Saturday, December 21, 2013

On The Past (re-post from

Re-post from on 12/20/2013.

The following is an edited version of what I wrote after the Telluride Film Festival. I haven't had the opportunity to see the film again yet.

Asghar Farhadi’s films deftly prod deeper and deeper by peeling away the layers of the situation he establishes. He has a quietly powerful presence with complexity of thought, depth of feeling, patience, and profound understanding.

Like A Separation, The Past masterfully circles around a central conflict by moving from character to character, exploring each person’s unique perspective, and in this case pain, to establish complete understanding. Each portrait is fully realized. Several times I couldn’t hold back tears, as Farhadi slowly pulled back the curtain. Like one rarely does at the cinema, I felt the full depth of characters’ emotions. I felt the character Lucie so strongly inside that I couldn’t stop thinking about her. I couldn't stop caring about her.

The tragedy of The Past is that all human beings are essentially the same, and our inability to see this often causes tremendous pain, whether that be in minor quibbles or death. Farhadi doesn't explain ideas we haven't already considered, that's not his skill. He shows us the humanity behind those ideas, in a deeper, more empathetic way than we've experienced.

Grade: A

On Inside Llewyn Davis (re-post from

Re-post from on 12/20/2013.

Inside Llewyn Davis follows a musician, struggling to survive the Greenwich Village folk scene of the 1960s. At a Q+A session after the film, lead actor Oscar Isaac joked that it’s kind of like “the passion of the folk singer” as Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is battered by unsympathetic friends and missed opportunities. However, is Llewyn unlucky or self-destructive?

He’s a hard character to love. He’s frequently unkind to his friends and rarely thankful for what they give him (money, shelter, etc). And yet, they forgive him. Have they seen a different Llewyn before this, or is his selfish misery something that they see within themselves? In typical Coen Brothers fashion, these questions are never answered.

Inside Llewyn Davis is a strange kind of road movie, moving from couch to couch and diversion to diversion. It’s effective because all the pieces fit together perfectly. Isaac is sublime, playing Llewyn with effectively cold sincerity. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel’s melancholic tones drive the film’s soulfulness. The tight, simplistic script by the Coens is spot on as always.

I have been thinking about Inside Llewyn Davis for weeks. It doesn’t have as much intellectual intrigue as other Coen films like No Country for Old Men or A Serious Man. That’s fine though, this is a different kind of movie. It has soul.

Grade: A/A-

On The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (re-post from

Re-post from on 12/13/2013.

I keep hearing that The Desolation of Smaug is slightly better than An Unexpected Journey. First, I don't agree. But really, who cares? Both films are unnecessary. I actually found this installment far less enjoyable than the first, and a waste of my time. I walked into the film stressed about finals, searching for some escapism, and found very little. You know what you're getting into with a new Hobbit film, all the same old stuff. However this time, it felt like Jackson didn't take the time to properly establish the stakes, or why anything was happening. It seemed like in the writing/editing processes they thought to themselves: "Oh what does it matter? They need to get from A to B while being chased, and there needs to be some monster." They rarely gave me a reason to care, or understand why things were happening.

It's certainly not bad, but very disappointing. Proceed with caution.

Grade: C-

A second look at Gravity (with spoilers) -- repost from

Re-post from on 12/04/2013.

Please be advised this review has spoilers.

The first time I saw Gravity, I gave it an A- because it felt a little too “Hollywood” to me. I saw the film again and realized that Gravity is not a film propelled by science fiction ideas or plot excitement; it’s driven by grief.

Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is thrown into space, moderately unprepared. I can state the plot reasons, but they don’t matter. There is only one detail that matters: Stone’s four year old daughter died one day after a seemingly ordinary playground accident.

Once this is revealed, the audience can begin to understand why Cuarón is telling this story. Grief and depression are small, personal emotions that feel insurmountable. When the space accident first occurs, Stone is detached from the ship, spinning through space with no sense of direction.  The resulting anxiety actually had me in tears both times I saw the film. Cuarón is effectively portraying Stone’s anguish from losing her daughter. In fact, Cuarón even hints at this by drawing attention to a picture of one of the dead shipmates’ family. Now that we’ve gone through this pain, Stone and the audience can begin grieving.

She struggles and struggles, relying on Kowalski (Clooney). She is his burden, feeling like an annoying sad pest. Stone probably feels like this to her remaining friends and family on Earth. Given her cold, restrained demeanor, she most likely hides her sadness, not wanting to be their burden. That’s why she used to drive around for hours, it's what she was doing when she got the call that her daughter had died.

