Sunday, November 24, 2013

Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013)

*This review contains minor spoilers*

It's love at first sight for Adele (Adele Exarchopolous), the protagonist of Palme d'Or winner Blue is the Warmest Colour - or at least lust. Crossing a busy street, she spots Emma (Lea Seydoux), a blue-haired dream who instantly fascinates her. This is the beginning of a small obsession that blossoms into a passionate relationship between the two women, and the film follows them through their love affair and the changes life brings them.

To call Blue is the Warmest Colour a coming-of-age tale is only partially true. Yes, the film's focus is mostly on Adele - which should come as no surprise, since the original French title translates to "The Life of Adele, Chapters 1 & 2." Yet director Abdellatif Kechiche - working from a script he co-wrote with Ghalia Lacroix and based on the graphic novel "Blue Angel" by Julie Maroh - is interested in more than just a standard bildungsroman. The film is much more an examination of these girls' relationship and how it affects them.

More after the jump…

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Updated November 2013 Oscar Predictions

November is always the hardest month for me to predict. A sizable portion of the contenders have been released, but nearly just as many haven't, and a few are still holding out even the smallest of glimpses. By the time I probably finish writing this post (an exaggeration…maybe?), the various critics groups will begin handing out their various awards, and the race in many categories will finally begin to take shape.

By that token, I didn't make a whole lot of changes between October and now. Most of that is because I don't think there have been any changes in momentum for many contenders. However, there are some things that I just don't know what to do with. A few of those changes are discussed after the jump.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The 2013 Honorary Oscar Winners

Congratulations to this year's Honorary Oscar winners: Steve Martin, Piero Tosi, and Angela Lansbury. Of course, Martin is the legendary comedian/actor/writer/producer who has never been nominated for an Oscar before (not surprising, really, given their aversion to comedy). Lansbury, too, is a legend of screen and stage, best known for playing Jessica Fletcher on Murder, She Wrote for twelve years. Despite her five Tony Awards and six Golden Globes, she never won an Oscar on her three nominations (coming in 1944, 1945, and 1962), nor did she win an Emmy from 18 nominations.

Tosi is the least familiar to American audiences: the Italian costume designer was nominated five times for Best Costume Design, including for The Leopard, La Cage aux Follies, and La Traviata. Unfortunately, Tosi was not present at the ceremony.

Angelina Jolie was the recipient of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.

Sight & Sound Sunday: The Godfather (1972)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 Poll Rank: #21 (tied with L'Avventura and Contempt)

Ask any American critic (or film buff, for that matter) to name some of the greatest movies of all time, and more likely than not, The Godfather will be one of the first ones mentioned. It's earned such a reputation as a pinnacle of cinematic achievement that the phrase "It's 'The Godfather' of…" has become synonymous with superior quality. Upon its release in 1972, it not only became the biggest box office hit of the year, but also briefly became the highest-grossing film ever in the United States. It would go on to win three Academy Awards - including Best Picture and Best Actor for Marlon Brando (who famously refused the award) - and earned an additional eight nominations. Until a recent rule change dictated that films could not be grouped together as a single entity, The Godfather and The Godfather Part II were considered together, and placed #4 in the 2002 poll (Part II will be covered in a later addition of this column).

Being this popular, of course, means that it has been poured over continuously. There's no shortage of analyses and interpretations of the film, many focusing on director Francis Ford Coppola's decision to use the story to comment on the state of American capitalism. That story follows a ten-year period - 1945 to 1955 - for the powerful Corleone family, who are faced with rival families looking into the narcotics business. Don Vito (Brando) is against this, and when an attempt on his life his made, his sons - hotheaded Sonny (James Caan) and college-educated war hero Michael (Al Pacino), along with adoptive son and consigliere Tom Hagan (Robert Duvall) - seek vengeance against the powerful Five Families of New York.

When I was doing my undergrad at UNC-Chapel Hill and working on my minor in Cinema Studies, one of the courses I took was called "American Independent Cinema," of which Coppola was a major component (I actually wrote my midterm paper on his cinematic project, linking Apocalypse Now with Youth Without Youth). Instead of doing what many others have done and talk about The Godfather thematically, let's take a look at its place in cinematic history.

