Sunday, March 31, 2013

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
Drama, Romance, 96 minutes
Directed by Woody Allen
Starring Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz, Chris Messina and Patricia Clarkson

People often think that I don't have a sense of humor. This is mainly due to the fact that I don't tell jokes, and I rarely find comedies funny. Slapstick humor only works if it involves Peter Sellers, or similar genius. Most comedies are so predictable that I see the jokes coming, and they aren't very funny when they arrive. But that doesn't mean that I don't like to laugh. I look for comedy within other genres because I find that humor works better for me when it is witty, and buried within a believable situation. That's why I turn to directors like Quentin Tarantino, the Coens, Martin McDonagh, Wes Anderson, and Woody Allen when I want to laugh.

Woody Allen's humor won't work for everyone. His earlier work did contain significant amounts of physical humor and jokes, but I think he's at his best when he writes more seriously. Vicky Cristina Barcelona falls into that category. It's an examination of human nature, more than a comedy, but there are still plenty of amusing scenes.

What qualities do you find attractive in a romantic partner? Allen asks that question, and uses Vicky (Hall) and Cristina (Johansson) to show two very different views. Vicky seeks stability, and likes to know what to expect from her man. Cristina is more of a free spirit, and wants her partners to have a similar outlook on life. Vicky has her future carefully planned, and is due to marry, whereas Cristina is still exploring and trying to find exactly what it is she is looking for. The thing is, she isn't sure what that is.

Juan Antonio (Bardem) is an artist, and boldly asks the two women to take a trip with him. He openly says that they will all make love during the trip. This proposition is attractive to Cristina, but Vicky is shocked by his brazen approach and wants nothing to do with him. Needless to say, the three do eventually make the trip. Juan Antonio is not a conventional man, and still has feelings for ex-wife Maria Elena (Cruz). Like him, she's passionate and unpredictable, as well as being an artist herself.

The story uses a narrator, and it's a great vehicle for some of the humor. Allen assembles a fantastic cast, as always, and the principals all give strong performances. Other notable appearances come from Vicky's husband-to-be, Doug (Messina), and Judy (Clarkson), who is an important part of the puzzle.

Penélope Cruz won an Oscar for her supporting role, and she certainly steals most of the scenes in which she appears. Her character is a catalyst for the events that unfold in the second half of the movie, and it's during this time that Allen raises the most questions about the motives of his characters.

The writing is superb and left me thinking about relationships I have been involved in, and also some of the relationships that I have watched develop between my friends and acquaintances. Human interactions are unpredictable, complicated, and fascinating, and Allen weaves an interesting tale featuring all of those elements.

If you enjoyed such movies as Closer, Midnight in Paris, (500) Days of Summer, or The Graduate, you'll probably find something to like in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. I think it's up there with Allen's most enjoyable work.

Overall score 5/5

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Invictus (2009)
Biography, Drama, History, 134 minutes
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon

I have very little time for politicians, I'm not a fan of rugby, and I know very little about South Africa. However, I do think that Clint Eastwood makes a lot of important films, and I enjoy the acting of Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. That's why I decided to watch Invictus when it was released on Blu-ray four years ago.

Mandela was occasionally in the news during my childhood, but events happening on another continent meant very little to me as a young boy. As an adult, I have come to appreciate people who sacrificed much of their lives in an attempt to change the way people think. If you connected with Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, try to imagine a similar scenario in the modern world.

Mandela campaigned against apartheid, and was imprisoned for his actions in 1963. He spent 18 of his 27 years in prison on Robben Island, where he contracted tuberculosis. As I write this review, he's in hospital with pneumonia at the age of 94.

Invictus shows some of the challenges faced by Mandela when he became South Africa's first black president in 1994. He defied expectations at every turn. An early scene gives us a clue about the man as he calls together his staff. Some of them are white, and expecting to be fired, but Mandela urges them to stay and continue to serve their country. He wants to forgive those who imprisoned him, and those who hate black South Africans. He realized that he was in a position to lead by example, and that it wasn't the time to settle old scores. Freeman's portrayal provides insight into Mandela's character, and shows us why he was loved by the people with whom he interacted.

Racism is one of the most dangerous things in existence, and I believe that it will always be with us in some form. There is no logic in hating someone because of their color or origin, but we are still surrounded by people who do just that. I think it's incredibly ignorant to continue to hold such beliefs in modern society, but I won't turn this review into a debate about racism. I mention it because it's important to frame the story, and appreciate what Mandela was trying to do.

So why is rugby an integral part of the story?

When Mandela took office, South Africa had already been chosen to host the rugby world cup a year later. Mandela decided to use the occasion to help to unite South Africans in a common cause. Rugby had always been a game revered by white South Africans, while black South Africans preferred soccer. In fact, the black population frequently cheered for whichever team was playing their national team as a form of protest. Overcoming that level of hatred proved to be quite a challenge.

