Friday, November 2, 2012

Pixar's newest treat

Sure, it might not be as good as past Pixar fare and sure, it follows a more traditional narrative structure and yes, it just didn't meet critical expectations BUT don't -and I repeat- DON'T discount Pixar's "Brave" as nothing but filler in the same category as "Cars 2" or "A Bug's Life". The film is too good to be shunned off and relegated to that low-leveled category. Let me explain why. Expectations can really kill the way you view a film. Before "Brave" even came out, the thought of another Pixar film coming to theatres gave critics and movie buffs a reason to smile in what would likely be another dull summer loaded with movie escapism and not too much food for thought. I mean, this is the same company that gave us some of the great animated films of the last decade and single handily brought us into -my opinion of course- the golden age of animation. Just look at the treasure trove of brilliant films this company has released since 1999; Toy Story 2", "Monsters Inc.", "Finding Nemo", "The Incredibles", "Ratatouille", "WALL-E", "Up" and "Toy Story 3".  An impressive list that is practically impossible to match by anyone else, safe maybe Hayao Miyazaki's brilliant filmography of the past three decades or Disney's brilliant run of films from 1989-1994.

In"Brave" what we have is Pixar's best animation to date. Its eye popping colors bring about dazzling visuals that would make any true film buff water in the mouth. The animation is so well drawn out and compared to earlier Pixar films, "Brave" blows them out of the water in terms of sheer technical achievements -Time's Richard Corliss has echoed my sentiments in saying it is "the most ravishing and complex pixar movie to date". However its narrative is safer, bringing about memories of some of Disney's so called "princess stories" yet infusing it with post 21st century material. This is Pixar's first film featuring a female heroine and not just any heroine; a redhead that has a killer talent for bow and arrow. Merida is her name and she is a headstrong free spirit that wants to "change her fate" (of being betrothed against her will) at nearly any cost. Merida will not be held back. The story comes with twists and turns that I didn't see coming, outstanding visuals and wait until you see Merida's three younger brothers,  redheaded baby triplets that just want to cause chaos everytime they're on screen.

This film doesn't have the dark, underlying adult themes of "Up" but it sure is a great time at the movies. Its scenes go from wacky, to dramatic to downright scary. Will it win the Best Animated Feature Oscar? It's too hard to tell but something tells me we shouldn't discount its chances. I mean, after all a "good" rather than "great" Pixar movie is still better than 99% of animated movies released in any given year. This is just a case of high expectations not being met. "Brave" isn't a film that vies for greatness - instead it is a lovely film that is intentionally Pixar's first foray into the "Fairytale" genre. However, It doesn't necessarily follow the rules of the genre; Merida would rather use her bow and arrow than chase boys or find her prince charming. The movie isn't about being in love or living happily ever after. It is more about one girl's quest to find self-fulfillment and identity in a world empowered by men. Don't listen to the naysayers or those who's expectations were too high to reach, let yourself get swept up into "Brave" and its magnificent colors.

When looking at the Best Animated Feature of 2012, one cannot discount Tim Burton's imaginative "Frankenweenie" which has enough critics backing it up and will likely get a well-deserved nomination. Burton's Gothic treat is his animated follow-up to "The Corpse Bride", which still is his ONLY Oscar nomination to date. Yes, it's very hard to believe especially with a filmography that includes "Ed Wood", "Sweeney Todd" and "Edward Scissorhands". "Frankenweenie" is Burton being Burton (You could see that as a good thing or a bad thing). Based on his 1984 short about a young boy named victor that loses his dog, Sparky, and uses the power of science to resurrect it "Frankenweenie" is a labor of love for Burton through and through. Shot in beautiful Black and White and laced with enough dark Gothic humor to satisfy his many legions of fans, the film will likely garner Burton a well deserved second nomination and maybe -just maybe- his first ever win.  Other contenders this year include well received fare such as "Paranorman", "Pirates: Bands Of Misfits" and the recently released "Wreck It Ralph".

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Paul Thomas Anderson, Joaquin Phoenix and "The Master"

(R) ★★★★½

If you're ready to encounter a ticking time bomb on-screen then get ready for Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell in Paul Thomas Anderson's flawed but brilliant The Master. No review can prepare you for what Phoenix does on screen in this movie. It is not only the best acting you will see all year but also a performance that will be talked about for ages. Not to take anything away from Philip Seymour Hoffman as a Ron L Hubbard-like biblical propagandist, Hoffman is brilliant too and will likely get his fourth Oscar nomination as Dodd. Anderson doesn't just direct The Master, he infuses it with so much cinematic juice that your eyes will likely explode in sheer delight of its colors and shots. Sure some critics are already bitching that Anderson (There Will Be Blood, Magnolia, Boogie Nights, Punch-Drunk Love) has made a film with no meaning and no direction but these same people are missing the point. The Master is episodic in nature, a shuffling of numerous, powerfully deliberate sequences -practically all taking place in Freddie Quell's head- that hit you hard when taken in as a whole. I came out of it both confused and affected.

