Frances Ha by Noah Baumbach

Frances Ha by Noah Baumbach


Frances Ha
is a character study of its lead character, Frances Halladay, a dancer in her late twenties trying to find herself career wise and work through with her friends and surrounding community.

The title character Frances and her friends, notably New York hipsters, are not particularly interesting company. Having seen Baumbach’s previous film Greenberg, what is Noah Baumbach’s fascination with these hipster generation-Z characters that have an aversion for employment? Is Baumbach critiquing them, implying they should better people? No, Baumbach just navel gazes at the New York hipster sheik. Did I learn anything new about this generation’s youth? No, because I already know people like this and generally avoid them.

For instance, Frances seems to be afraid of the typical career ladder and desires something more. Dancing, what’s she’s established as her job, doesn’t seem fulfilling. But being a waitress is out of the question because her privileged upbringing makes it humiliating. Meanwhile, things start to become financially difficult. She then starts to lie pathologically to keep up with her friends who have gone ahead in life. Is she active in discovering her passion? No, she just mopes around, hoping it’ll hit her one day.

And like that, the movie goes on and on. Even at 89 minutes, it felt long watching these characters mope along talking about nothing. Greta Gerwig is very good in the lead part and displays a considerable amount of depth playing a quarter life crisis. She captured that boomerang generation mentality to a tee. It succeeds at what it does as a character portrait, but it’s truly interesting only when her character gets active. I just wished more things, whether comic, dramatic or tragic, happened so that she can be more compelling. For me, only the last 15 minutes were interesting. After all, there’s only so much quirkiness one can take.

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Only God Forgives by Nicolas Winding Refn

Only God Forgives by Nicolas Winding
Refn

Julian, a drug-smuggler thriving in Bangkok’s criminal underworld, sees his life get complicated when his mother
compels him to find and kill whoever is responsible for his brother’s recent death. Chang, a Thai police lieutenant, is exacting his own brand of vigilante justice and punishing everybody involved.

Only God Forgives is the classic case of a director doing a continuation of his authorial style. An aesthetic that was recognized in a previously successful film is further explored in a more extreme fashion in a follow-up piece. Very often it’s focused on using the established cinematic style to carry the entire movie. Wong Kar Wai made Fallen Angels after the success of Chungking Express. David Lynch made Inland Empire after the success of Muholland Drive. Terrence Malick made To the Wonder after Tree of Life.

Only God Forgives is Nicolas Winding Refn’s stylistic continuation of Drive. What’s stripped away is the frequent plot turns, traditional character development and character likability. These are probably the most quiet cinematic gangsters I’ve ever seen in my life. Characters are posed like empty vessels. They don’t talk much. Sometimes when they do, the director mutes their dialogue. Ryan Gosling plays a still taciturn character in a similar way he did in Drive. Kristin Scott Thomas is an effective threatening presence as Julian’s stern mother Crystal. There’s very little to draw from Gosling’s Julian, but it is there. Even within it’s morally ambiguous world, there is a clear character arc. Julian is an active character trying to find redemption but also wants to please his mother. Which leads to me to the Chang character…

Nicolas Winding Refn has said the Lieutenant Chang character represents the Old Testament God, exacting judgment and punishment on all the sinners in the story. I am not sure how clear that is in the film unless the audience read the press notes beforehand. Does the God theme really matter? In a way, yes. The film is so stoic with its characters posed like figurines, you cannot help but inject symbolism into the film’s empty canvas to derive meaning out of it. Trying to watch this film as a genre crime thriller, which is what it is on the surface, would be relatively more frustrating. Luckily I caught on to it.

The Chang character, in a perpetual black shirt with a white collar, is dressed like a priest. He is a violent enforcer of poetic justice, and all his actions are ritual-like. In a more traditional movie, Chang would have been the protagonist. Here, he’s the antagonist. From the story’s perspective, where all the characters are varyingly degrees of bad, it’s as if Chang is the Grim Reaper coming to collect souls even though he in fact is a force for good. That’s a really interesting left-field story choice and I dug that. Lieutenant Chang is the most fascinating character and a great antagonist.

