January 17, 2015
Yesterday, the news was full of analysis of the Oscar snubs and simplistic assumptions about the members who make up the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. The go-to numbers cited were 94 percent white, 77 or 76 percent male, and an average age of 63 years old. There was this essay in the Daily Beast the day before. Friday morning, CBS offered this report. Numbers make for nice television, but they can be deceiving. Sometimes they invite too much speculation and those interpreting them in knee-jerk fashion can project a lot of speculation. Some have gone as far as accusing AMPAS members as racist because of the Selma snubs in the major categories. We said good things about that film in this blog (50 years after the Civil Rights Act, Selma remains a timely film — a film review). Individual rights no matter race, sex or religion is important to us, and it’s a fine film, indeed. However, even we agree the movie creaked with some faults in craft and storytelling. This writer’s issue was with its overwrought film techniques, especially involving abuse of slow-motion for emphasis that condescends to the audience. I wouldn’t be surprise if some voters were turned off for the same reason, and it has nothing to do with race. However, the best explanation comes from the longtime great Oscar analyst and film historian Mark Harris in Grantland.
But looking beyond the numbers, one of probably an array of other arguments against all these protestations comes from a gentleman I interviewed yesterday morning: legendary cult film director John Waters. He’s about to visit South Florida to perform “This Filthy World, Filthier and Dirtier” at the Shock Pop Comicon in Fort Lauderdale. After we spoke about his one-man show (the full story is coming in a few weeks to Pure Honey Magazine, another publication I write for). I had to ask him about his role as one of those men in the numbers noted above. “Yeah, I’m an old white man,” he said speaking over the phone.
Though he warned me that the Academy is strict about members talking about their nominees and I said I would never ask him to break the rules, he laughed it off, telling me incredulously, “Why not? I would!” Then he offered some films he put his singular power behind without skipping a beat. No surprise: all of his picks feature directors known for controversy and pushing boundaries.
“I nominated movies like Mommy [Xavier Dolan] and Abuse of Weakness [Catherine Breillat],” he admitted. “I don’t think I’m picking the easiest ones to like. I’m tellin’ ya, of all the movies that were nominated, my favorite is this thing called Wild Tales [Damián Szifrón], which I was thrilled got nominated for best foreign film from Argentina, so I would urge everybody to see that movie. It’s a great movie.”
This is but one version of the vote by one of the majority members. Waters, of course is a unique case. William Burroughs, a man who understands genuine shock value and its place as representing reality, hailed him as “the pope of filth,” after all. But it provides an important lesson against generalizations, not to mention the futility of it. The take away: it’s pointless to assign generalized assumptions to a set of numbers, especially if you don’t know who’s behind them.
We’re not gonna defend the Oscars, ever. We’ll ride their coat tails to hype movies we like and dismiss them when its merited, but we’ll always argue against generalizing. There is an individual behind every thought and decisions like Oscar contenders. That’s why we have always aimed to celebrate the independent ethos. Pick your own favorites.
John Waters will perform “This Filthy World, Filthier and Dirtier” at Broward County Convention Center, 1950 Eisenhower Boulevard, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, as part of the Shock Pop Comicon on February 14 (go here for tickets). Also, the Miami International Film Festival recently announced that Wild Tales will open this year’s festival on March 6. Ticket information can be found here. And here’s the trailer:
November 27, 2013
Paolo Sorrentino’s new film, the Great Beauty, Italy’s entry for the foreign language Oscar competition, follows Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) a celebrity writer learning to come to terms with his own irrelevance, as he reaches his 65th birthday. It has been decades since he wrote his only book, the pretentiously titled “Human Apparatus.” People still ask when he will follow it up. Meanwhile, he stays busy with celebrity interviews and parties.
Early in the film, a motley crew of party goers gathers to line dance, drink and laugh to pulsing electro beats and perky pop dance songs in celebration of Jep’s birthday. Lorena (Serena Grandi of Tinto Brass fame) bursts from a cake in the shape of the Coliseum with a number six on her right breast and five on her left. When one party goer cannot recognize the aged, rotund and boisterous woman, another party goer explains, she’s “an ex TV showgirl now in full physical and mental decline.” Both young and old mix together with a unified aspiration to both live it up and cover up their inadequacies. A group tosses a well-dressed older, female dwarf in the air.
