May 28, 2017


Director:  Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Length:  148 min.
Released: 2010

The latest film from the Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu received much critical acclaim.  Innaritu's films tend to use multiple character subplots concentric or overlapping circles to tell a larger story.  As he did in Babel, Innaritu uses several different cultural groups, but in Biutiful he places them all in the same city (Barcelona).  

Inarritu sets his story in a world invisible to most people.  His main character, Uxbal (played by Javier Bardem, who was nominated for an Oscar), is a go-between for several illegal operations: Chinese sweat-shops, operating a sweat-shop warehouse who pay the Spanish police to
Uxbal also earns a little money as a medium helping people interpret the last needs of their loved ones as they die.

He does his best to help people, but sometimes things go horribly wrong.  His personal life takes a bad turn, as a bladder problem becomes much more serious.  He worries that his wife, who suffers from manic depression, will not be able to care for their two young children.  He is unable to confide in his brother, who is involved in other projects: drugs, strip clubs, and construction.  The cemetery where their father is buried will be turned into a shopping center, and the body must be cremated.

All the characters in Biutiful struggle to keep themselves afloat.  They are doing the best they can to survive.  It is easy to criticize from a distance and say the characters are part of a seedy underground, that the have made bad choices.  These people are doing the best they can with the resources they have.

Most of the scenes take place inside: in basement warehouses, in cramped and dirty apartments, in hospitals. For many of these people, being outside means being exposed and vulnerable.  One of the few scenes outside takes place on a major square where illegal African immigrants sell goods (illegally-manufactured by the Chinese illegal immigrants in the sweat-shop warehouses).  The police arrive in a major raid, causing a chain of events which leads to a breakdown in the whole operation.

Corner Gas

Director:  Brent Butt
Length:  30 min.


Stand-up comedians seem to enjoy turning their one-liners into thirty-minute episodes of laughs.   Brent Butt penned a sitcom based in his home province of Saskatchewan, where he imagined he would still be pumping gas if he hadn't become a successful stand-up comedian.  The show features a cast of eight, centered around a gas station and a cafe. Without all the usual drama of most shows, Corner Gas focuses all its efforts on snappy one-liners, idiomatic expressions both in and out of context, and quick repartee between its characters.  It's like doing a comedy routine with a whole cast of sidekicks, straight men and dummies.  Every character is both well-rounded and exaggerated. Famous Canadians make cameo appearances in many episodes.

Corner Gas was an amazing success in Canada (where a show rarely lasts more than 100 episodes), survived for five seasons, and was exported beyond Canada. Some of the actors were well-known before the show, but for most Corner Gas was their biggest gig. The show was so successful that they made a feature-length film in 2014, though it was not as big a hit as expected.  

The gas station and diner set so popular as a photo-op for people driving through Saskatchewan that the fake buildings remained up long after originally anticipated. The set (in Rouleau, Saskatchewan) was finally destroyed in 2016, because it was no longer safe for the public to be near.



Note: Don't read this review until you've seen the film. 

Director: Morten Tyldum
Released: 2016
Main actors:  Jennifer Lawrence  (Aurora)
                      Chris Pratt  (Jim)

Normally I don't feel it necessary to comment on big American box office films. Also, as I hardly ever actually see a film in a theater, I'm usually pretty late to the first-run films, so by the time I see it everyone else already has. But after reading several negative reviews online, I felt compelled to contradict.

I just saw Passengers. I had avoided selecting it for weeks because the premise seemed to be more a romantic comedy, and I wanted to see more compelling stories. I had not read any reviews about it, so my bias came uniquely from the one-sentence summary I read. I am not a devoted sci-fi or fantasy viewer or reader. I am not completely devoted to beautiful Hollywood actors or swayed by fancy action sequences. I finally chose it because I was intrigued to see what is was really about.

The premise of transporting people to a distant planet is fascinating to many people, and Passengers presents the potential risks of such ventures. The set design was carefully constructed to accurately depict what would likely be found on board a commercial vessel bound for such a voyage. The opulent state rooms bring a little bling to an otherwise blinding world of white and gray. The calculated computerized responses are spot-on, and completely unhelpful when help is really needed. The android bartender is the perfect combination of comedic relief and antagonistic betrayal. It was a great decision to avoid giving Aurora the cliché of a writer (glasses and hair wrapped loosely in a bun). Instead, her clothing choices are very normal for women traveling on cruises. Jim also dresses normally: no need to wear extra-tight shirts, baseball caps, cargo shorts or flannel.

