REVIEW: Neruda

13 12 2016

nerudaHouston Cinematic Arts Festival

2016 has been a great year for films that toy with the notion of genre; “Neruda” is the second from Pablo Larraín in this calendar year alone. Like “Jackie,” this is a work at war with the preconceived notion of the biopic. Although in this film, Larraín and screenwriter Guillermo Calderón seek less to redefine the genre so much as they desire to smash it.

This portrait of Chilean poet and political activist Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) casts scant attention on his artistic achievements or his radicalization. If you wish to come away from “Neruda” knowing these things, you’ll have to head to Wikipedia while the credits roll. Instead, the film more closely resembles a police mystery with Gael García Bernal’s inspector Óscar Peluchonneau hunting down the fugitive Neruda. It’s a cat and mouse thriller, and the mouse is particularly elusive because he can shape-shift.

Neruda, ever the writer, confounds the search by essentially turning his life into a novel before our own eyes. Separating the truth from his narrative spin becomes trickier with each passing scene, especially because Neruda is quite a playful author. From the film itself, Peluchonneau comes across like a long-lost brother of Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc Sportello from “Inherent Vice.” Is that his actual persona? We’re not meant to know – or care.

I always understood the intended effect of “Neruda,” but Larraín’s insistence on keeping us at arm’s length proved frustrating. With such distance, the film feels like a cold intellectual exercise – something to understand but not involve yourself in. In the absence of any kind of connection or investment, the labyrinthine plot comes to tire by the end of the film. B-2stars

REVIEW: Desierto

16 11 2016

desiertoWhat do you do when the scope of your filmmaking calls for a big screen experience but your story only has the breadth to sustain a short film? It’s a trade-off that filmmakers must consider when determining how to bring an idea to fruition. In an ideal world, short-form storytelling would have a place on in theaters apart from film festivals, but that world has not yet arrived.

Jonás Cuarón’s “Desierto” faces such a dilemma with an admittedly thin plot set in a foreboding, larger than life landscape. The film boils down to a survival tale along the U.S.-Mexico border where migrants scuffle across in search of their families on the other side, facing their threat personified in the form of a nativist vigilante militiaman. (His truck is adorned with a Confederate flag and a bumper sticker declaring “My Home,” in case anyone missed it.) With retribution on his mind and a rifle in his hand, Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Sam begins taking the immigrants for target practice.

In some respects, “Desierto” has the makings of a great elemental survival movie, especially when so much responsibility for the fate of the group comes to ride on the shoulders of Gael García Bernal’s Moises. Cuarón does, however, dole out enough specific information about characters and their circumstances that it calls for greater development. The inhumanity of their assassinations cries out for the film to treat these migrants with humanity, which is something that Cuarón does not take the time to do in full. Stretching the material that could barely sustain a 45-minute short seems to command all of his attention. Cuarón provides thrills, chills and international ills, but empathy is the missing ingredient. B2halfstars

REVIEW: Rosewater

10 11 2014

RosewaterTelluride Film Festival

It is fairly common for a director to choose a protagonist that they identify with to some degree – after all, why devote years of your life to telling someone’s story if you cannot connect to them?  Thus, Christopher Nolan directs films about obsessive heroes, David O. Russell has recently been looking at characters trying to reinvent themselves, and Woody Allen devotes movie after movie to sexually tense intellectuals (just to name a few).

At first glance, few similarities appear between Jon Stewart, the director of the film “Rosewater,” and its subject, Maziar Bahari.  Stewart is, of course, a wildly popular satirical newscaster who has left an indelible mark on American political discourse.  Bahari, on the other hand, is an Iranian-Canadian journalist who dared to document the tense 2009 elections in his home country.  They did happen to somewhat cross paths, though, as Bahari appeared on a segment for The Daily Show.

This humorous interview was entertainment for Americans and evidence for the Iranian government, which was looking to clamp down on dissidents in the wake of former President Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election.  Bahari spent nearly four months in jail there, much of it in solitary confinement, while being interrogated ruthlessly as an enemy of the state.  “Rosewater” may very well exist as a film to placate the guilt in Stewart’s soul for his small role in causing this pain.

Yet self-absolution is far too simplistic an explanation for the film, as Stewart clearly identifies a kindred spirit in Bahari.  They face remarkably different circumstances and stakes in their line of work, obviously, but Stewart and Bahari both speak truth to power by relying on principles of logic and reason.  In the face of resistance, neither is afraid to use to ridicule the institutional folly.  Whether Bahari actually embodies these characteristics is anybody’s guess.  It is not hard, however, to imagine Stewart standing in the holding cell delivering his lines.

