The Many Rights and Many Wrongs of Room

ROOMOne of the biggest and most common accusations one faces when one decides to try and become a film critic is people that complain you only focus on the negative aspects of a film. Four or so days after watching Lenny Abrahamson’s Room, adapted by Emma Donoghue from her own best-selling novel, I am only able to think about the elements that I think could have been improved. However, I am determined to not let the aforementioned accusations be raised. Thus, even if it might seem at certain points of this review that I am focusing on the things I didn’t like about Room, I want to start out by saying that said focus is so strong because the rest of the movie is so strong. It takes a truly strong movie for me to fixate so obsessively on its weaknesses. It’s because I would love for it to be perfect.

Before we get into the negativity, let me tell you that Room is a mother-son story about a woman who was kidnapped at the young age of sixteen, and has spent seven years trapped in a single room. The last five of those years she’s been accompanied by the child that is the product of the abuse of her kidnapper. The movie is presented from the kid’s point of view, and much of the first half is spent showing the worldview that would develop out of a child who has spent all of his life in a single room. To Jack, that’s the kid’s name, everything outside of “room” is negative space. He hears stories about plants, animals, places; and to him, they’re all mere fantasies.

Some mind consider the following plot-point to be a spoiler, but I knew it going into the movie and it didn’t diminish my enjoyment one bit, so I’ll go ahead and say it: the second half of the movie deals with the aftermath of this mother and child finally escaping their prison and their struggle to reintegrate into the “normal” world. Despite this being the more “conventional” half of the film, it ends up being the more fascinating one. There aren’t any huge twists or surprises in this second half, really. It’s just a careful and touching story about two broken people trying to understand a world that is (or has grown) completely foreign to them. This is the perfect moment to mention that the mother is played by the wonderful Brie Larson, and the son is the product of an outstanding child performance by young Jacob Tremblay.

Larson and Tremblay lead an solid ensemble whose emotional truthfulness makes us invest in the emotional well-being of these characters. Where most movies have us rooting for a hero to deactivate a bomb and save the world, or punch an evil super-villain into submission, Room‘s characters are only looking for normalcy. They want what most of us already have. What is granted, but we would never want to lose. That’s why we care so much about them. That, and the power of performance. Among the supporting cast, the great Joan Allen stands out as the grandma who slowly learns to connect with her alien grandson. Just seeing this kid discover the simplest elements of daily life becomes overwhelmingly touching.

It is of course, to director Lenny Abrahamson’s credit that our reactions are so emotional. Getting a good performance out of a five year-old child is never easy. It requires patience, talent, and a good bag of editing tricks. On that front, the direction is spotless. That being said, one of the movie’s biggest letdowns is the Abrahamson’s visual approach to the story. He does use shallow-focused close-ups to make us look at the world through the kid’s point of view, but it isn’t quite enough. The first half of the movie, the one set entirely within the room could have used a little bit more formal rigidness. A specific visual conceit that made us understand the limitations of the space better, so that the opening of the door into the real world could be as dramatic in cinematic terms as it is for the character’s psychology.

On that note, my real disappointment with this movie is that its decision to narrow on the child’s perspective. As I said, the kid’s scenes in the second half can be incredibly touching, but his arc is far less complicated and, honestly, less interesting than that of the mother. Brie Larson does a fantastic job of providing subtextual hints into the further life of her character’s psychology, but she disappears for large chunks of the movie, and her development in the second half -which is, on paper and from what we see in the movie quite fascinating- gets the short shift. This is apparent in the film’s last scene, which is the one moment in which the movie gives up to full sentimentality. The sequence is meant to provide closure to both characters’ arcs, but because so much of the mother’s story has developed offscreen, the moment reads as a repetitious bow on the kid’s story.

These are the things that I can’t stop thinking about. That last scene in particular bothers me to no end. But like I said, it’s only because the rest of Room is so strong. What the movie does well, it does really, really well.

