Saturday, April 20, 2013

To The Wonder ★★★

Searching For Love In Unforgiving Times

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

There is not another director working today that connects fluid camera movement with beautiful imagery as well as Terrence Malick does. Shots flow seamlessly together like streams of consciousness; we circle in and out of distant memories from someone else's life. The plot is less important than the ideas expressed, usually in voice-over. That's the best way I can describe what it's like to see a Malick film. It is, for all intents and purposes, visual poetry with religious symbolism sprinkled throughout. The same is true for Malick's latest film, To The Wonder, which deals with a woman's search for tangible love paralleled with a priest's search for God.

That woman, Marina (Olga Kurylenko), lives in Paris with her boyfriend, Neil (Ben Affleck), and her daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline). The film begins by showing the love Marina and Neil share, barely able to keep their hands off of one another. Malick shoots these scenes in an evocative manner, pulling the audience into the passion these two share. When Neil persuades Marina to come back to America with him, their love begins to fade, especially when there's an apparent refusal on Neil's part to marry Marina so she may stay with him. We're introduced to a priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), whose love and devotion to God is dissolving with every less fortunate person he tries to help. 

Marina is in search for "the love that loves us" as she says at one point, and Father Quintana wants proof of God's existence. Marina is so determined to believe in that love that she fails to see what an idiot Neil is. She's blinded by faith, a bit naive, but also spirited and optimistic. Father Quintana is the opposite, his search guided by frustration and distrust. Both stories run parallel throughout the film, which proves less effective than Malick's previous film, The Tree of Life, which brilliantly used ideas of existence to pose similar questions asked in To The Wonder. Using lost love as a metaphor for one's devotion to God is a bit heavy-handed and does not illicit the response I think Malick was going for. 

The main problem is that Malick doesn't seem to have an interest in Neil, the character whose story is placed front and center. Early in the story Marina's green card expires and Neil, seemingly unfazed by the fact that she's forced to leave, wanders aimlessly for a bit before meeting Jane (Rachel McAdams), a woman he knew many years ago with whom he begins a relationship. Malick appears to be obsessed with choice, or in Neil's case, the lack of choice. Neil doesn't know what he wants and therefore cannot commit to either woman. Why either of them ever fall for him is lost on me, but then again, the heart wants what the heart wants. In this case, it's a brooding Affleck. 

For all of To The Wonder's faults, much can be said about the isolation and loneliness that misplaced love can offer. Marina dances in beautiful panoramas, vast and desolate, always in search of a love she may never find. Father Quintana walks in and out of poor neighborhoods surrounded by people yet utterly alone in his desire to find God among the impoverished. The question at the heart of the film is whether or not these two characters will ever find the meaning they're looking for. The beauty of that question is where it takes these characters and how Malick shoots their determination in modern landscapes. 

This is by no means Malick's best effort as a filmmaker - a longer version of the story may have made it a masterpiece - but there's also something hauntingly real about what happens when love is felt for the wrong person. In an era when the divorce rate is at an all-time high, To The Wonder is optimistic in it's approach to love; however misplaced, however intangible, it exists in all of us and allows us to feel, to be human. Maybe that's the point.  

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Trance ★★★½

A Trip Down The Manic Rabbit Hole of Hypnotherapy 

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

Danny Boyle is the type of director whose films become synonymous with his style. This can be used to great effect - most recently his 2007 science fiction thriller Sunshine, and 2008's Slumdog Millionaire, for which he won an Academy Award - but can also infringe too much on the story he's trying to tell, exemplified in his last film 127 Hours. Regardless, I'm usually won over because his formalistic technique is so precise that I cannot help but be in awe of his work. This style of his has been perfectly blended with story in his latest film, Trance, a hypnotic thriller with more twists and turns than I, or likely anyone else out there, was not expecting.

It begins simply enough with Simon (James McAvoy), an art auctioneer who helps a group of art thieves steal a painting but fails to remember what he did with said painting after a blow to the head leaves him with amnesia. The art thieves are led by Franck (Vincent Cassel) who, after realizing torturing Simon is ineffective, hears that hypnosis can help with memory loss and persuades Simon to meet with a hypnotherapist of his choosing. That therapist happens to be played by the lovely Rosario Dawson, who agrees to help Simon after learning the truth about why he's come to see her.

