Category Archives: Filmmakers

“Filmworker” shows the dedication to genius

People are attracted to genius. It’s what’s driven legions to Albert Einstein or Leonardo di Vinci or Galileo. To be enamored with someone who is so committed and so influential breathes vigor into our lives. So when Leon Vitali, a trained Shakespearean actor decided he wanted to work with Stanley Kubrick, one of the most famed filmmakers of all-time, it’s a wonder if he knew just how maniacal his soon-to-be mentor would be. Warm and loving one minute, crazed the next, it is the mark of genius to demand perfection while not understanding the human cost such ambition requires.

“Filmworker” follows Vitali from his role in “Barry Lyndon” through the end of Kubrick’s life and his work on the film restorations of all of Kubrick’s films. In between, we see the intense dedication Vitali has for Kubrick, serving as his assistant after turning down a career as an actor, working day and night to put Kubrick’s vision onscreen. We wonder how any person could submit himself so entirely to another individual, especially someone who at times seems to take others for granted and goes through misdirected tirades. It’s an interesting story about dedication, art and mentorship.

Directed by Tony Zierra, the film does a good job examining Vitali, his story and how his relationships were strained by his devotion to Kubrick. It tries a bit too hard to illustrate his upbringing and tie Kubrick to his abusive father. Nothing, especially a biography, traces linearly from one point to another point through causality. People make decisions irrationally for subliminal and overt reasons. Trying to pinpoint Vitali’s reasoning is a fruitless endeavor. His dedication despite Kubrick’s rashness is what’s truly fascinating.

While interesting, the film could have used a little more budget and editing as it sags near the middle and has some odd jump cuts during interviews. It tries to end on a happy note, almost forcing it upon the viewer, when a much more nuanced approach may have been worthwhile. Is Vitali’s life a tragedy, a sort of bizarre comedy or something else? He claims it’s a happy story. The viewer may feel differently.

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“Julieta” another solid Almodóvar film

Writer-director Pedro Almodóvar has crafted quite a collection of films that primarily examine the modern female psyche in Spanish culture. “Julieta” is another pristine film that is heartfelt, multi-layered and unique yet familiar.

Julieta (Emma Suárez) is preparing to move to Portugal with her boyfriend, Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti) when a chance encounter with Bea (Michelle Jenner), her estranged daughter’s best friend, upends her life. Delving into the past, young Julieta (Adriana Ugarte) meets Xoan (Daniel Grao) and their love leads her down a strange path of random chance and heartache.

Almodóvar deftly blends together themes of regret, depression, hope and maturity into Julieta’s story. The plot uses backstory, flashbacks and clear progression to illustrate Julietta’s emotional state as she goes from naive youth to young mother to sorrowful widow to distant matriarch, and we recognize the transfer of her story to her daughter, Antia. The passing of a similar story from mother to daughter (and we assume eventually to her daughters as well) brings universality to the narrative.

Almodóvar has never been an especially flashy filmmaker, especially in later years, but then again, he doesn’t need to be. His camera focuses on actors and their interactions and reactions to tell the story. This guiding principle keeps the drama focused on the characters and really allows his actors to inhabit their roles. It makes for a very personal experience.

“Chi-Raq” an interesting concept, but bogged down by message

“Chi-Raq” had so much going for it: a modern day adaptation of the Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes, an all-star cast, director Spike Lee, timeliness with the backdrop of the violence in Chicago. It’s disappointing to say that the sum of its parts is therefore lacking.

Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) is Chi-Raq’s (Nick Cannon) girlfriend. Chi-Raq is a rapper in Chicago, burnishing guns and screaming about taking his enemies out. Violence erupts on the streets, resulting in the death of Irene’s (Jennifer Hudson) daughter. Motivated by Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), Lysistrata encourages her friends and their friends to partake in a sex strike, refusing to put out to the gangsters until the violence abides.

The film is a visual feast and has a kinetic energy that keeps things interesting. The premise is interesting and timely, and the style different, though at times overdone. But the whole film is overly preachy, a soapbox, overriding the ability of the audience to partake in the story of the film.

Long sermons are given to characters such as Father Mike Corridan (John Cusack) and Dolmedes (Samuel L. Jackson), shoving messages and statistics at the viewer, taking away from Lysistrata’s story. Spike Lee has never been a subtle filmmaker, but “Chi-Raq” dials up the preachiness to 11.

This is not to say that his film does not make a strong point. Just that he has let his feelings override his ability to tell an involving story. For his passion, perhaps a documentary would have served a better outlet.

And feminism takes somewhat of a backseat. Lysistrata and her friends are highly sexualized and also trivialized from a character standpoint. When dealing with cultural issues involving race and sex, every little thing will be judged scrupulously and Lee’s female characters are lacking.

Throw in some bad comedy, unnecessary sequences and a general lack of focus and “Chi-Raq” is not the milestone it could have been.

“Isle of Dogs” a lot of fun

Wes Anderson makes the same movie again and again, just in a different format. For some filmmakers (Tim Burton), the formula has become stale and tedious. For Anderson, with his kinetic style and dry wit, it’s still fun for the time being.

“Isle of Dogs” tells the story of Atari (Koyu Rankin), a young boy and ward of Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura). After dogs are deemed a public health crisis after a string of diseases is associated with them, all dogs in Japan are shipped to a trash island far away. Atari runs away from his home, steals a plane and flies to the island to find his dog, Spots (Liev Shreiber). He befriends a group of dogs including Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum), who agree to help him find Spots. Chief, the only stray of the group, is a reluctant ally and resents humans for what they’ve done, but as he grows to know Atari, his emotions change.

