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Archive for the ‘Four Stars’ Category

The first few minutes from Son of Saul more than set the stage/tone of the entire film – a fairly close camera that never strays too far from the protagonist; a sea of voice surrounding him and then a cacophony of screams from hundreds of people.  Then, the film immediately cuts to its title card and follows the titular character back to cleaning the very cell where those screams came from.  Son of Saul does not waver too far from this introduction and only works to build upon it a very memorable and eerie reminder of a time period that may seem all too familiar as a film property yet unique in its perspective.

Son of Saul follows its titular character, Saul (Géza Röhrig), who is a Jewish worker-prisoner in one of the Nazi concentration camps.  One day, he comes upon a small boy during his work which sets off a journey to bury the boy properly while still trying to maintain his cover in his workplace.

The biggest strengths of the film lie in its cinematography, its unflinching emotional energy and its interesting take on a protagonist.  The first bold aspect of the film is the camera which rarely strays far from Saul.  It hovers close enough for us to usually see his upper body and face while the rest of the action around him becomes a slight blur or a mess of sights/sounds (purposely).  This perspective, the long takes and the intense scrutiny of the propelling plot serve to capture a number of emotions from the shady backroom deals these prisoner-workers must work with to the various politics at hand between the prisoner-worker factions.

In addition, along with the acting debut of Röhrig, all of the mise-en-scene work to really capture the plight of Saul himself.  Although the true question of Saul’s intention never fully comes into fruition, the character’s interactions with his captors and peers along with his unrelenting goals to put his son to rest make for quite the perspective to view both his own spirit and the plight of the prisoners in the concentration camps.  The result is simply a raw amount of emotion as we, the audience, view the atrocities in such graphic detail while balancing the perils of this poor ‘father’ of sorts who is trying to bring the only sense of light back into the world. Perhaps the only faults to find with the film is in some of the scenes which veer almost too closely to action hero tropes and break the immersion that the film presents to the audience.

Son of Saul is a claustrophobic, emotionally raw and disturbing look back at the World War II concentration camps in Hungary.  The approach by Nemes is unique in it’s close proximity to the protagonist in many ways throughout the film and thematically hitting upon both it’s chaotic time period and the character’s internal struggles.  Son of Saul is a sad triumph for its titular character and the time period it represents – a somber and poignant reminder of the struggles that still resonate to this day.

The Wie muses: **** out of ******

 

Director: László Nemes

Running Time: 1 Hour; 47 Minutes

Rated: R

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11167541_detThis year has culminated in a series of fascinating historical and political dramas that shows the different sides of war and intelligence.  Each has brought a different facet, style and tone to each of their proceedings and interestingly, we end with the most modern historical tale of all – the hunt for Osama Bin Laden with Zero Dark Thirty.  The question becomes where this film will stand amongst the heavy proceedings of all the others.  The answer, luckily, is that Zero Dark Thirty is a meticulous and well-thought out film that is not only a great historical mystery thriller but thoughtful in it’s themes of the costs of modern warfare and solitary confinement, even with some emotional holes.

Zero Dark Thirty follows the manhunt for Osama Bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks. What ensues is a decade long search with the film mainly focusing on one task group based in Pakistan.  Several members of this group are introduced including Dan (Jason Clarke) and Joseph (Kyle Chandler) who are capturing suspected members and using various psychological and torture tactics to try and get more information before more attacks happen.  Soon, Maya (Jessica Chastain) is added to the team, for her extensive knowledge and relentless attitude.  The chase will take Maya and the rest of the team around the Middle East until the final debate on Bin Laden’s final location.

