In Another Country - Hong Sangsoo
Rust and Bone - Jacques Audiard
The Angel’s Share - Ken Loach
Lawless - John Hillcoat
Beasts of the Southern Wild - Benh Zeitlin
I recently watched two films shown in the recent Tribeca Film Festival that were available for download in the iTunes store - The Giant Mechanical Man and Death of a Superhero. Here’s to hoping that other festivals adopt the same distribution system and have at least some movies be released simultaneously.
The Giant Mechanical Man
I found this movie to be quite unremarkable, employing hackneyed, forgettable rom-com tropes. Jenna Fischer and Chris Messina play Janice and Tim, two lost souls in New York amidst the backdrop of the failing economy. Both of them feel lonely, largely because of their grim employment prospects and lack of a general life direction. Their malaise is made worse by the fact that they don’t even know what will make them happy. And to rub home the point, they are surrounded by caricatured characters written to be as unsympathetic to them as possible — a controlling sister obsessed with “fixing” Janice’s life played by Malin Akerman and a thoughtless girlfriend who dumps Tim played by Lucy Punch.
I think what made me dislike the film is how it drowns in its own quirky, twee sensibilities without having much to say about anything. I wasn’t compelled to feel anything for their characters — I wasn’t moved by their sadness or elated by their union — because the movie didn’t give me any reason to. It was just bland preciousness. And like the title portends, it was dry and mechanical.
Death of a Superhero
I responded to Death of a Superhero a little better. Thomas Brodie-Sangster plays the role of Donald, an artistic teenager afflicted with cancer. He draws comic book characters as a coping mechanism to deal with his struggle and ruminations about his mortality. He imagines himself as an invincible superhero being taken down by a villain named ‘The Glove’. The Glove is a metaphor for all the traumatic things, both physically and emotionally, that he goes through because of his disease.
He is aided in this by his psychiatrist, played by Andy Serkis. Serkis is actually quite good here — I rarely see him take on dramatic roles and he pulls this off convincingly. What makes Donald trust him (and the audience believe in him too) is that he comes off as damaged as well; he’s not the smug, divorced shrink who has such a good grip on his/her sanity. But what I like the most about this film is its unique take on the ‘coming of age story’, specifically on the difficulties Donald faces when it comes to exploring his sexuality and building his self-image. It is a decent attempt to explore the complexities of cancer without being too melodramatic or patronizing.
Like what I said in my entry about The Station Agent, Thomas McCarthy’s work is generally about connecting people and showing how compassion and empathy are paramount human qualities. It is the splintering of people that has defined contemporary urban life, and it is moments when we reach out and understand those who are different from us that we gain a deeper understanding of the human condition and become more human ourselves.
In The Visitor, McCarthy explores this theme by taking on a more controversial and incendiary issue. This film criticizes the unjust immigration policies that the United States of America has adopted after 9/11 by zooming in on its effects on an undocumented immigrant couple. They are hard-working, good-natured people who by all means deserve a shot at the American Dream, but their lives are shattered when they become victimized by the paranoia of America’s law enforcement agencies. McCarthy loses some of the subtlety he showed in his previous movie, but he lays down his politics here very clearly.
Like in The Station Agent, McCarthy adopts the perspective of people living in the fringes of society. Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) is a global economics professor lives his life on auto-pilot and spends most of his time alone and detached from everyone. He is assigned by his university to go to New York for a speaking engagement, and when he goes to his old apartment there, he finds an Arab-African couple squatting in his home. Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) is a Syrian immigrant who’s young, passionate and affable, and living with him is his Senegalese girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira). Walter has every right to kick them out, even to call on the police and have them arrested. But instead, Walter allows them to stay and befriends them. His is a lonely soul, and he needed the company.
Music plays an integral role in this film, serving as an aural metaphor for cultural exchange and communication. Walter’s deceased wife was a classical pianist and he tried unsuccessfully to learn the piano himself to fill the musical void that she left. But when he meets Tarek, who happens to play the African drums in bars and parks across the city, he tries to learn the instrument as an act of friendship. This movement – from the structured cadence of the Western classical music to the primal, spontaneous beats of the djembe - represents a personal transformation for Walter. No ethnicity has been “othered” more after 9/11 than the Arabs, and his willingness to learn and adopt Tarek’s musical heritage shows an openness that was lost after the death of his wife.
