REVIEW: The Lobster

29 05 2016

The LobsterAt the risk of sounding perilously similar to Rep. Louie Gohmert, who recently suggested gays should be left out of space colonies since they cannot reproduce, there are important biological and social reasons why human beings should pair off. The simplest argument, of course, concerns reproduction and the continuation of our species. But bountiful research also suggests the tremendous drawbacks of living life in isolation – depression, poor health, low communal ties, and so on.

Writers Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou never tip their hand about what led up to the society they create in The Lobster,” though one imagines it likely involves some of the factors listed above. In their milieu, anyone without a life partner gets politely sent off to a hotel where they must find a match within 45 days – or face becoming transformed into the animal of their choice. Love, in other words, has been stripped of all romance and reduced to little more than social utility.

As public demonstrations from the manager (Olivia Colman) remind guests of why couples represent the ideal human arrangement, highly regulated activities nudge them towards identifying a partner with some shared characteristic over which they can begin a life together. Pretensions of status, class or wealth cannot cloud the decision, either. This total institution strips away individuality by forcing all participants to adhere to a simple, drab uniform by their gender.

The protagonist served to us, Colin Farrell’s David, serves as a guide through the many possibilities of this ecosystem. Some choose to throw themselves at anyone in the hopes of identifying someone equally as desperate. Others face public punishment for finding pleasure with themselves. A few brave souls are willing to stake their future on a lie in order to leave the hotel.

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REVIEW: Spectre

15 11 2015

Sam Mendes made a great Bond film with writers John Logan, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade in “Skyfall” because they embraced a tricky opposition between the past and the future.  Could the unabashedly old-fashioned spy James Bond survive in a more gritty, grey world without sacrificing his core identity? They found that the answer was yes by striking a balance between these two forces vying for the soul of 007.

The band gets back together for “Spectre” (plus an additional writer in Jez Butterworth, architect of many a frustrating script in the past two years) and finds themselves preoccupied by the same kind of debate. This time, instead of the fear of age leading to obsolescence, the anxiety stems from post-Snowden malaise.

When a government has the ability to do its dirty work with drones and collect information on all its citizens through their devices, who needs human intelligence likes James Bond? This question is being seriously debated outside the world of the movie, and kudos to “Spectre” for not ignoring the elephant in the room. But the way Mendes and the writers choose to resolve the tension feels rather disappointing.

They use this threat as an excuse to retreat to some of the most outdated aspects of the character. Womanizing abounds as Bond pity romances a grieving widow to extract a key plot point. And Bond’s reward for neutralizing a key opponent? The “Bond girl,” Lea Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann, immediately feels the need to let him take her to bed. Simply put, there is a way to let James Bond be the ultimate man that does not require denying women agency. “Spectre” does not care to find that way as “Casino Royale” did, justifying lazy misogyny because of a rather facile challenge to Bond’s relevancy.

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REVIEW: Saint Laurent

9 06 2015

Saint LaurentBertrand Bonello goes to war with the biopic genre in “Saint Laurent,” his portrait of iconoclastic French fashion icon Yves Saint Laurent.  Anyone hoping for a highlight reel or a filmed version of his Wikipedia page need not apply here.  In fact, prior to the final segment of the film, where an older incarnation of the designer appears and reflects back on his past, I would be hard pressed to name a single accomplishment of Saint Laurent.

In a sprawling yet highly constricted two and a half hour odyssey, Bonello (with the help of screenwriter Thomas Bidegain, a frequent collaborator with Jacques Audiard) presents scenes from Saint Laurent’s creative zenith of 1967-1976.  Nothing shown meets conventional standards for worthiness of inclusion when portraying a “great man,” however.  What plays out on screen in “Saint Laurent” often feels like the scenes that might immediately precede the big, important dramatic centerpieces of a flashier biopic.

The problem, though, is that these scenes sometimes feel selected with all the curated purpose of an iPod shuffle.  Bonello directs many a great episode within “Saint Laurent,” but if these moments were tiles, they would not add up to a mosaic.  In some sense, this is likely his aim by bucking the established conventions for treating real people in cinema.  Can any life be reduced to some kind of contrived narrative?

