Monday, November 25, 2013
The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza)
Rome is indisputably one of the most magnificent and
cinematic cities in the world. Italian
Sorrentino proudly pays tribute to this ancient gem and
poetically expresses his nostalgia toward the city's
glorious past in his absorbing new
film "The Great
Beauty" (La grande bellezza | Italy/France 2013
| in Italian | 142 min.). By using the film's protagonist as
a metaphor, the film reminds us the city's rich history and
its uncertain future, while taking us on a grand tour over
Rome's exquisite glamor. The film has
as Italy's submission to compete for the Best Foreign Language
Film Award at this year's Oscar.
The film opens with the 65th birthday celebration of Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), a journalist who wrote his only (masterpiece) novel called "The Human Apparatus" about four decades ago. Yet, somehow he continues to enjoy the fame among the elite circle to this day. Impeccably dressed and irresistibly charming, he socializes and parties with the rich and famous all night long in Rome. He goes to bed when others wake up in the morning. And when he does wake up and steps out into the terrace of his apartment, he overlooks the Colosseum, no less.
Life seems good for Jep. But when he strolls down the stone paved streets, tours historical structures, and interacts with different people in Rome, his observant and expressive eyes are full of longing for his past, with a sense of sadness realizing that everything is drifting away from him, including this extraordinary city he calls home.
The film takes you from one scene to another in an unconventional narrative style, as if you are viewing various works in a museum. However, regardless which piece of work you are seeing in this fine museum, it is intriguing if not striking. You catch your breath to keep up with the film's pace, like a tourist—still delighted even exhausted at times.
The film's lavish imagery is a magnificent feast to the eyes. The film's terrific music score is operatic. The movement of the camera makes you feel that you are soaring like a bird above this splendid city. Combining them together, the film resembles an elegantly composed grand opera.
The character of Jep is more a symbolic figure of Rome than a realistic real life individual. His reflection on his past and his pondering toward his future is precisely what this great city is facing. When Jep goes down his memory lane during his sober and waking hours, Rome gracefully lays out its glorious history.
When the final credits roll on the screen, you get to travel in the Tevere with the gliding camera. You are enchanted and awestruck by the city's great beauty one more time before your book your airline tickets heading to Rome to see it in person.
Friday, November 22, 2013
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
It has been typical that a sequel from an action film
franchise is more a tool to generate revenue from its fans
than a movie to tell a compelling story. But
Lawrence effectively changes that perception with his
Games: Catching Fire" (USA 2013 | 146 min.), the
second installment based on Suzanne
Collins's young adult novel trilogy. The
film handsomely delivers exciting entertainment with
captivating storytelling, fine performances by a terrific
ensemble cast, and a striking fashion showcase.
The film is set in a future nation called Panem in an era of post civilization. Panem's glamorous Capital controls 12 enslaved districts. Each year, a teenager boy and a teenager girl from each district are sent to the Capital to compete in the Hunger Games in which only one survivor as the winner by killing all others. With a twist in the previous installment "The Hunger Games," both fierce Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and sensitive Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) from District 12 became the winners of the 74th Hunger Games.
After winning the game, Katniss returns back to District 12 and reunites with her childhood friend Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) and her family. However, Katniss and Peeta must go around the districts on a Victor's Tour, along with their alcoholic mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), flamboyant public relation handler Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), and brilliant stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz).
Monitoring their tour closely, Snow (Donald Sutherland), the powerful President of Panem, senses the unrest from many Districts inspired by the action of Katniss during the 74th Hunger Games. He certainly cannot tolerate any rebellion tendency under his brutal rule.
To take action, President Snow hires a calculating gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to mastermind the 75th Annual Hunger Games—The Quarter Quell. In a grand and magnificent style like an opening ceremony at an Olympic game, hosted by a sensational host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), Snow announces that "the tributes are to be reaped from the existing pool of victors" from each district.
Without a choice, Katniss and Peeta are back to the barbaric game again. Physically and psychologically, they must fight for survival against other tributes as well as their real enemy—President Snow.
What an engaging, brutal, and thrilling game the film displays!