Tarek soon gets racially profiled and arrested for a minor offense and his status as an illegal immigrant becomes known to the authorities. He gets lost in the complex web of America’s detention system, with Walter being his only conduit to the real world. It is here that McCarthy makes a case against America’s immigration policies, showing its inhumane treatment of prisoners and their lack of access to legal remedies. He shows how discrimination is institutionalized, and perhaps is a reflection of how American attitudes have turned for the worse since 9/11. The attacks might have led to a renewed sense of national unity — but did it come at the expense of refusing to recognize the humanity of people who wish to be part of that community?
Given that his movie is primarily about race, one thing I am critical of is the role of Walter as the White savior of Tarek. I will not be quick to judge McCarthy because his intention is precisely to show the flaws in the system, but at the same time, it is Walter swooping in and entering their lives who ends up trying to save them. Part of it smacks of white guilt, of Walter being the vehicle for the primarily white audience to feel better about themselves. In fact, while we see how harrowing Tarek’s ordeal is, we see a lot more of Walter’s anguish and frustration for not being able to do anything to help him out. But I guess for the purpose of social change that is apt, since it is the Americans themselves who are in a position to demand for change. And now, four years after this movie’s release and eleven years after 9/11, are things really any better?
Tomorrow, the Thomas McCarthy Blogathon continues with The Visitor. Released in 2008, The Visitor is McCarthy’s second critically acclaimed movie that earned him the Independent Spirit Award for Best Director. Richard Jenkins, the lead actor in the movie, also got nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor.
This is the saddest movie in McCarthy’s filmography, and it is his most political too. Hope you guys join us for the second round of our blogathon.
The Avengers is the fruition of one of the most ambitious cinematic projects undertaken by any studio in the entire history of the medium, and that this movie even exists is already cause for celebration. How awesome is it that this movie actually turned out to be great.
Under the helm of Joss Whedon, The Avengers features a tightly written, compelling story that weaves together the individual narratives of Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and The Hulk laid forth in the previous Marvel movies. What’s most impressive about it is how well the ensemble worked together and how balanced the story was, with no single Avenger really stealing the limelight. This isn’t an easy thing to do – this movie practically threw in four leading men whose characters have superhuman egos – but Whedon gave ample time for each of them to shine and be fully fleshed out. In fact, Whedon is a perfect fit for this franchise, with his offbeat humor and fluid fight scenes reminding me of his earlier work (Buffy, Dr. Horrible).
What I like the most about superhero movies in general is the introspection and self-examination that comes along with the job. Is having superpowers a blessing, or a curse? Questions about power, responsibility and what it really means to be a hero — that’s the stuff that gets to me, and this movie is chock full of brooding superheroes whose interior dilemmas we get to be privy to. In fact, a huge chunk of the movie focuses on them fighting each other and resolving their personal issues. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing a team breakdown to realize that they need each other, especially when the fate of our entire planet is at stake. The premise seems clichéd, but the delivery is refreshingly novel.
The final climactic battle, which is a little reminiscent of the final scene of Transformers 3 (my only criticism of the movie), is the culmination of two hours worth of in-fighting and soul-searching. You don’t have to be a fanboy to appreciate the gravity of The Avengers finally assembling — the formation of the group doesn’t only mean that they’ve overcome Loki’s manipulative tactics but also that they’ve set their egos aside and have come to accept a purpose greater than themselves that they can sacrifice their lives to. And you don’t have to be a superhero to want that sense of meaning as well.
Moonrise Kingdom - Wes Anderson
The Paperboy – Lee Daniels
Cosmopolis – David Cronenberg
The Taste of Money – Im Sang-Soo
On The Road – Walter Salles
This year’s Cannes Film Festival will be from May 16-27. The entire line-up can be seen here.
Over at Encore’s World of Film and TV, Andrew is hosting a blogathon about movie scenes featuring “the splendor of cinematic rain”. Here is my submission.
The rain is such a multi-sensorial experience that visuals alone don’t seem to do it justice. I ended up thinking of scenes that didn’t just show the rain but married it to music gorgeous enough to evoke that exquisite feeling of wet, cool drops falling on your skin and soaking into your clothes, or the even more exhilarating sensation of running through a wall of water.
This scene can be considered the climax of Alfonso Cuaron‘s sorely underappreciated adaptation of Dickens’ Great Expectations. In one long tracking shot, helmed by genius cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (before Malick snapped him up), and lushly scored by Patrick Doyle, the camera follows Ethan Hawke‘s Finn (a.k.a. Pip in the original) as he runs through the rain for an impromptu rendezvous with Gwyneth Paltrow‘s Estella. Strings swell over a pulsing beat, the steadicam never wavering past traffic and pedestrians. It’s a scene that’s as technically impressive as it is emotionally moving.
