Friday, March 29, 2013

'The Place Beyond the Pines'

I guess director Derek Cianfrance likes contrasts. In his previous movie, Blue Valentine, interloped the first and final days of a marriage in a emotionally visceral portrait of romantic relationships. It featured two incredible performance by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams and was one of the best movies of 2010. In his latest movie, named The Place Beyond the Pines, he does another kind of comparison. This movie divides its time to take a look at the lives of an outlaw and lawman. 

The outlaw, played by Ryan Gosling, is an expert motorcyclist. He works at a travelling stunt show where he rides in the "ball of death". Early on in the film he discovers he's had a child he didn't know about with Eva Mendes. On the other side of the spectrum we have a policeman played by Bradley Cooper, who also has a small child of his own. The movie has a number of twists that connect these two men, and I guess it would inconsiderate of my part to spoil them. But I will say this: these two guys' lives do connect. 

Cianfrance makes sure we get the idea that these two are not that different after all. So much so that by the time we arrive at the third act the parallels in the lives of these two men and their families become so apparent and on-the-nose that the movie gets sillier and disappointing. The more the plot advances the least interesting the film becomes. This is a pity, since there is a lot of ambition in what Cianfrance intended to do in The Place Beyond the Pines. The movie is supposed to play as a family saga exploring themes of fatherhood and predetermined fate. And while the ambition is there, the film falls very short. 

The two most important contributors to the movie's weakness are the uninteresting characters and the already mention constant contrasts in the story-lines. The way the movie is structured doesn't let us really explore the characters. Even the leads' personalities remained largely confusing to me after the movie ended. They feel more like chess pieces for Cianfrance's endgame than actual characters and I think that wasn't the intention. Secondly, the thematic ideas. Like I said before, the constant contrast gets tiring and the moral questions the movie raises seem disappointingly naive (I know I shouldn't compare, but some of the movie's plot points reminded me of The Wire, and God knows it's going to be hard to stand tall after a comparison to one of the most brilliant television shows ever made).

It's not that the movie is not enjoyable. There are some very good performances in it. Especially by Ben Mendelsohn and Dane DeHaan who manage to bring out genuine emotion out of some rather underwritten parts. There is also a lot of nice details that show a lot of originality from the filmmakers, but sadly not enough as to counter the clunky plotting. There are some thrills and nice moments in The Place Beyond the Pines, but at 140 minutes, it takes way too long to make its point.  

Grade: 5/10

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Jackie Brown

This post has been written as part of The Film Experience's 'Hit Me With Your Best Shot' series, which can be found at

I think there is a revisionist appreciation of Jackie Brown as of late. In the last six months or so I've heard or read many people saying it may be Quentin Tarantino's very best film and I'm glad about it. When I first saw Jackie Brown, when I was about fifteen years old, I didn't really think much of it compared to the flashier Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, but the years have been kind to Jackie, and this latest re-watch of the film has only increased my love for it.

As Tarantino has gotten older and more stylistically intense with his movies, the relatively restrained attitude of Jackie Brown stands out among his filmography. This is Tarantino's only movie to have a love story at its center (I'm not counting True Romance since he didn't direct it. And you could make a case for Django, but I think the romantic element is the weakest part of that movie). The way the relationship between Jackie (Pam Grier) and Max Cherry (Robert Forster) develops throughout the film is the most soulful, earnest and sentimental thing I've seen Tarantino do. It helps that he has two terrific performances from Grier and Forster to portray the relationship. They are both terrific in the movie, but my very favorite thing about Jackie Brown has always been Robert Forster's performance. 

