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.

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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”.

The Lady by Luc Besson

The Lady by Luc Besson movie poster

My first memories of Michelle Yeoh date back to Police Story 3: Supercop. To me, she will always be the Mainland Chinese undercover agent who drove a motorcycle up a ramp and landed onto a speeding train. And now that has completely been changed in my head, or perhaps another new image of Michelle Yeoh has now been spawned in my head.

Mark my words: this is the definitive Michelle Yeoh performance. Don’t get me wrong, she still plays a badass, but a totally different kind of badass. Yeoh physicalizes Aung San Suu Kyi, she has lost the weight and embodies her gentle grace and is believable as a mother. Yes, I bought this onscreen family. That’s something noteworthy.

There is an art to crying on film. It must be done with precision (so the audience stays rooting for the actor), a certain beauty (you are doing it on camera after all) and grace to it (so that it’s watchable). The Lady contains some of the best crying on film I have seen for a while. I was reminded of how David Mamet’s thoughts against Stanislavski’s school of method acting because the emotion drawn from the actor should come from the scene itself, not a side experience from the actor. I written that off as I doubted if that is even possible for an actor to do (and also because David Mamet wears a beret). The film have proven me wrong. I watched Aung San Suu Kyi cry from being away from her family, not Michelle Yeoh cry from a personal experience.

In screenwriting, they teach that it’s important to make your main character likable, so that the viewer can invest and root for their success. That alone can enhance (i.e. Rocky) and diminish (i.e. The Green Hornet) one’s experience of a story. The portrayal of Aung San Suu Kyi (played by Michelle Yeoh, if it’s not obvious to you already) in The Lady is universally likeable and that alone had me on the edge of my seat.  I don’t recall ever rooting for two people to be together (On that level, this makes for a great date movie) more than Aung San Suu Kyi and her husband Michael Aris (played by David Thewlis). Fuck, the stakes are high: a woman has to choose between helping her country or being with her family. There’s a heroine, she’s in love but can’t be with her lover,  she has supporters, there’s a villian, he has henchmen and set out to destroy her cause. The story structure is practically that of a superhero movie, but I digress. Like in Senna, the situation seems so dramatic I couldn’t believe that this all really happened. The film titters between working as a documentary and a dramatic fiction movie and it becomes an immersive experience.

I quite liked that touch with Michael Aris’ smoking habit. It’s how the character deals with his stress. Often smoking is used as a character trait in movies, and they really take that to it’s end in this one.

Lastly, the U2 song tonally doesn’t fit with the aftertaste of the film in the end credits sequence. I know U2 is a major supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi’s freedom, but that particular song tonally doesn’t belong there, period. I would have preferred the score.

Welcome back, Luc Besson! Please continue to direct movies.

The Artist by Michel Hazanavicius

A piece of art is always defined by it’s time, or more specifically, by it’s own context. For a piece of art to relate to its audience, it must be relevant. Shot in black and white in 4:3 with no recorded sound, The Artist exists as the perfect counter argument to the emergence of 3D. This is where The Artist draws a lot of it’s charm. If there wasn’t a current debate about whether 3D enhances one’s experience of a story, I don’t think people would have embraced The Artist as much as they have now.

Onto the film, the cast does a great job at rehashing silent movie acting. Bérénice Bejo looks like a silent film actress. Jean Dujardin reminds me of Gene Kelly with his killer smile. I particularly liked what he did with his eyebrows in a scene where he films a spy movie. The story is basically Singing in the Rain and story wise the third act does seep too long in sadness. It seeps to the point where we are just lingering on somebody’s pain and suffering (almost like in the film The Pursuit of Happyness). It gets a tad uncomfortable than you’d want in musical comedy where things should hop along, even in sad scenes they have sad musical/dance numbers, don’t they?

The Artist makes me think of what Quentin Tarantino’s goal with Kill Bill: it’s a postmodern throwback film that’s directly addresses its influences. Part of the joy is watching the film references its influences along with the story. This sets up a trap: a film that relies on the strength of previous films has a hard time rising above them. For example, most of Kill Bill: Volume 2 is a homage to spaghetti westerns. The Ennio Morricone music, the telephoto shots of Uma Thurman walking in the steamy desert all make me think of how The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly was a great film. Automatically this sets Kill Bill in an inferior position because my focus isn’t on Kill Bill. That was partly my experience with The Artist.

Unlike Kill Bill, there’s a precision in craft in The Artist that I admire and respect. Michel Hazanavicius loves cinema but is able to reign in his fanboy-isms to tell a proper story. For example, they perfected when and when not to show cards for dialogue. The nightmare sequence in which George Valetin dreams about the advent of sound films was one of the highlights. I can’t believe one dog (Uggie the dog as Jack the dog) did all those tricks!

The Artist succeeds in its goal, it’s a well-crafted, well-acted delight of a film. The film is made for film lovers and I smiled throughout it’s entirety. Smiling through a film is a different experience from laughing through a film. You leave the theater feeling warm and fuzzy. But ultimately, I don’t think the postmodern throwback film is something to be rewarded or applauded to this level. Its longevity is suspect, but I guess time will tell on that.