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Breathtaking In Every Detail - A MASTERPIECE
WOW! Just saw what may be the best film of the year – Barry Jenkin's MOONLIGHT. Delicate, lyrical, and movingly cinematic, it is a visual poem. It takes its time, and feels very "independent." Although the dialogue is terrific, the narrative thrust is completely cinematic, visual. And while character driven, the film poses big, weighty, universal themes like Identity, Sexuality, Masculinity, Family, and Community. (And yes, the initial Caps are intended.) MOONLIGHT is urgent social commentary that feels unbearably personal. It is a masterpiece from that dizzying, disorienting opening shot (with cinematic "look-ma-no-hands" bravado) to that delicately intimate close. The camera work, the musical score, the screenplay, the performances are all top-notch. These are the big stuff. But the small details are so skillfully delivered that they are simply breathtaking: the spiritual baptism of teaching a boy to swim; the loving preparation of a meal; the feel of sand on skin; and the blue-glow of moonlight reflected on black shoulders. Each shot – each one allegorical – beautifully rendered. I LOVED IT.
King of the Belgians (2016)
An Extremely Likable Film
This was an extremely likable film. A funny, lighthearted mocumentary that will not offend anyone. (The film's mildness and utter correctness reminds me of the effects of genetic in-breeding of royal families, producing respectable, yet bland, monarchs.) That is both its best, and worst, quality. The idea for the film's narrative is so out-of-this-world that it is surprising to learn that it stemmed out of real events for the films co-creators. Like they say, fact is stranger than fiction.
The film is an extremely fun ride. I loved the documentary-style camera-work they achieved for the film: on-the-fly shots; off-kilter framing; shaky hand-held panning; and supposedly off-the-cuff set- ups. This not only permeates the mocumentary itself, we see it as an outrageous sendup at the start of the film when the royally- commissioned documentary is being made before the chaos starts. Loved the valet with the lint remover -- "ok, let's do it again."
(2) Score the different elements of the film objectively, 1 to 4, and explain your ratings.
Script/Story: 3 - excellent narrative. Loved the mocumentary conceit; the wacky travel log; the delightful Balkan country folk, from the sexy Ana with her tasting finger to the blind-tasting Yogurt crew. And am particularly delighted to learn that the co- writers/co-directors simply wrote a skeletal narrative structure and pretty much had the people casts play themselves!
Cinematography/Visual Effects: 2.5, fun. See my comment above re camera-work
Editing: 2; needs to be somewhat sharper. Loved the intimate, long-lasting shots of the King in deep contemplation. Very effective for the meaning of the film.
Sound Effects: 2, adequate
Musical Score: 1; enough of Grieg's "Peer Gynt Suite"
Performances: 2.5; I particularly loved the blandness, elegance and nobility from the actor portraying the King. Extremely measured, he showed a genuine interest in people, goodness, and doing the right thing. Wish all royals were this way.
Production Design: Sets, Locations, Costumes, etc.: 2.5; the Balkans looked fun, fitting the narrative.
(3) Would you recommend this movie to a friend? Give your reasons.
Yes, a very entertaining film and quite well made. My favorite fact about this film comes from the director's comment that the best way to comment on today's tumultuous political climate is through humor. Thumbs up.
Popiól i diament (1958)
A True Classic
I loved this film classic, and after seeing it, I can understand why both Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola were so influenced by it. It is remarkably shot. The following scenes will stay within my cinematic consciousness for a long while: (a) the church scene with the upside-down Christ; (b) the Communist official's assassination scene with the fireworks; (c) the long, reflective bar table with the lit shot glasses; (d) the hotel staircase scene immediately preceding the assassination with the myriad of graphic patterns across the screen on the walls, the floor, etc.; (e) the drunk man's "crowd attack" with the fire extinguisher at the banquet table; (f) the ending dance/dirge at daybreak. The cinematography really reminded me of the work of Gregg Toland in CITIZEN KANE. In fact, as in KANE, almost all of ASHES & DIAMONDS' interior scenes were shot with the camera very low, or even under the floorboards, where the ceilings were always visible. The cinematography was fantastic!
I liked the narrative structure also; however, I can understand one's confusion given the complex WWII political structure of Poland, the Communist, the Germans, etc. But, subtracting the political undertones of the narrative, I found that the film raised compelling issues of courage, conscience, heritage, and pride. Loved the fact that the main character -- deemed "the James Dean of Poland" -- after falling in love with the barmaid now wants to chance his mind and abandon the Polish Resistance. Only he can't because of his pride, his conscience, his colleague's challenge, or his fate.
Loved the film's use of symbols and images: (a) the cross and Christ figures; (b) heat, and flames, and fire, all components of ashes and diamonds; (c) flowers and violets, from the small girl at the start offering the violets to the icon/altar above the church door at the start to the violets of the Barmaid and even violets eventually thrown in the trash; (d) the main character's dark glasses which symbolize his obscured vision, or that of the Polish Resistance or the Communists?
Love the musical score. It was grand and operatic, and can be easily seen in Martin Scorsese's and Francis Ford Coppola's works.
