Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Favorite Performances '13 - Lea Seydoux Blue is the Warmest Color

In this space I will pay homage to the actors who gave performances in 2013 that moved and stunned me. These are the performances that I responded to the most and will remember, I think, for years to come.

This is the sexiest performance of the year. For us to believe in the love story at the heart of Blue is the Warmest Color, we must believe that Lea's character, Emma, has sexual magnetism to spare. Enough for Adele to fall hopelessly under her spell and never recover. She delivers in spades; in her walk, her looks, the way she speaks. She is why the term "sex on a stick" was coined.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Her or All about the High Waist Pants

Phoenix with all those pants behind him

Spike Jonze's Her is unique. It is unlike any other movie I've seen this year - or any year for that matter. It is aesthetically beautiful, succeeding in building a complete "new" world. Architecture, clothes and above all how people communicate with each other. And it doesn't feel the need to fill you in on this world with tiring exposition. The viewer just discovers it as the movie goes along.

Set in Los Angeles sometime in the near future, it tells  the story of a lonely divorced man, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with his "computer" or as it's called in the movie operating system that calls itself Samantha, played by the disembodied voice of Scarlett Johannson. The story features Theodore's interactions with his best friend Amy (Amy Adams), his ex wife (Rooney Mara) and one disastrous date with a unhinged woman (Olivia Wilde).

The movie is funny, sad, lyrical, honest, gorgeous, all at once. It works on so many levels and is compulsively watchable and enchanting at all times. What I loved about it is that it worked as a reflection of dating in this age where we interact online and meet people virtually first. Online chemistry doesn't always translate to real life, to state the obvious. We project huge fantasies into others, setting ourselves up for huge disappointments. Her riffs brilliantly on this theme. From the phone sex encounter that goes wrong - "Choke me with the dead cat" must be the funniest line in a 2013 movie - to the date with Wilde's character to the love story Theodore and Samantha .
Phoenix and Mara in happier times

The film also flashes back brilliantly to Theodore's past marriage. In a few very economical scenes it gives us that relationship and what it means to fall in love young and grow up together but grow apart as a result of growing up. It illuminates how every time you fall in love you carry baggage from previous relationships and that that is not a bad thing. The juxtaposition between the old relationship and the new one with Samantha is what I loved most. Theodore is able to understand what happened in the past and his ex - played brilliantly by Mara in an obvious homage to Jonze's ex Sofia Coppola - has a strong reaction to the implausible love between a man and his OS. She is angry, hurt and of course bewildered but mostly understands why Theodore loves Samantha. While it's very brief this is most realistic relationship in the movie. Theodore talks about it so eloquently and I couldn't help but wonder if this is an olive branch from Jonze to Coppola.

All the actors are impeccable. I wasn't a huge fan of Phoenix's "look at me" big acting in The Master despite admiring the commitment. He's very different here, introspective, quite, funny and definitely more affecting. Adams is lovely as a woman discovering more about herself and Mara is giving possibly her most recognizably honest performance. Johansson does all she can to create a character with her voice and succeeds. Although part of me wishes we didn't get such a recognizable voice to play this part.

Production design, cinematography and costumes are all top notch. I particularly liked the costumes, very beautiful and fit the world the movie was trying to create. All hail high waist pants!

While I think it's a beautiful unique world and story that I know I will visit many more times, I don't think it's an unqualified success. While part of the resolution is fantastic I couldn't relate to some aspects of the sci-fi love story. I admired Jonze's attempt to create Theodore and Samantha on equal footing but didn't entirely relate to the latter's arc. It works best as a story about growing up and discovering more about ourselves and what that does to our relationships. Theodore, his ex, Samantha and Amy all grow up resulting in them reevaluating their relationships.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Is it Hair or American Hustle

American Hustle is big and shiny and has enough interesting elements that it made me think it was a good movie. But after two days of rumination I now think it doesn't quite jell together as a fully formed piece despite a few interesting vignettes.

As for the performances they are a mixed bag. Bradley Cooper is plain bad despite having a full and interesting character arc. Although he has one great bit - a moment of indignant triumph. Amy Adams can't make sense of a terribly underwritten part, it might possibly be the worst she's ever been on screen. I was hugely disappointed in Adams as I usually like her. Where's the fire from her previous collaboration with Russell in The Fighter? Christian Bale was all accent, gut and hair (or lack there of), exterior and surprisingly thin non-affecting performance.

Faring better are Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Renner. Lawrence's magnetism rises above the meandering script to provide a couple of very entertaining scenes. She is bombastic and blows off even the usually intense Bale in their scenes together. Renner underplays to success and his scenes with Elizabeth Rohm, who plays his wife, have an endearing casual warmth.

The movie was still watchable despite being more bad than good. Best would be to find Lawrence's couple of scenes - including the lip lock with Adams and her over the top rendition of "Live and Let Die" - on youtube. Or just look at pictures; the hair is the most interesting element after all.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Why Frances Ha Bothers Me

I loved Frances Ha, saw it twice and enjoyed it immensely both times. It's delightful and an excellent portrait of contemporary New York City.It gets so much right about the rhythm of the city and its people. Greta Gerwig proves herself a wining screen personality, it's a star making performance that gets me excited to see her in more movies.

But here's the big "but". How come there are hardly any people of color at all in this movie. I think one of Frances' friends in San Francisco  - whose face we don't see and who doesn't utter a word - and the woman she rents the theater space from at the end are of color. Both very insignificant in the film's story and characters. This rings extremely false for me for a movie set in contemporary New York City. Particularly in the milieu this movie depicts of young cultured artists and hanger-ons. Has Gerwig and Baumbach walked around the city lately? Have they been anywhere in the city ? Offices, theaters, parks, subway? Where is this lily white vision coming from ?

And I know that because I'm a person of color I'm of course predisposed to notice this and be bothered by it. And because of who I am, there is more probability for me to mix with people of color. However in my decade of living in this city; everywhere I've been - work, buildings I lived in, circle of friends, acquaintances, gym, just walking down the street it's never been monolithic.Greta, aren't we not speaking of the same city?

You might say other filmmakers present similar versions of NYC. Yes Scorsese And Woody Allen do it all the time - to name just two quintessentially New York directors. But their version of the city is very specific to certain neighborhoods and cultural milieu.

Maybe it bothers me more with this movie because I loved the world it depicts and found it so familiar. But I felt I was being told I do not exist, we do not see you in this world that you claim is yours. You are a visitor and an invisible one at that. I'm hurting, Greta. Why oh why?

Greta and Noah were telling me - yeah you might live in this city too but we don't see you. You don't matter. I couldn't get lost in the charms of the movies. This kept nagging at me.

Ultimately I'm very disappointed. Disappointed that such vital vibrant artists see the world with this very limited lens. And disappointed to have to write this rant about a movie I love.