Review Monday: 3/17/14 (Tim’s Vermeer, Muppets Most Wanted, Need for Speed, Le Week-End)

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A new film from entertainer illusionists Penn (who produces) and Teller (who directs) deals with a kind of magic that is, itself, oddly entertaining. Tim’s Vermeer (B+) is likely the finest movie ever made about watching paint dry. It chronicles the five-year period when Tim Jenison, an inventor friend of the Vegas magicians who also pioneered computer video software, tried to paint a replication of Vermeer’s The Music Lesson. Jenison, who serves as an executive producer on the film about his ambitious art experiment, had never painted before the undertaking. His process is mad and amusing, showcased in a documentary as effortlessly watchable as Jenison’s efforts were trying and painful.

Johannes Vermeer is widely considered one of history’s preeminent painters, despite having no record of artistic training. For centuries, art historians have wondered how the 17th-century Dutchman could capture the light and colour of the world in his oil paintings. His works reflected life with startling accuracy. Unlike other Renaissance artists, there are no lines for practice underneath the final sheen. Vermeer’s works have reflections of light that the camera can pick up, but the human retina could not, which led scholars to conclude that he must have used a camera obscura. (The camera obscura is something art and film students will recognize: it projected an image onto a blank surface and was a precursor for the camera.)

Jenison tries his steady hand at replicating The Music Lesson using the same device, as a way to explore this art history debate. He vows to use the materials as if he were Vermeer, even going so far as to build a room in his San Antonio warehouse that is the mirror image of that artwork – a process that takes seven months of careful construction. Jenison even melts and polishes glass to make the lens for the camera obscura, and grinds and mixes pigment to make oil paint for his easel.

He paints The Music Lesson the way the camera sees it, hoping to answer one of the art world’s most provocative questions. Art historians have criticized this optical method technique as “cheating art,” even if the process of copying the image from the camera obscura is painstaking. Jenison explains, “It is not cheating because it is hard.” Jenison may seem like a strange choice to explore the allied aims of art and technology; however, he won an Emmy for his work with CG visual effects and 3D graphics. Therefore, he is the perfect workhorse for this exquisite experiment.

Jenison looks like Orson Welles when the famed director was aging, except he is nowhere as bloated. He also boasts that filmmaker’s perfectionism, although unlike Welles, he speaks at a volume close to a whisper. Like Penn and Teller’s act, Tim’s Vermeer is marvelous and sometimes funny. Jenison and his two bawdier directors explain this tricky process and the provocative story behind his goal with clarity and ease. There is also amusing juxtaposition watching Jenison move closer to his artistic aims as his goodwill descends to unbearable sourness. That is what meticulous artistry – or is it craftsmanship, as theorists have argued – will do to you. Simply, it is magic.

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When Muppet fans Jason Segel, Nicholas Stoller and James Bobin collaborated on the 2011 reboot, it was meant to be a fuzzy trip down memory lane with the funny, felt creations from Jim Henson’s workshop. That film was more successful as carefully curated nostalgia, playing the music and lighting the lights to present the moments that fans of The Muppets had craved to see on the big screen once again. However, the zany shtick, as clever and charming as it was in that film, was too infrequent. The Muppets was more interested in spending time with the human characters than the felt-made ones.

Two-and-a-half years later, Muppets Most Wanted (B-) is not much of an improvement, although Bobin and co-writer Stoller capture the loose, frantic silliness that can charm kids and kids-at-heart with more confidence. The plot may be more derivative and the jokes over-reliant on pop culture references (and random cameos from a barrage of B-list celebrities – did we really need Celine Dion and Josh Groban?), but there is enough finesse to the fun to refrain from complaints by balcony curmudgeons Statler and Waldorf.

The film begins mere seconds from the end of the 2011 feature, with Kermit (voiced by Steve Whitmire), Missy Piggy (Eric Jacobson) and the gang still celebrating on Hollywood Boulevard. However, the cameras are still rolling and the Muppets soon realize that they are doing a sequel; therefore, in the film’s first (and finest) meta-textual joke, they sing about the kind of sequel they want to make. With The Muppets owned by a Hollywood property (Disney) eager to earn bigger international grosses, Kermit and the gang head on a world tour with a new showcase of talents. Their tour manager, Dominic Badguy – pronounced “Bad-jee” and played by Ricky Gervais – tries to package the felt creatures into quick dollar-making machines (a curiously accurate criticism of show business). Gervais’ dry humour works surprisingly well as a foil to the Muppets’ zaniness.