The 1970s are largely considered a golden age for American cinema, particularly because of the idea of "new independent cinema." In particular, new directors such as George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, and Brian De Palma - among others - were among the first to consider film theory and attend film school, finding inspiration in European movements such as French New Wave and Italian neorealism. Many of their early films were "independent" in the truest sense of the term - Lucas' early short THX-1138, which would be adapted into a full-length feature, was a student film that was largely self-financed. This is not to imply, of course, that independent films did not exist before the 1970s in the United States - John Cassavetes' work in the 1960s stands out as a great example. Instead, the term comes more from the idea that these directors - "auteurs," if you will - were bringing a new cinematic sensibility to the Hollywood studio system.

The Godfather was a landmark film for this reason. First of all, it was an enormous popular success, which gave studios more incentive to try out new voices, since audiences were willing to see films that had different sensibilities than the routine studio fare (this appears to be a lesson that they have, sadly, forgotten in recent years). But more importantly, The Godfather represented a true changing of the guard within the studio system. Building on the precedent set by 1967's Bonnie & Clyde, the film didn't shy away from showing graphic violence, as well as the consequences that that violence begat. It didn't glorify the "family business" so much as demonstrate it's destructive nature, a major change from the gangster movies that it was inspired by (and subsequently inspired, by the way). The best example of this sea change, though, is in the casting: Brando was one of the biggest stars of "Old Hollywood," a classically trained actor who lived his characters. He's in charge until, suddenly, he's not; now there's a new generation in charge. Here come the Al Pacinos, the James Caans, the Robert Duvalls, the Diane Keatons (she appears here as Michael's girlfriend, Kay); actors of unconventional looks who take a different approach to acting. They are icons of the growing new counterculture, replacing the previous icons.

Though he had had a few studio films in the can already - including 1969's film adaptation of the musical Finian's Rainbow - Coppola had not been a well-known director in the lead-up to The Godfather. Afterwards, though, he was one of the decade's biggest names. He was given incredible creative freedom from the studio, allowing him to make The Conversation, The Godfather Part II, and Apocalypse Now (amazingly, all four films - his entire 1970s output - were nominated for Best Picture at at the Academy Awards). It was the beginning of a trend: Coppola's success was followed by Spielberg's (Jaws), Lucas' (American Graffiti / Star Wars), and De Palma's (Carrie).

As with every golden age, it eventually came to an end, giving way to new trends (namely - and ironically - the rise of the blockbuster, as ushered in by Spielberg and Lucas). Yet The Godfather stands as that crucial turning point, where "independent" creative sensibilities thrived within the Hollywood system.

On the next "Sight & Sound Sunday:" Gertrud (1964)

Saturday, November 16, 2013

12 Years a Slave (2013)

"I don't want to survive. I want to live." - Solomon Northrup

Nearly a month after it's initial release, there's already been a lot of ink spilled about 12 Years a Slave, director Steve McQueen's latest film and based on the true story of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a New York freeman who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the antebellum American South. There's a lot of things that these writers have said so much better than I could, especially Matthew Cheney's brilliant IndieWire essay about what sets this apart from so many other films about slavery in the past. And yet, it's a film that needs to be talked about: not only is it one of the year's best films, but it's also one of the most important.

As detailed above, the plot is based on the first-hand account of Northrup, who was an accomplished violinist in New York and spent 12 years as a slave in the South, most of that time spent as the property of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), the sadistic owner of a cotton plantation. What's notable about this film is how brutally it depicts the realities of slavery: this isn't like last year's Django Unchained, Tarantino's western romp that could never be described as "realistic" (there was plenty of controversy about that film's treatment of the institution). These depictions, as presented by McQueen (and working from a script by John Ridley), could never have been made by an American director.

What do I mean by that? I've written before about what a difference it makes for a non-American director to take on American culture (almost always in the context of Chinatown, but I've taken film classes and everything always goes back to Chinatown apparently). McQueen, who is British and of Grenadian descent, brings with him the perspective of an outsider to the institution, not only as a non-American but also as a black director. This is especially important, considered together, because it's hard to imagine any black American director getting the funding to make this kind of movie (even the most likely candidate, Spike Lee, would be endlessly criticized out of fear of making a movie that demonizes white America). As Cheney noted in his piece, being British takes a lot of the weight of expectations and taboo of slavery that weighs down on American perspectives, and McQueen takes advantage of this with his own singular style.