Anyone familiar with the filmography of Federico Fellini will find it hard to resist comparisons. Many a surreal scene peppers the film, and the transitions between scenes feel associative, as if following dream logic. Jep could easily be seen as an older version of Marcello of La Dolce Vita, who travels circles of debauchery in Rome to come to his own sublime revelation at the end of that 1960 classic, which gave popular culture the accursed term “paparazzi.”
But as the Great Beauty moves along, a sense of humanity and even dignity overshadows the decadence. We soon learn the dwarf is the wizened editor of Jep, Dadina (Giovanna Vignola). Her short stature has only allowed her a better perspective for noticing the charms of life with humor and humility. Indeed, the Great Beauty in the title of the film is not so much a reference to the opulent imagery as what lies in the gaps. It’s a tremendous film rich not only in visual splendor but also existential angst.
Sorrentino has no interest in picking up where Fellini left off. He injects his characters with a raw yearning for fulfillment and purpose. His choice to focus on older characters is far from incidental. These people don’t only want to live. There is something much bigger at stake: they want to matter.
Ironically, the set pieces are vibrant with color and life. The ever-drifting camera of cinematographer Luca Bigazzi practically swings through the air, zooming in and pulling out, dancing to an unheard rhythm, as if it were the film’s virtual heartbeat. It does not hurt that the ancient city of Rome, where the ruins of the Coliseum make prominent appearances, is such an inherently beautiful site to see. On an intimate level, over his bed, the recurring image of Jep’s ceiling as a vast, undulating ocean stands as symbol of rebirth, as Jep’s thoughts often drift off to find memories to reconsider his life.
Jep drinks, parties and philosophizes with fellow sixty-something celebrities and sycophants. Along the way, he refines his appreciation for those he loves and those he loathes. All around him, time seems to creep along. Nostalgia for the past bubbles up and the pressure of following up his only novel haunts him. Cornered by both the past and the future, he must ultimately come to terms with loosening control of destiny so he might find the grace he pines for.
Servillo does a splendid job harnessing Jep’s conflicting traits of jaded, free-wheeling and vulnerable, as the film trudges along across a dynamic two-and-a-half-hour runtime that ultimately earns one of the most significant end title sequences ever committed to film. As a celebration of the visual form of cinema, this unassuming final note achieves a moment of transcendence that should be savored to the last second of its eight minutes by anyone who has learned something from the film’s brilliant finale: It is in the moments when we live, everything else is “blah, blah, blah.”
The Great Beauty runs 142 minutes, is in Italian with English subtitles and is unrated (there’s drugging, drinking, fucking, loving and living). It opens in our area at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, Bill Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables, MDCulture Art Cinema at Koubek Theater in Miami and Cinema Paradiso-Hollywood this Friday, Nov. 29.
Note: The Miami Beach Cinematheque hosted a preview screening for the purposes of this review. The MBC’s screening marks the beginning of its Italian film series “Cinema Made In Italy” that continues into April. An opening night rooftop party kicks it off at Highbar (click here for more information, including how to get into the party for free).
For screening dates of the Great Beauty in other parts of the U.S., visit the film’s official website and enter your zip code.
This is a quick post previewing Day 3 of the Miami International Film Festival. This morning an article I wrote on Swedish director Lasse Hallström appeared on the front page of the arts section of the “Miami Herald.” The festival will hold a tribute to him tonight at 7 p.m. (buy tickets).
I’d be lying to say this does not feel like a big step in my writing career covering film, art and music. But this is about Hallström who has made quite a name for himself in Hollywood. I spoke to him over the phone as he moved around furniture at his summer home in Stockholm. He credits the festival for hosting him and his breakthrough film My Life As a Dog back in 1987 (now available on the esteemed Criterion Collection).
Though the film went on to gain two Oscar nominations, outside of the foreign language competition, Hallström says it still could not beat the film’s US premiere at MIFF. “Most of all, I remember the Miami Film Festival, when I, for the first time, saw it with an audience outside Sweden,” he told me.