I was pleasantly surprised by Passengers. I am often intrigued to look online after viewing a film to learn more about it and read some reviews. I was disgusted to read multiple reviews completely panning the film. I understand that film critics feel compelled to make clever insights, find comparisons with other films, and highlight improbabilities. The sheer volume of film viewing almost requires them to pursue their initial instinct for a review.

Passengers was directed by Morten Tyldum, who is Norwegian, and who has made several Norwegian films. His English film The Imitation Game (about the Enigma machine and Alan Turing) won world-wide acclaim. Passengers did not receive the same fate. In my opinion, both The Imitation Game and Passengers are worthy films.

Passengers is clearly a fairy tale, and makes no claims to have complicated plot twists. Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) is Sleeping Beauty, and Jim (Chris Pratt) the one who stumbles across her in the forest (of tree-shaped passenger pods). The film is not necessarily targeted to any specific group, which is probably why they chose to make it a big Hollywood production, to reach everyone. (Critics seem to be upset that it's both, or neither.) Remember fairy tales are light-hearted stories meant to warn about dangers, defeat obstacles and conclude with a happy couple. Passengers perfectly follows this path.

Here are some of the major criticisms about Passengers:

The stars are popular and attractive Hollywood actors. Yes, Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt are beautiful actors. It also seems completely plausible that the large commercial company depicted in the film would want beautiful people to sign up to colonize a new planet. They are also good actors, and they do show the dilemmas one would encounter stuck in a difficult situation. Human nature draws us to attractive features, and Jim's selection of Aurora is instinctual. His decision is

Chris Pratt lacks dimension.  Chris usually has roles with great one-liners meant to lighten the mood as giant predators chase or surround him. As other critics have pointed out, he does posses the traditional look of an American astronaut and a jock, but Chris brings those ideals back down to the human level. He perfectly portrays Jim, the mechanical engineer who has endearing charm and lighthearted creativity to counteract a lack of confidence. What's the problem with changing our perception of engineers to include ones who want to maintain their physique ?

Jennifer Lawrence prances about in a swimsuit and tank top.  This is not a horror film; Aurora is wearing typical clothing to swim and jog around the ship. Exercise is a great way to stay in shape, maintain a routine, and contemplate. Astronauts spend ample time exercising; it's a constant effort to combat muscle loss. Jim had a year to adjust to his situation; Aurora is expected to immediately accept her fate ? Do critics complain about Claire running in House of Cards ?  

The characters spend all their time dining and playing.  Traditional cruises contain restaurants, basketball courts, pools, arcades and jogging paths. These are normal vacation and travel activities. Why should we assume travel to space would be different ? It's a great notion to give passengers an opportunity to don space suits and walk outside, giving them some momentary freedom and their first chance to really experience space. Exactly what commercial enterprises would offer their guests, like zip-lines and bungee-jumping. One interesting aspect no one mentions Jim can develop basic language skills through dining at Japanese, Mexican and French restaurants.

The film feels lost and going nowhere.  The premise is not really about getting to the destination (which never veers off course); it's about the tough decisions when something goes wrong en route. This is a road movie about humanity in an inhuman world. Perhaps it is more a European perspective to make a film less about action than about the difficult decisions humans face. The American film audience seems to prefer mind-numbing action sequences.

It's really just a new Titanic.  Yes, comparisons are inevitable to other sinking ships. Space travel limits the options for rescue though. The economic differences between Aurora and Jim are realistic, and hardly contrived. Jim is not poor, and we're not supposed to feel sorry for him. He was recruited for his skills and compensated with the lowest-fare option. Where's the surprise there ?

There are several sequences like GravityYes, the actors have tethered spacesuits and difficulties with on-board systems. This will likely appear in many films set in space.

Limited stunning visual effects. All the critics mentions the pool scene with the loss of gravity. American audiences always want more. This film is not about endless action scenes. Get over it!