McQueen's previous films, Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011), were both terrific, beautiful films that had a common flaw preventing them from being masterpieces: McQueen always seemed emotionally detached from his characters, resulting in the effect of looking at an art instillation rather than real people in a real world (McQueen, before becoming a director, was a visual artist). This film represents a correction of that, as he invests us in the plight of Solomon and the other slaves that he encounters. Perhaps a part of this is that the material itself is going to elicit strong emotional responses no matter what, as well as the fact that this is the first feature McQueen has made in which he does not have a writing credit. 

But much of the credit belongs to McQueen's willingness to let the camera linger on specific images. The most famous incidence of this comes when Solomon is about to be lynched by Tibeats (Paul Dano), an overseer he insulted at Ford's (Benedict Cumberbatch) plantation. Tibeats is stopped, but Solomon, barely keeping himself from choking by scraping his toes in the mud, is forced to hang there until Ford returns in the evening. McQueen's camera lingers on this moment for around a full minute, but it feels like forever, as we watch Solomon struggling to keep his feet on the ground while, most powerfully, the other slaves carry on in the background as if he were invisible. This is the film's greatest power: by not cutting away, there is no relief from the torment Solomon and the other slaves endure.

Of course, it helps that the cast provides terrific performances all-around. Ejiofor has been doing great work for years, and this role is finally letting his talents be noticed by a much-larger audience. This is pure acting, as much of his communication is through silence, going from a man hopeful that justice will right the wrong that's being done to him to becoming more and more a shell of his former self. In keeping with the idea of an outsider perspective, Solomon himself is an outsider - a freeman - entering a world that he does not understand. Ejiofor imbues him with that naiveté, allowing him to become broken by the reality that here, he is not considered a human being, but rather property. Astonishing, too, is Lupita Nyong'o, who appears as Patsy, the "favored" slave of Epps. Nyong'o's arc is particularly brutal, as her Patsy is subjected both to being raped by Edwin Epps and physically abused by Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson) for being Edwin's favorite. She stuns as a woman so thoroughly broken by this system of abuse that she wishes for death at every turn. Similarly, both Fassbender and Paulson do harrowing work as the Epps, playing their characters as people who embrace slavery because of the wealth it brings them, and neither ever once asks for audience sympathy. Even the roles that only last a scene or two - Dano's Tibeats, Brad Pitt's sympathetic Canadian Bass, Alfre Woodard's married-out-of-slavery Mistress Shaw - are fine work that only add to texture of life in the antebellum South.

12 Years a Slave is a game-changer in cinema about American slavery: it's a major film that doesn't take the focus away from the slave themselves, the victims of the institution. As a result, it's an emotionally taxing account of slavery as a system that utilized the dehumanization and degradation of people for labor. It is, ultimately, a film that is not to be missed. A+

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

All is Lost (2013)

Take any course on film analysis (or, hell, even an "Intro to Film"-style class) and you'll learn that there are certain tenants to narrative filmmaking that need to be observed. For a narrative to move through a three-act, linear structure, there must be a conflict. Conflict also necessitates character development, in which the character undergoes a change from the beginning to the end. Characters can be better understood by audiences - and therefore are more relatable - by providing backstory. And the most important rule, especially in film: show, don't tell.

All is Lost is, like the films of the French New Wave in the 1960s, a complete subversion of these rules.  Or, rather, it's the ultimate distillation of "show, don't tell." The film begins aboard a sailboat in the Indian Ocean, 1700 miles from the nearest shore, as an unnamed man (Robert Redford) - listed as "Our Man" in the closing credits - discovers that his vessel has collided with an adrift shipping container, puncturing the hull. From there, we see him struggle to stay afloat, both literally and metaphorically.