There is an indulgent aspect to Only God Forgives, any director taking on big questions will naturally come off that way. Refn could have easily written a theology thesis but he’s chosen to express his thoughts with narrative film. I have no problem with that but it automatically sets up qualifiers for audiences to enjoy the film. While it is not necessary, I think having viewed Drive first will help one familiarize with Refn’s film language before seeing this movie. As for the God themes, it can go either which way. Some may find it pretentious, but I found images from the film stuck with me long after and I am still pondering the film’s themes. I found the Julian and Chang characters compelling. So for that, Only God Forgives is neither the masterpiece nor disaster that all the Cannes hype is suggesting, but more of a hyper-stylized personal statement. It will surely divide audiences, and your enjoyment will depend on how you deal with abstractions.

To the Wonder by Terrence Malick

To The Wonder by Terrence Malick

After visiting Mont Saint-Michel, Marina (played by Olga Kurylenko) and Neil (played by Ben Affleck) come to Oklahoma, where problems arise. Marina meets a priest and fellow exile, who is struggling with his vocation, while Neil renews his ties with a childhood friend, Jane (played by Rachel McAdams).

To the Wonder is the most Terrence Malick-y out of all the Terrence Malick films I have seen (The Thin Red LineTree of Life thus far). The tranquil characters run around playing with each other or stare angrily at each other to give the silent treatment. Every action, expression or object is an inner feeling, trying to evoke sense memories like a glossy choppy nonsensical Prada perfume commercial. For example, a couple racing through a grass field playing tag evokes one kind of feeling, whereas the same couple embraced looking at each other grimly by a living room window evokes another. People in real life do not behave this way but it doesn’t matter. It’s the overall sum of how everything feels.

The way To the Wonder is told makes it impossible to say anything about the cast or performances. The actors are mere colors being applied on a bigger canvas. Malick’s trademark whispering voice-overs are our only true source to what these characters are feeling.

To go off a tangent for a second, the use of voice-overs is usually frowned upon in screenwriting. Screenwriters are often snotty about this, but Terrence Malick applies them well. Yes, it’s an easy device to telegraph how a character is feeling at any point in the story and that can easily be cheapened. However, god is in the details and one should access thesubtextual use of voice-over in contrast to the supertext. The actors are all taciturn and physically performing their emotions to the point that the voice-over is the dialogue. It’s that combination of choices that creates the ephemeral feeling that we’re seeing inside the character’s souls. So I don’t have a problem with that at all.

The plot summary above is pretty sums up the entire story, but that’s not the point. Malick is solely interested in the human soul, not character or plot. It is a film about how people cyclically seek love and faith, lose them and have to find faith to believe in love again. Priorities shift, desires change, and people are ever-changing. I liked that core message. Malick himself seems to place more hope on faith. I connected more to the love part than the faith part.

I stayed with To the Wonder till around the 90-minute mark out of its 112-minute running time, and then I started to tune out from fatigue of having to feel so deeply into an empty canvas. The more you want to walk into Malick’s abstract world, the more experiential the film will be. However, the audience must take that very first step. So for that, it’s more appropriate to view this at home where you can rewind in case you drift out of the film.

In context to Malick’s filmography, I would have preferred something to happen in the third act for something to lift itself to somewhere else. Comparing it to his last film Tree of Life, his directorial voice seems to growing more raw and barebones. And for that, my favorite Terrence Malick film remains The Thin Red Line. For anyone who hasn’t seen Malick’s work, perhaps they can start with that one. To the Wonder is definitely not for everybody, but I recommend it to any Malick fans. 

