You Will Ever Experience (Part 1: Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal")

 Before saying that a film is important, the term "important" must be defined.  Is it artistically brilliant as a film?  Is the film life affirming?  Is the film life changing?  Does the film live beyond its date of release?  Does the film capture a time or a place in society and history?  Does the film challenge the audience?  If it can fit into most of these categories, then it simply must be important.
 To quote the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, "The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good."  He also famously stated, “I am only interested in the views of two people: one is called Bresson and one called Bergman," which leads to our first important film:

Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957)

 Set during the beginning of the spread of the bubonic plague, it is difficult to imagine that a film set during a time of great fear and pain could be so life-rewarding.  Astonishingly, The Seventh Seal is a film comparable to the work of Shakespeare in that it is a well-rounded combination of comedy, romance, suspense, drama, and death.  
 Just on the surface level, The Seventh Seal is a marvelous comedy and a fantastic drama, but director/writer Ingmar Bergman never deals with subjects simply on the surface level... he penetrates the soul.  Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) is returning from the crusades as a failure.  Leaving the violence of the crusades, he is greeted by the plague in his native Sweden and begins to question the existence of God.  
 Iconically, the film opens to a rocky Scandinavian beach where the Swedish crusader Antonius Block is visited by a hooded figure (Death personified) and is challenged to a game of chess.  Antonius makes a deal with Death stating that as long as they are playing the game, Antonius gets to live.  A few pieces are moved, and Antonius then leaves one-fourth through the game as he continues his quest back home with his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand).  The signs of the plague are everywhere as they pass dead peasants and emptied cities.
 Meanwhile, the jester-like performers Jof (Nils Poppe) and his wife Mia (Bibi Andersson) are struggling to find audiences that want comedy during this dark time in history.  Jof awakes one morning and sees a vision of Mother Mary walking with the Christ-child which lifts his spirits, but when he tells his wife about what he saw, she does not believe him.  As the plague continues passing through Europe, by fate, Jof and Mia's paths cross with the traveling knight Antonius Block and his squire.  Antonius allows for Mia and Jof to accompany them to safety, but the devout Christian Jof can see that something dark troubles Antonius through their journey (unlike Mia or the squire).
 Each stop that they make, Antonius pulls out the chess board and Death reappears to continue their game.

 The Seventh Seal is a highly thought-provoking film that challenges audiences with the role of death in the lives of all.  The bubonic plague is simply a device for the story to help maintain the presence of death in the minds of the viewers while also depicting the inescapable nature of death - as it is something that every human will face.
 Filled with Biblical references, the film questions the role of God in the lives of humans as Antonius struggles to see that a God can live and be loving during such hard times.  Playing chess against Death may help the way that he feels about himself and the power that he has over his own life, but he is constantly aware that he truly has no power as the society around him collapses.  Antonius Block (and everyone else journeying alongside him) are simply pawns in God's game of chess.  Their fates (and ours) have all been pre-determined, and Death is just the messenger.

 The Seventh Seal is most comparable to the modern classic No Country For Old Men (2007) as Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) and Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) return from Vietnam with two very different experiences.  Llewelyn lives a simple life in Texas as a veteran, but Anton Chigurh (the "Death" character of the film) is playing with the lives and fates of others with his deep-penetrating eyes and coin-tossing ways.  When their paths cross, a suspenseful twist of fate is constantly in the minds of viewers and in the back of Llewelyn's mind as well.
 Much like Antonius Block, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is fearful of what society is doing around him. Though it is not the plague, the loss of morality and values disturbs the Sheriff in his small Texas town as he observes the wayward travels of Llewelyn as he hunts for the deranged veteran Chigurh who is constantly casting a shadow over the life of the innocent.
 Ironically, Chigurh is even compared to the bubonic plague in the film...

 Often parodied and referenced by other filmmakers (notably Woody Allen), The Seventh Seal is the film that made Ingmar Bergman a success and paved the way for the next four decades of filmmaking in his life.  Though most of his later films would not be as straight-forward with his motives, the role of Christianity for humans and the fate of the soul was a continuing theme that would run through all of his work.
 In a film about the human condition and the fate of the soul, The Seventh Seal is a film that connects to everyone and continues to impact viewers upon each viewing.  