Loved the acting. The chemistry between the two leads was extremely believable. The rest of the cast was excellent as well.
Score Grid --
Cinematography/Visual Effect: 4+
Sound/Musical Score: 4
Production Design: 4+
How good was the film objectively? Strong & Weak Points –
See my comments above. Weakest point of the film was the editing. Could be cut sharper, cleaner.
Worst, of course, was the quality of the print at the Festival. Shameful for such a b/w classic at a major festival venue.
Recommend the film?
Absolutely. Required for any lover of film and film history for the reasons noted above.
Juste la fin du monde (2016)
Extremely Intriguing, Very Well Crafted & Sad
I found this film intriguing, well crafted, and sad. The subject matter is difficult, and the film's narrative structure was purposefully vague and obscure. To me, it was less of a person's (Louis's) journey, which one often associates with a voice-over first-person narrated film. The film was more family dynamics and the dysfunction between each member of a family. Given that, the way the film was shot with such tight close-ups, and in that autumnal pallet, was very effective. And the repeated shots of the cuckoo clock against that papered wall, with the trapped bird at the end, WOW! A fragile bird, entrapment and loss of freedom, and the passage of time. What an incredible concept so beautifully conveyed cinematically!
Score Grid (out of 4):
Cinematography/Visual Effect: 3.5
Sound/Musical Score: 3
Production Design: 3.5
Recommend the film? Yes, but only for film lovers. This is not entertainment per se. If you want to be challenged, this is a film for you. If you want to be entertained, skip.
Toni Erdmann (2016)
Likable Enough Film
"Likable enough" film. Strongest memory from the experience: the emergence of a heroic character after undergoing a test. Not much more. Typical heroic storyline. A bit long but competently made nonetheless.
Score Grid (out of 4):
Cinematography/Visual Effect: 2.5
Sound/Musical Score: 3
Production Design: 3
How good was the film objectively? Strong & Weak Points –
Competently made. Strongest point -- probably the strong performances, particularly of the lead actress. Weakest point -- the editing; way too long. Too many gags to the point of becoming tiresome. Biggest surprise -- other people's reactions to the father's gags. Believable???
Wonderfully Atmospheric Period Film
This film has strong commercial potential because of its suspenseful narrative structure; the bravado cinematography and editing; the strong acting; the powerfully evocative production design; and the effective musical score. Loved the entire look of the film. Love the sepia tone, the 1920s period costumes and sets, the compelling storyline, and the circularity of the narrative structure. To me, the strongest storytellers working today in cinema are from Asia, and that makes me so very happy as Asian cinema has lost a lot of its standing in World Cinema without the post-War (II) Japanese masters.
Score Grid (out of 4)
Cinematography/Visual Effect: 4+
Sound/Musical Score: 4
Production Design: 4+
Recommend the film? Absolutely. This foreign film has the appeal of today's Hollywood products: the action, suspense, music, etc. The operatic concluding scene -- underscored by Ravel's Bolero -- owes so much to both Scorsese and FFCoppola. Also to Andrze Wajda really in look and feel; wonder if Kim Jee-woon is familiar with the Polish master's work?
Thumbs way up!
I was moved by the film. The narrative structure was effective: archival photographs and video footage; interspersed with documented interviews from a balanced (somewhat) and diverse range of authorities on the topic; and peppered with effective graphics mirroring the topic and highlighting an effectively chosen song/musical score. The moment that stays with me most effectively? Just the realization that there is a term for this: "Prison Industrial Complex" = corporations operating in prisons and profiting from punishment. Wow!
Score Grid (out of 4):
Cinematography/Visual Effect: 3
Sound/Musical Score: 4
Production Design: 4
This documentary had a point of view, and it presented it very persuasively. The strong narrative push, and its emotional and intellectual appeal, is the film's strongest point. Its weakest point was its imbalance. While it presented a politically balanced picture of the situation (political being defined as in our two- party system where both Republicans and Democrats were presented as contributing to the problem), I feel it needed more balance on the racial component.
It is an excellent piece of film making and an extremely effective product in the documentary category. I particularly like the narrative structure, where interviews are cut between archival footage and textual and auditory storytelling. I was extremely moved by this compelling work.
En man som heter Ove (2015)
Lovely Conventional Movie
This was a lovely, conventional film. No, really it's a movie rather than a film. And while Swedish, it reads very conventional Hollywood. Movie comfort food, if you will. Very nice, and a total feel-good movie for all ages. It leaves one feeling all warm and fuzzy. And besides that, well, that's about it. What stays with me? A sad sense of longing for community, so very rare today, especially in the USA.
Scoring the different elements of the film objectively, 1 to 4:
Script/Story: 3.5 - nice, well constructed. Loved the fact that flashbacks ride on scenes of suicide attempts. This was a nice, ironic feature of the narrative.
Cinematography/Visual Effects: 3 - conventional, competently shot. Not much more to say.
Editing: 3 - See above (heavy sigh -- conventional, competently edited. Not much more to say.)
Sound Effects: 2 - forgettable, nothing significant here.
Musical Score: 2.5, at times stereotypical, ie Spanish-y music for scenes set in Spain, etc. Competent, but not significant, which is very appropriate for the narrative structure.
