Archived entries for

Review of the month: January (and February)

I’ve seen too many good films these past months not to review them. Here we go!
My favourite of them all? It’s a tie between Agora and A Serious Man.

* Agora, directed by Alejandro Amenabar. I’m surprised how little publicity this film has received, or how little I heard about it before going to see it because it really, really deserves to be seen. So the first thing I’ll write about it is that it was woefully underestimated, and that’s regrettable.
Agora is set in Ancient Greece, and tells the story of mathematician Hepatia, played by the wonderful Rachel Weisz (more on that later). The city of Alexandria was then at the turn of the tide; for Christianity would soon overcome pageans, both in terms of power and people, in addition to the growing Jewish community. Director Alejandro Amenabar has chosen to depict the relations between those three groups, and it is a fascinating one indeed.
A peplum? Of course, and one of the finest produced this decade. If Amenabar chose to go full-on with the production –it’s on an epic scale, no pun intended; he’s also focused his screenplay on (gasp!) characters and politics. So it’s a peplum, but a chatty, incredibly well-written one. You almost wouldn’t believe it until you are completely involved in it.
Amenabar’s film is restless. Beyond the archetypes (the mathematician, her slave, her pupils, her father), the interactions between the characters is so intelligently established that it intertwines itself perfectly with the broader, more violent context in which the film is set. Indeed, what is truly remarkable about this film is that it can be read on two different levels: the personal affairs of Hepatia and the drama it involves with the surrounding characters, and the religious and political wars waged at that time, which Amenabar does not shy away from, no matter how difficult they might be to expose. There’s a sense of boldness and honesty which graces the entire film. To me, that’s the sign of admirable directing, and excellent screenwriting.
Rachel Weisz gives one of the best performances of her career as Hepatia (after this one of course), with just the exact amount of subtlety and determination. The character is brillantly written, of course, because she’s an example for all women (modesty included) but when you see a hint of insanity in Weisz’s eyes, you can tell it’s a sublime performance by the actress too. Max Minghella, who plays the slave, has a very difficult part which he manages to pull off brillantly. Supporting players are all very good, especially the prefect Orestes, played by Oscar Isaac in a somewhat breakthrough performance.
Production is impeccable –the reanactement is perfect, thanks to impressive special effects to rebuild Alexandria. Last word on Dario Marianelli’s score. Despite the presence of Our Lady of Soundtrack Sorrow (meaning a lady going ‘aaahh’ ‘ooohh’ to indicate that this is a historical film) it’s a beautiful one, very fitting indeed.
In a word: see that film if you can, you will not regret it.

* Gainsbourg (Vie Héroïque), directed by Joann Sfar. I think this film attracted a lot of people, mostly because of the curiosity surrounding the actor who would play Gainsbourg. It’s a brillant performance, yes, and Eric Elmosino eerily looks like and acts as Serge Gainsbourg. It is almost creepy.
Now, the film in itself is very whimsical, which I did not really expect. Director/artist Joann Sfar went for a very particular approach to Gainsbourg: not so much the legend than the man, and what was going on in his head, even though it’s pure fantasy –which the film gladly takes responsibility for. Gainsbourg obviously had an eventful life, and it is depicted here almost gleefully.
The film is neither a drama or a comedy, it is a biopic in essence but not in form. Which is surprising for a part of the audience, I think, and they may find themselves aloof from the story. I personally found the intervention of this odd giant puppet in the film (which symbolises Gainsbourg’s duality) to be quite delightful, but perhaps not everyone will be inclined to do so.
In any case, if this is not major recommanded viewing, it’s still a pleasant experience. Despite the creativity, the unfolding of the story is quite conventional, which is unfortunate. It’s still nice to recognise all the famous figures that have crossed the path of Gainsbourg. Casting in that measure is quite impressive –I was sorry to hear that Lucy Gordon, who plays Jane Birkin in the film, passed away earlier this year.
There isn’t much else I have taken from this film, except that it’s satisfactory filmmaking.

* Bright Star, directed by Jane Campion. Jane Campion is one of the most recognised female filmmakers today, and so this film was duly entered into the competition of last year’s Cannes Film Festival, but came home empty-handed. Which is somewhat of a shame, because Bright Star is a beautiful accomplishment.
The film tells of the love story between renowned English poet John Keats, one of the most emblematic figure of the Romantic literary movement (along this one and this one), and Fanny Brawne, a seamstress who became his muse. She came from a much more decent family than he did; Keats never achieved fame or fortune in his life, and it came only after he died at a very young age. So this is a traditional story of star-crossed lovers, with all the tragedy it involves; but because this is Jane Campion, it is all left unsaid, quietly unfolding, as delicate and fragile as the poetry it is devoted to.
It’s hard to think of another filmmaker whose sensibility is so acute. Not because Campion is a woman, but because she has that fondness for shooting details up-close, ending scenes in silence or quiet reflection, and capturing every layer of her actors’ performances. It’s the entire opposite of forceful directing. Just like her main character Fanny, Campion is an artful seamstress, slowly weaving the threads of her film together. Although the film does not benefit from an outstanding screenplay, it is a truly moving experience, and a beautiful one to behold.
Photography is absolutely lovely, so are art and costume design; and the two main performances by Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish are both excellent. Their chemistry is palpable, and the intensity to which they both committed to their characters is remarkable. A very good film then, that slowly creeps up to your heart.

