film

2012 in Film: #1 – Certified Copy

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2012 in Film: #1

Certified Copy (2010) | Directed by Abbas Kiarostami

Grade: A

Fasten Your Seatbelt: Drive

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I do not drive, personally, so generally speaking I can’t speak from experience about the thrill of driving a car in any situation whatsoever. But if driving is anything like the thrill of Nicolas Winding Refn’s newest film, maybe I should stop procrastinating on getting my license. Winding Refn’s near masterpiece of a film, Drive, is a sucker punch to the gut, something that can be as subtle as, to use driving analogies, strolling down a street at midnight and something as thrilling as getting into a car chase.

Winding Refn hones in his mastery of the medium in this film, which was pretty up to scratch anyways, as evidenced in his previous works like Valhalla Rising and Bronson. Here, the director and the star become one, in a way. Ryan Gosling’s stunt driver/getaway driver is a silent enigma, his introversion and solitude reminiscent of Camus’ Meursault and Melville’s Le Samourai. The director’s piece is just as silent as his driver, using long tracking shots, slow pans, and very little dialogue. The script, by Oscar-nominated screenwriter, Hossein Amini (The Wings of the Dove) changes the original novel’s format, written by James Sallis, making it into a more linear story line with a more coherent plot. As opposed to a standard and conventional driving thriller, it becomes a character study, almost a silent psychoanalysis of its protagonist. Heady though it sounds, that fact does not affect the thrill of watching the film.

What is it about this film that makes it so spellbinding? I am honestly not quite sure. The mood of the film is spelled out in its music, much of the time, using neo-1980’s sounding tracks that are, in a way, characters themselves. The music, though, helps underline the character of the Driver, someone so contemplative and one whose expressions  could be used to fill a book that the character remains complex and not completely readable. A film that transcends every genre you could try to pigeonhole it in (neo-noir, crime, action, thriller, etc.); the music acts somewhat as a narrator. Illustrating the complexity of Gosling’s Driver with No Name, the music’s tone shifts appropriately to whatever the mood is in the current scene, reflecting the feeling of Gosling’s emotions. It makes complete sense that the music would play an integral part into the construction of Winding Refn’s film. What else do you do when you’re in the car, especially as a passenger? You stare out the window, contemplating the meaning of life and you listen to music. The music shifts from diegetic to non-diegetic, where sometimes the Driver is aware of the music and others when only we, the audience can hear it. It may be only conjecture, but if the music can be accepted as both an underlining of who the Driver is as a character as well as a narrator, the music can not only be seen as soundtrack to the film but also to the Driver’s life. It is almost as if the Driver is perfectly conscious of the music playing in his head, the mental playlist he has created that describes who he is. Regardless of what it is, the use of songs like “Nightcall” and “A Real Hero” accentuate the gritty mood for this masterpiece.

Every emotion is discernible on Ryan Gosling’s face and, while that may be true, it doesn’t make him easier to read. It does, however, make his performance that much more interesting and powerful. He is a mystery, one whose past is unknown to anyone in the film, even to the two closest people to him in the film, Bryan Cranston as Shannon, the boss of an auto-repair shop, and Carey Mulligan, the woman whom he falls for and whose husband he attempts to help so that she and her family are safe from the men after her husband, Standard Gabriel (Oscar Isaac). Perhaps this is a defense mechanism, but nevertheless, the Enigmatic Driver never really reveals himself to anyone. Gosling’s portrayal of such a stunning character, a silent one who is mostly influenced and moved by the sheer atmosphere, is incredible. Well known for his romantic leading roles in stuff like The Notebook and Crazy, Stupid Love, Gosling feels much more at home here in a hybrid crime drama-neo noir. He is able to delve into character and become the Driver, an important aspect of the film. Without him, the film would probably fall to pieces. Because the film is so contemplative and devoid of dialogue, it would take complete dedication for an actor to really jump into the role. What Gosling does with the character is make it his own, creating a perfect amalgam of the existential hero from so many great films. It is not a derivative character, but one molded and shaped at Gosling’s (and Refn’s) will. He is one of the most elusive and intriguing characters in recent memory.