The big problem of the film is that it never seems to be about anything.  Bonello tightens the focus of time, but not necessarily the subject matters he sets out to cover.  Is the film about his artistry?  His business savvy?  His success coinciding with some of the biggest French political crises of the modern era?  His sexual libertinism with swinging lothario Jacques de Bascher (Louis Garrel)?  Gaspard Ulliel embodies Saint Laurent with confidence, but Bonello far too often has his star just “be” instead of “do.”

Nonetheless, “Saint Laurent” amount to something radical and worthwhile by painting a titanic figure with evocative, rather than demonstrative, strokes.  Bonello poses quite a challenge with his film, one that he might not solve here.  Yet his call to redefine our ways of seeing public figures as human beings could inspire greatness in a keen filmmaker that can more cogently articulate a thesis or takeaway.  B-2stars





REVIEW: The Grand Budapest Hotel

3 06 2014

Just so we’re clear: I have no problems with auteurism.  For those of you who just saw a French word and panicked, I’m referring to a school of film criticism that looks for recurring patterns throughout the work of an artist (usually the director).  It can often be a very interesting lens through which to analyze a set of films, and auteurism has the ability to shine a light on filmmakers outside of the general circles of critical acclaim.

Like anything in life, the theory has a dark underbelly, and to me, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” represents the perils of auteurism run rampant.  The film is Wes Anderson’s “Django Unchained,” in the sense that it represents a moment of stasis in the progression of a great director.  Anderson is now more than a director; essentially, he’s a brand, expected by customers to deliver a certain consistency of product.

Put into the position of becoming a cinematic McDonald’s, Anderson takes the easy way out by providing an assembly-line reproduction of what he has already created to great admiration.  “The Grand Budapest Hotel” feels like a less vibrant remake of a film he’s already made – or, perhaps more accurately, it feels like all of them at once.  Despite being set in a semi-fictionalized interwar Central Europe, the world Anderson portrays seems reassembled from pieces of “Moonrise Kingdom,” “The Darjeeling Limited,” and even “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”

Even more than Anderson’s last feature-length cinematic outing in 2012, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” takes his telltale stylistic flourishes and puts them to an exponential degree.  Every other take in the film had to be a tracking shot, so it seemed.  The cameos and other miscellaneous odd appearances by acclaimed thespians is now less of an amusing diversion and more of a distracting parade.  The off-beat characters feel less like quirky people and more like paper dolls traipsing around in the elegant house Anderson created for their frolicking delight.

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REVIEW: Blue Is the Warmest Color

15 06 2013

Blue is the Warmest ColorCannes Film Festival – Official Competition

Producers of the upcoming film adaptation of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” I have found your director.  Thank me later.

In the past three weeks since I’ve seen Abdellatif Kechiche’s “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” I have gone back and forth on whether I deem it to be pornography.  What I can say without a doubt, however, is that it features the most graphic depictions of sexuality between any two people that I have ever seen on film.  It takes that honor away from Steve McQueen’s 2011 masterpiece “Shame,” which used pornographic aesthetics to ironically point out just how little pleasure was present in the carnality occurring before our eyes.

Kechiche’s camera, whether voyeuristic or artistic, captures human sexuality between the timid young Adele (newcomer Adele Exarchopolous) and the nubile Emma (Lea Seydoux) at an extremely intimate level.  On the one hand, it seems almost animalistic as we feel their every body movement, see the saliva drip, and hear their every moan.  Yet at the same time, it’s also highly erotic.  Kechiche seems more focused on capturing the act from every angle and less on the experience that Adele and Emma are having.

The story just stops as we are left to gaze at Adele and Emma entangling in a frenzied sexual embrace.  Acting halts as well since the camera just cares about Exarchopolous and Seydoux’s extremities, not their faces.  In addition, Kechiche’s segues into sensuality are so abrupt and unexpected that once the first scene occurs, it’s impossible not to be constantly wondering if the next edit will lead into intertwining limbs or passionate moans.

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