He was rightly nominated for an Oscar back in 1997, and had I been a member of the Academy back then (not that I am now, mind you), I would have no doubt given him my vote. His Max Cherry sports a blend of world weariness and romantic teenage enthusiasm that makes him one of the best romantic interests of the 90s. Case in point, there are few moments in Jackie Brown that make me "feel" more than this shot when Max bails Jackie out of jail and sees her for the first time:

Just looking at that face makes me hear the Delfonics' "Didn't I Blow Your Mind This Time" in my head. Speaking of which, how great is that scene in Jackie's apartment? Boy, do I love my Jackie and my Max. Hopefully, they'll end up being remembered as the great cinematic couple they really are. Just look at them in this other shot. They just met the night before, but just looking at the picture, you'd think they've been married for years. Is it just me, or does this shot tell you these two just belong together? 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

'Spring Breakers': What Kind of Movie is This?

Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers has gained time in the press for being the first "adult" movie for a trio of Disney-bred actresses. Selena Gomez (The Wizards of Waverly Place), Vanessa Hudgens (High School Musical) and Ashley Benson (Pretty Little Liars) want to leave their good girl images behind by parading in bikinis, drinking and doing drugs. The kind of thing young actresses like to do when they want to leave their wholesome teenage image behind.

Just in concept, Spring Breakers sounds like a morally dubious movie. Four college girls (the fourth one is director's wife Rachel Korine) go down to Florida to break lose during spring break, where they get into lots of trouble. In practice, it is more complicated than that. Korine's breakthrough came in 1995 when he wrote the script for Larry Clark's controversial Kids, another movie that took a look at teenagers doing drugs and having sex. Kids had a clear moral message about what happened to its characters, Spring Breakers blurs that line a little bit. It is not a celebration of excess like Project X (my choice for the worst movie of last year), but at the same time, it doesn't exactly condemn its characters for what they are doing. 

Selena Gomez's character in the movie is differentiated from her friends for being religious, and Spring Breakers unfolds kind of like a prayer. Voice over monologues about spring break, the  wandering camera and the repetition of certain portions of dialogue and images make it feel like a mantra, like a version of The Hangover by the way of Terrence Malick. For the people watching it, like for the girls on screen, this is above all an experience. The esoteric qualities make it feel like a different time and space, by the time a gangster named Alien (played by James Franco) comes in to bail the girls out of jail, the more excessive and ridiculous qualities of the movie take another level.

The movie is not a serious and moralizing drama, it embraces the more comedic and outrageous elements of the situation. Franco's character in particular, is quite a creation. After sleepwalking in his recent movies like Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Oz the Great and Powerful, Franco is incredibly alive as Alien. So much so that his performance feels like the kind of rediscovery people experienced last year with Matthew McConaughey's turn in Magic Mike. A scene in which Franco goes on a monologue about all the things he has is sure to be one of the most hilarious scenes I'll see at the movies this year, and at the same time, is incredibly indicative of what this movie wants to say about youth culture. 

Yes, Spring Breakers has something to say about the youth. It's just that it isn't taking a side and sticking with it. It wants to show more than it wants to tell. I feel like it isn't condemning its characters, but at the same time I couldn't imagine someone coming away from this movie taking from it the same thoughts you would take from watching MTV's 90s coverage of spring break or a Girls Gone Wild video. There is something genuine and highly realistic inside this fantasy mantra that makes your head uncomfortable and gets you to start thinking. Spring Breakers might not be a completely satisfying watch, but there's no doubt it's being successful at what it aims to do. 

Grade: B+

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

'Oz' the Forgettable and Adequate

My biggest fear was that Oz the Great and Powerful would be another Alice in Wonderland. For those of you who don't know, I hold Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland as one of the very worst movies I've ever seen in my lifetime. So when I heard Disney had recluted Sam Raimi to direct their prequel to The Wizard of Oz, I felt like history was repeating itself. Just like Burton was once a creative and unique voice that has become a cardboard version of himself in recent years, I was afraid for Raimi, who has directed such delightfully energized movies like Evil Dead and Spider-Man 2. Thankfully, my biggest fear didn't come true. Oz the Great and Powerful is not a terrible movie, but I also wouldn't call it a good movie. I guess it is just ok. The kind of movie that entertains you while watching it, then you forget about it the minute it's over. 

