Sunday, November 27, 2011

Hugo (2011)


Directed by Martin Scorsese
Screenplay by John Logan
Based on the novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick
Hugo Cabret – Asa Butterfield
Georges Méliès – Ben Kingsley
Isabelle – Chloë Grace Moretz
Station Inspector – Sacha Baron Cohen
Lisette – Emily Mortimer
Mama Jeanne – Helen McCrory
Rene Tabard – Michael Stuhlbarg

As if the news that Martin Scorsese made a family movie wasn’t curiosity-tickling enough, he’s done it in 3-D—and his venture into the new medium also pays tribute to the cinema and film preservation in general, and particularly to those primordial trailblazers in film, such as the Lumière brothers and its specific honoree, Georges Méliès, played compellingly by Ben Kingsley. If you have limited knowledge of film history, there’s no need to feel left out because, before it embarks on a bit of a lecture tour through the history of early cinema and the expository flashbacks narrated by Méliès in its second half, Scorsese takes you on a Dickensian trip back in time to 1930s Paris presented in glittering diorama-like aerial shots. Set in a train station, the story begins with our orphaned hero and son of a clockmaker Hugo Cabret’s encounter with the now-forgotten Méliès and his narrow escape from a crippled station inspector called Gustav, who’s cold-hearted and on the 24/7 hunt for orphans. It’s then followed by Hugo’s escapades with his new friend and Méliès’s granddaughter Isabelle, and their little investigation into his father’s message delivered in a mysterious drawing by the automaton, a complex mechanism and the deceased clockmaker’s only bequest. 

Sounds like a perfect blend of adventure parable for kids and film history lesson for lay viewers, doesn’t it? Well, to some extent, yes, but it doesn’t come without flaws. The excitement generated in the opening sequence fizzles out as Hugo and Isabelle’s search for truth clunks along towards the middle section of the movie, and there are awkward pauses and a clueless-looking exchange of stares between the two, which should have been filled with a natural flow of dialog or more action. Having seen her mind-blowing work in Kick-Ass despite the moral squeamishness of her role, Moretz’s wooden acting felt like an ambush. But thankfully, both child actors improve noticeably as their adventure draws to a close. Then, as another widely discussed weakness of Hugo, there’s an inherently pedagogical quality in its “history lesson” sequence that the movie rather embraces than try to downplay, using a montage of silent-era achievements, from Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat to Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory to The Great Train Robbery. Moreover, the dénouement revealing Méliès’s past inevitably smacks of emotional manipulation, a trap into which most nostalgia-driven stories fall so easily.

But enough with the fault-finding. The thing is, despite all my cavils, the most valuable and laudable asset of this movie is the ease with which it makes the audience forget its weaknesses. After all, this is a feel-good fantasy, all about fixing broken hearts and finding home. And it’s not just a boy’s rags-to-riches journey, but provides all the characters, including Gustav, an equal chance to recover from their old wounds and rediscover the warmth that’s been tucked away somewhere in them for so long. There’s no simplistic treatment of characters in the name of poetic justice; you might equate Hugo with Oliver, but Gustav isn’t Fagin. While it ostensibly adheres to the typical Victorian narrative of an individual’s triumph, it offers an organic connection between an orphan’s heart-warming against-all-odds tale and a heartfelt ode to the cinema by a director whose contributions span several decades. From the opening tracking shot with the camera gliding through the impeccably recreated train platform to a scene packed with a swarm of passengers Hugo and Isabelle jostle their way through, recalling the Lumière brothers' masterpieces, and to the climax summing up Méliès's oeuvre, the whole movie is an overt homage to the pioneers of the early cinema. It’s not just for cinephiles, though. An old-meets-new enterprise and mesmerizing visual feast, Hugo also appeals to general audiences seeking pure entertainment and a refreshing movie-going experience, whoever just craves escapism from the real world drenched in cynicism.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Moneyball (2011)


Directed by Bennett Miller
Screenplay by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin
Based on the book “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game”) by Michael Lewis
Billy Beane – Brad Pitt
Peter Brand – Jonah Hill
Art Howe – Philip Seymour Hoffman
Scott Hatteberg – Chris Pratt
Robin Wright – Sharon

When you keep losing, you can’t really enjoy the game. In the face of defeat, frustration, fury, and even self-loathing come naturally. That’s exactly how Billy Bean, General Manager of the Oakland “the A’s” Athletics, feels. As a grainy montage sequence of a 2001 MLB postseason game reveals yet another loss for the A’s, shadows of disappointment and fatigue descend on Billy’s face in close-up. The camera then cuts to him stomping in toward his office. Seeing a scout listening to the post-game analysis on radio, Billy manages to keep his emotions in check. And in a minute or two, sitting in his car alone, he finally loses it.