* Up in the Air, directed by Jason Reitman. Up in the Air was a film I expected a lot from, since all the critics praised it so much and it enjoyed an enormous awards buzz since its release. Jason Reitman’s previous attempt at directing, Juno, was a fairly good film, if not too strained by its screenplay.
Up in the Air is completely different. It’s the kind of dramatic comedy (‘dramedy’) that is both very emotional and yet, quite difficult to relate to. The story focuses on Ryan Bigham, played by George Clooney, who is hired by his company to fire other people in other companies. Hence his frequent travelling all around the country, and his delightful obsession with collecting miles. Bingham is everything but your typical main character: he’s social while living on the margins of society, he values petty privileges and benefits over what the rest of us consider more important, such as love and friendship. He’s a very solid character, unlikeable more often than not, and played by a very feisty and effective George Clooney.
Up in the Air’s greatest strength is, without a doubt, its screenplay. Reitman has a knack for creating the most unbelievable characters while grounding them in reality, which instantly makes them appear to be real. That’s the case with the character of Natalie Keener (in a breakthrough performance by youthful newcomer Anna Kendrick), both funny and incredibly charismatic, despite her obvious flaws. That character is a phenomenon, and she almost steals the show from George Clooney, which is quite a feat.
The other female character in this film, Alex (Bingham’s love interest), also turns out to be quite interesting in her own way. But I felt that Reitman had not spend quite enough time on her character to make it entirely credible. At any rate, the interactions between those three characters, which is what the film really is about, is both heartwarming and sad at the same time. It’s not imperative viewing, but it is a tremendously well-done, well-written film. It’s quite mature in the sense that the characters have very adult preoccupations (in a non-pejorative way), and it slightly touches upon some very serious, everyday problems –unemployment and individualism.
The last thing I’ll say is that the film is also an original ode to the American territory (which you can see right from the start of the opening credits), something that does not surprise me considering how quirky Juno was.
So overall, a very good film if you like strong characters and good screenwriting.

* A Serious Man, directed by Ethan and Joel Coen. This was my second viewing of the film, since I first saw it in London back in November. As you can imagine, since I had really enjoyed it the first time, I couldn’t help but going back once it was released in France. A second screening of this film is actually very helpful, and the film remains as excellent as it was the first time, which only proves that it is a very good film indeed.
A Serious Man starts off with a simple premise: set in Midwestern America in the 70s, Larry Gopnik is a successful teacher, husband and father. But things start to crumble around him without him being able to control anything that unfolds around him.
The truth is, A Serious Man is one of the best Coens film of their carreer, right between Fargo and Barton Fink. No Country for Old Men was a triumph, but I found A Serious Man much more successful in what it was trying to do. As a physics teacher, Gopnik starts off with explaining the paradox of Schrodinger’s Cat and quantum mechanics, both characterised by uncertainty but mostly by the eventuality of two things happening as a consequence of an earlier one, two themes which are echoed throughout the entire film. It’s absolutely intelligent in that respect. More than that, it’s very surprising in its treatment of storytelling, because it morally reverses the role of people who have done something wrong and something right. That’s the irony as seen by the Coen brothers: crushing and relentless. A Serious Man is more complex than it appears; beyond the traditional religious questioning, there are even more mysterious forces at work –making the film very rich and interesting in its reflection on life and destiny.
As with any Coens movie, the humour is incredibly dark; it’s hard to laugh out loud at someone who is losing it completely. But it’s not as uncomfortable as one would think, because this film is more mainstream and accessible than any other films the Coen brothers have made before. It’s incredibly well-directed (as usual I daresay), with that all the typical Coen-esque idisoynchrasies. Photography by Roger Deakins is terrifyingly good (as usual) and the music by Carter Bruwell swells with emotion whenever the film takes a surprising turn. But the film is far from being just about the technique, and it is indeed the incredibly dense and worthwhile matter which makes this film quite unique. Highly, highly recommended then, if you enjoy smart and bitterly ironic but funny films.