Performances: 3.5, strong performances.
Production Design: Sets, Locations, Costumes, etc.: 3.5, production design great, iconic for the area and period feel of the storyline. But an Oscar consideration in hair & make-up, really??? What am I missing here?
Would I recommend this movie to a friend? Of course, total movie comfort food! Sweden's Terms of Endearment or Forrest Gump or . . .
A Riveting Piece of Filmmaking
I am struck at the complexity of this film, and the reflective nature of its narrative structure. Action or events as a device to look at our natures, choices, motives, drives and dreams. And let's not stop there. How about actors acting theater scenes, and throw in a play within a play to boot, for good measure.
I know I sound somewhat critical above, and under less skilled hands, such criticism would be warranted. But not here. THE SALESMAN is compelling from beginning to end. And using Arthur Miller's iconic play, THE DEATH OF A SALESMAN, works so well to comment on these character's dreams, failings, nobility and humanity.
A dream -- or rather dreams -- shattered by a single, accidental, innocent incident. At the end of the journey, of our own Odyssey, whether we arise as a hero or a victim depends on our choices, our attitudes, our sheer willfulness for goodness or our tendency for self-destruction. To me, this movie raised these issues, and more. I loved it. Compelling through and through, and from a most-gifted, cinematically articulate director.
Scoring the different elements of the film objectively, 1 to 4:
Script/Story: 4, loved it. And all this set against a backdrop of a crackling, fall building; a house of cards, if you will.
Cinematography/Visual Effects: 3.5. Well shot. Close shots heightened the tension.
Editing: 3.5. Well edited; kept the pacing of a natural thriller, but lacked the cheesiness of one.
Sound Effects: 3, competent sound mixing
Musical Score: 3; frankly do not recall any musical score underscoring the film. This is sad as I should have noticed. Was there one?
Performances: 4, extremely strong performances. Great ensemble work, and standout work by the two leads, and the old man, too. I was particularly touched by the scene between the two men when the lead told the old man to take off his shoes. This scene was so effectively shot. Slow pacing of the camera capturing every quiver of both performances. Wow.
Production Design: Sets, Locations, Costumes, etc.: 2.5; my complaint here deals with the shots from the theater itself where DEATH OF A SALESMAN was being performed. Needed something more here.
Would you recommend this movie to a friend? Absolutely; a fine work of cinema. And extremely provocative. Well written; well shot; well delivered. Most highly recommended. Strong Oscar contender for Best Foreign Language Film.
Todos queremos a alguien (2017)
Fun, Lite Chic-Flick Date Move
EVERYBODY LOVES SOMEBODY (Mexico) Dir. Catalina Aguilar Mastretta (English and Spanish language)
Successful obstetrician Clara (Karla Souza, The Noble Family) spends her time between Los Angeles and her family in Baja California. She appears to have everything but love. Just when she seems on the verge of letting love back into her life, her ex unexpectedly reappears, setting into motion choices for Clara about love, and about herself. The film is an engaging, funny, and bittersweet bilingual romantic comedy.
I loved the family dynamics in the film. While the writing, or rather the situation it portrays, is very soap-opera-ish, it is nonetheless a well crafted screenplay. The dialogue is fresh, believable and ultimately drives the narrative thrust. It is well executed, in the style of the screwball comedies of Grant & Hepburn, Combard & Powell, etc. A sweet little gem.
Scoring the different elements of the film objectively, 1 to 4:
Script/Story: 3.5, loved the ending; well crafted narrative.
Cinematography/Visual Effects: 3; competently shot, plays well and looks well
Editing: 3; paced well
Sound Effects: 3
Musical Score: 3.5, interesting musical choices, pop et. al.
Performances: 3; believable, very likable characters..
Production Design: Sets, Locations, Costumes, etc.: 2.5; pretty, contemporary, ordinary look.
I would recommend this sweet, light, entertaining romantic comedy. Very likable cast, particularly as I met them at the World Premier at PSIFF17 where they had a "red carpet"-type media reception for the stars and the film makers (director, producers, etc.) and I was a volunteer at the reception and screening. Thumbs up! And a great thumbs up to the Palm Springs International Film Festival!!! #PSIFF17
A United Kingdom (2016)
A Gorgeous Cinematic Experience
A UNITED KINGDOM (UK) Dir. Amma Asante (Belle)
This was an extremely beautiful film, both in its inspirational storyline and in its cinematic expression. It involves real-life 1948 interracial love story between Prince Seretse of Bechuanaland (now Botswana; played by David Oyelowo) and an English office clerk (played by Rosamund Pike). According to the film, their marriage affronted her parents, his subjects, both the English and Bechuanaland governments, and eventually jeopardized British colonial rule in Southern Africa and beyond.
It is a beautiful narrative, sweetly told and set in a sweepingly majestic African landscape. It is a beautifully shot period piece, and reminded me of OUT OF Africa and THE English PATIENT.
Scoring the Film Components (out of 4 points)
Script/Story: 4; a compelling narrative based on real, historical people. Very well written; strong characters set against challenging situations where they overcome odds.
