Sunday, February 15, 2015

Mr. Turner

2014 saw the release of many films revolving around real-life people. The prominent (Selma, The Theory of Everything), those forgotten by history (The Imitation Game, Belle) and the recently living (Wild, American Sniper), it was a menagerie of (mostly) factual stories.

So where does Mike Leigh's Mr. Turner rank? Indeed, its subject matter of British artist J.M.W. Turner is not someone many people know of like Monet, van Gogh or Picasso. But Turner's work is easily memorable once one has seen it. (He isn't known as "the painter of light" for nothing.)

In the role of Turner is Timothy Spall, a regular name among Leigh's films. Here, he delivers the performance of his career. Spall portrays Turner as a multi-faceted personality, a man of many triumphs and flaws. It's a role that's once in a lifetime for an actor, and Spall gives it his all. (Erm, that rhyme wasn't intended.)

It simply must be mentioned that the cinematography from Dick Pope is stunning. Every shot looks as if Turner's paintings had come to life. (That's a common thing, isn't it? Films about people making beautiful things having been gorgeously shot?) Combine it with the Suzie Davies and Charlotte Watts' production design and Gary Yershon's score, and it makes for an absolutely striking film.

Like Topsy-Turvy, Leigh proves with Mr. Turner that he can make a great costume drama. All of its elements work wonderfully, something not frequently seen in contemporary films. It's a film that people should see.

My Rating: *****

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Dear White People

We supposedly live in a "post-racial" society. Yeah, right. Considering the number of unarmed black people murdered by people who don't have the right frame of mind to even own a gun, it's clearly a claim of utter bullshit.

Justin Simien's Dear White People showcases said bullshit to the fullest. You'd think by now we'd be in an unbiased society. But Simien shows how far we've yet to come. (How much longer we'll be in this sociological rut is hard to say at the present moment.)

Though the film's a satire, Dear White People hits a lot of points. It highlights how little progress has been made over the years when it comes to race relations. How much longer we'll be living in such a society is anyone's guess.

Dear White People also manages to eschew stereotypes for the main characters. The film does what most films tend to ignore: depict people without prejudices. (That said, the depiction of those frat boys could easily be likened to the average comments section of any given article.)

It doesn't work 100% of the time but Dear White People has one hell of a bite. It also raises the question that's been on many people's minds for years: when will we live in a society that's completely equal and free of prejudice? Hopefully it'll only be a matter of time...

My Rating: ****1/2

Sunday, February 8, 2015

American Sniper

Clint Eastwood's American Sniper is a film with many discussion points. Is it a film that objects war or glorifies it? Does it depict post-traumatic stress disorder properly? And finally, does the film depict Chris Kyle as a war hero or a cold-blooded sociopath?

Eastwood himself is familiar with the war movie genre, both as an actor and a director. So where does American Sniper place? Much like The Deer Hunter and The Big Red One, it focuses on the horrors of war and its effects on people. But unlike Michael Cimino and Samuel Fuller's films, American Sniper revolves more around the brutality than the aftermath.

That said, however, American Sniper does manage to highlight post-traumatic stress disorder when it's required. It depicts it in a low-key manner (none of the flashback nightmares frequently shown in fiction), but even then it doesn't feel like it's been done properly. (Then again, you can't have everything.)

Starring as Kyle is Bradley Cooper, who in recent years has established himself as a serious actor. But how does Cooper depict Kyle? By many means, he depicts Kyle not as someone with a blood lust but rather as someone who feels that he's doing is merely to protect his country. It's simply something that happens in both real life and fiction.

American Sniper has its flaws, certainly, but it has its moments as well. (Admittedly most of them are courtesy of Cooper's work.) It's not great like Letters from Iwo Jima (it's more like Flags of Our Fathers) though again, it does shine in spots. Had the script been modified considerably, the film would probably rank among the greats. (Key word is "probably".)

My Rating: ****

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Dark Victory

Early on in Edmund Goulding's Dark Victory, socialite Judith Traherne (Bette Davis) has a horse riding accident but suffers no serious injury. However, she admits to having headaches for several months. She receives grim news from Dr. Steele (George Brent): she has a brain tumor.

