Thursday, January 26, 2012

VIDEO ESSAY — The Double Life of James and Juliette: Mysteries and Perceptions in Kiarostami's Certified Copy

Inspired by the recent wave of video criticism that has taken over blogs like Fandor and Press Play (both essential reading/viewing), I decided to try my own hand in writing, editing, and producing a video essay myself. The first, presented above, tackles my favorite film of 2011, Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy. I hope you enjoy this, as I had a great time making the essay, and hope to do more throughout 2012. Any comments or feedback would be greatly appreciated, either in the comments below or by email.

Monday, January 23, 2012

My Oscar Ballot: 2012 Edition

Certified Copy
While everyone gets hyped up about tomorrow morning’s Academy Award nominations, I could probably be less interested this year. While Oscar pundits get excited over some of the middling films that will populate the lists tomorrow, I’m hoping that some years down the roads, the films that dominate my own top films list will become cherished classics. For fun, I’ve submitted my own ballot, following the style of the Academy Awards (ten films ranked for Best Picture, five nominations for all other categories). I’ve presented it without comment—again, go to my top 15 list for commentary on most of these picks.

Best Picture
1.      Certified Copy
2.      Martha Marcy May Marlene
3.      A Separation
4.      Meek’s Cutoff
5.      The Interrupters
6.      Margaret
7.      Mysteries of Lisbon
8.      Take Shelter
9.      Tuesday, After Christmas
10.    The Tree of Life

Best Director
·         Sean Durkin, Martha Marcy May Marlene
·         Asghar Farhadi, A Separation
·         Abba Kiraostami, Certified Copy
·         Kelly Reichardt, Meek’s Cutoff
·         Raúl Ruiz, Mysteries of Lisbon

Best Actor
·         Woody Harrelson, Rampart
·         Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
·         Brad Pitt, Moneyball
·         Peyman Moaadi, A Separation
·         Michael Shannon, Take Shelter

Best Actress
·         Juliette Binoche, Certified Copy
·         Kirstin Dunst, Melancholia
·         Elizabeth Olson, Martha Marcy May Marlene
·         Anna Paquin, Margaret
·         Kristin Wiig, Bridesmaids

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Haywire: An Ass-Kicker Supreme

Directed By: Steven Soderbergh
Written By: Lem Dobbs
Starring: Gina Carano, Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Bill Paxton, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Michael Angarano, and Channing Tatum
Director of Photography: Peter Andrews (Soderbergh), Editor: Steven Soderbergh, Production Designer: Howard Cummings, Original Music: David Holmes
Rated: R for ass-kicking, head-smashing violence.

            The pleasures in Haywire, of which are there many, derive not from the dramatic reveals or explosions or kinetic, impossible to follow, action sequences that populate most films that follow spies and the work they do. Instead, the film gives us details through cinematic delights: a tilted shot in a red-drenched palette, an abstract jazzy score, and the sound of a gunshot runging out with booming thunder. This is after all Steven Soderbergh, a director who despite being in the business for over twenty years, has continued to remain experimental and metatextual with each film, even when approaching genre exercises (most recently the virus thriller Contaigon, which evolved into a political statement on the age of Tea Party politics).

            One could argue Haywire is the closest thing he’s done to a commercial film since his Ocean’s trilogy. However, Soderbergh plays against usual genre standards so often that the film often feels much like Godard and Truffaut making a CIA black ops ass kicking thriller than the next film from Michael Bay. Style is the substance of Haywire, which uses a somewhat paint-by-the-numbers script by Lem Dobbs (who also wrote The Limey for Mr. Soderbergh) as a starting point to give the almost deadening genre a new classic, and led by the commanding performance of Gina Carano.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Miss Bala: A Pretty Face Joins An Ugly War

Miss Bala
Directed By: Gerardo Naranjo
Written By: Gerardo Naranjo and Mauricio Katz
Starring:  Stephanie Sigman and Noe Hernandez
Director of Photography: Matyas Erdely, Editor: Gerardo Naranjo, Art Direction: Ivonne Fuentes, Original Music: Emilio Kauderer
Rated: R for bloody, truthful violence.

There’s a strong dynamic between two very different worlds at the heart of Miss Bala, a Mexican crime saga from director Gerardo Naranjo. Laura, a young woman who has been forced to help a powerful drug lord, watches as a DEA agent is run over, dragged through the street, and hung over a highway, his corpse bloodied and barely hanging together. The drug lords then take her to a fixed beauty pageant, where the bright lights practically blind her, the atmosphere of the event promoting youth, beauty, and love.

This clash of universes, and the fallacy between them, centers the powerfully shot but somewhat hollow drama, which made a splash on the festival circuit last year.Naranjo made some headlines in 2008 with I’m Gonna Explode, a unique exploration of youth and class with the powerful energy adapted from Godard’s Pierret Le Fou (full disclosure; I worked on the subtitles for I’m Gonna Explode while interning for IFC Films). Here, Naranjo is in somewhat stripping down the crime thriller to its essentials—the Italian mafia film Gomorrah might be this film’s distant cousin—though it indulges with its cinematic excess. The outcome is a somewhat mixed result that may interest audiences with its bizarre but true story of a beauty queen involved in the drug war, but rarely finds a way to outlive its genre ties and speak candidly about the issues it raises.

Coriolanus: Call of Duty - Shakesperean Warfare

Directed By: Ralph Fiennes
Written By: John Logan, based on the play by William Shakespeare
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain, Vanessa Redgrave, James Nesbitt, Dragan Micanovic, Lubna Azabal, and Ashraf Barhorm
Director of Photography: Barry Ackroyd, Editor: Nicolas Gaster, Production Designer: Ricky Eyres, Original Music: Ilan Eshkeri
Rated: R for some military violence.

