Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Thoughts on Up (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the 3-D)

It is no secret that Pixar's 2008 film, WALL-E, moved me in ways I'd forgotten a movie could. The movie was delightful, adorable, and had an enchanting love story adding to its appeal. With such a hard act to follow, it's no surprise Up falls short of the bar WALL-E raised. This is not to say the film was bad; it just wasn't as great as their previous project. The movie is, however, thoroughly enjoyable. It's also the first Pixar endeavor presented in Disney Digital 3-D. The film uses this effect very skillfully, adding depth and character to its scenes. It is a true testament to how much 3-D has grown up from the days it used to be mere flying-out-of-screen effects (I'm looking at you My Bloody Valentine 3-D).

The main characters are Carl Fredericksen and Russell. Carl is an old and curmudgeonly man who refuses to sell his house to a company building a skyscraper in the land surrounding it. Russell is a Wilderness Explorer who annoys Carl by asking whether he needs assistance so he can earn his "Assisting the Elderly" merit badge, the only one he hasn't earned.

Carl's wife Ellie passed away before either of them fulfilled their lifelong dream of visiting Paradise Falls, a South American jungle. Since her passing, Carl has become a sour hermit, missing her terribly. Design touches in the furniture and accesories of the characters lend glimpses into their natures. Ellie's furniture and glasses are all rounded and soft while Carl's are very square and severe. Without her adventurous and free-spirited presence, he's lost the joy she used to lure out of him. There's a brilliant sequence near the beginning that shows us Carl and Ellie's life from the moment they get married, through their discovery of their inability to have children, to her death. The whole thing lasts less than five minutes and yet it's the most moving scene I've seen this year. The effect is augmented by an excellent soundtrack (Key track: Married Life) that perfectly compliments what we see on screen.

Finally faced with an ultimatum, Carl finally decides to take the trip Ellie dreamed about and uproots his house using a cloud of balloons. What he doesn't realize is that Russell has stowed away with him; having been on his porch at the moment of liftoff. Together they reach Paradise Falls and find themselves dragging the house toward its destination. Russell then finds an enourmous and very colorful bird he names Kevin. Unlike Russell, who's comic relief annoyed me (Most characters like him do, it's not neccesarily the movie that's at fault.), Kevin provided some genuinely funny moments. The motley crew is rounded out by Dug, a talking golden retriever hunting Kevin on his master's orders.

This master turns out to be Charles Muntz, an explorer both Ellie and Carl admired as children. His adventures are what inspired Ellie's dream to move her clubhouse to Paradise Falls and Carl is ecstatic to meet his idol and talk about his advetures. What they don't realize is that Muntz has been hunting Kevin's species for years, trying to capture a live specimen to return with him to civilization. Muntz is a very effective antagonist, balancing heinous acts with some comic relief (Mostly poking fun at his old age.) and provides a nice contrast to Carl's ideas about his exploration dreams and what it'd be like to meet his hero.

All in all, the film is both an excellent adventure tale and a sweet story about how fulfilling your dreams should not keep you from realizing that life around you holds enough delights to keep you interested. It's fitting that Carl ends up happier back at home with Russell than isolated on Paradise Falls. It also has a very good message that doesn't get pushed on us like on most animated films. Having seen both the regular and the 3-D versions, I completely recommend you go with 3-D here. It's a much more enjoyable experience that way.

Le verdict: ***1/2

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Thoughts on State of Play (2009)

Having never seen the original BBC-television-serial version of State of Play, I cannot say if this version is an improvement over it. I will say however that this film is reasonably entertaining and while none of the performances are truly great, some are noteworthy, to say the least.

The main players are Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), Cal MacAffrey (Russel Crowe), Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), and Cameron Lynne (Dame Helen Mirren). Stephen is a congressman who's leading an investigation into a private defense contractor (Blackwater, anyone?) named PointCorp and becomes involved in a political scandal of ever-growing proportions. Helping him deal with his newfound infamy is Cal, an old-school reporter who used to be his roommate in college. Cal's reluctant companion is Della, a blogger working for the same paper with a very different approach to news. And rounding out the group is Cameron, the paper's British, no-nonsense editor.