The weakest sections of Zero Dark Thirty deal with character complexity and emotional depth along with some glossed over narrative elements.  The film is definitely heavy with lots of names, locations and proceedings.  However, because of the depth of the narrative, the characters are mostly not given much room to grow for the most part and are fairly simplistic.  Unfortunately, some of these simpler characterizations also lead to moments within the story that feel not genuine or emotionally weaker.  Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) is one good example of this problem and her character arc.  This situation bleeds a bit into some of the lack of depth in terms of the logic of how these situations proceed.  Because of the high nature importance of the mission, seeing how these politics go through sometimes seem a bit too amplified to be logical such as an argument with Maya versus her superiors.  Again, much of this seems due to the amount of plot material the film has to get through but are still apparent points to make.  Some of the music as well seems inconsistent – although some of the more Middle Eastern soundtracks are intriguing to see, when it changes to a more Western, traditional orchestra, the transition seems a bit too jarring and out-of-place.

However, these problems definitely do not outweigh the terrific pace and thoughtfulness put into creating a complex but comprehensible and exciting narrative arc.  The film is definitely very dense, as previously mentioned, with lots of names and movement, yet it is presented in a fashion in which audience members will remember and understand each step of the proceeding without feeling bored or overwhelmed. It’s a well-paced script that feeds information out without dumbing down the proceedings too much.  This narrative is also given some depth as well in terms of presenting a fairly unfiltered view of interrogation techniques and intelligence gathering methods and letting the audience make the ultimate judgement on what is morally right and not.  This thinking is extended onto Maya’s character who benefits the most from the script (at the expense of other characters) who is actually given some interesting characterizations both as a parallel to audience reaction and her own persona growth thanks both again to the script and Chastain herself.  All of this is wrapped in a weighty atmosphere that always feels on the cusp of another explosion or suicide bomber and does not shy away from darker moments from both the opposition and the US forces. It becomes a fascinating look at the pros and cons of the intelligence process and more or less, just a great piece of storytelling.

Zero Dark Thirty is an intense dramatic thriller that may be short on emotional depth but intricate and engaging in the rest of it’s package.  Yes, there are some simple characterizations that seemingly ‘dumb down’ some of the plot proceedings and little complexity in terms of the sides that people stand on.  However, this lack of complexity and depth luckily does not apply to the core plot and narrative movement as Bigelow and her team weave an intricate narrative of mysteries, red herrings and politics mixed in the search for Osama Bin Laden.  People may rightly question how many of the details are accurate and what ultimately yielded the final results.  However, as a film, Zero Dark Thirty is not only well-told and well-executed but also a thoughtful piece on the war against terror and the heavy toll it brings.  

Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Rated: R
Running Time: 157 Minutes

The Wie muses: **** out of *****

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Dramatic comedies have an interesting fine line to follow – make too much light of a situation and the film could fall apart into nothing but inane laughter.  On the other side, a dramatic comedy with little to no laughs brings forth a problem of a subject matter that takes itself too seriously.  The balance is key to creating a well-rounded plot that can be well-appreciated.  Silver Linings Playbook, for the most part, takes that balance well into heart although perhaps sticking too closely to the tried-and-true plot beats.  Nevertheless, the film is so slick in it’s packaging from it’s pacing to it’s characters and it’s messaging that the Silver Linings Playbook ends up as a serious contender for your attention.

Silver Linings Playbook follows Pat (Bradley Cooper), a bipolar young man who has been sent to a mental institution due to an incident with his wife.  After serving his time, he is taken home by his mother, Dolores (Jacki Weaver), to his football-loving father, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro).  However, Pat still is troubled at times and it is only until he meets his friend’s wife’s sister, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who is also going through her own set of problems, that he finds some solace to help his recovery process.

The weakest parts of the film are that in terms of the film’s structure and general character arcs; there is little that stands out.  The film is very conventional in how it approaches the general plot with few legitimate surprises that come out from just the story.  Although, as explained later, the characters really move the film into more interesting territories, little can be attributed to the directions taken with the story which feel like a very typical romantic comedy.  Much like Russell’s previous film, The Fighter, which was really constrained by it’s very typical underdog fighter plot route, Silver Linings Playbook feels similarly constrained by it’s fairly typical growth arcs that doesn’t pull many punches, even to the end.  Also not helping are the plot devices that appear and although the film does not purport to make them revelatory, the fact that these various ‘devices’ are fairly obvious and unsurprising do not help to make these moments any less protruding.