Grade: I go back and forth between a 7 and an 8

2000 Project Batch Two: Amores Perros, High Fidelity, and American Psycho

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The Project continues…

amoresperrosAmores Perros (directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu)
I remembered this as the best movie of Iñarritu’s career. Although in Iñarritu’s case, “best” is a relative term, so I might be better off saying I remembered this as the “truly good” movie of his carer. Anyway, hindsight is an interesting thing, and what was once the promise of an exciting new filmmaker (and an exciting new wave of Mexican cinema), turns out to be as much of a promise as it is a warning of the crutches that would define Iñarritu’s thus far disappointing career as a filmmaker.

It’s become kind of cool to hate on Iñarritu, especially after he swept last year’s Oscar with the entertaining but deeply flawed Birdman. His reputation isn’t undeserved, though. What makes Iñarritu’s movies so frustrating is that they tend to be unbearably somber without giving much purpose to their bleakness. Amores Perros is a perfect example. It interlaces three violent and sad stories about people (and their dogs) facing their darkest moments, and so it reveals… what’s exactly, does the movie reveal? A rhetorical question, for the movie itself might not know the answer. And that’s the thing, Iñarritu’s apocalyptic depiction of Mexico City (expertly realized by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto) evokes an air of despair that suggests profound drama, but settles for cookie-cutter pessimism.

It’s not lack of sympathy that cripples Iñarritu, though. He is too sentimental to be called a nihilist, and too dour to be a humanist. The result of this mix comes across as deeply insincere. While Iñarritu’s style can be deeply cinematic, and occasionally exciting -this is particularly true of Amores Perros‘s first segment starring a young Gael Garcia Bernal- the payoff is never enough. It’s as if he’s making you go through all this suffering for no purpose whatsoever. It doesn’t help that the movie opens with its strongest segment, and they get progressively weaker.
Grade: 6

highfidelityHigh Fidelity (directed by Stephen Frears)
High Fidelity was so crucial in my formative years as a film lover that I almost feel like I can’t possibly review it. Throughout the years, I’ve heard and read many opinions (including some by people I admire) that point out the movie’s supposed weaknesses. Most of them focus on how the protagonist is such an unlikable jerk. Those movies are missing the point. There hasn’t been amore genuine and truthful portrayal of a specific kind of beta male than this movie, and John Cusack -with his slightly obnoxious delivery- is the perfect actor to bring a man like Rob Gordon to life.

Does Rob get too happy of a resolution at the end? Maybe. Most people like Rob end up living their lives under much sadder circumstances (I’ve met quite a few of them), but that’s what is so valuable about High Fidelity. It’s not a fantasy about the world finally understanding the jerk who feels superior to everyone else so he can get what he wants, it’s a fantasy about the jerk understanding his myopia and integrating with the rest of the world. That’s why this movie spoke to me so deeply. I could easily be a Rob Gordon, and try every day not to be.

But who cares about my and my relationship to this movie. You should see it because it’s awesome. It’s fun, and funny, and romantic, and emotional. Stephen Frears -a deeply underrated director- does a fantastic job of keeping humor and truth feeding off each other, and the cast -full of great small roles including Joan Cusack, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and a hilariously douchey Tim Robbins- is at the top of their game. This movie also features Jack Black in the role that made him a star, and rightfully so.
Grade: 9

americanpsychoAmerican Psycho (directed by Mary Harron)
Christian Bale has evolved into one of the most boring and unexciting actors around, so it’s easy to forget how effective he can be in the right role. Bale is a notoriously humorless actor. He takes every role so dramatically seriously that he proves to be the perfect casting for a character as psychotic as Patrick Bateman. It’s great because for Bateman, everything is serious and great, and its the audience that looks from the audience and is tickled and repulsed by the ridiculous extremes of the character. Needless to say, the movie takes place in 1980s Wall Street.