Even though the film is a political thriller, it concerns itself less with the inside going-ons of Capitol Hill than it does with the way the media surrounding it works. Sure, Stephen's actions (both past and present) are what give the plot its raison d'être, but the film would much rather focus on the relationship between Della and Cal. Cal is concerned with getting the facts absolutely right and pressing in as far as he can before putting anything to paper. Della, on the other hand, is more concerned with speedy delivery and frequent updates, even if that sometimes means getting the facts wrong and delving into speculation. Balancing these two's differing perspectives and styles is Cameron's job, even as her corporate bosses are breathing down her neck due to low circulation numbers.

Now, don't get me wrong, I have nothing against the Messrs Affleck and Crowe, but this movie belongs to the women. Affleck does a decent job in his portrayal of a frustrated, embarrassed congressman, but I just didn't think it was anything out of the ordinary. Crowe's not too shabby either, and it must be said the way I felt about his character may not be his fault entirely. It's just such a tired character, the old, grizzled insert-profession-of-your-choice-here taking the rookie under his wing. Maybe that dampened my opinion of Crowe's performance, even if he does have the whole scruffy, street-smart thing nailed.

So, that leaves us with the women. The performances and characters are very different. Mirren's Cameron is a strong-willed editor who's up to her neck in arrangements to change the newspaper's format. She knows the printed media is near the edge of oblivion and her contempt for the generation meant to replace her is shown in the condescension she displays with Drella. She treats her more as a tolerable nuisance than as a true reporter. Dame Helen Mirren does a wonderful job at making Cameron believably tough, helping us see a glimpse into what got her the editor job in the first place. She runs the place with high expectations and an iron fist that only the likes of Cal would dare defy.

McAdams's Drella is a sharp turn from her past performances as mean girl Regina George and feisty heiress Allie. There is however, some of Red Eye's Lisa in her. Drella's a mousy girl who represents the new media as a blogger for the Washington Globe. Beffiting her quiet tendencies, Drella often wears a heavy yet fitted cardigan. This is supposed to tell us she's meek, but hides a feisty side that will one day come handy. Despite what the previous sentences might lead you to believe, I quite liked Drella. McAdams turns a rather dull character interesting by making her seem believably mousy and yet not so much that it becomes annoying. Drella does, after a while, find her guts and stands up to Cameron along with Cal. This character develoment, though expected, is done in a rather pleasing manner. In other hands, Drella might have succumbed to either side; either becoming too mousy or doing a 180 in the second half and suddenly standing up for herself. McAdams makes her human for us in that aspect, giving us glimpses of her inner self at times so that this development doesn't feel out of place. It may not be a great performance, per se; but it shows McAdams understands her characters and how to do them justice. I'm hope she makes good on this promise and becomes more than that girl from Mean Girls and The Notebook.

All in all, the film was decently intriguing and the new media vs. old media leitmotif was (If pushed just a tad too hard on us.) relevant and interesting. It's not the best work we've seen out of these actors and the script is not the best thriller I've seen, but it takes a 6 hour drama and sums it up for us at a much quicker pace. Also, at a neat 127 minutes, the film never feels slow nor boring. Catching it in theaters, however, might have been paying a bit too much. A movie rental will suffice for this.

Le verdict: ***

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Thoughts on Kunsten at Graede i Kor (The Art of Crying)

I went to see this movie with no previously conceived opinion of it. I just knew it was danish and that it had won some awards at film festivals around Skandinavia. I wasn't expecting much but I wasn't groaning at the porspect to see it either, so you could say I was slightly optimistic. As the great Lorelai Gilmore would put it, "I guess this goes on the 'Boy-was-I-wrong' category. Right above gauchos, but just below the Flashdance phase." The movie's classified as a tragicomedy chuckful of dark humor. And while that same classification holds some truly good movies (Network, Dr. Strangelove, etc.), this movie should never hold a spot next to those genre masterpieces. The main problem The Art of Crying faces is its inability to settle on what it wants to say. One minute you're sniggering at then dramatic music (Not the ironic kind, either.) comes out of the speakers and you're left bewildered at what you're supposed to be feeling. There are many other films that manage to achieve a wonderful balance of sad and happy, tragic and funny parts. But The Art of Crying just doesn't pass muster in that area.