However, the world’s most wanted frog, Constantine (Matt Vogel), escapes from a Russian gulag. A dead ringer for Kermit, although with a black mole above his lip, Constantine switches place with Kermit and banishes the frog M.C. to a Serbian prison. Despite a poor pronunciation of “Kermit” due to his Eastern European dialect, the criminal mastermind takes control over the revamped Muppet Show. With second-in-command Badguy at his side, Constantine uses the tour as a cover to swipe artwork from museums next to the theatres.

Muppets Most Wanted is endearing and energetic for its nearly two-hour running time, even if the songs – courtesy of Bret McKenzie, who won an Oscar for “Man or Muppet” two years ago – are not as sunny or sharp. Gervais, alongside stars Ty Burrell (as a clueless Interpol investigator with a wet Clouseau accent) and Tina Fey (a nice, if not menacing presence as the Gulag’s top guard), add a goofy sense of joy to the proceedings. Unlike the last film and to our benefit, the actors do not upstage the Muppets. The humans are the faithful supporting parts, but the majority of the laughs come from Kermit and company.

Like The Muppets, the sequel is still focused on garnering the most laughs from winking at the audience through self-referential humour than from the loopy physicality and verbal candor we expect from Kermit and company. The cultural references are a hoot – moving from Ingmar Bergman to The Silence of the Lambs, with a clever homage to the mirror scene from Duck Soup to boot – but also so frequent that it begrudges one to think that the basis for so much of this film’s humour is parodies of other movies.

Muppets Most Wanted is funnier and filled with faster, more madcap shenanigans, although it is not as fuzzy as its predecessor. Meanwhile, it does flip one of the predictions from the tongue-in-cheek song at the start about making a sequel: that the second is never as good as the first. This time, it is right on par.

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Two more of my reviews are now up on entertainment news outlet We Got This Covered. Need for Speed (C-) is a derivative and preposterous racing thriller – a shame given a good performance from star Aaron Paul and Scott Waugh’s smart action direction. Meanwhile, fans of Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy should seek out Roger Michell’s Paris-set drama Le Week-End (B+), starring Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan as an elderly couple sojourning to Paris to rekindle their marriage. You can check out those reviews here and here.

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The Essentials: Children of Men (2006)

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Children of Men may, at first, seem like an odd choice for a major studio to release on Christmas Day. The film is unremitting and bleak, taking place in a dystopian universe where women have been infertile for more than 18 years and the world has self-destructed as a result. Still, there is a new hope and it lies in the belly of a young black refugee, the aptly named Kee (newcomer Claire-Hope Ashitey). Miraculously, Kee is pregnant. Alfonso Cuarón’s first big-budget masterpiece – a film even more tense and arguably more technically audacious than Gravity, which he would later win two Oscars for – is a futuristic Nativity story.

In London in the fall of 2027, the world’s youngest person is stabbed and killed. Terrorist attacks have destroyed many of the world’s biggest cities. London is still running but as a police state. However, regulations to keep out immigrants, known as “Fugees,” have rocked British society. Our hero is Theo Faron (Clive Owen), an activist who joins his ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore) to get papers for one of these Fugees to get her safely out of Britain. This Fugee, however, is the pregnant Kee. It is Theo’s mission to accompany the young mother and deliver her to The Human Project, a mysterious group running in secret that wants to discover a cure for infertility. Although Theo is a hero once dulled by the lack of activity and purpose in the world around him, he wants to become a father figure for Kee’s child and help transport her to safety.

Children of Men is a fascinating dystopian thriller, perhaps the finest sci-fi film of the last decade or two. It is best known for two thrilling action sequences that have the illusion of a tracking shot, meaning there are no cuts within the scene. Although the director, alongside cinematographer (and close collaborator) Emmanuel Lubezki, had hoped for purely uninterrupted takes, they ended up editing together many long takes. Since the editing so masterfully hides the blips where the cuts happened, these moments are still breathtaking to behold.

