Review- Midnight in Paris

Carla Bruni and Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris (Sony Pictures Classics)

I always feel it a necessity to state my general stance on Woody Allen prior to getting into a review of any of his works. I feel this is appropriate so you know where I am coming from and thus so you can take my review with a grain of salt should you need to. Fans of Woody Allen seem to come in two camps: First, those who believe he’s slipping and hasn’t done anything really worthwhile in the past 15 to 20 years and blind followers, while I skew more towards the latter I believe I am somewhere in the middle. I believe Allen has peaks and valleys like many prolific filmmakers but I have really enjoyed his recent works.

Lately, Allen has been globetrotting a bit and he writes and shoots frequently enough such that there are threads of philosophy and narrative choices that run through many of his films but conversely he has periods akin to painters. His break from being tethered to New York City in and of itself has breathed some new life into his recent works.

As you familiarize yourself with a filmmaker you expect certain things, with Allen it had been New York, art deco, Jazz (or another genre whose heyday is past), plain title cards, longing of some kind, etc. When minor changes to the formula are applied to the same voice it can be rather interesting.

What is perhaps most interesting in Midnight in Paris is that Allen attacks head on an issue which many of his detractors (at least of his recent work) cite him for, which is his nostalgic love affair with the past. Rather than having it be an idiosyncrasy of a character (or group of them) that we must either accept or reject it becomes central to the protagonist’s, Gil (Owen Wilson), struggle and part of why he is not understood.

By openly addressing this and applying it to a younger character one of Allen’s motifs is revitalized because he can’t be cited as someone whose “lost touch” with modernity. He’s found here a new way to funnel his voice into a modern setting. Another one of the frequent attacks on Allen’s work is that his scripts are in lieu of therapy. Truth be told it is for a lot of people and it’s more identifiable with him because he’s a personality and is more known. He’s always been a personal filmmaker and this may be his best and most coherent addressing of any hang-up he’s covered.

While I don’t think it’s on par with things like Manhattan or Annie Hall this film does have the inventiveness and flair from that era of his career. A majority of the reason why is that in this film he embraces Magical Realism and allows for facile time travel and creates time-space paradoxes and is not concerned about factual truths but emotional ones which affect his characters.

In a film where a slew of historical figures, who we all have preconceived notions about, appear the casting has to be spot on and it’s nailed on the head repeatedly whether it be Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Picasso, Dali and so on. Even funnier are how Allen writes these personalities and how they perform the parts.

It’s without question one of his best concepts in quite some time. Though not running any longer than most of his films the episodes in the past do get a tad lengthy and there is a bit of drag in the second act but not enough that it hurts the film greatly.

It’s also, clearly as the concept implies, one of Allen’s more visual recent ventures. The dialogue is strong while not being audaciously witty. The conclusion is expected but earned and sweet.

You can say what you will about Allen’s recent track record but I have nothing but admiration for an artist who continuously pushes himself to new horizons regardless of their results. However, Midnight in Paris is an unqualified success and a bold new step for this auteur and is therefore highly recommended.

9/10

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Review- Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Geerasak Kuhlong in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Strand Releasing)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is a film that first really came to my attention as a film that was picked as Cahiers du Cinema, the famous French film magazine which once was home to most of (if not all) the founding members of the French New Wave, as the best film of 2010. This film was named on all ballots. Then upon reading about it I found that it won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, also worth noting that the Jury last year was headed by Tim Burton. These two facts are mentioned because the source is worth noting. Both Burton and the French are supporters of the notion that the unusual and lack of easy answers can be preferable to a transparent plot and easy escapism.

As is the case with any film I will endeavor to render, as clearly as possible, my opinion of the film. My best advice to you is to read up on Uncle Boonmee before you decide to seek it out at Art Houses or on home video. Many reviews will discuss the film with words like “opacity” and “paradoxical” but also have very positive things to say about it even without reaching very definitive conclusions.

I will not be too different than those. There is an absolute reverie in Magical Realism that abounds throughout this film. Ghosts and mythological beings weave their way into the tapestry of the story in a wonderfully unobtrusive way. Yet the weaving is something that is not so very apparent. Things are set up early on left aside and then revisited later.

It’s as if Weerasethakul were setting up a math equation, or four, and omitting the sum or at times even the operation. An example, is the Ghost Monkey. It is an image and a concept that is first made known to us with a very frightful closing shot, and moment of genuine horror, of the prologue. This is not fully explicated until the spirit world is introduced in full when a very casual dinner conversation is held with Huay, Boonmee’s dead wife. Similarly the Ghost Monkey also turns out to be a relation, however, those are examples of where the equation is laid out before you and all you have to do is add it up.

