Talk to Me (Lemmons, 2007)

January 28, 2009

Please, somebody give Don Cheadle an Oscar already. This blatant attempt at false modesty needs to come to an end before someone gets hurt. His ability to transform himself for every role (no matter how minimal) is astonishing but he continually gets snubbed. Why is that? We know that the academy isn’t racist despite their inconsistent reputation at making bone-headed decisions and several actors of color have won in the past (even though they were questionable at best: Halle Berry for Monster’s Ball anyone?). 2004 was Cheadle’s year when he gave a tour-de-force performance in the political thriller Hotel Rwanda as Paul Rusesabagina and even though he was nominated, losing to Jaime Foxx was a travesty. Don’t get me wrong, I think Foxx proved himself to be taken seriously as an actor and while he was able to convincing portray Ray Charles down to a tee including his speech along with the various mannerisms, it lacked the control of Cheadle’s performance which felt more natural and less of a gimmick.

Don Cheadle returns this year in another biopic, this time as Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene, African-American convict who decides to pursue a job as a radioman during the 60’s that influenced the medium by walking on a thin line between radio code of conduct and pragmatism without straying too far into blind-sided chauvinism. As an outspoken individual who gave no precedence to say the truth regardless of the crackdown on the freedom of speech for minority groups especially Blacks, Greene becomes a voice for the people, not only to the frustrated lower class African Americans (despite them being his largest fan-base) but to an entire nation that was at war with itself during the Civil Rights movement. His friendship with Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the man who puts his career on the line to get Petey the job at the radio station is the heart of the film; two men who are fond of one another but have different visions of what they want to achieve with their new found success. The wonderful chemistry between Ejiofor and Cheadle is palpatable and they both light up the screen as their brotherly love begins to disintegrate as ardent decisions are made and circumstances split them apart. The script is chalk-full of great dialogue and the two leads take full advantage of it. The clash of disparate personalities allows for plenty of humorous exchanges of dialogue that flow naturally. Don Cheadle loses himself completely in this role that is so authentic that it becomes difficult to distinguish the actor from the chracter he is playing. I’m thinking about starting a campaign on his behalf in order for the Acadmedy to recongize this performance because it is clearly deserving of high praise.

Biopics seem to be a dime a dozen these days. While Talk to Me follows the formulaic rise and fall of the central protagonist, newcomer female director Kasi Lemmons infuses a refreshing amount of charm and sophistication to elevate her film above the typical run-of the mill genre tropes. It becomes a powerful statement on the freedom of speech that doesn’t succumb to ramming the message down the viewer’s throats. As provocative as it is heartfelt, this is a groovy film told with honesty and not only is it an invigorating true story but also happens to be one of the best films of 2007.

8.5/10

With his stunning debut American Beauty, Sam Mendes burst onto the Hollywood scene much to the surprise of many and proved that he was a fresh new talent with a bright future ahead of him. With his second film Road to Perdition he proves that his over-night sensation was no fluke. Here we have a director who embraces the craft of story-telling with a striking visual palette. Even though his depression-era gangster film treads familiar ground, his creative sensabilities as a story-teller come across with striking veracity. As a quiet film that takes it’s time to establish the characters, the narrative hurls along at a steady pace and remains fascinating throughout.

Much of Sam Mendes’ sophmore effort owes much of its success to the fabulous score by Thomas Newman which swells and chimes with such passionate grace and of course, the awe-inspiring cinematography by the late Conrad L. Hall. Brilliantly composed without becoming too overbearing, this is one of those memorable scores that perfectly compliments the story-action by adding another layer of poeticism. Mendes does a commendable job of not falling prviy to over-dramatization by using the score in a bombastic fashion. Instead, he finds the right balance of subtlety and uses Newman’s beautiful music to set the tone of the scenes.