I'm not saying the film doesn't have some snicker-worthy moments, but they're few and far between. One must also bear in mind that those scarce moments are also dampened by the effect the more cringe-worthy scenes have on the viewer. I realize it's hard to put a fun spin on the subject of child abuse, but it could have still done a better job at it. And while the misplaced sweetness of a boy willing to go to any lengths to keep his manipulating, pseudosuicidal father happy sounds interesting on paper, here it plays out as something so wrong no child would ever do it without pausing to consider whether it's right or not. And don't even get me started on the father who is such a horrible character you can't ever relate to him or hope he sees the error of his ways. You just sit there hoping he'll finally make good on his threats and finally slash his wrists or something.

The one character you can truly understand and relate to, ironically, is Sanne. As the middle daughter and the source of consolation for his father, she's the most disturbed, stressed character in the whole movie. Despite all this, she's the only one that makes sense in the end. Anyone in her position would have gone mad (Her arents thinking she's amd to begin with sure doesn't help.)

Of course, despite the movie's flaws, the direction is pretty impressive for a debut. Peter Schonau Fog has a very distinctive style for a first timer. The beautiful countryside is given a very cold, gray look that fits the tone of the film and his use of shadows during the night scenes is actually very good as a contrast to the daytime gray brightness. All in all, much like The Good Night, this movie is an above-average visual experience but not much more. I recommend you seeing it and telling me whether it really is a matter of taste regarding dark humor or if I'm right at suspecting this movie has left critics so bewildered that they've been giving out positive reviews merely to avoid having nothing to say.

Le verdict: *

Thursday, June 18, 2009

For those of you wondering...

For those of you wondering why the films I've reviewed so far seem to jump from very different times and places I believe some explaining is in order. Firstly, as my last review demonstrates, I may be late reviewing movies currently playing in theaters because I live in a rather small city and we get movies a bit later (Some not at all, so that means I miss some great films that sadly don't really get the masses moving.) than other, larger cities. Also, I have a friend who works at my local Blockbuster and I get free rentals, so I'm taking full advantage of that by catching up on my film education this summer. I'm using James' system (Yes, I've been pushing Rants of a Diva on you a lot lately. So, what are you waiting for? Go check it out!) because it works like a charm. It forces me to choose movies I might pass up on otherwise and really works to fill out some holes in my film list. In case you're not familiar with the system it works like this: You rent one classic film, one foreign film and one "modern" film. James defines modern as something that came out sometime within the last 20 years but I use my birthday as a gauge. Thus, anything that came out between 1992 and now that for some reason or the other I missed and want to watch is a candidate. Hope this clears up any doubts you might have had regarding my unorthodox review choices.

Au revoir,
Monsieur Cinema

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Thoughts on Star Trek

I've noticed most reviews of Star Trek start with the writer either claiming he's never been a trekkie or embracing that identity for all it's worth. I fall into neither camp. I'm not a trekkie, but I cannot comfortably use that claim since I've never seen a Star Trek film or show. I attribute that to me missing it's major zeitgeist moments. I just wasn't old enough during the franchises more modern attempts at success and as such never took interest in those projects or the older shows and films. Star Trek's presence in my life had thus been reduced to punchline status in many a sitcom or movie. With all of this in mind, I cannot claim to dislike or even be indifferent to something I've never been exposed to. But then I saw the trailer and read some of the reviews and it started to look more and more interesting. It was a summer blockbuster, sure; but why shouldn't I enjoy some hours of mindless action and fun, right? I went to see the movie with a friend who was in the same situation as me and we both came out with almost the same opinion of the film.

Star Trek is indeed a summer blockbuster full of action sequences and light comedy but it didn't feel old or tired. The action sequences are decently thrilling, the plot is not too punishing on newcomers to the franchise and there were no overly annoying exposition sequences. The movie even manages to balance the loudness of the obligatory summer-movie explosions with decent comedy from its ensemble. I'd never seen Chris Pine anywhere before, so I didn't quite know what to expect from him. I was pleasantly surprised to discover he has the charisma to lead a role in addition to his pretty face. Also in this ensemble is my hoping-he-becomes-big favorite, Anton Yelchin (Go see Charlie Bartlett, now). Here he again uses his talent with accents and caricaturesque body language to full effect. In anybody else's hands, Chekov might have been to ridiculous and annoying a character, but under Yelchin the character truly becomes fun and dare I say it, even somewhat cute.

