Monday, September 30, 2013
With this 6th installment of the Fast and the Furious franchise, it's safe to assume that the plot behind these films have adequately permeated through pop culture. I can therefore assume that a lengthy plot description is not needed for this review of "Fast & Furious 6" (or "Furious 6" if you prefer that moniker). Even if you are unfamiliar with the films, you can probably still guess the plot from the title. As it suggests, the film is about fast cars and the furious people who drive them.
With that out of the way, let's move on the analysis. First off, let me state that this not a great film, despite my "Movie of the Week" label (I didn't see many films this week). It's a film filled with scattered moments of genuine thrills and for this, it's deserving of a passing grade. What the franchise continues to lack though, is more emotional depth to instill the humanity in these films. It's not a cold film, but any emotions you feel for the characters are likely to come from your own pre-existing attachment to them, rather than any writing or acting finesse. Still, I readily admit that this is not the place to go looking for emotional or intellectual fulfillment.
So then, what is the purpose of this seemingly vapid film franchise? Well, they are made for entertainment and in that regard it mostly succeeds. If you are willing to submit yourself to the routine machinations of the action sequences, then you will probably find much satisfaction here. For other more discerning viewers (myself included), it's less likely to register as anything outstanding. Even so, I must give credit where it's due. Namely, there's a sequence in the early portion where the main antagonist (played by Luke Evans) is evading capture and it really stood out and made me take notice. With its grand setup it was almost, dare I say it, Nolan-esque in its execution. I would have loved to see the film continue in this vein, but the director clearly had a different vision.
Sadly, the film soon settles in to its more nondescript action scenes and becomes the typical crowdpleaser that you'd expect. The film gives us its usual dose of logic-defying setpieces that are absurd to the point of being admirable.
Many may ask why we need so many sequels to this franchise, but the proof is in the pudding. You would be hard-pressed to find a franchise that finds its critical appeal in its 5th and 6th installments. It's a miracle really, considering the cynicism of modern movie culture. Even the more lukewarm fans like myself tend to recognize the franchise's inherent entertainment value. In a year of disappointing blockbusters, this is a franchise that gave the fans exactly what they wanted. What more can you ask for?
Saturday, September 28, 2013
Brazil has produced many great films over the years and so I eagerly awaited their latest submission for Oscar's Foreign Language category - "Neighbouring Sounds". It's a highly acclaimed film, with many praising it as one of the strongest directing debuts in recent years. Now that I've seen it, I'm wondering what I'm missing.
In contrast to the more vivacious atmosphere of the favelas, this film is set in the more mundane life of a middle-class apartment building in the city. It's no different from similar apartment settings (especially in Latin America/Caribbean) and is therefore instantly recognizable. As such, one of the film's strong points is that it captures the tone and atmosphere perfectly. It's a laid-back lifestyle that can seem mundane, but can be surprisingly satisfying for many people. The problem is, this lifestyle doesn't naturally translate so easily to a narrative film.
As the plot slowly trudges along, we are introduced to various characters. They're all connected in a network of relationships, as you can expect from such a community. In a way, this gives the sense of a Alejandro González Iñárritu, with multiple storylines coming together. Unfortunately, this film lacks the storytelling skill of Iñárritu's films. It always seems like the plot was setting up for something big to happen, but it never gets there. There's a lack of drama and it therefore makes for periods of tedious watching. The main plot point of the film is the introduction of a team of security guards to protect the community, but it really doesn't add much dramatic weight.
In the end, I give Kleber Mendonça Filho points for his naturalistic directing style and the film's authenticity. However, I can't ignore the fact that I was very disappointed with how the story played out. Filho obviously has a knack for directing, but I think he needs to work on his screenwriting.
