Thursday, February 14, 2013

Nuri Bilge Ceylan: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Illuminating the thick darkness of a rural pure night, Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan lights the way, guiding us all into the depths of not only a province, a country, a culture, but also gleans the inner workings of his variegated characters and their social standings. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is that rare work indeed; an outstanding entertainment which functions equally as a courageous work of art.

Departing from the spare interpersonal connections of his masterful first two features, the critically beloved Distant and Climates, he only deepens his gift for subtle psychological insight into his characters and continues exploring neo-noir genre from his remarkable last feature, Three Monkeys. Anatolia may well be his most complex project yet.

Working closely with his exceptional dp Gokhan Tiryaki, and shooting on deceptively rich digital, Ceylan triumphs at birthing one of the most beautifully digitally construed cinematic pallettes I have ever encountered. As opposed to the longer timespans of his evocative first three narratives, the master confines himself and us to one night and the following day for his newest work. As the local police inspector, lawyer, and doctor, as well as several officers, accompany two criminals on a nocturnal search for the scene of a murder and where their victim's body is buried, he slowly reveals his true agenda; casting light on local bureaucracies and their agents of administration. In addition, he touches on themes of contrasting careers, nationalism, masculinity, and the nature of good and evil. His male characters are sharply drawn, yet open enough for interpretation.

Ceylan respects the audience, and believes enough in their intelligence to craft his deeply drawn films which enrich and enlighten. Steeping us in the magnificence of his images and themes, we watch in wonder at the majesty of one of the world's greatest living film artista.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Peter Jackson: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Picking up where his great fantasy epic trilogy adaptation Lord of the Rings rested its laurels, cinematic wizard in his own right Peter Jackson weaves another mesmerizing, if overlong, foray into the magical Middle Earth. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is really everything a fan could ever have wished for in an epic modern visualization of J.R.R. Tolkien's world of wizards, gnomes, and warriors.

Martin Freeman (so fun in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, another filmization of a cult fantasy novel) makes for an ideal Bilbo, the younger version of the character portrayed by Ian Holm in the trilogy. Jackson relishes each and every step of his remarkable journey of self discovery. We can feel Jackson's sheer joy at being able to return to his cherished Tolkien universe. It's hard not to be swept up along with him. Even though Phillippa Boyens and Fran Walsh's script may be way too long and inclusive of a lot of minor details which would have been better left out, I for one am glad that they tackled the project the way that they did.

Coming off of the triumphant double whammy of the masterpieces King Kong and The Lovely Bones, Jackson & co. have artistic license to be way self indulgent in both style and substance. An expert cast is in line with his old team of production magicians; art-directors, visual effects artists, sound designers, costume designers, et al, are in their element once againn, aiding their maestro innumerably in his quest for enchantment.

Jabez Olssen does a magnificent job of sewing it all together; admittedly, 45 minutes could have been trimmed, but I was nonetheless transported all the more for its length. Andrew Lesnie's camera is a magic lantern once more illuminating Tolkien's feverish discoveries by way of Jackson's cinematic realizations, and Howard Shore constructs a gorgeously alive piece of music which stands apart from the lush soundscape of his career defining work on the trilogy.

What we have here is a shining example of the best studio fantasy films we've seen in some while. Simultaneously, we have a delightful continuation of Peter Jackson's search for the glory and soul of modern visual effects within narrative filmmaking.

Sacha Gervasi: Hitchcock

Hitting select cinemas with the sickening thud of the corpse of a master director's career against the collective conscious windshield, Sacha Gervasi's narrative debut Hitchcock is a travesty in every sense of the word. Desecrating a legend, sullying a name and family, and tarnishing the synthesis of one of his great masterpieces, this dramatization of Alfred Hitchcock's definitive moments leading up to one of the greatest films ever made, Psycho, is tasteless and offensive.

John J. McLaughlin's screenplay is all sound and no fury, as he focuses on the most lurid and debateable aspects of Stephen Rebello's hotly contested book on the making of one of the master's great works. Gervasi paints in sledgehammer blows, directing much of his cast to a state of hysteria that is wretchedly campy and intermittently nauseating.