The more desperately he reaches for that last-game victory he obsesses over, the further wins slip away from him. Without some kind of change that could turn the whole ballpark upside down, Billy would forever remain a loser. Not a beautiful one, although it’s easy to be romantic about baseball, but a big-time sore loser, which he actually has been since he gave up a Stanford scholarship over 20 years ago. Billy’s tired of losing; something needs to be done.

Then, on his visit to the Cleveland Indians, Billy discovers and hires as his assistant Peter Brand, a Yale economics graduate and a firm believer in sabermetrics. With the new assistant comes a revelation: discard the old way of thinking; experience and instinct don’t matter, numbers do. From then on, the story seems all about a revolutionary idea shaking things up, faced with considerable opposition, from within and without, but eventually proving itself legitimate. Interwoven with the underdogs’ last-ditch turnaround effort is the subplot featuring Billy’s daughter, who worries that her dad might lose his job and who’s instrumental in enlightening him about what’s really important. So apparently, the movie can be easily summed up as the establishment versus game-changing minds, with a warm, familial touch.

There’s more to the story, however. It’s also about Billy’s obsession with winning the last game, like a World Series championship. That’s probably nothing to sweat over for the New York Yankees. Not so for the A’s. Additionally, intermittent flashbacks show that Billy’s haunted by the memories of his miserable failure in the Major Leagues years ago, which is one of the reasons (besides the superstitious fear that he'd jinx it) he can’t watch his own team play. The GM’s expectations for the team, therefore, mirror his desire to vicariously fulfill his lifelong ambition. The goal seems too lofty, but giving up isn’t in Billy’s plans. Such unattainability, which connects the two ends of a narrative knot, furnishes motivation, and, despite some rewarding achievement and success, leaves the protagonist feeling dissatisfied, is reminiscent of The Social Network, a film also written by Aaron Sorkin, telling the creation myth of an unlikable antihero’s Internet revolution with the underlying theme of an unattainable object, i.e. Erica’s approval.

Except those thematic parallels between the two movies, there’s not much to compare. While as restrained in directing as David Fincher in The Social, Bennett Miller is generous with his use of a variety of techniques to allow for Billy’s subjectivity and convey the thrill and liveliness of games. Examples are: when Billy has a meeting with old scouts, the camera shifts sharply and fast from scout to scout in medium close-up, suggesting from Billy’s POV that all this talk leads nowhere. Meanwhile, the games’ dramatic effects are achieved by mixing actual footage and staged scenes.

But it’s Brad Pitt’s turn as a short-tempered, obsessed, dedicated GM, and his interaction with Jonah Hill’s Peter, that make the drama more fun to watch. Pitt cultivated a set of mannerisms that provide the role with credibility, and Hill turned hamming down a notch. Their camaraderie is evidently felt in a rapid-fire-dialog scene where they trade players over the phone. Then there’s Philip Seymour Hoffman convincingly sporting a skeptical and sullen look as manager Art Howe, and Chris Pratt’s Scott Hatteberg produces the most magical moment in the movie.  

Moneyball isn’t without flawsthough the subplot about Billy’s daughter articulates the film’s message, it feels a little superfluous. Still, this Pitt-led baseball flick is realistic and relatable, in that it acknowledges success doesn’t come easy, even with the establishment-shattering idea based on a scientific method rather than instincts. Indeed, those statistical gimmicks can only deliver the magic that Billy has longed for with that “luck factor” at play. Deep down, Billy Beane probably knows that. Once again, though, he resorts to those gimmicks because he hates losing—well, everybody does—and desperately wants to win the last game. It’s just damn hard to enjoy the show.


Sunday, October 2, 2011

50/50 (2011)


Directed by Jonathan Levine
Written by Will Reiser
Adam Lerner – Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Kyle – Seth Rogen
Katherine McKay – Anna Kendrick
Rachel – Bryce Dallas Howard
Diane – Aneglica Huston
Richard – Serge Houde

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Adam is out for a jog as 50/50 opens with morning briskness. At a traffic light, Adam comes to a halt and waits. Just then, a girl runs past him through the light, leaving him dumbfounded. It’s easily noticeable he’s a good guy, who tries to stay in shape and obeys the rules, which actually exacerbates the deafening bang on his head landed by cancer diagnosis. His initial reaction is nothing less than anyone would have expected in the face of this sort of shit life dishes out. Blindsided by the spinal tumor, good citizen Adam feels cheated. Indeed, life is such a bitc… Tragic farce.

