Les Misérables

I wanted Les Misérables to be great, but it just wasn’t. A film that comes out on Christmas Day has got to be a pretty solid stuff, you’d think, but why wasn’t I blown away? Everyone else in the theater seemed to have a different outcome than I did; when the credits rolled, there was a momentary roar of applause. As if the people on the screen just moments before could hear us.

Les Miserables

Tom Hooper’s film is not terrible per se; it’s just careless to some degree – for one specific reason – Russell Crowe. Whoever allowed him to be cast in this should be seriously re-examined for experience in their craft. Crowe is dismal in his technique throughout the entire film. It’s literally like he didn’t want to be on set. You can almost see him just wishing the song was over already. Like he was in physical pain every time Hooper called action and he knew he had to sing live to the unapologetic cameras. With every scene that Crowe inhabits he not only sings completely flat, but he literally acts completely flat. I’m not even sure if I caught him raising an eyebrow, much less a full facial expression. The most movement he makes is pacing on ledges, horseback riding, a bit of sword play, and a much welcomed, back-snapping swan dive onto a brick wall. I really just can’t express enough how much Crowe ruined this whole experience for me.

Now, let’s pretend that Crowe was impeccable in his performance (hell, I’d settle for even just OK in his performance); the film would then be good. Not examining Crowe’s performance would allow us to examine the performances of the other actors more closely. Anne Hathaway is terrific. There’s really nothing more to be said about her darkly poignant downward spiral of a performance. Hugh Jackman is good, notable for his live theatre abilities, but in Hooper’s film he lets the scenes get the best of him sometimes. Early on, (around the first act), he comes across much like DeNiro in Cuarón’s Great Expectations remake. I think that’s when I liked Jackman best – the beginning. By the end of the film he’s a little too obvious in his character’s affectations and voice, and it almost gets boring to some degree.

Hooper’s imbued a wonderful dark sensibility to the film to the film as well, which should not be overlooked. He could have chosen to make this lighter fare, but instead kept it classic, cold and literary. He basically could be said to have directed Les Misérables for the stage here, only with setups for cameras and grips. The majority of the shots are handheld, with a wide lens, but smack-up-close-and-personal-walking-with-a-character-as-they-sing-to-the-lens (or just beyond it). Hooper is doing his best to make this an intimate and personal stage experience for cinema-goers. Granted, it’s not the first time this filming style has been done to this effect, but it’s the first time in recent movie history that it’s worked to such great ability. And it very much indeed has worked here. The audience becomes so enthralled; they’re obviously even willing to overlook Crowe (it probably also helps that sadly, most American audiences have no prior education or knowledge of the story of Les Misérables, so it’s like a brand new movie for them).

Take, for example, Chicago, a critically acclaimed movie and a hit with audiences, adapted from the stage, but filmed like a traditional Hollywood picture – just with singing. Many of the great auteurs have tried to bring alive the feeling, the rush, the one-dimensionality and the purity of the theater to the screen (Bergman, Leigh), but until now there wasn’t really a formula that seemed to work. Hooper’s found it. Maybe there’s method in the madness of shooting the actors singing their lines live for each take; maybe that even dictated the reasoning for shooting Les Misérables in the fluid and realistic, on-stage-style that he did, but whatever the reason, you will no doubt see this production formula used again.

Les Misérables is a film your family will probably love, and it’s most certainly a film with heart and beauty, there were a lot of sniffles in the screening which I was at, and I can understand why. To those who know nothing about the craft of filmmaking, this is cinema they can truly let wash over them and enjoy effortlessly, but to those who watch movies in a different way, there’s a lot left to be desired.

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The Place Beyond the Pines

It’s like Blue Valentine meets Drive on a motorbike. Only this time Ryan Gosling is lighting up the screen creating a tumultuous relationship with Eva Mendes instead of Michelle Williams. I’ll admit, my interest is super-peaked about this film, especially considering how quietly superb Blue Valentine was, but if this is anything more like Drive, I’m going to be forced to put Gosling in a new category of cinema called “pretentious drama.” Plus, you can already tell by the trailer, he’s probably gonna have to die at the end.

The Perfect Film for the Holidays: The Red Balloon

Quite possibly the most beautiful film I’ve ever seen.

Before seeing The Red Balloon I didn’t let myself learn anything about it. I had no idea it was an Oscar winning film either. After seeing it, I can understand and appreciate why this is such a beloved classic. It is truly a superb little slice of cinema. You’ll completely forget what you’re doing when you let yourself just be immersed by the simple life of the little boy who, on his way to school one morning, runs across a beautiful, large, shiny red balloon.

