Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Film Review: "Ida" (2013).

From Paweł Pawlikowski comes Ida. This drama film directed by Pawlikowski, and written by Pawlikowski and Rebecca Lenkiewicz. Set in 1962, Anna is about to take vows as a nun when she learns from her only relative that she is Jewish. Both women embark on a journey to discover their family story and where they belong.

Pawlikowski and Lenkiewicz, an English playwright, penned the screenplay under the working title Sister of Mercy in English. Pawlikowski drew on his own background for the film. His mother was Catholic, his father was Jewish, and he learned late in life that his grandmother had died in Auschwitz. Pawlikowski then translated the screenplay into Polish. The character of Wanda Gruz is based on Helena Wolińska-Brus, although Wanda's life and fate differ significantly from the real-life model. Like the character, Wolińska-Brus was a Jewish Pole who survived World War II as a member of the Communist resistance. In the postwar Communist regime she was a military prosecutor who was involved in show trials. One notorious example of these led to the 1953 execution of General 'Nil' Fieldorf, a famed resistance fighter. While Wolińska-Brus may have been involved, she was not the actual prosecutor for that trial. Pawlikowski met her in the 1980s in England, where she'd emigrated in 1971. Pawlikowski had such difficulty in casting the role of Anna/Ida. He asked his friends to take secret photographs if they saw anyone who was in the right ballpark of the character. He interviewed more than four-hundred actresses. One of his friends, director Malgorzata Szumowska, saw Agata Trzebuchowska sitting in a Warsaw café reading a book, took the picture and persuaded her to audition. She had no acting experience or plans to pursue an acting career. She agreed to meet with Pawlikowski because she was a fan of his film My Summer of Love (2004). The film was shot in black and white in the uncommon 4:3 aspect ratio. Ryszard Lenczewski was the original cinematographer, with Łukasz Żal assisting. However, Lenczewski became ill, and Żal took over the project. The production was interrupted mid-filming by an early snowstorm. Pawlikowski took advantage of the two-week hiatus to refine the script, find new locations, and rehearse.

The film stars Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza, Dawid Ogrodnik, Adam Szyszkowski, Jerzy Trela, and Joanna Kulig. No other actor deserves to go to heaven as much as Trzebuchowska.

Ida is a moody, bittersweet coming-of-age story featuring outstanding performances from Trzebuchowska. The film is a near masterpiece because of its power to stir the emotions, rather than the intelligence. For the first time in Polish cinema, the less the environment is shown, the more it resonates. Ubiquitous and constant, persistent and unchanging, it doesn’t need to be shown: its evocation through sound is enough. It’s a veritable prison. As a film work of art this takes precedence over anything that has so far been produced. It makes worthy pictures of the past look like tinsel shams. It fills one with such intense admiration that other pictures appear but trivial in comparison.

Simon says Ida receives:

Also, see my review for The Woman in the Fifth.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Film Review: "The Zero Theorem" (2013).

"Nothing is everything" in The Zero Theorem. This science fiction film directed by Terry Gilliam, and written by Pat Rushin. Hired to crack a theorem, reclusive computer genius Qohen Leth begins to make headway until his controlled world is interrupted by seductive Bainsley and turbulent Bob.

Rushin was inspired by vanitas of Ecclesiastes 1:2; 12:8 to write the film, which he felt suggested such questions as "What is the value of life? What is the meaning of existence? What's the use?" Rushin wrote the 145-page first draft in ten days, with "no idea what [he] was doing". He checked several screenwriting books and screenplays out of the UCF library, including Gilliam's Brazil (1985). Producer Richard D. Zanuck originally signed Ewan McGregor to play the lead role, but he dropped out. A later iteration of the project, with Billy Bob Thornton, Jessica Biel, and Al Pacino to star, was set to begin production in 2009. Production was next set to begin in Vancouver, but Gilliam pulled out to work on The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) following the death of its star, Heath Ledger. In 2012, the project was restarted. Christoph Waltz replaced Thornton in the lead role, and the late Zanuck's son Dean replaced him as producer. In pre-production, Gilliam suggested that his team should study the work of contemporary German painter Neo Rauch, whose surreal works contain a rich blend of colour. n an e-mail sent to production designer Dave Warren, Gilliam concisely stated the look he intended for the film: "Neo Rauch + Ukulele Ike = The Zero Theorem". By late October 2012, Mélanie Thierry, David Thewlis, Lucas Hedges, Matt Damon, Tilda Swinton, Peter Stormare, Ben Whishaw, Gwendoline Christie, and Lily Cole rounded out the film's cast. At the same time, with a budget of $8.5 million, principal photography commenced, and wrapped in early December. Filming took place in Bucharest, Romania. The film was shot on film, rather than digitally, in the 16:9 aspect ratio instead of the usual 1.85:1 or 2.35:1 to ensure that it would look exactly the same on the screen of any device.