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Film Review: "The Wrestler" (2008) directed by Darren Aronofsky 5/5

 One of the most unique young-auteur directors of today, Darren Aronofsky, is a shape-shifter grounded in his Harvard education.  With his 1998 debut film π (Pi), Darren used math as a device to push a psychotic genius towards success (or his demise) as he attempted to predict the stock market.  His second film was an adaptation of the Hubert Shelby Jr. novel entitled Requiem For A Dream which Aronofsky directed in 2000.  Requiem For A Dream chronicled the lives of addicts (specifically drug addicts) as their lives fell deeper down an irreversible downward spiral.  The Fountain (2006) crossed the lines of science fiction and history as it told the story of one man (Hugh Jackman) in three of his different lives through time as he attempted to reach nirvana.  In 2008, he directed The Wrestler which is considered by Aronofsky to be a companion film to his psychological-horror film about ballet entitled Black Swan (2010).
 Starring Mickey Rourke as Randy "The Ram" Robinson and Marisa Tomei as a stripper known as Cassidy, both characters embody similar roles in one of the overarching themes of the film.  Cassidy is a mother of a nine year old and is considered by many of the clients to be too old regardless of her physical shape and presence as a stripper.  Similarly, Randy is in his late fifties with a great history of success as a professional wrestler in the 1980s, but now that he is back in the realm of wrestling he is beginning to realize that he can't handle all of the physical stress (even though he has every spectator's admiration as a veteran in the wrestling industry).
 The Wrestler is, by far, Darren Aronofsky's greatest film to date as it blends drama and action with grace and brutality and is gripping to viewers who may regard wrestling as "dirty" or "unsophisticated" (especially in comparison to Black Swan which is set in the realm of beauty and sophistication).
 One of the greatest challenges in dramatic filmmaking is crossing the line of melodrama (a problem that a few of Aronofsky's past films have suffered from), but The Wrestler captures a vivid picture of reality in this fictional tale.  Everything from the daughter that Randy abandoned in the 80s (Evan Rachel Wood), to Cassidy's friendship with her frequent client Randy; The Wrestler is a beautiful depiction of life with flawed people who have deep emotional scars (and in the case of Randy, physical scars too), but it is also a film that shows their redeeming qualities with great joy.
 On a technical level, The Wrestler has a wonderful combination of rough and life-capturing cinematography.  Almost always handheld, the cinematography is highly reminiscent to documentary style filmmaking (this same style would be used for Black Swan as well).  The handheld camera gives the film an additional sense of realism and also places the audience in the ring with Randy "The Ram".  
 Mickey Rourke is in top physical shape and plays the role to perfection in his comeback film.  During his time away from acting in the 1990s, Mickey Rourke became a professional boxer and now suffers from short-term memory loss (similarly implied to be a symptom that his character Randy suffers from as well).  Rourke's experience as a fighter only enhances his visceral performance as a wrestler trying to return to the fame and glory he once had.
 Majority of the soundtrack is rock anthems from the 80s (Guns N' Roses and Ratt specifically), and the films score by Clint Mansell features Slash on guitar.  This touch adds to the atmosphere of the film and automatically places the audience in the mind of a man who lived through the 1980s and thoroughly enjoyed it.
 The Wrestler is a gritty film, but it is filled with life and powerful performances that make this film a pleasure to watch.  Blending artistry and classic-commercial-style filmmaking, this film is memorable and worth the time of viewers everywhere.

My ranking: 5/5 stars

Friday, February 10, 2012

A Brief Argument In Support Of The Foreign Film

Lydia (Rosario Flores) in Pedro Almodóvar's Talk To Her (2002)
 It is too often that English speaking nations and their respective cinema is taken in with open arms while the works of other nations sit off to the side (particularly in America).
 Some of the biggest elements that keep English speaking audiences from dabbling in foreign films (excluding subtitles) is the cultural separation and the "lack of accessibility".  