Road to Perdition is also cinematographer’s wet dream. This was the last film Conrad Hall worked on before passing away and it safe to say he went out in a blaze of glory. The use of dark lighting is mighty impressive along with the entire look of the film which is highlighted mostly in shadows. Many scenes take place in heavy rain-fall where Mendes and Hall are able to frame some of he most visually stunning sequences in recent memory. The final show down near the end of the film that takes place in a serious down-pour is destined to become one of those iconic scenes that filmgoers will admire for years to come. The way Mendes meticulously structures the unfolding of the climactic gun-battle along with Hall’s keen eye for establishing atmosphere is so beautiful executed that mere description cannot do it justice.

As visually stunning as Road to Perdition is, the wonderfully told story of revenge and the love between father and son don’t get lost amidst all of the vivid imagery. The film does contain plenty of stylized violence but it doesn’t take center stage. The heart of the story is between the relationship between a professional hit-man named Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) and his son Michael Jr (Tyler Hoechlin). The supoorting cast are also superb including the always magnificent Paul Newman, Jude Law, Daniel Craig, Jennfier Jason Leigh and Dylan Baker. Most surprising to me was the talent of the young actor Tyler Hoechlin who is able to convey a wide range of emotions and actually brings a level of depth to his character without falling into the stereotypical role of the obnoxious older son vying for the father’s love.

Standing out from the pack of countless gangster films because of the emphasis on an actual story and not just the body count, Road to Perdition is able to achieve a level of greatness that few within the genre are able to reach. It accepts the violent nature of the ganster picture without sacrificing narrative and thus, remains thoroughly entertaining along with being quite moving. This is just remarkable filmmaking of the highest order.

9.5/10

Welcome to Philosophy 101 on acid. Alternating between headache-inducing nausea and poetic lyricism, Linklater’s Waking Life employs a unique visual style that takes on a lucid-dreamlike quality unlike anything I have ever seen before. According to the making-of feature on the DVD, the film was first shot using regular hand-held cameras which allowed for increased mobility and for a more documentary type feel. The footage was then edited before given to the animators who were then able to add another dimension through the technique of “rotoscoping” which basically involves tracing the image frame by frame. The animation looks almost hand-drawn but not in the traditional sense. It’s much more fluid whereas the images take on a certain painting-like quality mixed with a live-action comic book. Visually, the film is fascinating to look at with its attention to detail and hallucinatory imagery. The surrealistic animation effectively coincides with the protagonist’s state of mind who finds himself unable to distinguish between dreams and reality.

Polarizing to say the least, Waking Life can be a frustrating experience because of its meandering narrative, trippy visuals and excessive philosophical ramblings. The film can be a bit exhausting on the brain with its conceited philosophical discussions primarily revolving around the big “E” word. Split into several vignettes where the unnamed protagonist sets out on his journey of self-discovery, he meets a handful of different people who each raise their own questions regarding the great debates of human existence. Some discussions are more interesting than others and although never boring, it can be little overwhelming to absorb everything that is being articulated. Nevertheless, there’s something intimately profound about this film that asks the viewer examine their own life in regards to the different issues raised. The cover-art is quite deceiving in looking like a psychedelic comedy of sorts. That couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s more of an art-house film with a high-brow attitude that allows Linklater to spew forth all of his philosophical ideals of the universe.

Some may find it aggravating while others will find it to be quite rewarding. I find myself in the latter category. Waking Life emphasizes the significance of curiosity being an essential human quality to growing and it’s encouraging that Linklater provides a bombardment of fascinating questions and theories ladled with heavy connotations whilst bestowing no definitive answers. Everyone wants to find some sort of significant meaning in their life and what I found to be the most positive aspect of this film was its encouragement to step out of the box for a moment in order to rationally contemplate what it means to lead a fulfilling life.

8/10

Black Moon (Malle, 1975)

January 23, 2009

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Purdy unicorn.

Ummm…what the hell did I just watch? Awful, awful, awful film that attempts to be thought provoking by using empty symbolism and a nonsensical plot with surreal aspects to the point of drastic irritation. I’m pretty sure my viewing experience would have been completely different had I been under the influence of psychedelic drugs.