The other great thing Star Trek has going for it is the visual experience it provides. Th set design is like watching a futuristic Apple store (Wow, redundant.), all white, shiny and with vibrant color accents. The lighting helps bring this to fruition by truly bringing out the sets' shiny aura. And like I said before, this visual excitement isn't offset with stuffy characters or terrible storylines who no one but the die-hard fans get. Granted, it's not an altogether easy-to-follow movie. My friend got a bit lost during parts of it and I tried to explain it to her and she got back on track real quick, but the fact that I had to explain still means something, right? This is however, a minor concern. If you've been holding out on seeing this because you think it's for trekkies, I'm here to tell you that is not the case.

James' review over at Rants of a Diva posed an interesting question in regards to the film's quality. I would say that The Dark Knight isn't necessarily a better film, but I did enjoy it more. Chalk it up to Heath Ledger's amazing performance or my love for Batman stories since my years as a wee lad watching the Batman the Animated Series show (On hindsight, way darker for a kid's show than you'd expect.). Star Trek is, however, still a darn good film. Yes, it doesn't come close to matching Atonement or anything, but it was still a pretty darn entertaining two hours. I heartily recommend you get off your butt and go watch it if you haven't already.

I give it: ***

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Thoughts on Casablanca

I've wanted to commit to writing my opinion of Casablanca for quite some time now. I wanted this critique to be as accurate as possible, so I rewatched it to make sure I remembered all the details right. It's a testament to the quality of this film that on my third time viewing it the brilliance of it is still every bit as good as the first time.

It's not just one element in Casablanca that's memorable; like all great films, what makes Casablanca a joy to watch is a seamless combination of excellent factors. The excellent script is paired with excellent leads and a marvelous supporting cast. Anyone who thinks old (specially black and white) movies are boring affairs lacking feeling should definitely watch Casablanca. Not only is the plot intriguing, the dialogue is witty and fun when it needs to be and passionate and soulful when the situation demands it. Many films try to emulate this sort of joy-and-sorrow-it's-all-a-part-of-life kind of script and fail miserably not because the logic is untrue, but because they just don't mantain the neccesary level of quality to pull it off. Even more amazing is the fact that Casablanca manages to do this in a script that focuses on a lot of different aspects of the film at different times (One second you're watching a political melodrama, then comes a romance scene and finally, a quip later we arrive at comedy.). How the script achieved this level of consistency and union using five contributing writers is beyond me.

The first time I saw Casablanca I couldn't see what everyone was talking about when they said Humphrey Bogart was a good actor. To me he just looked plain, lacking any real emotion. It takes a careful eye to notice the awesome subtleties of his performance. It all revolves around his eyes, which transmit such sorrow and bitter heartbreak I kept thinking he would've been perfect for a silent movie role.

Not to be outdone by the Bogart, Ingird Bergman balances his suave Rick with her equally charming Ilsa. She uses her eyes with the same expertise Bogart displays but not once does she look like a stale copy. She manages to look both innocent and joyful in her romantic scenes and bitter and sorrowful for her dramatic ones without ever going over the top.

In any other movie, the supporting cast wouldn't be able to match the presence of leads as strong as the ones here; fading pitifully into the background. Casablanca avoids this pitfall with a very strong supporting cast that matches their leads every step of the way. Specially remarkable is Claude Rain's character, Captain Louis Renault. Renault is often placed opposite Rick in scenes, matching his quips and wit nicely and at times even shows that there is more to him than just an intelligent corrupt officer.

All in all, there's a reason Casablanca consistently ranks at the top of lists of the greatest films ever made. It's a movie that understands that a movie is not defined by the quality of the acting or the lighting or even the script. A great movie is defined by a harmonious combination of all these elements in which all of them raise the bar in some way. It is my great pleasure to wholeheartedly recommend that anyone who hasn't watched Casablanca do so as soon as possible. I usually hate those kinds of lists, but for this occasion I'll go ahead and say this is one of those films you have to watch before you die.