The supporting cast is great, filled with interesting and colorful characters. Mulligan plays Irene with a sensitive fragility, just as quiet as the protagonist, and just as tender. This mutual tenderness may be why the two characters work so well and fall in love with one another so easily. Even though it’s a quiet portrayal, it is not so understated that it is not noticeable; it is a perfectly noticeable role. The silence between the two, especially when in the car, is their own form of communication. They are, to some extent, kindred souls. They are able to create intimacy without anything physical. Just a look and just the music on the radio; that’s all they need. It reminds me of the line from Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction in which Uma Thurman’s Mia says, “That’s when you know you’ve found somebody special. Where you can just shut the f*** up for a minute and comfortably enjoy the silence.”

Albert Brooks plays against type in a stunning turn as a mobster who, originally, planned on investing in this Driver to race cars for him. Shame that didn’t go so well. This Brooks, who is certainly not the same guy we love and kind of loathe in Broadcast News or even Finding Nemo, is violent, unpredictable, and smarmy. He takes pleasure in getting as much as he can and at any cost. It is honestly a little shocking to see Brooks in such a violent role, verbally and physically, but it is thrilling nonetheless. Ron Perlman (Sons of Anarchy, Hellboy, Cronos) also shows his villainous side as a foul mouthed, ruthless Jewish mobster who owns, of all things, a pizzeria. With a slight Stallone-esque mumble, Perlman remains just as fearful as normal.

Ryan Gosling may be the star of the show, but an element of the film that accentuates the existential tone of the film is Drive’s superb cinematography. Newton Thomas Sigel, who worked with Bryan Singer on The Usual Suspects, creates a perfectly constructed symphony of slowly moving images. Slow and swift, the tracking shots throughout the film again accentuate the tone of the film. The film is so beautiful looking that you could blindly pick a random still from the film and it would be a work of art. The lighting is extraordinary, the tones shifting from scene to scene to reflect the mood of the Driver. Looking at this film wowed me and intoxicated me, for it is a stunning film to see.

Cut to the chase (scenes)? Yes, it can be a rather violent film. But the violence comes out of nowhere, which shook me to my core. The shocking inclusion and unexpectedness of the violence is perfect. Refn has said that the film is a bit of a tribute to Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece Taxi Driver, and like that film, its violence quakes on the screen. Drive, with its somewhat glacial pacing and quiet and serene mood, lulls you into a false sense of security and then, to put it bluntly, blows your mind. The car chases are just as exciting. Resembling the car chases more like Bullitt and The French Connection, in that the cinematography and look is cohesive and discernible (as opposed to chaotic, ahem Fast and the Furious), the chases pumped adrenaline into my veins. Tense and taut, the chase scenes were memorable and exciting.

Drive is a memorable exercise in subtlety as well as showmanship. It is at once complex and simple. Its protagonist embodies the existential hero, so well portrayed by Gosling. It is fair to say that the film was robbed of several Academy Award nominations this year: Director (Refn, who luckily won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival), Cinematography, Actor (Gosling), Supporting Actress (Mulligan), Editing, and Supporting Actor (Brooks). It managed to nab one nomination and an important one for the film, Sound Editing. Sound plays a huge role in the tone, making one feel there with the characters. It is not complete silence, as the whirring of cars pass by. Paying homage to the great car chase films and even Scorsese and Paul Schrader’s “Lonely Man”, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is a carefully executed thrill, and one of the best films from 2011. Fasten your seatbelts; it’s gonna be an exhilarating ride.

Grade: A

Seems Like Old Times: “Annie Hall” and “When Harry Met Sally…”

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Picture it: two adults, male and female, walking around in a book store discussing the importance of death and misery in life. They seem like smart, well-adjusted people. Now picture this: two adults, again male and female, driving from Chicago to New York and discussing whether men and women can just be friends. These two mildly philosophical conversations come from two very different films, despite the former often being cited as inspiration for the latter. The two films in question are Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally…, two films that both take place in New York and both explore the nuances within relationships.

As often as When Harry Met Sally is said to be a rather obvious homage to Woody Allen’s “first mature film”, and to some extent Annie Hall’s companion Manhattan, the two films seem too different to really be considered similar at all.