The whole rain scene lasts only up to the 3 minute mark in this clip, and there’s a “dry” portion in the middle, but hang on until 2:51 and you’ll be rewarded with one of the most swoon-worthy rain scenes in recent cinema, even if you’re not a fan of the lead actors.
Peter Greenaway‘s Prospero’s Books isn’t for everyone, especially if you’re a Shakespeare purist, or not into Shakespeare at all. More visual spectacle than film, Greenaway painstakingly deconstructs The Tempest, using its narrative merely as a framework to parade a series of images inspired by the books in Prospero’s library-in-exile. If you’re in the right mood, it’s a stunning experience, one of the most Stendhal Syndrome provoking works of cinema ever produced – a “multimedia” masterpiece made back when “multimedia” wasn’t even a word yet.
Greenaway begins this mad display with a mind-blowing tour-de-force of a scene – a grand tour of Prospero’s domain, and all the fantastical creatures that inhabit it. The “rain” begins (at around the 3:00 mark in this clip) when the sprite Ariel starts to… um, relieve itself, prompting further magical precipitation to fall. Longtime Greenaway collaborator, eccentric musical legend Michael Nyman starts building the soundscape with a driving, almost stabbing, orchestral movement in his unmistakeable minimalist style, propelling the choreography forward as a vast menagerie of naked beings gambol and march across the screen. More and more layers, visual and aural, pile on top of each other, more strings, more images, more wind instruments, more rain, more brass, calligraphy, flora and fauna, sculpture and fabric, and of course Shakespeare’s words as performed by the great Sir John Gielgud, crescendoing in this orgy of dark, disturbing beauty. It’s like something the Sandman would make up in his more creative reveries, and once seen, it may haunt your dreams or unlock your muses. At the very least, the music is a great piece to wake up to in the morning
I first saw The Station Agent as soon as the first bootleg screener DVDs hit the media pirate stalls of Manila, back in those slowband days of 2003 when downloading a film could take the better part of a week. Aside from the novelty of being a well-received indie “art” film with a dwarf actor in the lead, the most the film seemed to have had going for it was riding the wave of Patricia Clarkson‘s burgeoning cred as a character actress to be reckoned with.
Looking back now, who would have predicted that Michelle Williams would eventually snap up a series of Oscar noms, while Peter Dinklage would fall into THE role he was meant to play in Game of Thrones‘ Tryion Lannister. Strange to remember a time when, by accidents of birth or early career choices, either had to strenuously prove themselves just to be taken seriously as actors. Here, before the awards and hard-won respect, when they were younger and rawer, it’s all the more awe-inspiring to glimpse the fire in their eyes that’ll herald the greatness to come.
The film really stood out like a precious fluke, a lucky confluence of casting and charm. Before starting to write this blog entry, I meant to just skim through the film to spot my favorite scenes and frames, and before I knew it, I had been wholly sucked into watching the entire first half. And for this whole first half McCarthy builds the characters and setting like a master craftsman, with grace notes both unrushed and unforced.
Gratefully, McCarthy never falls into the rookie indie director’s trap of piling on the showy look-at-me flourishes. Instead, he focuses on picturesque-but-profound little details such as the cracked paint on an old depot, an impromptu meal of spicy Cuban food, and even how Williams’ town librarian (un)subtly adjusts her make-up. The aforementioned librarian would have remained a relatively sketchy, thankless role had it been played by any other ingénue, but the former Jen Lindley is incapable of not glowing. You may not be able to ignore Dinklage’s physical stature, and the story is dependent on it, but this was one of the few, if not the first, times an actor of his size was privileged with a role of this depth and prominence. Charismatic, enigmatic, and sympathetic, Dinklage dominates the film, all 4 feet of him.
Bobby Cannavale plays a guy so relentlessly good-natured, you can’t help but give into his friendly joie de vivre. The way Cannavale embodies this Latin lunk, the character is just so gosh-darned likeable, McCarthy re-uses him practically wholesale in his 2011 film Win-Win. Cannavale easily gives off this warm, natural nice-guy vibe that seems to say… as long as you’ve got me as a friend, things are all gonna be ok. With a less charming actor, this persona could come off as grating, like a live action Johnny Bravo, but he nails the artless physicality of it. He may have the look and build of a leading man, but in this story he’s the jester, the clown, while Dinklage gets to smolder as the brooding, mysterious romantic stud. It was a risky role reversal that paid off and really makes the film. In fact, when George R. R. Martin wraps up his saga, maybe Dinklage and Cannavale should move on to showing us the further misadventures of Finbar and Joe?
