Embrace of the Serpent

April 24, 2016 at 4:59 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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This deeply affecting Colombian film purports to be based on the journals of German scientist Theodor Koch-Grunberg from his exploration of the Amazon River in 1909. The film covers his story and that of another (probably entirely fictionalized) scientist decades later taking the same journey. Both men are taken down (or, perhaps, up, depending on your perspective) the river by a shaman. Along the way, they encounter various groups of people, each making their own commentary on the relationship between whites and natives, reminiscent of Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” Like that one, this story is rich with metaphor, albeit of a different sort. The title seems to suggest both the serpent of the Garden of Eden and the anaconda at the heart of a local creation myth; it could be both that which created everything natural and edenic and/or that which cast us out from it. At different points, the shaman refers to both himself and Koch-Grunberg as the snake, furthering that dual interpretation and leaving us to wonder which serpent is being embraced and who is doing the embracing: you or the serpent? This back and forth plays out through the film as it ponders heavy and disturbing subject matter, such as it is better to be assimilated or annihilated? The film is not light fare and it can get a bit mired down in parts. However, when the story lags, one can always be distracted by the beautiful visuals. Black and white is the perfect medium for a film about stark concepts like good and evil. Anyone who has seen a lot of black and white films knows that they can have very different feels. This one is very dark and murky with lots of low light and black backgrounds and black is never so black in film as it is in black and white. Beautiful views of the jungle, animals, the river, people and the sky were deeply textured and rich. The film is truly visually stunning from its beginning to its very strange end.

 

Fireworks Wednesday

April 17, 2016 at 6:22 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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Director Asghar Farhadi has become a go to favorite of mine. I was very taken by his masterful “A Separation” (my review is here). Fortunately, so were enough other Americans that his earlier films are slowly being released in the U.S.  His 2009 “About Elly” (review here) was a stunning film and we now have his 2006 “Fireworks Wednesday” (review literally here) to add to the list. While not quite as polished as those last two, this is still a strong work and shows his great strength as a filmmaker. Farhadi’s films all deal with the relationship between men and women (particularly within the context of marriage) is modern Iran. If I base my understanding of Iran entirely on Farhadi’s films, I would say the country has been going through a massive cultural shift over the past 15 years and that the core of Iranian society, the family unit, has been the most affected. Farhadi seems intent on exploring these quickly shifting dynamics. This film tells the story of three different relationships, primarily through the eyes of the women. One is an idyllic young girl on the verge of marriage and madly in love; one is an angry and suspicious woman who’s marriage seems to be unraveling and the last one is a woman who’s husband left her several years ago. The young engaged girl has been brought in to houseclean for a couple about to go on vacation. She watches helplessly as the couple rages against each other and she finds herself naively drawn into their drama. The twisting plot unfolds over the course of a Wednesday, the eve of a major Iranian holiday, during which fireworks are set off, hence the name with all of its double meanings. Where this story stumbles a bit is in how long it takes the plot to unfold. The audience struggles at first to understand what we are seeing and the screamed dialogue sometimes flashes by so fast on the screen that it is difficult to follow along. It’s a small quibble but an important one. Some people in my audience fell asleep waiting for the film to take root. Once you understand what the wife is doing, the audience is drawn into whether or not she is right or paranoid. Farhadi knows how to draw deep performances out of his actors. One just has to compare the two main characters (the young girl and the married woman) to see that skill. The girl’s every move and look was so full of innocence; she is a person in love with her life who believes so much in a sort of universal fairness and it shows in every look and action she takes. On the other hand, the married woman looked so broken, exhausted and defeated all the time. Those were both such powerful performances. Also, there is a scene where the woman’s young son (maybe 6 or 7 years old) is crying and talking to his uncle. I was amazed by that scene. The boy was so realistically sobbing while trying to talk; I have no idea how Farhadi created that moment but it felt completely genuine. Farhadi also has an eye for visuals and creating elements of tension. There is a scene near the end where the husband is driving the young girl home. People in the streets are celebrating, setting off fireworks and burning things, but the feel of those streets is much more like a war zone than a celebration, suggesting the seething potential for destruction just under the surface of these people’s lives. When the girl finally reconnects with her fiance, Farhadi builds the tension of that scene flawlessly, allowing the audience to wonder where it will go and what the future might hold for this couple. When they drive off in one direct and the husband drives in another toward his fractured marriage, we can wonder how widely those two roads diverge. That that question is never close to answered is part of Farhadi’s genius as well.