50/50 refuses to be a mere anecdote about a cancer patient’s excruciating journey. Nor does it beg for an audience’s manipulated sympathy. Instead of only focusing on Adam’s coping and treatment, the film highlights the changes that cancerous adversity brings into his relationships with the people he holds so dear. Kyle, Adam’s best friend, uses all his wits to feign cheer but seems to capitalize on his friend’s misfortune just to get laid; Adam’s girlfriend, Rachel, promises support but fails to deliver; and his mother, Diane, is self-centered and overly concerned to the point of annoyance.

Adam learns life lessons the extraordinarily hard way, but not all of them are as painful and bitter as the consecutive attacks of betrayal, both physical and emotional. For starters, 50/50 follows a gradual improvement from awkward to candid conversations between Adam and his young therapist, Katherine, who is, at first, as much of a beginner in therapy as Adam is in cancer but eventually provides the comfort he needs. It also captures Adam connecting with the old dog introduced to him by Rachel, and with fellow chemo patients decades his senior. And the scene where Adam and Diane sit side by side in the doctor’s office is heart-gripping, as he begins to realize his early reservations of his mother’s concerns have been misplaced.

50/50 is as honest and as devoid of cheap melodrama as it wishes to be, and remains cheerful with a dose of mockery of how people respond to the news of Adam’s cancer.  It's also worthy of note that, though Rachel appears a bit caricatured and Seth Rogen’s acting verges a bit on self-parody, the film still presents fairly developed characters, especially in Adam, Katherine, and Diane. While closeups may seem overused at times, it feels as if the camera caresses the characters in a gentle, caring manner. Ultimately, though, it’s Gordon-Levitt’s show; it’s his understated performance that brings genuine laughter and tears.


Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Skin I Live In (2011)

The Skin I Live In

Directed & Written by Pedro Almodóvar

Based on the novel Tarantula by Thierry Jonquet

Robert Ledgard - Antonio Banderas
Vera - Elena Anaya
Marilia - Marisa Paredes
Norma - Blanca Suarez
Vincete - Jan Cornet

Pedro Almodóvar’s sensual medical thriller The Skin I Live In opens with a young woman in a skintight, flesh-colored suit easing into a backbend. She’s on her own, with a sense of perfect self-control, until the scene is disrupted by the appearance of another, older woman along with a set of screens revealing the locked room the younger woman named Vera lives in. The older woman, Marilia, is a servant to Dr Robert Ledgard, the master and creator of Vera.

In its first half, the story oscillates between the control that Robert assumes over Vera, a work of art that he created by sewing up impenetrable skin patches, and Vera’s rebellion to tear up the doctor’s mastery. Robert’s fastidiousness is illustrated in a series of closeups during his experiments. When examining inanimate samples under a microscope, he’s capable of unbreakable calm and authority. He expects the same sort of unconditional subordination from Vera and treats her as aloofly. Except that she’s very much alive and, at every opportunity, tries to prove it.

Every time Robert checks the screens to ensure that Vera remains intact, Vera gazes right back, not only at her master but also at the audience, as if to assert her aliveness. When keeping track of Vera’s whereabouts, Robert’s point-of-view shots rather betray his insecurities about his creation than reaffirm his command, whereas a displayed image of Vera staring into the camera menacingly looms before him. In other words, despite the apparent dominance that Robert has over their relationship, it’s in fact a nuanced tug-of-war that threatens to erupt at any time.

In its second half, after the tension melts into something entirely different and erodes Robert’s dominion, the film quickens pace and unravels a bandage of the truth, alternating, and partially overlapping, flashbacks where the seeds of the drama were sown. The overlaps, especially the part recollected by Vera, seem a directorial decision to provide rationale for Vera that, while she is not exactly innocent, her blunder pales in comparison with what Robert did.

Exploring the themes of sexuality and power, Almodóvar draws on meticulous experimental closeups, locked gazes, and scenes of strongly symbolic actions (e.g. Robert patches up the skin of an immobile Vera belted to the table, and later a ferocious Vera rips all her clothes to pieces). And the film’s theatrically structured and acted, which accentuates the dramatic closure. In brief, in The Skin I Live In, Almodóvar delivers yet another spine-chilling experience.