American Psycho is a ballsy satire, directed with stylish gusto by Mary Harron, who does a great job of building an uncanny world in which Wall Street businessmen can’t recognize each other and the most horrendous crimes can be pardoned if you look and sound like the right kind of person. It’s exciting satire, which brings me to my big and only problem with the movie. Towards the end, it becomes ambiguous whether or not Patrick is actually committing all these crimes, or whether he is just imagining in his head. Ambiguity is usually an interesting way to deepen a movie’s thematic interests, but in this case, it ends up defeating the purpose of the movie’s attack. It becomes a story about an exception -a troubled guy amidst this indifferent world- instead of a story about the absurd and grotesque idealism that plagues our patriarchal society. I prefer the second story, and I think it’s the story that American Psycho wants to tell, it just has to overcome one notorious mistake on the way to tell it.
Grade: 7

Crimson Peak’s Ghosts Are Not Scary, But Is That a Problem?

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The most common complaint leveled against Crimson Peak, the latest gothic fantasy concocted by Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro, is that despite being advertised as a horror movie, it’s not really all that scary. The first that comes to mind reading this complaint has to be incredulity that in these media-savvy days of 2015 we still have people who will believe movie trailers -a.k.a. commercials- are created to represent the spirit of a movie and not to sell tickets in the quickest (and supposedly most effective) way possible. Case in point, Del Toro took to Twitter soon after the first allegations of “not scary” came out to make the clarification that his latest opus was in fact a “gothic romance” that should not be mistaken for a horror movie.

While I will wholeheartedly agree that the people whose assessment of the movie ends at “not scary enough” are complete idiots who are not meeting the movie anywhere near the place it is trying to go, I will say that Del Toro’s case that this gothic romance is not meant to be in any way a horror movie is not satisfactory. It’s true that despite being an original screenplay, Crimson Peak shares in the tradition of literary “mysterious manors” as seen in Rebecca and Jane Eyrebut it also shares in the tradition of nineteenth century ghost stories. I respect (and appreciate) Del Toro’s decision to place his emphasis in the least commercial of the two influences, but his defense -while genuine- strikes me as a way of excusing exactly how weak the horror elements of his movie are.

This brings me to the second most common complaint leveled against Crimson Peak: that it’s computer-generated ghosts look bad. Now, Del Toro claims that all the ghost effects were achieved practically. However, it’s evident that computers where used to enhance the effects -particularly in giving the specters a semi-transparent quality- and these CG “enhancements” give the ghosts a shiny plastic quality that immediately reveals them as pieces of imagery that do not inhabit the same cinematic world as the human protagonists. For all of his stylistic eye, computer generated effects have always been Del Toro’s weak-spot (just think of the horrendous CG images of his supremely disappointing Pacific Rim). Crimson Peak is no exception, as the ghosts are the only ugly looking thing in what is otherwise a gorgeous* movie.

*I use the word “gorgeous” in the way one would apply it to a creepy film about a haunted mansion that relishes in decadent imagery and a blood-soaked violent finale. 

Truly, the hideous ghosts don’t help in adding any kind of creepiness to the movie. Most of these ghosts are presented as skeletons of some sort, which in the days when AMC airs The Walking Dead every day of the week, it’s just not creepy. For all of his visual inventiveness when it comes to sets and costumes -and more on that in a minute- I think Del Toro has exhausted his knack for coming up with iconic creatures. It’s been a long time since the instantly iconic Faun and Pale Man of Pan’s LabyrinthInstead, his latest creations are the generic Kaijus of Pacific Rim and the equally generic ghosts that haunt Crimson Peak. The look of the ghosts is not the only problem, but it does play a big role in making the whole ghost angle of the story stick out like a sore thumb when compared to the rest of the movie.

So let’s talk about the parts of the movie that do work. The great Mia Wasikowska -who herself played Jane Eyre in Cary Fukunaga’s 2011 adaptation- stars as the young bride with literary aspirations who is charmed by the aristocratic Englishman played by Tom Hiddleston, who takes her to his reclusive family home of Allerston Hall, a gigantic and decrepit house that is obviously haunted no one in their right mind would set a foot inside it. Except by the time the movie gets to Allerston Hall, it has set us up for a world of eerie campiness, where it makes sense that these former affluent aristocrats would live in a house whose main hall is covered in either leaves or snow thanks to the massive hole in the ceiling.