Cinematography/Visual Effects: 4; excellent work by cinematographer Sam McCurdy.
Editing: 4, very well put together. Very fine.
Sound Effects: 3.5; extremely competent sound/sound mixing
Musical Score: 4; sweepingly grand musical score. Did not catch the name, but very similar to John Barry's work in OUT OF Africa
Performances: 4, very strong performance by the two lead, and rally from the entire cast.
Production Design: Sets, Locations, Costumes, etc.: 4; excellent production design. Love the period costumes, the period sets, London and the African locations, all very evocative of the period and helped to move the narrative forward. Loved it.
In sum, an extremely enthusiastic thumbs up for this film. An engaging storyline; beautiful pacing; stellar production design and compelling performances. Best Picture Oscar contender, as Fox Searchlight has picked it up for US distribution (according to the Q&A). SEE IT!
Tedious Film Wastes Talent of Ms. Braga
I cannot recommend this film. It was screened at the Palm Springs International Film Festival #PSIFF17 as part of its "Talking Pictures" segment, where audience members engage with the film maker after the film's screening, here Brazilian Kleber Mendonça Filho, one of Variety's 10 Directors to Watch. At the Q&A, Mr. Mendonca Filho was asked about this transition from film critic to film maker. He described the process as similar to being a party to a bar conversation and finally joining in on the conversation because one "now had something to say." In AQUARIUS, I am at a loss of what exactly Mr. Mendonco Filho has had to say with his film in the context of cinema. While Sonia Braga again delivers a strong performance -- and it was great to see her again on the big screen - - I found the film tedious, poorly shot and woefully edited. And for a lover of music as is the director and his film character, the sound editing and mixing on the film was very third-rate. Frankly, shockingly so. A major disappointment, particularly in light of A.O. Scott's NY Times review and Variety's endorsement.
KING LEAR - National Theatre Live
SAM MENDES & SIMON RUSSELL BEALE TEAM UP TO DELIVER SPINE-CHILLING KING LEAR FOR NATIONAL THEATER LIVE By Armin Callo, InFlux Magazine Arts & Theater Contributing Editor
The partnership of actor Simon Russell Beale, described by The Independent as "the greatest stage actor of his generation", and theater and film director Sam Mendes, Cabaret; American Beauty; Road To Perdition; Skyfall, go back some 25 years. For 2014, they reunite to deliver a chillingly-memorable KING LEAR at the Olivier Theatre for National Theater Live.
To bring a fresh perspective to this new production, both actor and director mill both military history and medical science. The setting of this LEAR is modern yet nondescript. England is a totalitarian state, run by a tyrannical Lear, supported by numerous supernumeraries all dressed in militaristic gray flannel.
As the play opens, Lear's premature decision to divide his kingdom among his three daughters -- subject to a self-serving insistence to pit one daughter against the other in their prophesied love for their father – becomes a high-state occasion, complete with UN-like dais and microphones. Under Mendes' daring direction, intimate occasions like this take on the mantle of a public address. And as such, this production triumphantly magnifies the tragedy so inherent in LEAR, considered Shakespeare's most successful tragedy.
Yes, die-hard Shakespeare enthusiast will take issue with a number of this production's bold deviations. Nonetheless, these bold choices are effective and bring fresh points of view to this often-staged play. I, for one, applaud Mendes's brilliance in showing Lear graphically and violently kill The Fool on stage under his fit of madness. After all, Shakespeare's text simply stops the mention of The Fool after Lear succumbs to madness, implicitly reminding us that the voice of wisdom and reason, as personified by The Fool, is now useless and irrelevant after Lear's descent into madness.
In Lear's bellicose England, Mendes initially shows a highly-controlled militaristic state. Lear is clearly in control, holding a tight grip on both state and family. After his folly of renouncing his crown and dividing England equally between Goneril and Regan, or more accurately in this production between Albany and Cornwall, the country of England falls to ruin and chaos. And now, madness ensues, not only for Lear but also for the English state. Salvation is now only possible from outside England, specifically from France and the exiled Cordelia.
Simon Russell Beale is brilliant as Lear. His transformation from bullish dictatorial King to roaming madman -- and eventually to sensitive father seeking reconciliation -- is both polished and raw. Ranting his kingdom away to his two elder daughters, Lear's behavior is so bombastic and repulsive that you can almost understand why Kate Fleetwood's Goneril and Anna Maxwell Martin's Regan have lost patience with him. His insanity is often harrowing to watch. Then, when all is lost and surrender inevitable, Russell Beale mines the sensitivity of the soul. Delicate, fragile, and oh so moving. In his final scenes, dressed only in a hospital gown and eventually coming to his senses before the devastating death of Cordelia (played by a deeply moving Olivia Vinall), Russell Beale is at his best. The acting is beautifully achieved. He delivers Lear's heart-rending speeches ("let me not be mad") with heart and soul. And his physical acting is so pointed, so studied, complete with facial grimace and finger twitches, that we can see the pay-off from his study of dementia from his nephew in medical school.