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Telluride Film Festival Diary, Day 3

31 08 2014

8:30 A.M.: Up early to talk with Mike Leigh and then hit up one of my most anticipated films of the festival –  the Marion Cotillard-starring “Two Days, One Night.”

11:30 A.M.: Floored by “Two Days, One Night.” A fascinating look at the internal tussle between self-interest and self-sacrifice. Now headed to the noon panel!

1:00 P.M.: Ugh, nothing worse than having to leave an incredible panel that featured Jon Stewart, Gael Garcia Bernal, Bennett Miller (director of “Moneyball” and “Foxcatcher”), and Jean-Marc Vallee (director of “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Wild”). But now I’m about to see an obscure silent film with live accompaniment, which is certainly a cool thing. Even if the movie is a dud, it is certainly a unique experience to cross off the cinematic bucket list.

5:30 P.M.: Well, the silent film was a pretty neat thing to see. I was not entirely in the right mindset to watch that kind of a film, so I didn’t necessarily engage with it on a level I’d hoped.

Then we had student Q&A sessions with the Dardennes (who directed “Two Days, One Night”) and Morten Tyldum (who directed “The Imitation Game,” which I did even get to see). I told the French-speaking Dardennes bonjour, which was sadly all the interaction I had with them. I had a great question for them, but I didn’t get called on. The conversation with Tyldum was surprisingly interesting, considering that none of us saw the film.

Now, on to “Dancing Arabs,” an Israeli-Palestinian film that I know absolutely nothing about. And sometimes, that’s not a bad thing.

8:45 P.M.: GOT INTO “FOXCATCHER.” Festival = made. And James Gray, the director of my favorite 2014 film “The Immigrant,” is sitting two rows behind me!

Also, I ran into Ramin Bahrani, the director of “99 Homes,” while in line for the bathroom today. I told him how much I enjoyed the film, and he replied in astonishment that I was able to stay awake. I also chatted him up about Winston-Salem, where he filmed a short that played before the presentation last night. Pretty cool stuff!

Oh, and “Dancing Arabs” was mediocre, in case you were wondering.

12:11 A.M.:  Back from “Foxcatcher.”  What a cerebral, brooding film.  Definitely going to spend some time in deliberation on this one.  Reminds me of how I felt emerging from “The Master.”

Anyways, tomorrow is the day when the festival reprograms the films that had lots of turnaways – so wish me luck as I attempt to catch “Rosewater” and “Wild.”  So now I’m going to try to finish the book of the latter … which I doubt will happen.

F.I.L.M. of the Week (July 25, 2014)

25 07 2014

Even the RainApparently, everyone from NPR to CollegeHumor is trying to make “Columbusing” a thing.  The phrase is used to describe the act of false discovery and claiming it as your own.  So in the spirit of trying to be trendy, my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” is Iciar Bollain’s “Even the Rain,” a Spanish film that quite literally looks at the original act of “Columbusing” and its ramifications.

Bollain’s film takes off from a story where life quite literally begins to imitate art.  In “Even the Rain,” Gael García Bernal stars as Sebastian, a Spanish director looking to film a movie about the Spanish conquest of Latin America on the cheap in Bolivia.  He ultimately gets quite a bit more than he bargained for in his location, however.

At the same time as his picture is shooting, great civil unrest and riots are rocking the community.  The workers are suffering at the hands of multinational corporations that are charging exorbitant fees for access to water.  Sebastian and his creative team find themselves drawn into the conflict, against their desires and wishes, when one of the Bolivian stars of their film leads vehement opposition against their exploitation.

Bollain’s film raises important questions about colonialism, both ancient and modern.  And thanks to fine performances from Bernal (who always seems to pick the best Spanish-language projects – no offense, “Letters to Juliet“) and Carlos Aduviri as the Bolivian firebrand, “Even the Rain” is more than just a political diatribe.  It’s gripping cinema with a real conscience.


22 08 2013

No PosterNo” has the look of the VHS tapes that I watched in high school Spanish, a campy educational telenovela called “Destinos.”  Pablo Larrain’s film is definitely informative and enlightening, but it’s meant to be taken far more seriously than any corny classroom staple.  His gripping political procedural finds beauty in its unseemly U-matic aesthetic, giving “No” a documentary-style feel of veracity and allowing us to get all the more invested in the outcome.