Modern day Shakespeare adaptations are a tricky business. Sometimes, they come in the form of teen comedies that forgo the language in order to bring in a bigger (and often more pedestrian) audience (She’s The Man; 10 Things I Hate About You). Otherwise, the coursing of the language against a modern day setting often feels like an awkward clash of sound and image. Where is Kenneth Branagh when you need him?

            But here comes the deft directorial debut of actor Ralph Fiennes in the form of the often forgotten but masterful Coriolanus, an extremely bold adaptation of the Shakespeare military history. Having seen a magnificent production of the play a couple years back, I’m always surprised that Coriolanus never gets as much love as it should. It’s a deeply cynical play with a number of strong complex issues about how our military and political leaders often use and abuse their power. Using a modern day setting but keeping certain details faithful to the play, Fiennes and screenwriter John Logan have masterfully brought together the political aspects of the Shakespeare’s play to a relevant audience in today’s age of inequality.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Nuri Bilge Ceylan on "Anatolia:" Filmmaker's Parable of Life

A staple on the art house and festival scene, the Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan has become an international sensation since the release of his 2006 film, Climates. His latest work, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (reviewed here), follows a group of policemen in a cold and distant land as they search for the body of a dead man, of which the two criminals cannot remember where he has been buried. Less procedural than meandering and existential, and certainly in no rush to subscribe to anything resembling a classical narrative structure, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia won the Grand Prix and has been chosen as the official submission by Turkey for the Foreign Language Film Oscar. When the film premiered at the New York Film Festival in October, Mr. Ceylan spoke about some of the influences and choices he makes in this philosophical epic. (One note: Mr. Ceylan spoke in English, and some of his sentences did not make complete sense. I eliminated some of his answers, and tried my best to interpret some of his words to the best of my understanding. I apologize for any inaccuracy).

On the genesis of the film

Actually, everything started from a real story. One of the scriptwriters followed this story in Anatolia in the 80s, when he was doing his social service, right in the same place; in this town. They searched for the body till the morning, and that interested me a lot. We decided we could make a film out of it. Of course, we changed a lot. We just kept the [premise] of the story. All the characters are created [by us].

The film’s title suggests a fairy tale like narrative…

I actually wanted it to be as realistic as possible, and as historic to today. But we wanted to make the present as the past of the picture. In this way, we tried to create a kind of pointless feeling. 

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia: Long Turkish Journey Into the Night

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Directed By: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Written By: Ebru Ceylan, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, and Ercan Kesal
Starring: Muhammet Uzuner, Yilmaz Erdogan, Taner Birsel, Firat Taris, and Ahmet Mumtaz Taylan
Director of Photography: Gokham Tiryaki, Editors: Bora Goksingol and Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Art Director: Dilek Yapkuoz Ayaztuna
Rated: Unrated, but only appropriate for audiences with open minds and strong bladders.

As the title might suggest, landscape may be the most crucial character in the dark and elliptical Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. As the men we follow trek the terrain through the night, the clear plains and trees seem to carry on into the distance without end. These men are lost in a world where not much exists beyond the hills and the slowly fading sun. Like the opening shots of Abbas Kiaraostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us, they are dwarfed among the plains in their small cars, which become their only source of light as their search continues into the utter darkness.

            Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is the latest work from Turkish director Nuri Bile Ceylan, best known for his 2006 film Climates. Mr. Ceylan’s latest feature is both an epic as well as an intimate and minimalist portrayal of daily life. Shot gorgeously along the Anatolian plains, this occasionally frustrating work attempts to explore a lot of different themes and ideas, as well as characters, but through a small prism of access in which we our limited by a type of realism in which narrative turns are small and unique. But as it slowly treks toward some sort of conclusion, this police procedural is an assuredly bold attempt to explore a number of notions about the existence of human life, even if Mr. Ceylan is not sure what exactly he is exploring.

Monday, January 02, 2012

This Is The End: The Best Films of 2011

            In probably the pitch-perfect cinematic moment of the 2011, Curtis, the tall and constantly in-check protagonist of Take Shelter, watches lighting dance across the sky while his wife and daughter sleep in the back of the car. “Is anyone else seeing this?” he exclaims. If this is the end, we need to know we’re not the only ones out there realizing the world is about the change.

            Which is perhaps what all these apocalyptic films—Margin Call (fiscal), Contagion (viral), Rise of the Planet of the Apes (special), and Melancholia (literal)—are all about. Even if we’re prepared to face the end, we can’t do it alone. We need to be sure of who we are and understand ourselves, which is why so many films not specifically about the end are about the minor apocalypses within our lives. The strange protagonist of Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In must come to terms with a completely new identity. Werner Herzog explored both the birth of spiritual life (Cave of Forgotten Dreams) and the end of an actual life (Into the Abyss). Attack the Block gave us teenagers who must redeem themselves and their way of life by defeating forces greater than our world. And so many films explored the state of the family and the trials and often failure resulting in those who cannot manage it: A Separation, The Descendants, Take Shelter, Margaret. Apocalypse isn’t about the end of the world, as the idiotic villain (Michael Nyqvist) from Mission Impossible — Ghost Protocol lectures. It’s about what comes after, which is why so many films have focused on our uncertainty to face something new.

            It was also a ridiculously excellent year for film, easily the best since I started writing in 2004. Perhaps not in the Hollywood sphere, where mainstream cinema continues to lead down a series of franchise reboots and post-3D conversions, as much as in the independent and world cinema. This year was simply impossible to narrow down to the best films of the year, and deciding where to stop (20? 25? 40?) made the usual business of top 10s even harder. I decided on 15 films, and any of the top six or seven would have probably been my #1 film last year, showing the quality of excellent cinema today, as long as you know where to find it.