The balloon is in distress tangled up at the top of a street light. The boy shimmies up the post and saves the balloon and over the remainder of the film they become the best of friends, forging a relationship that you more than likely would not have expected (unless you read about the film before hand). If you haven’t heard about this film, take a chance, find it and be surprised by it. It’s gorgeous; and in light of recent tragic events in America, it’s the kind of film that needs to be seen by the masses.

Its flaws cinematically are easily overlooked when you realize that you are nothing but a kid again in love with the balloon just as much as the little boy. In a perfect, French, 1950s, existential storytelling kind of way, The Red Balloon takes an inanimate object, that you’ve likely never thought about longer than a second before, and makes it come to life. If the cinema of today still retained these unique, humane, effervescent, fulfilling qualities maybe we wouldn’t care so much about the opportunity to own a semi-automatic assault rifle.

Only the Young

A coming of age film about Christian youth trying to rebel? I’ll admit, this is one indie film concept I didn’t see coming. I’m intrigued, but really, how original is a story about little hipster Christian kids trying to find themselves while realizing there’s more out there than just God’s word (which will no doubt keep being rammed down their throat until they fall in line)? Even if they don’t rebel in their youth (or ever), they’re going to become hypocrites one day regardless. All brainwashed, non-thinkers do.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

It seems like an age-old cinematic question: what would you do if you knew the end of the world was near? Most films depict riots, looting, crazy parties or on the other side of that coin, romantic or reconciliatory last ditch efforts to make you go, “Aww.” Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, starring the cute and lovely (respectively) Keira Knightley and Steve Carrell, is a film that also has all these things, but with just the right amount of humanity to make it go down easy.

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Faced this time with a Tim Burton-esque sounding threat: an asteroid named Matilda that is headed for Earth, Steve Carrell finds himself in his usual comedic stature here (e.g. Little Miss Sunshine, Crazy Stupid Love) – he’s depressed and questioning his life and what it’s all been worth. It’s such familiar territory for him that there’s even a moment in the outtakes of the film where he cuts the scene before the director because he thought he could do a better take. Carrell is a talented actor, there’s no question about that, but I’m frankly a little tired now of the character he is always forced into. I’m all for comedy-via-self-deprecation, but there’s got to be something else he can do. Maybe a Robin Williams turn like in One Hour Photo would do Carrell good, and he could hone his acting chops on a character not so nice and empathizable for once.

Keira Knightley seems oddly less typecast than usual in this film, but maybe that’s because I’m more akin to her brooding romantic character creations which I’m generally fond of, even if the period pieces do get a wee bit old after a while. She’s a good fit for the character and her British lilt is charming and works given her character’s driving ulterior motive (she wants to visit her parents in England before the end of the world).

As fate would have it, mere weeks before their demise, these two soul mates finally meet. She helps him realize what he’s been missing all his life, and he helps her on the same front. The nice things about the movie is, it doesn’t make these characters necessarily perfect for, or a good balance for each other, but it makes them the kind of people who are willing to accept the other for their good and bad qualities and stick by them no matter what happens. They really do become friends before they ever realize their love for each other, and that’s subtly what leads them to even realize it.

The pacing and story of this film is superb. We knows there’s an imminent countdown to their fate looming over everything, and even when we start to wonder if that’s just all been forgotten by the filmmakers, the next scene throws a curve, declaring via news report that the asteroid’s actually a week early in its arrival. There’s no overly drawn out cinematic need to anticipate the inevitable – the audience is already anticipating it. In fact, I was literally in disbelief the whole way through, thinking there was surely going to be some red herring at the end that enabled the asteroid to just miss Earth, and everyone would get to live happily ever after. But then, I know I wouldn’t have been happy with that ending after a while, because how simple, painless and obvious would that be?

No, the filmmakers stick to their guns and go out on a poetic note even, in a denouement of scenes that will surely have you welling up with tears, if not full on crying into your shirt sleeves. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World may be easy to pan for many film critics, but I found it a refreshing take on the end-of-the-world movie and a smart, funny examination of what we really are as humans: fools, not so much scared of the end of life, but scared of living life, and consequently trying to always be something we’re not until we finally realize it’s too late.