She’s experiencing that difficult contradiction, when you feel like you need to cut yourself off from the world, but can’t bring yourself to let go. Cuarón recognizes this, as well as the fact that she needs to face this conflict herself. This is why he has Kowalski cut the cord, notably right before Stone is shown entering the Soyuz spacecraft appearing like a fetus in the womb.

Before she can be reborn, she’s driven to the edge. She is able to radio someone, a fisherman who can’t understand her. Alone, completely cut off, she shuts down the cabin’s oxygen and begins to die. To watch her die, as a fisherman sings to his baby over the radio is utterly chilling. As an audience member, I’m paralyzed.

But she decides to push forward after a hallucination of Kowalski helps her figure out how to resolve a lack of fuel. As she hurtles towards earth, she says:

The way I see it, there are only two possible outcomes. Either I make it down there in one piece and I have one hell of a story to tell, or I burn up in the next ten minutes. Either way, whichever way... no harm, no foul! Because either way, it's going to be one hell of a ride! I'm ready.

Eventually, she re-enters Earth by the strength of her own skills. This time, she has let go of her daughter. Cuarón shows her hallucination of Kowalski because it illustrates how the people we’ve lost stay with us and help us be better selves. This moment is of course not about Kowalski, but about the new role Stone has accepted for her daughter. For the first time, she’s accepted this. Now she can be reborn.

Upon re-entry to Earth, Stone’s capsule actually sinks under water and she has to escape death yet again. This is one of the many moments that some call unrealistic. It’s not. This movie is not about surviving a space disaster; it’s about surviving her grief. Stone doesn’t feel like this is something she can survive, as the woes of her grief feel like being dragged through hopeless moment after hopeless moment. In her heart, to overcome the loss of her most precious love is as impossible a feat as making it out of this crazy story alive.

Cuarón has created a masterpiece and quite frankly, this has little to do with new technology, great 3D, or being a thrilling edge of your seat experience. Gravity is a masterpiece as it conveys a common yet intense emotion more effectively than any film I’ve ever seen.

Grade: A+

On the tragedy of Patsey in 12 Years a Slave (spoilers) - repost from

Re-post from on 12/03/2013.


Francois Duhamel / Fox Searchlight

I don't love 12 Years a Slave as much as most, but I'm still taken by it. I want to address one thought I had upon my second viewing.

Near the beginning of the film, Solomon looks astonished as Clemens, another kidnapped African American, is found and freed by a white person. Solomon feels hopelessly alone, perhaps betrayed. This person that has helped him understand and adjust to his shocking situation, is gone, without him. There’s no rationale for feeling betrayed, as there’s nothing Clemens can do to help him, but the sense of betrayal does rest on Solomon’s countenance. As irrational as it may seem, I completely understand that feeling.

This moment makes the ending, when Patsey watches Solomon leave, more tragic than I initially realized. She feels the same hopelessness and betrayal. While we watch Solomon reunite with his family, we feel relief; however there remains an undercurrent of misery as the audience knows Patsey continues to suffer under the whip and unwanted adoration of Epps.

Thus, the film becomes not the single story of Solomon Northup, but the tragedy of the survival. The tragedy of slaves left behind. Every ounce of pain and suffering we experienced with Solomon will continue with Patsey. Her brutal whipping—that had most audience members shaking—was probably not the last. Even worse, Solomon is no longer there to protect her. I wonder if she managed to live. I wonder if Solomon’s departure led her to finally take her own life.

I wonder.

On Frozen (Re-post from

Re-post from on 11/27/2013.


Frozen is the new animated film from Disney about two princess sisters. The older sister, Elsa, has a strange power of creating ice, which she has little control over. Then there are unusual magical creatures, gorgeous shots of ice, romantic sub-plots and a sibling conflict. There’s little need to detail the plot—that’s not why you would go see Frozen.

The animation in Frozen is stunningly beautiful, especially when Elsa is creating with ice. The 3D is also very good, being properly used as a tool for fun, beauty, and visual depth. The morality is fairly typical of Disney, with a penchant for familial support, however there are some surprises in there I won’t spoil. Unfortunately, the writing felt a little half-baked. Transitions don’t always feel quite right, and certain moments felt rushed. An early sequence involving Elsa and her parents felt like something the filmmakers “had” to do but didn’t enjoy for a second. It reminded me of how UP was able to accomplish a deeply emotional opening sequence in the same amount of screen time, but Frozen seems to lack UP’s care and intense feelings. I get the vibe that they didn’t take enough time with this film, but the seeds of something very good are there.

If you like Disney, this one is worth seeing. If Disney is not your thing, I wouldn’t bother.

Grade: B/B-