Saturday, January 31, 2015

Road to the Oscars 2015: The Theory of Everything

A Brief History of Love

A review of The Theory of Everything (2014)

Directed by James Marsh

Stephen Hawking may very well be one of the most well known scientists of the modern age. While we may be aware of his myriad accomplishments, we know little about the man behind the persona.

The Theory of Everything is based on a memoir of Hawking's long relationship with his wife Jane Wilde. It is a relationship full of ups and downs, thanks to a variety of factors, including Hawking's state of health and that notion of living behind the shadow of celebrity.

The film does not focus on the scientific achievements of Hawking's career, rather it tells a more personal story of two people and their unique relationship over time. Hawking may be after a theory to explain everything, but no theory can adequately explain how two people drift apart, and how love can be lost. (Yet.)

Eddie Redmayne gives an exceptional performance as Hawking, and Felicity Jones balances out with him very well. The film does have a number of fictional elements and is not as true to life for the sake of drama, but that's how the cookie crumbles for most of the semi-biopics this year.

It's a bit slow at times, but it's ultimately a nice film. Among the rest of its peers in the Oscar race, however, it tends to get lost in the noise.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Road to the Oscars 2015: Selma

The Long March for Freedom

A review of Selma (2014)

Directed by Ava DuVernay

Today is Martin Luther King Day, where Americans celebrate the man in the middle of the US Civil Rights movement. In the wake of several recent incidents, this movie, and what the Civil Rights movement represents to America as a people, is very much relevant today.

Selma, named after the city in Alabama where many of the film's events took place, is about a crucial period in the Civil Rights movement where Martin Luther King Jr., as well as his other colleagues and contemporaries such as James Bevel and John Lewis, marched for the right to vote. While many states in the northern US were desegregating, many southern states still staunchly held on to the old ways. Through peaceful marches and protests King and his colleague helped pave the way for voting rights for all Americans.

While today Americans remember the icon behind the movement, Selma tries to remind us of the man behind the icon. Martin Luther King, like the rest of us, is a human being, with his own follies and faults. David Oyelowo brings forth an award winning performance as King. Oyelowo's King is a man with the world on his shoulders, reluctant to make some of the hard decisions but ultimately deciding to trudge forward anyway. History is forged by the brave, even if at first glance they may seem reluctant heroes.

The film deals only with specific moments surrounding this historic march; it is not King's biopic in any way nor does it try to. It deals with the ideals and the spirit of the movement, and that in my opinion is more important: in a period in our history where issues about race figure ever more prominently, it may be prudent to remember what it's all about: an intrinsic human need to be seen, be heard and be masters of their own destiny.

Road to the Oscars 2015: Birdman

I Remember When I Lost My Mind

A Review of Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, 2014)

A film by Alejandro Gonzales Iñárritu

The nature of show business is not unlike the jungle - where the Darwinian principle of survival prevails. Without the spotlight, actors and actresses simply fade away. Birman is a film about the industry, and the people struggling in it. It's the story of a man struggling with his own faded success, and overcoming it to become something new.

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is a washed up actor, best known for a number of superhero films in the past. His past success now haunts him: he can't escape from it; his angst springs from this very fact, and he is tormented by this past (either by imagining fantastical sequences or by a personification of his Birdman self). In response, he tries in desperation to legitimise himself as an actor by adapting, directing and starring in an adaptation of Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. He now has to deal with gaffes on stage and off, disgruntled actors seeking compensation, belligerent actors, critics with agendas, and his own insecurities. Will he pull it off? Or will he crash and burn?

The genius in Birdman lies not only in the story but also in the storytelling. Inarritu frames most of the film as one very long take winding from character to character, moment to moment. It's seamless and buoyed by outstanding camerawork from Emmanuel Lubezki, known for his cinematographic work on films like Gravity. It's a voyeuristic treatment, one that makes us play the role of an invisible companion, perhaps Birdman himself. This gives the film a sort of narrative flow that works really well. The soundtrack is an offbeat drum solo that spans most of the film, and it fits really well, giving the film a rhythm along with the flow.

The cast gives an exceptional performance, but props have to go to Michael Keaton. The similarities between his character and his own showbiz persona (he hasn't done much of note after Batman Returns) seem to have helped him tremendously with this role, because he knocks it out of the park.

The movie leaves us to make our own decisions at the end, and there have already been many interpretations of the ending and the movie as a whole. My personal interpretation is more optimistic: like a bird, soaring to greater heights. Birdman is a phenomenal achievement in filmmaking, and also a very entertaining film to boot.