The supporting cast is equally fine. Standouts include Stephen Boxer as The Earl of Gloucester; Kate Fleetwood as Goneril; Anna Maxwell Martin as Regan; Olivia Vinall as Cordelia; Sam Troughton as Edmund; and Adrian Scarborough as The Fool. All stellar examples of why no one does Shakespeare like the British.
At 3 ½ hours in length, KING LEAR is always a challenge. However, this production dazzles and zips through at a speedy rate. Anthony Ward's production design speeds the evening along, moving from stripped-down contextual sets to a most-effective use of a stage revolve marked with a symbolic cross. Yes, X marks the spot. The spot for a most engaging evening of classical theater. Not to be missed.
Check the website of National Theater Live for details about US showings and for a cinema broadcast near you.
Armin's Grade: A+
Kenneth Branagh's MACBETH at Manchester International Fest a Master Work
Manchester International Festival's Macbeth Boasts Kenneth Branagh's Triumphant Return to Live Shakespeare By Armin Callo, Contributing Editor, InFlux Magazine
Another new production of Shakespeare's classic tragedy, Macbeth, often elicits a familiar sigh. "Again?" This, particularly in light of the fact that three -- count them, three – separate new and large-scale productions of Macbeth have opened in England in 2013 alone! Nonetheless, Sir Kenneth Branagh's return to live Shakespeare, after a decade's drought in this regard, at the Manchester International Festival's production of Macbeth is not to be missed. It is an electrifying experience.
The entire run was sold out in the first eight minutes of internet sales, so it is a blessing that the production is available for live HD transmission via National Theatre Live cinema broadcasts. To experience this Macbeth in community, on the large screen in HD, is a must. With very rare exception, almost everything about this production is excellent.
Let me begin with the staging. It is unequaled. The Manchester production does not take place in a theatre. No. Instead, co-directors Kenneth Branagh (Shakespeare adoptations, Harry Potter, Wallander, My Week with Marilyn) and Rob Ashford (Thoroughly Modern Millie, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying) use a deconsecrated Victorian church to tell this tragedy. And such a clever use, too.
Production designer Christopher Oram places most of the dramatic action in the nave of the church space. Here, the nave is wet, muddy, damp and chock-full of medieval slush, serving as shortcut to the Scottish moors or a musty Scot castle. So effective is this use of atmosphere it even comes complete with rain to enhance the mood and feel of damp despair and dark wickedness. The audience, seated "on both sides of the stage" so to speak, is choir-style and intimate. At one end of the nave, in place of the old altar space, is a semi-circle of hard slate, stained glass, and candles. At the other end, where the organ loft once stood, we have hidden, yet operable, Gothic window vistas and tall castle parapets. These elements are effectively used for the entrance and disappearance of the three sister-soothsayers; to offer the audience watchful ghost visions and; later, Lady Macbeth's sleep walk on the castle corridors. This production's placement of such narrative devices within the context of this church space is genius. And the actors' wading through the muddy spaces – all the while staining their costumes with each pass through the nave/stage -- makes the narrative action so much more real, effective, dirty, damp, and devious.
Fortunately, the cast equals the brilliance of the staging. Supporting standouts include Ray Fearon's Macduff, Jimmy Yuill's Banquo, and Rosalie Craig's Lady Macduff. This reviewer was particularly impressed by a young Pip Pearce as Macduff's Son. Nonetheless, the standouts, to be expected, are Kenneth Branagh as Macbeth and Alex Kingston as Lady Macbeth. The two actors are well suited for their roles. Their chemistry is so believable that we can see, in their performance, how each one feeds the other in ambition, greed, doubt, and sex. If only Alex Kingston could have toned down the epileptic-fit-robotics of her sleepwalking scenes. To this viewer, I found these actions over dramatic and, in effect, diluted the effective language of Lady Macbeth's closing soliloquies. To find such a minor flaw in one bright and stellar diamond is to nit-pick indeed.
The production is breathtaking, literally. At the play's conclusion -- after all that blood and after all those murders -- grace returns to Scotland with its rightful king. And the audience sighs. Sighs with gratitude and wonder. Stunning. Catch a "live" cinema broadcast near you.
Yi dai zong shi (2013)
THE GRANDMASTER Is A Masterpiece: Wong Kar Wai Heir-Apparent to Visconte and Lean
To watch Wong Kar wai's THE GRANDMASTER is to experience a visual, operatic masterpiece. Every frame is stunning. Throughout its 130- minute run, I found myself short of breath and grasping with astonishment.
The breath of its visual vocabulary is wide, deep, and completely satisfying. A sweepingly-grand narrative, gorgeously stunning vistas, balletic gestures, set to a most-effective soundtrack. I have not seen this type of grand, epic-sized film making since the likes of David Lean and Luchino Visconte. References to Lawrence of Arabia and The Leopard were expressly apparent to this viewer. Surely, Mr. Wong Kar wai stands on the shoulders of these European masters, but with a new, 21st century Asian style. This is the New World in cinema indeed.