Monday, August 22, 2011

Midnight in Paris (2011)

Midnight in Paris

Directed by Woody Allen

Screenplay by Woody Allen


Gil Pender - Owen Wilson

Adriana - Marion Cotillard

Inez - Rachel McAdams

Ernest Hemingway - Corey Stoll

Paul - Michael Sheen

Zelda Fitzgerald -Alison Pill

F. S. Fitzgerald - Tom Hiddleston

Gertrude Stein - Kathy Bates

Helen - Mimi Kennedy

(SPOILER ALERT in the LAST THREE paragraphs)

A vacation is meant to be an escape from mundane reality, or short-lived dwelling in a fleeting moment of fantasy. Once a getaway turns into a desired place to settle down, however, it eventually loses its charm and blends stealthily into that banality that you so want to break out of. That's the dilemma facing many--escapism is such a temptation that you want to hold on to forever, but when it becomes a part of everyday life, it's no longer what it used to be.

Enter Midnight in Paris's Gil Pender, an aspiring screenwriter-turned-novelist, who wishes to live permanently in Paris, a desire that his mercenary-minded fiancée Inez shrugs off as a temporary acting-out of frustration over writer's block. For Gil, Paris is a breeding ground for artistic inspiration and the ingenuity of classic souls, in particular those of the 1920s, Gil's idolized "belle epoque." Hence his trip to Paris with Inez, he reasons, will ease him into a creative mood.

Even in Paris, however, Gil finds himself trapped in the shallow distractions of American materialism, represented by Inez and her conservative parents, which he feels hinder his creative labor. Adding to the plague are Inez's friend, Helen, and her husband, Paul, an insufferable pseudo-intellectual, who just can't resist the urge to enlighten every single philistine on the planet. So although on a retreat to his dream city, Gil still craves an escape.

After some touring, instead of another miserable night out dancing with Inez, Helen and Paul, Gil chooses to roam around the city and gets lost. Then, when church bells strike midnight, a mysterious antique car emerges from nowhere, invites him in, and drives off to a bar. Soon it dawns on a puzzled Gil that he has just landed in a revived 1920s Paris. He subsequently meets his literary idols and then-expatriates in the city--F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and a night later, Gertrude Stein.

Aside from those literary legends, Gil's even introduced to Pablo Picasso and his mistress Adriana whose free-spirited allure enchants him in a heartbeat. His encounters also include those with Salvador Dali, Man Ray, Luis Bunuel, and when transported with Adriana to the 1890s, Paul Gauguin, Edgar Degas, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. And during the whole layer-after-layer time travel, there's no indication whether Gil's just dreaming. Needless to say, it doesn't seem real--but then, it's not entirely illusory, either.

As Gil's obsession with the Lost Generation's bohemianism, disgust with the superficiality of Inez and her very American family, and feelings for Adriana reach their peak, he begins to realize that he's not the only one fantasizing about the golden age: it turns out, for Adriana, the 1890s are what the 1920s are for Gil. In the end, Gil parts ways with Adriana as she decides to live in la Belle Epoque.

But even after contradicting his nostalgic self by reminding Adriana that, after all, "life is unsatisfying" and "that's what the present is," Gil doesn't go back to those exhorting him to be "grounded." Midnight in Paris doesn't conclude with Gil happily living the rest of his life in Paris--but with him opting to live in the moment, even if it still seems to the likes of Inez and her parents to be bordering on vain escapism.

That's the beauty of Allen's latest heartwarming installment to his extended love affair with Europe: living in the present doesn't have to be dream-deprived. While a prolonged departure from everyday and unrelenting refusal to embrace daily life can lead to naive delusions, allowing a dose of escapism, and even thriving on it, doesn't necessarily hurt. Or at least that's what Allen's vicarious wish-fulfillment through Gil Pender tries to convey.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Fighter (2010)

The Fighter

Directed by David O. Russell
Screenplay by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson
"Irish" Micky Ward - Mark Wahlberg
Dick "Dicky" Eklund - Christian Bale
Charlene Fleming - Amy Adams
Alice Ward - Melissa Leo

The Fighter is about a working-class boxer, Micky Ward, who is supposed to be an against-all-odds hero, yet yields his heroic role to his brother Dicky. Dicky's the one who opens and closes the film; he provides the main source of conflict; and he even takes over the climax. As Christian Bale, who plays the scene-stealing brother, pointed out in his Golden Globe acceptance speech, Micky is the stoic protagonist, who rarely undergoes emotional turmoil (although Bale dedicated his win to this quiet character Wahlberg plays). Except one scene where Micky expresses his resentment towards his mother Alice, most of the time he's stuck in the middle of the tug-of-war between the Alice-Dicky duo and his girlfriend Charlene.