You can read the overview of the director’s illustrious Hollywood career, including works with Johnny Depp and Richard Gere, by jumping through the image of the Herald’s logo:
When I got the assignment to interview Édgar Ramírez for his small but key role in Zero Dark Thirty, I jumped at the chance. I respected this actor immensely for what he brought to the title character of Carlos the Jackal in the miniseries Carlos (2011). I caught that film as a marathon cinematic five-and-a-half-hour experience at the Bill Cosford Cinema on the University of Miami Coral Gables campus. I came for the filmmaking of Olivier Assayas but was blown away by the performance by Ramírez.
Though an hour late to start, the low-key but charming Ramírez made the resulting round table interview with a group of five other local journalists a pleasure. The resulting piece was published early yesterday morning for the “Miami New Times” Arts and Entertainment blog “Cultist.” I think the story I wrote up captures the subtle intelligence and charm of this talented man. Read it by jumping though the blog’s logo here:
Of course, plenty more information was covered, so allow this blog post to stand as a supplement to the above piece. I was interested in the working relationship between director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, as much has been about the writer’s constant presence on the set (here’s a great “Hollywood Reporter” article about it).
“He was always around,” Ramírez confirmed of Boal. “He’s very involved. It was a huge privilege to have the writer there, in case we needed to change something, in case a line was not working. Then, you could always discuss it with the writer, so it’s always very helpful, and you don’t get that privilege very often to have the writer on set. For me, it was very helpful also because it was a very fast-changing situation, and also because of the location we were at, the tension that was there because of the stakes, then we had to change and re-shape things as we were shooting, so it was great to have that.”
Ramírez also noted Boal’s producer credit, a rare thing for a writer to achieve in a Hollywood picture. However, Ramírez said, Bigelow had a firm hand on the visual elements and working with actors. “She’s directing. She’s directing the movie. She’s directing the actors, and Mark is there to support as a producer and to support as a writer when we needed him for something … There are certain things that look great on paper, then, for some reason, they don’t get to fully work on a scene, so it is great to have someone who understands, who has an overview of the whole script, who can tell you, ‘Well, this is what you should say because everything was related to something in other places of the script.’ Sometimes you can improvise things on movies, you get stuck, then you improvise, but in a movie like this, so accurate and based on firsthand accounts, you could not take the liberty of just changing one term for another.”
Another good question worth noting, which circled back to his role of playing Carlos the Jackal, is how the film handles history. He offered a very astute observation that too many take for granted while watching what is ultimately entertainment. In my review of the film (‘Zero Dark Thirty’ brings obsession with elusive truth to vivid light) I link to an interview with Karen Greenberg, the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School and editor of “The Torture Papers.” She argues that history remains unclear on how fruitful torture was for crucial information in the tracking of Osama bin Laden. Yet one of the reasons the film has received so much heat for the torture scenes is that they result in the first utterance of the name Abu Ahmed, bin Laden’s courier, who ultimately leads CIA operatives, including the character Ramírez plays, to bin Laden’s hideout.
Though, again, more information can be found in the “Cultist” piece on how he felt about the torture scenes of Zero Dark Thirty, Ramírez put the narrative into perspective: “We were recreating reality. It’s impossible to reconstruct reality. It happened once. What you do is re-interpret, you recreate, and that’s what you try to do. Even if you have the person who lived it, the person who did it next to you, that happens just once, and I know this. I’m familiar with this because of Carlos. We also had first account information, very accurate research and navigation of facts, and however, it was a work of fiction. There’s no way to imitate reality because it’s not about imitation, it’s about realization.”
So, ultimately, remember, it’s just a movie.
At the Florida premiere screening of Monsieur Lazhar at the Coral Gables Art Cinema, Canada-based director Philippe Falardeau made a rare appearance via Skype. During his introduction he waffled between a healthy, natural sense of humor and an insightful exploration of his film, typical of this stealthy, humanistic and whimsical little film. As the movie takes place in a Montreal middle school, he was asked about working with child actors. “There’s a saying in Hollywood,” he said, “‘One should never work with animals or children’ [W.C. Fields]. I think this is unfair to animals.” Of course he was joking, and the crowd roared with laughter. The director also laid out the film’s theme: “It’s a film about meeting the Other…” The same extreme but causal tonal shift typifies the drama/humor of Monsieur Lazhar, a natural extension of the affable director.