Allerston Hall -referred to as Crimson Peak due to the bright red clay that can be mined from underneath the house’s foundation- is nothing if not a triumph of art direction, which is to be expected from a Del Toro movie, but nevertheless deserves to be commended to production designer Thomas Sanders, whose previous credits include Francis Ford Coppola’s similarly stylized and Romantic interpretation of DraculaThe same can be said of the costumes by Kate Hawley, and even the hair styling, but the particular triumph of Allerston Hall’s design is that it so clearly a practically life-sized set. That the architectural layout of the property is immediately clear to the audience, and that the actors can seamlessly move from one room to another without the need to go to a different set.

This practicality of set makes the house feel like a theater stage, in the sense that one can sense these rooms connecting to each other, and the actors inhabiting them. The sense of a stage might have also benefitted the actors’ performances, because this cast -which was magnificent in name alone to begin with- sure delivers. Other than the solid work by the aforementioned Wasikowska and Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain steals the show as the main villain of the piece. Chastain plays the sister of Hiddleston’s character -and only other permanent resident of Allerston Hall- with the campy delight that being able to play a psychotic Mrs. Danvers-type would generate in any smart actor.

Crimson Peak derives its purest pleasures out of the oversized pulpiness of its cliffhanging plot. Wasikowska’s search to uncover the mystery of what exactly is going on with her new scary home, the twists and turns of a macabre conspiracy, and the sheer pleasure of watching these actors indulge in the theatrical and melodramatic nature of the genre. Compared to its complicated plotting, the presence of ghosts ends up being almost superfluous. The explicit presence of the supernatural actually takes away from the unnerving creepiness of the main character’s situation. The sense of not knowing what exactly is going on, of being alone in a big scary house that may or may not end up killing you, that’s what’s scary about Crimson Peak. The ghost sightings are just padding.

Grade: 7 out of 10 

2000 Project Batch One: You Can Count On Me, Wonder Boys, Erin Brockovich


We’ve talked about 1992, 2005, and 1995. It’s come time to take a look at some movies from the year 2000.


You Can Count On Me (directed by Kenneth Lonergan)
Kenneth Lonergan’s directorial debut is a movie with very little plot that is nevertheless masterfully made. At the center, you will fin Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo playing a pair of estranged siblings in two of the richest and most naturalistic performances of their careers. In fact, naturalism, as in capturing little bits of action that ring true to the emotions of daily life and relationships, is the movie’s biggest strength. The movie focuses on a pivotal moment for these siblings’ relationship, but wraps it in a life-sized package. The connection between these two characters -established by Lonergan’s script and fleshed out by the performers- feels deeper and truer than most any depiction of siblings on screen. Not every performance and sub-plot in the movie works as well (I’m looking at you, Matthew Broderick), but the main duo is outstanding.

Lonergan won the “screenplay” award given by pretty much every critics group when the film came out, and deservedly so. The writing and editing in this movie is flawless. Sure enough, my screenwriter professor mentions the movie constantly, and in particular when she wants to emphasize how economical you can be with your scenes. A scene in You Can Count On Me can be as minimal as showing a character have one wordless reaction. That’s what makes this movie so special, that it chooses simplicity when most every other movie would have preferred to scream and shout.
Grade: 9 out of 10

wonderboysposterWonder Boys (directed by Curtis Hanson)
Hanson, a director who seems to have disappeared from the face of the earth, followed the massive success of L.A. Confidential, with this literary adaptation about a college professor and novelist (Michael Douglas) who is going through some pretty rough times. His wife has left him, his lover tells him she’s pregnant, he is struggling to finish his new novel, his editor is in town, and he must deal with a weird student that won’t stop getting him in trouble. Douglas leads a fantastic cast (Tobey Maguire, Robert Downey Jr, Frances McDormand, even Katie Holmes turns out solid work) that thanks to Hanson’s laid-back direction, and Dede Allen, the editor who seems to get a kick out of every time people are in the same make Wonder Boys a severely enjoyable experience despite the film’s weaknesses.