Contrary to what many people are saying, this is not a film about Scientology. Even though Scientology does serve as a background, Anderson has slyly set up for us a character study involving Phoenix's Freddie Quell and his psychotic journey through hell. Every time Freddie is on screen you feel uncomfortable, an unpredictable character, a ticking time bomb waiting to explode at any moment. The anger and frustration that resides inside Quell is not healthy and severe medical attention is what he needs. He thinks he's found it in a man that is preaching a new gospel. Hoffman's Dodd is a well known scientists that has come up with his own religion, one that very much mirrors Scientology founder Ron L Hubbard's vision. Dodd sees in Quell a potential follower, a man knocked out by life and in need of a resurgence. A friendship develops and that is in fact the heart and soul of the film. Dodd and Quell need each other more than we are led to believe. They are first and foremost friends that are blatantly divided by their own beliefs. In one scene after the next we are only given glimpses of the bond that is developed between the two men.

Freddie's quirky mannerisms are memorable - a hunched posture, one eye widely opened more so than the other, a slurred speech from too much drinking and a broken walk. Freddie's alcoholism is severe. He has a drink almost every time we see him. Phoenix has created a character that will resonate with fans of cinema for years to come. The first 20 minutes of The Master focus on Freddie's failed attempts at life. His memorably preposterous stint with the navy is highlighted by a humping session with a sandwoman which leads to a jerk off session next to the beach. His job as family photographer at a retail store, which ends with him attacking a client nonsensically and losing his job. As a runaway in an undisclosed location filled with Asian workers which eventually leads to his own homemade moonshine poisoning a local old man and possibly killing him. Freddie being chased by the Asian workers, somehow getting away from them and eventually sneaking into a boat party that is populated by Dodd and his followers. The way I'm describing these events is the way Anderson presents them to us, in fragments - just like in There Will Be Blood's opening scenes, we are set up for a character study like no other and a man that is truly aggressive in nature.

The episodic nature of the film gives it the feel of a dream and much credit must go to cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., who will likely deserve every award that will come his way at year's end. Anderson loses track of his film once his vision shifts to England but no matter that section still remains a thoughtful, enigmatic piece of his deliberately dreamy puzzle. We are left with enough question sto wet our appetites for a second viewing. The Master's many powerful moments combine to make it a masterful whole. It is a testament to Anderson's brilliance as writer/ director that you forgive the flaws that come with his work. He is truly the best American director working today because there is so much going on in every frame and such carefully planned out thought to his shots.  So much happens in the film's 138 minutes that the mind can't grasp everything at once. The relationship formed between Quell and Dodd is one that will be dissected for years to come. They form an unlikely duo that is the heart and soul of the picture. What's truly remarkable about the therapy Dodd uses on Quell -such as questioning, feeling walls/windows, controlling anger- is that it actually works for a glimmering moment, much more than any of the army's tactics.

Phoenix has shown signs of brilliance in past roles -most notably in 2009's underrated Two Lovers- but here he really outdoes himself. If Daniel Day-Lewis' towering performance as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood left a shattering mark on cinema for decades to come, Phoenix's Freddie Quell will likely have the same lasting effect. Before The Master collapses in its final 10 minutes, there hasn't been anything better released in 2012. When it finishes there still hasn't been anything better in 2012. Its resonant images stay with you like a neverending wave at shore,  long after the lights have come up and the dust has settled. Here is an example of director and actor both at the peak of their powers making such powerful, relentless, united art that transcends anything that's come before it. Anderson's last 4 films have each been released 5 years apart, here's hoping we don't have to wait another 5 years for the master to release another one.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Oscar Watch; Richard Gere

Richard Gere, with his slick silver hair and squinty blue eyes, just turned 63 this past August. A stinging reminder that not only does time go by in the blink of an eye but also that this underrated American actor has never won an Oscar, let alone gotten nominated for one. Yes, that’s right. No nomination for his killer good role as lawyer Billy Flynn in “Chicago”, nada for his portrayal of Zack Mayo in “An Officer And A Gentleman”, the cheated-on husband in “Unfaithful”, Julian Kaye in “American Gigolo” or even as Clifford Irving in the underseen 2007 picture “The Hoax”. That might just change this year as Gere gives the performance of his career in Andrew Jarecki’s “Arbitrage”. In fact, Gere is so good as nasty hedge fund magnate Robert Miller that you still root for him to get out of his situation in one piece. Given that Miller is cheating on his wife with a french mistress, scamming his clients of millions of dollars and using his friend Jimmy as bait for the police, we shouldn’t be feeling that way about this corporate son of a gun.

Gere is magnetic, bringing ever ounce of nuance to his role and delivering a performance that’s nothing short of revelatory. No wonder critics have been screaming Oscar since “Arbitrage” got released way back in August. Does Gere have a chance at winning Best Actor? Of course not, especially with Daniel Day Lewis, Joaquin Pheonix and Denzel Washington vying for the top prize but Gere deserves to at least get nominated. In fact, a nomination would be more than welcome by many cinephiles, especially those that know just how good Gere can be when given the right script. “Arbitrage” is that script.

Written by Nicholas Jarecki, director Andrew’s half brother, “Arbitrage” is loaded with enough juicy scenes for Gere to show off his acting chops. That’s a good thing. Gere is going to need those scenes to carry him into awards season if there is any chance at even getting a nomination. Playing a money making scumbag that you really feel for isn’t the easiest thing to pull off in this day and age but Gere does it effortlessely, using his charismatic presence and brooding good looks to fully flesh out his character. Critics have been pretty unanimous in saying it’s one of his best performances, now it’s time for the academy to follow suit and honor this great actor.

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