How Ridiculous Marketing Strategies Can Sometimes Advertise Amazing Things

What is it with the whole “XX” thing that seems to be in fashion right now? Other than the pretty stellar band The xx, there’s been a rash of other artists using the whole XX marketing shtick as a way to, I guess, make their 20th anniversary of some product seem cool again. There’s Rage Against the Machine – XX, there’s The Breeders LSXX, and now there’s Tarantino XX.

Tarantino XX celebrates 20 years of Quentin Tarantino’s filmmaking, and while that’s certainly fine by me, I’m not sure I get the whole XX part. Is it supposed to indicate the number 20? I guess XX looks and sounds cooler than the number 20. I digress.

On December 4 there was Tarantino XX: Reservoir Dogs and on December 6, Pulp Fiction. These are equally stellar films in Tarantino’s oeuvre and getting to see them on the big screen again is a great case for spending $12.50. Not to mention, in pure QT fashion, they come prefaced with a couple new interviews with actors and others who worked on the films, and they also come prefaced with “hand-picked” trailers of movies that inspired him, from Tarantino’s own collection.

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Watching Pulp Fiction again in a theater was a great experience. After seeing it at home alone or with a couple friends over at a time for the better part of 18 years, having the opportunity to see it on the big screen with a full audience in attendance who were actively engaged throughout, was exhilarating. It almost makes you want to go out and make films. Even though it’s easy (especially after multiple viewings over a long time) to find the problems in the production or the craft behind the film, it’s such an incredibly fresh and twisted narrative, with such incredibly rich and twisted (yet realistic) characters, that you can’t really look away.

Pulp Fiction prides itself on shock value and its ability to make you unregrettably look at bad people as cool or comical. Literally almost every movie that has ever tried to imitate or take inspiration from Pulp Fiction has failed in being effortless for the audience. They are always either too heavy handed, or too melodramatic, but there never seems to be just the right consistency to the mixture.

The audience in the screening I was at, found themselves inadvertently taking part in the movie. Unlike like watching a Rocky Horror screening where you prepare for what’s coming next so you can sing along, dance or throw rice at the screen, with Pulp Fiction, it creeps up on you – the guy behind me found himself muttering many of the famous lines of dialogue before they even appeared in the scene. This is beauty of Pulp Fiction: it’s fun, it’s grown-up, it’s down to earth, and it’s just plain cool. This is a movie that will go down in history like the Breathless of the ’60s or the Easy Rider of the ’70s – a game changer.

Life of Pi

Watching Life of Pi is like sitting through a pretty engaging seminar on religion, coupled with other existential matters, in a large auditorium. You just paid to have someone tell you a story that you’ll either want to believe or want to dismiss as good fiction. You’ll laugh at all the right humorous moments, feel sad when the bad things happen, and maybe be on the edge of your seat when the action gets intense. But you’ll ultimately walk out of the venue looking at life the exact same way as you did when you walked in…

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Or maybe I’m wrong. In one way I feel like maybe I gained something from the experience of viewing this movie, but there’s no changing my mind about the way I choose to believe. The whole premise which director Ang Lee is trying to exploit here is the idea that if I tell you a story and embellish it to the point of near non-belief, you’ll listen more intently, and ultimately gain more from it when it’s over. However, if I tell you the same story, as it actually happened, you’re likely to be far less interested and possibly even dismiss it. A good, possible argument you might make for the purpose/power/impact of the Bible.

Lee works outside the bounds of Yann Martel’s simple story, and uses his artistic license to basically create expositional scenes that help steer the viewer into the right frame of rational, questioning mind. That, in and of itself bothers me, because whether or not the story is made up, has little effect on how I will perceive the point it’s trying to make (or whether I will believe it). In fact, I walked out of the theater angry because the version of the story I wanted to believe, was indeed deemed to be false by the close of the film.

The film uses the cinematic formula of story-within-a-story, by literally having someone (in this case Pi, himself) tell the story. While Lee provides some much needed background, the bulk of the film takes place on the water after Pi’s family (and the rest of an entire Japanese cargo liner die when it sinks to the deepest trench in the Pacific Ocean). Pi, who had up to many years before as an adolescent found himself to be very in touch with nature and the world, finds that he is literally trapped and threatened by the world after the horrible event. As a young boy, he felt as close as counterparts, and so deeply trusting of the world that he would attempt to feed a tiger with his small bare hands. His father quickly excised this beautiful, innocent quality which Pi had, and cut-to many years later, Pi’s 16 and sharing a lifeboat with the same tiger, but now intensely afraid of him instead of able to coexist.

