Movies

Reviews and other thoughts on great (or mediocre…or awful) movies.

Boyhood (Richard Linklater, USA, 2014)

When I first heard about Boyhood, I was impressed, yes, with the film’s 12 years of shooting time, though not as much as the average viewer. Two years ago, I interned at Rada Film Group, the production company behind American Promise, a documentary that much like Boyhood, filmed a young boy from the age of six to the age of eighteen. My exposure to the feat of 12 years of filming at Rada frankly blunted my reaction to the immense amount of time and effort invested into Boyhood; While I was intrigued to see a fictional compilation of 12 years of film, the concept wasn’t actually novel to me.

Having said that, Boyhood is the most impressive movie I’ve seen this summer–and I’ve seen some great ones, including Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel and Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur. It’s an anthology of one boy’s childhood, a compilation of moments both formative and revelatory–allowing viewer to see the events that shape the characters, as well as the results. The simple chronological structure chosen for the film is perfect–when combined with the filming style, watching Boyhood feels like watching a child grow up and transform before your eyes: it’s child development for the impatient. Even with the inclusion of recognizable actors such as Ethan Hawke (playing the boy’s dad) and Patricia Arquette (the boy’s mom), the film feels real; a mixed bag of momentous occasions and the more mundane; silences, gregariousness, and one-word responses; happiness, awkwardness, and fear.

Besides allowing you to experience the growth of one boy into a sensitive and artistic young man, Boyhood also invites you to reminisce about your own past, through the evolution of fashion and music unfolding on the screen. The long hair sweeping over the eyes, ever so carefully brushed to the side and flipped upwards reminded me of the boys in middle school; Sheryl Crowe’s “Soak Up the Sun” took me back all the way to elementary. Boyhood, thus, not only gives you the thrilling experience of watching one boy’s physical and emotional evolution over 12 years in 166 minutes, but also allows you to relive a little bit of your own.

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Cache (Michael Haneke, 2005)

A supremely stylish thriller. The ending adds a new element to the unresolved mystery that’ll keep you thinking for a while after the movie is over, but only should you spot the clue which is not distinguished from the remainder of the very busy composition. A fun ending that rightfully doesn’t overshadow the rest of the movie, as some endings are wont to do (for good or for bad).

L’enfant (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium, 2005)

L’enfant was my introduction to the Dardenne brothers. The 2005 Cannes Palm d’Or winner was a striking reminder of what film can do: introduce viewers to unfamiliar circumstances and experiences, or provide new ways of looking at the familiar.

The film is shot and directed in such a way that it seems as if someone followed the two main characters–Jeremie Renier’s Bruno and Deborah Francois’s Sonia–with a camera, and covertly filmed this pivotal segment of their lives. It appears so real, so authentic, that the Dardenne brothers’ incredible achievement in capturing a young couple’s reaction to having a child is easy to brush over. And in fact, I initially did.

But as anyone who has stood in front of a camera, or even known a camera is directed his way, knows, it’s almost impossible to not seize up before a camera, to not become extremely aware of your every move. To be able to capture life as it is actually experienced, as this film appears to do, is then an impossibility. Just look at reality TV as an example. Even if left unscripted, when is it ever truly real?

L’enfant doesn’t seem like real life only in style, plot, and characterization, but also in its impressive presentation of its subject matter. Though at initial read, l’enfant, the child, in question seems to be Bruno and Sonia’s new baby, as the viewer sees more of Bruno and Sonia’s very different reactions to becoming parents, it becomes obvious that the true child is Bruno, and this film is not about how the baby radically changes Bruno and Sonia’s lives, but about the immaturity of these two adults.

The subject of adult childishess is very easy to turn into a joke. (Adam Sandler comes to mind.) But Bruno and Sonia are not gross, hyperbolic characters, but completely believable childish people: Bruno stealing for a living and spending every last Euro he has instead of saving up for the future, Sonia playing along with Bruno’s games, staying with him even though he abandoned her while she was in the hospital, biting him and wrestling him and screaming playfully as he chases her. L’enfant shows Sonia and Bruno’s growth in maturity. Sonia’s comes quickly, triggered by Bruno’s ultimate act of selfishness in selling their baby, Bruno’s taking more time. Their growth is incomplete and especially in Bruno’s case, not straightforward–Bruno’s display of maturity in turning himself in when his adolescent partner in crime is captured by the police isn’t completely heroic as it was shown that he had nothing to lose and even some stability to gain from being in jail–but the imperfection, the messiness, the ambiguity render this peek into a young couples’ lives all the more real.