For this month's "LAMB Acting School 101", the featured actor is none other than Leonardo DiCaprio. This actor burst on the scene in the early 90s building a loyal fanbase (myself included) that has stuck with him throughout his career. Through his various collaborations with Martin Scorsese and many other choice roles, he has a wealth of great scenes. In choosing my Top 3, I decided to highlight the various facets of his acting ability that have made him so popular:
Wednesday, September 25, 2013
This week's Oldie Goldies pick is a quintessential prison drama - Jean Renoir's "The Grand Illusion". Recounting the World War I tale of French prisoners of war and their risky escape, it almost seems ahead of its time. Maybe I'm wrong, but many contemporary films seem to hint towards this benchmark film, from "The Pianist" to "The Shawshank Redemption". This is one of the few foreign language films to get a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars (curiously, it was the film's only nod).
Monday, September 23, 2013
This week’s top pick is one of my few re-watches this year – “This Is The End”. My initial viewing was far from ideal (noisy audience and bad audio), so I felt that a revisit was in order before I could honestly rate and review it. I’m happy to report that film held up very well.
The plot surrounds an alternate reality where the apocalypse has come and affects actual people that we know. The sprawling cast includes many famous celebrities but mainly focuses on James Franco, Jonah Hill, Seth Roger, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson and Danny McBride. They have been brought together by a party at James Franco's house and end up being stranded there, due to the doomsday destruction outside. As we watch them struggling to survive, it's a cinematic feast of some of the finest comedic actors in the business. Hill is particularly effective in his role, as he seems to have taken the extra step to develop a unique character, rather than just relying on his pre-established persona. Everyone is very funny though (including the cameo appearances by Emma Watson and Michael Cera etc.), so it really is a laugh riot from start to finish.
Despite its obvious comedic intentions, the film also has a few sentimental elements that are brilliantly woven into the story. Even as the plot meanders throughout, there's a great throughline involving Baruchel and Rogen for example. As they explore the meaning of their friendship, it sets up an awesome finale. Honestly, it’s this finale that cements the film as one of the strongest of this year’s comedies. It uses blatantly manipulative pathos followed by a seemingly random (albeit hilarious) final scene and you can't help but give in to its audacity.
"This Is The End" may seem like your standard raunchy comedy and at times it does feel that way. There are definitely some lazy visual gags that seemed straight out of a "Scary Movie" film (think gay rape by a large demon phallus) and seemed entirely unnecessary. For the most part however, the film delivers on its promise of baudy hilarity. In summary, the personalities may be familiar but the humour is often truly inspired.
Saturday, September 21, 2013
"Profile of a Killer" opens with a chilly winter landscape and a random bloody skull (one of many skeletal remnants littered throughout) stuck in the snow. It's a bleak opening, emblematic of the type of movie to come. As its title suggests, the film is a psychological thriller that seeks to understand the motives of a serial killer. It turns out that the killer is merely a teenager but as the opening suggests, this is far from child's play.
I start off with the opening scene because it represents the crux of the film's various strengths and weaknesses. Namely, the film has some potent sinister undertones, but there's also an emotional coldness that limits some of its impact. It's a striking opener, but it seems ineffective in hindsight.
Soon after this establishing shot, we get right into the middle of the investigation with FBI agents Saul (Gabriele Angieri) and Rachael (Emily Fradenburgh). Their case quickly gets complicated though, as Saul is taken hostage by David (Joey Pollari) and forced to play a deadly game of "figure me out". Much of the film is dedicated to this psychological tug of war and it's indeed the film's most compelling aspect. You'll find yourself mentally conducting your own analysis of this mysterious young man. Clearly, Pollari is the film's MVP, bringing some interesting dimensions to this character. His smug nonchalance is very fascinating, slyly subverting the expectations of his boyish appearance. Angieri certainly holds his own as well, projecting a steadfast determination that keeps the film grounded. It's this dynamic that keeps you watching.
On the other hand, Fradenburgh struggles with her own parallel storyline. Rachael's job is basically to find this killer and save her colleague. It's familiar territory and thus devolves into your standard procedural that doesn't add much excitement. Again, this relates back to the opening. It sacrifices some much needed character depth, especially with Rachael. To compound this further, her performance is unable to compensate for the lack of an emotional connection. She gets some key dramatic moments but she downplays them to a fault, unfortunately robbing the film of much of its urgency and dread. Despite this, the screenplay is compelling enough to keep you invested. That investment is challenged by a slightly elusive ending though, leaving you expecting more.
