Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Seven 'S'inematic Soliloquies [+ One]

I apologize for the lack of film reviews I have posted lately. I am feeling a real lack of drive since the Toronto International Film Festival in September. The festival was lackluster for me. The entire experience was completely celebrity-driven and I felt like fans were left out in the cold.

12 Years a Slave
Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave is as good as advertised. The film recounts the life of Solomon Northrop, a black man who was living free in the North until he was lured to Washington, D.C. and sold into slavery. John Ridley's screenplay is based on Northrop's 1853 memoir Twelve Years a Slave (subtitled Narrative of Solomon Northtop, citizen of New-York, kidnapped in Washington city in 1841, and rescued in 1953, from a cotton plantation near the Red River in Louisiana). McQueen, with the help of talented British actor Michael Fassbender, has established himself as a visionary director with 2008's Hunger and 2011's semi-controversial Shame. The film is a must-see to better understand the issues of slavery and race in pre-Civil War United States. All said and told, it is still a cinematic snapshot that, like all true stories, included some fictional liberties for dramatic effect.

McQueen has provided us with a top-notch film, but it is Chiwetel Ejiofor's stunning and heart-wrenching performance as Solomon Northrop that cements 12 Years a Slave's place at the top this year. The film is entirely about race and equality, but Ejiofor's performance transcends racial identity. The torture and turmoil is so human. It would be a crime not to empathize with his pain. His performance is made more brilliant by the shattering performance of Lupita Nyong'o, playing Patsey, a slave repeatedly raped and abused.

While featuring terrific performances from Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano and Sarah Paulson, 12 Years a Slave is not a film about white guilt. Slavery and racism is a global issue and Steve McQueen's deeply moving film simply highlights how cruel and inhumane this injustice continues to be.

My rating: 4 stars out of 4.

Captain Phillips
Another film based on a true story. Captain Phillips tells the story of Captain Richard Phillips and the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama in the Indian Ocean by Somalian pirates. Captain Phillips is played by Tom Hanks. A decade ago, Tom Hanks may have been Hollywood gold. But then The Da Vinci Code came out in 2006 and it was a joint ego-project with Ron Howard. For ten years Hanks was a consistent source of success for mainstream cinema. Sadly, for Hanks at least, the world has expanded its palette to include more international flavour. The gee-golly, all-too-sweet Hanks no longer (did it ever, really?) piques my interest.

Yes, Captain Phillips offers Hanks the opportunity to showcase his acting talents. It absolutely features a dramatic story with lots of action and violence. I just doubt that Paul Greengrass - master of the shaky cam - was the best choice of director. My first experience with this dizzying (and nauseating) film tactic was in August 1999 (the same day I experienced the dizzying (and orgasmic!) delight of Lauryn Hill during her Miseducaiton World Tour), when I had the displeasure of seeing The Blair Witch Project. I fell asleep for at least twenty minutes during that film and during Captain Phillips.

Captain Phillips is far too American for my taste. The Americans are the good guys, and the Somalians are the enemies. Captain Phillips, the character, is portrayed as godly and humane, whereas Barkhad Abdi's Abduwali Muse is the sinister and evil Somalian pirate. There are just not enough layers and texture to the film. Hanks' performance seems candy coated and the plot is too insincere.

My rating: 1.5 stars out of 4 (maybe 2, if I had stayed awake).

Blue is the Warmest Colour
Anyone who reads this blog should already be aware of the controversies surrounding Abdellatif Kechiche's French drama Blue is the Warmest Colour (La Vie d'Adèle - Chapitres 1 & 2). Its stars, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, have criticized the director for his behaviour on set. The two have pledged to never work with him again - especially after the lengthy sex scenes involved in the film (one lasting ten minutes). Blue is the Warmest Colour won the coveted Palme d'Or at Cannes, despite its three hour length and the gratuitous lesbian sex on screen. Kechiche is not a very well known director outside of France, despite winning France's Best Director César award twice (2003 and 2007). While Seydoux has appeared in Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds and Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, Exarchopoulos just turned twenty this month and has very few film credits on her resume. Blue is the Wamrest Colour is an intense film and I can only imagine the emotions on set.