Retrospective Review: Double Team by Tsui Hark

Double Team by Tsui Hark

There comes a time for every filmgoer when you like a bad movie that nobody likes. You can’t really pinpoint why you like them and it’s a bit embarrassing. Nobody really cares why you liked it because nobody wants to talk about a bad movie. You cannot exactly defend the movie because you see why it’s bad but you feel obligated to point out what’s fun about it. I’ve been wanting to write about films that aren’t new releases. This seems like a good opportunity to write about a film that I enjoy and really want to have a discussion about. So here are my thoughts on the 1997 Tsui Hark action film film Double Team

Let me set it up the historical context. It was 1997. There was a rising trend of Hong Kong action cinema in the West that came in the form of VHS, thanks to the long gone Blockbuster video store. A mutual interest begun to develop; Hollywood producers wanted to inject a new style into American action movies and Hong Kong directors were curious and excited about working with Hollywood resources. John Woo was the first Hong Kong director to be hired for a Hollywood project, and later Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark followed. Coincidentally, all three worked with Jean Claude Van Damme in their Hollywood debuts. This trend eventually died when the Hong Kong directors weren’t that curious anymore and felt that they were being treated to the equivalent of low-cost B-movie directors and the Hollywood resources did not seem worth it by comparison.

John Woo was the only director to rise up the ranks working with other A-listers. Tsui Hark eventually returned to working on Hong Kong productions and Ringo Lam collaborated with Van Damme on a few more straight-to-video productions before retiring from directing.

Tsui Hark has always been a hit-and-miss director for me. He always wants to do too much and ends up overstuffing his films at the expense of the primary idea he started with. But here, perhaps because it was hi American debut, that problem is not here. Working with an American studio and an English language script forced Tsui Hark to reign himself in.

So the setup… Counter-terrorist agent Jack Quinn misses his target, Stavros, on his final mission. He is sent to the Colony, an organization for presumed-dead assassins. He breaks free and seeks aid from Yaz, a weapons dealer for his final battle with Stavros.

Just a few small thoughts to get out of the way. The film is shot like a cartoon with its pastel-like color palette. The art direction is noteworthy as well, it gives a futuristic sense to everything here without being too far into the future or going too over-the-top. It looks like a future that can exist one day.

The idea of the Colony, a secret organization that helps police the world behind-the-scenes via surveillance and advice, is a pretty fun quasi-Utopian concept (the members of the organization live in a sea view resort but are not allowed to leave the place ever) and it is where the film picks up in its second act. The sequences where Van Damme rebuilds himself in a training montage and his escape from the Colony were both interesting and fun visual set pieces. They keep the movie interesting without relying on acting or fight choreography and are specifically designed around things Van Damme can do. Where John Woo dressed Van Damme with gunplay and Ringo Lam with drama, Tsui Hark dressed him up with visual crazy concepts and just let him shine throwing his signature kicks. Tsui Hark recognized that acting was not Van Damme’s forte (at least not until 2008’s JCVD) and decided to let him be the straight man and created chaos around him for contrast. This brings us to the casting of Dennis Rodman…

Dennis Rodman is funny in an absolute hammy way as Yaz the arms dealer. He is so blatantly obnoxious having so much fun playing himself and making basketball puns I can’t help it but laugh along with it. I’m not saying Rodman should be in every movie but he’s likable here. There’s an appeal in movies where the audience witnesses two characters that would never meet under normal circumstances. Van Damme and Rodman make such an odd pairing that it’s just interesting to watch. Heck, seeing Dennis Rodman fist bump a computer-hacking monk is mind bogglingly entertaining.

From a fight choreography standpoint, having to showcase Van Damme’s roundhouse kicks sacrifices a lot of smaller beats within a fight. Van Damme’s roundhouse kicks are beautiful but cinematically speaking, they look slow because of the 360° windup. It’s a powerful kick but also very one-note and requires a certain amount of distance, which means there is not a lot room for upper body parrying. You’ll notice Van Damme never does too much with his hands in his films but rather holding back so he can throw a kick. The roundhouse kick is also a definitive finisher; nobody who receives a kick like that can continue that particular round.