The film is a visual feast, with the swift camera pans accentuated by the vibrant colors and smooth animation. Anderson has always done a good job of focusing the viewer’s eye to his subject and exemplifying the film’s emotions through the actions on the screen. Whether it’s a closeup of a character’s eyes as they come to a realization or a chaotic zoom in to emphasize a shocking turn of events, he uses film composition to keep his stories interesting and heartfelt.

He also continues to display his unique wit and charm. The main characters have interesting personality quirks and story arcs and the script keeps the action going at a brisk, never-boring pace. Things move fast and the audience is rewarded for keeping up with his trademark jokes.

For Anderson though, his repetitive style is beginning to border on unoriginality. There are enough differentiations in theme and plot to keep his films interesting for the time being, but like many others before him, his movies are all starting to feel the same: dysfunctional family, long lost relatives, quirky side characters, prestige vs. instinct quarrels, blatant yet funny dialogue, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, F. Murray Abraham, Jeff Goldblum. There is a risk that he may soon seem to be parodying himself and that would demean his otherwise strong stories.

And a continuous problem with Anderson in all of his movies is his lack of female characters. Not only are they not protagonists, they are distinctly lacking everywhere onscreen. The vast majority of his characters are white males. And the women of the story serve mostly as companions or sex objects (not in an overt, callous way but in a matter-of-fact way). They are distant and detached or committed to a cause past thought of their own lives. It would be interesting for him to branch out not only in his style, but also his cast list. Many of the roles in his films could indeed be women characters, but he has trouble writing that way.

Ultimately, “Isle of Dogs” succeeds not only as another strong Anderson film that fits into his canon, but also because it mirrors current events. It’s a story about the outsider who benefits society, about government manipulation to find a common enemy to consolidate power, about abusing the environment and leaving our children messes and trash, about the importance of science and reason over preconceived biases and about our basic communication with nature, respecting and cultivating it. It’s a beautiful story that exemplifies what Anderson does best.

“Paterson” a beautiful story

Very few films are made about everyday life. Most movies are about “super” people: spies, politicians, doctors, heroes and the like. But writer and director Jim Jarmusch has always been interested in the “lesser” told stories about everyday folks and “Paterson” is such a simple yet unordinary story.

“Paterson” is about a bus driver, Paterson (Adam Driver), who writes poetry. He takes an active interest in the conversations and lives of those who ride his bus and the people he meets on the streets. His girlfriend, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), is an eccentric who keeps trying to find herself through various hobbies such as baking and artistry.

The film doesn’t have a concrete plot and seems to wander from encounter to encounter, all done with a purpose but seemingly as random as the flashes of a rolling river shown onscreen. All the characters are trying to find their way in life and Paterson sees their struggles mirror his own in a way, but his outlet of poetry helps him find meaning in a life that on the surface doesn’t seem to be too interesting.

The film is a beautiful tale of seeking an avenue of expression in a world full of stories. We just need to take the time to listen and observe those around us to find meaning in our own lives and realize our full potential of love.

“War Horse” turns up the schmaltz to 11

Director Steven Spielberg has been known to oversentimentalize his movies, especially those that deal with important historical events or ethical causes. So with “War Horse”, a film about protecting animals and the horrors of World War 1, you can practically taste the sugar-coating over the film.

Albert (Jeremy Irvine) develops a strong relationship with his family’s horse, Joey. At the outbreak of World War 1, his horse is recruited into the war effort by Capt. Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), and Albert is enlisted soon after. As the war rages on, Joey is exchanged between the British, the French and the Germans throughout the front, finding humanity in each of them despite the carnage of conflict.

The morals of the story are fine. The beauty of nature, man should be more kind to each other, respect divine laws, blah, blah, blah. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before which makes the film pretty redundant.

The production feels like an expensive version of “Black Stallion” meets “Little House on the Prairie”, so full of schmaltz and pomp and circumstance and tear-jerker moments. It’s a Hallmark greeting card propped up by millions of dollars. So while it’s a typically well-made Spielberg film, it’s nothing more than a glorified soap opera.

There’s a touching scene where a British soldier and German soldier work together to free Joey from barbwire. It’s one of the only interesting scenes in the film and pretty much could have served as just a short film and gotten across the same meaning. Layering everything else on is indulgent. Noble intentions aside, “War Horse” falls short.

“Seven Psychopaths” a fun character story

There are actor’s movies. There are director’s movies. There are even cinematographer’s movies. “Seven Psychopaths” is a writer’s movie.

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, the film tells the story of struggling screenwriter Marty (Colin Farrell) who becomes entangled in the story he’s writing as he becomes surrounded by seven psychopaths, including Billy (Sam Rockwell), Hans (Christopher Walken) and Charlie (Woody Harrelson). Hans makes his living kidnapping dogs and returning them for ransom money. When he accidentally steals mob boss Charlie’s dog, Marty is thrown into the struggle of his life as he, Billy and Hans go on the run.

The story of the seven psychos is intricate and interesting. Seeing how they all interact together with Marty’s journey gives a fascinating portrait of madness and how it ties into violence. Though all violent in their backstories, all 7 characters find solace in peace at the end, asking the question, what qualifies you to being a psychopath? And can you change once you realize what you are?

The film is well-acted, well-shot and decidedly well-written, with many funny lines and sublime character arcs. Some have compared the film to a Tarantino-esque style, but it is definitively McDonagh’s style, blending violence, comedy, high ideas and deep characterizations. He does a good job in all of his films of building the themes of his narrative up to the conclusion. Who would have thought that a movie like “Seven Psychopaths” would ultimately be a story about finding peace?