The opening of the film is fairly conventional for a director like Boyle; none of his usual motifs are on display. The moment Simon is hit on the head however, what's real and what's imagined become blurry, and Boyle's style takes hold. Boyle, using every trick he has and then some, manages to flow seamlessly between the real world and the world Simon creates in his head. Cutting back and forth between the two is jarring at times but is not to the detriment of the film. Instead, we feel just as Simon does: like we're losing our minds.The more Simon tries to remember, the harder it becomes to differentiate between the two worlds, and the mania that surrounds Simon from every direction becomes chaotic. It's a trip, and I mean that in the best way possible.

It's the type of script where Boyle can do no wrong. With every new scene there's an invitation for Boyle to ramp up his technique, as if to imply that everything that has come before, both in his career and within the film itself, has been practice for this story.  It works. When the film was finished I actually had to catch my breath and release my grip on the arm rests because of what Trance did to me. This isn't just watching a movie; it's having an experience.

After seeing what Boyle has done here, I can't help but wonder how different a film like Inception (don't get me wrong, I love Inception) could have been with Boyle at the helm. In many ways he's the perfect man to do a film about dreams and consciousness, Trance being a jumping off point for an interesting career shift. But that's the thing with a director like this: no matter what his next project is, you cannot help but be excited to see how his style will shape the finished product. Even with his films that maybe don't work as well, you always get the sense that he's perfecting his skills. Thus, every film of his becomes less a work by Danny Boyle and more a piece of art about Danny Boyle. Trance is the best example to date.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Giving 'Two Thumbs Up' To A Beloved Film Critic

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

It is a truly sad day for cinephiles everywhere like myself as Roger Ebert, film critic for the Chicago Sun Times for forty-six years, has died. As a child, I grew up hearing my parents and virtually every other adult say, "Siskel and Ebert give it two thumbs up," when deciding what movie to see. I remember my old VHS tapes having that phrase above the title of a given movie that these critics admired. At the time, I didn't know who they were, only that if they liked a movie it was a good bet that I would enjoy it as well.

If I'm being fully honest I don't recall ever having watched a full episode of Siskel & Ebert, only after Gene Siskel's death in 1999 did I start watching the show's later version, Ebert & Roeper. Over the course of many years I became more familiar with not only the show but Roger himself. Each week I couldn't wait to read his reviews and the more I read, the more I appreciated him and what he did for film criticism. He's not the only famous movie critic, but he and Gene managed to somehow mainstream film critics in a way that had never been done before. Other critics, new and old alike, credit these men for championing smaller independent films that audiences may not have otherwise known about.

When Roger's health declined, Richard Roeper began bringing on a variety of guest co-hosts, two of them being A.O. Scott of The New York Times and Michael Phillips of The Chicago Tribune. After a while, Phillips became the unofficial permanent co-host of the show, and I found myself eagerly awaiting the debates between he and Roeper each week.

When ABC decided that show needed to appeal to younger audiences, Roeper and Phillips were replaced by Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz, a decision that caused ABC to once again reevaluate after a year. It was Roger who then hand picked Scott and Phillips to host the show, which by this point was renamed simply At The Movies. When Scott and Phillips came on I discovered what so many before me had loved about the Siskel and Ebert years, as they brought back the spirit of the original show. Both men were newspaper critics, and both men brought their own unique approach to writing and discussing film. Scott has a background in literature, often comparing movies to great novels, and Phillips always paid a keen attention to a particular film's score, highlighting the importance of music in film.

Roger recognized their talents from their past guest hosting duties and allowed these two men to keep the show alive while also bringing a fresh perspective to it. From what I've read and understand, Roger was the type of person who enjoyed reading other critics as much as he loved writing his own reviews. It's because of him that I learned the value of film criticism and not only its importance in modern society, but its relevance as well.

He brought back a new version of the show after its cancellation on ABC, entitled Ebert Presents At The Movies and just when I thought there couldn't be any other critics that I would love as much as Scott and Phillips, Roger brought on Christy Lemire of The Associated Press and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky of These two could not have been more drastically different from Scott and Phillips, and yet they were just as entertaining and taught me as much as the critics before them, if not more. They had many disagreements, just like Siskel and Ebert did, but had a great admiration and respect for one another. There was a great chemistry between them that was infectious every time I watched the show.

