Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Tracks

Director: John Curran
Writer: John Curran, Robyn Davidson (author)
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Adam Driver
Release Date: TBD
Length: 1 hour 50 minutes
            
           Every year, the Toronto International Film Festival guarantees its audience a diverse range of films from all over the world, as TIFF’s actually lives up to it’s international title. In comparison to films from Palestine and Iran, an Australian film may not seem like that much of an interesting foreign subject to some festival goers. However, one of them holds the visual power of director John Curran and the emotional power of lead actress Mia Wasikowska, there is simply no other place you will be more fascinated by than Australia. Tracks holds the cinematic ability to do just that.

            The film tells the incredible true story of writer, voyageur and recluse Robin Davidson and her 1700 trek with her four camels and one dog across the deserts of Western Australia in the 1970s. When we meet Robyn, she is financially broke but determined to make enough money to finance this grand and impossible trip. She skips from job to job until settling down in the beautiful desert town of Alice Springs, where she prepares for the trip by training camels in the harsh desert weather. Robyn reminds of us of a lone wolf type of lead from an old Western film, a strong traveler without much connection to anyone or anything, except her dog. We do meet Robyn’s one old friend Jenny, when she stays over with her hippie group of friends, much to Robyn’s annoyance. One member of this group is the talkative, bumbling, Rick Smolan (played by Girls’ Adam Driver), an American photographer for National Geographic and Robyn’s polar opposite. It is through Rick and his unconditional friendliness that Robyn receives the financial backing she needs for the trip, from National Geographic. However, as the magazine’s photographer, Rick is required to meet Robyn a few times during the expedition to take photos. Though Robyn intended for this to be an exclusively individual experience, she soon finds out that she craves much more human interaction beyond her few meetings with Rick on this arduous, emotional, almost yearlong journey of self-discovery.

            Curran, who also wrote the screenplay for Tracks, adapts Davidson’s delicate story with precise direction and careful emotion. He succeeds in bringing out the raw human elements of her tale almost entirely through minimal extraordinary camerawork, as there is very little dialogue. We better understand Davidson’s haunting voyage of self-discovery through Curran’s discovery of the bright and dangerous landscape of the Australian desert. His beautiful deep focus photography makes the setting itself become a sort of co-lead with Wasikowska, as an equally mysterious and complicated character. Curran is a genius at utilizing subtle filmmaking to evoke the deepest of emotions from his audience. All we need is the ever-growing frame to further encapsulate the stunning view surrounding Robyn, to make us feel her loneliness. As far as the audience can tell, there are little to no special effects used, simply because the scenery is as gorgeous and wondrous enough as it is. Each shot of the blazing endless desert could be out of Robyn’s imagination, for all we know. The film is slow throughout, but not boring, for the steady pace is what takes you so deep into Robyn’s mind and transformation, and by the end leaves you breathless.

    The camerawork only brings out the poignant character study underneath the film and connects you deeply to the complex lead. The connection you have with Robyn can only to be compared with the feeling you had with Chuck Noland in Cast Away. The difference between the two is that one does not star a worshipped male academy award winning, but a very young underrated actress, in her first adult role. Though Wasikowska has impressed us before in Jane Eyre, Stoker, The Kids Are All Right, Restless, etc., she did so by playing a teenager. Robyn Davidson is quite a leap from the young Alice in Wonderland and the audience almost forgets Wasikowska ever appeared in these films by the time Tracks has finished. This marks the performance of Wasikowska’s already prolific career and solidifies her as one of the industry’s finest actresses. Her level of dedication to this dynamic, shifting and hard to understand character is Oscar worthy and is reason enough alone for everyone to see this film upon it’s release. Like Curran, it is Wasikowska’s skills of subtlety that move the audience so dearly, bringing us further into the lonely and confused mind of Robyn. There is no other actress who could have carried the weight of this film better than Wasikowska. She is simply tremendous as the anchor of Davidson’s enduring emotional flight.

Though Wasikowska easily steals the show, her co-star Adam Driver, who also keeps getting work with Lincoln, Frances Ha, Inside Llewyn Davis, etc. is perfect as Robyn’s foil. Driver’s charm and boyishness as Rick gives the audience a much needed comic relief that does not clash or overshadow Wasikowska’s stress and seriousness but creates an ideal balance with it.