The Jungle Book

April 17, 2016 at 5:41 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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In preparation for seeing this film, I reread Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” for the first time in probably 25 years this week (or at least the portion from which the movie is drawn). I also rewatched portions of the 1967 classic. All of which is to say that I felt prepared for what to expect; I was not. From the earliest moments, the audience knows it’s in for a visual treat. Much as I had heard about the special effects, I had steadfastly avoided any previews, so I was completely unprepared for how realistic those animals were. The way they walked, the way the wind moved through their fur, the way they reacted with anger or fear, was all so remarkably realistic. I found the wolves, in particular, to be mesmerizing but all of the creatures were truly stunning. And the vivid Indian jungle was just as beautiful and rich. I have no idea how much of what we saw was set and how much was CGI and it all blended seamlessly. Director Jon Favreau (“Chef,” “Swingers” and the bonanza that was the “Iron Man” series) has shown his skill at both big box office CGI and small, character driven stories. Both were on display here, with these animated animals showing a remarkable amount of personality. Beyond just the look of it, the film was very much a Jungle Book story, by which I mean it was no more or less like the original book than the first film. In fact, it drew some elements from the book that the original film did not (with nice nods to a porcupine, peacock and elephants, all of which has small roles in Kipling’s story). It also referenced the original film in some fun and loving ways; even at their corniest, these scenes worked, largely because of the nostalgia they engendered in the audience. That said, the story itself was largely a whole new creation; it started with elements of the book and then when in it’s own direction. With a stellar cast of stars, the voice-over work was excellent, though Idris Elba was a standout as the menacing Shere Khan. The young boy playing Mowgli, Neel Sethi (in his first full length film), did a passable job; his acting was sometimes a bit wooden but he also had a playfulness and snarkiness that worked well for the character. With the exception of the songs from the original film, the score was wholly uneventful and paint-by-numbers, though perhaps that is what you want in a children’s movie. Speaking of which, it is interesting to compare this one to the 1967 version, which was so much tamer and less intense. I don’t think this would have been considered a kids movie 25 years ago, much less 50 years ago. I’m not sure what that tells us but it is interesting to think about. Deeper philosophical questions aside, this was a genuinely fun film from start to finish.

Everybody Wants Some!!

April 11, 2016 at 10:56 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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Richard Linklater is one of my favorite directors in large part because he has shown a love for his characters and an ability to make them so deeply complex and human. This is especially noticeable in films like “Boyhood” and the “Before Sunrise” series. With “Everybody Wants Some,” he certainly shows that familiar optimistic view of humanity; his characters are all so generously portrayed that it’s hard to dislike any of them. However, lovable though they may be, deep they are not. This film has been called a sequel, of sorts, to “Dazed and Confused;” the 1993 film that put Linklater on the map. That story covers one day in the life of a group of high school students in 1976. Now, we have the story of one weekend in the life of a different group of college kids in 1980. They are the spiritual twins of those other kids, now all 4 years older. “Everybody” has “Dazed”‘s gentle and somewhat rambling good nature. Everybody is likable, if somewhat goofy, and they just hang around being young. But therein also lies the problem. This story has no story. It’s just a a series of almost random vignettes that all seem to be trying to capture some sense of what it meant to be young in 1980. Here we have a little disco; over there is some “Urban Cowboy;” how about a little “Rapper’s Delight?” Most of these moments are cute and sweet and sometimes funny but they don’t add up to much. By the end of the film, nothing feels as though it has had any weight and none of the people mean anything to me. I couldn’t help but think of the final moments of “Boyhood,” wherein the simplest scene was so poignant because that character was fully realized. As fun as this film was, it was all a bit insubstantial and I couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed. I guess have just come to expect so much more from Richard Linklater.

Zootopia

April 3, 2016 at 7:17 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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In the current world of animated movies, this one strikes me as sub-par for the course. Admittedly, following on the heels of “Inside Out” would be a difficult task, and this one tries admirably to have something more going on beneath its amiable surface. Following the tale (sorry) of an intrepid bunny police officer as she solves a series of missing mammal cases, the story seems to be trying to say something about race relations and various ways of being different in general. But, the analogy is not a perfect fit and could lead to some uncomfortable messages, if you try to apply it too strictly. The “predators are people too” take-away sits uneasily within our real-world cultural issues, which makes me wonder how much of that message is meant to be implied at all. What is clearer are the film’s many references to pop culture, be it film (“The Godfather,” “48 Hours”), television (“Breaking Bad”), music (Shakira) or anything Disney (“Frozen,” ad nauseam). These are clearly the little Easter eggs planted to keep adults amused but none of them felt as clever as I have seen before (with the exception of the “Breaking Bad” one, which did make me chuckle). This is not to say the film is bad. In fact, it’s good enough. The characters are all likable and the story-line is mildly compelling and it did genuinely make me laugh a few times. I just think the bar has been raised by Pixar and, while this is a pretty decent kids film, it’s not a great film, overall.

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