 

The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola, USA, 2013)

My immediate reaction to Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring was that it was a silly and superficial film. Underneath its stylish veneer – the absence of sound during some scenes, the use of slow motion during others – the movie was nothing more than an amalgam of  party scenes, nightclub scenes, beach scenes, closet scenes, and celebrity home break-in scenes. Designer names made up a good 1/3 of the dialogue, celebrity names another 1/3, and “Marc, chill out” the final third, while the images were dominated by racks of clothes, shoes, and jewelry, garish furniture, shiny cars, and cocaine. Basically, the film pandered to today’s viewers’ attraction to the glitzy and glamorous LA lifestyle, a thought which is only further supported by the addition of Emma Watson to the otherwise little-known cast. Aside from Ms. Watson’s ability to attract a large, young audience for the film, and her ability to look gorgeous in a range of designer duds, the choice of Ms. Watson for the role of Nicki Moore, one of the principal characters in the film, seems inexplicable because of Ms. Watson’s struggle in reproducing an American accent. Now I’m not saying that I’m any better at assuming an English accent than Ms. Watson is at an American one, but I’m not the one who has been cast as an American several times now.

But in retrospect, I realize I dismissed Ms. Coppola’s film as shallow without considering that the superficiality of the Bling Ring, the real-life gang of celebrity-obsessed teens who burglarized celebrity homes for designer clothes, cash, and drugs, was exactly what Ms. Coppola sought to capture in her film. The heavy sensation of grossness I felt after watching the movie – the same feeling I get after cooping up on the couch all day watching reruns of Friends while tearing through containers of Christmas cookies, or from watching a bad rom-com on Oxygen channel on a lazy Saturday afternoon – basically, the feeling of purely hedonistic indulgence – was, perhaps, intentional: Coppola’s reminder to her youthful audience that the superficiality, the greed, the celebrity obsession demonstrated by the beautiful youths on the screen is utterly unproductive and frankly pathetic. And while Ms. Watson’s American accent was kind of distractingly exaggerated, it actually ultimately worked. The overly-girlish, self-conscious softness in Watson’s accent accentuated the self-absorption and ignorance existing in the Nicki character, completing the picture of just how shallow these teenagers really were, though I still prefer the less exaggerated (but definitely not understated) performances of Claire Julien as the edgy Chloe and Taissa Farmiga as Nicki’s giggly sidekick Sam.

I originally dismissed The Bling Ring because it failed to explain the likely troubled home lives of many of these teens, but I see now that I was missing the point. While these kids may (or may not) have come from troubled backgrounds, The Bling Ring explains that ultimately, they were produced by today’s avaricious, attention-seeking, celebrity-worshipping society. The saddest testament to this valueless and unproductive society that Coppola identifies is that the member of the Bling Ring on whom Watson’s character is based got her own reality TV show as her criminal trial was unfolding. Instead of punishing an individual who broke into homes and stole in order to fuel her hedonistic lifestyle, this moral-less society rewarded her with attention, further blurring the lines between right and wrong.

Her (Spike Jonze, USA, 2013)

Spike Jonze’s Her is a damn fine movie. The basic premise sounds quite gimmicky – a man with a delightfully fuzzy mustache falls in love with his operating system – but Jonze manages to transcend the gimmick with aplomb. While the film made me uncomfortable at times, not just during the entirely auditory man-operating system sex scenes, but also during some of the tenderer moments between the man Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) and his operating system Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), largely due to my disgust with the idea that a person could fall in love with an inanimate object, Her is, more often than not, sweet and actually quite charming because, at its core, it is a film exploring the dynamic nature of real, human relationships, and it portrays these relationships in a deeply true and honest way.