Like mentioned earlier, Wasikowska’s performance is enough to make you fully appreciate this movie, but combined with Curran’s meticulous artistic vision and the radiant backdrop of the Australian desert, it’s enough to make you fall in love with the film. Tracks is a one of a kind cinematic venture that only comes around every decade or so. Let’s hope some of that TIFF good luck charm allows this striking independent feature to eventually be seen and loved around the world.  

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Writer: Mark Boal
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle
Release Date: December 21, 2012
Length: 2 hours 37 minutes




     What do you get when you put a master of suspense, a tour de force of acting and the most fascinating true story of the last decade together? The answer is the inarguable masterpiece that is Zero Dark Thirty. 

      The film opens with a painful dose of recordings from 9/11 over a terrifyingly still black screen, to give context of the relentless gruesome hunt to follow. We see the beginning of the search through the fresh eyes of Maya, an operative recruited out of high school, played by the immensely talented Jessica Chastain. In the torture scenes, she seems meek beside her experienced cohort Dan (Jason Clarke). As the search progresses though, Chastain subtly transforms Maya into the inflexible passionate leader of the case, while Dan and Joseph (Kyle Chandler) let time and lack of progress deteriorate their drives.  With more field operatives returning to D.C. to work Homeland security, Maya fights for the only case she has ever known, intent on capturing the world’s most wanted man. However, after ten years of maniacal stress and endless bloodshed on both sides, Maya comes to the question of whether sacrificing her whole life for one target was really worth it.

     When comparing Bigelow and Boal’s two masterpieces, The Hurt Locker is an endless ride of adrenaline, whereas Zero Dark Thirty is a fast-paced political thriller, with not nearly as much suspense, until the end. Bigelow does not treat the final assassination like an action sequence with quick editing and rapid gunfire. Like The Hurt Locker, she stretches out the sequence as much as realistically possible to have your heart palpitating in anticipation.

     Nothing can reaffirm your faith in Hollywood more than directors like Kathryn Bigelow and Tom Hooper, who win best picture, get more money and use that money wisely in grand productions like Zero Dark Thirty and Les Miserables. A story of this magnitude just could not have been made with less money. More importantly, it could not have been handled with less care than from the thoroughly prepared screenwriter Mark Boal.

     As a former investigative journalist who used his articles as a basis for the 2009 hit The Hurt Locker, Boal is no stranger to creating pieces solely based on first-hand accounts. The research shows, and combined with Bigelow’s distinctive camerawork, it makes the film seem like an enthralling documentary.

     Compared to fellow Oscar nominee Argo, which openly admitted to changing facts for entertainment reasons, Zero Dark Thirty succeeds with the knowledge that you are watching near-fact. Every event embedded in reality, like the suicide bomb attack destroying a U.S. military base in Pakistan or the navy seal plane nearly crashing into Bin Laden’s compound, easily makes you shudder in memory. Though most would think it is okay for Boal to take creative license with the dialogue, he even includes some pivotal real lines like “Geronimo, for God and country, Geronimo” when Bin Laden dies.

     Boal does more than just state facts though. He transfers the real woman who spearheaded this mission onto screen, creating a cinematic female strength that can only be compared to Ellen Ripley or Clarice Starling. This flawed character of Maya, written and performed with captivating zeal and neuroses, gives a much-needed personal connection to what seems like an impossibly extensive subject.

     The innovative writing can only be matched by the most careful precise unbiased directing possessed in Hollywood’s finest, Kathryn Bigelow. She not only stands as a role model for women in cinema but for any filmmaker who plans to or already makes films of political or historical relevance. Despite what one may infer from the trailer or premise, this is neither an anti-America protest film nor a pro-America propaganda film. Torture is neither endorsed nor used as a symbol against America. The film simply shows what a completely ineffective strategy it was for the CIA, especially when Maya gets the information she wants by offering a prisoner hummus and tabbouleh. Bigelow is an expert in telling a story of this political magnitude in the most neutral of political opinions. Boal and Bigelow do not scream the CIA is bad or the CIA is good at us like we are children. They give the closest depiction to the CIA we are ever going to get, with a relatable character to weave us through it.

     The cherry on top of this meticulous adaptation of historical events is its beautiful and boldly strong Jessica Chastain, who never leaves the screen. Her portrayal of Maya solidifies this as a human and not didactic story. When Bin Laden is finally captured, the music does not erupt and nobody cheers as if it was a football touchdown. The audience is not cheering for America or reacting to the success of the mission, but only thinking of Maya and what she is supposed to do with her life now. The audience is at a loss as well, left shaking uncontrollably after watching the best film of 2012. 

