Sunday, March 30, 2014

Arrivederci To All That: The Great Beauty (2013) ✭✭✭✭✭

Living up to its title, Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (2013) is a modern masterwork of visual and aural aesthetics that slowly builds brick-by-brick a mesmerizing mosaic of time and place. The place is present day Rome, where a new kind of decadence threatens the eternal city once again. Amid its famous landmarks and towering historical glories, the streets of Rome are also the site of an unlikely symbiosis; where awestruck tourists from around the globe coexist with a bored upperclass who’ve become comfortably numb to the hallowed splendor that surrounds them.

The time is the 65th birthday of Jep Gambardella (wonderfully played by Toni Servillo), an aging playboy whose youthful brilliance as a novelist has been doused by too many late nights of partying and hobnobbing with the city’s vacuous social elite. To borrow from Tom Wolfe, Jep Gambardella is a Man in Full.  Secure financially and emotionally, he has reached a point where he no longer listens to his detractors, and easily sees through the hypocritical veils of others. His last remaining critic, and by far his harshest, is himself; a tiny inner voice that chides him for not doing more with his talent. Over the course of the film this gnawing murmur will grow to a thunderous timbre.

Sorrentino doesn’t so much tell the story as gently coax it out of Rome’s silent stone arches and garish neon nightlife. The film is composed of moments, often seemingly unconnected, that amuse, mystify and occasionally befuddle. The Great Beauty courageously follows no narrative map, yet its meanderings and musings arrive at their stations in precise accordance to a perfectly paced schedule. In this city that has stood for nearly three millennia, legions of nuns from the Vatican’s darkest corridors scurry about in the warming sun, while echoes of ethereal choirs greet yet another lazy afternoon. A Japanese tourist, overcome by the grandeur, blissfully drops dead on the spot while a nude performance artist rams her head into an ancient viaduct in rebellion of Rome’s permanence. Sorrentino’s frequent allusions to Fellini both enliven his film and sharpen his satirical knife, yet this current incarnation of La Dolce Vita is rife with conundrums and quandaries unimaginable in 1960.

From his lavish balcony that looks down on the Colosseum and its blood-soaked history, Jep Gambardella reflects on an existential emptiness that’s equally beyond his experience. The Great Beauty not only deals with an ageless city, but also the ages of man, and Gambardella has reached a point where the losses are starting to mount. Along with security and freedom has come the realization that time is growing short. Funerals for Jep’s past and current lovers have become a common occurrence and, through repetition, he has the hollow words of the condolence line down pat. But a miraculous encounter with a latter-day Sister Theresa grants him a new perspective and a new immersion in a sea of teenage love he has never truly forgotten. The Great Beauty will not be forgotten either; its ebb and flow of images and imaginings revealing even greater truths as dawn nears and flocks of birds fill the gleaming sky.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

A Life in Posters: Ingmar Bergman

A Lesson in Love (1953)

Wild Strawberries (1957)

The Virgin Spring (1960)

The Silence (1963)

Persona (1966)

Shame (1969)

A Passion (1970)

Scenes From a Marriage (1973)

Cries and Whispers (1973)

Face to Face (1976)

Autumn Sonata (1978)

Fanny & Alexander (1983)

Saraband (2003)

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Persona (1966) on Blu-ray

Persona deals with universal themes that had deeply fascinated Bergman ever since his transition from interpreter to auteur in the early 1950s. The silence of God, and man’s floundering follies in response, is a major conceptual catalyst, surging through Persona’s bleak gray skies like a web of jangled nerves. What makes the film unique is its avant garde trappings – particularly the famous psychotropic opening sequence – which at times makes Persona seem much more Godard than Bergman. Indeed, during the filming of Persona the French New Wave was at the height of its influence; an influence to which even moody Swedish minimalists were apparently not immune.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Lake Tahoe (2008) ✭✭✭1/2

If you saw Fernando Eimbcke’s dryly amusing Duck Season, then you know what to expect: leisurely pacing, naturalism on steroids and performances so understated they border on the comatose. Set in a seedy beach town on the Yucatan peninsula, this outing again features young Diego Cantano as Juan, who has just rammed his mom’s car into a telephone pole, and his meandering efforts to have it repaired early one Saturday morning.

As Juan ambles the town’s crumbling streets, his quest takes on Arthurian overtones, as he encounters a variety of oddballs who may, or may not, be able to help him. An aging mechanic with one foot in the grave (Hector Herrera) dispatches Juan to an auto parts store run by a young woman (Daniela Valentine), complete with a perpetually crying baby, who wouldn’t know a spark plug from a tire.