What's striking about Our Man is what we don't know: he doesn't have a name, isn't given a backstory, or given any kind of context for why he's here. The "character development" he undergoes is really just a broadening of what we understand about him, and that's mostly that he's doing his best in a very difficult situation. Redford is absolutely riveting in this role, and not just because he is literally the only person ever seen onscreen. Mark Harris (by way of the late Roger Ebert) recently posited that Redford's best performances tend to be as characters who are, essentially, Redford himself. The film makes good use of this, allowing us only to identify this man as Redford, which gives the audience more of a stake in the proceedings; I imagine that using an unknown actor wouldn't have been nearly as effective. Even more remarkable is how Redford plays Our Man's growing desperation: at most, there are maybe 15 lines of dialogue in the entire film, most of which are in the film's opening narration. With the exception of one notable expletive, Redford's mounting frustrations come from his increasingly ill-considered actions. We can tell that Our Man has some experience as a sailor, but he's not experienced enough to handle the situations he's been thrown in; as a result, the film builds with him acting more and more out of desperation than out of strategic planning. It's a fascinating character study of a character that we barely get to know.

Instead of giving the audience any bearings on what's happened up to this point, writer/director J.C. Chandor maroons us in the middle of the story, with nothing else to do but see what happens. Chandor's accomplishment here is especially consider that the filmmaker's only previous feature was 2011's Margin Call, a starry, talky ensemble piece about a fictional bank at the beginning of the Great Recession. Chandor wisely avoids overdramatizing any moment, allowing for sweeping shots of Redford alone against a sea that seems to be endless. This film marks the moment when everyone should take note: he is a filmmaker worth keeping an eye on, given the risks he's willing to take.

If there is any fault in this film, it's that the score is at times too overbearing, forcing emotions that would have been better served with subtlety (Gravity, this year's other survival tale focused on a single person, had a similar problem). Yet apart from that minor quibble, All is Lost is bold, adventurous, and experimental, the work of an ambitious young filmmaker and an independent Hollywood legend working together to push the boundaries of cinema. A+

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Five Things I Learned from This Year's THR Writers Roundtable

Every year, The Hollywood Reporter does a series of roundtables with actors, directors, and writers, most of whom are in contention for Academy Awards recognition. I always look forward to these, especially the writers' session. This year they sat down with John Ridley (12 Years a Slave), George Clooney and Grant Heslov (The Monuments Men), Jonas Cuaron (Gravity), Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said), Danny Strong (Lee Daniels' The Butler), and Julie Delpy (Before Midnight). Here are five things I learned from the discussion:

  • There was a lot of talk about how much historical accuracy should count when making a film set in the past, and the general consensus was that you just need to get the general details right, since the film is not a documentary. Ridley particularly noted that when historical films deal with tough subject matter - such as his film, with slavery - people will use minor historical inaccuracies to discredit the entire film. It's sad, but I have seen that starting to happen with 12 Years a Slave.

Four more things after the jump:

Thursday, November 7, 2013

"Homeland:" Defending Dana (Sort-Of)

*Spoilers for this season of Homeland below*

Look, I'm not saying that this season - Homeland's third - is providing a particularly compelling plot the Dana Brody (Morgan Saylor) side of things. For one thing, with Nicolas Brody (Damian Lewis) on the lam now, the stories happening in the Brody family seem very tangential to what's happening in the main Carrie (Claire Danes) - Saul (Mandy Patinkin) plot. It doesn't help that Dana's subplot has mostly been about her relationship with Leo (Sam Underwood) - yeah, frickin' Leo - in the aftermath of her suicide attempt. Romance has never been this show's strongest suit: the writers have done terrific work at using the fallout from relationships to drive plots forward, but the romance itself is usually stale and distracting.

Homeland, of course, is a thriller, providing a weekly dose of American espionage that also tackles current geopolitical issues. But at its heart, it's also a show about mental illness and how it affects both the afflicted and those around them. The obvious example here is Carrie, who suffers from bipolar disorder that affects her work and her judgment. This season even hinges on the idea of her being "crazy" and "unstable" being both an asset and a liability to the CIA.

Dana, then, gives us another example of mental illness with her depression. As someone who has suffered from depression for over a decade now, I appreciate the show sticking with her and presenting the illness in a way that's both nuanced and incredibly honest. In particular, I'm thinking of the scene in the season's second episode, "Uh…Oh…Ah…," where, after bringing her home after she snuck out the night before, Dana skulks off to her room as her mother, Jess (Morena Baccarin), exasperatedly asks if her suicide attempt and subsequent behavior was a cry for attention. Dana leads her to the now-remodeled bathroom where she had slit her wrists and explains why.