Double Team showcases Van Damme’s kicking ability by cinematically creating a sense of speed and power. Peter Pau, the cinematographer for Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and Sammo Hung, the action choreographer, both solve that problem by injecting a crackling frenetic energy into the action scenes that makes the audience flinch and jump as if they were in the fight.

As an example, I’m going to describe an action sequence in the film:

Van Damme kicks a henchman, who is firing at him with a machine-gun-in-a-suitcase, through a hotel room door. The henchman falls into the hotel room and is kicked back into the opposite direction by another Chinese henchman. The henchman flies toward Van Damme like a sad ping pong ball. Van Damme roundhouse kicks him off to the side. He drags along the floor, barely alive, almost smashing his head to the wall. The camera then swish-pans to a white marble statue of a thinking man and lingers there for 2 seconds. Van Damme then fights the Chinese henchman (played by Hung Yan Yan, Club Foot from the Once Upon a Time in China series) in the living room, who then crazily takes off his shoes, revealing a switchblade held between his toes and proceeds to cut Van Damme with a series of kicks.

The short ping pong game between Hung Yan Yan and Van Damme speeds up the entire feeling of the fight because we’re only seeing Van Damme for half the time. The focus is brilliantly on the poor henchman who is being knocked back and forth. By the time we cut back to Van Damme, he’s already winding up to kick him to the side.

So how do they maintain the speed of the scene for the next part? Admittedly, Van Damme is passively dodging Hung’s kicks before retaliating but the idea of a henchman who is using a knife clenched between his toes to cut the hero is so insane that we’re just completely distracted. Yes, it’s a game of shifting the audience’s focus. Plus, Hung Yan Yan is a fantastic kicker.

Lastly, why that swish-pan to the statue? It’s such a tiny odd detail but it adds a lot to that moment. I always find myself laughing at that moment. Why? 1) It’s a moment of relief. It’s a short recess for the audience to rest their eyes. 2) We see that the henchman wishing he were dead. 3) Marble statues are beautiful. It’s an odd hilarious short tonal shift.

Here’s a clip of that action sequence here:

A lot of action gets better and better as the films goes on with shots like this. The end sequence with Mickey Rourke at the Coliseum made for a nice finale. They share a good fight. Even though it doesn’t seem well-planned on the villain’s part to place a whole field of marked mines and fistfight over it with a live tiger roaming around.

As for Mickey Rourke, he’s a decent villain but I don’t know why he had to buff up like that. It just makes him move more sluggishly. Perhaps that’s the filmmakers were busy thinking how to make Van Damme look good, they forgot about Mickey Rourke. It’s a shame because there’s nothing that exhibits his boxing training here. It’s still a great finale sequence nonetheless. The final explosion builds to a hilarious ending involving a hallway full of Coca Cola vending machines and the end credits end on a techno song featuring Dennis Rodman on vocals.

There is a lot of craft in this movie, but it’s buried under its blatant obnoxious surface because it’s so insane. The insanity is what’s mesmerizingly fun about it. And maybe that’s why audiences failed to connect with Double Team when it was released. I genuinely like this movie a lot.

With that all said, I will officially say it publicly. 3, 2, 1… I liked Double Team!

Related Reviews
Flying Swords of Dragon Gate by Tsui Hark

Rust and Bone by Jacques Audiard

Rust and Bone by Jacques Audiard

Put in charge of his young son Sam, Alain (played by Matthias Schoenaerts) leaves Belgium for Antibes to live with his sister and her husband as a family. Alain’s bond with Stephanie, a killer whale trainer, grows deeper after Stéphanie (played by Marion Cotillard) suffers a horrible accident where she loses her legs.