In a stark contrast to some of Davis' other roles, Judith is noticeably more upbeat than, say, Margo Channing or Mildred Rogers. It's partly because of her gaining a new lease on life but it's also a way to cope with the fact that she's dying. (People react to bad news in different ways after all.)

Even after over seventy years, Dark Victory hasn't lost much of its emotional impact. (That's more than can be said about other films released the same year.) Very rarely does melodrama stand up after all these years. (Even Douglas Sirk's films haven't stood up to the test of time in their entirety.)

Dark Victory also contains one of the ten performances that earned Davis an Oscar nomination. It doesn't take much to see why. Here, Davis continues to prove why she's one of the greats of Hollywood's Golden Age. (Goulding supposedly had Davis channel her distress over her personal life into her performance.)

Dark Victory shows its age in some scenes but overall it remains solid. Thanks to the work from Davis, the film has a brisk delicacy not often seen nowadays. (Sometimes you just can't beat the classics.)

My Rating: ****1/2

Friday, January 30, 2015

The Guest

Adam Wingard's The Guest is clearly influenced by films of the late 70s and early 80s, Wingard's editing in some scenes is reminiscent of similar scenes from action films. A few of the music cues sound almost like the infamous theme from Halloween. In fact, were it not for a few props, it would look like a film from that time period.

Adding to the homages, The Guest behaves like a film from the era. Robby Baumgartner's cinematography sports a muted palette. The characters are openly flawed, much like those found in films of the then-new Hollywood movement. Not very often do you see a film paying tribute to a particular era of a genre.

And even with the various homages, The Guest knows how to stand on its own. It's a film that starts on relatively normal terms but slowly shifts into something far more disturbing. (To be honest, those are the best kind of films.)

At the center of The Guest is Dan Stevens. He seems quiet and polite but beneath those piercing blue eyes and that charming smile, something dark lurks. Suffice to say that with this performance Stevens took his Downton Abbey image and smashed it into a thousand pieces.

The Guest is very well done though it does lose some momentum in certain scenes. That said though, it's one hell of a slick ride. And oh, that ending is a stunner. "What the fuck?" indeed.

My Rating: ****1/2

Thursday, January 22, 2015

After the Wedding

Susanna Bier's After the Wedding starts off on relatively normal terms. In an effort to stay in good graces, Jacob (Mads Mikkelsen) attends the wedding of a businessman's daughter. But it's during the reception that things begin to unravel.

Many times in fiction do you see calamities at wedding ceremonies. (Most of the time it's in comedies and before the actual ceremony.) But with After the Wedding, none of the calamities are of a comedic nature. (It's a Danish film, so what else can you expect?)

Also a familiar feature in fiction is how the dynamics between people can change. Throughout After the Wedding, this happens with the characters. The people they start as and the people they end up as are stark contrasts.

Though by many means, what's shown in After the Wedding isn't anything original. If you're familiar with any standard family drama, what happens in the film becomes rather obvious. Still, Bier manages to make the most out of the familiar traits.

All in all, After the Wedding is good but not great, That said, however, Bier and the actors know how to hit the right notes. In other words, it's worthy of a look.

My Rating: ****

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Foreign Correspondent

Our first glimpse of John Jones (Joel McCrea) in Alfred Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent shows him clearly being unimpressed by his newspaper job. Shortly after his introduction, he gets sent off to Europe to cover a peace organization's conference. Soon he finds himself entangled in political intrigue.

Released the same year as the more popular Rebecca, Foreign Correspondent was one of several films of the era with a political slant. (Well, it was an era of political unrest.) And has it lost any of its bite after all these years? Not in the least.

There are certain elements of Foreign Correspondent that are rather grim in hindsight because of what would happen in the following year. There's talk of disagreements throughout Europe, not mentioning the possibility that the rest of the world would be on the brink of war as well. Ah, life and its cruel ironies.

On a different note, McCrea makes for an ideal Hitchcock leading man. Bear in mind this was before Hitchcock used the likes of Cary Grant and James Stewart but either way McCrea (better known for comedies like Sullivan's Travels and The More the Merrier) proves what he's capable of. It's a shame that he and Hitchcock didn't work together again.

Foreign Correspondent is certainly a lesser-known work of Hitchcock's and it's also one that should be seen. Sure, some of its politics may not resonate nowadays but the rest of them do. It's only a matter of time before we're at war once again.

My Rating: ****