The Best of 2012


1. Zero Dark Thirty

When you put the master of suspense with a tour de force of acting and one of the most exciting stories of this decade, you get Zero Dark Thirty. Screenwriter Mark Boal, a former investigative journalist, creates a doc like atmosphere with his extensive research. Knowing we are watching near-fact, the audience shudders remembering the real events depicted within the film. Bigelow not only stretches our agonizing anticipation as far as it can go but handles the difficult subject of Bin Laden with a neutral non-political lense a filmmaker only as mature as she can provide.

2. Beasts of the Southern Wild

Independent filmmaker Benh Zeitlin’s breakthrough work tells the story of Hush Puppy, a six-year-old girl living with her father, in the town of The Bathtub. Beasts of the Southern Wild skillfully uses almost dreamlike art direction to instill fantasy into the heartbreakingly real story of poverty in Katrina struck Louisiana. The strength of five-year-old actress Quvenzhan√© Wallis and the affecting music by Zeitlin and Dan Romer are the final elements to hurl this movie into near perfection. 

3. Les Miserables 

Tom Hooper boldly takes on two untouchable tasks of adapting the musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and shooting the first musical film with live singing. The choice is exceptionally executed by a revolutionary sound and editing department and allows the phenomenal cast to emotionally perform the songs. In addition, every shot of poverty stricken France is a stunning achievement and Hooper proves what films are really meant for.  

4. Silver Linings Playbook

The same natural family dynamic that made a success of The Fighter proves to do the same in David O. Russell’s multilayered story of mental illness, family, love and recovery in Silver Lining’s Playbook. Each scene makes the audience either hysterical in laughter, tears or compassion for these flawed lovable characters. This is a film you cannot dissect into directing, writing and acting because they feed off each other in creating a heartfelt genuine movie experience.


5. The Master 

It’s Paul Thomas Anderson at his craziest, most controversial and most beautiful in the long awaited The Master. Through the power of Anderson’s intelligent words and Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s hypnotic performance, we easily fall into the awakening heartrending devoted The Cause, that can easily be compared to scientology. Joaquin Pheonix and the 70mm film further embellish this haunting film that will remain in your thoughts long after you leave the theatre.  

6. Flight

Coming out of nowhere, despite its legendary director Robert Zemeckis, of Forrest Gump and Cast Away, and its prominent lead Denzel Washington, is Flight. The film tells the unconventional story of an alcoholic pilot whom, though being treated like a hero, may have caused the deaths of six people on his plane. Washington is at his finest in a film that examines humans in their most raw forms and challenges the audience to both root and hate its complicated antihero.

7. Django Unchained 

Tarantino whatever boundaries he’d yet to break through by giving his cinematic gift to the touchy topic of slavery. Tarantino’s reappearing combination of fun adventure and disturbing torture twists and affects the audience almost immediately. Though Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz carry the film beautifully, it is Leonardo Dicaprio that steals the film, like most Tarantino villains do, as the sadistic plantation owner Calvin Candie.

8. Lincoln

The project Spielberg has reportedly spent his entire career working toward paid off in a cleverly crafted and thoroughly researched depiction of the revered honest Abe, during the last few months of his presidency. Tony Kushner’s dynamic and accurate script, that took numerous tries to get right, shines through the world’s greatest actor, Daniel Day-Lewis, in his finest role yet. Sally Field, a face we have not seen in a while, is also exceptional as the tortured Mary Todd Lincoln.

 9. The Dark Knight Rises 

The anticipated finale to Christopher Nolan’s reinterpreted Batman franchise lives up to its bankable and now artistic name. With new exceptional performances from Anne Hathaway and Tom Hardy, among the slew of new faces to the trilogy, one would think the plot could become a tragic mess. However Nolan, and his brother Jonathan weave a simultaneously complex and clear story to appropriately rise to his previous works of genius. 