Even if I have some major problems with the movie, there are three things I really liked about Oz. Let's start with the good stuff. First of all, the movie starts out with an amazing credits sequence, which I would dare to say is going to end up among the best 3D-sequences of the year. Secondly, there's a couple of supporting characters, one a winged monkeys voiced by Zach Braff, the other a china doll voiced by Joey King, that even if they don't stand in the same league as the iconic companions Dorothy had in The Wizard of Oz (who could?), are lovable in their own right and provide both a lot of humor and a lot of heart to the story. I sympathized with these animated characters more than with any of the humans. Third, I liked how the movie manages to keep a pacifist message by turning the largest portion of the "final battle" into a game of wits. This is something that you rarely see in movies, where it's usually all about fighting and killing the bad guy. The way the heroes of Oz fight the evil witch, stays true to nature of the main character and the fact that the good people of Oz were established as peaceful fellows.

Now, in order to address my problems with the movie, let's talk a little about the plot. And I'm going to go into some spoilers, but not really, since not only is this a prequel (sort of) to one of the most beloved movies of all time, but also based on century old books that are in the public domain. The hero of this story is the wizard himself, Oscar "Oz" Diggs (James Franco), who works as a carnival magician in Kansas when he is transported by a twister to the magical Land of Oz. Now, because of copyrights and that kind of thing, this movie is technically not a sequel to the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. The people at Disney worked really hard so that no image infringed the original movie's copyright, which is held by MGM. There might not be enough detailed iconography for MGM to sue Disney, but nobody is going to watch Oz the Great and Powerful and say that the movie doesn't go out of its way to add callbacks to the 1939 film. 

One of the ways the movie recalls The Wizard of Oz is in its prologue sequence, which takes place in Kansas and is shot in black and white. Not only that, but it also establishes a Wizard of Oz-style scenario in which the Oz meets in Kansas pop up later once he is transported to the magical land. Michelle Williams, Zach Braff and Joey King all pop up in this sequence. My big problem with this is not so much that it is a callback to the earlier film, but that having these characters pop up doesn't particularly make sense in this story. The Wizard of Oz was framed as a dream-like fantasy that may or may not have taken place in Dorothy's head, making the appearance of the Kansas characters in Oz logical in the dream scenario. When the same thing happens in Oz the Great and Powerful, the dream scenario is set and never answered, since Oz doesn't really go back to Kansas or "wake up from his dream" until the end of The Wizard of Oz. So, is he or isn't he sleeping? Does the Land of Oz exist in a shared-dream space? What is exactly going on here? All this logical confusion could have avoided if only the filmmakers weren't so keen on alluding to the 1939 classic (Something that is, in my opinion, just crazy. How could they live up to one of the best movies of all time?).  

I can let this confusing attempt at connecting two movies that aren't technically connected slide, but there is one aspect of Oz the Great and Powerful that sinks the movie for me, and that is the arc of Mila Kunis' character. I guess it's kind of a spoiler to say this (except to anyone who has read L. Frank Baum's original book), but Mila Kunis plays the Wicked Witch of the West. We first meet her as Theodora, tough, as she helps the Wizard get to the Emerald City. She falls in love with the Wizard, then feels betrayed by him once he sides with good witch Glinda (Michelle Williams) and thanks to a little manipulation from her sister Evanora (an incredibly campy Rachel Weisz) and turns into the Wicked Witch that we all know. 

Now, the arch of James Franco's Oz, is that he is a selfish man that learns to be a good man after his adventure. This is all well and good until you take a look at the way Theodora's arch is handled in comparison. This good witch turns evil in part because of Oz's womanizing ways. The idea of our hero being part of this character's downfall is incredibly powerful as a dramatic element, which is treated horribly by the movie. It's not like the filmmakers didn't know what they had in their hands, since all of these ideas are alluded to by the film, then shoved to the side or handled awkwardly and quickly. When our hero finally learns his lesson, the thought of Theodora's tragedy couldn't leave my mind. Everything is even more problematic when you take into account the romantic relationship between Oz and Glinda.  