Pessimism pervades.  There has always been a sense of unfailing optimism within the American space program, but as a government program, there was accountability to the public. Now that it is becoming almost completely commercialized, it can forge ahead almost without limits. This idealism could be viewed as naïve, and perhaps Morten Tyldum (the Norwegian director) is inserting some of his concerns (though he did not write the script).

It's creepy. Most people seem to view Jim's decision to awaken Aurora as immoral. They state he is robbing her of a life on the new planet. In reality, Aurora does not want to live there: she wants to write a story and return to Earth. In her own way, she is selfish. When he changes Aurora's plan, he liberates her to actually live.  

In my opinion, the creepiness is flying a craft for hundreds of years with no beings (human or robotic) in charge of monitoring system failure. This is the audacity of all disaster movies, to assume nothing could possibly go wrong. Autopilot on planes doesn't mean the pilots sleep...

The ending is contrived. People complain the film ends in a lovey-dovey heart-warming relationship. It brings life to a world waiting to live. It is not implying morality nor assuming everyone would make the same choice. All films must end, and this one should leave the viewer pondering. It seems the critics don't want to think.

Films are a medium of storytelling. They use fictional characters to demonstrate flaws and warn against potential dangers. They give us opportunities to question our own decisions, and show us alternative ways to live. They are meant to entertain. It's not that we must expect less from movies, it's that sometimes they may expect more from us.

There will inevitably be more films about space travel, probably even disaster films. I am sure they will have great cinematic effects and large explosions. They will probably feature famous actors with various levels of sculpted features. I hope that critics in the future can look back at Passengers with better appreciation.


February 27, 2015

Reflections on Oscars 2015

We just had the Oscars this past weekend and perhaps it is revealing that Birdman received top honors in so many categories and Selma was honored only with a torch song. The obvious criticism is that the Academy is self-centered, and interested in stories about life in the movie business. The same weekend and without nearly as much attention outside its own country, France had the Césars ceremony, where one film also vastly outshone all others, but of an entirely different nature. Timbuktu was a co-production between France and Mauritania, and focuses on life forever changed by Islamic extremists. This more accurately reflects life in our world than one where men fly.

At the Oscars, Timbuktu was lumped with the other "foreign films". But really, Ida had to win; just as 12 Years a Slave had to win last year. It's America's strange place in the world; between Israel and Palestine the US will always choose Israel, because we are a nation of more Jewish immigrants than Arabic immigrants, and so many people of Jewish heritage run our great institutions: banks, jewelers, films, delis that we feel guilty, that we're "letting them down".

France, on the other hand, is in the opposite situation. With more Arabic immigrants and record numbers of Jews fleeing to Israel, it truly struggles to deal with populations who want to display their religion in a country which keeps trying to tell everyone not to mix up religion and matters of state.

CitizenFour and American Sniper represent America's situation, but it's hard to know if everyone could tell the difference between the heroic filming of the documentary and the controlled filming of the "heroic story". It will be interesting to see which topics are covered next and chosen by Hollywood's elite to represent the "best" in American cinema.

May 8, 2012

Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak


Director: Lance Bangs & Spike Jonze
Released:  2009

On the day of Maurice Sendak's death, it seems most appropriate to profile a documentary made about Sendak.  Done as a series of candid interviews with Sendak at his house in Connecticut, directors Lance Bangs and Spike Jonze take turns asking questions and prompting Sendak to discuss certain issues.  

Maurice Sendak is best known for the popular children's books Where the Wild Things Grow and In the Night Kitchen, but he'll be the first to point out his work is not intended for children or adults.  Inspiration for his stories came from a difficult childhood being sickly, ignored and punished, but also from the many games and stories he and his brother made. He was particularly affected by the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, and his personal story and subsequent children's book are touching. His sense of humor is on the darker end of the scale, a product of family legacies lost from European concentration camps. He shows the ugliness and realities of childhood most children's books ignore, the  excitement of mischief and the curiosity of what goes on in the big, scary, wonderful world.

Though the film is only 39 minutes, there is much packed into it. Sendak describes his life, influences and many artistic creations. His fear of death permeates throughout the film, even as the filmmakers try to convince him of the many positives in his life.  The title works as either a statement directed to or from Sendak, and perfectly conveys his apathy: he's not sure why he's famous, and he's not sure why anyone would want to make a film about him.