10. The Sessions

The festival favourite of 2012 tells the remarkable true story of Mark O’Brien, a man who is paralyzed from the neck down and wishes to successfully have sex at least once before he dies. The quirky charm and endearing poignancy of Ben Lewin’s The Sessions can only be further catapulted by its maverick lead John Hawks.  He fully transforms himself into Mark and accomplishes the impossible task of making an unfamiliar kind of man seem like a best friend. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Spring Breakers














Director: Harmony Korine
Writer: Harmony Korine
Starring: Ashley Benson, Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez, Rachel Korine, James Franco
Release Date: March 5, 2013
Length: 1 hour 32 minutes

In 1994, Quentin Tarantino gave us what we can now look back on as the best movie to describe the phrase ‘WTF’. Pulp Fiction, with its original and wacky writing was the most surprising film ever. After walking out of my second screening at the Toronto International Film Festival this year though, Pulp Fiction will have to lose it’s WTF title to Harmony Korine’s disturbing and stupefying Spring Breakers. However, just because it shocks audiences doesn’t mean it amazes them.

Up until a month ago, Spring Breakers seemed to me like the newest and most aggravating Disney project with its headliners Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson.  Throw in the name Harmony Korine though, and we are dealing with a completely different film. Korine, best known for writing the groundbreaking and controversial KIDS when he was nineteen years old, specifically chose the girls with the screaming fan bases of twelve year olds, so that their innocent faces would seem all the more shocking when doing what his script entailed.

The film opens with Skrillex music blaring over ten minutes of topless kids on spring break. It shocks and disturbs you in every way possible, and just when you think it’s enough, it keeps going. As you will realize later though, those ten minutes set the tone for the movie perfectly. From that moment on, nothing will shock you, just intrigue you.

The plot, or what there is of it, goes as follows. Four college girls, fed up with their dull small town lives, rob a chicken joint to go on the most ecstasy filled blissful spring break ever in Florida. When down there, they get pulled into the underground illegal world of tourist-robbers and gangsters by the part time rapper, Dangerous (James Franco with grills and dreadlocks). The story pretty much stops at the premise. To some that might be a weakness, but to Korine, it was an advantage.

During the TIFF Q&A, Korine stated he wanted to create a film without much dialogue and more like a sensory experience. Audiences must know that when walking in. This is a music video-like trance and does not follow any familiar formulas. Spring Breakers benefits from being unlike any film you have seen before, but detriments from the audience’s bewilderment when it is finished. It’s Scarface meets Britney Spears and if you buy into what Korine is selling, you’re good to go. If not, you can be assured to still notice the films artistic merit.

Aesthetically, Spring Breakers is an incredible achievement. Korine’s cinematography is simply beautiful with vibrant pinks and yellows to remind us of the sunny and dream-like feel of Florida these girls are entranced by. The constant use of slow motion establishes the high the characters are enjoying and maintains a consistent pace throughout. Korine uses repetition of lines, shots and music to panic you during the fall of that high when the film becomes more Scarface than Britney. The editing is the most skillful medium of art in Spring Breakers, using intercutting shots of the next scene to foreshadow a tone change in the story. 

The combination of Skrillex’s constant electronic beats with this surreal filmmaking results in cinematic brilliance caught between being disturbingly bloody and hilariously pop-like. The perfect example is when Spears’ “Everytime” plays over a robbery scene of violence and machine guns. You simultaneously laugh and feel sick.

The acting only thrives on Korine’s messed up atmosphere with doses and doses of weird improvisational dialogue that will again either scare or amuse you. For example, James Franco is guaranteed to have you howling with laughter, especially when he’s screaming about the different stuff he owns. “Look at all my s***! I got shorts in every colour!”.

It can always be argued that the use of female nudity in films is sleazy and misogynistic, but Spring Breakers isn’t like a horror movie, when the female victim just happens to have her top off when she is alone. Korine’s minute long shot of a slo-mo bum shaking seems to manifest his fascination with this grand number of kids who lose all senses for a week or two in their version of paradise.

Despite all of Spring Breaker’s graphic violence, nudity, use of drugs, alcohol, sex, etc, Korine uses no sense of the term “shock value”. Instead, he entrances you so much that every time a character goes further and further into their spring break activities, the feeling is gradual and organic. By the time the movie has reached an ultimate high of impropriety, you manage to somehow comfortably watch without a single cringe.

That may not be true for everyone but if you do get into it, you throw all caution to the wind and just enjoy. That being said, Spring Breakers is most definitely not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, to say the least, as no Harmony Korine film is. He repeatedly states that he does not make movies for everyone to see, just for his specific audience. If you fall under that audience, you will be pulled into the trance and if not, you could easily sit there, offended by almost everything. Either way, let us just hope people know what they are walking into come this film’s release.