The titular character is played with a soulful quietness by Algerian comedian Mohamed Fellag (don’t expect Roberto Benigni buffoonery). He appears at the school, out of the blue, offering his services to teach a class coping with the sudden death of its teacher, who happened to have hanged herself in the classroom. Just after recess, two of the children, Simon (Émilien Néron) and Alice (Sophie Nélisse), discovered their beloved teacher’s corpse. From this morbid setup, Falardeau takes the viewer on a winding road of character dynamics with tight, powerful scenes that never dwell too long in preciousness to stagnate in melodrama. The ultimate and well-earned prize at the end of this quest for post-traumatic peace and acceptance is simple and never over-explained or sugar-coated with fanciful camera angles or sweeps and— God forbid— cloying music. This is a director with a healthy confidence in his ability to show a story through cinema.
Though it officially saw release in 2011, the film is finally making rounds in US theaters via indie/world film distributor Music Box Films. It arrives with lots of hype, as it was Canada’s entry in the foreign language film competition in the 2012 Oscar® race. Though it lost out to the more serious but amazing Iranian film A Separation, the following month it would clean up at the Genies, Canada’s version of the Academy Awards. It won best film, director, lead actor, supporting actress for Nélisse, adapted screenplay and editing.
It turns out that, indeed, the accolades bestowed on this film (and there were several others), are well-earned. One could argue Monsieur Lazhar has a tougher task than A Separation, as it totes along a sense of humor on its heavy ride to self-actualization. But the journey does not only involve the children. Lazhar brings his own baggage with him, and it is a doozy. As the Algerian immigrant finds himself dealing with the delicate emotions of pre-teens coping with a horrific death, he must deal with his own personal tragedy and a complicating secret.
Falardeau harnesses an efficient sense of story-telling with a great eye for juxtapositions. A frivolous playground scene that opens the film captures the innocence and contentedness of the children while also staying grounded in the banal. It offers a genius set-up to an encounter with the Lacanian shock of the real, setting up trauma the characters must come to terms with. Falardeau subtly pushes the chasm between the children and adults by harnessing the power of mise-en-scène. At the beginning, whenever children share the frame with adults, the adults are either shown from behind or from the shoulders down. When we see the children on their own, they are shot at their own eye-level. They are not condescended to, treated as cute props. These kids are not trivial moppet, comic relief. They are real people having to deal with some heavy stuff.
At the same time, Lazhar has his own issues to deal with. Whenever the film presents his out-of-school life, the film’s color palette becomes more muted, and not through filters or cinematographic gimmicks, but with simple, very conscious staging. The children’s world is brighter by comparison. When he wanders the school halls during the students’ group meeting with a therapist, Lazhar winds up with a paper cut-out of a fish stuck to his back. Though humorous, it also resonates with a poignancy. In his early days at the school, Lazhar pats a child on the head wandering through the hall and smacks one of his students in the back of the head when he lobs a wad of paper at a classmate. Lazhar is later told by the school’s principal that touching the children in any way is “against the law.” The camera does not zoom in or dwell on these moments, yet, at the film’s heart, it is all about this human connection and need for healing. A hug in a film never felt more powerful and well-earned.
Watch the trailer:
Monsieur Lazhar is rated PG-13, has a runtime of 94 minutes and is in French with English subtitles. It opened at the Coral Gables Art Cinema yesterday for its South Florida premiere run (I was invited to the event for the purposes of this review). They are screening it in 35mm and have it booked through April 19. It expands throughout Florida on April 20 at Living Room in Boca Raton, the Movies of Delray, the Movies of Lake Worth and on May 4 at Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale. Nationwide screenings dates can be found here.
February 22, 2012
Though dealing with quite a morbid subject: a toddler stricken with a malignant brain tumor, the French film Declaration of War tackles the subject with a grand sense of humor and joie de vivre. Based on the true life experience of director and lead actress Valérie Donzelli, this film could have easily slipped off the deep end into self-pitying melodrama. I expected as much, but the film shook my prejudices from its opening frame.