She suggests Juan enlist the aid of her friend David (Juan Carlos Lara), a young man much more interested in Bruce Lee movies and NunChuk flinging than auto repair. As Juan begins to despair for his situation, he makes a quick trip home – actually nothing in this film is quick- where it is apparent something is seriously amiss, and our first hint that there is a hidden, underlying story to this seemingly random, and rambling, journey.

But, through the course of this long and frustrating day, we are able to piece together the life altering events that led to Juan’s accident, and we are filled with a surprising sense of poignancy for this young man and his family. Yet Lake Tahoe is primarily a comedy, in the sense that Jim Jarmusch’s films are comedies, and it’s clear that Eimbcke and Jarmusch are kindred spirits behind the camera.

There is something in virtually every scene that will produce a chuckle, or at least a grin, and the entire film is infused with a uniquely subtle comedic sensibility. It will be fun to see where Eimbcke’s next goofy misadventure takes us.

More Info

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A nos amours (1983) ✭✭✭✭

Just when you expect another titillating French romantic drama about young girls and lost innocence, Maurice Pialat takes us on a surprising and highly subjective guided tour of a damaged family’s personal pain. The film is comprised of shifting alliances and points of view, and presents the fragility of family dynamics in ways that range from subtle to harrowing. First, we are introduced to young Suzanne (Sandrine Bonnaire), a budding young heartbreaker, at summer camp.
There, along with swimming and arts and crafts, she has taken up a new activity: the wanton pursuit of boys – and in some cases, men - for a bit of snogging in the moonlit weeds.

But as we think Suzanne’s sexual quest will be the real meat of story, the film takes one of its several leaps forward in time, and we are home in Paris where we meet Suzanne’s brooding boyfriend (Cyr Boitard) and her squabbling, malcontent family led by her father (Pialat) who is deeply suspicious of his daughter’s innocent-sounding “movie dates”.

The pressures in the family’s rambling apartment are palpable, and its walls seem to inch closer in every scene. Suzanne’s only escape from this toxic atmosphere of recrimination is through a series of sexual liaisons that ultimately leave her feeling empty, yet oddly grateful for even a few minutes of affectionate attention.

And it is this gratitude that prompts Suzanne to make a decision about her future that makes us eerily wonder if she is inviting a repeat of family history. Here, Pialat offers an interesting twist on conventional morality, as Suzanne’s late night escapades have an air of warmth and wholesomeness about them, in stark relief to the violent, and at times shocking, confrontations that await her at home.

“A Nos Amours” is a film that presses boundaries and pushes buttons. It forces us out of our comfort zone by involving us in a tableau of equally condemnable characters, yet we can’t judge any of them without revealing our own hypocrisy.

Production Details

Monday, March 17, 2014

These Divas Deliver

Could Gravity (2013) ✭✭✭✭1/2 possibly live up to the advance hype? Ever since its premier at Venice back in August, when the critics seemed to be having a contest on who could write the most orgasmic review, Alfonso Cuarón’s space opera has been feted and fetishized to the point of near exhaustion, and the film kind of limped into awards season. Ironically, this story of the dangers of free floating seemed to be weighed down by its long trail of glowing press. As March’s Academy Awards rolled around, Gravity no longer felt shiny and new, a peril risked by all Oscar bait released prior to Christmas Day. Gravity took the statuettes it had to win - Effects, Editing, Sound, Cinematography and Direction - but the marketing prestige honor of Best Picture eluded it. Just as October’s glories don’t guarantee NFL teams a Super Bowl berth, Oscars aren’t won in August either.

This reviewer put off seeing Gravity as long as possible due to an eerie feeling of inevitable disappointment. But when DirecTV offered the film in 3D via Pay-Per-View, meaning I could have a theater style experience without cavorting with the great unwashed - and with an epidemic of viral bronchitis running rampant in Phoenix that phrase isn’t as blatantly snobby as it sounds - my remaining resistance crumbled. With trepidation cast to the solar winds, it was with a clammy thumb that I pressed the big orange “Buy Now” button; the point of no return for PPV cheapskates like me.