The aspect of relationships that Jonze is interested in is its dynamism: how a relationship between two people can never stay the same because with every experience each of the two people have, they grow. Jonze makes his point primarily by illustrating the arc of Theodore and Samantha’s relationship, though the same idea is deftly expressed through Theodore’s relationships with his ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) and friend Amy (Amy Adams) as well. I don’t know why I’ve never thought about relationships this way, but this was a strikingly new idea for me. An undeniable idea, but novel no less. This is one reason why Her stands out to me as one of the best films I’ve seen this past year.

But beyond Jonze’s ability to make me think about relationships in an entirely new way, Her also strikes me as an extraordinary film because of the complex secondary themes it brings up. The relationship between man and man, and man and technology in this increasingly technologically-dependent age. The possibilities of technology and whether its full potential should be unlocked, especially when it comes to artificial intelligence. Our tolerance to difference and whether just because we cannot understand something, that means that it is wrong. Jonze impressively not only broaches all these diverse questions while maintaining a charming, easy-to-follow narrative, but also explores them in such a way that he offers forth compelling arguments but ultimately leaves the questions unanswered, forcing the viewer to think about them him or herself.  Her, in other words, is not a dumb movie that spoon feeds ideas into the heads of its viewers, but instead asks them to think about how they feel about the topics approached.

Her is an exceedingly complex film that offers a new way of seeing the world, a new way of seeing your relationships, and a new way of seeing yourself, while simultaneously being a simple and sincere love story. Aside from all that man-on-operating-system weirdness going on there, it’s easy to watch, but leaves you thinking about love and relationships and technology long after you walk out of the theater.

Like Crazy (Drake Doremus, 2011)

I’m backkkk!!! I caved and had a grilled cheese and turkey sandwich for lunch. And I’m kinda craving another one, just about now…

Anyways, enough about my obsessions with food. This post is about one of the best love stories I’ve seen in ages, Drake Doremus’s Like Crazy (2011). Like Crazy, starring Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones as lovers Jacob and Anna, is a very honest portrayal of a trajectory of a modern romance. The story begins while the two are in college. Jacob, studying furniture design, and Anna, training to become a journalist though her first love is poetry, meet and fall in love while studying in LA. Upon graduation, a wrench is thrown in their perfect romance when Anna learns she must return to the UK, her country of origin, for the summer or risk violating her student visa. On Anna’s last day in the States, she withdraws from Jacob, pushing him away in her sadness – a reaction that foreshadows the rocky, imperfect romance that is to follow. Though Anna ends up staying and violating her student visa so that she and Jacob could enjoy a summer of bliss, the consequences of her decision prove to be significantly more painful on the young romance than would be a summer apart: the pair is forced to live apart on separate continents, continuing their relationship via half-hearted phone calls and infrequent visits, during which each recognizes the coolness and distance that is growing between them. Despite evidence that they are no longer in love with each other, the two delude themselves into believing that they are, that the coolness that has developed between them is a temporary symptom of their long-distance relationship that will surely disappear once they can be reunited once and for all, out of a naive and idealistic desire to preserve their first love.

What makes Like Crazy a winner in Hollywood’s love of romantic dramas is its realism, its emotional honesty. The dilemmas and emotions Jacob and Anna are faced with in their attempts to keep their relationship alive, the guilt, the weariness, the confusion, seem very real and true. This commitment to emotional realism is carried out until the very end of the film. The concluding scene of Like Crazy strongly reminds me of that of Mike Nichols’ 1967 classic The Graduate. Just as the thrilled expressions on Dustin Hoffman’s Ben Braddock and Katharine Ross’s Elaine Robinson’s faces gradually begin to disappear as their escape bus drives off into the distance away from Elaine’s wedding to another man, as the pair begins to realize how the capricious, split-second decision that they made has created a hazy, ambiguous future for the two of them, Like Crazy also ends on a less-than-happy note. SPOILER ALERT! After getting married and moving back to LA after many years apart, Jacob and Anna shower together only to realize that their passion for each other has permanently cooled. Their expressions, while initially happy, fade into dissatisfaction as each realizes they have just bought into a lifetime of unhappiness out of their idealistic desire to make their first love work.

Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, 2011)

So a couple of weeks ago, I started this post on Woody Allen’s 2011 romantic comedy, Midnight in Paris. I know it might be a blasphemous thing for me to say, but I liked Midnight in Paris so much better than the only other Woody Allen flick I had seen at the time, his highly-regarded masterpiece, Annie Hall. Now, I did appreciate the goofy yet intelligent cleverness of Annie Hall – like how Allen repeatedly has the characters speak in an aside to the audience, which other characters can also hear and join in – but I think the fact that I didn’t really want the relationship to succeed in the end and the fact that I simply didn’t like the character of Annie kind of prevented me from wholeheartedly liking the movie. Maybe I should have just enjoyed it for it’s originality and artistic qualities, but at least at the point where I’m at now, I need the plot to be interesting and the characters to be at least somewhat likeable for me to enjoy the movie.

But all that aside (this post, after all, is supposed to be about Midnight in Paris, not Annie Hall), Midnight in Paris is an excellent movie about a Hollywood screenwriter’s adventures in the city of lights. Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), a mediocre screenwriter who longs to have lived during the Jazz Age era of Paris, when he could have rubbed shoulders with the likes of his literary heroes, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, instead is vacationing in the still gorgeous but way too modernized present-day version of Paris with his fiance Inez (Rachel McAdams), a woman who does not truly understand Gil, or, for that matter, know how to have a good time. While Inez is off doing touristy things like visiting a bunch of museums and Parisian landmarks under the guidance of a cloyingly pedantic professor, Gil longs to take long nighttime strolls along the streets of Paris, dine in tiny roadside cafes and bistros once frequented by Hemingway, and shop at roadside Parisian markets selling vintage records. One day, when Gil gets lost on one of his late night strolls through the city (while Inez is off dancing with the annoying know-it-all, played by Michael Sheen), he unexpectedly gets pulled into a Paris that no one alive today has ever experienced. Everyday at midnight, Gil gets the opportunity to live in his ideal world full of enchanting characters, dashing parties, and the true love of his life who respects him for who he really is, until he eventually realizes that while every era has its glitters, one must learn to be satisfied with his present.

I apologize if I gave too much of the secret away. The trailer, unlike trailers of late which completely divulge plot and ending in a neat little three minute package delivered before the movie even comes out making the movie pointless to watch, does a great job of hiding the major plot point to Midnight in Paris that makes the movie a Woody Allen movie – the originality, the fanciful qualities, the whimsy. (Though admittedly, this didn’t seem as “Woody Allen” as his other films – not that I’ve really watched many of his films. Though at the time I started this post, I had only seen Annie Hall, today I added Take the Money and Run to my repertoire. Midnight in Paris just isn’t different or off-kilter or fresh in the same way as the two earlier films of his I watched, but it is extremely creative and dreamy and well-executed just the same.)

But for those of you who, despite my recommendations, don’t want to watch the movie (my dad didn’t like the movie…especially since he expected more from Woody Allen), I’ll let the cat out of the bed. (Okay okay, I’m mostly giving away spoilers just for me, so that I can look back at this post and remember what Midnight in Paris was all about). So SPOILER ALERT! Midnight in Paris was so great because Woody Allen took a modern character back in time to interact with the literary and artistic legends of the Jazz Age. Unlike Night at the Museum, where historical characters weren’t in their natural element, and Back to the Future, where the people of the past were just regular people, Midnight in Paris allows viewers to see all these famous figures interacting with each other in their natural environment – Gil Pender is an intruder into their world who is whole-heartedly welcomed. I watched Gil’s adventures in 1920’s Paris with wide eyes…it is truly a fanciful and enchanting visit to the past, especially if you’re familiar with the 1920s figures who are referenced. I especially loved Adrien Brody’s wacky rhinoceros-obsessed Salvador Dali and Adrien de Van’s Surrealist filmmaker Luis Bunuel, who is perplexed by Gil’s idea for a film about guests who turn animalistic at a dinner party they are unable to leave, the subject of one of Bunuel’s most famous films, The Exterminating Angel (1962).