Director Francis Lawrence is brilliant for not treating the material solely as another action sequel. In the first half of the film, he takes time to develop a few compelling characters. He allows the audience get to know these tributes as human beings with distinct personalities. Then in the second half of the film, they are mercilessly herded into a killing ground for entertainment, like the slaves at the Colosseum in Rome.
The story grippingly unfolds as if the characters are playing a chess game, only with their lives. They predict what their opponents' next move might be and take actions accordingly. Despite the brutality, the chess game is terrifically played out while spectators are glued to the chess board throughout the battle. Even the action sequences are carefully crafted as part of the game instead of just a showoff about the computer generated imagery.
The film is also remarkably convincing despite its sci-fi setting. It doesn't provide any special power to any of these characters. That makes them sympathetic and believable. The stunning game set seems possible to make with today's technology (except the television sets which might be secretly developed in some high-tech company at this very moment).
With this excellent installment, director Francis Lawrence firmly establishes his standing among the fans of the Hunger Games franchise, and the film's noticeable achievements in many technical aspects will surely be recognized in the upcoming award season. While the final credit rolling on the IMAX screen, I realize that I am looking forward to director Francis Lawrence's next installment already. A game well played indeed.
Friday, November 15, 2013
How I Live Now
In recent years, there are plenty films set in a gloomy
apocalyptic future. Joining the party, here comes
Macdonald's uneven "How I Live
Now" (UK 2013 | 101 min.). Adapted
Rosoff's young adult
the film tells a story about a teenager's crush and survival
when World War III breaks out. Unlike other apocalyptic
films, this film depicts the doomsday as not terribly
devastating. It even offers an illusion that in the end, the
kids will be alright—as the film's protagonist tells
us how she live now, and now refers to post
World War III.
In sometimes in the future, germ-phobic and agitated 15-year-old Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) travels from New York to a country house outside of London to spend the summer with her three cousins. Her cheerful 14-year-old cousin Isaac (Tom Holland) picks her up from the airport and brings her to the unkept country house where the youngsters seem to be on their own and the adults are visibly missing. Nothing around seems to interest Daisy, including her talkative 6-year-old cousin Piper (Harley Bird). But when Daisy spots her third cousin—the enigmatic, quiet, handsome, blue-eyed Eddie (George MacKay)—her heart stops. It's love at first sight, although she tries to conceal her crush at the beginning.
The film shows little interest in elaborating the background story surrounding these children. Instead, with dreamy visual, the film follows them swimming in a sun kissed lake, gazes them playing in a scenic countryside pasture, and witnesses Daisy and Eddie falling in love.
But that doesn't last very long. Suddenly, World War III breaks out and martial law is declared in the Britain. Daisy and Piper are forced to evacuate into a suburban home outside of London, separated from Eddie and Isaac. The separation from Eddie makes Daisy feel unbearable more than the hard labor and harsh living condition do. One night, Daisy escapes the house with Riper and begins her dangerous quest of heading back to the country house on foot, hoping to reunite with Eddie.
Despite a sometimes ludicrous narrative, director Kevin Macdonald manages to keep us captivated from the point of view of an eccentric teenager with the help from a fine performance by Saoirse Ronan. The film doesn't make Daisy more heroic than a 15-year-old who is madly in love. The decisions she makes often seem impulsive and illogical. For example, what makes her think that the country house should be immune from the destruction of the war? Why should Eddie still be living there when the entire nation is under martial law and evacuated? It might make perfect sense in the mind of a teenager girl who is longing for her lover in a stressed environment. However, it's quite different when the film also disregards such logic and reasoning.
It's a tremendous risk for Daisy to take when she starts her dangerous journey in a forest on a ruined foreign soil with little food and water supply, tailed by an exhausted six-year-old child, and hunted by barbaric terrorists. Her source of strength is nothing more than the constant flash back of a blue-eyed, shirtless Eddie. Speaking of the power of crush.