* Invictus, directed by Clint Eastwood. Ah, the great Clint. When will he stop? More importantly, why is he so good at telling heartwarming, epic stories?
Invictus is a glorious one indeed, the epitome of ‘based on a true story’ films. It depicts the work of Nelson Mandela (do I really need to put up a Wiki link? Really? Okay.) as he became South Africa’s President, and his need to unite the country together as a nation. How exactly is one supposed to accomplish that, with such deep divisions running in the heart and minds of people? But remember that this is Mandela we’re talking about; exceptional destiny apart, he was first and foremost a man serving his country, and this is how Eastwood dutifully celebrates him –Mandela is no less than a head of State trying to do right by his people, with the giant shadow of the great man he lurking right behind.
It’s that untarnished modesty that is silently observed here, and Morgan Freeman could not have been a better choice. With this role, Freeman commands the audience’s attention; it’s a restrained performance but very powerful nevertheless. It’s the role of a lifetime, perhaps, but Freeman isn’t the kind of actor that would want the audience to see that; instead, he’s gone for that soft-spoken, awkward diction –no fuss, no drama. It’s admirable, really, and entirely to Freeman’s credit. Matt Damon also inherits a tricky part as Francois Pienaar, and makes the most of his supporting role by embracing his character completely. To me, who’s been a Matt Damon fan for years now, I can see now that he’s still as devoted to his characters as he was at the beginning of his career.
Now, the film in itself. I would lie if I didn’t say that it made me cringe sometimes. Yes, folks, Clint Eastwood made me cringe. For all his good intentions to depict this story, so emotional and all, the film is too damn conventional. Why would we need slow motion during the final game? And the endless shots of people cheering? It’s too cliché, Mr. Eastwood, and surely there is no need for it. Similarly, the screenplay is somewhat too linear. I know it’s a true story, so no one has the right to change any of that; but I can honestly say that I can sum up this film in three sentences, which means it’s far too conventional for its own good. Truth be told, there’s room for improvement, but it doesn’t mean the film doesn’t suceed in pleasing the crowd and wearing its heart on its sleeve. Because it does. Some people will like it, others perhaps less.
Also, it’s disturbing to me to see New Zealand lose a rugby final, but for the film’s sake, I will put this aside. Hee.

Up next: I Love You Phillip Morris, the Lovely Bones… A new Peter Jackson film at last. I saw again King Kong recently and was utterly amazed by how it was still very emotional to me. I really, really love this film.

Also, I meant to write a little rant about Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which I did not review on this website. I recently got it in DVD (finally), watched it again, and can now say without fear or doubt, that it’s the best one of the franchise. Especially thanks to Bruno Delbonnel’s photography, and Nicholas Hooper’s incredibly sensible score (which, amazingly enough, stands up by itself as a record, and not as film music. Meaning I can listen to it as I would with the Arctic Monkeys or Phoenix or any other band). But back to the film. To me, it’s the most satisfying one in terms of characters and story. I mean, there’s so much to cram in these Harry Potter films, it’s very ridiculous. So people have to do the best with what they have. And I reckon that’s what David Yates did there. I will never, never approve of Warner Bros.’s approach to this franchise (which is box-office money and not much else), but watching HPB made me realise that beyond greedy executives, there were all these people really devoted to that world, that universe, just as I am. So I’m grateful for David Yates and Half-Blood Prince, which is a really good film despite the ironic fact that you can’t understand it if you haven’t seen the other films or read the book. I don’t care, it’s the sixth film of the franchise, and Yates clearly made the film in that perspective, that people have to have done their homework, or simply to have read the books.
No, really, read the damn books.

Academy Awards nominees, 2010

Here we are again: the Oscar nominees of 2010, just like last year

Best Picture
The Blind Side
District 9
An Education
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
A Serious Man
Up In the Air

So yeah, ten nominees. That’s a wide field, if you ask me.
All of them were somewhat expected -am happy to see A Serious Man and District 9 getting mentioned, but seeing them win would be such a big stretch… A nomination for Up is incredible indeed, and if I were to give a Best Film Oscar to any of those contenders, it’d undoubtedly be that one.
But my guess is that the prize will either go to Avatar or The Hurt Locker. Those two are the big contenders of the night, and it’s hard to tell which one will win. With the Best Film Golden Globe going to Avatar, James Cameron’s revolutionary sci-fi pic seemed to be the huge favourite, but the trend seems to tip towards The Hurt Locker, especially for the past few weeks during which it grabbed the Producers Guild Award as well as the Directors’ Guild Award for Kathryn Bigelow. So all in all, a very close race between those two.
Well, I’ve seen both those films, and I would still give the Oscar to Up… but that’s just me.

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