Looper

Director: Rian Johnson
Writer: Rian Johnson
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt
Release Date: September 28, 2012
Length: 1 hour 58 minutes
   On July 26th, Cameron Bailey and Piers Handling, the directors of the Toronto International Film Festival stated that the opening night film for 2012 would be Looper, a fast-paced action flick about time travel, starring Bruce Willis.  Not exactly what festival-goers are excited to hear when they’re used to seeing foreign and independent features scouted by TIFF’s large group of programmers from the world’s most obscure crevices. Bailey and Handling defended their choice by stating that Looper is a smart, thrilling film written and directed by the very talented Rian Johnson, whose more independent work has been shown at the festival before. So did the titular movie live up to it’s honour? 

The highly illegal invention of time travel is only soon to be invented. In the future of 2044, crime bosses send their captives back in time to be killed by loopers, assassins who keep quiet and receive a grand amount of money in return. The use of time travel is so prohibited that the crime bosses find the loopers in the future and send them back to themselves to be wiped clean from their records. The very stylish and very affluent Joe has been stashing half his pay away for the day he does the notorious deed, so he can fly to France to live the rest of his life. When the time comes though and his victim is without a headcover, staring at him dead in the eye, Joe is thrown off his game and gets knocked out. Joe must now find his older self, kill him and avoid being terminated by his employers for failing to perform his job as well. While attempting to pursue both impossible tasks, Joe stays with a tough mother, Sara (Emily Blunt) and troubled son he meets outside of the city, where he believes older Joe will find him for the reason he returned to the past.

Although Willis get’s the leading credit, the person who has the majority of screen time is Joseph Gordon-Levitt who in essence, becomes a younger embodiment of Bruce Willis in this film. Willis is quick and enticing as our main protagonist, but he doesn’t have to do any of the hard work to create the likeness. From the way Gordon-Levitt walks, talks and holds his stance, the similarity is almost creepy, making the confrontation scene between older Joe and younger Joe in the diner, all the more entertaining.  The actors who steal the show though are the most unlikely. Blunt shines in arguably her best and strongest performance yet, as a resilient, authentic single mother who is written with equal importance. She is no bond girl, but a well-developed character of extreme severity to the story. Somewhere between Johnson’s original writing and Blunt’s gifted acting, we are simply amazed. The actor who plays her son though, Pierce Agnon, proves to be a tough competitor for scene-stealing, as the disturbed and precocious Cid. Often when lines are written for children to sound more mature, it comes off as unrealistic and unconvincing but this kid makes it work and we never doubt his irregular wisdom for a second.

The characters are only one of the many elements that makes Johnson’s layered and smart script so laudable. He makes the smartest action flick for the everyman and so easily spans all genres of film. Yes, we are given a thrilling, suspenseful, load of adventure, but we get an emotional drama, a subtle love story and even the most genius moments of humor when needed. The plot manages to be complex and cleverly interwoven without confusing or catching us off guard with twists. Every time there is an exciting turn in the plot, it feels gradual and understanding to the audience. Johnson does not make his story predictable but fills us with curiosity from the beginning so our minds can speculate all the different routes the film will go in.

You become so absorbed by the thoughtful script and relatable characters, that you almost forget the film is technically science fiction. Rian Johnson has redefined the once cheesy genre. Though the thought of time-travel reminds most of Marty McFly and Doc Brown, Looper’s slick dark atmosphere avoids clich√©, while simultaneously not taking itself too seriously with provided appropriate humor. The film doesn’t just take place in the future to have flying cars and time travel, either. Johnson has created an incredibly well thought out and smart futuristic backdrop to year 2044. There are realistic, interesting and creative elements of the future Johnson has imagined.

 The beyond intelligent action of Looper that keeps you on the edge of your seat is as equally celebratory as the profound characters, who stay with you long after the credits roll. The film thrives on all it’s talent of actors, including the intimidating but funny Jeff Daniels as Joe’s boss and the underrated Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood, Ruby Sparks) as Joe’s co-worker and good friend, Seth.

Looper gives movie lovers much more than the typical fun action flick we asked for and Handling and Bailey gives TIFF-goers much more than expected. This is not TIFF making a choice to attract commercial audiences, but TIFF making a choice to have the most captivating opening night film in years and a hell of way to start off this year’s jam-packed fest.