Solidly Gilliamesque performances were given by the cast, especially Waltz, whose character moves into a dark and mechanical room and finds himself engaged in a philosophical debate with a computer. I was almost reminded of Matrix Reloaded (2003), in that man and a machine engage in a intriguing verbal back and forth, even if the dialogue did border into pretentiousness.

The Zero Theorem, Terry Gilliam's visionary science-fiction fantasy, is an audacious dark comedy, filled with strange, imaginative visuals. It is the most potent piece of fantastical science fiction cinema since Gilliam's 1985 classic Brazil. Gilliam's film, a jaunty, wittily observed vision of an extremely bleak future, is a superb example of the power of comedy to underscore serious ideas, even solemn ones. Though the film lacks a confident grasp on its characters' roles in a story awash in elaborate special effects, sensational sets, apocalyptic scenes of destruction and a general lack of discipline.

Simon says The Zero Theorem receives:

Friday, 16 May 2014

Film Review: "Godzilla" (2014).

"You have no idea what's coming!” Which is exactly what this rendition of Godzilla brings to the big screen in this 2014 American science fiction monster film featuring the Japanese film monster in a reboot of the Godzilla film franchise. The film is directed by Gareth Edwards. In the film, the world's most famous monster Godzilla, an ancient creature, is a "terrifying force of nature", depicted in a style faithful to the Toho series of Godzilla films. Who is also pitted against malevolent creatures who, bolstered by humanity's scientific arrogance, threaten our very existence.

The film stars Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn, and Bryan Cranston. The performances in the film were all brilliantly performed and were a vast improvement from that atrocious and one-dimensional 1998 incarnation. Edwards has taken the Spielbergian approach towards the human characters and drama. They were just as believable and grounded like the characters in Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). But the real credit goes to the title character and his monstrous adversaries.

Finally as for the king of the monsters himself, in interviews at the 2013 Comic-Con, Edwards discussed the Godzilla creature design. He and the design group reviewed all previous incarnations of Godzilla's design for inspiration. He went on to say that his Godzilla remains true to the original in all aspects. In a January 2014 interview in Total Film magazine, it was revealed that Godzilla will be 350 feet (110 meters) tall, the tallest incarnation of Godzilla to date. Motion capture by the special effects firm The Imaginarium was also utilized in the movement of the movie's monsters in film sequences. Andy Serkis (The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Hobbit trilogy and the rebooted Planet of the Apes films) provided consulting work on the film's motion capture sequences in order to "control the souls" of the creatures. The Godzilla "roar" was revamped for the movie. Toho provided the original recording of the roar for use. Sound designer Erik Aadahl then utilized the original roar and improved on it. He upgraded the roar into a more organic, contemporary sound. The sound designers used a 12-foot-high, 18-foot-wide speaker array to blast Godzilla's roar at a hundred thousand watts, to get a good idea of his vocal power and strength, according to director Edwards.

Godzilla is a sensationally effective action picture because it's populated with characters that have been developed into human beings. Godzilla is absolutely magnificent on screen! It is one of the most exhilarating adventure entertainments of the highest order, with remarkable acting and extraordinary technical achievements. However, I would have liked to see more Godzilla action, and to have him appear earlier in the film. In addition, the screenplay itself is very Spielbergian in its storytelling, guided not just by Jaws and Jurassic Park but by Close Encounters of the Third Kind as well. If anything, when the film introduces a plot-thread about absent fathers, the Spielberg-homaging start to feel a touch schematic. But for the most part, the film is a gripping monster movie that works beautifully in every department.