"I wasn't looking for attention…It wasn't a cry for help, what I did. I didn't want anyone's attention. I wanted to kill myself. I wanted it all to be over, and I wanted to die because I could not stand it anymore. But now I can. Now I want to be alive…Right now, at this moment, I want to be alive."
That struck a chord with me. I know how that feels. And I was floored that the show had allowed Dana to give such a startlingly honest explanation for how she felt then and how she feels now. When you take yourself to the edge like that, it's devastating. If you don't succeed, you really do come to appreciate life more. It doesn't necessarily take a Leo (god, Leo) to make you "want to be alive." But, even if the depression lingers, it does become much more difficult to go back to that place. At least, that's been my experience.

Ultimately, Dana's young, confused, and deeply hurt. So yeah, she's probably going to make poor relationship choices (again, Leo) and other awful decisions - those photos she took of herself earlier this season are surely going to come back around before it's all over. I don't think her current young-love subplot is what the show should be concerning itself with right now. But for the moments when Dana confronts her depression…as she says in the same episode, it's having someone who understands you. There aren't many shows on television that are dealing with depression, so to have Homeland do so with such honesty and panache, Dana - and the show - get my respect.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Can the Marvel Cinematic Universe Sustain Itself?

Since 2008, when Iron Man - theoretically the nadir of the superhero boon, being a major potential blockbuster based on a second-tier comic-book character - blew open the doors of possibility with its enormous critical and financial success, Marvel has been creating the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), in which their stable of superheroes can interact with each other while carrying their own films. This led to individual films for Thor and Captain America, all leading up to last year's The Avengers, the highest-grossing superhero film of all time. With Thor: The Dark World coming out this Friday, now seems like a pretty good time for us to ask: how long can Marvel keep this up?

There's no denying that careful planning and an extraordinary amount of luck went into the creation of the MCU. Several other factors went into the success of "Phase One," as Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige calls Iron Man through The Avengers (we're currently in the midst of "Phase Two," which concludes with The Avengers: Age of Ultron in two years). First of all, the superhero film was in the midst of peak popularity, with Christopher Nolan's Batman films earning critical raves and boffo box office and Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films smashing records. Even though films such as Fantastic Four, Daredevil, and Hulk had not exactly performed well, it seemed like audiences might be willing to turn out for films about unfamiliar superheroes. Then there's the casting: the role of billionaire playboy Tony Stark and Robert Downey Jr., an actor who was trying to recover his career after flaming out as a hard-partying star in the '90s, was a marriage made in movie heaven. Iron Man became a huge success mostly on Downey Jr.'s charisma, and Marvel was able to plant the seeds for the future. Attracting more major stars - Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, Chris Evans as Captain America - gave the films even more drawing power. Lastly, Marvel was willing to create a continuity within its films that was separate from those of the comics. This was an absolutely necessary move, since the movie rights to other Marvel properties such as the X-Men, Spider-Man, and the Fantastic Four belong to studios other than Paramount, which has partnered with Marvel Studios for the Avenger films.

So that's where we've come from; now where do we go? Luckily for Marvel, they have a lot of advantages that they can put to use to keep the MCU afloat. The first is that superhero movies are still doing phenomenally at the box office. This year alone, Iron Man 3 had one of the biggest opening weekends of all time, and is currently the year's highest-grossing film (topping out at a little over $409 million), while Man of Steel and The Wolverine both topped out at over $100 million. There's no real sign of audience fatigue yet, and each new announcement for the next big superhero film invokes enormous reactions online (not that that necessarily translates into box office dollars, but it doesn't hurt publicity).

Secondly, as fans of comics know, superhero mantles are often embodied by more than one person over time. Peter Parker isn't the only Spider-Man, for example. This is important in that the actors who are currently embodying the characters won't always be involved; Downey Jr.'s current contract stipulates that he only has to appear in two more Avengers films, and [SPOILER ALERT] Iron Man 3 insinuated that Tony Stark may be stepping down from being Iron Man. If Marvel wants to keep going, it's going to need to be able to replace the actors playing the superheroes effectively, or else risk running through a roster of increasingly-obscure replacement superheroes.

On a related note, this can be done by bringing the comics' concept of rebooting the universe to the MCU. In Marvel's comics, most story lines exist within the "multiverse," with alternate realities where the same characters exist in different forms. This allows for more possibilities for the existing slate of superheroes. Say, for instance, by the time The Avengers 3 rolls out, the MCU is running out of time with the current cast and characters. If the film were to present a narrative that introduces a rift to an alternate reality, al a DC Comic's famous "Crisis on Infinite Earths" arc, then the MCU could reboot itself with all-new actors taking on the familiar roles. This way, the films can overcome the reality of cast shakeups and possibly keep audiences engaged.

Unique to the MCU, though, is that Marvel Studios is willing to take creative risks within their blockbuster properties. When Jon Favreau signed on to direct Iron Man, he was best known as the actor-director who starred in Swingers with Vince Vaughn and directed Elf, starring Will Ferrell. His resume didn't exactly scream "$140 million superhero film." The same can be said of Kenneth Branagh, who before Thor was best known for starring in and directing Shakespeare adaptations, Joe Johnston (Captain America: The First Avenger), who was responsible for Jurassic Park III, and Joss Whedon (The Avengers), the cult-TV phenom (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly) who had previously only directed one feature film (Serenity). What's more, each of these directors brought with them a sensibility that set them apart from the traditional superhero film. Branagh elevated the Shakespearean family politics of Asgard, casting Loki and Thor as tragic figures in a struggle between two worlds. Johnston brought a whiz-bang sense of fun to Captain America, presenting it as a rah-rah WWII adventure film. Whedon made The Avengers into the quippy, exciting ensemble piece that it needed to be in order to live up to the hype. And there are experiments in genre, too: Shane Black fashioned Iron Man 3 into a buddy-cop film with noir-ish undertones, while Thor: The Dark World (directed by Game of Thrones vet Alan Taylor) looks more like a fantasy and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (due next year and directed by Anthony Russo & Joe Russo) has been described as being inspired by '70s conspiracy films. That's not even counting indie horror director James Gunn taking on Guardians of the Galaxy and Edgar Wright - he of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz fame - being attached to Ant Man. Utilizing directors with fresh takes on the genre will help keeping MCU films from becoming hackneyed and uninteresting.

Guardians of the Galaxy concept art

There are, of course, pitfalls to all of this. Audiences may not be willing to buy into the idea of rebooting the universe and seeing new actors take on these roles (though it was still a big hit last year, it may be telling that The Amazing Spider-Man, starring Andrew Garfield in the lead, grossed significantly less than any of the Spider-Man films starring Tobey Maguire). They also may not be willing to buy the more outlandish aspects of upcoming films: Ant Man - who can shrink himself and communicate with insects - is essentially Marvel's Aquaman, and Guardians of the Galaxy is going to feature a talking tree and Rocket Raccoon, which is, yes, a talking space raccoon. There's also the fact that competition between superhero films is getting tougher: next year will bring another X-Men movie, while DC prepares its own cinematic universe with the announcement of Batman vs. Superman coming in 2015 - the same year as The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Inevitably, superhero fatigue will set in at some point in the future. While the comics have managed to survive wanes in popularity, films don't have that advantage - especially in profit-based Hollywood.

Simply put, the MCU won't last forever - at least not in its current state. For now, though, it continues to thrive, with the building blocks in place to create a long-term future for the films. Whether that future materializes remains the question.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Sight & Sound Sunday: Rashomon (1950)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 Poll Rank: #26 (tied with Andrei Rublev)

Is there any way to know the truth about something you never witnessed?

This is the main quandary that Akira Kurosawa's international breakthrough, Rashomon, concerns itself with. Even audiences who have never seen the film, which introduced acclaimed auteur Kurosawa and - to a larger extent - Japanese cinema to American and European audiences, are familiar with the mechanics of the film's plot. A woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki), taking shelter from a torrential downpour under the Rashomon gate to Kyoto, recall to a commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) the trial for a heinous crime that they had witnessed earlier in the day. The events of the crime - the rape of a woman (Machiko Kyo) and the murder of her samurai husband (Masayuki Mori) - are told from multiple perspectives, including the bandit Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune), the woman herself, the woodcutter, and the samurai, via a medium. These multiple tellings alter the facts, creating doubt in who's telling the truth.