Although long takes are still a measuring test for directors to show their, ahem, technical bravado, Lubezki and Cuarón aren’t just trying to use the camerawork as style for style’s sake. Children of Men thrives from its long takes, which depict the future in a more raw and visceral way that makes the damaged state of humanity something urgent and present. The opening shot of the film is also done in one take, with the camera exploring the detrimental society as it circles around Theo. We only glean the details of the environment by looking beyond the protagonist (in a few moments early on, the camera drifts momentarily to showing refugees locked in cages or transported to what could be a certain death).

Clive Owen’s character rarely leaves our sight and the viewer, in many instances, explores the setting and the story world from the character’s view. The camera almost always stays on Theo, cutting more infrequently to capture his experience with more realism. Cuarón shoots an action sequence the way a human would actually live through an action sequence, not how a casual observer would want to intake excitement from the comfort of a movie theatre seat. When Theo looks back, so does the camera. It is hard to imagine a more relentlessly subjective or effective viewing experience in a big-budget film.

Children of Men, released five years after 9/11, commented on the geopolitical atmosphere of the time. The xenophobia of the British government closely parallels certain attitudes about Mexico’s citizens entering the United States. Cuarón, who is from Mexico and one of the film’s five screenwriters, definitely intended it this way. A scene where poorer citizens throw rocks at the train that Theo and a few other middle-class people ride feels like a direct allegory. The morose scenery, filled with debris and decrepit buildings, more resembles a Middle Eastern country plighted by war, famine and destruction than a city like London. Britain is a battlefield between a domineering power and a third-class community – a prescient metaphor for the War on Terror.

It is a world where the only sectors of peace and stability belong to the ultra-rich, including a cousin of Theo’s, Nigel (Danny Huston). At Nigel’s loft, he has collected Michelangelo’s David and Picasso’s Guernica – the latter showing a sense of pain and fury that illuminates the civil conflict shown in 2027 London. How does Nigel react to knowing that civilization could end in mere decades? “I just don’t think about it,” he tells Theo. Also immune from the depression and weight of the turmoil is Jasper (Michael Caine), a hippie resembling a mid-1970s John Lennon. Jasper lives far from town, gets high and helps Theo shelter Kee as they evade the watchful authorities.

In this future, death and despair is omnipresent. Theo passes people in cages, kneeling on the ground with guns to their heads, just as dehumanized as the world they are too unafraid to face. The camera does not wallow in the grotesque dystopian environment but observes it as the protagonist goes through his journey. Cuarón also does not explain exactly what caused an infertile world. One possibility is a flu pandemic that some characters discuss, the one that killed Theo and Julian’s young son, Dylan. After a while, the source of civilization’s downfall seems insignificant.

The world has a faded texture. In one scene, Theo, Kee and Kee’s nurse, Miriam (Pam Ferris), hide in an abandoned, dilapidated school with a devastated playground, although bright colours from a wall mural features happy portraits, the one that kids would likely draw with a healthy future in sight. The lack of children’s voices also makes the sound mix barren. The only sounds that punctuate the soundtrack is sirens, gunshots, glass cracking, and other harshly negative sounds.

The December 25 release date was apt because Children of Men is a dystopian re-invention of the Christ story, although there are other Biblical elements. Here, salvation comes from a weakened, Noah-like savior reacting to the dismal society around him as he searches for a boat that can be society’s salvation. In Children of Men’s most arresting moment, Kee, Theo and Kee’s daughter (who she names Dylan, after Theo’s late son) walk down flights of stairs in an apartment complex under siege. Forces are about to take the stairs and aim their guns at Theo and Kee. However, Dylan’s cry stops them. There is a ceasefire.

Moments before, the only thing we could hear was bullets shattering the building’s windows and people screaming. Stunned, the soldiers stop, as the baby’s piercing cry and an angelic score takes over the soundtrack. The perception of the fighting changes. It is a mystical moment that stands out from the gritty bleakness of what came before. It is a deeply spiritual moment that reconnects the battered, society, if only for a moment, with the beauty of life.

The Essentials – March 2014: Alfonso Cuarón

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Each month on The Balcony, I explore one filmmaker through several of their best and most influential films in a feature called The Essentials. In odd months, I look at foreign directors (past participants are Wong Kar-Wai and Michael Haneke). In even months, I look at American filmmakers; most recently, I examined three of independent iconoclast Richard Linklater’s best works.