I have struggled with writing about this movie for months now. I have accepted the fact hat this review just simply won’t do the film any justice. So I’m going to just go straight into it…

Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts both give great performances. I don’t know if it’s because I find Marion Cotillard really attractive or if she’s just really engages me an actress, but in every one of her scenes, I feel like I’m watching someone suffer right in front of me. This is probably what people were describing back then when Marlon Brando broke out with method acting in A Streetcar Named Desire.

Matthias Schoenaerts plays Ali like a brute animal that wants to communicate but doesn’t know how to show his soft side. The way Ali fathers his son Sam is upsetting yet very engaging to watch. It dispels the idea that a lead character doesn’t necessarily have to be likable as long as he’s watchable. We can see how he is trying to be better, even though he can’t help but be himself.

Ali and Stéphanie are one of the the most memorable onscreen couples I have seen in a while. These two characters cannot be anymore different from each other and yet I believed their relationship. It feels so real the way the two leads play it.

The film is gritty, poetic and even elusive at times. It hit a very deep note inside me and that makes it very hard to talk about the film’s inner workings. It made me think of how love between two people really is very dependent on need, circumstance and timing. Ali’s animalistic alpha male nature is the exact thing that feeds into Stéphanie’s trauma from the tragic loss of her legs. He is so straightforward about having sex to the point where he almost doesn’t even notice she is legless, which in turn is what begins to make feel Stéphanie normal and even beautiful again. This slowly lifts her out of depression and she regains meaning in her life and supports Ali’s animal nature (in the form of underground boxing), which is the exact personality trait that always gets him in trouble.

Against the film’s gritty raw palette, the unfolding of their relationship was very touching and deeply romantic as I felt what every action and reaction means internally and externally to both characters. When two people fall for each other, it feels like they’re creating their own private internal world together. This movie made me feel like I am watching that world slowly being created between these two people. I liked being inside their idiosyncratic world. Even though the actual situation would seem depressing, on the contrary, it’s executed with such vivid detail with so many poetic truthful moments that it made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. One noteworthy poetic moment was a scene where Stéphanie revisits her workplace and regains meaning to move on from her injury as she watches a killer whale through a tank.

Some have said that the ending feels abrupt. I did not feel that way. The melodramatic emotions all properly build powerfully underneath throughout the movie till it wells up and completely geysers its way to a satisfying finish. It did not feel like a jump at all. Some can say it was a hokey cheesy way to end the movie and that can be a legitimate critique but it worked for me. Rust and Bone punched my gut, turned me into a sap and left me speechless.

It’s one of the best films I’ve seen in 2012. I tremendously enjoyed it and recommend it to anyone. I need to see The Prophet now.

Colombiana by Olivier Megaton

Colombiana by Olivier Megaton

Colombiana by Olivier Megaton

Colombiana is another Luc Besson-produced action romp starring Zoe Saldana, directed by Olivier Megaton (the best director’s name ever).

The story: A young girl named Cataleya Restrepo’s (played by Zoe Saldana) parents are killed by mobsters in Colombia. She escapes to the United States and trains herself into an assassin with the help of her uncle Emilio (played by Cliff Curtis). Suffice to say, she exacts revenge on the Colombian mobsters.

There are ridiculous moments in the story that feign B-movie sensibilities but never goes extreme enough for it to register as funny to the audience. It throws the film off tonally. There’s a scene where a young Cataleya (played very nicely by young child actress Amandla Stenberg) pleads for her uncle Emilio to train her into an assassin. He agrees and registers her into an elementary school. She questions his actions, thinking he broken his promise. Uncle Emilio takes out a gun and unloads it into a car on the street until it crashes on the sidewalk. He turns to the young Cataleya and explains that to be an assassin, one must knows how the world works and the only way to learn that is in school. As he is saying this, the police are pulling into the street and interviewing bystanders about the accident. Cataleya and Uncle Emilio slowly walk away from the scene of the crime. Was I supposed to laugh at that? Or was that I supposed to be moved by Uncle Emilio’s mentorship on how to be an assassin? Shouldn’t assassins be discreet?