Now, you could look at this from the perspective that Pi should never have been trusting of a wild animal to begin with (coexistence with animals and nature for many humans simply means keeping them at bay so as not to disrupt their lives), and fortunately as a child Pi’s father taught him there is not only love and happiness in the world, there is also suffering and cruelty; but I think you’d be looking at it wrong. I think, if Pi hadn’t been taught to fear everything, he would have been able to coexist much sooner once he was trapped on the boat. The lifeboat in which Pi becomes (literally) tethered to, contains an interesting little circle of life. In hierarchical order, there’s the tiger, Pi, a hyena, an orangutan, a zebra, and a rat. Coexistence and harmony are not possible on the boat, because fear, hunger and self-preservation are all that either man or animal can possibly think of when faced with such an ordeal, but coexistence is still ultimately achieved as a simple method to staying alive.

life_of_pi_8Instead of happiness (or even mutual respect, really), the boy and the tiger end up in a sort of symbiotic relationship, each dependent on the other for existence. They are literally yin and yang. It’s only for the shift of power, that Pi finds himself interacting with the tiger and eventually doing what he considers to be training him. I’d argue that it’s much less an achievement in training the tiger, than it is the tiger actually resolving to his fate: which is the boy has a better ability to aid in the tiger’s self-preservation. The boy can (and does) catch fish for him. The boy can (and does) save him when he leaps overboard and cannot get back onto the boat. The boy can (and does) provide shelter for him and early warning of emanate danger. In reality, the tiger is using Pi.

This is further exemplified by what turns out to be my favorite scene in the whole film: at the moment when they’re at their most vulnerable, the moment when they finally get what they’ve wanted for the entirety of the movie, the moment when they finally reach land; you’re waiting for the heartfelt goodbye, the overblown instant in time when the tiger shows that the relationship he formed with Pi was indeed meaningful to him, and not just a necessity; you’re waiting for the sign, but you get nothing. The tiger never even looks back at the boy as he wanders off onto the solid ground and into the forest. The tiger didn’t care. He just survived, and that was his only use and intent from the relationship to begin with.

I find that I can identify with this moment on so many levels, that it changes the whole meaning of the movie for me. Life is all about conditioning. Love and hate are merely emotions we decide to project based on the way we’ve been conditioned to handle the interaction we’re experiencing at that moment in time. This is exactly what’s exemplified in Life of Pi.

From a filmmaking standpoint, there are a lot of things about Life of Pi that I don’t like. First off, the handling of the passage of time is relatively unclear. If this is on purpose, it fails to add anything to the viewing experience. It’s actually frustrating to see a 16-year old boy at sea for months, only to see his hair grow a tad unruly and nothing else really ever change. The tiger gets thinner, but that’s easy, the tiger’s CGI.

The beauty of the film is that, even for a cynic/skeptic like myself, I wanted to believe the story so badly, that everything needed to be rationally explicable. There are a lot of seemingly inexplicable scenes in the film though, and the last quarter of the movie can actually be rather frustrating if you’re taking everything seriously up until that point. If you tell me something’s true, I’ll find ways to think about how to question or disprove it, but if you tell me something’s fiction, I’ll listen intently and let myself fall into the story.

Life-of-Pi-ShipwreckBasically, when Pi is finally rescued some investigators from the shipping company come to interview him in his hospital room and ask him for the story of how he survived. They don’t seem to believe (nor like) the story that he tells them (the one which we are told), and so they ask for another as plainly as that. In the space of a really long take, slowly closing in on the face of the disheveled Pi, Lee forces us to watch as he retells a concise version of his survival beginning from that fateful night on the ship. In his retelling, there are indeed no animals, and instead people which he’s substituted for the animals. His mother is one of them. I immediately lost interest during this scene of the film, and having only seen it the one time, I couldn’t tell you much of what this version of his story is like, but I promise you this: it doesn’t matter at all. Even if it’s the true story, no one will care.

I won’t say that I didn’t like Life of Pi, it certainly has a very Forest Gump-y quality to it which will no doubt endear some viewers, but I wasn’t appreciative of the way the discussion and depiction of evaluating religion, spirituality and the meaning of life was addressed. Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life had more to offer in this respect than many films on the topic which I’ve seen in a long time. Instead, I found Ang Lee’s Life of Pi to be more of discussion on why religion is embellished, presented and taught the way it is, and how that only serves to further help with the mass brainwashing of our individual cultures.

As Pi himself says at the end of the film, “If I told you two of the same stories, one as it happened, and one like this – which one would you believe?” Well, we all know the answer to that.