What are those weaknesses? Well, the movie is at its best when it allows itself to just be. It’s an unassuming film in nature, one that reflects the life-learned pragmatism of its protagonist, and doesn’t want to make a big deal out of stuff that doesn’t require such a treatment. Moments of revelation shock the characters, but always in an appropriately human-sized level. Unsurprisingly, it’s the moments in which the movie goes into bigger histrionics and transparent dramatics that it suffers. Moments in which the characters spell out the themes (“you once told us writing is about making choices”), and wacky antics underlined by a plucky score are not bad, but they feel disappointing compared to the film’s other, more serene, and more rewarding moments.
Grade: 7 out of 10

erinbrockovichposterErin Brockovich (directed by Steven Soderbergh)
Film critic Tyler Smith often uses the term “Erin Brockovich syndrome” to describe a film that foolishly doesn’t dare question its main character or anything it does. Not in a script level, and not even in the supporting performances that might opaque the star at the center of the film. While I see where he is coming from, I happen to believe that Erin Brockovich is one of the best star-vehicles of all time, and that Julia Roberts’s performance in the title role is the best work of her career. Unlike other “movie star goes serious” roles, Roberts isn’t afraid to draw from her own iconic past -more than one scene here is inspired in her iconic Pretty Woman shopping rant- to builds a serious dimensional character that is simultaneously clearly played by Julia Roberts. That’s the difference between an actor and a movie star.

There are people that complain the movie is just all about Roberts, and that Soderbergh muted his auteurist tendencies to make a bland crowd-pleasing movie. I find the complete opposite to be the case. The most defying aspect about Erin Brockovich is the fact that Soderbergh decides to surrender completely to the movie at the center of it. This is a tough woman doing extraordinary things, and he wants us to notice. It’s conscious style that pays off. Of course, not everything works perfectly. The fact that Erin is always going to be right gets a little tiring, and the romantic sub-plot sticks out as a sore thumb, but other than that, this is robust and solid filmmaking.
Grade: 8 out of 10

Classic Spielberg: A Review of ‘Bridge of Spies’

Screen shot 2015-10-12 at 2.30.27 p.m.

The term “old fashioned” is usually associated with certain negative connotations, but believe me when I say that Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies is old fashioned in all the right ways. All throughout this Cold War spy drama, I was reminded not of any particular classic Hollywood film, but of the style of the films that were made in this era. Not the films that dealt specifically with important “issues”, but those that couched a sometimes profound, almost always subversive, message in their narratives. These films were more often than not “genre pictures” -western, horror, science fiction- but they always had something to say about America and American culture beyond their narrative thrills. Bridge of Spies, despite not being a “genre picture”, shares in the tradition of those defiant classics.

Despite its title, Bridge of Spies does not fit comfortably into our definition of the “spy movie” genre. If anything, the film would be best described as a legal drama, which is part of the reason why the movie couldn’t be called a “genre picture”. Legal dramas are simply too prestigious. And even then, it’s hard to classify the movie under one single genre at all. The first half of the movie focuses on what happens after the capture of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), most specifically the trial during which all-American insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) acts as the Soviet’s attorney. In the second, the film shifts gears into a tense negotiation in which Donovan must travel to Berlin and strike a deal to exchange captured spies with the Soviet government.

One thing’s for sure, though. Like the film’s I alluded to before, Bridge of Spies is one hell of a handsomely made movie. Even though I would contest that Spielberg has not directed a masterpiece since Munichhis filmmaking talent has not diminished a bit in the past decade. Unlike other directors who age out into irrelevance, Spielberg’s seems to have found comfort in the fact that he is one of the most *powerful* filmmakers alive. He has evolved from a cinematic virtuoso into an old master of the form. Experience has given him the confidence to be patient. Bridge of Spies takes as much time as it needs to go from scene to scene, and it knows that we will follow it into any kind of narrative digression and trust that the seemingly unconnected scene will mean something to the movie in terms of plot, character, of theme.

We spend an uncommon amount of time with characters other than our hero, and while we don’t really need to see these scenes to follow the movie’s narrative, they end up being some of the movie’s strongest sequences. One of them follows a cycling student in East Berlin, the other is the movie’s opening, which focuses on the daily routine of Soviet spy Abel before he gets captured. Abel -played magnificently by theatre veteran Rylance- end up becoming the emotional center of the film. His old-man demeanor and dry sense of humor is not an act, this communist spy is presented as a character with as much honor and conviction as the American protagonist. A characterization that would have been shocking in any mainstream film made before the fall of the communist block.