I was trying to figure out a strong international director to pick for March, a month that will only have three entries due to me taking this past first week off for travel. The answer came from last week’s Oscar telecast, where Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón picked up two prizes (including Best Director) for Gravity.

The Mexican director remains one of the most exciting filmmakers to watch, although he is also an oddity. Only two of his seven films are not in English. His 1991 Mexican debut, Love in the Time of Hysteria, was also the first feature for Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who Cuarón met at film school. Since, Lubezki has shot all but one of Cuarón films. (Lubezki also picked up a golden statue for Gravity last weekend.)

Cuarón and Lubezki have one of the closest relationships for any director and cinematographer coupling, and it is very hard to discuss the director’s work without mentioning the camera, which is often restless or lingering. Critics and audiences praised various long shots in Children of Men and Gravity as some of the awe-inspiring photographic work in cinema history.

Like his good friend, Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, Cuarón has managed to use his more modest, character-driven films from his home country as a stepping stone to American blockbusters. Cuarón received international acclaim for the sexually explicit, coming-of-age comedy Y Tu Mamá También in 2001 – and then followed it up with something unexpected: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Luckily for Cuarón, that entry in the popular fantasy series is often lauded as the best of the eight Harry Potter films.

Few directors can move as swiftly between the styles and influences of Pedro Almodóvar and Steven Spielberg, comedy and fantasy, adults-only fare and children’s adaptations (his 1995 film A Little Princess for Warner Bros. definitely helped him snag that Harry Potter gig). Even though he has only made seven films, Cuarón’s success with Gravity has only confirmed that he is one of cinema’s most eclectic realists and ambitious stylists.

This March, I will examine three of Alfonso Cuarón’s finest and most essential films:

  • March 14, 2014: Children of Men (2006)
  • March 21, 2014: To be determined (either Love in the Time of Hysteria (1991) or Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004))
  • March 28, 2014: Y Tu Mamá También (2001)
  • Stay tuned.

Review Monday: 3/3/14 (The LEGO Movie, Omar)

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Product placement is a very difficult thing to get right. Audiences are so used to the efforts of major companies to insert their brands within entertainment that it is easy to avoid its efforts by pointing out the advertisement. When Superman battles a barrage of baddies through a 7/11, Sears and iHOP in 2013’s insipid Man of Steel, we notice how these corporate logos are placed strategically. Since it is so easy to recognize such blatant marketing ploys, product placement rarely works.

In that regard, The LEGO Movie (B+) is something special. It is a 100-minute piece of product placement that almost never feels like manipulative marketing. Sure, it features many trademarked characters and the mini-figure cast travels to realms that fans of the toys will undoubtedly recognize; however, the film works because it involves us in its giddy playtime instead of merely promoting it. The comedy is aimed at kids and kids-at-heart and comes from writer/directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. Like their earlier effort, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, their newest is manic, imaginative fun. Even when it feels overstuffed with ideas, you recall that most animated films today underwhelm us with a lack of inspiration and spirit.

We follow small-sized construction worker Emmet (Chris Pratt provides the voice), a buoyantly optimistic and extremely average citizen in blue-collar Bricksburg. He lives in a LEGO house, drives a LEGO car and guess what set of interlocking plastic materials he uses on the construction site? With a plain yellow face and a body that bends back in the legs, he is carefree but not very popular: one of his co-workers refers to him as a “blank slate.” Emmet has a tough time fitting in and does not have many friends, although it does not dilute his sweetness.

One day, the ordinary mini-figure touches a luminous object called the Piece of Resistance. The Piece is part of a convoluted prophecy, where the person who grabs a hold of it is “The Special,” a master builder with immense creative power who has what it takes to bring down the LEGO world’s totalitarian leader, President Business (voiced by a cackling, although restrained Will Ferrell). When Emmet touches the Piece of Resistance, President Business is only days away from committing a mass genocide with Krazy Glue. (Just go with it, folks.)