Matt Damon plays South African Springbok captain, Francois Pienaar. He leads a team that is suffering from lack of belief in its own ability. There's a definite parallel between Mandela's efforts to unite the country, and Pienaar's task of uniting his team, the fans, and the media. Mandela meets him to discuss the importance of performing well in the world cup, and the two talk about leadership techniques.

Invictus is an engaging story which appeals as a historical drama more than a movie about sports. You don't need to know anything about rugby in order to appreciate the story. Eastwood has constructed a film that deals with the weighty subject matter in a way that we can all understand. Freeman was deservedly nominated for his performance, and Damon is convincing as a rugby player.

Films like this may be considered too idealistic by many, but it works for me. I realize that uniting a country is more difficult than the events portrayed on the screen over the course of two hours. What Invictus does is encourage me to think beyond my immediate surroundings, and appreciate some of the things faced by people living in other countries. It's not the best film ever made about politics or sports, but it's definitely worth your time if you want to broaden your horizons.

Overall score 4/5

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Friday, March 29, 2013


Following (1998)
Crime, Drama, Mystery, 69 minutes
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Jeremy Theobald, Alex Haw and Lucy Russell

Are you a fan of Christopher Nolan? His impressive filmography includes Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Inception, and The Dark Knight Rises. But his first feature was Following, and I imagine that there are plenty of Nolan fans who haven't got around to seeing it. My first viewing was just a few months ago, shortly after the Criterion Blu-ray release.

Why do I want to review it?

Well, one reason is that I wanted to talk about the first first film made by one of the best directors working today. Another incentive was the presence of actual ideas. Following is unpredictable, and does not use proven formulas. It works because it is genuinely interesting and compelling.

You have probably never heard of the actors involved. The two principals haven't had much of a career since, but I enjoyed their performances. The film is full of mysteries and revelations, so I am not going to talk about everything that happens. Instead, I'll limit most of my comments to things we learn in the opening 10 minutes.

The film grabbed my attention after two minutes during the opening narration by Bill (Theobald), who is the main character. He tells us that he's unemployed, and frequently bored and lonely. In order to combat his boredom, he decides to start following people at random. In his own mind, he's an aspiring writer, although he probably views himself that way to justify his miserable existence. He's interested in people and what motivates them. When he's following someone, he has a certain set of rules, such as not pursuing women along dark alleys at night. He's a keen observer, but not a predator of any kind. He follows people of any gender, watches what they do, and then leaves.

Bill's problems begin when he breaks one of his biggest rules, and decides to follow the same person more than once. The man calls himself Cobb (Haw), and after noticing that he's being followed, he confronts Bill and questions him. Cobb dresses, acts, and sounds like a successful man, which is in total contrast to Bill's scruffy appearance and less formal way of speaking.

Minor spoiler coming:

Cobb allows Bill to look inside the bag he's carrying, and Bill realizes that it's full of goods that are presumably stolen. The two form a kind of partnership, and start to do burglaries together.

I'm not going to reveal any more specific information, but I want to talk generally about the plot structure, and the overall feel of the film. The plot is fragmented, jumping around in time. If you have seen Memento, you'll recognize the style immediately. Bill's appearance changes, and is always a clue as to the timeline. As he's a writer, there's also a strong possibility that some of the events are things that he is imagining for a future story.

Another key element is the music. It reminds me a little of Angelo Badalementi's work, and it wouldn't be too out of place in a David Lynch film. The film was shot in black and white with an aspect ratio of 1.37:1, so be prepared for that. Following was originally shot using 16 mm film, giving the piece a raw feel which suits the story, but the Criterion presentation is superb. The Blu-ray also includes the option to use an updated 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix, as well as the original mono. Like the Memento DVD, the special features offer the chance to see events in chronological order.

After viewing the film a second time, I noticed that events had a different meaning because I was in full possession of the facts. Seemingly random encounters have more meaning because some of the people are recognizable. You'll probably ask yourself a lot of questions the first time you watch the events unfold. How does the character know that? Why is he doing that? Why is she acting that way? All of those questions will be answered by the end of the film, so trust that Nolan knows what he is doing and enjoy the ride. The revelations in the final 20 minutes will make you question everything you've seen up to that point, and then smile as you understand the logic.

Following cost around $6,000 to make, and grossed just $43,000, but Nolan hasn't made a weak film yet and this deserves to be seen. Although it runs for just 69 minutes, it feels as though it's crammed with ideas. The acting, story, dialogue and music blend together well, and Following is something that you'll probably want to see many times if you appreciate Nolan's style. Buy the Criterion and check it out for yourself.

Overall score 4.5/5

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Saturday, March 16, 2013

Winter's Bone

Winter's Bone (2010)
Drama, Mystery 100 minutes
Directed by Debra Granik
Starring Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes

If you're a fan of Jennifer Lawrence after seeing The Hunger Games and Silver Linings Playbook, you might be interested in seeing the film that put her on the map. She gained a Best Actress nomination for her performance in Winter's Bone, and after seeing it for the second time, I have come to the conclusion that it may be a better performance than her 2013 Oscar-winning effort. I say that because of the demands of the role, and not because anything was lacking in her Oscar-winning performance.