However, many of these plot problems are much more negligible compared to the success of it’s characters and aesthetic look into mental illnesses and their recovery.  One of the most fascinating sections is the acting and characters.  There are simply some fantastic performances here that are engrossing and full of life from both the obvious set of actors and some surprising turns as well.  Lawrence continues to amaze audiences with another fascinating turn as Tiffany, playing an individual who is depressed and awkward yet full of pizazz and sporadic energy.  Complementing her is an equally fairly bombastic yet emotionally distraught performance from Cooper who gives a very surprising performance as the mentally disturbed Pat.  Together, Pat and Tiffany become absolutely fascinating to watch interact on screen as their two tough personalities collide and complement each other in both energetic and quieter scenes.  Although a bit much at times due to how sporadic these outbursts and energetic squabbles can be, it feels very appropriate given the subject matter and how these individuals’ minds are working on overdrive at nearly all times.  Complementing their performances are some good supporting roles such as De Niro and most of the other cast.  Just as well, the energy from the cinematography and editing define this very crazed state of being as well.  There are lots of cuts throughout the film and scenes fly by quite quickly.  As Pat descends into a state of frenzy, the film equally spirals into a controlled state of unrest with the camera falling all around and the cuts becoming all the faster.  Again, it becomes quite taxing at times to watch simply because so much information is being conveyed, but the way it works itself into the themes and emotions within a scene makes it all the more spellbinding to watch.

Silver Linings Playbook is a film that doesn’t innovate exactly in terms of it’s fairly typical narrative beats but is a delight of a film in nearly every other respect.  True, there is nothing particularly spectacular about some of the film’s obvious plot devices and the nominal and unsurprising plot arch.  However, simply focusing on these points does the overall film discredit as there is a bountiful amount of great praise that can be seen in this film from the spectacular acting showcases of much of it’s cast (especially Cooper, Lawrence and De Niro) to the more than appropriate frenetic pacing and editing to the amount of time it spends on it’s characters and relationships.  Silver Linings is a fairly steady look into mental illnesses that still carries a light heart on it’s sleeve without sacrificing it’s integrity.  It’s a joy of a film to watch that satisfies as both a crowd pleaser and a serious repertoire.  

Director: David O. Russell
Running Time: 122 Minutes
Rated: R

The Wie muses: **** out of *****

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Existential films always have a fine line to balance in their pursuit to find the reason for human purpose.  The beautiful aspect about this ‘genre’ of films is that they can fall under any really as they weave and explore different aspects of the human life to find meaning and reason.  Few, however, touch the complexity found in Cloud Atlas, a very daring adaptation of an equally daring fictional book.  Although it’s own ambitions is simply really too enormous to fit into one film unto itself, there is no denying that there is an absolutely fascinating pull to what Cloud Atlas has to say as a containment for film and a fascinating expose of the human life and beyond.

Cloud Atlas follows six storylines among a continuum of time starting from the late 1800s to the far-flung, unknown future.  The stories range from a lawyer who is sick at sea and must deal with a stowaway; a conniving musician who is inspired to finish a grand music piece under the guidance of a great composer; a mystery thriller in which a reporter is trying to uncover the importance of a power plant; an elderly man who must try to figure out a way to repay his debts; a future with a replicant who has a personality; and a far-flung future in which man has returned to the wilderness.  The main actors, including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, and Donna Bae, play a variety of roles throughout these storylines.