Even though Sendak wasn't trying to be a popular children's author, he has become one of the most beloved, and perhaps it is because of his unconventional style that he was so successful. His close friends will miss him, but the world has yet to know the true man behind all the books. This film is a good start.

November 2, 2011

Wilby Wonderful

Director:  Daniel MacIvor
Length: 99 min.
Released: 2004


Quirky towns always make popular settings for films.  Wilby Wonderful follows a group of characters and interwoven characters through a single somewhat ordinary day.  Wilby is a small town, on a little island where residents view anyone not born and raised on the island as a foreigner.  The story is set in Canada, but the conflicts within the film are so universal that it could take place anywhere.  Canadian actors populate the film, and a few who have become very famous in the US (Sandra Oh and Ellen Page).  As in many stories, each character evolves over the day and becomes a better and more whole member of the community.  The well-written screenplay brings Wilby to life, and even though the entire film takes place in only one day, we have lived something with the characters.  Wilby Wonderful challenges its characters to move beyond themselves in order find their place and purpose within the community.  The fact that the title sounds like "we'll be wonderful" is another fringe benefit of an already good title, presented in the film as a banner for an upcoming town festival which was printed backwards.  Quirky music fills the soundtrack.  Wilby Wonderful is a gem.  

August 6, 2011

Black Swan

Director:  Darren Aronofsky
Length: 108 min.
Released: 2010

Darren Aronofsky's latest film received much critical acclaim.  Aronofsky seems to enjoy exploring the human psyche.  In Black Swan, he concentrates on the world of classical ballet, and the competition within a company for lead and principal roles.

Natalie Portman plays Nina, a young ballet dancer who has worked her way up in the ranks of a professional company in a large metropolitan city.  She lives with her mother (played by Barbara Hershey), who pushes to make sure her daughter gets to be the professional dancer she herself was unable to be.  Nina struggles to emerge from under the wing of her overprotective mother.  The directory of the company (played by French actor Vincent Cassel) wants her to play the Swan Queen in Swan Lake, which will require her to play both the white swan (innocent and beautiful), and the black swan (mysterious and passionate).  To secure the coveted role, Nina begins a dark path of exploration, but starts to lose her footing.  Portman plays the lead role

A dancer brought in from San Francisco (played by Mila Kunis) provides added pressure and competition.  She seems to possess all the required characteristics needed for the Swan Queen role, which Nina views as a direct threat.  Kunis' plays her character as both friendly and menacing, keeping the viewer guessing.  Winona Ryder has a small part as the former prima ballerina displaced in favor of younger, more agile dancers, despite her own youth.  Nina's empathy for her situation foreshadows her own turn in the same position.

Aronofsky slowly blurs the lines separating reality from imagined sequences, and at the end we are left questioning what was real and what was not.  The film is certainly a psychological thriller, but is not a "psycho-sexual thriller", the way some critics claim.  

Aronofsky shows the world within a professional dance company as cold and fickle as the winter wind.    Despite their immense strength, the ease with which dancers can injure themselves and their vulnerability to scrutiny reveals an underlying general frailty of being human.  The catty competitiveness between the young female dancers reduces their abilities to support one another as a family.  Just as the line is blurred between reality and delusion, so too is the line between friend and enemy.

Aronofsky drives his film like a roller-coaster, with twists and lurches along the way.  The actors convey their world with realism.  The use of black and white as the color palette throughout the film is very effective.  Strong patterns in black and white dominate the film.  There is only some pink in Nina's apartment (evoking purity).  The music conveys tension and propels the story forward.  Tchaikovsky's score to Swan Lake provides certain scenes with extra emotion.  (Although used for dramatic effect, the scene where Kunis eats a hamburger is unrealistic; dancers are unable to consume that much fat, especially during a performance season.  She only ate one bite, however this was not the message conveyed.)  

Like a true Grimm fairy tale, the film is dark but not morbid, and gripping but not scary.  There is no moral at the end, but no happily-ever-after ending either.  After several surprise twists, the film arrives at its conclusion, leaving the viewer with much to ponder.