Road to the Oscars 2015: Boyhood

The Attractiveness of Being

A review of Boyhood (2014)

Directed by Richard Linklater

I'm a fan of Richard Linklater, and I have to say his best efforts are also his most ambitious, whether it's about a relationship spanning many years (the Before trilogy) or it's rendered using revolutionary rotoscoping technology (Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly.) When he delves into more conventional filmmaking, the results are mixed; they range from entertaining (School of Rock) to mediocre at best (Fast Food Nation.) That said, Boyhood is full of ambition. Filmed over the course of twelve years, Boyhood is the story of a boy's life as he grows up in your typical American neighbourhood.

For many, Linklater has the ability to make the mundane seem interesting. A lot of his films, such as Waking Life and Before Sunrise (et al.) are basically two people talking. But there's something in the conversations between his characters that prevent the film from diving into tedium. Boyhood avoids any sort of conventional cinematic narrative - there's no major conflict, there's no antagonist, no overly dramatised or contrived attempt at melodrama - Boyhood thrives on the notion of being, of living in the moment. These are narrative decisions that will not work on everybody, as we are all used to the narrative structures of many other films, Hollywood or not. What appeals to many with Boyhood is how it forges ahead with it anyway, being as honest to life as possible.

Boyhood's cast of interesting characters helps fill out the film. Many come and go, never to be seen again. Some are there sometimes to offer support, like Ethan Hawke's character. The most interesting character in the movie is actually the mother, played by Patricia Arquette. As much as our main protagonist has gone through in his life, the mother's life is far more turbulent - she can't keep a stable relationship, she's for the most part a single mom struggling to feed and educate her children, and towards the end we feel her pain as her household becomes an empty nest. A followup movie called Motherhood - you heard that idea here first, folks. 

With this effort in his already impressive repertoire, I'm excited to see what Linklater can come up with next. Hopefully his subsequent films share the same ambition and scope as some of his best works.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Road to the Oscars 2015: Whiplash

Blood on the Snares

A review of Whiplash (2014)

Directed by Damien Chazelle

Damien Chazelle's sophomore effort, Whiplash, is a highly entertaining film about the relationship between a jazz drummer and his sadistic teacher. Intense is the word often bandied around to describe this film, and it's pretty damn accurate. From the first down to the very last drumbeat, it capitulates the spirit of its namesake, a jazz standard from Hank Levy: bombastic, pulse pounding and dynamic, switching from one time signature to another. JK Simmons and Miles Teller as Neiman and Fletcher are the perfect pair acting wise - they have a chemistry, or should I say anti-chemistry, that makes the film work, not to mention they are excellent actors by themselves. Chazelle channels his own experiences as a jazz drummer into the movie, and visually every edit and cue adds to the film's intensity. The stage becomes a battlefield. All in all, Whiplash is a great film and makes for entertaining viewing.

Now if you ask me if this film is a good jazz film, I'd have to say no.

There is one thing that I didn't see in the music in this film, except at the start and at the very end: I felt no passion or love in wanting to learn the music or in perfecting the craft. All we see is our protagonist trying to be the best because he wants the approval of his teacher. While this dynamic is the heart of the film, it does a disservice to what jazz is. There is no spirit of collaboration within the ensemble, no exchange of ideas - as iron sharpens iron, the proverb says - and that's the essence of what jazz is. It's not called an ensemble for nothing - jazz is a controlled, yet at times impromptu conversation using music - and the best conversations need love.

That's why Whiplash could be about the lengths to which people go to achieve their craft - any craft, not just jazz - and the pitfalls that come with it. It's about how institutionalised abuse can exist for years and how no one bats an eyelash. Fletcher's methods may produce the type of fiery incandescent genius he wants, but like all things touched by fire, they burn out. His methods also do not foster any kind of cooperation between Neiman's colleagues, and the film instead focuses on the relationship between student and teacher, an artistic decision that ultimately makes Whiplash a better film, but a worse jazz film.

There's a moment in Chazelle's first film, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, that reveals the dichotomy of the depiction of music between that film and Whiplash. In the former, there's an impromptu performance in a house complete with tap dancing in the middle of the film. It's exuberant, full of creativity and brimming with the sheer love and fun of music. On the other hand, towards the end of Whiplash the final drum solo is a display of pure technical skill, forged through hell, overflowing with passion and intensity. As a  film that does jazz justice, the former does a far better job. But as an overall film, Whiplash comes out on top.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Capsule Reviews (Dec-Jan)

It can be argued that Hunger Games: Catching Fire is more of a war on the outside. On the other hand, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay (Part 1) takes after the internal struggle of the first Hunger Games book and movie and runs with it. Mockingjay's first part is a battle of ideas, a battle of propaganda. Whether one side or the other is actually winning is not as important as how they look to the general public. At the center of this war of propaganda is Katniss Everdeen, who now has to fill the role of a revolutionary icon. But as we all know, the icon and the person are seldom the same.

