It would appear that selling one’s soul to the devil of commercial filmmaking can in fact serve a purpose, assuming of course you do so with a ruthless pragmatist’s eye. For that is exactly what one of Mexico’s most adored modern auteurs, Alfonso Cuaron, did with his introduction to English-language cinema in his one mercenary venture, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (no slouch as a film on its own, incidentally). For the success he had with big-budget tentpole cinema not only made a boatload of money (and made a franchise legitimize itself in the process, after two unflaggingly hum-drum entries beforehand), but it paved the way for one of the finest films of its decade, 2006’s Children of Men. If the entirety of the Harry Potter franchise only existed to validate the existence of this one film, well, it would be a job well done, for Children of Men is exactly the variation of cold-brewed, home-spun, plaintive sci-fi we don’t much see anymore, and exactly what the world of cinema circa 2006 needed. Continue reading
Birdman’s story is awards season catnip, a foolproof middle-brow example of Oscarbait if ever there was one. It’s all right out of the playbook. Let’s check the boxes, shall we? An aging, past-his-prime central performer in a showy role? Check. Said performer playing a loose-version of himself in real life? Check. A talented cast of supporting players doing some of their best work in smaller roles? Check. Commentary on aging and performance? Check. The theater? Check. Monologues? Double Check. Add in some long takes and you’ve got Birdman, right?
Well, kind of, except director and co-writer Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu decided to wholly and absolutely decimate the film’s middle-brow core with a blast of pure lightning in a bottle. His chief delivery mechanism: Emmanuel Lubezki long takes. Or, long take might be more appropriate, for the film unfolds as if through one movie-length single-take . Of course, there’s trickery afoot, but the seems are noticeable only because those who pay attention to showy long takes know a quick, hectic camera movement usually means a cut lies hidden within. Continue reading
Update (and edited score) 2018, on the eve of Roma’s release: It’s impossible as ever to ignore Cuaron’s signal audio-visual achievements with Gravity, but I find myself even colder on the film’s ability to connect the dots between charting our outer space, which it does so well, and truly destabilizing our inner space, a task on which it essentially punts entirely.
I’ve never seen a film quite like Gravity. On one hand, it’s a thrill ride to end all thrill rides, never letting up in subjecting its characters to situations from bad to worse during its slim but breathless 90 minute running length. Gravity is nerve-wrecking in a purely visual way that few films aim to be. This is a true edge-of-your-seat motion picture. But it’s much more than that too. Gravity is a film which tries to challenge what film can be on a technical level. Moreover, it tries to transform our understanding and appreciation of Earth and its surroundings visually while also playing to populist sensibilities and trying to earn its large budget back by showcasing destruction and visual splendor on a level beyond any other film of 2013. It’s 2001: A Space Odyssey meets Star Wars, and you’d be forgiven for thinking these two goals are incompatible, but more on that later. For now, I will simply say here that, for those simply looking for “the next big thing” in film technology, Gravity has anything else handily beat. This is a visually bold, singular, uncompromising film that will be remembered as a game-changer many years in the future. That it also happens to be quite good is just the icing on the cake. Continue reading
The Tree of Life isn’t easily explained through conventional filmic analysis. I don’t have the resources within me, for instance, to explain why Sean Penn is in this movie, or why director Terrence Malick felt the need to spend thousands of dollars on a CGI-heavy recreation of the forming of the world. But, for every fault to be found in the film, none can replace the eternal face that I fell – positively, undeniably fell – under the director’s spell for just about every minute of the 135 minutes I spent watching this film, in a way I never have in a movie theater before. The human story found here doesn’t recall my own childhood in the slightest, and yet watching the film, I couldn’t help but feel connected to not merely the characters but the world they inhabit in a way I didn’t quite understand at first. I felt something that, if I may, might be the foremost (and perhaps only, but that says more about me than the film) spiritual experience in my life. I wasn’t so much watching a film as accepting it and letting it wash over me. I wasn’t “analyzing” shots or dialogue, as I tend to do in order to stake my claim as a film critic worth his salt. I was just there, and also not there – in some sort of weird limbo where I existed less as a physical body and more as conception of myself. It was an experience, but perhaps, a passive one. I let the film take me and it accepted – part of me is still swimming around in there. Continue reading