 A film like the 2008 drama Valkyrie (which had great potential) tried to be a foreign film without making the language transition... As a result, we end up with a bunch of up-tight English-speaking Nazis that we, the audience, oddly hold sympathy for, but for all the wrong reasons as we are not challenged by what we are seeing because the film is in English.  Tom Cruise is a great actor, but so is the German actor Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds (2009) who conveys a believable (yet comical) portrayal of what it is actually like to be a Nazi by speaking in German (and French, English, and Italian).  In which by not casting German-speaking actors, Valkyrie loses all believability as "Nazi" is a word nearly synonymous with the German language in the year 1945 (and sometimes even today).  Valkyrie has no cultural connection because you cannot feel and experience the trials and inner-battles of being a German defying the Third Reich in a plot to kill Hitler simply because of a language change.
 Language is an element of culture, just as myths and legends come with the land.  In America, the western is a genre that only exists because of the history of the nation.  The Japanese samurai film is the cowboy equal, and is just as deeply imbedded into their culture as the heroes of the Alamo are a staple of American storytelling.  While the Japanese may not have initially watched The Searchers (1956), they certainly saw Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954).  As odd as it is to imagine classic John Wayne films as foreign to other nations, that is the reality of foreign cinema on an international level. 
 On a more modern level, the Coen Brothers are a prime example of cultural misinterpretation.  The Hollywood Foreign Press votes on the Golden Globes, and as a result the Coen Brothers very rarely get nominated because their films are so American.  The Foreign Press doesn't understand the art of the western (especially the modern western).  True Grit (justly, in my opinion) recieved no nominations by the Golden Globes in 2010 (but the Academy nominated it in 10 different categories), and No Country For Old Men (2007) lost to the British adapted drama Atonement at the Globes where in contrast it won best picture at the Academy Awards.
 The conflicting perception of international cinema goes both ways, but in which by keeping up with the films being released from other nations, much can be learned and further entertainment can be experienced.  Different countries do different things, and as a result, movies from other countries will often contain settings and events that can only happen in that particular region.  In Pedro Almodóvar's 2002 Oscar winning film Talk To Her, one of the main characters is a female matador.  The film is beautifully filmed and contains an incredible bull fight with a sporting event vibe that bears a gritty meditative atmosphere that could only be achieved by a director who has seen his fair share of actual bullfights.
 Watching films from other countries such as Talk To Her is a perfect solution for movie viewers who are tired of seeing the same old stories being released out of America.  International cinema can make disenchanted movie-buffs believe in movies and fantasy again (it made me believe in the power and joy of film again for sure).  Often times, it is difficult to find a foreign film playing in American cities, but thankfully there is a surplus of art theaters speckled across the nation, and with the rise of Netflix, international cinema has never been more accessible than it is today.  
 Film, no matter where it is being made and what language is being spoken, should always be a window to a time or place and if it's not saying something new.... well, who cares?  Film is a form of expression (just as all art is), and if a film has nothing new to say or show, then hopefully it won't be made.  Movie viewers need to strive to seek out foreign cinema, and hopefully in the process more of these films will be given American release dates.

If you feel disenchanted by the movies in theaters today... start watching foreign films and you will be more than satisfied.  There is a lot out there just waiting to be seen.

[Originally published on 5 September 2011]

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Oscar Predictions for the 84th Academy Awards

 This has been a great year for international cinema and films categorized more in the "art house" category.  This is reflected with many of the guild awards (DGA, SAG, WGA etc) as well as the Academy's decisions for nominations at their 84th annual ceremony.
 The following is a list of my predictions for the Oscar winners of this year and does not necessarily reflect my personal opinions for what I think should win.  Though I have made some daring choices (specifically in the "Actress In a Leading Role" category), here are my predictions:

The full list of nominees can be seen here: http://oscar.go.com/nominees

Writing (Adapted Screenplay): Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash for The Descendants
Writing (Original Screenplay): Woody Allen for Midnight In Paris
Sound Editing: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
Sound Mixing: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
Film Editing: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
Art Direction: Hugo
Costume Design: Jane Eyre
Makeup: The Iron Lady
Visual Effects: Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Music (Original Song): "Man or Muppet" from The Muppets
Music (Original Score): Ludovic Bource for The Artist
Short Film (Animated): La Luna
Short Film (Live Action): Pentecost
Documentary Short: Incident in New Baghdad
Documentary Feature: Wim Wenders for Pina
Animated Feature Film: Gore Verbinski for Rango
Foreign Language Film: Asghar Farhadi for A Separation
Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki for The Tree of Life
Actress In a Supporting Role: Octavia Spencer (The Help)
Actor In a Supporting Role: Christopher Plummer (Beginners)
Actress In a Leading Role: Rooney Mara (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo)
Actor In a Leading Role: Jean Dujardin (The Artist)
Best Director: Michel Hazanavicius for The Artist
Best Picture: The Artist

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Film Review: "L'Enfant" (2005) directed by the Dardenne Brothers 4/5

 L'Enfant (or The Child) is the second film that the Dardenne Brothers won the Palme d'Or for (the first being their 1999 film Rosetta), and in the typical Dardenne form, L'Enfant is a dramatic piece grounded by reality and filmed with simplicity.
 Following the new parents Bruno (Jérémie Renier) and Sonia (Déborah François) in their low income pocket of France, L'Enfant depicts the couple as young and the husband, Bruno, as childish and immature.  Bruno and Sonia name their child Jimmy, and even though they don't have a place to stay, they are still trying to make it work.  What Sonia is unaware of is how far into the world of crime Bruno actually is, and when Bruno discovers that he could get 5,000 if he puts their baby on the black market for adoption, he hops on the opportunity instantly without telling Sonia.  Upon returning to Sonia with an empty stroller and a wad of cash, Sonia passes out and has to be hospitalized... it is then that Bruno realizes he has to get their baby back.
 Filmed almost entirely handheld, completely utilizing natural light, and lacking a musical score, L'Enfant feels like a documentary capturing the mundane moments of life in the poverty stricken corner of France that the protagonists dwell in.  This can also be said of all of the Dardenne's films, but it feels best utilized in their previous film Le Fils (2002) which followed a carpenter as he taught his trade to young French boys who had dropped out of school.  The sound of buzz saws and hammers created an almost musical vibe in Le Fils that can't be recreated in the context of L'Enfant.  L'Enfant is a film much more about silence, patience, and wandering as Bruno chooses to live a simple life as a jobless father (who is also almost never around his girlfriend Sonia).
 Actor driven, Jérémie Renier and Déborah François deliver solid performances as young lovers who suddenly have a child, but they also convey a greater sense of pain and sorrow as the events of the film progress.
 Where the film nearly falls apart is in several of the essentially self-resolving conflicts.  Just when we, as an audience, think things are going to get tough for the main characters, the film suddenly makes it realistically easy (or just as it would be in real life).  This aspect of the film only enhances the documentary qualities of the narrative as the film chooses to be un-cinematic in every way (which can be quite unappealing for many audiences).
 Though the film is not perfect, it is an acquired taste (as are many of the Dardenne's films), and L'Enfant is filled with wonderful realistic drama.  The directors do an amazing job of creating a character (like Bruno) who is easy to feel sympathy for while disagreeing with everything that he does on screen.  Yes, the film is at times overly simple, but there are many gut-wrenching scenes and some wildly realistic on-screen events that make the film both exciting and memorable.

My ranking: 4/5 stars

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Acting The Part: Debating The Modern Actor

 A couple months ago I had a discussion with an elderly woman at my church concerning my future as a film director.  We discussed some of her favorite films such as Gone With The Wind (1939) and Breakfast At Tiffany's (1961) (both being very great and enjoyable movies), but she then made the remark that "actors today don't really act anymore."  I did not feel like debating with her, but I lightly responded after an exchange of a few compromising words that there are in fact wonderful films being released every month which truly do require well-trained acting (The King's Speech (2010) was my example).
 After leaving and moving on with my day, her words stuck in the back of my mind.  It seems that many (though, no where near all) older people agree with her sentiment. 

 However, I must humbly disagree.