Simon says Godzilla receives:

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Film Review: "Chef" (2014).

“I may not do everything great in my life, but I'm good at this. I manage to touch people's lives with what I do and I want to share this with you.” Which is what Chef serves for you. This American comedy film is directed, co-produced, written by, and starring Jon Favreau. When a Miami-born workaholic chef Carl Casper is fired from the restaurant job in Los Angeles whose kitchen he manages, he returns to Miami and ends up fixing up a food truck he names 'El Jefe Cubanos.' He plans to drive across the country to reclaim his creative promise and success in LA, while piecing back together his estranged family.

The film co-stars Robert Downey, Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sofía Vergara, Dustin Hoffman, and John Leguizamo. The performances in this film were all deliciously enjoyable and so individually flavored just like the meals presented in this film. Favreau's performance is so audacious that you have to fall in love with his unlikely hero. Downey, Jr. gave a fine and, typically and lovingly, whacky performance even though he only a minor role for his third collaboration with Favreau. Johansson, as well, gave a fine performance though having a minor role. Vergara gave a fantastic and 'spicy' performance. Hoffman gave his finest performance since Barney's Version (2010). Finally, Leguizamo gave the most hilarious and his finest performance yet.

Director Jon Favreau succeeds again with Chef, a stunningly crafted film with fast pacing, memorable characters, and overall good humor. A nearly flawless piece of popular art, as well as one of the most persuasive portraits of an artist ever committed to film. What makes this film such a hilarious and heartfelt wonder is the way Favreau contrives to let it sneak up on you. And get a load of those visuals, a perfect compliment to a delicious meal. For parents looking to spend time in a theater with their kids or adults who want something lighter and less testosterone-oriented than the usual summer fare, this film offers a savory main course. Favreau has taken the raw ingredients of an adult-comedy-oriented matinee and whipped them into a heady brew about nothing less than the principles of artistic creation. It's not just the culinary cuisines that are vibrant. It's also the well-rounded characters as well. I defy you to name another film so overflowing with superfluous beauty. To conclude, the film is free of the kind of gratuitous pop-culture references that plague so many movies of the genre; it tells a story, it's very much of our world but it never goes for the cheap, easy gag. Master chef, Favreau, has blended all the right ingredients -- abundant verbal and visual wit, genius slapstick timing, a soupcon of Gallic sophistication -- to produce a warm and irresistible concoction. Like the all the various cuisines that plays a key part in the film, it is a delectable blend of ingredients that tickles the palette and leaves you hungry for more. Thank you, Mr. Favreau.

Simon says Chef receives:

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Film Review: "Sabotage" (2014).

"Leave no loose ends." This is Sabotage. This action thriller film directed by David Ayer, adapted by Ayer and Skip Woods, and loosely based on the Agatha Christie novel And Then There Were None. The film centres on John Wharton, who captains an elite DEA task force, raids a safe house owned by one of the globe's most lethal drug cartels with his team. Though the mission is successful, death awaits them.

By early October 2012, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sam Worthington, Olivia Williams, Terrence Howard, Joe Manganiello, Mireille Enos, Harold Perrineau, Martin Donovan, Max Martini, and Joshua Holloway were cast. Kate Mara and Isla Fisher auditioned for the role of Lizzy. Ultimately, the role went to Malin Akerman. However, later, Akerman dropped out due to pregnancy. She was ultimately replaced with Enos. At the same time, with a budget of $35 million, principal photography commenced, and wrapped in early December. Filming took place in Los Angeles, California; New York City, New York; and Hartford, Connecticut, as well as throughout Georgia, under the working title Ten and Breacher. The film was shot on the Arri Alexa M and Arri Alexa Plus cameras in the 1.85: 1 aspect ratio. Initially, the film was set for an April 11 2014 release date. However, it was pushed back to March 28. This was due to the film being heavily cut by the studio in favour of delivering more of an action based film rather than a mystery thriller, according to Ayer. The original cut of Sabotage was rumoured to be close to three hours.