Typical of cinematic masterpieces, the storyline takes a backseat to the visual communication. Here, Wong Kar wai tells the real-life story of the legendary Ip Man within the narrative context of the unification of Kung Fu styles in the first half of Twentieth Century China. To this western viewer and non-Kung Fu enthusiast, the characters and nationalistic conflicts involving martial art forms of 20th century China were secondary. More importantly, the film focuses on the determination – the mental, physical and spiritual strength – of a most-impressive man of courage, integrity and magnanimity. Tony Leung as Ip Man is mesmerizing. Equally, Ziyi Zhang as Gong Er, the female martial artist counterpart to Ip Man, is stunningly effective. To me, she is the new Audrey Hepburn. Svelte, drop-dead gorgeous, and that glowing skin! Both artists are breathtakingly beautiful, and their acting and balletic poses deliver retinal stimuli I have not experienced since The Matrix.
The cinematic results achieved by Wong Kar Wai in The Grandmaster -- by his deft culling of such wide and skillful artists for his film -- is a wonder. All the actors, leads and supporting, are superb. Philippe Le Sourd and Song Xiaofei's cinematography is gorgeously lush. Not since the days of James Wong Howe, Gregg Toland, Gordon Willis, and Kazuo Miyagawa have we seen such stunning images in the cinema. Yuen Woo- Ping's fight choreography is top-notch. William Chang's editing, production design and costume designs are Oscar-worthy. (As you listening Academy members?) Every level of this production is masterful – the music, sound, art direction, set design, visual effects – the best in today's cinema. Don't miss this masterpiece on the big screen.
Behind the Candelabra (2013)
Point and Counter Point: Liberace's Life In Front Of and Behind the Candelabra
Behind the Candelabra is not a biopic. Although the story revolves around the life of Liberace, the film is more than that. It is a love story that encompasses universal themes with a surrealistic twist.
It is well crafted by Steven Soderbergh, a veteran director with such films as Traffic, Erin Brockovich and Ocean's Eleven under his belt. And although Soderbergh describes the work as "Alice going down the rabbit hole," it is a surprisingly strong film with convincing performances and a tender, yet out-of-the-box, point of view.
Two of Hollywood's big-name alpha males – Michael Douglas and Matt Damon – play the lead roles delivering strong and convincing performances. It would have been easy to portray the over-the-top flamboyance of Liberace in high camp theatricality. But not here. Douglas is restrained, measured, and deliberate. His Liberace straddles both sides of the male persona. Douglas goes from being tender lover and father-protector to the excessive, power-hungry controlling tyrant driven to an addiction for acquisition: homes, jewelry, dogs, new lovers, and all things Louis Quinze.
Damon's Thorson is both a quintessential 70s male hooker and passive disco diva. All through the film, he is dazed and awestruck by his surroundings. As Liberace's latest boy-toy, he basks in the glow of rococo excess. And he is bewildered and confused when Liberace -- moving on to the next conquest – tragically, and predictably, takes everything away. Always, Thorson seems to be a man to whom things happen. He is not a figure who takes control of his surroundings but rather is controlled by them. This passivity is quite surprising in as much as the movie is based on a book written by Thorson who is hell-bent on casting himself in the best possible light.
In contrast to the one-sided take of Thorson's book, Soderbergh's film provides Thorson with depth and dimension. He is more than a victim. He actively plays into his victimhood. Soderberg shows Thorson as actively doing nothing to improve his life or circumstance. Instead of taking full advantage of his relationship with Liberace, Thorson lives in, and for, the moment. He piddles away the opportunity to make something of himself beyond the rentboy persona. It brings new meaning to the old Freddy Fender song "Wasted days and wasted nights." At the end, all he ends up with is another diet, addiction, a new face and a paltry $95K.
The supporting cast members are equally effective as the leads. The standout here is, unquestionably, Rob Lowe as Liberace's plastic surgeon Dr. Jack Startz. His face is wonderfully plastic and his acting sublime. Scott Bakula is Liberace's mustachioed procurer; Dan Aykroyd is his Foster-Grant-wearing manager/henchman; and Debbie Reynolds is Liberace's prosthesized-up-the-ying-yang Polish mother. All submit strong performances despite brief appearances in almost cameo roles. None of the supporting actors distracts from the focus on the two tragic lovers whose end comes as expectedly as any Shakespearean tragedy.
To convey that 70s and early 80s look and feel, Soderberg seems to have used old-fashioned film in lieu of going "straight" digital. The movie is bracketed by what appears as grainy home movies. It opens with the LA bar scene and 17-year-old Thorson at his outlying rural foster home. It ends with the melodramatic flourish of Liberace's death in Palm Springs and the resulting saga over the Riverside County coroner's attempts to autopsy the body despite the family's efforts to keep his AIDS-related cause of death from public view. The conflict is told via newsreel storytelling straight out of Orson Well's Citizen Kane.
In between, we are taken on a trip to wonderland. Like riding in a monorail, we are shuttled between houses in Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Palm Springs. We enter rooms upon rooms replete with white painted pianos, crystal chandeliers and gold-gilt furniture. The journey is a magical mystery tour into a bizarre world inhabited by two larger than life figures beset with very ordinary problems. Like everyone else, they face issues of money and power; attraction and rejection; youth and old age; addiction and dysfunction; life and death. And weaving through it all, is the all-too-common story of "the next new thing; the next big fix." I guess in the end, the grass is always greener on the other side. And what we have is never enough.