What separates Rashomon from the myriad movies and episodes of television that followed the same narrative format (a superior example: It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's "Who Got Dee Pregnant?") is that the film never settles on which version of events is accurate. Kurosawa, working in close collaboration with cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, works to make the ambiguity of the truth visual as well as narrative. There are numerous shots of the sun being viewed from beneath the forest canopy, the silhouettes of the leaves obscuring the light. The scene of the crime is somewhat shaded, not quite bright enough to see every detail of what happens, but not so dark that the events can't be seen. Even the final scene at the gate features a clever obstruction via the architecture, further illustrating how the truth isn't so obvious at first glance.

However, the film is mostly interested in perception versus reality, for whatever the latter really means. The various twists and turns of the accounts inspire two differing schools of thought amongst the characters at the gate. While the commoner believes that each individual involved had a motive to commit the crime and simply acted on it out of self-interest, the priest struggles to maintain his faith in the goodness of humanity. Again, the film doesn't take sides: each point of view is presented as possible, and even though the film ends with the priest optimistically believing in humanity again, the commoner has provided enough doubt that it's not a definitive stand.

All of this is even more interesting when the context of the film's production is considered. Though the stories that it's based on were first published between 1915 and 1922, it is possible to read Kurosawa's film - made in 1950 - as an allegory for Japanese anxiety after World War II. It's perhaps telling that the "present" of the film finds the three men taking shelter in a Rashomon that is severely dilapidated, with the commoner even tearing it apart further in order to build a fire. Japan's defeat in the war left the nation confused and in ruin, reeling from the effects of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Kurosawa seems to insinuating that there is no way of deciphering what went wrong in the war effort, and that there's no understanding the fallout, only accepting it. Worse still, the destruction of the nation could have been from their own hands. And yet, there's that optimism at the end: despite the catastrophes that have haunted them, there's still new life, and new chances to rebuild.

There may not be any way of knowing absolute truth, as Rashomon asserts. But there's always the possibility of learning from what we perceive to be true, and that, hopefully, the positive can outweigh the negative.

On the next Sight & Sound Sunday: The Godfather (1972)

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Short Takes: 42, Anna Karenina, and More

Post Tenebras Lux (dir. Carlos Reygadas, 2013)

An affluent family in the Mexican countryside carries on as the forces of good and evil contend around them. It's a dense concept, and Reygadas - who won the Best Director prize at Cannes for this film last year - presents his latest film as an expressionist take on morality. It's a beautifully shot film, taking full advantage of the stunning Mexican landscape (as well as a handful of scenes set in Europe). However, for me at least, it never really came together in an interesting way. If anything, it made me crave a new film from Apichatpong Weerasethakul (an obvious contemporary of Reygadas'). B-

42 (dir. Brian Helgeland, 2013)

The story of Jackie Robinson is tailor-made for an inspirational film: seen by Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) as a talent player and an opportunity to make a statement, Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) begins in the minors, then is called up in 1947 to become the first black starting player in Major League Baseball history. Helgeland - best known for his scripts for L.A. Confidential and Mystic River - gives the film the standard biopic treatment; even though it (mostly) focuses on that 1947 season, it still comes off as a "greatest hits" telling of his life story. Despite Helgeland's listless direction, the movie is buoyed by some great performances, especially from Boseman, who really digs into Robinson's interior struggle, and Alan Tudyk as Ben Chapman, the extremely bigoted manager of the Philadelphia Phillies. It's a shame the rest of the film doesn't rise to their level. B-

Much Ado About Nothing (dir. Joss Whedon, 2013)

I'll be upfront: Much Ado About Nothing is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, if not my absolute favorite, so I was bound to enjoy this adaptation, which Whedon shot at his own home after filming The Avengers. A modern retelling that keeps much of Shakespeare's original dialogue, Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker) contend with their latent feelings for each other while Claudio (Fran Kranz) courts Hero (Jillian Morgese). The pure joy of the film comes from watching the actors - many of whom have appeared in other Whedon projects - delightfully chew on Shakespeare's words, twisting the iambic pentameter in a modern cadence. Much Ado About Nothing is certainly the most fun I've had watching a movie this year. A

Anna Karenina (dir. Joe Wright, 2012)