2/10

Fresh (Yakin, 1994)

January 22, 2009

The unfortunate circumstances of disenchanted youth growing up in the Bronx is the center piece of Boaz Yakin’s Fresh. The film eschews the cliché ridden faux-sentimentality of life in the ghetto – first and foremost opting to tell a compelling story of survival in a dangerous environment with characters that don’t fall into the role of typical stereotypes.

What stands out in a film like this that deals with subject matter that has been covered time and time again is that the characters come across as real people with complex emotions and depth. Even the murderers and thugs aren’t just mere cardboard cut-outs of familiar gangster-type associations; the way they communicate or react to certain situations reveals much about their personalities. Take Esteban (Giancarlo Esposito) for instance who is a big-time drug dealer that our 12 year old protagonist Michael (Sean Nelson) or ‘Fresh’ as he is more commonly referred to works for as a drug pusher in the streets of Harlem. Esteban is a family man and not the familiar strung-out mean-spirited criminal that only cares about money even though he is driven by greed and prone to intimidating bursts of rage as complications surface in the drug-trade. He holds loyalty and truthfulness in high esteem and even goes out of his way to treat Fresh like his own son. Esteban may not be the most decent man to be around but he is a man of principles and it’s refreshing to see a crime-lord with some semblance of humanity. Another refreshing aspect is that Yakin doesn’t pigeonhole his characters as “good” or “bad”. The streets are a war zone where drugs, violence and prostitution are rampant. The struggle for survival in such a hostile environment plagues these people especially Fresh who wants nothing more than to save enough money and escape the hustling street life before it’s too late. With minimal government support, these poor souls are left with very few options to make an honest living and continually get roped into this dangerous lifestyle so who are we to judge? The youth is the most vulnerable to corruption and Yakin emphatically points out that education is something that needs to be reinforced in these young children who are susceptible to turning towards this dangerous lifestyle because they are under the impression that it is the only way to get ahead in this world.

In what is probably the most overlooked child performance of the 90’s or possibly ever, Sean Nelson is spellbinding in the title role and carries the entire film. The emotional range and his ability to portray Michael as a smart kid who is exceedingly clever without coming off as too precocious is nothing short of masterful. It is a shame that Sean Nelson’s career never really took off after this film and if the heart-wrenching final scene is any indication, this young man showed incredible talent at such a young age. Fresh may be young but living in these conditions has forced him to grow up quickly even though he is still just a kid at heart. The awkwardness of his school-yard crush showcases Nelson at the top of his game; completely in control of his character by switching from his rigid impervious nature to a kid unsure of how to approach the situation. The film wears its heart on its sleeve and relies on Nelson’s genuine performance in order to deliver a powerful sense of pathos. Michael has to maintain a firm assertiveness so as to not show weakness because of the sordid work that he does even though deep inside he is terrified and filled with anguish. His relationship with his alcoholic father (Samuel L. Jackson), a skilled chess player who spends most of his time in the park drinking from a brown paper-bag and playing the game is the emotional core of the film. Chess is a game of strategy and during these visits Fresh’s father offers him advice on the game but looking closer at the dialogue it soon becomes clear that these are valuable life lessons that he is giving his son. They also help to influence the way Fresh cunningly attempts to outsmart his opponents, which of course are the drug-dealers he sells dope for. The final act is exhilarating to behold as he sets his risky intricate plan in motion.

Even though the film can be grueling to watch at times because of how unflinching the violence is depicted, the raw authenticity of the script, perfect pacing, and wonderfully drawn characters makes it difficult to turn away. This film is leaps and bounds ahead of all those other films dealing with similar subject matter because it actually has something positive to say and goes about doing so without compromising its integrity or pandering to racial stereotypes: Check-mate.