Donzelli knows how to compose a shot. The colors stand out first. mother Juliette’s (Donzelli) pale blue sweater compliments part of the cartoon panels painted on the wall of a pediatric waiting room. She sits on a red couch that matches with the black and red striped pullover of her young son, Adam (Gabriel Elkaïm, the actress’ real life son). It’s both a stark and irreverent image at once that reverberates with foreboding. Adam is about to be placed in an MRI machine. As the loud nightmare sound of the MRI scan crackles its percussive, clacking drone, the camera slowly zooms in on Juliette. She is spacing out, her hand on Adam’s foot for comfort. She reflects back on the night she met Adam’s father, Romeo (Jérémie Elkaïm, who also co-wrote the script and is the real life father to the boy actor). As soon as you might feel annoyed by their coincidental names, a few seconds of witty dialogue and action redeems the contrivance.
The flashback continues with the pair’s romance-filled montage. They frolic in Paris’ streets to the perky strains of a little ditty by Georges Delerue, who has composed for none other than François Truffaut. I shall stop the comparison at that, but the film certainly pays sly respect to the French New Wave on more occasions. The couple laugh, run and bicycle together and play with cotton candy. They even share a coffee outside “Café Cherie.” A droll, unidentified man’s voice narrates the action over this ain’t-life-grand section of the film, as we meet the lovers’ friends and relatives. The scenes are so over-the-top, Donzelli seems to wink at her own indulgence in cliché. In fact, these scenes may not be literal representations of what happened. They are more about setting a tone of what it feels like to fall in love, which works on a cinematic level. To punctuate the scenes, she closes them off with an iris-in shot and then an iris-out to the beginning of bad news from Romeo: Adam (the toddler version is played by César Desseix) will not stop vomiting.
During the following section of the film, where the couple worries over the child, the director inserts images of what appear to be networks of cells under a microscope. Glimpses of the cellular mesh quake and slither between scenes, until finally the cells seem to collapse together into black goo that flushes down a drain located off-screen. It’s a clever move that reveals a director with a strong command of the cinematic language. There is also one single and well-earned moment where she exploits the power of the rapid zoom-in.
Donzelli proves herself throughout this consistent little film. When Juliette takes Adam to his first CAT scan, she captures the complexity of this mysterious and troubling situation in little details. Juliette takes the boy to a hospital outside of Paris for the initial evaluation by specialists. Adam must be put to sleep in order to stay still for the brain scan. She accompanies him to the door of where the procedure will happen, where the technicians order her to wait outside. Adam is wheeled in crying before he is narcotized behind the closed doors. As the doors shut, she turns to run frantically in the hall, as an incongruous beat of a techno/house song kicks in. The camera shakes so hard as it follows her bolting away, she blurs away and slips out of frame. Meanwhile, in cross cut, Romeo and a friend happily repaint the couple’s apartment, oblivious to the horrible news that will soon shatter them.
Donzelli is probably best known as an actress who has dabbled in directing to so-so success, but nothing stood out beyond her native France. With Declaration of War she seems to provide France’s answer to last year’s 50/50. Declaration of War was a huge hit in its native country, grossing over $6 Million there alone. The film was so beloved, France entered it for a foreign language Oscar this year, and it opened Cannes 2011’s Critics’ Week. Besides its popularity, the film earns its right to be admired. It never drags in the misery of the situation. Even though the person stricken with cancer in Declaration of War has not even reached two years of age, the film never takes overly sentimental turns to wallow in what must have been a miserable situation to Donzelli. Instead, the film swings from one spirited scene to an emotional scene and back with an ease that never suffocates the viewer in dreariness.
Here’s the trailer:
Declaration of War is Unrated, runs 100 minutes and opens in South Florida on Friday for two nights only: Feb. 25 at 10 p.m. and the 26th at 8 p.m.