Soderberg weaves a morality tale where choices have consequences and people get exactly what they deserve. In this movie, the consequences are cruel but quite sober and sensible. There are neither suicides nor any type of saccharine sentimentality. And while the pathos could be deliciously comedic – especially on a story about the avatar of kitsch when punctuated with high camp – Soderbergh is refreshingly restrained. He tells his story with a firm grip and a cautioned mannerism.
On stage – and in front of the candelabra – Liberace lived a life of champagne wishes and caviar dreams. But behind the glitz and the glamour, we glimpse the flawed, all-too-human and imperfect everyman who is uncomfortable in his skin, seeking miracles from plastic surgery and sexual hedonism. He is not a hero or anti-hero; victim or victimizer; predator or prey. He is all and neither. Liberace's life is heroic because he was able to achieve much despite the odds. But his real life was lived in darkness cast by the shadow of the lights behind the candelabra.
Traviata et nous (2012)
Capturing the Creative Process as Meditative Transcendence to Becoming Traviata
Giuseppi Verdi's La Traviata is, without a doubt, an operatic masterpiece. As such, it sits comfortably at the top-tier of the operatic repertoire worldwide. Unquestionably top ten, if not top five or top three.
It is a love tragedy of mythic proportions with all the right ingredients: a ravishingly seductive score; memorable tunes frequently sampled today; and a classically melodramatic tragic end. No wonder the work has often fascinated film directors in their desire to "fix" the creative process into film, warranting a longer shelf life than a live theatrical run. The Italian theatre and film director Mario Lanfranchi -- the first to bring opera to the small screen -- did a version in 1967. Franco Zeffirelli, of 1968's Romeo and Juliet fame -- directed another version in 1983 with Teresa Stratas and Plácido Domingo.
Now comes a scaled-down version from Jean-François Sivadier, a theatre and opera director and an actor himself. This one stars the world- renown coloratura soprano Natalie Dessay as Violetta and the American tenor Charles Castronovo as Alfredo. The production, commissioned for the International Festival of Lyric Art in Aix-en-Provence in 2011, was captured in its creation by the documentary director Philippe Béziat. The work is titled Becoming Traviata, and it is a joy to watch. It is literally, in situ, the creation of a master work, and we are witnesses to the give-and-take of the art of collaboration.
The documentary film moves at the pace of the opera itself. There is the initial adjustment to the material, the identification of characters, a statement of the theatrical perspective for the Aix-en- Provence production. But before you know it, we are participants in Violetta's big Parisian party in Act I. And, of course, that famous toasting song (Brindisi).
In his typical documentary style, Philippe Béziat keeps the camera close to the set, in the proximity of the stage. Only on two occasions are we taken out of this theatre-box setting. One was successful, as the artistic technicians discuss the details over an outdoor luncheon in a stereotypically Provencal setting. A sort of "Luncheon of the Boating Party" without the boat. Near the end, Béziat moves us out from the tense stage setting, where the camera wonders through the streets of Aix-en-Provence. At first, I thought we were entering the festival arena to witness the finished product. Not so. This was an unavoidable deficit.
Nonetheless, the film highlights the strength of the performances of the Aix-en-Provence production. Maybe it is because Sivadier is an actor himself that he focuses so much on the physical and emotional expressions of his actors. Watching the film, I reached a new appreciation for the highly complex skills of these operatic artists: not only do they have to sing those complicated songs, they have to convey the emotions and move the narrative along with a twist of the torso, each lifted finger, that gentle hand slide along the face, or that rough thrust of currency to one's face as a sign of disgust and humiliation. No step, no gesture is wasted. Each one is choreographed to match the dramatic mood of Verdi's musical narrative. What a valentine to the job of a director.
The cast is magnificent. Natalie Dessay's Violetta is mesmerizing in every scene and in every frame. She is both playful and deadly serious, always delivering the stellar performance demanded by Sivadier both musically and dramatically. She is simply spellbinding, even as we witness her repeated choreographed death fall as the credits run at the end.
In contrast to the lush and ornamented score, Sivadier gives us minimal, yet effective, staging: a bare crystal chandelier; rolled panels of fabric depicting clouds or a field of flowers straight from Monet; a single red flower in a simple drinking glass. Spare so as not to distract from the music and the dramatic action. And when flourish is appropriate, Sivadier delivers it, and delivers it heavy: the make-up removal cold crème; gold leaf showering from the heavens; the tense gesture of a death collapse. And through it all, the creative process is fixed on film and on the soundtrack. Rehearsals are tweaked on film while we hear the finished work in the background. Perfection is reached before our very eyes. Like the final opera itself, we, the audience, are transformed by the journey. Like Dessay's Violetta, we too are molded by the skills of the artist. By Sivadier for La Traviata, and by Béziat in Becoming Traviata. As the titular meaning, Natalie Dessay is the classic "Fallen Woman/Traviata" and we, the viewer, have fallen along with her. Fallen in love.