Cloud Atlas both struggles and thrives on it’s ambitious concept with many of it’s detractors also being it’s core strengths.  This statement seems unfair for any film since it doesn’t offer a definite critique, but because of the nature of Cloud Atlas, there is no simple way to approach a straightforward analysis and review.  For instance, the film’s choice to use it’s main cast of actors (and some side characters as well) in nearly all of the storylines is daring although not always effective.  Some of the character changes are quite dramatic and effective, creating for some fairly fascinating moments of disbelief in an impressive usage of makeup and acting prowess.  Unfortunately, some of these changes are not as effective as certain storylines take place in specific parts of the world which even some of the best makeup cannot change (the future storyline with Somni is most affected). The acting also gets put on full blast because of this decision and once again, the mileage varies.  For the most part, the acting troupe works fairly hard to make their characters work and feel fairly distinguished with special mentions going out to Tom Hanks, in one of his most challenging series of roles, and Ben Whishaw, who delivers some of the film’s most interesting moments. All-in-all, in my opinion, the thematic implications of utilizing this mechanic is understandable and gives the film more weight – playing on the core of the film’s concepts about destiny and karma that could resonate in any person regardless of race, gender, sexuality or more.

Speaking of these themes, Cloud Atlas also will be heavily looked at because of it’s deliberate focus on these existential and philosophical musings and it’s structure.  Unlike the book it’s based off of, the film adaptation feels free to really play with the editing heavily.  This means that the plot really frees itself to go back and forth from storylines with what seems like at first, reckless abandon.  However, the trio of directors try to utilize the film medium to really make comparisons in the storylines much more apparent as well as try to convey the themes a bit more openly.  Timelines are transitioned into one another at times and direct comparisons are made on a frequent basis.  The end result is intriguing to watch unfold although will most likely baffle most audiences.  Much of this is due to how well the stories are explained and fleshed out.  Some of the stories on their own do not seem to hold as much weight or just don’t play out as interesting whether it’s due to the lack of changes or changes made from the original novel or where it is placed on the narrative thread.  Some may also be bothered by the frequent monologues that really try to reiterate the themes as much as possible.  What I believe most people will agree on is that the idea itself is unique to see play out – six stories that have their own unique genres and (mostly) set of characters that are linked more by abstract ideas and concepts, and the mileage on which it is effective may vary on how much an audience member may understand what transpired on film and once again, pays close attention to the thematic qualities of intertwining fates.

The film’s aesthetics, for the most part, are something that is a bit easier to approve of.  The music, in my opinion, is one of the strongest parts of the film.  It gracefully transitions from scene to scene, really embodying each of the six separate storylines with it’s own strong melody while still being able to connect the entire film as well.  The camera work, for the most part, is also a delight to watch with some great action and dramatic set pieces set up to again, repeat that theme of similar historical beats and interconnecting lives.  It’s a beautiful marriage of careful planning and kinetic force.  Finally, the special effects work in itself is not exactly groundbreaking but the overall production still feels polished with little to really nitpick on and conveying the stories’ time periods well.

Cloud Atlas is nothing short of astonishing in many ways.  True, it’s filled with many imperfections, weighed down both by it’s ambition and attempts to wade through the twisted tangled plot threads with too much of a overly preachy thematic set.  However, although many will be bogged down and turned off by these inconsistencies (and it’s long running time), the final product is an absolutely fascinating piece of cinema.  Full of symbolism, meaty themes, rapid tonal shifts and some of the strangest performances and make-up work in any film thus far this year, the film bombards the viewer with it’s fairly kind adaptation of the equally complicated (if not more so) book it’s based off of.  It doesn’t always work or resonate, but there is no denying in my mind that Cloud Atlas stands as a unique piece of art and an existential piece on our lives and trying to comprehend death, love and connections throughout space and time.  I’m glad a film like Cloud Atlas exists to continue to explore the nature of film in absolutely bizarre and engrossing ways.  

Director: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Running Time: 172 Minutes
Rated: R

The Wie muses: **** out of *****

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The magnificence of films like Koyaanisqatsi is not just in the fact that it’s filmed without a single line of dialogue or mostly landscapes.  It is that they give these moving images meaning and depth through cinematography, syntax and sound/music.  Although seemingly simple in some respects compared to other genres, these films are constant battles of both mapping out the importance of it’s imagery and then creating a significance that doesn’t undermine the final product as a whole.  So comes Samsara, a film that is very much in the vein of this tiny genre of symbolic landscape/no dialogue films.  Although the final product at times seems too upfront and forceful with it’s themes, Samsara succeeds in both wowing audiences with it’s beautiful captures of both nature and humans alike while creating meaningful context around it.