Winter's Bone is an incredibly bleak story. Ree Dolly (Lawrence) is 17, and her very existence is a challenge. Her father is missing and about to stand trial for manufacturing crystal meth. Unfortunately, he put up their house as collateral for his bail, and it will be taken from her within a week if he fails to show up. Ree's mother rarely talks and is incapable of taking care of her and her young brother and sister. As a result, Ree is responsible for the entire family.

In order to resolve her situation, she must find her father. There's also the chance that he's dead, and she would have to prove it to the authorities if that turned out to be the case. So, Ree sets off to discover the truth. The story takes place in the Ozarks, and everyone she questions is aggressive, dangerous, guarded, or a combination of all three. It's risky to even pursue her investigation with some of those she encounters also mixed up in the illegal drug trade.

If you thought Lawrence was plucky in The Hunger Games, you'll be amazed by the things she has to deal with in Winter's Bone. This world is real, and director Debra Granik doesn't pull any punches. The result is a tense thriller, but it's not an action movie. The tension is more in the style of Hitchcock because we know that Ree is in danger the whole time.

The other outstanding performance in the film comes from John Hawkes as Teardrop. He doesn't say much, but his character oozes menace every time he appears. He also earned an Oscar nomination, and it's hard to argue with that decision. If you saw him as Mark in The Sessions, you might find it difficult to believe that Teardrop is played by the same actor.

Lawrence is off to a strong start with two Oscar nominations and a win by the age of 22. After seeing her play Ree Dolly, I think it's clear that she has a lot more range than most young actresses, and it will be interesting to see what she does over the next few years.

Winter's Bone is a scary place to visit, but it's a riveting piece of drama with superb acting. It didn't find a large audience in theaters, but the Blu-ray experience is a good one. Don't watch it if gritty realism isn't your thing.

Overall score 4/5

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Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Road

The Road (2009)
Adventure, Drama, 111 minutes
Directed by John Hillcoat
Starring Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall and Guy Pearce

Some movies are hard to watch, and The Road belongs in that category. But I have chosen to review it because it deserves an audience.The director is John Hillcoat, who was responsible for The Proposition and Lawless. Like both of those movies, this one features music composed by Nick Cave. The bleak nature of the story is a perfect fit for Cave's music.

As you might expect, the movie didn't have much of an impact at the box office. I suppose that most people are reluctant to expose themselves to such a sad story?

When you strip it right down, the film is about the love a father has for his son. We never learn their names; any references made simply refer to The Man (Mortensen) and The Boy (Smit-McPhee). These two actors carry the movie, but we occasionally see people they encounter, and flashbacks of The Man's wife (Theron). Her role is small, but the scenes are effective, and help to frame the story.

There are many reasons to see this movie.

Viggo Mortensen delivers a superb performance that failed to receive the Oscar recognition it deserved. Perhaps the voters never saw the movie either?

We learn that The Man's wife couldn't face life in a world where everything was dying, so he is solely responsible for his son. The reason for the apocalypse is only hinted at, and mentions a sudden light. It leaves the skies permanently gray, and everything covered in a layer of ash. Trees, plants, and insects are dead or dying. The only life remaining comes in the form of a few humans, and many of them aren't too fussy about how they survive.

Perhaps this is what the world might eventually look like if Earth was struck by an asteroid?

The movie could be viewed as a metaphor for life itself. When we face terrible events in our own lives, most of us choose to weather the storm and survive to the best of our abilities. Imagine a life where there was nothing left to achieve. What would you do? The Man decides that he will take his son to the coast. Perhaps things will be better there, and maybe there will be something left alive.

What makes The Road an astounding story is the writing. Cormac McCarthy's book is strangely moving. It succeeds because of the intensity of the brief dialog between father and son. The son asks a lot of questions, and often wonders whether they are the good guys. The father explains as well as he can, and his son accepts all of his words without question.

The Road is nothing like McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, and isn't designed to be a piece of entertainment. It's a study on human character, and what drives us to exist at all. I admire post-apocalyptic stories when they are done well, and this is about as realistic as it gets. If you enjoy seeing how society breaks down when money is meaningless and food is scarce, you'll find the story interesting. If you are a parent, I would be surprised if you aren't moved at the love between father and son.

What would you do to protect the life of your child? How would you justify your actions? Could you kill and still be a good person?

I won't reveal how the story ends, or comment on whether it is uplifting or as sad as the rest of the movie. That's for you to discover. All I will see is that The Road is a significant achievement, and brings to life a book that seemed almost impossible to film. The cinematography is particularly convincing.

If you are a fan of The Grey, The Mist, Children of Men, or The Stand, there's a fair chance you'll find something interesting in The Road. Don't watch it if you are expecting an action movie.

The Blu-ray offers a strong presentation, but it won't dazzle you because the colors are deliberately muted to fit the story. You need to be in the right mood to watch The Road, but it's worth it when that mood strikes. You'll never take another meal for granted.

Overall score 4/5

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