March 3, 2010
The acting nominations probably have less drama surrounding them than the filmmaker races and seem like an easier race to call. Here are my predictions and picks…
Actress in a supporting role
Mo’Nique in Precious
Vera Farmiga in Up in the Air
Penélope Cruz in Nine
Anna Kendrick in Up in the Air
Maggie Gyllenhaal in Crazy Heart
Who will win: There’s so much love for Mo’Nique and her humble approach to the nomination (not even campaigning for it) that she’s bound to win it. She did at the Golden Globes, she will do the same here.
Who I think should win: I never got around to seeing Precious. It looks like such a downer of a movie, but Mo’Nique’s turn from perky comedienne to abusive mother with no make-up has the most flash of all the roles nominated here. It’s an extreme shift, like Charlize Theron in Monster. It’s just such a no-brainer of a pick. As for Up in the Air, the only movie of these that I have seen, the performances are just too subtle. As for Cruz’s nomination, as much as I love her, and enjoyed her win for Vicky Christina Barcelona last year, the only reason I think she is in contention here is thanks to studio head Harvey Weinstein, who always finds a way into the Academy, even if the movie is poorly received (Nine bombed with critics and audiences). It just goes to show Weinstein’s clout in the business, which hints at why I am so half-heartedly posting this entry on the Oscars®. I think it’s a sham popularity contest, which is why you will see a big contrast in actual winners than those I would have voted for the win.
Actor in a supporting role
Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds
Christopher Plummer in The Last Station
Matt Damon in Invictus
Stanley Tucci in The Lovely Bones
Woody Harrelson in The Messenger
Who will win: I would not be surprised if Harrelson wins over the favored Waltz. He is more Hollywood than the foreigner Waltz, who really broke out for his portrayal as the stately by cruel “Jew hunter” in one of Quentin Tarantino’s greatest films of his career. The upset possibility is certainly there, but Waltz has already earned 27 of 29 award nominations for his work in Basterds, including the Golden Globe (see his imdb page).
Who I think should win: Of course Waltz. He played such a dynamic, fierce bad guy who you just loved to watch. Supporting role is an understatement, as he practically carried the film, driving the suspense in many scenes of the movie. I must admit to missing The Last Station (it has yet to play in Miami!) and Invictus, but the roles sound too low key to stand out above Waltz’s work in Inglourious Basterds. Tucci was strong in Lovely Bones, but that film never had the same critical support as Basterds. His performance also might just be too creepy, compared to the comic elements of Waltz’s Hans Landa.
Actress in a leading role
Meryl Streep in Julie & Julia
Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side
Helen Mirren in The Last Station
Gabourey Sidibe in Precious
Carey Mulligan in An Education
Who will win: None of these other actresses stand a chance against the buzz surrounding the competition between Bullock and Streep. Seeing as this is Hollywood voting for themselves here, this will go to a deeply entrenched Hollywood personality, and Bullock could be the favorite, seeing as Streep’s nomination for her work is beginning to get cliché; she already has two wins, and this would be her 14th nomination.
Who I think should win: The only role here I have seen on the screen was Streep’s. I can’t really say who deserves to win here. I really wanted to catch An Education in theaters, but I missed it, though I heard amazing things about Mulligan’s performance. Based on all the attention she has received for her work in the movie, it probably would not have received the attention it has so far garnered. Still, Streep really does disappear in the role of Julia Child, and I would be happy to see her win over Bullock’s work in what has always sounded like a formulaic flick, which I cannot find any interest in watching.
Actor in a leading role
Morgan Freeman in Invictus
Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart
George Clooney in Up in the Air
Colin Firth in A Single Man
Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker
Who will win: George Clooney just might, though Bridges is favored, but since the Oscars is a popularity contest among the industry’s peers, I’m going with the more popular of the two. Bridges has always been difficult and anti-establishment. His Golden Globe win could help him, though. But you also can’t count out Firth, who has been given a lot of love for his work in a Single Man.
Who I think should win: Though, I’m behind in my movie-going in this category as well, my vote is for Bridges. Clooney was low key but solid in Up in the Air, but even he has said he was playing himself in that movie. I prefer to appreciate a guy who cane disappear into a character, as Bridges does in Crazy Heart, and that may just seal the deal for him.