28 October 2010

Review: "Hable con ella"

Pedro Almodóvar followed his Academy Award-winning film Todo sobre mi madre with 2002's brilliant Hable con ella (Talk to Her). It is without a doubt his most mature and refined film. The screenplay, which won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, effortlessly incorporates the themes of love and anguish with his most compelling story to date. Anyone familiar with Almodóvar's work will recognize his trademark use of colour and contrast, but what sets Hable con ella apart from his earlier work is a greater emphasis on character. The beautiful score by Alberto Iglesias gave me chills watching the film, but it was the performances by the four principal actors that drew me into this emotional film. Javier Cámara and Darió Grandinetti are brought together by coincidence and their mutual heartache is central to the film. Leonor Watling and Rosario Flores play their respective lovers with a quiet brilliance that makes the film's ever-present emotional current even stronger. Volver was the first Almodóvar film that I ever saw and I was hooked by the film's vibrant colours and complex themes. Todo sobre mi madre is unfortunately the earliest film that I have seen, but Hable con ella is one of the most captivating and profoundly emotional films that I have seen in a long time. It is difficult to highlight one outstanding element of Hable con ella because it succeeds so wonderfully as a work of art.

The film opens with Benigno (Cámara) and Marco (Grandinetti) sitting beside each other at a dance concert. The two men are strangers and unaware that their paths will soon cross and their lives will be forever changed. Bengino works at a private clinic and is the personal nurse to a patient named Alicia (Watling). Alicia is in a coma and Benigno has been obsessed with her since first seeing her at a dance studio outside his apartment window. Marco ends up at the clinic because his girlfriend Lydia (Flores) was in a terrible accident and is also in a coma. Lydia was a matador who became comatose after being gored by a bull. The film unfolds with flashbacks as we see how Benigno and Marco came to become involved with Alicia and Lydia, respectively. Their friendship becomes more important when each man learns a disturbing truth about their relationships. Marco discovers that Lydia had returned to her former lover prior to her accident and Benigno (and the clinic) discover that Alicia has become pregnant while in her coma.

Hable con ella is the most mature Almod
óvar film that I have seen as well as the most dramatic. It does not feature the comedic undertones that were present in Todo sobre mi madre, Volver (2006) or Los abrazos rotos (2009). I felt genuinely moved and emotionally drained after seeing the film. Javier Cámara and Darió Grandinetti do shine in the film's prominent roles, but it was Rosario Flores' passionate performance that drew me into the film. Almodóvar has given his actors a tremendous screenplay with a incredibly compelling story. In a film with two major characters in comas the dialogue becomes that much more important. Pedro Almodóvar beautifully uses the silence and the one-sided conversations so that the scenes feel natural instead of awkward. Hable con ella is well paced and beautifully imagined film. It may be more dramatic and mature than Almodóvar's previous films but it still has his trademark style with beautiful colours and passionate performances.

My rating: 4 stars out of 4.

26 October 2010

Review: "Todo sobre mi madre"

Pedro Almodóvar's Todo sobre mi madre (All About My Mother) won the 1999 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It was his most successful international film since Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) (1989). It is also his first film to feature Penélope Cruz in a principal role, following her appearance in 1997's Carne trémula (Live Flesh). As with most of Almódovar's films, Todo sobre mi madre deals with many controversial themes. Almodóvar has made a career using controversial themes to express his ideas. While dealing heavily with AIDS and transvestism, it is a film that celebrates women. He has a very accepting and gentle approach in all his films and I have always been able to easily empathize with his characters. The film may be considered a melodrama but with Almódovar's classic pacing and vibrant imagery Todo sobre mi madre is a richly satisfying film with several incredible performances, led by the brilliant Cecilia Roth. It is at times very depressing at heartbreaking, but Todo sobre mi madre is a beautiful film about love and redemption.