Annie Hall’s anxiety ridden relationship between comedian Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) and the tennis playing/amateur photographer/night club singer Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) is far more realistic in the way it explores the trials and tribulations of dealing with an adult relationship. Allen seems to make it obvious that as good as Singer and Hall are together, they aren’t meant for each other. They’re both pretty emotionally stunted as people, neither of them having fully matured, as adults sometimes do (or don’t). It is an adult relationship, one that’s seen in a very non-linear fashion. Instead of seeing the direct development of the relationship, we get thrown into the middle of it, almost as if Allen expects us to know who these people are. This could be very risky, but instead it pays off. While we may not be as terribly cynical or anxious as the pair are, Alvy Singer and Annie Hall are us. It’s the kind of relationship any adult can identify with. Those same kinds of fights and arguments and wishes for perfection have all been brought up and dealt with, and Allen brings up these topics with knowledge and insight.

When Harry Met Sally…, which was written by Nora Ephron, portrays a different kind of relationship. We have the development from stranger to friend to best friends to lovers to strangers to people in love. It’s kind of a long cycle, and it remains relatively realistic…except when you get to the sex. Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) isn’t as anxious as Singer, but he seems just as deadpan and pessimistic (just consider his thoughts on death), and Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) is a different kind of high maintenance compared to Hall. Harry and Sally continually meet by chance and then, after several years, become best friends. Up to here, the relationship resembles many a male-female friendship you see. But when the tow have sex and they stop talking, it’s here that the relationship turns into the stuff of fiction. Yes, the sex and the following cold should is fine, but getting back together is not. While it’s an intricate and romantic portrait of a friendship, the ensuing relationship is not as realistically portrayed as in Annie Hall.

It can be summed up pretty easily: the intellectual, cynical, snobby, pessimistic, embittered singleton in me loves Annie Hall. But the hopeless romantic, the one who loves everything sweet and sappy, adores When Harry Met Sally just as much. But the two films are too different two really compare to one another. Their formats, their view of love, and their general aesthetic. While When Harry Met Sally is punctuated by pretty scenes in Central Park, Annie Hall’s nicest moments, with cinematographer Gordon Willis, are intermittent, sometimes so spontaneously pretty and quick that you barely notice. The format of the films are different. Even though Annie Hall is told in a somewhat autobiographical way with Allen often breaking the fourth wall, When Harry Met Sally is told through various time intervals with intermittent interviews with older couples and their life stories. If anything, aside from its New York setting, the most blatant homage and only real similarity between the two films is the opening titles. Plain white font against a black background.

Both films most definitely have their merits. Annie Hall is more overtly cerebal and sarcastic in its humor, as Woody Allen’s humor tends to be. When Harry Met Sally however is more along the lines of the witty banter that seems to be a contemporary update of the back and forth lines that filled the films of Howard Hawks. Both, however, are excellent films, extremely funny, and utterly romantic. It had to be both of them.

Annie Hall: A

When Harry Met Sally: A

Game On: Review for “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”

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The introduction of the “videogame aesthetic” – hyper kinetic editing, ultra-somewhat cartoonish-violence, ear splitting use of sound effects – in mainstream films has been rightfully condemned by critics. Let’s face it; it’s a chore to watch those movies. As “exciting” and “adrenaline pumping” as they are, it’s actually hard to keep up. If I wanted to watch a video game, I’d go over my friend’s house and say “Oh, no, I don’t want to ruin your kill-death ratio” and just watch him play. Video game aesthetics, or what one person called “chaos cinema”, are endless hogwash of attempted excitement that are generally used to cover up and distract from the mediocrity that is everything else.

Allow me to sound somewhat like one of those guys on infomercials and say, “But what if I told you there was a movie that used ‘video game aesthetics’ to its advantage?” The difference being that the video game aesthetics that the film emulates are retro, so to speak, and resemble something more along the lines of arcade games than first person shooters. Nevertheless, you still get a similar kind of adrenaline thrill from this iteration of graphics and editing style that you may encounter elsewhere.