 One of her greatest arguments concerned the prevalence of special effects in movies today (which she claimed were actually leaving computers and animators to create the acting).  Although that is partially true as seen in Star Wars Episode 2 (2002) in the fight sequence between Yoda and Count Dooku (played by, then, 79 year old Christopher Lee who is currently 89), or The Matrix Reloaded (2003) which featured a computerized version of Keanu Reeves who wielded a cement-covered pole as a weapon against a couple hundred Agent Smiths... they are still acting.  True, it is not direct acting, but to quote American film-legend Stanley Kubrick, "If it can be written, or thought, it can be filmed."
 Although they were artistically rendered upon the screen performing violent backflips – and otherwise – danceable martial arts, their faces were filmed separately (and in Keanu Reeves case, his body was mapped in a motion capture shoot).  If anything, advancements in technology have enabled screenwriters and directors to provide more acting opportunities for their actors.  A movie such as The Matrix (1999) would have been inconceivable even 20 years ago (and certainly better-suited for the realm of graphic novels), but with advancements in technology, Neo was able to dodge bullets in slow motion (bullet-time camera technology) which only enhances our understanding of the character Neo's physical abilities within the Matrix.
 Up until, relatively, 1972 (the year of The Godfather), actors barely knew how to die on camera.  Though entertaining, films such as 007 Thunderball (1965) featured horrible acting from Sean Connery as he spear-gun battled hundreds of scuba divers or in 
Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) when John Wayne theatrically died smoking a cigarette at the top of Mt. Suribachi.

 What creates this acting transition between a decade of cinema?
 The desire for reality.
 A film like The Godfather or The Deer Hunter (1978) almost feels like an answer for lovers of the real world.  The stories were fictional yet socially relevant, entertaining yet believable, and needed actors who could capture true brutality even in scenes that were not violent.  An actor like Al Pacino or Robert De Niro is not necessarily as attractive as Frank Sinatra or Humphrey Bogart, but when film directors began making movies solely to tell a story with a theme and emotion, pretty faces just wouldn't cut it.  If anything, acting has progressed since the days of Gone With The Wind.  This progression is easily attributed to the social nature of the late 1960s and early 70s compared to the decades before.  Counter-culture and Vietnam hardened the hearts of many and asked for honesty within both politics and entertainment.
 It is not particularly easy to act Shakespeare, but it is easy to act as though you're acting for the stage in a motion-picture.  Frank Sinatra knew his lines and could move his hands at the right time, but you never cried during Von Ryan's Express (1965).  Robert De Niro portrayed Marlon Brando's character Don Vito Corleone in his younger years in The Godfather Pt. II (1974), and Robert De Niro is without a doubt a younger rendition of the Don who struggles to earn money and raise his young family; all of which is portrayed through his movements, the stroking of his chin, and most importantly, the development of his character.
 Beyond the realm of special effects in modern cinema, (500) Days of Summer (2009) is flirtatious, nostalgic, and filled with pain.  Essentially an instant-classic, (500) Days of Summer is a film for lovers of film and lovers of humaity.  You could argue that thematically it is a modern remake of Annie Hall (1977), but that doesn't alter the way that the acting effectively presented life-rooted humor, believable heart break, and persistent desire as it was written in the script.  Even in the James Bond film Casino Royale (2006), the movie is greater than the average James Bond flick.  The story is moving as 007 struggles to win the affections of Vesper (Eva Green), and even the bond villain, Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), is a well developed asthma-stricken/haemolacria-cursed character whom the audience can actually sympathize with (or at least see as a believable person).
 Actors act now perhaps more than ever before.  Sean Penn, a straight actor, portrayed the homosexual San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant's biopic Milk (2008) (possibly one of the best biopics ever made), and Sean Penn literally became Harvey Milk on the silver screen.  Even a comedic low-brow film like Talledega Nights (2006) features deep-rooted character-based acting that is humorous beyond the funny lines.  With the role of Ricky Bobby, Will Ferrell is a stereotypical redneck Nascar driver who is set upon being #1 all the time.  Yes, great credit goes to the writing, but Will Ferrell is notorious for his on-screen improv.
 If acting is nonexistent today, then Colin Firth should return his Oscar for The King's Speech and his BAFTA for A Single Man (2009).  In both of those films, you experience the pain and inner emotions of Prince Albert (The King's Speech), and the somber fears that haunt George as he mourns the death of his lover (A Single Man).  It should be noted that Firth is British (as are both George and Prince Albert), but his performances are far more than simply an accent.  Rather, Colin Firth is considered a great actor because of an air of existence that he exudes within the realm of acting that reflects the real world.
 Actors are vessels for the work of the director/screenwriter, and the level of believability determines their respective talent.  Ability is what sets Will Ferrell in a higher spectrum than Jonah Hill, but places Frank Sinatra below Marlon Brando.  Great actors have always existed, but the transformation that occurred within Hollywood in the late 1960s established the standard of reality on the screen versus stage-acting caught on film.  Yes, actors such as Clint Eastwood and Robert Mitchum (to name a few) are exceptions to past acting-trends, but that is why their films still live on today.
 Though Keanu Reeves may possess a fairly blank gaze upon his face, he serves the stoic role that his scripts often demand and that viewers expect from his characters (not necessarily from him).  You can argue that acting has lost its touch and flare, but the death of Hollywood glamour only brought about the natural grit that was required for cinema to align with reality.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Film Review: "Hunger" (2008) directed by Steve McQueen 5/5