Manuela (Roth) is an organ transplant nurse in Madrid. She is a single mother to Esteban (Eloy Azorin), an aspiring writer. On his seventeenth birthday they attend a performance of A Streetcar Named Desire. Esteban is hit by a vehicle and killed while chasing after Huma Rojo (Marisa Parades), the star of the show. Manuela had never told Esteban about his father and his death causes her to return to Barcelona to look for the boy's father, a transvestite named Lola. In Barcelona she reunited with Agrado (Antonia San Juan), a transsexual prostitute, who introduces her to Rosa (Cruz), a young nun who works in a shelter. Manuela is shocked to discover that Rosa was impregnated by Lola and that she is suffering from AIDS. Manuela also becomes involved with Huma, whose production of A Streetcar Named Desire has come to Barcelona, and her drug-addicted co-star Nina Cruz (Candela Peña).

As writer and director Pedro Almodóvar has such control over his film that the intense emotions and themes never get out of hand. Manuela is the main character but it is Agrado who straddles the line between melodrama and comedy. Antonia San Juan is a transsexual and this brings a sense of realism to the film. She shines in one of the film's brightest moments when Agrado stands on stage during a canceled performance of A Streetcar Named Desire and details the exorbitant amount of money required to have her body. The actresses in Todo sobre mi madre are exceptional and are all deserving of recognition. I wish that Cecilia Roth could find more international success in starring roles because I was mesmerized by her performance. At the very end of the film Almodóvar dedicates the film "To all actresses who have played actresses. To all women who act. To men who act and become women. To all the people who want to be mothers. To my mother." It is a beautiful tribute to an emotionally satisfying film.

My rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.

25 October 2010

Review: "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger"

Another year, another offering from Woody Allen. Last year gave us the less than inspired Whatever Works, which starred the limited Larry David. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, like many previous Woody Allen films, features a terrific ensemble. His newest film stars Naomi Watts, Josh Brolin, Antonio Banderas, Anthony Hopkins and Gemma Jones. Nicole Kidman was originally attached to the project before a scheduling conflict with Rabbit Hole. She was replaced by English actress Lucy Punch and I wonder if the role was rewritten. The film is a return to London after a successful trip to Spain (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) and return to his beloved New York. Woody Allen has previously made three films in London: Match Point (2005), Scoop (2006) and Cassandra's Dream (2007). You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is a good film. It has an interesting story and some great performances. My only fault is that I would have preferred Woody Allen to deal more with his characters after the events at the end of the film. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger had the potential to be more than just a throwaway film. It is unfortunate that Woody Allen wasted two great performances from Gemma Jones and Naomi Watts. It is an enjoyable film and Woody Allen fans will like it but at the end you will be left wishing the film had not wasted so much time in the middle.

Helena's (Jones) husband Alfie (Hopkins) has just left her. She seeks solace in a shady fortune teller named Cristal (Pauline Collins). After the divorce Helena becomes a burden on their daughter, Sally (Watts). Sally is married to Roy (Brolin), a struggling writer. Their lives become complicated by romantic entanglements. Alfie announces he has become engaged to the much younger Charmaine (Punch, a prostitute, Sally considers an affair with her boss Greg (Banderas), Roy begins having an affair with Dia (Freida Pinto), and Helena becomes involved with Jonathan(Roger Ashton-Griffiths), a charming widower. It turns out Charmaine is only after Alfie's money, Greg has become involved with an acquaintance of Sally's, Dia is engaged, and Jonathan is still devoted to his deceased wife.

It is at the end of You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger when some tough decisions have been made that the film becomes interesting. For example, Alfie has run out of money and Charmaine, who has been having an affair of her own with one of Alfie's much younger colleagues, tells him she is pregnant. It is at this point that he regrets his decision to leave Helena and he wants her back. This is a much more interesting plot than Alfie divorcing Helena to marry a much younger woman. Woody Allen has shown so many times how well he understands the intricacies of human relationships and I feel like he purposely avoided going to deep into the lives of these characters. It is often hard being a dedicated Woody Allen fan. He has made so many brilliant films that it becomes harder to forgive a film for being too easy. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger does not offer anything new. It is neither awful not is it great. It is a decent film.