Adèle (Exarchopoulos) is fifteen and living in northeast France. She is a gifted literature student. Though she finds it awkward to flirt with boys, she eventually finds herself dating Thomas (Jérémie Laheurte), a handsome boy from school. Dissatisfied by her sexual experiences with him, Adèle is drawn to the blue-haired Emma (Seydoux), an older student at university for visual arts. Adèle's relationship with Emma becomes all-consuming as she finds herself more and more dependent on Emma's attention and affection.

So few films have been able to get inside the head of a character like Blue is the Warmest Colour. Most of these films require first-personal narration, like Olive (played by Emma Stone) in Easy A. There is such beauty to Kechiche's film. The romance and ensuing relationship are so delicately captured that it feels intrusive. The film's downfall may be the sex, which is overly pornographic at times - complete with fake genitalia.

My rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.

Enough Said
Enough Said features one of James Gandolfini's last roles (his last performance will be in 2014's Animal Rescue) and the truth is that it is one of his finest performances. Known to many as Tony Soprano, Gandolfini has often been typecast as gruff and overbearing. As Albert, he is incredibly charming and emotionally fragile. He is perfectly matched against Julia Louis-Dreyfus, whose roles on Veep and Seinfeld often feature the comedic actress being ignorant and abrasive. The two are as laid back and engaging as the film's poster reveals.

Directed by Nicole Holofcener, Enough Said is the fifth collaborating with Catherine Keener. Her films are often female-centred, dealing with female issues and characters (see Walking and Talking (1996), Lovely & Amazing (2001) and Friends with Money (2006)). Enough Said brings a wounded male character to the forefront and it allows the pain of divorce to be looked at without judgment.

Albert (Gandolfini) and Eva (Louis-Dreyfus) are middle-aged and divorced. They each have one daughter, both of whom are planning to head east for college at the end of the summer. A chance meeting brings them together, even though Eva clearly states she has no interest whatsoever in Albert. The hook - Eva become the masseuse of Albert's bitter ex-wife (Kenner) - is cliched but the story is handed with care... until the film's final arc. If the film had allowed for the reveal to happen earlier and focus more on healing and moving on, Enough Said would be a better film. This can be a problem when directors write their own screenplays.

My rating: 3 stars out of 4.

Dallas Buyers Club
Matthew McConaughey is surely trying to resurrect his career after some terrible choices in the mid-2000s. Critics loved his performance in Magic Mike (I did not), though I do agree that he was fantastic in Mud. McConaughey is a talented actor, though his roles seem to focus entirely on his body than his talents. Dallas Buyers Club is no exception - though the focus is on his weight loss. McConaughey lost an incredible amount of weight to play Ron Woodruff, a homophobic drug addict who is diagnosed with AIDS in 1985. Dallas Buyers Club teams McConaughey with talented Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée. Vallée lures a great performance out of McConaughey, and co-star Jared Leto, as a transgender woman. I was disappointed and unimpressed with the flat performance of Jennifer Garner. Her limited abilities may have worked on Alias (anything could make her cry!), but she swims below the surface in this film.

Ron Woodruff is given thirty days to live after he is diagnosed with with AIDS in 1985. He is a Texas cowboy living in Dallas. His whole life is turned upside down when every single one of his friends, acquaintances and co-workers believes his contracted the disease from homosexual activities. Upon discovering that AZT, the only legal AIDS drug in the United States, is negatively polluting his body, he partners with Rayon (Leto), an HIV-positive transgenered woman, to create the Dallas Buyers Club, which provides dues-paying members alternative drugs free of charge.

Dallas Buyers Club ends on a rough note. It is the type of film that must end on a high note or else its impact is harshly lessened. Unfortunately, Vallée, and McConaughey, overstay their welcome. The relationship between Woodruff and his doctor (Garner) never needed to venture beyond unrequited longing. It added an unnecessary dimension to the film that cemented Garner's weakness in the film.

My rating: 3 stars out of 4.