The film in question is Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, directed by British filmmaker Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), which was adapted from a series of comic books. The fact that it is based on a comic book, one that also tries to emulate arcade style, is telling about the film’s visual style. Not only does it feature that amusing 8-bit sound occasionally (especially in for the Universal Studios beginning), but it feels like a comic book. Sometimes the camera pans from a panel to another, other times there are clear descriptors of characters or actions or cuts in the edit that feel like a comic book. The last time something vaguely similar was pulled off well was in 2005’s Sin City, which utilized the original Frank Miller graphic novels as the actual storyboards. Scott Pilgrim does just as well, creating that same kind of nerdy, almost hipster vibe, without alienating the viewer.

I’ve babbled on long enough about technical details. But what about the film itself? Scott Pilgrim is a nerdy, kind of awkward 22 year old Canadian kid (Michael Cera playing Michael Cera again) who falls for an aloof American girl named Ramona (Mary, Elizabeth Winstead). But before he can date her, he must battle her Seven Evil Exes. Which is exactly what it sounds like.

Melding varying genres generally found in comic books, while it’s not the most premise I’ve ever seen, it is pretty interesting considering. Not only does the aesthetic make this very niche-made film work, the performances and script add more power to the punch. The witty and fast talking screenplay was written by director Wright and Michael Bacall, a script that never lets up. It’s speedy and fun, and I’ll probably get some crap for this, but it’s reminiscent of the fast talking screwball comedies of Howard Hawks. Did I mention it’s hilarious and quotable?

Michael Cera…well, he plays Michael Cera again, which is fine. It works for the character, who is, as per usual, dorky and a little awkward. Scott Pilgrim isn’t actually as awkward as Cera’ characters tend to be. It’s a fine performance, but nothing to rave about. The film pretty much rests on his shoulders, and one does come out surprised that he could actually battle those Seven Evil Exes.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead, however, is a revelation. Playing the slightly broken, rather impulsive Ramona, her character is definitely reminiscent of Kate Winslet’s broken, impulsive Clementine from Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The character could have been perceived as fairly one dimensional, but her comedic timing is great and she gives the character a tender fragility.

The supporting cast is also great. From Kieran Culkin as Scott’s gay roommate Wallace, Audra Plaza (Parks and Recreation) as the sharp and foulmouthed Julie, and the Seven Evil Exes themselves, it ends up being a supporting cast that makes the film.

The thumping, probably hipster-esque music is a highlight of the film. Partly compiled and written by Beck, it thumps, throngs, and shakes with powerful bass and a dynamic sound that is, while completely self-referential, completely fantastic to listen to. It not only fits the generally hipster feel of the film, but also its Canadian locale.

Generally speaking, almost every element of the film is rendered perfectly. It does exactly what it is supposed to do and it’s a fast and fun film, a ride that is totally original and memorable. It’s the kind of film that, if it were a game, you would definitely be scrambling for more tokens so you could play it again.

Grade: A-

The World is Not Enough: Review for Melancholia

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It’s the end of the world and Lars von Trier knows it. He probably relishes the apocalyptic notion, but the Danish provocateur’s newest film Melancholia is an operatic opus that manages to illicit a grand feeling of nausea, hopelessness, and, of course, melancholy. Von Trier’s last film, Antichrist, was more graphic, but what Melancholia lacks in graphic sex and organ mutilation, it makes up for in sheer atmosphere and tone.

The film is divided into two parts, each named for the respective sister it focuses on. The first part focuses on Justine, played ethereally by Kirsten Dunst in her best role in years, a woman who has just gotten married and is doing what nearly everyone does to some extent: wearing a mask. Her sparkling façade is done only to please her new husband (Alexander Skarsgard), her distant and frustrated sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg, who won Best Actress at Cannes for Antichrist), and her edgy brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland). Behind that mask of lies, she’s a mess. And it seems that she’s been a mess for a while. In the posh castle where her wedding party is being held, as she loses her grip, domestic chaos ensues, slowly marring the entirety of not only the wedding but of her life. This is, of course, representative of how depression can ruin one’s life so easily.

In the second half, dedicated to Claire, the end of the world is coming in the form of a fly-by planet called Melancholia. While Claire and her scientist husband become more and more worried, Justine remains serene, her pessimism and cynicism being completely manifested in the form of complete calmness. Claire breaks down; she is unable to handle the stress, but the strained relationship between the two sisters actually becomes stronger. Estranged though they may be, and as cynical as Justine, through her depressing, has become, this unified sense of doom brings the two together.