There wasn't really any need for another adaptation of Tolstoy's famous novel Anna Karenina, about a woman (Keira Knightley) in 19th century Russia who finds herself torn between her statesman husband (Jude Law) and an officer (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Working from a script by acclaimed playwright Tom Stoppard, Wright presents this story in a new way: all of the action takes place on a "stage," allowing for a stylized take on the old tale. What's most remarkable about this take is how it uses this staging to comment on the "performance" of aristocratic society in the 19th century, which offers a freshness that this genre has needed for a while. It's not perfect - Taylor-Johnson doesn't really click in the role of Count Vronsky - but it's inspired. B+

I Heart Huckabees (dir. David O. Russell, 2004)

Six years before his Oscar-winning breakthrough The Fighter, director David O. Russell made this existential comedy, starring Jason Schwartzman as an environmental poet trying to make sense of why he continues to run into a tall African man. At the time, the film was maligned by critics, mostly due to reports of on-set hostility between Russell and Lily Tomlin, as well as the fact that it came out the same year as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (comparisons were inevitable). There's a lot of quirky philosophical humor here, and Mark Wahlberg is a total delight as a man who's torn between two very different ideologies. It's plenty entertaining, but only if you're willing to buy what it's selling. B

Friday, November 1, 2013

"The Counselor" and Cameron Diaz

Fans of celebrated author Cormac McCarthy, best known for No Country for Old Men and The Road, will know what to expect in The Counselor, his first produced screenplay: gritty nihilism set against the Texas-Mexico border, as an otherwise "innocent" man finds himself overwhelmingly in over his head in a situation beyond his control. And on that front, the film doesn't disappoint. The Counselor (Michael Fassbender) is never given a proper name, but he's getting involved on a drug deal with Reiner (Javier Bardem) that includes various other schemers, including middle-man Westray (Brad Pitt) and Reiner's lover, Malkina (Cameron Diaz). From there, it's a series of dirty dealings, each more brutal than the last.

However, this isn't one of McCarthy's novels, which benefit from his spare phrasing and exact diction. His script here is wordy, with characters explaining their thoughts and launching into eloquent monologues about the futility of life, but nothing they say sounds like it comes from real human beings. A part of this does come from the script - McCarthy is perhaps best on film when his texts are interpreted by another artist, a la the Coen Brothers - but it's also the fault of director Ridley Scott. Scott, of course, is a talented director, but he seems mismatched with this material: his camera always remains close to its subjects, never exposing the vast expanse of the landscape this narrative takes place in. Though there's not much on the page, he doesn't do any favors to the characters either; again, they feel only like agents of bleak violence rather than real people. Though it's not nearly as stylized, The Counselor is like the Western cousin of Only God Forgives: nihilistic violence for the sake of nihilistic violence.

Another issue: the film's moments that should be played for camp, but are instead presented totally straight-faced. If you've read any review for this film - based on the film's box office, I'm guessing a fair number of you haven't seen it - then you know what I'm talking about: Malkina, spread-eagled across the windshield of yellow Ferrari, humping the glass to the aghast expression on Reiner's face. It's a moment that is almost comically out-of-place, a feeling enhanced by Bardem's reading of the line "it was…gynecological."

But this brings me to odd case of Diaz as Malkina. Like Nicole Kidman in The Paperboy last year, she is simultaneously perfect for this role and absolutely wrong for it. When production began on this film, Angelina Jolie was attached for this role; given the confident sexuality Malkina displays, she would have fit well with that aspect. But can imagine Jolie, at this point in her career, doing a scene as trashy as the aforementioned? I can't. Diaz, on the other hand, has afforded herself that opportunity. She's not the powerful box office draw that she once was, which gives her the opportunity to take on more adventurous, risqué roles. She takes on Malkina with aplomb, with an eagerness to fill the role of the film's femme fatale. Unfortunately, though, she just doesn't convince: she never really feels dangerous, just eccentric and delightfully depraved. To bring it back to the Kidman comparison, having sex with a car isn't on the same level as pissing on Zac Efron and masturbating for John Cusack.

It's a shame that Diaz doesn't live up to the role, especially since I feel a little foolish for having projected her as a Best Supporting Actress nominee for this. Diaz is an actress who, when she shines, she's absolutely radiant. But when the role isn't quite right, she can't salvage it with an interesting performance. The Counselor is a film that can't be salvaged, either.

The Counselor: C+