Roger also brought in a variety of guest critics to discuss different topics associated with film on Ebert Presents. These were people that Roger himself admired, and thus were able to showcase their talents on his show because he recognized so many different voices when it came to writing about film. He opened a new world for me. It's gotten to the point that I'm reading so many reviews and listening to so many podcasts about film (all of which feature one or more of these guest critics) that my head may just explode. I couldn't be happier about that.

Just a day ago, Roger announced his "leave of presence" from writing but made mention of plans to bring back At The Movies again through a Kickstarter campaign. I hope it still happens, as his show continues to inspire new generations of film critics like myself even after it's ended. No amount of writing will ever fully express my gratitude toward this man. He gave me hope when everyone around me told me that writing about movies wasn't important, a show that opened up a world of different writers that I continue to admire and actively read, and he was the person responsible for compelling me to write about film.

Rest In Peace, Roger. And thank you for inspiring me.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Evil Dead ★½

Blood, Guts, Dismemberment And Not Much Else

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

Just when you thought you'd seen the most gruesome horror movie ever made, a movie like Evil Dead comes along to make the previous movies look tame by comparison. Going for a much more serious approach, this remake of the 1981 classic brings a new group of ill-fated characters into the mix and wastes no time coming up with inventive ways to torture them.

The film's tone is established in the prologue, which shows what can happen when someone is stupid enough to read from the Necronomicon, everyone's favorite evil book, and the necessary immolation that can occur as a result. After the events, we jump forward in time (it's never specified how long) and meet the unlucky group of friends who have retreated to a cabin in the woods to help Mia (Jane Levy) go cold turkey from her drug addiction. We learn some of her backstory from her interactions with her truly idiotic brother, David (Shiloh Fernandez), who apparently left Mia when she was just a child to live with her mentally unstable mother, which caused her to turn to drugs in the first place. Not long after arriving does the group stumble upon the remnants of what they assume to be witchcraft (though the audience knows better from the prologue) in the cellar underneath the cabin, thereby discovering the Necronomicon and unleashing hell. Literally.

The presence that materializes manages to possess Mia, leading everyone in the group - who include two supposedly educated people, a teacher, Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci), and a nurse, Olivia (Jessica Lucas) and a bimbo, Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore) - to believe that what Mia is experiencing is just extreme withdrawal. Keep in mind that at one point Mia gives herself third-degree facial burns with a boiling-hot shower, and sadly, that is not even the worst of it. What follows is an elaborate assortment of graphic mutilations all designed to see how much the filmmakers can get away with under the R rating. It's a lot.

If there's one thing I can say about all of the violence in the film (and really, you can only embrace it or reject it, but if you're willingly seeing a movie like this, are you really going to reject it?) it's that the makeup and effects are top notch for a horror film like this. It's extreme, yes, but very believable and (I hate to say it) rich with color. It's one of those movies where the production value is so good that you can feel every bit of pain that these characters endure, which at times is unbearable.

This version of Evil Dead is more concerned with effects than it is to story and character, something that the original franchise had in spades. Mia is supposed to be our replacement for Ash (Bruce Campbell) and I like that the director, Fede Alvarez, wanted a female lead but we barely get to know her. She's angry and depressed for the first fifteen minutes of the film and then possessed for the rest of it. She's not really heroic, or sympathetic, but rather a vessel for Alvarez to showcase his twisted love of gore. I'm not saying I expected Mia to be the female Ash but her character could have been much more developed. Ash was someone we sympathized with; someone whom we did not want to be tortured. While I didn't wish any harm to Mia, I certainly didn't get the sense that Alvarez cared what happened to her as much as director Sam Raimi cared about Ash in the originals.

It's sad, really, as Ms. Levy is a very talented actress (most, like myself, probably know her best as Tessa on ABC's Suburgatory) who is underused here. The rest of the actors have even less to do, but none are less convincing than Mr. Fernandez, who, as David, could not be more of a dolt. In scenes that are actually supposed to be serious, the audience at my screening was laughing because of how inept David was. The fact that he and every other character are not at all memorable except by the ways in which they die furthers my point that there are no characters in this film - only meat puppets. The only part of me that did not mind that approach was when these puppets were used to create visual motifs from the original Evil Dead. They occur several times throughout the movie and I found myself smiling each time, but what can I say? I'm nostalgic.

The only comfort I have after watching this movie is knowing that it only exists to reignite interest in the franchise for the inevitable Evil Dead 4/Army of Darkness 2. I'd wait for that movie. I'd also stay after the credits of this movie for a groovy cameo that could make you forget the horror you just saw.