The editing is insanely frenetic, you end up getting a sum-up of the entire fight than experiencing the entire beats of an engagement. The action sequence that I really enjoyed was the one where Zoe Saldana makes a kill in a police station. She uses her slim frame to her advantage and that was a nice attempt to explain why an assassin might be that skinny. Even though that would be the only advantage when you stop to think about it.

Cataleya is a very determined but ultimately a very unlikable character. She is trying to avenge the death of her parents, but ends up doing something immoral in the third act that makes her come off more like a sociopath than a hero. The character lacked a moral code that was necessary for the audience to really engage with her. It was like if Batman threatened to kill a criminal’s parents in order to squeeze information out of him. What the movie supplants for character likability is that the film expects you to be  totally physically infatuated with Zoe Saldana. The film really hangs on that, which creates a very strong pornographic sensibility running beneath this film. There are many instances where Zoe Saldana is not wearing a brassiere and is “nipping” through her clothes and the cinematography is directed to gazing at her.

The love story between Zoe Saldana and Michael Vartan was unconvincing. She visits him in his artist studio apartment and they have sex. That’s the entire dynamic of their relationship. There’s a scene where he asks her to tell him something about herself and the film forces a deeper emotional connection that I did not buy. He tells a friend about her later in a cafe and can only describe her as “she has a great body, pretty face and I can’t stop thinking about her.” The film does not provide any humanity for Cataleya other than being very attractive and wanting revenge. The villains are not even developed either. Say what you will about Rambo 4, but the opening sequence in Burma where the soldiers bet on their prisoners walking across land mines made me hate them instantly. And that worked! This did not work, because I do not know the villains at all.

I am not the kind of guy that thinks a woman with a gun shooting people is equal to a strong woman. Having previously played  strong and much better written female characters (Uhura in Star Trek), Zoe Saldana really deserves something better. I liked the previous Luc Besson-produced action films such as Danny the Dog/Unleashed, Taken and yes, even From Paris with Love. They have done better than this in the past, so I can only say Colombiana was a bit of a miss.

On another note, I’m seriously considering legally changing my name to “Megaton”.

Mr. Nobody by Jaco Van Dormael

Mr. Nobody by Jaco Van Dormael

Life is full of choices. Every choice you make leads you onto a different set of choices. You never can possibly know what the best version of your life can be. That’s scary, after all, how do you make your life a worthy one?

A family is broken. A father and mother bring their son Nemo to a train station. Nemo is presented with a choice: should he board the train with his mother or stay with his father? Nemo ponders on this. The film proceeds to play out all the possibilities, showing twelve different lives of Nemo’s life spawning from this one choice.

The film functions on dream logic. We move from the physical into the imaginary, the metaphysical and dream states. It sounds confusing, doesn’t it? Yet the most noteworthy accomplishment is that each transition  is completely intelligible. Director Jaco Van Dormael constructs an inner logic for the audience. As the story progresses and branches out into new stories, we completely know where we are at and it all makes perfect sense. This all makes me realize one thing. This story could not have been told in another medium other than film. It incorporates every bit of film language possible: crosscutting, time transitions, spatial transitions, camera focal length etc.. Even a goddamn crane shot had a legitimate narrative reason for being there. And damn, that impresses me.

It’s not overly cerebral either. Nemo’s potential paths are centered around three women: Anna (played by Diane Kruger), Nemo’s potential one true love, Elise (played by Sarah Polley), a woman that Nemo loves but does not reciprocate and  Jean (played by Linh Dan Pham), as a woman who loves him but Nemo does not care for (this one really broke my heart). Much of the film is an examination of love and happiness. There’s a scene where the teenage Nemo rejects Anna’s invitation to swim with her on the beach. Anna leaves and we see them later as adults bumping into each other in a train station awkwardly years later. Nemo then ponders why he rejected her that day. And the film proceeds to play the alternate scenario, where he tells Anna the truth: Nemo does not know how to swim and did not know what to tell her.