Samsara is, at it’s core, a film about nature and human beings – both in harmony and against one another.  The meaning of the title literally translates to continuous flow or cyclic forces.  Shot in beautiful 70mm film, Director Fricke and his crew travel to 25 countries and views a variety of objects from volcanoes to city landscapes while also looking towards individuals and the people’s lives.

The toughest criticism to lodge at the film is in how  it’s messaging sometimes becomes so explicit and causes these sections to feel out-of-place amongst the rest of it’s film.  Samsara is a very subtle film in the different aspects it views and usually lets it’s themes flow out in such non-explicit ways.  However, there are enough noticeable moments in which Fricke cuts away from this technique and literally creates a very controlled and more noticeably manipulated scene.  Understandably, this comment may seem strange to lodge at a film in which scenes are obviously shot in certain ways and scenes are, of course, presented in a specific way.  Still, these scenes stand out because it seems easy to point out that they are manipulated and breaks the subtle consistency used throughout the rest of the film.  Similar messaging appears in the aforementioned subtle technique as well and works to bring forth the ideas and so unfortunately, these very overt scenes come up as a bit of a disappointment in comparison.

Luckily, other than these examples, Samsara is poignant both in it’s visual and aural presentation along with the symbolic overtones.  In terms of the different aspects visualized, Fricke and his crew have picked up both some of the obvious locales but also many fascinating sights as well of both the man-made and nature.  Some of the shots seem so surreal that it’s an amazing sight to think that little special effects tampering was involved.  Probably some of the most fascinating shots involves large bodies of people and the unique situations that it involves.  One of the most surprising involves a prison which I won’t spoil here.  In addition, the music, full of hymns, chants and electronica do a pretty good job of complementing the scenery as well.  Finally, there is a great sense of modern and relevant themes that are both global and interpersonal.  The film feels both as a celebration of life and a harsh look into the problems the world is facing that is deeper than simply the world versus humans but also ‘East’ versus ‘West’ as well as obesity and consumption.  Even though it may seem a bit preachy at times, the visual interplay and juxtaposition create creative scenarios that flow into one another and give meaning to a sea of people roaming around.  The introduction and ending as well serve as great starting points and bookends that bring the experience altogether.

Samsara is far from the first film to utilize just cinematography, sound and music to tell it’s plot but is still an impressive feat to see come together nevertheless.  Some of it’s overt thematic tellings may be a bit much and it’s ‘plot’ mechanics are rudimentary than innovative.  However, the shots are utterly gorgeous and many times amazing while as a whole, Director Fricke, weaves in fascinating themes such as ‘East’ versus ‘West’ comparisons to the quest for human perfection, all without a single line of dialogue.  Samsara is a beautiful painting that embodies the modern human life from it’s worst to it’s best and is another fine example of the relevance and importance of cinema.   

Director: Ron Fricke
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 102 Minutes

The Wie muses: **** out of *****

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There are lot of films that love to pay homage to time period in the past and emulate it’s film to harken back to it.  Take Kill Bill for instance in which Tarantino plays with the spaghetti western to the Hong Kong kung fu films throughout the narrative arc.  These homages can play out in different ways and to interesting effect on the final story at hand.  Interestingly, with Moonrise Kingdom, the always quirky but fascinating Director Wes Anderson utilizes a mid-1900s television style as the main inspiration to tell a story about boy-meets-girl with a ton of various trappings.  The end result may be overly shallow and weird for some, but those that can accept the vibe will be rewarded with a poignant tale that is thoughtful about it’s aesthetics to contribute as much as possible to it’s themes.