Patricia Clarkson’s MILFy goodness is in full force here. Not to take anything from her as an actress (and she’s one of my favorites), but my theory is that the redheads easily nab these complex-fragile women parts partly because of how the paleness of their complexions comes off as so delicately translucent on film. This quality won’t make a bad redhead actress come off as a great one, but it’s become kind of like cinematic shorthand that redhead = vulnerable but passionate. But Clarkson could have skin like sandpaper and still do justice to the role of a grieving mother and artist through sheer skill alone.
Regrettably, her character is saddled with the clunkiest arc, pushing the plot perilously close to TV movie-of-the-week territory. If you’ve seen enough melodramas, from Douglas Sirk to Lifetime, telenovelas and even Maalala Mo Kaya, and you see a female character of a certain age, with an artistic/volatile temperament (a redhead no less), who has suffered a great loss, well… how else can that storyline play itself out? McCarthy doesn’t exactly break the trope here. Good thing all the other elements are just quirkily poignant enough to elevate the emotional cliches and get over this hystrionic hump by the end.
So it’s genuinely exciting to trace McCarthy’s growth as a dramatist when considering the progression of his next three films. There’s clear growth from Station Agent to Visitor, to his writing assist on Pixar’s Up (a master class in dramedy if there ever was), and finally to Win-Win. With such a pleasant, likeable body of work, he may not be as raved about by cineastes who get off mostly on “edgier” fare, and yet by playing more in the light than in the darkness, McCarthy exposes more of the human condition, in more detail and with more dimension.
There is a scene in Marley where the camera pans over the lush hills of Jamaica as a demo of ‘No Woman No Cry’ plays in the background. The view is absolutely magnificent and one gets a sense of the spiritual depth of Bob Marley’s songs. The late poet and musician has always had a mystical quality to him, from his devotion to the esoteric religion of Rastafarianism to his untimely death that led to his musical deification, and Kelly Macdonald’s latest documentary seeks to deconstruct the life of this man whose lyrics have proven to be both liberating and transformative.
Done mostly through a series of interviews with the people who have crossed paths with Marley, this documentary traces the roots of his music and philosophy. MacDonald doesn’t focus on Marley’s songs and songwriting process per se, but he tries to paint a picture of the experiences that shaped his musical sensibilities. For example, we see the racial politics in Jamaica at work when Marley as a young kid was ostracized even within his family for being the son of a white man and a black woman. This early sense of marginalization coupled with living in the squalid slums of Kingston builds on his legacy as a singer of the people, of the oppressed. Macdonald does a pretty impressive job at making sense out of Marley’s anti-colonial, countercultural message by looking at these aspects of his life. And as much as this documentary is a inspection of Marley’s personal and professional lives, this is also a close examination of Jamaican and Rastafarian culture.
The best part of the movie is the archival footage of his concerts that remind us what an electrifying performer he was. When Marley sings, he always seems to be in a state of transcendence, giving him an almost messianic aura. The movie even makes an explicit attempt to compare the Rastafarians’ reverence to Emperor Haile Selassie to their worship of Bob Marley. It is thus extremely heartbreaking to see him in the twilight of his life as he tries to fight the battle against cancer that he knows he can not win. He might have started his life as a simple reggae singer, but he ended it as a god among us.
Over at Encore’s World of Film and TV, Andrew is hosting a blogathon about movie scenes featuring “the splendor of cinematic rain”. Here is my submission.
The scene starts inside Joel’s (Jim Carrey) head, where the procedure erasing his memories of Clementine (Kate Winslet) has already begun. The two of them are figuring out a way to stop it.
What if you take me somewhere else? Somewhere where I don’t belong, and hide there ’til morning?
I can’t remember anything without you.
That’s very sweet, but try, ok?
So Joel tries, and he recalls a childhood memory of a rainy day. The sweet melody of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” slowly starts to play overhead and he sings the song, trying to relive the memory so that he could hide Clementine there.
As the mental association between the two memories becomes stronger, it starts raining inside the living room.
Eventually, the two memories collapse into each other and become one.
Joel takes Clem to his childhood. I start crying.