The Great Gatsby (2013)
Baz Luhrmann's THE GREAT GATSBY is a Tiffany Diamond Bought at Costco
Full disclosure up front: I love the Fitzgerald novel. I love the literary construct of a first-person narrator who serves, for the reader, as both moral compass and inquisitive voyeur. I love its themes of yearning, for both societal- and self-acceptance and the illusory nature of "the grass is always greener." And, I love Baz Luhrmann's visual style and music vocabulary. BUT, after a two-year wait for this film, compounded with all the fuzz and buzz regarding its making, I must say that the movie left me with more disappointment than Wow.
The pluses: Loved the costumes. Loved the music and mix of hip-hop with traditional and fusion jazz; I adore Brian Ferry. Loved the "look ma, no hands" bravado of Luhrmann's camera and editing. But, only to a point. Now we get to the heart of my thoughts.
While the material seemed so tailored (and that's the operative word) for Luhrmann's visual style, it was inconsistent throughout the film. On the one hand, it was excessively distracting at the wild jazz- age soirées at Gatsby's mansion to the point of being too choppy (and I realize that folks will think it appropriate for the drunken haze and tipsiness it creates in the viewer). On the other hand, Luhrmann's vision was too skeletal and "traditional" in its narrative use to drive the dramatic tragedy to its conclusion.
This is particularly evident in Luhrmann's invention of placing Nick Carraway at an asylum at the start of the picture to create the framework of his voice-over first-person narration. True, this literary devise is quite problematic to translate cinematically, but Luhrmann's approach was traditional, predictable, and quite frankly boring. However, the use of 3D technology with Fitzgerald's text, floating in the air and on screen as it slowly fades away, was wonderful, and effective, serving as an additional commentary on the ephemeral and malleable nature of memory.
Of course, the Casting of GATSBY would be key to its commercial and critical success. There are hits and misses here. The hits are too few, and too minor. The misses are fatal.
Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan is spot-on. He captures our attention in every frame, and his introduction to us is astonishing. The same goes for our intro to Jay Gatsby himself some 30 minutes into the picture, done in the classic Hollywood style). Edgerton/Buchanan's masculine force, fertility, and brutality are a testament to the Darwinian success of blue-blood society. Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker is also quite effective. Porcelain-like and delicate, she is a doll only good for display and "not to be played with." I wish she was used more to drive the narrative -- and the societal commentary – forward. Ditto for Isla Fisher as Myrtle Wilson. I cannot help but recall Karen Black's memorable Myrtle, breaking her fists at the glass window in her failed attempts to call to Tom Buchanan, and her subsequent licking of her own blood as her desperate act of self-preservation.
While Tobey Maguire's Nick Carraway was effective enough, it bordered on hero worship at times. Instead of Fitzgerald's intent to convey societal disgust at the world, in general, and the yearning for hope and innocence in Gatsby, in particular, I think Sam Waterston was more successful and effective as Nick Carraway in this sense in the Redford/Farrow 1974 version. Leonardo DiCaprio, while an effective character actor, was passable as Jay Gatsby. Luhrmann's introduction of him to us was most highly effective, and cinematically theatrical, and that golden smile, well, it could melt butter. Nonetheless, every time DiCaprio said "Old sport" I could not help but winch. It seemed so unnatural for DiCaprio, in contrast to the ease of Redford's delivery of the same language.
Most regrettable is Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan. I love Carey Mulligan. She is both beautiful and a most effective actor. However, Luhrmann failed to capture Daisy's meretricious recklessness and equivocation in Carey Mulligan. I think it was the eye color, or maybe Mulligan's eye brows which stood in too-much contrast to her blond hair. Je Ne sais pas ! She was beautiful, and oh so beautifully dressed. That Prada "chandelier" gown was stunning -- though I did not care for the fur wrap -- and the Tiffany hair band was delicious. BUT, the distance, frailty, and sheer delicateness that Mia Farrow achieved were simply not there on screen this time in Mulligan. Maybe she was too good an actress, and that the character of Daisy Buchanan needed a more delicate and insincere actress for the role? Maybe. I am quite hard-pressed to offer an alternative actress at the moment.
When I first learned that Baz Luhrmann was filming GATSBY in 3D, I thought, wow, this will be great, particularly in light of Luhrmann's skill. While it was "good," there were no "WOW" moments like in AVATAR or LIFE OF PI. The rain, the snow, in 3D was predictable. The conveyance of "yearning" and "reaching" was effective in 3D with the use of DiCaprio's reach across "West Egg" to "East Egg" and to Daisy's dock and green light across the water. We needed more of this to move that theme of longing and distance to new heights with the use of this "new" technology.
Could we not do more? The camera moving through space among the party decorations was predictable, and boring. "Please sir, I want some more."
Most distracting was the GCI use of the exterior of Gatsby's mansion. Too fake. True, while Jay Gatsby would have envisioned a garish and ostentatious abode, Luhrmann gives us a Disney princess castle which does not serve to move the narrative to its intended message. In contrast, I point out Quentin Tarantino's use of Jamie Foxes "clothing choice" when he is freed in DJANGO UNCHAINED. Now -- this is effective -- with maximum comic punch.