My rating: 2.5 stars out of 4.

And to add to my list of Woody Allen films:

1. Hannah and Her Sisters
2. Everyone Says I Love You
3. Manhattan
4. Bullets over Broadway
5. Annie Hall
6. Crimes and Misdemeanors
7. Radio Days
8. Husbands & Wives
9. Vicky Cristina Barcelona
10. Another Woman

11. The Purple Rose of Cairo
12. Broadway Danny Rose
13. Match Point
14. Love and Death
15. Sweet and Lowdown
16. Mighty Aphrodite
17. Interiors
18. Sleeper
19. Manhattan Murder Mystery
20. Zelig
21. Stardust Memories
22. Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask)
23. Take the Money and Run
24. Deconstructing Harry
25. Oedipus Wrecks from New York Stories
26. Bananas
27. Small Time Crooks
28. What's Up, Tiger Lily?
29. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger
30. Melinda and Melinda
31. Alice
32. Cassandra's Dream
33. Shadows and Fog
34. Don't Drink the Water
35. September
36. A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy
37. Celebrity
38. Scoop
39. Whatever Works
40. Hollywood Ending
41. Anything Else
42. The Curse of the Jade Scorpion

Review: "The Social Network"

I had so many reservations about David Fincher's The Social Network that I had practically decided I was not going to see it. I think I was the only person who was not awed by the film's trailer. I feel like the relevance of Facebook is waning and I have long been considering deleting my account. I was wrong to judge The Social Network so prematurely. It is not a film about Facebook but about the men behind it and the reasons why it became so successful. The Social Network is a superbly crafted film with a terrific screenplay from Aaron Sorkin (based on The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich) and incredible direction from David Fincher. The film's biggest asset, in my opinion, is the fantastic editing that skillfully weaves the complicated story together. Mark Zuckerberg does not always come across as the most likable person and Jesse Eisenberg does a remarkable job capturing this on film. I am most familiar with Eisenberg's role in The Squid and the Whale (2005) where he also plays an often unsympathetic character. While Eisenberg does a remarkable job in the film, it is Andrew Garfield's performance as Eduardo Saverin that gives the film its emotional depth. My only complaints about the film would be Justin Timberlake's unsuitability for such a dramatic film and the awkward use of one actor to play both Winklevoss twins. The Social Network is more about greed and pride than it is about Facebook. It presents a culturally relevant story about two groups of unsympathetic college kids that were able to change the landscape of social networking. The Social Network is a well-made and accessible film, anchored by two inspired performances and Aaron Sorkin's great script.

In 2003, after breaking up with his girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), Mark Zuckerberg (Eisenberg) creates a website that allows users to rate the attractiveness of female students at Harvard University. Zuckerberg is able to accomplish this in one night by hacking into residence databases and downloading pictures. With the help of his best friend, Eduardo Saverin (Garfield), Zuckerberg launches FaceMash. It caused quite a controversy at Harvard and Zuckerberg was placed on academic probation. His actions caught the attention of Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer) and their business partner Divya Narendra (Max Minghella). They hire Zuckerberg as a programmer for their website, Harvard Connection. Although he does not tell Eduardo about his agreement with the Winklevoss twins, he does tell him about an idea for a different website, thefacebook. With a $1000 investment from Eduardo they are soon able to launch Facebook, an exclusive website for Harvard students. When Divya learns of Zuckerberg's involvement with Facebook he and Cameron are eager to sue him for intellectual property theft, but Tyler is against it. The Social Network deftly goes back and forth in time as we see the complications that lead to Eduardo's dismissal from Facebook, his lawsuit against Zuckerberg, the Winklevoss' lawsuit against Zuckerberg, and Sean Parker's (Timberlake) involvement with Facebook.