As expected there are some liberties taken with the movie adaptation, which is more or less effective. The majority of the character focus goes to Katniss, leaving the other characters behind. The film is well paced for its length and never gets boring. Jennifer Lawrence gives a great performance, although the rest of the cast is decent as well.

The final chapter in Peter Jackson's Hobbit Trilogy, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies ends more than a decade of Tolkien-based film productions. While the movie is on a whole is entertaining, I feel the trilogy could have worked better with the original two movie premise.

The movie adapts material not only from the original book, but also from various notes and other supplemental materials published by Tolkien, as well as the expansive appendices to the later Lord of the Rings trilogy. For once, the scale of the adaptation doesn't seem to match the material it has adapted. Those appendices have a LOT of great material that could be used in the ending. In a contrast to the way the adaptation did its business for the first movie (with a nice scene detailing the War of Orcs and Dwarves,) this movie kind of scales it back a bit to tell a more personal story.

One of my more favorite parts of the film is the way the battle progressed, with battle lines and formations taking center stage - this was something we didn't see in the great battles in the previous LOTR trilogy. On the whole, this movie feels like a truncated climax; here's hoping the longer director's cut helps in that aspect.

I have to credit Interstellar for making contemporary science and science fiction cinema inspirational again for many. It's grounded in reality although some aspects take a decidedly science fiction (and even metaphysical) aspect. While it does tell a very ambitious story, the core of Interstellar is a journey that is very personal.

There may be a lot of science fiction films out there, but rarely do we see anything of this scope and ambition in cinema. It's helped by a competent soundtrack by Hans Zimmer and amazing cinematography and visual effects.

The plot has a bunch of interesting twists and turns and may warrant several viewings. It's worth the running time as it paces itself quite well all throughout.

Based on a piece of old Russian literature, Viy has elements of period fantasy and drama, although in the middle of the film's running time, much of the story revolves into scientific and empirical reasoning. It can be said that the latter half of the movie is about analyzing the facts versus merely constructing something fantastical out of them. This is in contrast to earlier adaptations of the text which give a more horror feel.

The special effects are top notch with a mix of practical and CG effects. There's also a certain atmosphere to the movie which I think fits the period setting. It's pretty cool too.

Also Charles Dance is in there somewhere.
There have been a handful of documentaries about the curious phenomenon that is the Brony community. They are male enthusiasts of My Little Pony, a children's television program primarily aimed towards young girls. A Brony Tale is one of the better docus out there about this phenomenon.

The film breaks stereotypes as it portrays Bronies as your average male, 18-30 years old, that happens to enjoy a cartoon about ponies. There are badass bikers, gym buffs, nerds and professionals in the film. It speaks of the universal appeal of the new program and the sophisticated way it treats its characters. It portrays these fans in an even handed way and doesn't try to shoehorn them into a specific type or group.

The film also features Ashleigh Ball, who voices two of the ponies in the show, and her experiences at her first ever Brony convention. She co-produced the film with her friend, who directed it.

Dinosaur 13 begins with the discovery of Sue, one of the most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex specimens ever discovered. The viewers' elation at the monumental scientific discovery is dashed as government and scrupulous individuals step in and stir up some trouble.

What follows is an emotional rollercoaster ride for the next hour and a half as the discoverers of Sue try to keep their precious fossil. It's not just about the fossil; it's a documentary on the battle over the rights to their discovery and the legal morass that sought to determine who it all belongs to. To what extent do we own scientific discovery? Is it for the benefit of everyone or just a few individuals?

It's an enthralling experience, and one that comes highly recommended.

The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz is the story of an incandescent prodigy and how his struggles to make the internet and its repository of information free caused his ultimate fall.

Even at a young age, Swartz displayed immense talent: he was behind the creation of RSS, Creative Commons, and is one of the co-founders of Reddit. 

His activities gave way to activism, as he tried to make information accessible to all, most notably the great repository of knowledge in scientific journals and articles monetized and sealed behind large corporations.

In this age where information and media are reaching a fundamental paradigm shift from copyright to something entirely different, Swartz was a victim of those tied to the old guard, made an example for all to see. But history moves inexorably on, and the internet never forgets.