The Butterfly Effect: A Review of Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy

The Duke of Burgundy

“Would you rather be caught cheating, or catch your partner cheating on you?”

A couple weeks ago I was playing a game of “would you rather” with some friends and that question came up. When answering that question, most people -or at least most of the people I was playing the game with- said they would rather catch their partner cheating, because it would let them be the victim. The victim suffers, but it also gets the upper hand. Infidelity doesn’t really play a big part in Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy. It is more interested in questioning why we answer that question the way we do, and even more interested still in seeing how a relationship changes once victimhood has been accepted. But that’s not all. This meditation on love and commitment is wrapped up in fancy lingerie, and soaked in exotic perfumes. It is a deeply intellectual film and a hilarious erotic adventure at the same time.

The movie opens with a woman, Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), riding her bike to work. She is a maid at an old house. The mansion, with floors made of deep strong wood, and furniture covered in red and purple velvet looks almost too much like the ideal locale for mid-century European erotica. Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), the woman that lives in the house, seems like a British aristocrat, or at the very least, is as cold as one imagines a British aristocrat to be. She orders Evelyn to clean the study and wash her clothes with piercing detachment. When she discovers that Evelyn forgot to wash a piece of clothing, she punishes her by peeing into her mouth. Cynthia does all these things because she loves Evelyn.

So, yes, the movie starts up not too far away from the way a pornographic film would, but we quickly learn that things are not what they seem. It’s such a unique experience to go into The Duke of Burgundy without knowing what you’re about to see, that I wouldn’t want to get too much into the plot of the movie in case you haven’t seen it yet. What I will say, is that the movie positions victimhood as the currency of relationships. What does it mean to suffer for love? And what happens with suffering becomes a competition? And also, when is the competition over? Who comes out victorious? And what do they win? Is pretending to hurt somebody the same as actually doing it? What if they’re asking for it? But what if the game is so perfect that is seizes being a game? Stepping out of the game ruins the mood, but is it necessary in order to keep fiction from becoming reality?

This is an intense and twisted two-hander between D’Anna and Knudsen. In it’s questioning of the reality of a relationship, it doesn’t fall far from Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, although unlike the casual realism of that masterpiece, The Duke of Burgundy drowns in artificiality. Most descriptions of Strickland’s style will begin by mentioning how he is influenced by Italian Giallo cinema, and he very much is. The opening credits, as well as everything and everyone in the movie seems to be taken right out of 1960s Italy. The way D’Anna is made up and dressed in particular, makes her look like a mid-century actress history had forgotten about.

Strickland also indulges in long, slow-motion filled sequences that sometimes serve to establish certain situations -like an uproariously funny visit by a carpenter played by Fatma Mohamed, but other times, provide an almost abstract insight into the minds of both Evelyn, and more cuttingly, Cynthia. Sex and dream sequences intertwine, and turn disturbing thanks to an astral score by UK synth-pop duo Cat’s Eyes. Cynthia is also interested in entomology, and collects thousands of butterflies and moths in her house. Considering the nature of the movie, saying that moths play a part in these hallucinogenic montages can’t be considered a spoiler.

The Duke of Burgundy can turn a little slow at times, since there isn’t that much plot to it, and a lot of it is conveyed through slow revelatory visuals. At the same time, though, it is a sickly funny movie. It is so happy to be as wild and decadent as it is, that it’s impossible not to be impressed and delighted by the confidence with which it accepts the ridiculous world these characters are living in. At one point a character makes a comment that makes it seem like everyone in town, or at least in the neighborhood, seems to be into the same kind of sick games Evelyn and Cynthia are engaging in. I can’t help but comparing this movie to David Fincher’s Gone Girland concluding that Strickland has the unrestrained appetite that Fincher was lacking when trying to tackle the trashiness of Gilian Flynn’s story, which isn’t even half as insightful when it comes to the nature of relationships.

Grade: 9 out of 10

2015 Movie Preview

Carol2015Preview

I’m not done looking back at the movies of 2014 just yet, but today, I can’t help but wanting to sneak a peek into the movies that are coming down the road. What cinematic adventures will 2015 hold for us? Well, let’s se…

The 5 Movies I’m Most Excited About:

Carol – For his first theatrical feature since I’m Not There, director Todd Haynes adapts Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, a lesbian love story set in the 1950s. The amazing cast includes Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler, and Carrie Brownstein. The only way I could be more excited for the next movie by the director of Safe and Far From Heaven would be if Julianne Moore were starring in it (here’s hoping she makes a cameo appearance!) 

Hail, Caesar! – I’m skeptical on whether or not the Coen Brothers’ next movie will actually be released in 2015. IMDb has February 5, 2016 as its release date, which makes me think it will probably premiere at Cannes or Venice, and will get an Oscar-qualifying run at the end of the year. It really doesn’t matter when it’s released, there is no way I’m not seeing a Coen Brothers movie. This one is supposed to be a comedy about a “fixer” in 1950s Hollywood. The cast includes Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Ralph Fiennes, and Josh Brolin, so…

TomorrowlandSo far, director Brad Bird has directed three animated classics (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille), and his live action debut resulted in one of the best action movies of the decade (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol). His new movie is a science fiction adventure inspired by the futuristic section of Disneyland. Seems like Hollywood might be giving me a present, because the movie opens May 22, a day after my birthday.

That’s What I’m Talking About – There is little known about this movie besides the fact that it is a spiritual sequel to Dazed and ConfusedIt doesn’t matter, after Before Midnight and BoyhoodI will follow Richard Linklater wherever he’s going.

Queen of the Desert – After years of hearing about Werner Herzog’s next project, this is supposed to be playing at the Berlin Film Festival! It’s a movie about the life of Gertrude Bell starring Nicole Kidman. It also features Robert Pattinson as T.E. Lawrence, but the thing I’m really excited about is Herzog returning to narrative features.

Last Year’s Movies That Will Be Released in 2015 (and I’m Most Excited About):

The Look of Silence – Director Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up to the magnificent The Act of Killing has been described as sort of a response to that movie, taking a look at the Indonesian genocide from the side of the victims instead of the culprits. It will open in America sometime in July.

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter – I’ve been waiting for this movie since it premiered almost a year ago at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. It stars Rinko Kikuchi as Kumiko, a woman who VHS tape of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo and decides to go to Minnesota looking for the movie’s buried treasure. If that doesn’t sound awesome to you, then I don’t think you’re reading the right blog. The wait is over on March 15.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence – Winner of the Golden Lion at the 2014 Venice Film Festival, all that I’m basing this decision is Swedish director Roy Andersson’s particularly off-beat sense of humor. That should be more than enough. No American release date has been announced yet, though.

Clouds of Sils Maria – The one thing that keeps me from being too excited about Sils Maria is that Chloë Moretz is in it… On the other hand, it’s the new movie by French auteur Olivier Assayas, and it stars Juliette Binoche as an aging actress, so I’m still very excited. It opens on limited release April 10.

Maps to the Stars – I kind of hated David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolisbut according to the Golden Globes this is supposed to be a comedy -or a satire at the least. There’s no way I won’t see it really, since it stars two of my favorite actresses (Julianne Moore and Mia Wasikowska).

Movies I’m Cautiously Optimistic About (But Will Definitely See)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens – I have grown too cynical to be too excited about the first Star Wars movie in ten years (even if George Lucas is not involved). Still, I must admit the trailer did bring up some awesome childhood memories. I mean, what am I going to do? Not see it?

Avengers: Age of Ultron – Kind of opposite to the Star Wars situation, if I were basing my enthusiasm in the last Avengers movie (and writer-director Joss Whedon’s talent), I should be really excited. The truth is that that last trailer, and the recent streak of underwhelming Marvel movies have me very cautious about what I’m going to see.

Trainwreck – Every single one of Judd Apatow’s movies has been worse than the last, culminating with the atrocious This is 40. Why am I excited about his latest project, then? Well, because it was written by and stars comedian Amy Schumer, who might bring a smarter and fresher take to Apatow’s wandering and self-indulgent style.

Inside Out – After a couple of disappointments, the trailer for Pixar’s newest movie doesn’t look all that promising, but considering the man in charge is Pete Docter (Monster’s Inc, Up), I’m willing to give it a try.

The Hateful Eight – I wasn’t a fan of Django Unchainedso having Tarantino go back and make another western isn’t very exciting to me. Then again, Tarantino is a smart and fun director, so I’m hoping he comes up with something great, and weirdly enough, the fact that Christoph Waltz isn’t in the movie gets a big sigh of relief from me.

Movie I’m Not Excited About

Knight of Cups – Terrence Malick directs a movie that is supposed to put you in the mind of Christian Bale? No thank you…

Oedipus Quebex: A Review of Xavier Dolan’s Mommy

Mommy

You probably won’t read a single review of Xavier Dolan’s Mommy that doesn’t mention the fact that, at only 25 years of age, the Quebecois filmmaker already has five critically acclaimed movies under his belt. You might also be unable to find a review that doesn’t mention the fact that he directs, writes, produces, designs the costumes, and often acts in his own movies. Or a review that fails to comments on his “enfant terrible” antics, whether it refers to his comments about sharing a Jury Prize with Jean-Luc Godard at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, or his complaints about his movie failing to make the Foreign Language Film Oscar shortlist. These often mentioned facts have limited the conversation about this director and his movies, but they have been repeated ad nauseam for a reason. They illustrate what is Dolan’s most unique characteristic as a filmmaker: his overindulgence.

Influenced by the lush saturation of Wong Kar-wai, and the love for melodrama of Pedro Almodovar, the most common set pieces in Dolan’s movies are musical interludes filled with slow motion shots and edited with the propulsion of a pop music video. Mommy features a couple of these interludes, which end up being some of the most memorable and touching moments of the movie precisely because, being sequences that are somewhat removed from the main narrative, they allow Dolan to flex his directorial muscles in the most indulgent way. He has chosen to shoot the movie in a 1:1 aspect ratio, which makes the screen completely square (the shape of an Instagram picture is the most common analogy). This is an incredibly tight frame. It illustrates the claustrophobic environment at the center of this story, but it supports a very limited amount of compositions. It’s thanks to Dolan’s knack for the visuals that the movie doesn’t crack while consisting basically out of close-ups, but while there are moments in which Dolan’s extravagance can do wonders for some sequences, it can’t keep it up for a whole 140 minute movie.

Before I go further, let me explain what the movie is about. Regular Dolan collaborator Anne Dorval stars as Diane (or “Die”), a middle-aged widow that must deal with the fact that her teenage son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) is moving in with her. Steve is coming back home because he got kicked out of the specialized school he was attending after causing a fire in the cafeteria. He is a handful. He has ADHD, and he is constantly cursing and insulting everyone around him, not to mention his short temper, which makes him prone to violent outbursts. His brutal personality can only by matched by his tough-as-nails tiger mom. Physically, Die isn’t nearly as strong as the athletic Steve, but the oedipal nature of their relationship gives her enough of an emotional edge to control the wild child.

Thrown into this mix is Kyla (Suzanne Clement), the shy neighbor from across the street. Kyla used to work as a teacher, but stopped working a couple years ago, around the same time that she started having trouble talking. It is a little weird when this quiet woman starts to spend time with Steve and Diane, but the abrasive pair seem to feel especially fond of her. While Diane struggles to find (and keep) a job that will provide the family with a steady income, Kyla starts tutoring Steve in order to help him graduate high school. They form a fascinating, if unlikely, trio, and thanks in no small part to the outstanding performances by the three leads. As Steve, Pilon pulls off an impressive act of balancing irritating childishness and charisma. Clement brings unexpected texture and realism to her character, avoiding the acting disaster that the speech impediment angle was professing. And Dorval is more than electric, channeling some of the fiercest women of cinema history in a performance of the highest melodramatic calibre.

Despite the amazing performances, and the enjoyably luscious direction, Mommy‘s problems announce themselves right from the start. In a couple of opening title cards, Dolan lets us know that this movie is -technically speaking- a science fiction fantasy. He presents us with a “fictitious Canada” in order to present the idea that the Canadian government created a law that lets people easily renounce to their kids if they feel like they are too problematic. I must admit that I am a little fascinated with the fact that Dolan presents us with this piece of information right off the bat. Once we know that this law exists in the world of the movie, it’s all too obvious where the movie is heading. That doesn’t mean that the emotional payoff of the film doesn’t work, because it does, but it makes me question Dolan’s interest in the story he was telling as far as the plot was concerned.

This is a question that always comes up when you discuss prolific directors. Is Dolan rushing through his job, and thus, sacrificing some parts of his process? If he is, then the part that’s suffering is probably the script. Despite all the great moments in Mommy, the movie didn’t seem to fully come together for me. The emotions that Die and Steve are going through are palpable. The way they scream at each other, the unstoppable intensity of Pilon’s forward march through the scene, and the way Dorval’s tough woman façade breaks behind her tearful eyes are as big as the overdramatic emotions Dolan is trying to get at. On a moment-to-moment basis, Mommy works fantastically well. It’s when we go from scene to the next that the problems amount. The characters seem to only inhabit the scene they’re in at one specific moment, as if what had happened before didn’t really affect them that much.

Is Dolan trying to get at a message about people not being able to perceive their own path to change, or is this just an editing problem? Two and a half hours is too long for this movie, but I felt like it was much longer than it actually is. Funny enough, I never felt the need to check my watch during a scene, because most scenes are very well constructed and directed, but at a certain point, I checked the time during almost every time a new scene started. Mommy is a disjointed movie. It’s made out of some pretty amazing parts, and even though they don’t seem to come together and form something greater, they are amazing enough to make it a worthy experience.

Grade: 6 out of 10

The Best Movies of 2014

We are the best

Well, we’re finally here. I’m sorry this took a little while, but I’ve had a very busy January. Anyway, 2014 -and all its social troubles- is gone. While we try to make 2015 better, let’s take some time to look at the best movies that were released last year, which more often than not ended up dealing with some of the year’s biggest issues.

2015 was a year marked by social discrepancy, and fights for equality from all kinds of minority groups: Women, racial minorities, LGBTQ people… and I think that the movies that resonated the most with me -while displaying pretty fantastic filmmaking on their own right- dealt in their way with the struggle for equality, happiness, and fairness. Many of these movies seem to be telling us why it’s important to never be quiet, to always be fighting for what is right. Even if we fail, it’s important to take a stance. Anyway, without further ado, here are my favorite movies of 2014…

The 10 Best Movies of 2014:

GrandBudapestHotel1. The Grand Budapest Hotel
(Wes Anderson, 100 min., USA)

“To be frank, I think his world had vanished long before he ever entered it – but, I will say: he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace”

On first glance, a perfectly constructed and hilarious adventure, that operates with the precision of a swiss watch: always moving forward and carefully sheltered by the narrative equivalent of a Russian nesting doll. But if we look further, we will find The Grand Budapest Hotel to be the culmination of Wes Anderson’s career as a director, and a sort of manifesto through which he decided to prove that the obsessively twee and mannered movies he loves making have a place in this world. Set in a fictional land before the rise of an alternate version of Nazism, this is a love letter for delicate things, and the value of beautiful art in the face of destruction. Monsieur Gustave H (a magnificent Ralph Fiennes) holds on to the ideal of a time that has evaporated, but the fact that such a world might have vanished, doesn’t mean that it’s not fighting for.

UndertheSkin2. Under the Skin
(Jonathan Glazer, 108 min., UK)

“When is the last time you touched someone?”

A new kind of star vehicle for Scarlett Johansson (who thank to this movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Lucy made 2014 into her banner year). Also, an experimental film in which the movie star plays an alien that drives around Scotland luring unsuspecting men into her deadly hive. The third movie by Jonathan Glazer is a masterpiece of miss en scene, using striking imagery and Mica Levi’s haunting score, to create some of the most iconic and stirring sequences of the year. But Under the Skin is also a story of the predator becoming the prey, that culminates in a fatalistic look at the role of female sexuality in modern society. Not even a man-eating alien is safe in our sexist world.

SELMA3. Selma
(Ava DuVernay, 127 min., USA)

I know you are asking today, “How long will it take?” Somebody’s asking, “How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?” Somebody’s asking, “When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South, be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men?” Somebody’s asking, “When will the radiant star of hope be plunged against the nocturnal bosom of this lonely night, plucked from weary souls with chains of fear and the manacles of death? How long will justice be crucified, and truth bear it? I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth crushed to earth will rise again.

That’s the MLK quote with which I opened my review of Ava DuVernay’s portrayal of the Civil Rights Movement. One of the most powerful experiences I had at the cinema all year, and one of the most rewarding. Beyond that, I think the quote speaks for itself.

WeAretheBest4. We Are the Best!
(Lukas Moodysson, 102 min., Sweden)

“Hate the sport! Hate the sport!”

Three thirteen-year-old girls for a punk band in 1980s Stockholm. They suck, and they have the time of their lives. Lukas Moodysson is perhaps one of the most observant directors in the world (if you need proof, watch 2000’s Together), and it’s still very surprising that a middle-aged man could so perfectly capture the complexly mundane inner life of three female teens. I mean, I’ve never been a thirteen-year-old girl, but my God, does this movie remind me of the girls I knew in middle school, of the questions and fears I’ve heard them talk about, and most importantly, of the joy that a teen can experience when they finally find that one thing. Every girl and every body in the world should see this movie! Pardon the pun, but it is, after all, just the best.

The Homesman5. The Homesman
(Tommy Lee Jones, 122 min., USA/France)

-Tell me just a kind word.
-Like what?
-That I’m a good woman… I helped you.

Tommy Lee Jones’s second movie as a director premiered to muted reviews at the Cannes Film Festival and was barely seen during its U.S. release. Not surprising, since it is a western that is hugely informed by the history of the genre, but a pity nonetheless, since it is one of the most powerful movies I saw all year. In it, Hilary Swank and Jones himself team-up to travel across the West and bring three crazy women to a sanatorium. What starts out as a feminist take on the western, reveals itself to be something much darker and relevant. It is a story about human ambivalence and its role in American society, as well as a carefully made movie, where every detail is as bold as it is specific.

Snowden6. Citizenfour
(Laura Poitras, 114 min., Germany/USA)

“At this stage I can offer nothing more than my word. I am a senior government employee in the intelligence community. I hope you understand that contacting you is extremely high risk and you are willing to agree to the following precautions before I share more. This will not be a waste of your time.”

An outstanding feat of journalism. The fact that filmmaker Laura Poitras had access to film the encounter during which Edward Snowden first leaked the NSA’s secrets into the world is in and on itself pretty remarkable, but Citizenfour is truly invaluable as a document that will forever show, on record, how this historical meeting went down. That Poitras does as outstanding a job as she does portraying Snowden in an objective light, and that she manages to turn this story into an espionage thriller more exciting than any Bourne movie is almost unbelievable. But here we are, and I am thankful for a movie as visceral and angry in its portrayal of a country at a moral crossroad as Citizenfour. Only time will tell where America goes from here, but the fact that this moment has been documented is notable worth.

Joaquin Phoenix in Inherent Vice7. Inherent Vice
(Paul Thomas Anderson, 148 min., USA)

“… as long as American life was something to be escaped from, the cartel would always be assured a bottomless pool of new customers.”

On first glance, a fantastic experiment. Paul Thomas Anderson steps out of his comfort zone to indulge in a ridiculously nonsensical neo-noir that is as much a poignant comedy as it is a structural portrayal of what it’s like to be stoned out of your mind. On second glance, though, this is a continuation of Anderson’s recent fascination with retelling American history, and exploring the forces to clashed in order to shape the country that we live in today. This time, the hippie dream of an alternative life outside the system is devoured by the merciless bite of vertical integration. One Nation under capitalism and so on…

TaleofPrincessKaguya8. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
(Isao Takahata, 137 min., Japan)

“Go round, come round, come round, O distant time
Come round, call back my heart
Birds, bugs, beasts, grass, trees, flowers
Teach me how to feel
If I hear that you pine for me, I will return to you”

This animated folk tale from veteran Studio Ghibli director Isao Takhata ends up being a very interesting companion film to Under the Skin, as the story of a tiny girl who is found by an elderly couple inside a bamboo tree becomes a feminist tragedy, in which a young girl’s will -even if she is a lunar princess- is nothing against the rigid social system that surrounds her. Delivering its message in the form of gorgeously delicate hand-painted animation, the last few minutes of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya moved me in a way that very few movies ever have.

BlueRuin

9. Blue Ruin
(Jeremy Saulnier, 90 min., USA)

You know what’s awful? Just ’cause my dad loved your mom… we all end up dead.

A popular way to describe this movie is as “No Country for Old Men, starring an idiot”. As effective an anti-violence film as I have ever seen, Blue Ruin is, first of all, an outstanding exercise on building up tension thanks to director Jeremy Saulnier’s amazing use of lighting, sound, and atmospheric music. Macon Blair stars as a man who, after many years, decides to finally take revenge for his parents’ murder, entering a seemingly never-ending circle of violence and blood. And because he is not an action hero, but just a regular dude, we can see the horrific results that come out of trying to be the protagonist of a revenge story. Fascinating for film lovers, and exciting for everyone, the scars of Blue Ruin will stay with you for a long time.

Boyhood10. Boyhood
(Richard Linklater, 165 min., USA)

“You know how everyone’s always saying seize the moment? I don’t know, I’m kind of thinking it’s the other way around, you know, like the moment seizes us.”

The more specific things are, the more universal they become. That might be one of the biggest cliches you’ve ever heard about movies, but it seems to be the mantra through which director Richard Linklater has become one of the most reliable chroniclers of contemporary life in cinema. As the above quote demonstrates, Linklater is a filmmaker that doesn’t shy away from the clunky and imperfect philosophy that can be found in our every day life, and Boyhood, a twelve-years-in-the-making portrait of a boy growing up into a man, somehow manages to capture the insignificance of our lives in comparison to the infinite power of time, and be a celebration of the act of living at the same time.

Honorable Mentions
11. Listen Up Philip (Alex Ross Perry)
12. The Double (Richard Ayoade)
13. Ernest & Celestine (Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar, Benjamin Renner)
14. Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho)
15. The Immigrant (James Gray)
16. The Trip to Italy (Michael Winterbottom)
17. The Babadook (Jennifer Kent)
18. Life Itself (Steve James)
19. They Came Together (David Wain)
20. Beyond the Lights (Gina Price-Bythewood)

The Worst Movie of the Year
Because I’m not a professional critic, but just a guy that loves movies and writing about them, I don’t have a boss or an editor that assigns me to watch movies that I think I’m probably going to hate. So, even though I sometimes have self-hating impulses that make me watch shit like The Desolation of SmaugI don’t usually see most of the things that end in worst-of-the-year lists. Things like Jersey Shore Massacre and A Haunted House 2I have not seen. I did see a lot of movies that I didn’t like this year, but if I’m being completely honest, there is only three movies that stand out amongst the pack. They are the dull and inartistic thriller Transcendencethe tone-deaf remake of Annie, and Clint Eastwood’s propagandistic American Sniper.

Other Movies You Should Avoid: Jersey Boys, Men Women and Children, Noah, The Imitation Game, and Begin Again  

Biggest Surprise 
Every trailer I saw for Luc Besson’s Lucy made me think it would be the most idiotic of movies. The “we only use 10% percent of our brains” schtick is more than tired at this point, especially after Transcendence proved how cataclysmically boring a movie about a man turning into a supercomputer could be. Much to surprise, Lucy, which is still a very silly movie that isn’t nearly as deep as Besson probably wants it to be, turned out to be one of the most exciting pieces of entertainment of the summer. Anchored by a fantastic Scarlett Johansson performance (again, she had 2014 on a leash) and Besson’s determination to make his own hyperactive version of The Tree of Life, Lucy towers over almost all of this year’s big Hollywood productions by virtue of being so unafraid of taking weird chances. Not all of them payed off, but it’s a fascinating film to watch nonetheless.

Biggest Disappointment
It would have to be recent Golden Globe winner How to Train Your Dragon 2a movie that is full of gorgeous visuals and state-of-the-art animation, but takes the anti-war message of its lovely predecessor and throws it in the garbage. It turns the story of Hiccup and Toothless into another generic “you’re the chosen one” piece of trash. When 2014 started, I was so excited to revisit Berk, and learn about awesome new kinds of dragons. Instead, I got a clunky Star Wars rip-off. 

Best Blockbuster
There are movies I really liked, like Lucy and Snowpiercer, that follow the template set up by mainstream Hollywood blockbusters and do something interesting, new, and invigorating with it. But both of those movies were not only directed by foreign directors, but largely financed with foreign money a.k.a. made outside the Hollywood Studio system. Out of the blockbusters released this year, the only one that I would call great is Gareth Edwards’s Godzilla, the one big studio release this year that understood that blockbuster entertainment is about the sensorial experiences that can be created with sound and pictures, and not about shooting some explosions and intercutting them with some funny lines of dialogue. It is also the only blockbuster this year that knows how important it is to convey the (physical and thematic) relationship between the monumental destruction of its giant monsters and its human protagonists.

Most Underrated Movie
If you’re British, you might recognize Richard Ayoade as one of the guys from The IT CrowdIf you’re American, you might recognize him as one of the unfortunate actors that starred in The Watch. If you’re me, then you know he is one of the most exciting rising talents as far as British directors are concerned. His feature debut Submarine was one of my favorites the year it was released, but with The Doublea Franz Kafka meets Terrry Gilliam story about doppelgängers and corporate ambivalence- he has made his first truly great film. The production design, sound, music (by Andrew Hewitt) and amazing performances (by Jesse Eisenberg and Mia Wasikowska) all come together in a way that few directors can achieve, and that has me really excited for what he’s going to do next. 

Most Overrated Movie
A lot of people were impressed by Steven Knight’s Lockea movie in which Tom Hardy is the only actor on screen, as he drives his car through the highway and tries to put his messy life in order in the process. To be fair, Hardy gives a commendable performance, showing he is full of interesting choices, and charismatic enough to hold your attention for close to 90 minutes, but on the other hand, there was nothing about seeing this man try to be a good person that was particularly interesting to me. It was yet another story about a middle aged man feeling guilty about the choices he’s made in life. If you are a fan of the art of pouring concrete into construction sites and want to hear Hardy talk extensively about it, then watch Locke. Otherwise, you’re better off skipping it. 

The Immigrant: A Review of Paul King’s ‘Paddington’

Paddington

You really can’t blame people for not being excited for the release of Paddington, the live action adaptation of Michael Bond’s classic children’s stories about a cute little bear that is adopted by an English family. Hollywood has spent the last few decades doing a more than horrible job of adapting characters of popular children’s pop culture and literature. Movies like How the Grinch Stole Christmas or Alvin and the Chipmunks are so nauseatingly bad that I wouldn’t blame you for not wanting to see another live action movie aimed at kids ever in your life. But then again, Paddington wasn’t made by a Hollywood studio, and arrives to the deserted cinematic landscape of mid-January to prove that -despite the jokes made at its expense sight-unseen- a children’s movie with a cute CG character at its center doesn’t have to be bad.

Paddington is not only not bad, it is actually really good. A charming comedy that reminded me of the mid-nineties wave of quality chidren’s films that included Babe and Danny DeVito’s Matilda. Considering he is the writer (he shares a “story by” credit with Hamish McColl) and director of the movie, I think the man responsible for leading the charge in making Paddington as good as it is, is Paul King, a man whose work I was inadvertently familiar with, since he directed many episodes of The Mighty Boosh, a surreal British sitcom whose humor is much more adult-oriented, but does share a passion for silliness that can be clearly found in Paddington‘s funniest moments.

The movie won me over pretty quickly, when I remembered that Paddington bear, while being a supremely British creation, is Peruvian. As you might know if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, I am also Peruvian. As you might also know, coming from the “third world”, and seeing your country being depicted in big budget movies can be frustrating. Paddington opens with young Paddington (who hasn’t been given that name at that point) living in “Darkest Peru” with his aunt and uncle, and in a couple lines of expositional dialogue, King shows more thoughtfulness in his depiction of the country than big shots like Steven Spielberg, whose depiction of Peru in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was outright offensive (and could have avoided with a simple Google search).

So, the considerate portrait of my country of origin was nice, but what got me really excited was that Paddington didn’t shy away from being a story about immigration. Shortly after the opening moments, there is an earthquake that destroys Paddington’s home, and thus, he is forced to travel to Britain, where he hopes to be adopted into a new family. The wide-eyed bear has a tougher time than he expected finding a new home, but not too long after arriving in London, Mrs. Brown (Sally Hawkins) takes note of him, and convinces stuffy Mr. Brown (Hugh Bonneville) to take the bear home, if only for one night.

It’s interesting to read Paddington as a story about immigration, because whether or not the filmmakers intended such an overt political statement, the movie can easily be read as an argument against xenophobia. It’s said practically explicitly when Millicent, an evil taxidermist played by Nicole Kidman, who is obsessed with adding Paddington to her collection visits the Browns’ neighbor, Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi), and tries to get him on her side by pointing out what will happen when “they” (referring to the bears) start moving into, and disrupting, his quiet little neighborhood.

Much of the comedy in Paddington is derived from the bear’s unfamiliarity with the way things work in a “civilized society” such as Great Britain, the type of “fish out of water” humor that, when being inflicted on a person, could be easily seen as offensive. Because Paddington is a cartoon bear, it becomes adorably inoffensive. Even though he makes a lot of silly things, he is always good natured, and being naive and ignorant of how things work in England actually becomes an asset when he inadvertently stops a wallet thief.

In this way, Paddington’s assimilation into the Brown family, becomes a metaphor for an immigrant’s assimilation into a foreign culture. In the Browns, Paddington finds a home away from home, and in Paddington, the Browns find a valuable addition to the family. Not unlike Mary PoppinsPaddington comes to teach the Browns to value each other, and most importantly, to listen to each other’s thoughts and desires. What might seem like a tacked-on emotional arc typical of children’s films, here becomes essential to a message of understanding and communication.

What’s even more important is that Paddington does something that many movies about (modern) immigration are hesitant to do. It allows the story to be presented to us through the eyes of the immigrant. This isn’t a story about Sandra Bullock teaching a bunch of Sudanese refugees how to play Football or any such faux-liberal nonsense. This is the story of a Peruvian bear using his good-hearted nature to find a new home. Not all movies must make a political statement, but I think it’s a plus when filmmakers take the time to craft a story about important values, especially in children’s movies. And when the movie is as witty and entertaining as Paddington, learning to accept people that are different from you becomes a delight.

Grade: 8 out of 10.

You Know He’s the Lead Because He’s A Hunky White Man: A Review of Michael Mann’s ‘Blackhat’

blackhat

One of the sub-plots of last year’s hilarious The Trip to Italy involves one of the main characters getting the opportunity to audition for a “big Michael Mann movie”. The first thing I thought about when I heard those words was: “Is there such a thing as a big Michael Mann movie anymore?”. Mann’s last movie was Public Enemiesa prohibition-era flop starring Johnny Depp as John Dillinger. It’s been five years, but Mann is finally back with Blackhat, the story of an incarcerated hacker who teams up with the FBI on a mission that might win him back his freedom. It easily fits with the director’s previous studies on nocturne skylines and violent masculinity. Blackhat is a Michael Mann movie, albeit a very bad one.

So, how does a Michael Mann movie -a big-budget action-thriller that is neither a sequel nor based on a comic-book- get made nowadays? Well, you just have to cater to the international market, and more specifically, China. Blackhat opens with a remote attack on a Chinese nuclear power plant. The attack proves to be a minor catastrophe for the Chinese government, which immediately sets one of their best security experts Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) on the case. Chen is joined by his sister Lien Dawai (Tang Wei, who you might remember from her outstanding work in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution).

The Chens are at the center of the plot, but the movie belongs to a different character. Chris Hemsworth plays Hathaway, a hunky hacker who is serving time in a maximum security prison when he is presented with the opportunity to regain his liberty if he helps the FBI, which by this point has teamed up with the Chens in order to capture the hacker that attacked the power plant. The rest of the movie’s plot matters relatively little. Screenwriter Morgan Davis Foehl seems to have little to no interest in the mechanics of his plot, our main concern in this story should not be geopolitics, but the happiness of Hemsworth’s character.

Not that the character gives any hints at being capable of experiencing happiness. Hathaway spends the whole movie either brooding about the path he had in life, or punching people with chairs. If I remember correctly, I think he has one funny line in the movie’s two-hour-plus running time. Why Mann would take an actor as well known for his comedic charisma as Hemsworth and waste him in this shell of a part is beyond me. At one point Hathway hooks up with Chen Lien (because of course he does), and he doesn’t seem very thrilled about it. I believe this is the first time he has kissed a woman in nine years, but I guess he doesn’t want to break the broodingly-masculine vibe that he seems to have perfected during his time in prison.

Blackhat is yet another story about individualism, in which a mission that started as a team effort can only be achieved thanks to one extraordinary man. A man that, incidentally, happens to be a handsome white dude. I initially thought it was pretty cool that Blackhat was so full of minority characters (and wonderful Viola Davis is wasted as the FBI agent in charge of the operation), and that it had two Chinese actors at the center of its plot, but soon enough the movie revealed all these people to be satellites that orbit around Hemsworth’s character. This globe-trotting thriller, which involves many nations and the safety of millions of people is only interested in the desires of this one white man. So much so that the climatic action sequence is a shoot-out that takes place in a sea of Indonesian people, at a spot actually chosen by the lead character. Of all of Mann’s explorations of men and manliness, Blackhat is the least interesting one. More of a childish fantasy than an exploration.

Still, despite being a movie about hackers in which computers go “beep beep bloop”, and despite not providing much food for thought, Blackhat could excel as a sensorial experience. Mann is, after all, one of the most stylish directors out there, and if someone is going to use sound and picture in the most thrilling and exciting way possible, it would be him…Except in this case. Blackhat is not only a supremely dumb movie, but a surprisingly un-engaging one. As far as the technical aspect is concerned (the nighttime digital photography, handheld camera, and quick cutting), it displays nothing that wasn’t done better and more interestingly in previous Mann movies. You know, ones where there seemed to be a dialogue between visuals and theme. This is all to say that I wouldn’t mind Blackhat if it was dumb fun, but sadly, the insipid seriousness of its tone makes it an insufferably boring movie instead.

Grade: 3 out of 10

Uncle Clint Wants You: A Review of ‘American Sniper’

American Sniper

I wouldn’t call American Sniper an incompetently made film -director Clint Eastwood does, after all, have a certain control of his craft- but it is a different type of bad. It is morally bad. The way Eastwood has decided to tell the story of Chris Kyle, known as the “deadliest sniper in American history”, puts the very existence of the movie into question. Why would someone want to take this man’s story and turn it into this piece of army propaganda? Is there anything to be gained from watching American Sniper? This is a movie that actually made me angry, and judging from the sad music and real-life footage that plays over the end credits, that wasn’t Eastwood’s intension.

There are only two possible interpretations of American Sniper. The oppositional read is to see it as a risky film in which the rah-rah U-S-A-chanting story of killing machine Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is only the façade that is later removed to reveal this man as a deeply disturbed and psychotic individual. A movie that looks at some of the most deeply rooted American ideals of masculinity and subverts them by pointing out how structural violence and arrogant politics could turn a man into a monster. But that would make American Sniper a good movie, which it certainly is not.

There is one scene in American Sniper that suggests such a read. It comes when Kyle comes after his second tour in Iraq and sees his newborn daughter through the hospital window. His daughter is crying, but is not receiving attention from the nurses, who are tending to some of the other newborns in the room. Growing impatient and anxious, Kyle starts tapping the window trying to get the nurse’s attention, yelling and banging on the window so his daughter stops crying.

That scene features the only original thought in the entire movie, which is otherwise content to be made up of all the things you’ve seen in every other war movie ever made. This is when the second possible reading of American Sniper comes in, and undoubtedly the one that the filmmakers intended: it is simply a movie about how awesome Chris Kyle is. Sure, there are scenes in which he struggles to adjust to life back home after four tours in the Middle East, but Kyle cures his PTSD almost immediately, and by the sheer power of his strong will.

The trailer for this movie promised a morally ambiguous portrayal of combat. A debate on the benefits and costs of warfare. Instead, Eastwood has decided to settle on turning the movie into a cult of personality where Kyle is the ultimate American, the super-soldier that all men should aspire to be. He is physically and mentally strong, which doesn’t mean he is particularly intelligent, but that he is resilient. Now, I prefer my heroes to be a little more complex, but I also recognize that an old-fashioned role-model isn’t always the worst thing… except when you consider what the real life man this movie is turning into a hero was really like.

Now, I didn’t know Chris Kyle personally, and I haven’t read his book, but just doing some shallow research on the internet was enough to find a lot of dubious accounts of his personality. Take, for instance, what film critic Amy Nicholson wrote in her review of the movie for the L.A. Weekly: 

“The real Chris Kyle complicated things further. Kyle claimed that he killed two men who attempted to carjack him in Texas and got only a pat on the head from police impressed with his service record. (Country sheriffs deny the shooting ever happened.) He claimed that he had been hired by Blackwater to snipe armed looters at the Superdome during Hurricane Katrina (a fellow SEAL said that “defies the imagination”). And he even claimed that he had gotten into a bar fight with Jesse Ventura, who won a $1.8 million defamation lawsuit against Kyle’s estate.”

So, as a portrayal of a complex human being, American Sniper is very lacking to say the least. And as a movie about the experience of war and its toll on a person, it is almost laughably shallow. Kyle is such a perfect human being -a man who is too manly for civilian life and a little too sensitive to abandon his wife and just live in the battlefield- that war barely has an effect on him. His adventures are as fabricated as the claims Nicholson wrote about in her review. What is the point of making this movie? Since it is saying absolutely nothing new about violence, and given the recent tragic events like the attack at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, I’m afraid the movie’s most likely effect will be to reinsert and spread fear and hatred of muslims in the American public.

Grade: 3 out of 10