The first half of the film is mysterious, romantic, and intriguing. But the second half is inexcusably sloppy and preposterous. You might think Daisy must have become insane when she goes through a pile of abandoned body bags at one point in the film, in spite of Daisy's germ-phobic anxiety deliberately established earlier in the film multiple times. You wonder if Daisy becomes crazy when she yells at Riper to stop whining and keep hiking if Riper wants to see her brothers again. But you are pretty sure that soon Daisy is going to show up at a local farmer's market when she grows her vegetables in a sunny garden at the end of the film, while telling us how she lives now.
World War III? No big deal. Have a heartthrob in mind to keep your spirit up, and you will be fine. Otherwise, good luck to you.
Friday, November 1, 2013
12 Years a Slave
If you are to picture the injustice of slavery in the US
history, what might come to your mind? A black and white
washed-out photo of a chained black slave? Or perhaps a
lifeless body hanging from the neck next to a white slaver
owner? Or maybe that is simply too abstract and difficult
to be visualized? Based on a true
story during 1841-1853, acclaimed British
McQueen's compelling new film "12 Years a
Slave" (USA 2013 | 134 min.) not only puts
horrendous slavery on vivid display, it also creates
numerous unforgettably powerful images that will come to
your mind whenever slavery is mentioned.
In 1841, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is an educated middle-class black musician who comfortably lives with his wife and children in Saratoga, NY. During a trip to Washington pursuing a music performance opportunity, he wakes up in a basement and is chained to a wall. Then his kidnappers sell him to Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti) as a runaway slave from the South. Solomon Northup loses his freedom, his family, and his name—he is given a name "Platt." He begins to endure his hideous ordeal that lasts twelve years, but he never loses his hope to live as a free man again.
In one of the many difficult-to-watch scenes in the film, Theophilus Freeman sells off Solomon Northup to a preacher and slave-owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). After he confronts a crude and jealousy master John Tibeats (Paul Dano), he is sold again, to a brutal plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) in Louisiana.
Each slave must pick at least 200 pounds of cotton in the field daily in order to avoid lashes. But the hard labor in the Southern heat is just the iceberg. A young slave named Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) is not only a sexual prey for Epps, but also a victim of constant torment from Epps's wife (Sarah Paulson) who is equally cruel as Epps.
Misery is the norm for Solomon, Patsey, and every slave. The misery may be damaging Solomon's physical body, but it never breaks Solomon's spirit. He seizes every opportunity to regain his freedom.
In his previous films "Shame" (UK 2011) and "Hunger" (UK/Ireland 2008), both with Michael Fassbender's outstanding performance as the protagonist, director Steve McQueen is known for being shockingly raw and unflinching bold about the characters he creates and the stories he tells. Once again, in the most uncompromising style, he crafts a few arresting characters that can be viewed as the epitome of the ugliest chapter of American slavery history. He masterfully leads you back in time to relive that period, with a tour-de-force performance from an extraordinary ensemble cast, superb cinematic visual, and even a haunting music score.
One of the most mesmerizing long take in the film is when Solomon is hung from a tree in the summer heat, barely touching the ground with his toes, guarded by a slave master with a rifle. It's eerily quiet. Other slaves are carrying on their work and children are playing in the background—nothing appears to be out of ordinary. That is the kind of striking images that director Steve McQueen is able to imprint to your brain.
As if the brutality of slavery is not horrible enough for Solomon to suffer, he also must endure the psychological trauma from the injustice of being enslaved as a free man. Chiwetel Ejiofor is superb as Solomon. He exhibits Solomon's agony and devastation without being sentimental. He portrays an extraordinary human being whose freedom is robbed, but not his dignity. Without a question, Chiwetel Ejiofor deserves an Academy Award nomination. Mexican-born, Kenyan-raised Yale graduate Lupita Nyong'o is surely to be another award season favorite for her unforgettable acting debut as the physically and psychologically tortured Patsey.
Like his past collaborations with the director, terrific Michael Fassbender is shockingly convincing in his role as the barbaric slave owner Epps. He brilliantly creates a complex character that is anything but one-dimensionally evil.
The film makes you feel the excruciating pain as if those lashes are landing on your back; it evokes profound rage toward slavery; it captures slaves' humanity and spirit, as well as their horrific suffering. Director Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave" remarkably puts American's racial tension into a historical perspective and it should be included in every American school's curriculum.