9.5/10

Aguirre, The Wrath of God

January 20, 2009

Much praise has been heaped upon this seminal film by Werner Herzog and even though my expectations were kept in check, it was still a major disappointment. On a technical level, there is much to be admired in Herzog’s directing abilities especially in the opening sequence which is absolutely mesmerizing. The way he positions his camera to focus on an army of travelers moving down a massive mountain side in a light fog is truly a sight to be behold. The ominous score that methodically pulsates along with the humdrum narration creates a dream-like quality that is very engrossing. Positioned on an adjacent mountain, Herzog slowly zooms in on the brigade of individuals descending further and further down which seems to last for ages. Unfortunately, as wonderful as this beginning scene is, not much that follows was truly interesting to me.

Klaus Kinski plays the ruthless captain Aguirre who will risk the lives of his own men in his selfish quest to seek the City of Gold: El Dorado. His performance is truly maddening and his bug-eyed stare is merciless. There are many close-up shots of his face where the tortured insanity is perfectly captured. He stumbles around in a drunken manner mostly yelling and even in his more muted scenes remains utterly terrifying. I can’t recall a performance that was as maddening as Kinski here. This man clearly has issues. Just observe the way he stares at his fellow soldiers with that insane glare in his eye or his creepy behavior towards his daughter. As the story progresses he becomes increasingly insane and for his performance alone, the film is worth a viewing.

Herzog is more interested in the journey rather than the destination. Whether or not Aguirre and his followers are able to reach their goal is not important here because he is more intent on using the basic set-up as a means to exploring various themes such as greed, power, madness, colonization and most importantly man vs. nature. Herzog is successful in getting across his ideas but the extremely sluggish pace diminished my interest in anything he was trying to get across despite establishing a hypnotic mood. Unfortunately, the hypnosis was much too effective and I felt bored throughout most of the film. At least the spider monkeys were cool.

3/10

Woody Allen has made an illustrious career as a filmmaker tackling the subject of love and relationships from every possible angle but none are as more delicately profound or intimate than Husbands and Wives which would prove to be his final collaboration with Mia Farrow; his wife at the time and recurring star in many of his films starting in the early 80’s. At the time of its release, the film caused a media sensation resulting in many critics accusing Allen of using it as a springboard to attack Farrow. In retrospect, it makes sense that people would ultimately jump to this conclusion because of the striking similarities between the characters they play in the film and their real-life relationship which sadly came to an end shortly after when Allen’s scandalous affair with his adopted step-daughter Soon-Yi Previn surfaced. As is the case with many movie celebrities, their on-screen persona or artistic endeavors tend to be intermingled with their real-life so the question remains: Where does one draw the line in forming a distinction between the two? It’s a tricky business that relies on presumptions rather than effective criticism and is ultimately reductive. It is the opinion of this humble critic that the artist and the art they create are inseparable but should be examined as separate entities. As DH Lawrence famously once said, “Never trust the artist, trust the tale.”

With that statement in mind, viewing Husbands and Wives from an objective standpoint reveals that Allen isn’t so much as revealing personal details of his relationship with Farrow. Instead, he is more interested in exploring the reasons why relationships are so difficult to maintain and the destructive nature of human folly when love is thrown into the equation. By grounding the film in a quasi-documentary style, Allen breaks the barrier between fictional characterizations to reveal something a little more privy to actual life. The anonymous documentary crew is given direct access to interview the various characters with questions pertaining to their relationships with one another. As a creative gesture, Allen does not dispose of the grainy, hand-held camerawork often associated with the genre and continues to use it, capturing even the most private moments between characters – furthermore blurring the line between fiction and truth.

The story centers predominantly around two couples: Gabe (Allen) is a literature professor who is happily married to Judy (Farrow), an art magazine editor. Their best friends are Jack (Sydney Pollack) and Sally (Judy Davis) who come over for drinks one night to announce that they are getting a divorce. This shocking information sets off a chain of events in the relationship between Gabe and Judy where they slowly begin to drift apart as buried feelings along with unfulfilled desires are brought to fruition. What begins as a harmless quarrel of dissatisfaction escalates into a serious problem as they struggle to keep their relationship from falling apart. Jack and Sally are also finding it difficult as divorced middle-aged singles despite creating a façade of happiness with their newfound partners just to spite each other. Gabe starts up a relationship with a bright young female student named Rain (Juliette Lewis) as Farrow forms an attraction with a handsome co-worker named Michael (Liam Neeson). Far from your typical romance of disenchanted lovers, Woody Allen skillfully places his characters in specific romantic relationships that insightfully comments on the complex nature of love and human companionship while at the same time having a sense of humor about it. Who hooks up with who is of minor importance in contrast to Allen’s established thematic framework and search for rational explanations concerning why relationships have to be some complicated and what makes them work. By the end of the film it is pretty clear that the answer still remains a mystery.
9/10