Overall, "Profile of a Killer" is a commendable film that just feels a little incomplete. It certainly could have used some better character development and a more satisfying narrative arc in general. As a result, the film feels like a middle section of a miniseries. That may sound like a slight on the filmmaking but I assure you, if this was part of a miniseries then it would definitely encourage me to continue watching.
Wednesday, September 18, 2013
|James Stewart with his Best Actor Oscar|
Monday, September 16, 2013
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an issue of major contention and naturally, it lends itself to dramatic representation through cinema. At this year's Oscars, the documentary feature category alone had 2 films (The Gatekeepers and 5 Broken Cameras) investigating the topic, while numerous other narrative films have found international acclaim in recent years. In my opinion, the most potent of these films are the ones that focus on the more intimate, personal stories rather than the inherent melodrama of the broader politics and societal implications. For this reason, I found myself quite taken with the narrative of "The Other Son".
The film's story is that of 2 young men who find out that they were accidentally switched at birth in an Israeli hospital. The catch? One is Israeli and the other Palestinian. Now, it may seem like I have contradicted my earlier statement when I praise this seemingly melodramatic plot, but it plays out much more subdued than you would expect. Yes, the emotions do run high, but the film mostly uses the setup as a way to smartly pose questions about how the characters define their identity. Through its focal characters Yacine and Joseph and supporting cast of parents, siblings and friends, the film explores intriguing issues surrounding culture, food, music, religion and family. I found myself wrapped up in the story as we observe all these characters dealing with the peculiar situation in their own ways. It ends up covering a lot of ground in highlighting the various perspectives associated with the conflict, maintaining its delicate, intimate feel throughout.
Anyone hoping for something more incendiary or provocative would surely be disappointed. Some may even find the film unexciting. If you are patient however, there's intelligent discourse to be found and this should prove to be engaging in its own right.
Now while I was certainly a fan of the film, I would also readily admit to its shortcomings. There were a few elements that felt contrived, particularly the families' mutual links to France (to allow some of the actors to speak French). Hollywood often applies British accents to anything European or historical though, so I will let that slide for this French production. Even with these minor flaws, you still get a noteworthy film. "The Other Son" spreads a good message of tolerance and its heart is in the right place.
Friday, September 13, 2013
I had fully intended to write an article about some of the condescencion directed towards Oscar bloggers, but John (from John Likes Movies) beat me to it. His post articulates many of my concerns. As someone who enjoys the Oscars, I find it disheartening to read tweets like "Oscar credibility is important to lazy and/or pretend cinephiles". While I do agree that Oscar recognition isn't the only barometer of quality, I think this general attitude ignores the fact that (a) Oscar bloggers don't only appreciate "Oscar movies" and (b) The Oscars actually encourage high quality filmmaking, whether you agree with the winners or not. Read John's views on this topic below, along with some other great posts from the past week:
John wrote a great piece in defence of the Oscars and those who enjoy the awards season.
Jessica explains why she cares about how much movies make at the box office.
Nick shows his sense of humour, listing 10 New Career Moves For James Franco.
Ruth reviewed Arbitrage, my favourite film of 2012.
Thursday, September 12, 2013
As I promised earlier this year, I'll be attending my first film festival - The 51st New York Film Festival! I will be heading up for a quick 4-day jaunt(October 4-7) during the festival's middle weekend, with press accreditation thanks to the kind folks at The Film Society of Lincoln Center. Check out the trailer below for a preview of some of the exciting films that will be playing.
Stay tuned for full daily coverage right here at Film Actually!
Stay tuned for full daily coverage right here at Film Actually!