This brings me back to my original point about Bridge of Spies. A superficial reading of the film, and it would be tempting and understandable to make such a reading considering the sheer technical quality of the filmmaking, will present a classic tale about a moral citizen fighting hard for American ideals. Hanks’s Donovan echoes the quintessential political hero portrayed by Jimmy Stewart when Mr. Smith went to Washington. This is one of Hanks’s most charismatic performances, and probably the epitome for an actor who has made a career off of playing all kinds of “everymen.” But accepting this as a tale of great idealism would be meeting the movie only halfway through.

The natural question is: Why would Spielberg decide to tell this story now? The film is based on true events, and has been in development in way or another for years, but why now? The easiest connection to make is the treatment of Edward Snowden after his infamous information leak. Not a far-fetched connection when we’re talking about a movie that spends most of its first act exploring the idea that the “enemy” spy deserves proper representation and a fair trial. Restricting the thematic undertones to Snowden might actually be too much. Spielberg has a number of things to say about intelligence and information. Hanks’s character, for example, is continually kept on the dark during his Berlin mission, and despite the third act’s triumphant air, every victory comes with a darker, more melancholy, side to it.

If there is a weak link to this movie, it is probably its ending, which -not unlike many of Spielberg’s movies- indulges in sentimentality that threatens to drown out the more subtle nuances of the story. I think it would be improper of me to write about the end in detail when most people haven’t seen this movie yet, but I will say that some of the most fascinating and revealing moments in the movie have to do with the relationship between the captured spies and their respective governments. Each government wants to get back their people, but the swelling strings of Thomas Newman’s score don’t correlate with the treatment of the people welcoming them back home.

Spielberg’s directorial hand is so assured during most of the movie that it becomes puzzling that he decided to go so straight-forward and sentimental in the final moments, especially in his use of title cards at the very end of the movie. Still, there is so much more to this movie than just the ending, and even within its sentimental culmination, there are ambiguities and melancholies to be found. There might be nothing more cliched than harping on the end of a Spielberg movie, so I shall abstain. Instead, I will recommend Bridge of Spies for its thrills, its thoughts, and even its flaws.

Grade: 8 out of 10

Pan Review: Joe Wright’s Latest is a Calamitous Disaster

PanNothing could have driven me to see an unnecessary cash-grab Peter Pan prequel. Nothing except my love for director Joe Wright. The only reason I can muster why such an interesting director would have decided to waste his time in this non-entity of a story is the relative commercial failure of his latest, and most ambitious, movie: a highly theatrical and expressionistic adaptation of Anna Karenina. Maybe Wright thought he should go for a sure bet after his ambition didn’t completely pan out. If that’s the case, then one can very easily detect that Wright’s heart is not in making this movie.

It would have been foolish to go into Pan expecting a typically masterful Joe Wright movie. This being a prequel to one of the most beloved children’s books of all time, I was prepared for whatever plot screenwriter Jason Fuchs (whose biggest credit before this is Ice Age: Continental Drift) had come up with to be wholly unsatisfying. Surely enough, bad choices abound Fuchs’s script. For example, he moves the setting of the “real world” part of the movie from Victorian England to WWII era London for no valuable reason except to have an air battle between the RAF and a flying pirate ship.

The choices made in this movie range from questionable to disastrous, and reach their apex in a sequence that has mining pirates sing along to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. But before you set your hopes for a ridiculous mess of a movie, you must know that said sequence is one of very few moments that allow the audience to find glee in the filmmakers’ misguidance. The M.O. for the rest of the movie boils down to the most tired and boring formula Hollywood ever put its hands upon. Pan turns the story of the boy who never grew up, into the story of a plain white “chosen one”.