There are two more extended sequences in which the answers, if there are any, are much harder to decipher. Not that this necessarily makes the film less enjoyable but it is worth noting. In both cases it is possible to develop one’s own theory as to what the significance of the segment was. There is one case in which you have no time to decode within the film because the film ends immediately following it so you are asked to contemplate after its conclusion.

While these portions are slightly out of step with the narrative, such as it is, they do not run counter to the approach of the film. Even the few easily discernible plot points, in a more traditional sense, are disseminated in an unconventional way. At times they occur before the scene in question and off-screen. This is sort of a distanced approach to the narrative that invites the viewer to examine the surrounding environs of these people’s lives and examine possibilities that are not apparent or necessarily logical.

This narrative choice is also reflected in the visual approach of the film as well as it relies heavily on long takes and wide vistas rather than quick cuts and close-ups. The framing and lighting of these shots is typically meticulous and they are also generally well lit.

Uncle Boonmee is the kind of film that may or may not get better upon a second viewing but it seems to be inviting one too. While it doesn’t reward the viewer with overwhelming amounts of escapism it does provide much food for thought. It is the kind of film that will occupy the viewer’s mind long after its completion. It is one of the matter-of-fact and deftly handled interpretation of the Magical Realist cinema I’ve seen and that alone makes it worth viewing and is one of its redeeming qualities. Having these apparitions occur with characters incapable of dealing with it would’ve been insipid and trying of the audience’s patience.

7/10

Mini-Review- The Academy Award Nominated Short Films, Live Action

This past weekend there was a screening of the live action short films that are nominated for an Academy Award. I have decided that since overall the category is so strong that I would include a still image from each. These are films that deserve to get their recognition beyond just the five minutes of the Oscar broadcast that they occupy. So these screenings arranged by Shorts International and the theatres that screen them are to be commended. They are a bit long but there has to be some way to include the documentary shorts in a broader way next year, here’s hoping.

As for the films like I said I was resoundingly impressed with the strength of the field but I most definitely have a favorite.

The Confession

Lewis Howlett in The Confession (National Film and Television School)

And here it is. It is so shockingly rare to see a short film that is so layered and plays on so many levels as this one does. There are moments of genuine comedy, horror and drama in this film. It is a beautifully shot and composed film that shows the tragic consequences of the combination of real guilt and “Catholic guilt.” It’s a film I’m not ashamed to say brought me to tears at the end which is a feat that’s unprecedented in my limited experience with shorts.

Wish 143

Oliver Arundale and Dolya Gavanski in Wish 143

What Wish 143 does well is to create a serio-comic tale. It is not a greatly nuanced tale but it works. How well it works is where most of the interpretation comes into play. As I watched it the thought occurred to to me that this is what Holden Caulfield would be like if he was a cancer patient. Specifically, I recall the scene where he hires a prostitute and all he really wants is company. That’s a bit of an oversimplification but gives you the gist of this tale as it is centered around a young man seeking to lose his virginity in the time he has left.

Na Wewe

Floris Kubwimana in Na Wewe (A PRIVATE VIEW)

This a simple tale that subtly demonstrates the stupidity of genocidal tendencies. It concerns a bus traveling through Burundi in 1994 at a time where the Hutus and Tutsis were at war. The passengers are all taken off and then questioned regarding their background. There are a few great twists and good jokes in the tale as well as moments of drama. Furthermore a pretty good original (to me anyway) song to end it and underscore the message of the film.

The Crush

Olga Wehrly and Oran Creagh in The Crush (2010)

This is a pretty funny, dramatically well-executed and honest portrayal of a boy’s crush on his teacher. It’s deceptively simple as it does have a few surprises in store. It can be easily be described as the most charming and charmingly told of the short film nominees and it also deals with a universally relatable concept, most of us have has a teacher who fits this mold and it’s not only a wish-fulfillment tale but also concludes rather logically.

God of Love

Tim Matheny and Christopher Hirsh in God of Love (2010)

The funniest of the nominees, this is the fantastical tale of a modern-day cupid. It’s told in such a way, however, that it reminds you both a little of Magical Realism but also of the Early-Career whimsy of Woody Allen such that it is also a very entertaining entry.

In conclusion, I would not be disappointed in any of these films being given the Oscar but I do think that The Confession is the most special film of the group.