Moonrise Kingdom mainly follows a young Khaki Scout, Sam (Jared Gilman), and a young girl, Suzy (Kara Hayward), who lives on the island Sam’s troop is camping on.  After meeting each other earlier, they set out a plan to meet one another and run away.  However, when several adults of the island learn that these two young people are missing, they set out a search party to go after them from Suzy’s mother and father, Walt (Bill Murray) and Laura (Frances McDormand) to the Khaki Scout’s Troop Leader, Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) and finally the police captain of the island, Sharp (Bruce Willis).  It becomes a back-and-forth race between the two young children versus the adults and search party.

The main problems that some audiences will have with Moonrise Kingdom’ is in it’s fairly simple core story and characters along with the very strange style the film is put together with.  The main narrative arc (and even many of the sub-plots) aren’t exactly complicated endeavors and in the end, some audience members may come away with a sense that little has been actually accomplished or a lack of feeling completely enlightened with something very provocative or profound.  This same feeling also seems to bleed into the majority of characters as well who can range from simplistic and one-noted to perhaps a little more complex, due to the fairy tale-like plot style.  The main problem, however, that will really sway audience members to liking or disliking the majority of the film is how quirky and strange the film can get and whether it goes too far.  Some of the stylization can border on the incomprehensible and disconcerting with scenes that feel like they don’t add much to the plot than just Anderson playing around with concepts for the sake of it.  On a whole, though, if an audience member doesn’t accept how quirky the film can get, the rest of the film doesn’t work and some may find their mileage may vary.

However, if audience members can accept Anderson’s fairy tale/50’s-60’s TV style vibe, there is a lot of different elements that work together to create an entertaining, endearing, and thoughtful package.  Much of what makes the film unique and fascinating is how all of the film’s elements play to the themes that Anderson wants to present.  The framing for instance showcases an interesting homage to the old school television style while showcasing a fascinating dichotomy in the beginning of the film of the two main character while the plot constantly uses symbolism, repetition and foreshadowing in the most mundane items to become important future plot points and themes that resonate to the end of the film.  The soundtrack is so strong as well that embraces the film’s style and permeates it with children choir vocals to mysterious and old school instrumentation and melodies, while the old television style doesn’t feel like it’s wasted with very obvious nods such as awkward zooms to an entire beginning credits sequence that, again, are done thoughtfully and to contribute to the film’s goals.

Perhaps even more fascinating is the theme material that initially may seem innocuous but becomes interesting commentary on a variety of issues.  Anderson tackles different topics from the loss of innocence to the acceptance of societal norms and although the outcomes may not be too surprising, the methodology that is used to bring these themes to life are interesting due to the style and film trappings.  Finally, the film is bookended with both some good humor and a sense of fun from it’s plot to it’s actors.  Even with some fairly deeper themes, the aesthetic trapping of the plot is humorous/dark and the comedy works, even at the expense of perhaps a dark reality that it may reveal.  The actors too seem like they’re completely enjoying themselves with odd roles from Edward Norton playing the all-too-serious scout leader to Swinton’s short but overly strict social services agent (keep an eye out for Schwartzman’s terrific cameo too).  The two leads, Gilman and Wayward, as well make a great impression and fit perfectly as Anderson characters and although they take a bit to completely warm up for the audience, they play their roles fairly masterfully and definitely do make the film work as the central characters.

Moonrise Kingdom definitely will divide audiences with it’s very flamboyant Anderson style, but anyone that can embrace his fantastical vision here will find both a simple, charming story and a movie full of symbolism and great filmmaking.  The film isn’t Anderson’s most complex or deep film and certainly is no less divisive in it’s bold narrative style.  However, for those that love Anderson’s previous works or can get over the flamboyant stylings, Moonrise Kingdom delivers a fun and whimsical comedy-romance that makes all of it’s elements work for it’s messaging and theme from the cinematography to the brilliant soundtrack to the narrative flow.  The film achieves not only in showcasing a childlike romance but with deeper commentary all while keeping the audience laughing and smiling.  It’s great to see such a charming and off-kilter film that cares little if you’re on board but delivers something more than worthwhile for those that stick by it to the end.  

Director: Wes Anderson
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Rated: PG-13

The Wie muses: **** out of *****

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