Don Jon
Forgive me for not realizing that 3rd Rock from the Sun's Tommy had escaped puberty. I am aware that Joseph Gordon-Levitt was great in (500) Days of Summer (2009) and 50/50 (2011), but I had some trouble stomaching his screenwriting and directorial debut, Don Jon. There is something all too conceited about starring in a film you wrote and directed about a man's sexual conquests and obsession with online porn. I found myself too bothered by JGL's constant flexing and mimicked masturbation that I could not fully enjoy the film, despite a standout performance from Scarlett Johansson.

The film is funny and it hits the right notes until it decides that it needs to have a moral. And do not forget the incredibly creepy sight of Tony Danza in his wife beater (yup) with his oddly disproportionate arms.  I have been a fan of Brie Larson since United States of Tara and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2009). I understand the punch line of her character, but I just wish she had been able to do more - even without speaking. And Julianne Moore is far too incredible an actress to be given such a throwaway part.

Don Jon is funny in a macho way. It may have tried for satire, but it falls somewhere near Jersey Shore parody.

My rating: 2 stars out of 4.

Ender's Game
Ender's Game was surrounded by controversy well before it entered theatres at the beginning of November. Orson Scott Card, who wrote Ender's Game in 1985, has been very vocal in his stance against gay marriage. Despite the comments, Ender's Game deserves to be made into a film. It has long been on my list of books to read, considering that Orson Scott Card is one of my father's favourite authors. When Asa Butterfield was first announced to play Andrew "Ender" Wiggin, my father's only comments were that he was too old. Butterfield is sixteen, but Ender begins the story as a much younger child. His comments were only louder when the film began and Butterfield appeared on screen.

I feel like Ender's Game relied too heavily on special effects. The story is heavily character based and so many plot points are only briefly mentioned. At just short of two hours, the film does little to properly create Ender's world. I was amused and engaged throughout the film, but I could not help but think that a more accomplished director would have better created this world. Gavin Hood has directed the Oscar-winning Best Foreign Language film Tsotsi (2005), but his most recent film was the disappointing 2009 film X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

Ender's Game relied too heavily on the themes of war. Ender's Game is a science fiction staple nearly three decades later because it is character-driven. Sadly, we may not get the chance to see the story fully realized on screen.

My rating: 2 stars out of 4.

Nebraska
I have been a fan of Alexander Payne's since 1996 when he triumphed with Citizen Ruth, his first feature film. In 2003, Payne teams with Bruce Dern, real-life father of Laura Dern, star of Citizen Ruth. Nebraska is Payne's sixth film and it will surely garner some Oscar attention for its star, and hopefully its supporting actress, June Squibb, as the sometimes bitter wife of Dern's curmudgeonly old man. Payne has been nominated for three writing Academy Awards, winning for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2004 for Sideways and in 2011 for The Descendants (alongside writing partner Jim Taylor). Luck is not on his side this year, as Nebraska is the first film that Payne did not write. It is a terrifically well acted film shot in black and white. It is an interesting concept, as the film is a road trip movie. The story travels from Montana to Nebraska. Are we left to believe that there is no beautiful scenery on the trip and that we must focus on the interactions between father and son?

Woody Grant, played by Dern, is nearing senility. He believes he has won a million dollars and he is intent on traveling to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his prize. He no longer has a valid driver's license and tries to walk - a 1450 kilometre trip! His wife Kate (Squibb) is fed up of his antics. His son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) is busy with his small market news anchor job. That leaves his son David (Will Forte) to drive him. Along the way, father and son stop in the small Nebraska town where Woody and Kate grew up. The news of Woody's fortune spreads quickly and many characters from Woody's past, including an old business partner (Stacey Keach), turn up expecting a hand out.

Nebraska is a very tender story of the relationship between father and son. Woody may be an alcoholic and a lousy role model, but his son David clearly has some affection for his father. Payne allows the story to be humorous and his direction is never too heavy handed. The flow of the story is so natural that it could have almost been completely ad-libbed, as if directed by Mike Leigh. It is a great film with a thoroughly fantastic performance from Bruce Dern that should not be missed.

My rating: 3.75 stars out of 4.

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