Score: 4/10

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

There's No Place Like 'Hit Me With Your Best Shot'

I was planning on a full text for this 'Hit Me With Your Best Shot' entry, but I've fallen victim of a cold or something. I feel a little too terrible to write full paragraphs today, so here's the shots of The Wizard of Oz that ended up as my finalists. Maybe I'll add some comments to this post once I feel better. 

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Top 5: Underrated Children's Movies

With the release of Sam Raimi's Oz the Great and Powerful this Friday and my recent viewing of the ultimate classic The Wizard of Oz for The Film Experience's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" series, I've been thinking a lot about children's fantasy movies. There's obviously the timeless classics like aforementioned Wizard of Oz and Mary Poppins, but here are a few movies that are not talked about all that often despite being pretty terrific films. 

1. Babe (1995, directed by Chris Noonan)
Can a movie that earned seven Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture) be called underrated? It just so happens that Babe is that kind of Best Picture nominee that, almost ten years later, has been largely forgotten. The film-lover community (and the internet especially) is composed of the kind of people who are just not going to open up to a movie about a talking pig unless its made by Pixar. 
That is a true shame, since Babe is a movie that not only holds up, but remains effectively moving all these years later. The relationship between the little pig and farmer Hoggett (one of James Cromwell's best performances) is the kind of sincere allegory about surrogate parenthood that, because it has an animal at its center, is just not taken seriously.   

2. Matilda (1996, directed by Danny DeVito)
Danny DeVito himself is one of the most underrated directors. The man behind Throw Momma From the Train and The War of the Roses goes significantly less dark with his adaptation of Roald Dahl's Matilda, but anyone who's seen the movie will agree that his personal sense of humor is still present and makes for a really entertaining movie. I watched it not too long ago and I have to say it is as odd and charming as an adult as it was when I first saw it. 
Actually, Matilda is a weird example of a movie that I feel like has been a touchstone in the childhood of many people of my generation, but is largely neglected as far as online fandom is concerned. And God knows if there's a place where childhood nostalgia reigns supreme, it's the internet. Hopefully the upcoming Broadway Musical Production (which is already a hit in London) will bring people to revisit this gem. 

3. A Little Princess (1995, directed by Alfonso Cuarón)
You wouldn't be wrong to consider the director of Y Tú Mamá También and Children of Men to be one of the true cinematic geniuses working today. If you are a fan of Cuarón, then maybe you owe it to yourself to watch his adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess. Despite mainly positive reviews, the movie was a big box-office failure when it was first released and remains extremely underseen until this day.
It is, however, one of the most succesful movies to adopt a point of view that borders on magical realism and remains incredibly true to childhood. Much celebrated movies like Pan's Labyrinth and Beasts of the Southern Wild definitely owe something to A Little Princess. 

4. Peter Pan (2003, directed by P.J. Hogan)
P.J. Hogan's version of J.M. Barrie's classic came right when Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings enthusiasm was at its height, something that could be one of the reasons it bombed so hard at the box-office. Anyway, if you're looking for a great adaptation of Peter Pan (maybe because you just saw Steven Spielberg's atrocious Hook) you needn't look further than this. 
What could have been a terrible update of the classic story ends up being surprisingly effective mainly because Hogan (who co-wrote the screenplay) put the pre-adolescent relationship between Peter and Wendy front and center. You could call this a more "sexually-charged" Peter Pan (don't worry, it's still a "PG" rated movie), but what it really does is adopt a more modern sensibility to convey what was already present in the orignal work. 

5. The NeverEnding Story (1984, directed by Wolfgang Petersen)
Coming off an Oscar nomination for his World War II drama Das Boot, german director Wolfgang Petersen took on the german author Michael Ende's Die unendliche Geschichte. The result was a movie that, if nothing else, presented us with a truly fascinating fantasy world (especially for a child). 
The movie certainly has a strong set of supporters and fans, but the movie doesn't come up nearly as often in conversation about 80s fantasy movies as you would expect from a movie that spawned two sequels and a television show. Also, my mom was a huge fan of this movie. 