While the film delivers emotional jabs in several tense scenes, these scenes mainly revolve around the three supporting characters. For instance, when Charlene and Dicky work out a deal hurling foul words at each other, all Micky does is to arrive near the end of the fight, get out of his car, and hold his girlfriend in his arms. Outside the ring, he doesn't really have angry outbursts, get his face distorted in agony or his voice choked with frustration. Even if he does show determination to win the world championship during his confrontation with Alice, he pales in comparison to the others, who visibly develop antagonistic relationships in a struggle to realize their lost dreams through Micky's success. Surely, Micky's stoic anchor allows his mother, brother, and lover to release their anger, grudges, and disappointment, but isn't that what supporting characters usually do?

Maybe I complain too much. Some would argue as long as a film evokes pathos, it doesn't matter where that pathos comes from. So Micky's lack of heroic qualities may not be as important as the emotional pull that, say, Dicky and Charlene's final cathartic fight or the very last match Micky fights exerts. From the beginning to the moment of victory, you might find yourself muttering, "Head, body, head, body." The final scene matching the opening one, and the story turns in between, are all predictable, but you can't help but feel gratified when the underdog roars in triumph. In addition, the intense feelings the film conveys are effectively balanced out by the lighthearted scenes dominated by Micky's father (Jack McGee) and boxing montages.

All in all, The Fighter is a film that grows on you the more you see it. The Alice-Dicky duo are the types of character you just can't hate, despite their shortcomings. Charlene is the one you sympathize with the most. Micky can be boring, yet you are still going to care about him. Yes, Dicky's more like a comeback hero than Micky is, but this biopic is without a doubt an engaging drama and you probably won't care which character tugs at your heartstrings.


Monday, January 10, 2011

The King's Speech (2010)

The King's Speech

Directed by Tom Hooper

Screenplay by David Seidler


George VI/Albert -- Colin Firth

Lionel Logue -- Geoffrey Rush

Queen Elizabeth -- Helena Bonham Carter

King Edward VIII -- Guy Pearce

Myrtle Logue - Jennifer Ehle

It seems a futile attempt to make a nearly two-hour-long movie out of the life of a man with a stammer. Aside from the privileges that a monarch gains by birth, there is hardly anything to talk about King George VI's stuttering. In The King's Speech, however, Tom Hooper successfully creates vibrant drama about Albert ("Bertie"), an extremely shy monarch, and Lionel Logue, the king's speech therapist. While the film focuses on how Albert overcomes his physical obstacle and delivers his first wartime speech at the outset of World War II, it doesn't go into the details of the war, save for a brief montage of war footage. No conflict within the royal family, nor a battle over the throne. Then what is it that fills this seemingly lackluster story with vitality?

The central dynamic can be seen between Albert and Lionel whose relationship takes a dramatic turn. Here, the monarch who is supposed to give a faltering nation confidence seeks the Australian's help and his speech impediment places him in a vulnerable position. To Albert, Lionel is peculiar because of not only his unorthodox methods but also his demand for equality during their sessions. And what about the king's relationship with his people? The healing process becomes symbolic as the king's personal handicap translates into a whole nation's insecurities and as the successful delivery of his first wartime speech into the people's assurance of victory.

Adding further depth to this multifaceted narrative is Hooper's use of camera angles and compositions. Hooper deliberately exploits low- and wide-angle shots to make Albert's fear of public speaking appear far more severe. In the opening scene, all the emotionless, indistinct faces of the audience humiliate his stuttering Royal Highness; during his session with a therapist before Lionel, Albert seems overwhelmed by the therapist's intimating face shot from below; and soon after Albert's sudden ascension to the throne, he is surrounded by members of the government whose distorted image creates a stifling atmosphere. Also, an interesting contrast between Albert and Lionel is formed by the unconventional compositions in which Albert's unsureness speaks through the abstract background he sits against, whereas Lionel's cluttered office hints at his self-confidence.

When Albert's first wartime radio broadcast is finally heard worldwide, Lionel guides him as if to conduct a symphonic piece. Walking out of the broadcasting room, the king sees relief on people's faces. Despite a few alleged historical inaccuracies, such as the king's relationship with his brother, the movie offers a compelling drama centering on "Bertie" and the therapist's friendship. As well, combined with Colin Firth's meticulous performance, the extreme closeups of Albert's face when he stammers effectively convey his insecurities. Geoffrey Rush's enigmatic, but warmhearted, Lionel, and Helena Bonham Carter's supportive Queen Elizabeth make the film rich in character. The most impressive moment in The King's Speech comes as Albert and Lionel walk through the dense fog, which symbolizes the uncertainty of that time.