Saturday, March 29, 2014

Ernest and Celestine (***)

Directed by Stephane Aubier, Vincent Patar & Benjamin Renner


The quality of narrative within American animated films has risen so incredibly within the last two decades, so much so that Pixar is far from the only animation studio making delightfully entertaining movies for all ages to enjoy. And yet, computer animation has completely consumed domestic entries, and there is very little formalistic innovation. Not to say that the animation itself is subpar (quite the opposite, the attention to textual detail in Frozen alone is quite astonishing), but like many other Hollywood genres, the studios have decided what sells tickets and have limited the formal criteria with which these films choose to tell their story. Which is why we have to turn to foreign markets to see animators who are still free to experiment with radical styles - or at the very least, not use computer animation. Miyozaki has long been the main success with regards to hand-drawn animation, and his last film from last year, The Wind Rises, was another hit for the legendary filmmaker. With the French film Ernest and Celestine, we get something a lot more preciousness; a film made with a childlike consciousness that doesn't pander, nor condescend to make you feel like it's anyway made for adults.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Tomorrow is not just another regular Wednesday, but it is also the tenth anniversary of the release of the brilliant Michel Gondry-Charile Kaufman collaboration Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The film, a cultural staple and one of the fundamental building blocks to contemporary hipster culture is one of the great masterpieces of that decade. It's modern classic status is completely warranted, and when the great Film Experience blog decided to dedicate an episode of its great series "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" to the film, I used it as a perfect excuse to revisit one of my personal favorites and write about it from a perspective that I never considered before. I remember seeing the film twice in the theaters when it originally came out in 2004 (then just a high school freshman, still smarting about the recent Lord of the Rings Oscar takeover), and I have watched it at least a dozen times (probably more) since then. This time around, I became compelled by Gondry's wondrous direction. I've always felt that Eternal Sunshine is one of the most visually innovative films I've ever seen, but so much credit usually goes to Charlie Kaufman's Oscar winning script - and rightfully so, he was already considered a screenwriting master and this was his finest work. But while Kaufman's stamp is undeniable, Gondry's unorthodox style is all over this film.

Here is the shot that I went with:

Gondry went to great extents to visualize the tenuous nature of memories and dreams. In this shot, from earlier in the film, Joel is getting a memory erased from just a moment before the procedure began. The way Gondry disorients the viewer, keeping the background out of focus, is very disturbing - we are still in the film's first half hour and are not yet acclimated to the film's visual style. I remember the suffocating feeling I had when I first saw this sequence, the way it makes you try and force your eyes to see things that can't be seen. It's an inspired stroke and an incredible example of visual storytelling. As the film continues, his techniques become less severe and his choices have more of a charming flourish. Baby Joel being bathed in the sink, characters and objects disappearing in front of our eyes, etc; but this moment is the one that begins the process and it's the most effective, I find. Gondry never really capitalized on the promise of Eternal Sunshine (not that Kaufman fared much better; his next film, his directorial debut, Synechdoche, New York was a brilliant deconstruction on the misery of life, but it was never truly understood in its time and became a rather large failure that he still hasn't truly recovered from), but his work in this film showed what he was capable when provided with the right material.

One can spend their entire life finding great things within Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It's a masterpiece of melancholia and romance, both funny and heartbreaking. Like all great films, it changes with each viewing. Different shots take on different connotations at different points of your life. I did not expect to choose a shot from the "McRomance!" sequence in the movie, but alas, it's a sign of this movie's greatness that it keeps on surprising me.

Le Week-End (***)

Directed by Roger Michell


The list is endless with film titles detailing the taxing burden of marriage, the soul-sucking slog that follows the 'Happily Ever After' so many other stories like to finish on. Two for the Road and Blue Valentine, two very different films from very different eras and starring two very different couplets of movie stars, contrasted the good times of the past and the bad times of the present, a particularly heartbreaking storytelling device and a pessimistic one at that. But both of those films are brilliant and enlightening in a way that a film like Le Week-End is not. Le Week-End is made by Roger Michell, who also made 2006's Venus which gave us Peter O'Toole's his last great performance and spoke about the daunting arrival of mortality in a way that was sweetly perverted by old man horniness - it was an acting piece, and it knew it. Michell's latest film is just as cynical about growing older, but Le Week-End is not wrapped in the sort of "Final Chance" fantasy that Venus builds its plot around. If anything, it's the exact opposite, as the starring man and wife fail miserably at nearly every effort to manufacture that always mentioned spark to their suffocating relationship.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel (***1/2)

Written and Directed by Wes Anderson


The overall majesty of Wes Anderson is tough to pinpoint. There's a downright stubbornness to the dedication he brings to his precious, dioramic stories, and with each film, there is a creeping feeling that the filmmaker is becoming more and more hermetic in his cinematic view. One might worry if the Wes Anderson world has begun to replace reality for him. And yet, I really feel that he is one of the very best and unique voices that we have in the movies today. His films strike a tone between melancholy and whimsy unlike any other before or since, and while you can usually accuse him of being intentionally stylized, there's always unquestionably a heart at the center of all his tales and while the humanity is always mannered in a specific way, his movies are always, in fact, humane. And so the latest venture of the American Empirical troupe of cast and crew makes its way to another exotic locale in Eastern Europe where we are privy to the styles and tribulations of a small republic named Zubrowska. All of the regulars for Anderson are here, his dependable stable of actors following him from film to film no matter how meaningless the role; but there is one exception: the inclusion of the absolutely exquisite Ralph Fiennes.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Wind Rises (**)

Written and Directed by Hayao Miyazaki


The empire of Studio Ghibli is about to lose its foremost patriarch, the legendary filmmaker Hayao Mayazaki - or so he says. His latest film, The Wind Rises, is meant to be his final work before retirement. This is a threat that Mayazaki has posed to his fans several times, but this time it's been taken with the utmost seriousness. So what to make of his last film? It certainly feels like the most adult, the least whimsical. Like all of his films, it feels intentionally paced and requires patience to truly absorb, but it's charms feel muted and suppressed. It expects its audience to be on a different reading level than those of say My Neighbor Totoro or Howl's Moving Castle. Mayazaki's final film is less of a cathartic goodbye but a quiet walk behind the curtain, and while his usual beautiful visual style is well intact, The Wind Rises is not equipped with quite the same engrossing story from his best work. The Wind Rises peddles on as a fictional biography of one of Japan's most polarizing figures, Jiro Horikoshi, the man who designed the deadly Zero airplane's the Empire of Japan used during World War II.