I give it: *****

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Thoughts on Todo Sobre Mi Madre (All About My Mother)

Despite a friend of mine's overwhelming recommendation that I watch Volver, I chose Todo Sobre Mi Madre as my first Almodóvar film. Of all places, I had first read about it in my french textbook. The title and poster intrigued me, so I researched it thoroughly without reading any plot details outside of the outline. It looked good enough to merit the expense, but I didn't get my expectations up to anything beyond that. I was pleasantly surprised, however. The film exhibits a great set design, a solid script and performances that in any other hands might have fallen into caricature territory but here are portrayed in a very human light.

The film puts its focus on Manuela (a brilliant Cecilia Roth), a single mother working as a nurse in Madrid. She oversees donor organ transplants and lives with her seventeen year old son, Esteban (Eloy Azorin). Esteban wants to become a writer and is fascinated by his mother's past. He wants to know who his father is, but Manuela will have none of it. For his birthday, Manuela takes him to see a production of A Streetcar Named Desire, a play she starred in when she was younger. Afterwards, Esteban requests an autograph from one of the stars of the play. The actress exits the theater and gets on a cab, ignoring Esteban's request for an autograph. As he chases after the cab, he doesn't notice a car coming from a side street and he gets run over. Manuela is overcome with grief at the loss of her son and is forced to look for the boy's father, who apparently knows not of the existence of his son.

Here is where the real character development begins. Manuela finds her old friend Agrado (Antonia San Juan), a transsexual prostitute who also knew Esteban's father (Apparently a transvestite named Lola). Agrado could have been made a mere caricature, and at times walks a very fine line close to exactly that. But it is through Antonia's portrayal that the character truly becomes likeable, dynamic, and human. In a particularly interesting scene, Agrado informs the audience of a play that the two lead actresses are incapacitated by reasons beyond their control and that the performance will have to be cancelled. She does, however, offer a different show to those that wish to stay. Agrado begins to tell them about her life, about what her different body modifications cost and about how the more you resemble how you dream yourself to be, the more authentic you are. It's a relatively simple scene, but Antonia's performance here makes all the difference.

The other two rounding this ensemble are Penelope Cruz and Marisa Paredes as Sister Rosa and Huma Rojo, respectively. Cruz gives a very nice performance as a confused character who faces circumstances in her life that she didn't expect. She also has to deal with a judgeamental, bigoted mother who is constantly nagging her on her choices, including her decision to work with prostitutes and drug addicts in a shelter. Rosa is never a saint nor a doe-in-the-headlights. She makes wrong choices and she faces lots of tough facts. All of this confuses and scares her but she never once looks like a damsel in distress. Cruz convincingly conveys her being scared, yet determined to survive it all.

Marisa Paredes's Huma is a woman who owns the stage and truly lives for her acting career. She does, however, have one major cause of angst in her life. That would be Nina, her stage partner and lover, who is a drug addict and has the tempestuous moods to prove it. Huma shows the dynamic of their relationship whenever someone tells her Nina is hurt or sick by showing concern typically displayed by a mother. She wants to protect Nina, and this vulnerability is what makes Huma dear to us.

On a final note, let me just tell you about the lighting and sets. The sets are all colorful and the warm lighting only helps to bring this to our attention even more. It's a nice contrast to the seriousness of the issues the characters deal with. It also lends, at times, a sort of seedy underton to the proceedings, nicely complimented by a soundtrack featuring spanish guitars and a very spanish noir-ish feel to the whole thing. All in all, a solid script paired with powerful performances and a great direction make this a thoroughly enjoyable film. I highly recommend it as your first Almodóvar film.

I give it: ***

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Thoughts on "The Good Night"

When I saw the trailer for The Good Night, I was genuinely interested. I didn’t expect it to reach a Gone with the Wind level of quality, but it looked entertaining and the premise seemed interesting. The movie follows the life of Gary Shaller (Martin Freeman, of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame), former keyboarder of a one-hit wonder band who now writes commercial jingles for a living.