If you’ve seen any of the other films that the Danish auteur has made, perhaps most scarringly Antichrist, von Trier relishes suffering. He wants to make the audience suffer just as much as the characters he creates. This isn’t for pure maliciousness, but to accentuate drama and emotion, to place the audience in the situation of the characters on the screen.

Melancholia is driven by its stunning performance by Kirsten Dunst. Having made a strong debut as a questionably happy teenager in Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, the depressing subject matter of Melancholia is nothing new for the actress. It is a brave performance, one where we see Dunst at her most vulnerable, probably that we’ve ever seen of an actress on the silver screen (von Trier has a way of getting his actresses to become completely naked on the screen, in more than one way). Dunst has dealt with the pains of clinical depression and to go back and recreate that feeling as a performance is an extraordinary thing. Bravura is the word that best describes the performance, not wrought with the same kind of overacting that maybe other actresses would have given it. It’s honest. The kind of vulnerability that Dunst shows on the screen as a fragile, broken individual is almost like sex: we see her naked; we see her scars; we see who she is without the distraction of the façade she shows at the wedding party.

The supporting cast is excellent as well, with Stellen and Alexander Skargard playing father and son, the latter of whom is marrying Justine. The trouble is that von Trier has put so much effort into putting and illustrating the depth of Justine, Claire, and Claire’s husband, the other characters seem repellent and flat in comparison. They aren’t as thoughtless as the “after thought” character, but they aren’t as heady. It is the same kind of problem that was actually avoided in Antichrist, where von Trier only dealt with two characters; He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and one he did not avoid in his minimalist, Our Town-esque Dogville, with a cast of nearly 20 actors. Von Trier is a technical genius, an artist who can make every frame mean something, but his characterization often falls short when it comes to the supporting players. That being said, it does leave more room for the leads to not only shine, but nearly explode with talent and pathos.

Kirsten Dunst’s bravura performance was only a surprise insofar that the amount of vulnerability she showed was rather unprecedented for what some think of as a fairly mainstream actress (which is an incorrect evaluation in my mind), but the real surprise here may have been Kiefer Sutherland’s angry, frustrated brother-in-law. His scientific mind and refusal to tolerate Justine’s troubles makes him instantly unlikable, one who continues throughout the film to say things like “Do you realize how much this [wedding party] cost me? I hope you’re happy.” It is said without any kind of sympathy. His virility was shown frequently on 24, but it was with a government state of mind. Here, it’s just him and just his personal reservations and problems. It’s a very strong performance, one that is just as good as any of the angry male characters that von Trier has written.

Gainsbourg is also not a surprise. She was just as emotionally stripped and naked as Dunst, only in von Trier’s Antichrist, but here she shows a different kind of suffering. The crazy and insanity that Claire goes through is one of stress, not grieving or mere psychosis. Gainsbourg, whom I believe should get more notice in the United States, is able again to illicit emotion in the audience and portray pain like no other contemporary actress.

Unsurprisingly, von Trier’s Melancholia is a visual feast. Utilizing the hand held techniques of Dogme 95, the cinematography of Manuel Alberto Claro is glorious, sumptuous, and ultimately, hypnotic. One is always surprised at how the visuality of a film can still remain incredibly beautiful even though it uses a handheld camera. The prologue and the grand finale, though, are the most gorgeous to see. The Prologue of Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” sweeps the screen with emotion just as the earth ends. It’s a swell of images and it makes for one hell of a beginning.

One could easily write more and more on Lars von Trier’s newest film. It may not be as intense or shocking as his other films, and it is comparably rather tame, but it is perhaps his most accessible. Regardless of accessibility or graphic content, the film stands as a piece of art, one that can be interpreted in many different ways (The first half may be a critique of upper -class bourgeois lifestyle, more nastily satirical than Renoir’s The Rules of the Game. The second may be of familial construct, the bond that unites family but also that breaks it.) Its exploration into both Justine and Claire is the film’s focal point. The way von Trier constructs his films is inventive and original and the performances he gets out of his actors is unbelievable. While the metaphor may have been rather obvious, who knew that depression manifested as the end of the world could be so beautiful and, yes, so full of melancholia.

Grade: A-