The film stars Schwarzenegger, Worthington, Williams, Howard, Manganiello, Enos, Perrineau, Donovan, Martini, and Holloway. Schwarzeneggar's DEA task force leader, John "Breacher" Wharton, may not play by the rules, but in actuality, he, along with the rest of the cast, like the film, sure does. There's plenty of empty bravura, and the cast are fundamentally blank and uninteresting.

Sabotage contains formulaic violence but no shred of intelligence. The film is just depressingly boring and sickeningly violent. Last-minute revelations emerge screaming from around the corner like squad cars you heard coming half-an-hour ago, and it all ends with a dull thud instead of a crash wallop. Long after you've stopped caring, it's finally over and out. What could have been endearingly daft remains merely forgettable. There's only the spectacle of crooked dunces slamming against each other. Everything here is predictable, from the tired plot whose revelations are deeply unsurprising to the gritty dialogue and casual everyday violence of the cops involved. There is certainly something compelling in the film's ideas, but the way they're executed suggest that any true questions about morality and the law are just grist for the action mill. Swimming in bloody violence, the film has plenty of holes, and it is way over the top. Still, as an elite team breaking apart films go, this film has got its moments, and if nothing else it certainly does entertain. You also have the sense that the filmmakers are not trying to exaggerate.

Simon says Sabotage receives:

Also, see my review for End of Watch.

Film Review: "Only Lovers Left Alive" (2013).

"Cool people never die" in Only Lovers Left Alive. This comedy-drama film written and directed by Jim Jarmusch. The film centres on Artistic, sophisticated and centuries old, two vampire lovers who ponder their ultimate place in modern society.

In August 2010, Jarmusch said that Tilda Swinton, Michael Fassbender, Mia Wasikowska and John Hurt had agreed to join the film, described by Jarmusch in May 2011 as a "crypto-vampire love story" but he did not have financing yet. Financing the film was a difficult process for the director. Eventually, Jarmusch received a US$7 million budget from the German "NRW Filmstiftung". In January 2012, Tom Hiddleston replaced Fassbender prior to filming. By early July, Anton Yelchin, Jeffrey Wright, and Slimane Dazi rounded out the film's cast. At the same time, principal photography commenced, and wrapped in early September. Filming took place in Detroit, Michigan; Tangier, Morocco; and Hamburg and Cologne, Germany. Although Jarmusch wanted to shoot this movie on film, and has a general distaste for digital cinematography, he had to use the Arri Alexa for budgetary reasons. He managed to work with low lighting and specific lenses in order to come up with a look he found acceptable enough to work for him.

The film stars Swinton, Hiddleston, Wasikowska, Yelchin, Wright, Dazi and Hurt. At times, the deadpan of the cast, especially Swinton and Hiddleston, becomes, well, a bit deadening, and true wit is in short supply, even though the film remains amusing most of the way.

Only Lovers Left Alive dabbles with tones and themes to varying degrees of success, but sharp wit and a strong cast make this a vampire comedy-drama with enough blood to consume. It's a curious film, one that acknowledges the length of a relationship blatantly without once forgetting to be steadfastly, almost dementedly, silly. It's a smart if minor work from a masterfully innovative director. Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive respects the horror genre without really committing to it. The fact that Jarmusch is saying we're all vampires and not in a subtle way just makes the film more enjoyable, acknowledging that we all have our own likes, or addictions. Jarmusch has put out a very different horror movie for the year (and for him). The film is a fun time in the cinema and actually has more to say than you might think. The commentary is valuable and timely, but the narrative and formal vehicle - even with its wonderful moments - is not that solid. Uniting all the Jarmusch output are achingly cool casts, indescribably eclectic and wonderful soundtracks - and a joyous disregard for the expectations of anyone who walks into one of his films expecting it to obey the rules of the alleged genre. There's something about the story's lack of forcefulness that makes it enjoyable. Jarmusch's primary directing mode has always been that of the observer. He favours letting things play out in long takes, the better to get to know his characters, warts and all.

Simon says Only Lovers Left Alive receives: