Sunday, May 18, 2014

Film Review: La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty) (2013)

The film begins in Rome at the splashy, bacchanal 65th birthday party of the dapper Jep Gambardella. Calling the event extravagant would be an understatement.

Gambardella is a celebrity socialite. He spends most of his afternoons laying around in a hammock, drinking, staring at the colosseum from his terrace. Killing time until the party-wild evenings. Jep lives a comfortable, carefree, decadent life.

Sometimes he thinks about a coastal summer romance from his youth - shown with Jep laying in bed and watching blue waves move across the ceiling, and also in brief flashbacks.

Forty years ago Jep wrote an acclaimed novel, inspired by that intense romance. He has not written a novel since, and now works as a high society journalist. In one scene Jep reviews a performance art show where the artist sprints and head-butts a stone wall.

The glitterati Jep surrounds himself with are the kind of people who wait in line with each other to get Botox injections, as nonchalant as if they're waiting to buy movie tickets. As one woman tells the man injecting her, "Just got back from India. I had amazing dysentery. Come to my divorce party, I'll have burlesque dancers there." When Jep and his friends get together they talk about subjects such as Marxism, collectivism, misanthropy, and defeatism.

Jep refuses to acknowledge any disagreeable aspect of life. At one of his regular dinner parties a friend tries to tell him about her son, who is experiencing mental health issues. Jep immediately dismisses the subject by recommending a psychiatrist, and then starts to talk about the salad.

In one scene Jep shops with his girlfriend for a funeral dress. They are in a patronizing store where the entire selection of dresses, displayed on the walls, can be counted off on your fingers. During this scene Jep explains the rules for how one must conduct themselves at a funeral, which he sees as a social event. The behaviours he describes equate to calculated self promotion.

After Jep's former lover (the one from his youth) passes away, he learns that he was the only person she ever loved. The person who tells Jep this is the woman's husband of thirty five years. The husband discovered this when going through his wife's journal. The news shocks Jep. Perhaps in spite of this, he considers writing again. He gets into a relationship with a woman. He cries at a funeral (something he previously said to never do.)

So with these changes in Jep's life the director is basically trying to show that Jep is becoming more disillusioned with his frivolous lifestyle? That at the end of the film he is a more rounded person? That instead of numbing himself at endless decadent parties, Jep is forced to confront deeper aspects of life: hurt, love, death? Well, Jep was a despicable person at the start of the film. And in the end he is the same; a narcissistic, flippant man. His friends are shallow, materialistic, and conceited.

At one of his parties Jep tells the person he sits beside that the dance trains at their parties are the best in Rome. The next shot is of Jep drunkenly leading one of the trains. And then Jep is sitting next to his housekeeper, disillusioned, lamenting about how his life is nothing. Well how noble and sincere, you sanctimonious piece of shit. 

The film is gorgeously shot, and the music is sublime. The opening scene contains choral music so transcendent it is unearthly. And then we're blasted into an aural storm of ecstatic club beats. And there is also the devastating pastorale composition, combining the music of Arvo Pärt with a choir rendition of Robert Burn's beautiful poem My Heart's in the Highlands, which mourns the narrator's lost youth in the Highlands. 

"The Great Beauty" is insipid, meandering, and unnecessarily long. The title is appropriate to the material, as "The Great Beauty" is totally self-righteous. At the heart of this movie (or where a heart should be) is a group of terrible human beings.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Film Review: L'inconnu du lac (Stranger By The Lake) (2013)

Franck, a young French man, comes to this lake-a cruising ground for men-every summer. Scattered around the stony shore is the ubiquitous sight of clothless men, lazing, talking, looking. When they want to get off, they head into the forest. Many of the men here have wives or girlfriends.

Franck makes the acquaintance of a paunchy older man named Henri, who has just broken up with his girlfriend. They come back to the beach every day they just talk to each other, watching the glittering lake. The melancholic Henri enjoys the quiet of this place. The isolation. Henri really enjoys spending time with Franck.

One day Franck is infatuated with a man he spots (Michel) and follows him into the forest. But Franck finds Michel already with another man.

A few days later, hidden in the trees one night, Franck witnesses Michel drown his lover in the lake. Franck does not say anything to anyone, and the next day he becomes Michel's new lover.

"Stranger By The Lake" is contemporary and progressive. (The content is light-years ahead of North American film-they live in a culture of shame and immaturity.) "Stranger" is not as pornographic as the videos we are all used to seeing, but there are too many penises shown to count. Half the time the men aren't wearing clothing. Men kiss each other, and pleasure each other. Fellatio, anilingus, an erect penis ejaculating. This material is dealt with subtly and sensitivity (not that there is anything sensitive about these loveless hookups.)

So yes, there is more sexual material in this film than in every Spielberg film combined. But what's shown is not passionate loving; the hookups are casual and loveless. As well, the men are unashamed. In the forest they will have sex ten feet away from each other, and allow masturbating voyeurs to watch. When one man is interested in another, he might walk by, heading in the opposite direction, and place his hand on the man's crotch. This happens to Franck at one point, but he is not interested, and just gently moves the hand away.

The men here don't want friendship, or any sort of relationship. They just want unattached sex. At first, this is all Franck wants, too. But (as Henri warned him) he realizes that superficial sex cannot fill the emotional void, and Patreck decides that he needs something greater. Enter his manipulative, controlling, murderous lover.

"Stranger By The Lake" is a meditative observation of loose, impersonal sex (yes I realize that is a gross oxymoron) and contemporary loneliness and depression. The film is more relevant now than ever. Most relationships people have now are depthless and formal, not to mention self-serving.

There is also the beautiful idea, best expressed by Henri, that a relationship can take many different forms, beyond classification (bound with the correct notion that sexuality cannot be categorized.) As Henri says matter-of-factly, "You don't have to fuck someone to sleep with them."

Sunday, May 11, 2014

86th Oscar Rounds: Best Picture ("Gravity", "Her", "12 Years A Slave")

The 86th Academy Awards honoured films released in 2013.

Of course an Oscar year is an arbitrary time frame, used to crown achievements in film. But the lists of nominees and winners throughout the years is useful. It is one form of reference by which to discover films, to watch and re-watch.


I have no problem suspending disbelief for the events in the film, such as Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) leaping from space station to space station, or her miraculous safe landing on earth. To be honest I did not give any of it a second thought. What is inadequate, in terms of believability, is the characters of Dr. Stone and her colleague Lieutenant Matt Kowalski (George Clooney).

Dr. Stone is mentally and emotionally unprepared for their mission. Anyone in such a fractured state as Stone (still mourning the death of her daughter) would never be put on a mission into space, which requires the utmost objectivity, mental precision, and focus. At one point, while Stone is floating above the earth, Kowalski asks her where her home is (he also finds out about her daughter's death.) This is beyond ludicrous. Stone and Kowalski's training for their mission would have been long, laborous, and intimate. It is inevitable that such basic information would have come up prior to their launch. Moreover, someone as disciplined as an astronaut would never bring up the (still fresh) subject of their child's death on a mission, especially when it is going to distract/upset them. I could go on. I am not being hypercritical in the least, as clearly this is all common sense, whether the observer has knowledge of space procedures or not.

Clooney's character Matt Kowalski has no personality. The dialogue between Kowalski and Stone is vapid, asinine, and farcical. The weakness of the acting (and the characters), can be articulated in a single sentiment: any actors could have replaced George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, and the film would have achieved the same emotional result.

The entire blame for the performances, of course, does not lie on the actors, nor Cuaron. Clooney and Bullock were working with a terrible script. But they must take some responsibility, since they took on the roles.

Whether Cuaron wrote the script or not, he is responsible for overseeing it. (Cuaron did co-write the script, with his son. But, considering its shortcomings, I do not understand why Cuaron contributed to the screenplay. He cannot write well.) Cuaron is very talented at constructing intricate, interesting camera setups. But the film's total reliance on visuals, combined with the fact that the entire thing is stitched together by a suffocating soundtrack, is Cuaron's compensation for the emptiness of the writing.

I am sure the film's visuals will stand the test of time, into the foreseeable future. The CGI, lighting, and sound editing, in particular, stood out. The CGI is pretty flawless. And the stupendous lighting is so convincing, so sophisticated, that after two viewings I have barely absorbed it.

In the final scene, after an emergency landing on an ocean shore, Sandra Bullock climbing out of the water looks like Sandra Bullock climbing out of the water. And even though she has just gone through the most mentally, emotionally, and physically tolling ordeal of her life, her skin doesn't have a blemish. Her glowing face makes it look like she's on an advertisement for a facial cleanser. And even looking past this, the penultimate scene of Stone stepping back onto land should have been the most powerful image of the entire film. But in fact, this was the most underwhelming visual, by far, in the movie.

The soundtrack could be beautiful on its own, but in the film it is, again, absolutely suffocating. And it takes the attention off the visuals, which probably should be the focus. Surely Cuaron was trying to make the film as dramatic as possible; but maybe it shouldn't have been dramatic. Why did Cuaron have to turn his space film into some Hollywood thriller? Because the visuals are so fantastic, why couldn't Cuaron have directed his efforts into another project to better serve the public; collaborating on scientific, educational space documentaries? Maybe his ego got in the way. Maybe his wallet got in the way. Maybe it's arrogance.

Or maybe Cuaron is simply more interested in the dramatic than the scientific. If that is the case, fine. He made a dramatic space thriller. And it was largely a failure. If he refuses to acknowledge this, he is deluding himself.


The premise is that a man falls in love with his computer. The most tragic aspect of the film is that this is happening today. The scene where the protagonist has sex with his computer was especially disturbing; maybe because I do it, too. We all do. We all masturbate, and more likely than not, it's to pornography on a screen. So already, in our technological infancy, many are achieving an orgasm with a machine, instead of each other...

This film isn't going to be as shocking to a viewer now as it will be to a viewer in a hundred years. Because the funny thing about "Her", the great thing about "Her", is that the present audience is desensitized to the insanity the film portrays. A perfect example of this: in the film's world (a tad more technologically advanced than our own) everyone walks alone, plugged in. It is the same as our society now; everyone engaged in their many devices, rarely with each other. This is actually something very disturbing and unhealthy. But to most it is just a normal, ubiquitous occurrence.

A premise that easily could have been directed into lame territory is handled with astuteness and depth. Director Spike Jonze has a firm understanding of the subject. There literally is a method to his madness.

And after watching this, I discovered that the film stars four huge actors. I just didn't recognize them in the film. You know the acting is good when.

"12 Years A Slave"

During the first few minutes is an infuriatingly common editing choice: showing scenes that we reach later in the film. Putting these as the first scenes in the film, they are entirely out of context, and fail to elicit emotion. Playing in the background of these opening shots, the (otherwise magnificent) soundtrack sounds hammy and forced; and the accompanying visuals look artificial and constructed. Later in the film, when these exact same shots appear a second time, within the proper context, they are captivating.

By the time the credits rolled I was a statue. Overcome, hand pressing chest, I was near tears. I mean yes, during the first few minutes I thought my eyes might become lodged in the back of my head because I couldn't stop rolling them. The film got off to a weak start. But the further it ran the better it got. The performances were devastating, in the best way possible. Only two complaints about the picture come to mind. One, the terrible makeup and costumes. Even though this was a movie rather than a film... the costumes and makeup were still too movie-ish; not natural enough, not realistic enough. At more than one point I was aware that the actors were walking around in costumes.

My second qualm is the title card stating that the film is based on a true story. The phrase is a dumb fad, and I am so sick of seeing this imbecilic claim in, like, every second film made now.  The fact is that every movie is inspired by life. Yes, the story in "12 Years" does come from the memoir Twelve Years A Slave (1853) by the real Solomon Northup. But not only is the "based on" annotate redundant; it is inaccurate. McQueen can call his character Solomon... but on the plantations the real Solomon Northup was on, the people probably didn't have a constant orchestra concerto playing in the background, and they probably didn't speak in such perfectly succinct, articulate sentences. And in his memoir, Solomon doesn't mention having his life saved by Brad Pitt.

"12 Years A Slave" is not a masterpiece, but it is a great film. With slavery being abolished, hopefully the film will not only inspire critical thought, but critical action against current persecutions; the most pressing being the barbaric attitudes toward homosexuality.

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