Monday, September 9, 2013
Just yesterday I lamented the failed execution of an abitious concept in "Electrick Children". Well, as if to emphasize the point further, I stumbled upon Woody Allen's "The Purple Rose of Cairo" a prime example of an ambitious idea that actually works. In this film, a woman named Cecilia (Mia Farrow) gets a spark in her unsatisfying life when a movie character walks off screen and enters her world. After the initial shock of it, they become better acquainted and form a romantic relationship. It's an outrageous idea no doubt, but unlike Rebecca Thomas (director of "Electrick Children"), Woody Allen has a firm grasp on his story and its finer details.
One of the great things about the film is its willingness to challenge the audience. The story has elements of fantasy and in mixing these aspects with real world scenarios, it forces you to accept a far-fetched situation. Whereas other films would cop out and explain the strange occurrences as one woman's silly dream, Allen runs with the idea and makes it a real situation. It makes for a highly amusing film, as the interactions between the movie characters and persons in the real world have a delightfully wry sense of humour. It's easily one of Woody Allen's funnier films. I do wish it wasn't so pleasant all the time (especially with its Great Depression setting and mentions of domestic abuse) but it fits with the established tone. Much credit goes to Mia Farrow and Jeff Daniels, as they truly sell the optimism of the story and its characters. I've never seen Mia Farrow so sweet and relatable and Daniels conveys an affable sincerity.
If you have even the slightest knowledge of cinema, it's clear that Allen is referencing classic cinema, especially the screwball comedies of the time. With this in place, there's a jaunty quality to the action that evokes a lot of charm. This isn't a lazy re-hash of older storylines and characters though. What he creates here is his own original invention, capturing the theme of hope in a time of despair. It's a masterstroke, as it applies to both the main character's story and the setting. Cecilia's life is unfulfilling but she finds comfort in the magic of the cinema. On a macro-level, the magic also contrasted with the society's mood as a whole. With the lack of employment and a pervading uncertainty about the future, the glamour of the cinema provided much needed relief for many people. It's true escapism that epitomizes why the art form has endured with such reverence and popularity.
With a great sense of time and place (the costumes and production design are top notch) and winning performances, "The Purple Rose of Cairo" is one of Woody Allen's best outright comedies. At 82 minutes, it's also a very easy watch. You have no excuse to miss this one.
Sunday, September 8, 2013
For a cinephile, there's nothing more disappointing than a film that fails to live up to its promise. Such is the case with Rebecca Thomas' directorial debut "Electrick Children". On the surface, it's quite the intriguing premise - a young Mormon girl Rachel (played by Julia Garner) becomes miraculously pregnant through rock and roll music and heads to Las Vegas to find the father of her child. Unfortunately, this gem of a concept doesn't flourish as it should.
When the film starts, we are introduced to various characters that lay the foundation for some interesting themes. The film gives us a fleeting glance at the prospects of a probing story examining coming of age, feminism, religion and general self-discovery. Unfortunately, the film often feels like a rough outline of a screenplay, as none of these are sufficiently developed. Take for instance Rachel's mother (played by Cynthia Watros), a housewife who obviously had an adventurous past and still longs for more. Watros' portrayal gives her much depth, but the narrative seems one step behind. Likewise, Julia Garner gives Rachel a layered performance that seems at odds with the film's indifferent writing. Her acting presence suggests someone who is smart and inquisitive, yet the narrative forces her to be so narrow-minded.
It's perhaps a case of focusing on the wrong characters then. Much of the film is dedicated to Rachel's brother, who is the one that accused of impregnating his sister. In choosing to have him accompany her on her Vegas road trip, the viewer expects significant character development. Disappointingly, his story arc is largely inconsequential.
As the film navigates its unusual plotline, you begin to realize that the film's ideas are not fully formed. How did she get pregnant? How does this new environment influence her sheltered past? The concept of the film could have been a complex psychological drama, but it plays out almost like mumblecore. None of the important questions are given satisfying answers and it makes for a pointless film. Without a clear direction, the journey becomes slow and dull.