Kontroll (Antal, 2003)

January 16, 2009

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The subtle feeling of melancholic anxiety permeates throughout Nimrod Antal’s debut film Kontroll, which takes places entirely in the underground metro system of Hungary. This tone meshes seamlessly with the story (or lack thereof) revolving around a man named Bulcsu (Sandor Csanyi) along with his group of misfits who work as ticket inspectors although not the kind one would ordinarily expect to find in this profession. Instead of polished shoes and fancy uniforms they wear shabby street clothes and are only distinguishable from the general public by their red arm bands indicting their job as “Controlers”, hence the title of the film. They lives lives of despair and their job is totally inconsequential, causing more of a nuisance to travelers rather than maintaining order. They have difficulty enforcing any sort of punishment to passengers unwilling to show their tickets to ride the trains and often find themselves in dangerous predicaments. This raises several questions: Why would the Metro hire these individuals in the first place? What motivations do these unfortunate people have to want to take on such a dangerous job like this anyways? To answer these would take away from one of the few interesting aspects of this film which starts off on a strong note only to drastically lose momentum once Antal establishes the general framework of his subterranean world.

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The quasi post-apocalyptic setting (albeit, this is left open to debate) allows for Antal to create such a vivid and self-contained microcosm where one is not entirely sure what to expect. Danger lurks around every corner and the  interminable dark tunnels seem to extend forever are not a safe place to be. The rival groups of Controllers along with the many strange and malignant passengers does not exactly make the underground subway system the most pleasant form of transportation. A cute young girl dressed in a teddy bear costume would be considered a rather normal passenger in comparison to some of the other weirdos who ride the trains.  There is even a subplot involving a phantom hooded killer who pushes people in front of oncoming trains whose true identity is outlandish to say the least.

Bulcsu lives a very lonely and dreadful existence as an outcast. He never ventures up to the surface and would rather live underground as a wandering vagrant who finds himself aimlessly drifting throughout the tunnels at night. He even sleeps on the platforms or on the waiting benches. This dark and dismal place is his home. The film hints at a troubled past and the implication that he is hiding or running away from a previous life back on the surface but the exact circumstances are never made clear. This is true for much of the film where many instances and subplots remain unresolved, ambiguous or just downright bizarre which is very frustrating. Sometimes less is more but in this case, it comes across as flagrant uncertainty in the director who does not know what he wants to achieve from film. Is it supposed to be a moody existenstial drama or some kind of social commentary? Perhaps a bit of both. Antal shows tremendous talent as a young director who has a great visual sense and there is certainly potential in the future for greatness. However, with this film he is not quite successful and it succumbs to what I like to refer to as “indie film syndrome.” He takes his time to develop such a convincing and unique world only to have the characters fall flat and a story that fails to deliver any sort of satisfying payoff. There is a great film buried underneath the messy sporadic narrative and wonderful soundtrack but I wish Antal had spent more time developing the characters and had been more focused on the story he wanted to tell because this easily could have been one of the more fascinating debuts to come out of the new milenium. 5/10

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So it has begun…

January 12, 2009

Let’s just hope I don’t abandon this film blog so quickly like the previous ones. I’m not particularly suave when it comes to formal introductions so I’ll just cut right to the chase. I’m a university student who loves cinema with passionate fervor and this will be a place for me to ramble about anything associated with this art form and possibly even encourage discussion with others on this site. Thanks for dropping by and more content will be added shortly.