Suffice to say Gravity is all that and more; a transcendental experience although in spirit it is more 2010 than 2001. While some scientists have derided the film’s accuracy, it is at least an attempt to realistically capture the dynamics of a space shuttle mission gone wrong, delivering visuals and atmospherics commensurate with the unchained cosmic forces in play. The presentation is on two levels, the exterior alien environment of cold silence and quickly raging infernos, and the interior world of Astronaut Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), whose shallow gasps and gurgles bear witness to the cataclysm that surrounds her. A long way from Ole Miss and the brassy Southern mom of The Blind Side, here Bullock proceeds by sheer instinct; the survival imperative never allowing herself, or the viewer, to consider the sheer impossibleness of her plight.

Instinct plays an big part in watching the film as well. Every frame augments the idea of humans as superfluous in a tableau of spectacular vistas beyond the scope of experience. In much the way vacationers feel dumbfounded while peering over the rim of the Grand Canyon, Gravity’s sensory assault eventually overwhelms the narrative’s conflicts. We don’t so much cheer for Bullock’s survival skills as simply marvel at them, her heroics occurring on a scale that renders the notion of life and death merely trivia. So unprecedented is the visual realm of Gravity that Cuarón and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki had to invent new methodologies to shoot the film, and their techniques will likely be a boon to superhero and sci-fi films for a generation. The film’s 3D effect is just another tasty subtlety gilding Gravity’s lily, adding notes of splendor without overbearing ticky-tack.

Eventually it becomes clear Cuarón is interested in delivering much more than a ripping adventure yarn, and Gravity’s infinite expanses become a metaphorical reduction of the ultimate mystery. Bullock becomes a stand-in for the countless brave microbes that sought escape from the recesses of Earth’s boiling primordial stew. There’s even room in Cuarón’s retelling of The Big Bang for hints of divine intervention along the way, complete with color-coded file folders and occasional pep talks from the lecherous shade of George Clooney.

In terms of production techniques, we go from the sublime to the ridiculous with Maria Callas: Live at Convent Garden (1994) ✭✭✭✭✭. This 70 minute disc contains snippets from 2 performances; a recital from 1962 and the second act of a Zeffirelli production of Tosca from 1964. It’s about as far from the visual majesty of Gravity as one can get, with fuzzy b/w kinescopes and a simulated stereo mix. Most musical experts agree the diva's vocal abilities were starting to decline at this stage of her career. However this disc proves Callas could still summon sufficient sonic power to blow one's doors off.

Watching Callas belt brings a similar sense of hopelessness one feels for Bullock’s predicament. Due to a rapid - and likely unsafe - weight loss regimen, Callas by her own admission had lost all strength in her diaphragm by this point, singing with her arms folded around her stomach to literally force air out of her body. When she inhaled, her torso puffed up like a balloon; her delicate shoulders and neck losing all contour and definition. Again like Bullock, she bravely ventured on - to hang it up unthinkable - and in her brilliant way also triumphs despite some very long odds.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Most Anticipated Films of 2014: My Personal Picks

The best of the rest from Ioncinema's 200 Most Anticipated Films of 2014

#26. Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy

Don't know much about it but hey, it's got Sidse Babett Knudsen!

#28. Peter Greenaway’s Eisenstein In Guanajuato

Changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes when the famed Russian director takes a trip to Mexico.

#29. Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat On a Branch Reflecting Existence

Another comedic treatise on modern life from the renowned Swedish absurdist.

#30. Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special

A father and his gifted son run from the authorities.

#34. Benoit Jacquot’s 3 Hearts

An ill-fated romance from the director of Farewell My Queen

#40. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman

Michael Keaton plays an aging superhero in the year's most bizarre pairing of director and concept.

#48. Mia Hansen-Love’s Eden

This bio-pic is set in the world of French Pop Music. It could still be good.

#50. Jessica Hausner’s Amour Fou

A historical drama from the director of Lourdes

#56. Wim Wenders’ Everything Will be Fine

A heavyweight cast in this tale of the traumatic aftermath of an automobile accident

#60. Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups

Hopefully there will be less spinning and twirling this time.

#74. Francois Ozon’s The New Girlfriend

The discovery of a secret helps a young woman cope with loss and depression

#84. Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash

Movies about drummers are always welcome.

#86. Andre Techine’s L’homme que l’on aimait trop

Catherine Deneuve as a casino magnate

#96. Celine Sciamma’s Band of Girls (Bande de Filles) 

A teenage girl rebels against authority.

#105. Woody Allen’s Magic in Moonlight

A romantic crime caper comedy set in England during the 1920s