Emmet possesses the Piece of Resistance and gets attention from new friends and foes. The friends include master builder Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), a creative mind and motorcycle driver so astute, she is dating LEGO Batman (Will Arnett, perfectly chosen for his hoarse vocal qualities). Wyldstyle brings Emmet to the soothsayer Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman, the sage that he is), explaining that he is “The Special” and has what it takes to defeat President Business. Soon, they find out that Emmet is painfully average and unimaginative – not the saviour they expected. However, Business is close to unleashing his maniacal wrath on Bricksburg and beyond, so Emmet must band together with the batch of master builders to fight off the ruling power.

The LEGO Movie is crammed with blink-and-you’ll-miss-them jokes and sly references to the popular toy line, although you do not need to have a history of playing with the miniature blocks to connect with the characters or marvel at the film’s quippy sense of humour. Lord and Miller populate the different universes within this toy-filled story world with real action figures, everyone from Michelangelo the artist to Michelangelo the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. Lending their distinctive voice to these toys are Alison Brie, Nick Offerman, Jonah Hill and Charlie Day, although the standout is Liam Neeson, as the dual-identity Bad Cop/Good Cop.

The film moves with the same off-kilter, jagged mayhem and frenetic pace as shows like South Park and Adventure Time, although its target audience corresponds more with the latter. With its boisterous soundtrack – just try getting the film’s ubiquitous tune, “Everything is Awesome,” out of your head – and dizzying amount of kinetic visual humour, The LEGO Movie is a dazzling 100 minutes of playtime. The film’s scope and enormous, intricately constructed set also recall another Playtime, Jacques Tati’s 1967 comedy.

It has the reckless energy and meta-textual humour of modern animated classics like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Wreck-it Ralph. Like those films, The LEGO Movie also gains another level of fascination by constructing a physical universe that does not look like your traditional animated venture. Roger Rabbit had a deft blend of live-action and animation, while Wreck-it Ralph had its characters move with the hiccupy jolts of 8-bit video games: The LEGO Movie blends both of those sensibilities together. At points, you wish that Lord and Miller could slow down the story and let the viewer savour the details of the vast story world. While Pixar fills their animated classics with Easter eggs of visual humour hidden in the corners of every frame, the animators from that company let the audience catch the references. Lord and Miller cram a lot in and do not allow the viewer a lot of time to ingest the references.

Swiftly paced, slyly funny and with a stunning scope, The LEGO Movie explodes with ideas – maybe a few too many. With so many new animated flicks that are derivative and short of inspiration, though, too much imagination is better than too little. The LEGO Movie ultimately works because it is earnestly in love with the plastic toys but has the intelligence to treat them more like flesh-and-blood creations.

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Another of my film reviews is now up on Toronto Film Scene, for Omar (B), the Palestinian film that the Academy nominated for Best Foreign Language Film (it lost to The Great Beauty yesterday). It is a well-plotted and strongly acted film that, unfortunately, represents the Israeli-Arab conflict too simplistically. Check out the review of the provocative political thriller here.

My Oscar Ballot for the 86th Academy Awards

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Best Picture: Gravity

Best Director: Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity

Best Actor: Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

Best Actress: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

Best Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave

Best Original Screenplay: Spike Jonze, Her

Best Adapted Screenplay: John Ridley, 12 Years a Slave

Best Film Editing: Christopher Rouse, Captain Phillips

Best Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki, Gravity

Best Animated Feature: Frozen

Best Animated Short Film: “Get a Horse!”

Best Documentary Feature: 20 Feet From Stardom

Best Documentary Short Subject: “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life”

Best Live Action Short Film: “Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just Before Losing Everything)”

Best Foreign Language Film: The Great Beauty (Italy)

Best Costume Design: Catherine Martin, The Great Gatsby

Best Production Design: Catherine Martin and Beverley Dunn, The Great Gatsby

Best Makeup and Hairstyling: Adruitha Lee and Robin Mathews, Dallas Buyers Club

Best Visual Effects: Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, David Shirk and Neil Corbould, Gravity

Best Sound Mixing: Skip Lievsay, Niv Adiri, Christopher Benstead and Chris Munro, Gravity

Best Sound Editing: Glenn Freemantle, Gravity

Best Original Score: Steven Price, Gravity

Best Original Song: “Let It Go,” Kristen-Anderson Lopez and Robert Lopez, Frozen