Friday, March 1, 2013

Stoker: A Hypnotic Slice of America

I have a thing for foreign directors making movies about America. I am not American, but not only do I live in America, I've also been raised on a diet of American entertainment thanks to Hollywood's output both in the big and small screen. Even after moving to America and getting to experience it first-hand, I've retained my previous, imaginary, highly complex and media influenced image of America. One that despite being pure fantasy lives side-by-side with the actual thing. That is why I love it when foreign directors make movies about the United States. I may not love the movies. Take danish director Lars Von Trier (a man who has never set foot in America) as an example, I love Dogville, don't really care much for Melancholia, but I still enjoy watching them and relishing in the imaginary vision, which at its best is as accurate if not more interesting and telling than the actual thing. The latest foreign director to migrate to the U.S. is South Korea's Chan-wook Park. I am not a huge fan of Park (I am that person that detests Oldboy), but I can say that watching his english-language debut Stoker is quite an experience. 

The movie is written by Wentworth Miller who you may remember was once the star of the television show Prison Break. The protagonist is India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), who is the kind of introverted and uncomfortable teenager you'd expect Mia Wasikowska to be playing. She lives in an eccentric gothic mansion with her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). The movie begins with the death of India's father Richard (Dermott Mulroney) on the day of her eighteenth birthday and the arrival, apropos of the funeral, of his brother Charlie (Matthew Goode). From the minute she meets his mysterious uncle, India has the suspicion he is up to no good. Don't worry if you think I'm going to spoil Stoker, this fact isn't as much a spoiler as what happens whenever a mysterious uncle is introduced in a work of fiction. 

In that sense, I don't think anyone would call the movie's story incredibly original. This is a dynamic that we have seen before and a story that, as it reveals itself, is far more familiar than we might initially have thought. It is basically a coming of age story dipped in dark instincts. The script is the weakest part of the movie but even then it provides the basis for some delightfully directed scenes and despite being a thriller isn't filled with jump scares nor does it attempt a stupid last minute twist (unlike the recently released Side Effects). My problems with the screenplay are mainly with the characterization of the protagonists which is at times inconsistent and at times insufficient. There is, for example, a flashback that presents Matthew Goode's character as completely different to the person we've been watching and then there's India, who suffers from being an intensely passive character (especially in the early part of the movie). There seems to be a fascination with the stock character of the introverted girl, who is very passive throughout the movie until she finally "comes of age" and becomes a dynamic character. This is the box a rather great actress like Wasikowska has been sadly typecast in and although she is pretty good in Stoker, I hope she manages to find more varied roles in the future. 

With those flaws out of the way, it's time to say that Stoker is a terrific cinematic experience. Yes, I'm tired of this "angsty girl" type, but Wasikowska is a good enough actress to make it really work. Actually, it was after the movie ended that I first started noticing Stoker's failures. While the movie was playing, I was immersed in its crazy, hypnotic world of American gothic. This may very well be the best looking movie of the year. The cinematography by Park regular Chung Chung-hoon is amazing not only in its lightning but also the way it moves and decides to frame the images. In a world of shot reverse shot cutting, this kind of engaging photography is a true gift. And that's not mentioning the other production values, all outstanding. Production design, costume design, score and sound design all work together to create what are sure to be some of the most fascinating images of the year. 

Chan-wook Park is a top-notch craftsman, who knows how to shoot a movie in the most interesting possible way and in it turns out that his vision of America is as delightful as it is addictive. He presents a similar campy, cartoony and truly disturbing universe as Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan. A balance between true darkness and comedic entertainment that I found fascinating. This might not be a perfect movie, but I wouldn't change the experience of watching it for anything.

Grade: B