 Winner of the Camera d'Or (awarded at Cannes to the best debut film), British artist turned director Steve McQueen delivers a highly realistic account of the prison riots during "The Troubles" in England for his first film Hunger.  Following IRA leader Bobby Sands, portrayed by Michael Fassbender - who would become an actor on the international stage with his role in Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds (2009) and most recently in Steve McQueen's 2nd film Shame (2011) - the audience is taken into the prisons and through the agonizing experiences the Irish prisoners went through before and during the hunger strikes.
 Based on a true story, Hunger manages to maintain a documentary style of neutrality as it handles the delicate topic of "The Troubles" and the hunger strike that Bobby Sands lead.  The film is essentially split into four parts and has three main characters: the first being a British prison guard (Stuart Graham), the second being Davey Gillen (an Irish prisoner played by Brian Milligan), and the third being Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender).  Beginning with the British prison guard, we get to see his daily life and the dangerous side of his job as he handles disgruntled Irish prisoners (often times he is getting injured in the process of working with them).  When he helps bring in Davey Gillen, the story then becomes Davey's tale as a prisoner.  When all of the prisoners are taken out of their cells for a haircut, the narrative passes to Bobby Sands at the moment that Davey sees him.  The fourth and final part of the film chronicles Bobby Sands 66 days of starvation while in the British prison.
 Though it is not a conventional way to tell a story, it works beautifully in Hunger for the position of main character to pass between characters based upon physical contact.  Getting to experience the British perspective is eye opening and painful, but getting to experience the Irish prison life is just as bad (and far worse), so in order to glide down the line without truly taking sides director Steve McQueen had to have three protagonists who were all easy to identify with (without screaming for sympathy).
 Majority of the film is without dialogue (excluding a 17 minute scene filmed from a single camera angle in which Bobby Sands reveals his hunger strike plan), and it is with that lack of dialogue that Steve McQueen is able to create a non-biased look at "The Troubles" as a whole through the physical performances of all the actors within the film.
 The cinematography is stunning and invasive and Steve McQueen's artistry truly shines in this film that contains some of the most beautiful imagery of the most painful beatings and experiences.  Letting the camera roll and focus upon the seemingly mundane elements of life in the prison sets an atmosphere only comparable to that of prison life.
 Sound is also a highly integral element of the film (also a technical area that Steve McQueen particularly enjoys working with).  Everything from stock audio of Margaret Thatcher speaking abut the troubles, to the sound of seventy prisoners all urinating into the hall outside of their prison cell simultaneously; this film is an audio frenzy grounded in the sounds of reality.  Furthermore, the overall lack of a legitimate musical score fits the prison atmosphere and isolation perfectly.
 Hunger, though often painful to watch, is a film-viewing experience that truly does draw comparison to documentary work (a testament to how wonderfully realistic the events of this film are depicted).  Both haunting and brutal, it is unforgettable and powerful in a way that few historical films are... it lives beyond the event that it depicts.

My ranking: 5/5 stars
Hunger is available on DVD by the Criterion Collection: http://www.criterion.com/films/477-hunger?q=autocomplete