I am a Jared Leto fan (I like his band 30 Seconds to Mars as well). Sometimes it’s possible to like an actor for his choices and he is certainly that case. It’s admirable that he takes smaller roles in art film projects that he respects rather than milk his looks to be famous (which he can totally do). He was great in Requiem For A Dream and Chapter 27 and also the most heartfelt part in Alexander and Lord of War. This is a challenging role and he takes it head on. He plays a convincing 117 year old man and it is fun to watch him play Nemo in the various versions.

Other noteworthy performances are Sarah Polley, who in one version is suffering chronic depression from an unhappy marriage, which she played very dimensionally. Watching her made me think how easily one-note the role could have been. Also Toby Regbo and Juno Temple as the teenage versions of Nemo and Anna falling in love was very endearing and they really sell the innocent sweetness of first love.

One bit I take issue with was the use of “Where is my Mind?” by The Pixies, which is eternally attributed to Fight Club, a film in which Jared Leto is in. There could been other songs to put in that scene. However that’s a minor complaint at best.

This film was released in 2010 and I saw it at the Hong Kong International Film Festival. Though in my opinion, this film is not talked about enough and definitely needs to be seen by more people. Mr. Nobody took me away. It broke my heart, touched me and made me ponder about life’s ironies. By the end I left the theater reflecting on my life and how I should live it.

I recommend everybody see it.

Midnight in Paris by Woody Allen

Midnight in Paris

Midnight in Paris by Woody Allen

I’m a loyal Woody Allen fan. My favorite Woody Allen films include Crimes and Misdemeanors, Deconstructing Harry, Everyone Says I Love You, and Stardust Memories. Even the so-called bad Woody Allen (I didn’t think Curse of the Jade Scorpion or Anything Else was terrible, I thought they were still funny) films manage to entertain me. I like that he’s disciplined and a no-nonsense writer and director.

I’m currently battling the cliche of whether I should make a Top Ten List of 2011. I wasn’t going to write a review for Midnight in Paris as I saw the film months ago. But watching Hugo and seeing it’s attempt at trying to enchant me reminded me of how Midnight in Paris did it so much better. Hugo did it with the use of space, but Midnight in Paris does it with space and character. This movie truly enchanted me. So I figure instead of writing a top ten list, I’ll just write reviews of the films that I liked in 2011 instead. So on with my thoughts…

If there’s anything Woody Allen does well, it’s casting (also to the credit of Allen’s longtime casting director Juliet Taylor). He find the right people to do the job through spotting the distinct characteristics in actors and susses out their aura to tell a story. This is the best use of Owen Wilson in a role that I have seen. I never knew what was unique about Owen Wilson till now. And here’s what it is: Owen Wilson embodies a sense of wonderment (“Wow, look at that.” “Gosh, that’s amazing!”) and he  acts as an avatar for the audience in experiencing Paris’ beauty. Yes, of course, we know Paris is beautiful and enchanting but it’s through his energy that the viewer can feel enraptured by everything around him.

That also said, I also think this was my favorite Adrian Brody performance as well. This was another actor that I never could tell what his strength was, but too like Owen Wilson, he shines in Midnight in Paris. I know of Salvador Dali and seen enough of his photographs to know his physicality and the specific way he stares at people. I do think Brody captures that precisely in this small role. It’s also refreshing to see Rachel McAdams play a bitchier character. If there’s an award for best ensemble cast, Midnight in Paris  should take the cake. Also noteworthy performances were Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein, Tom Hiddleston as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway (who recites all his dialogue in Hemingway-like prose). Through the scope of Owen Wilson’s Gil Pender, who is currently writing a novel about nostalgia, every artist’s appearance is a delightful joy. It’s like crashing an old costume party and meeting all your idols.We see how he’s excited to be amongst these people and as the audience is seduced to wanting to hang out with the Lost Generation as well.