He is dissatisfied with his job and with his girlfriend, Dora (Gwyneth Paltrow). Now, here’s where the film first stumbles. Dora is mean and disinterested in Gary’s needs or desires. This would all be fine and good if she had a redeeming quality to balance that (Or if she was mean and fabulous. Yes, James is not the only one with a diva fetish.). Dora is simply too drab and uninspiring to add anything to the film. Adding to Gary’s uninspiring world is his former bandmate and friend, Paul (Simon Pegg, brilliant in Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead), who provides much of the film’s comic relief with his uncaring and outrageous attitude.

Gary begins to have dreams about a beautiful woman named Anna (Penelope Cruz). Unable to shake the memory of her the next morning, Gary seeks out a lucid dream enthusiast, Mel (Danny DeVito), who coaches him in achieving lucid, sustained dreams where he can meet Anna. DeVito surprised me with how amusing (not funny, merely amusing) he was with such a small role. That said, his character was mostly used as a plot point and nothing more. He does, however, have a nice scene where Gary realizes through a converstaion with Mel that he is pretty much looking at his future self if he doesn't do something immediately.

Gary then meets a woman who looks exactly like Anna. Against his expectations, the woman, Melodía, has a behavior and style that are very different from Anna’s, and he becomes disappointed in her. Here I was expecting some light comedy illustrating the contrast between his dreams and the real world and for him to eventually overcome this and leave his tedious existence behind with Melodía by his side. Instead that plot point is completely abandoned and the film goes in a completely different direction.

This movie could’ve been a simple enough romantic comedy with some dark comedy undertones, but thanks to an intriguing (if at times uninspired) script, the movie manages to provide insightful commentary about the nature of dreams and how they relate to our lives and expectations. The visuals, as previously stated, are great at times and above average the rest of the time. The dream sequences, with their cold lighting and lush locales, provide a nice contrast to the warm and earthy tones of the real world, where the dull look has been thoroughly accomplished. All of this, however, is not able to save the film from unlikeable characters and the poor execution provided by first time director Jake Paltrow. I know, I know; Francis Ford Coppola wants his nepotism back (Yes, I'm putting the decision to cast Gwyneth up there with the Sofia decision). Although, now that I think about it, maybe it's not so much nepotism as a sibling passive-agressive attack. Gwyneth is so boring, mean and plain-looking here it sure doesn't feel like her brother's paying her any favors. Even for a first-timer, Paltrow makes a mess out of what, otherwise, might've been a pretty decent film (though still not as great as the ones it was trying to immitate id est, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep).

Overall, I could recommend watching The Good Night based on the visuals alone (Yes, I'm a lighting fanatic.), but that would be misleading. Instead, I recommend watching this film and enjoying the visuals and sets if you have nothing better to do that day. It is not a worthless film, but I'm sure you can score something better at your local video rental place.

I give it: *1/2

Monday, June 8, 2009

Le Manifesto

You might wonder, my dear readers, why would I want to further crowd cyberspace with yet another blog about a topic that a lot of my contemporaries already discuss in depth. Well, I guess you might say I just want to put my opinion out there. Is that vain and self-centered of me? Not really. I just really like to share things; be it my opinion, cool things I find, etc. And putting my perspective on this so oft-discussed topic might be a welcome addition to the impressive roster of film devoted bloggers out there (Nathaniel, of Film Experience Blog and James, of Rants of a Diva come to mind). So, without further ado, let me lay out my manifesto, this blog's raison d'être, so to speak.

Le Manifesto
Monsieur Cinema is a place where the great art known as film will be discussed, critiqued and praised by yours truly. It is a place where movies that would otherwise never be caught dead next to each other (think Star Trek vs. Todo Sobre mi Madre) share the stage for your pleasure. I promise to find ways to put a sparkle in your day in one way or another everytime you look here. Movies are magical, making our dreams come to life. I believe no other art form can come close to what cinema accomplishes because no other art form can appeal to our senses like it does. It's a visual and aural medium, but also an expression of literature. It is also a canvas for some of the most committed, wonderful performers ever to live. To sum things up, I love movies and I certainly hope that if you don't love film as much as I do at the time of your reading, that after spending some quality time with me you can grow to appreciate this marvelous art form, even if it's only a tiny bit more.

Once again, welcome to Monsieur Cinema!


Welcome to the world of Monsieur Cinema. (Yes that's Monsieur, for you.)