In the end, one could give this film a passing grade for attempting something unique, but a good idea does not a good film make. The acting performances may be strong, but they don't make up for the film's thoroughly lackluster setup.
Wednesday, September 4, 2013
Hit me with your best shot comes to a lurid climax this season, as we gaze at Harmony Korine's audacious film "Spring Breakers". With its bright, flashy visual aesthetic, there were definitely many options to choose from for the purposes of this series. The film actually comes across often like an avant-garde experimental film, rather than a traditional narrative feature. There are many trance-like scenes and lots of repetition. You could actually feel a Terrence Malick influence at times, intentional or not. Even so, there's definitely a story here and I found it to be quite interesting. The main actors are impressively believable as the titular characters, playing a group of shallow-minded college girls. Their behaviour is fairly predictable if you already know the premise, but the way their story unfolds feels quite fresh. Hence, I decided to focus on them for my favourite shot...
Click below for my favourite shot...
Monday, September 2, 2013
This week's top pick "Becket", is one of the most curious films I've ever seen. On first glance, you would expect a grandiose epic, with its lengthy running time, palatial setting, historical themes and esteemed actors. While some most of this is true, it's really not much of an epic at all. Within minutes of watching this film, its stage roots begin to show.
"Becket" tells the story of King Henry II (Peter O'Toole) and the strained relationship with his best friend Thomas Becket(Richard Burton) over personal differences. Set in the late 1100s, Henry comes into conflict with the church over disagreement over the ability to tax them to fund the military. After the death of the archbishop, Henry seizes the opportunity to exert his influence by appointing Becket as his replacement. Expecting his former drinking partner to comply with his demands, he is shocked to find that his friend takes his job seriously. Becket converts to a saintly protector of the church's sanctity and shuns the king's philandering ways. Thus sets the stage for the core drama of the film.
As we all know, the political context of the separation of church and state is of significant historical importance. That importance is touched on here but mostly, it's sidelined in favour of a rather simple "bromance". Really, bromance may not even be the right word for this scenario. The unraveling of the friendship reveals a situation that seems to hint towards an unrequited love. Much of this is due to O'Toole's fiery performance as Henry. His furious rage and anguish suggests a deep betrayal that extends beyond mere friendship. His seething contempt for his wife and family further establish homoerotic undertones, as he frequently emphasizes his dissatisfication with her. In one altercation, she claims that he would appreciate her more if she were a man, to which he responds "Thank God, madam, He gave you breasts! An asset from which I derived not the slightest benefit." Clearly, if the homoeroticism was intended to be subtle and ambigious, then the film failed in this regard.
Throughout the film, O'Toole's performance is consciously theatrical (to be fair, he also has some brilliant tender moments), as he seems to be projecting to the back of the room. You'd sometimes wish he would use his "inside voice", but it's indeed the most entertaining aspect of the movie. As he lashes out against the world, King Henry dishes out insults like he's on an episode of "Yo Momma". In lieu of actual weapons, he uses words like daggers. Contrast this with Richard Burton's performance (the epitome of uncompromising dignity and refinement) and you get a really impressive acting duo.
The showmanship of O'Toole and Burton in the lead roles are really the film's main attraction (I may even go as far as to say it's film's only noteworthy aspect). The other cast members are absolutely dwarfed by their towering performances, even the suprisingly Oscar-nominated John Gielgud. Furthermore, the visual craftmanship (cinematography, costumes, art direction) doesn't amount to much, as the film would have probably been similarly effective if it was a two-man show in a single room setting.
Without the dynamic performances of its lead actors, "Becket" would be a rather mundane affair(thankfully, it's not). Even with its eloquent dialogue, it's their line delivery that gives the words their potency. In the end, all the drama seems to effectively boil down to a simple lovers' squabble. It may sound reductive, but when the "lovers" are Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton, the fighting is tremendously compelling. They say "hell hath no fury like a woman scorned", but "Becket" goes to great lengths to prove that it equally applies to the other sex.