Paris is a major character in the story. The opening montage of Paris evokes a similar stroke Allen did in the opening montage in Manhattan. It captures the energy of the city and it embodies a personal love for the place. We see the streets, the restaurants, the book stores, the cafes and we imagine what we would do there if we were there. The film takes it to almost a jokey tongue-in-cheek level since you have the First Lady of France (Carla Bruni, whom I also like her music) as the local French tour guide.

The film charms you and you can’t help but fall into it and be whisked away to a fun joyful place. This is easily going onto my favorite movies of the year and now officially one of my favorite Woody Allen pictures.

What else can I say? Woody Allen, give me a hug!

Related Reviews
Blue Jasmine by Woody Allen
Woody Allen: A Documentary by Robert B. Weide

Hugo by Martin Scorsese

I went into Hugo without any prior knowledge. I didn’t see a trailer or read the synopsis and only heard one radio interview. I only knew it was the Martin Scorsese 3D children’s film.

Space in movies can act as a character, it can evoke not only a sense of place, but a looming sense of character and life that can really enrich a story. That’s something that this movie achieves, one example being in the opening long shot where Hugo Cabret is crawling through the inner body of the entire train station, through the pistons all the way to his hideout. If you closed your eyes, you can smell the steam from the train pistons and feel the vibrations of the click clanks of the gears spinning around. The train station in Hugo is characterized as both a fun place at times (when Hugo is crawling through it) and a dangerous place (there are way too many ways for a child to be killed). It’s been a while since I really been moved by a sense of place since I’ve watched Hugo and was truly marveled by itThe 3D did enhance the space.

The setup of the story was problematic. The film is called Hugo, but it’s not really about Hugo Cabret the orphan (played by Asa Butterfield). It’s about Georges Méliès (played by Ben Kingsley), a toy store owner at the train station. It started as a story about an orphan and ended up being about an old man’s legacy.

The beginning of the story used an unnecessarily long time to set up. If you took the film and shook it, 10-15 minutes would have fallen out. I started to feel bad that I wasn’t interested and invested in the Hugo Cabret character. As horrible as it sounds, him being an orphan and missing his father wasn’t enough for me to hang on after 30 minutes. The story must move forward. Honestly, the train station as a space was more of an interesting character than Hugo himself. Even the side characters (besides Inspector Gustave, played by Sacha Baron Cohen) that populate the train station and their little interactions do not add anything to the core story. It would have added to the story if they interacted more with Hugo Cabret and Georges Méliès characters.

It’s really the latter half of the film where Hugo picks up and shows what it really is about – the love of cinema. The film’s latter half is energized by Martin Scorsese’s own personal passion for filmmaking. I like Martin Scorsese films and it’s nice to see him change up his tune. It’s not like anything he’s done before, but yet it feels dear and closer to his heart. The latter half of the film was charming and enchanting. There’s a sequence we see how a group of men are made to disappear on screen through the use of editing. And you watch it with a smile.

This all raises the question of, why wasn’t this film about the passion of film from the get go? Why a meandering storyline instead of a straight one? The path the story took to get to it’s final point seemed laborious. I walked out feeling like I missed something. That I needed to go back and see it again but I didn’t miss anything. There’s nothing wrong with a story being simple but Hugo didn’t enforce the discipline of taking out the unnecessary beats. That or it didn’t create enough intrigue in the initial story between Hugo and Isabelle (played by Chloë Grace Moretz) snooping around to retrieve Hugo’s notebook from her godfather. I can’t be sure if kids would enjoy this movie because of the long drawn out story beats. There weren’t any children in my screening, so I can’t be sure of that.

Nonetheless, there’s a lot to love about this film. I think the technical awards it won were well deserved. It did something interesting with 3D. But I only ended up liking it.