It is very hard to imagine that a film about Facebook could be so gripping. Mark Zuckerberg is hardly a sympathetic hero (or victim, depending on your viewpoint). Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss and Divya Narendra do not come across as victims either and personally I was not on their side. The Social Network is a dramatization and we must not take the events on screen as the absolute truth. The real success of this film is the work of David Fincher. Fincher has taken a film deeply entrenched in cultural relevance and created a captivating story about success and greed. It has been five years since I started using Facebook and the exclusivity that Mark Zuckerberg envisioned is all but forgotten. Every cellphone advertisement mentions Facebook. Every film trailed comes with the phrase "Like this on Facebook." One of my first thoughts after seeing the film was that I wanted to delete my account. The Social Network is a wonderfully crafted film with a talented director, screenwriter and cast, but I do not think it is as much a cultural milestone as some critics have suggested.

My rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.

08 October 2010

Review: "Easy A"

Easy A is a smart teen comedy in the vein of Clueless (1995) and Mean Girls (2004) in that all three films have attempted to depict an accurate reflection of high school life. While Clueless and Mean Girls continue to influence teen comedies I doubt that Easy A will threaten their legacy. The film's problem may also be its greatest asset. Emma Stone is a revelation in Easy A and she gives a wonderfully versatile performance as Olive, but I do wonder if the film's irony and satire may go over the heads of the intended audience. Stone's character is more intelligent and mature than the average teenager. She is more like an adult. This is different from Clueless and Mean Girls, whose lead characters struggle with supposed maturity. The hidden gems of Easy A are two wonderfully talented and under-appreciated actors. Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci sink their teeth into the roles of Olive's parents and deliver some of the film's best moments. The only low point of Easy A is the one-dimensional portrayal of Amanda Bynes' religious zealot. The film does belong to Emma Stone who proves that she has the star power to command an entire feature film. Her transformation from invisible nobody to school harlot is clever and believable. Easy A may suffer at times with a formulaic story but it is a witty comedy that gives Emma Stone a great opportunity to shine.

Olive begins the film talking to her web cam about how one small lie snowballed into a major catastrophe. One day she was just a nobody at her high school in Ojai, California and the next day everyone was talking about how she lost her virginity. Olive lies to her best friend Rhiannon (Alyson Michalka) about having a date to get out of a weekend camping trip. On Monday she tells Rhiannon that she had sex with her date. Unfortunately Marianne (Bynes) was in the washroom at the same time and overheard the conversation. Marianne turns to her church group at school and they decide that it is their duty to save Olive. In English class with her favourite teacher (Thomas Hayden Church) they are reading The Scarlet Letter and Olive gets the idea to wear her own scarlet letter. She starts dressing considerably more provocatively at school and boys at school beginning paying her to say they had sex. While her actions negatively affect her relationship with Rhiannon, Olive does find herself spending more time with Todd (Penn Badgley), her first crush. Eventually Olive discovers that her original lie has spiraled out of control and she uses her web cam to record her version of the truth.

So many films have problems coming to realistic conclusions. Easy A is another victim. Its clever premise is almost wasted by a rushed conclusion. It is a very forced ending, although it is not quite as awful as the last few minutes of An Education. Easy A is the second feature film directed by Will Gluck, whose first films, Fired Up (2009), was poorly received. Easy A will not be remembered for its direction but more for its witty screenplay and Emma Stone's performance. Emma Stone's Oliver is an incredibly likable character and much of the film's success comes from the audience empathizing with her. Olive is a multidimensional character and we relate to her yearning to be notice and we understand when she lets it get out of control. She is more mature and worldly than I was in high school and it makes me a bit jealous. Olive is such an interesting character and the premise of Easy A is so interesting that I wish it had not been forced into the formula of a teen comedy. It would have been great to see a real auteur kind of director handle this story.

My rating: 3 stars out of 4.