And I was already on board with the film’s subject, a display of how the language of public relations and advertising (a potential career path for me) can be used to save the world for democracy.  In the 1988 Chilean plebiscite, voters were offered a simple referendum as to whether they wanted to keep dictator Augusto Pinochet in power.  Each side received 15 minutes to promote their cause.

At a disadvantage since they had to change the established order, the “no” campaign brought on a creative mind from outside the political sphere, René Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal).  A successful advertiser that’s every bit as eccentric as the Mark Zuckerberg of “The Social Network,” Saavedra brings the language of his industry to the table and changes the game.  They are no longer selling a vote against the atrocities and crimes of Pinochet; they are selling a vote for happiness and a better life under a new regime.

While it’s now commonplace to see PR trump the issues in American politics (usually not for the better), Larrain takes a rather non-judgmental stance on Saavedra’s revolutionary “no” campaign.  It’s fascinating to watch the events unfold from a distance, although there were times I wished “No” delved more into the psyche of Bernal’s Saavedra.  As a result, it’s not exactly the most rousing political drama – but it’s definitely one to make you think about the way in which modern elections are conducted.  B+3stars

REVIEW: Casa De Mi Padre

8 08 2012

If you ever needed a definitive case against vanity projects, “Casa De Mi Padre” should be the first bullet-point of your presentation.  Conceptually, it’s a Funny or Die video that is somehow allowed to last longer than three minutes.  An hour and twenty minutes longer, as a matter of fact.  At half the length of “The Dark Knight Rises,” it still manages to feel twice as long.  How that’s even possible still baffles me.

All the humor of Will Ferrell’s tacky Spanglish speaking is drained by the opening credits.  Any sort of political statement the movie was trying to make has already been made by Robert Rodriguez in “Machete,” a parody movie that also did in “Casa De Mi Padre” by using all the tricks of self-referential Mexploitation films first – and also better.  I didn’t even care for Rodriguez’s film all that much, but it had something that screenwriter Andrew Steele couldn’t provide this movie: a plot!

Every scene in “Casa De Mi Padre” just feels like a new YouTube video from the same Mexploitation parody channel with most of the same actors.  It’s not just that the tongue-in-cheek casting of Will Ferrell gets old incredibly quickly.  You could cast Antonio Banderas or Javier Bardem, and even if they put on a comedic game face, they couldn’t salvage the sheer juvenility of the movie.  It’s so stupid that it makes those weird  Adult Swim animated shows look like high art.

So if you’re still curious about how low comedy can go and “The Watch” wasn’t nearly torturous enough for you, by all means, check out “Casa De Mi Padre.”  You may wish Thomas Edison hadn’t pioneered the craft of film to begin with.  D-

REVIEW: Letters to Juliet

7 12 2010

The Italian countryside has got to be the single most beautiful place in the world.  Apologies to Amanda Seyfried, but “Letters to Juliet” is a romance (not even comedy) that doesn’t deserve to feature the gorgeous country in its background.  Given the quality of the script, the disillusioned lover played by Seyfried should be traversing back alleys to find the long lost love of Claire (the graceful, ageless beauty Vanessa Redgrave).

Shakespeare’s well-known tragedy “Romeo & Juliet” gets a fairy-tale romantic twist here as Sophie (Seyfried) ventures to Verona for her pre-wedding honeymoon with her all-too-occupied fiancé (Gael Garcia Bernal).  A journalist, she discovers the secret behind the letters left for the fictional Juliet in the wall of her house.  They are answered by the “secretaries of Juliet,” yet one letter manages to stay lodged behind a rock.  Sophie takes it upon herself to answer it personally, finding Claire and her well-groomed grandson Charlie (Christopher Egan).  Believing her love is still out there, they embark on a journey to find her Romeo.

From then on, all originality goes out the window and formula takes over.  Charlie and Sophie have the typical romantic arc: hate turns to not hate, and somehow not hating someone means you are in love!  If love in real life was like it is in romantic comedies nowadays, what a depressing world it would be.

Poor Claire for having to put up with their sudden infatuation in denial, and poor Vanessa Redgrave for having her name on this movie.  While it’s certainly darling that she got to make a movie that had echoes of her own life, no Academy Award winner deserves to star in something like this.  Apart from Redgrave, I struggle to find much good to say about this movie.  Italy and Amanda Seyfried look good, perhaps?  Or maybe that I would have really liked this movie if it was the first romantic comedy I had ever seen?

As Taylor Swift’s song goes, “It’s a love story, baby just say yes.”  When it comes to “Letters for Juliet,” maybe you should say no (unintentionally another Taylor Swift quote).  C-