Anthony Hopkins, under pounds of eyesore make-up and prosthetics, is truly bad, his incantation of Sir Alfred all surface, and what an unpleasant surface that is. Helen Mirren is soarly miscast as his devoted wife Alma; her subplot involving adultery with a wasted Danny Huston is ludicrous to say the least. What's most enraging is the team's portrayal of Hitch as sociopathic, creepy, and psycho himself. The entire affair goes from bad to worse, until even the most clueless viewer would have to be a masochist (or sadist) to stay through the end credits.

This lousy picture's only saving graces are the uncanny turns of James D'Arcy and Scarlett Johansson, both superb as Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh, respectively, and master Danny Elfman's wonderful score, so deserving of a better movie to contain it.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Ang Lee: Life of Pi

Washing across the screen and touching spectator's hearts with a force uncommon these days, while challenging minds and expectations, master Ang Lee's newest work, adapted from Yann Martel's wildly popular recent novel, is crystalline, artful, and finally, breathtaking.

Adept at immersing himself entirely in every genre and subject, Lee's strength lies equally in locating the heart of the matter, and visualizing these worlds with a gleam that goes hand in hand. From his earliest breakthroughs, the Taiwanese domestic dramas The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman, it was clear that Lee had a precious gift for sharp composition and depth-of-character. Those light enchantments gave way to his highly-anticipated English-language debut, his masterwork Sense and Sensibility, to my mind the greatest filmization of Jane Austen's literature ever made. He nailed the intricate world of early 19th century British life, the delicacy of its comedies and horrors, and the palpable impact of unrequited love.

With his American debut, the even better The Ice Storm, he perfected his portrait of 1970s American family life. With each subsequent work, he has modeled the correct way to bring literary creations to the screen with heart intact, whilst making each picture wholly personal and wrenching. Tackling the Civil War ( the dense, flawed but fascinating Ride with the Devil), martial-arts fantasy (the intoxicatingly graceful Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), comic book superhero (the underrated, majestic Hulk), 20th century Western ( his third true masterpiece and possibly greatest achievement, the guttural Brokeback Mountain), and most recently, his minor works (still stylistically and thematically arresting and better than most other director's best films) Lust, Caution and Taking Woodstock, it has always been obvious that Lee is a cinematic renaissance man.

Notwithstanding his detractors cries of indifference and zero integrity, Ang Lee is one of our international-cum-American masters. Life of Pi belongs with his great films, if not the masterpieces. A rich, complex and subsuming work, there is nothing quite like it you've seen before. In lead actor Suraj Sharma's handsome intensity, Lee has coached an impressive breakthrough performance. In David Magee's jaggedly harmonious script, Lee has his blueprint for the hallucinatory story he will hypnotize us all with.His crew works in unison, crafting one of this or any year's most technically impressive blossomings.

Claudio Miranda's camera work is nothing short of magic; each bewitching sequence transitions into the next immaculately; dissolves have never been so subtly shamanistic. His control of 3-D is masterly; he and Lee employ the recently popular gimmick better than any live-action film this side of Cameron's Avatar, only Lee's is the far better film. Tim Squyres' editing is work of wonder; his technique bolsters the cinematography, birthing a breathtaking sorcery hard to forget. It's quite simply the best editing all year, if not in years. The CGI employed is staggering in its believability.

The flashback structure and high symbolism work on many levels; literal and figurative, its an adventure tale for the ages. Although I did not care for the ending, I understood Lee stayed faithful to the novel, and in my mind, surpassed it. Mychael Danna's score incorporates the characters' ethnic milieu and indigenous instrumentation into his lush compositions, crafting not only one of the best music scores of the year, but also one of the maestro's career best works.

Fantastic, phantasmagoric, and stunning, Lee's accomplishment here is nothing short of the most technologically accomplished film in his ouevre. One of the great movie going experiences of the year, Lee's magical opus will take your breath away!