Yes, young orphan boy Peter (Levi Miller) turns out to be the son of a fairy prince or some other nonsense, which means he is the prophetic warrior that is supposed to help the fairies and the natives defeat evil pirate Blackbeard, who is played by a made up Hugh Jackman who isn’t afraid to go full Depp in his histrionic performance. Blackbeard has seemingly hunted the fairies into extinction, and he now runs a mining operation, designed to dig up whatever fairy dust is left in the soil. This is the set-up of a script so bad it’s almost uncanny. It’s incredible how most of the dialogue in this movie doesn’t relate to either plot or character. It doesn’t even make sense.

But let’s forget for a second that the movie never quite explains why Blackbeard wants to dig up all this fairy dust. Let’s also forget that the movie doesn’t quite figure out what the rules of flight are in this universe despite having J.M. Barrie’s original novel provide a brilliantly economic explanation. And let’s forget that the movie disregards the magical childhood simplicity of the original in favor of becoming yet another cheap Star Wars (or Hero’s Journey) knockoff. That was all to be expected. The movie’s biggest, and perhaps only, unforgivable sin is to have stripped Wright’s possibility of making a Joe Wright movie.

Despite his eye for dazzling visuals, and despite a recurring storybook motif in his previous work, Wright turns out to be a horrible fit for this material. If you think of the trademark visual of a Wright movie, you will picture a long take that seamlessly follows a character through an immaculately designed space. Some examples: when we follow Elizabeth through the Bennett house at the beginning of Pride & Prejudicewhen the camera roams around the Dunkirk beach in Atonement, and Eric Bana’s subway fight in HannaThese sequences are all purposely theatrical, but they also define the practical, tactile nature of the characters’ environment. There is nothing that even approximates such a sequence in Pan. 

The current style of production for expensive blockbuster (and Pan is quite expensive at a budget of 150 million) isn’t nearly as flexible as cinephiles would like it to be. For every time George Miller is allowed to go to the Namibian desert and come back with Mad Max: Fury Road,  there are ten or twelve movies in which the director has little (if any) say in the use of computer and computer generated sequences in the film. The reliance on computer imagery seems to have stunted Wright, whose previous films relish in the practicality of their effects. The director is at a loos without the possibility of building a set piece around a practical set, and having to rely on images created by a contracted visual effects company.

The result is Wright’s most inelegant movie yet. He is simply not allowed to craft his typically beautiful visuals, and he is certainly not helped by the god-awful quality of the computer generated effects. Certain inspired visual touches prop up here and there -like projected shadows, or characters that die as color puffs of smoke-, but even those decisions highlight the fact that despite having made movies with child protagonists, Wright is not a children’s director. There is a hidden eroticism to his filmmaking in the way he uses camera tricks and luscious design to express the characters’ passions. He brings up childish images -like the lined-up toy animals in Atonement, or the blocks in Anna Karenina– but he is most interested in contrasting such visuals with adult emotions.

Making a movie explicitly for children is not something Wright is adept to do. This is most evident in his failed handling of the movie’s comedy, which is broad, grotesque, and ill-timed. For all of his excess as a filmmaker, Wright always uses the repressive aspects of adult life to keep his stories focused. Going off to Neverland, a land of no repression, results in an imbalanced movie. As if it’s Wright couldn’t calibrate anything about this production, not even the performances, which go from Jackman’s histrionics, to a horrendous child performance by Miller, and some bizarre Daniel Plainview impersonation courtesy of Garrett Hedlund as Captain Hook.

Instances of directors’ talent and imagination being squeezed dry by studio filmmaking are a common occurrence. Pan is an unmitigated failure. I am pissed off Joe Wright wasted so much time in this awful movie when he could have been making his next masterpiece, but one shouldn’t dwell on the past, and focus on the possibilities of the future.

Grade: 3 out of 10

NYFF Diary Part Five: Movies About Music and Foreign Lands 

miles aheadThis is the fifth and last entry in my New York Film Festival diary. I ended up watching about twenty movies at this year’s Festival, and it was -without a doubt- a great experience. Here are my thoughts on the last three films I saw at the Festival.

Wednesday, Oct. 7

Brooklyn (directed by John Crowley)
This tale of a young Irish woman (played by Soirse Ronan) who immigrates to 1950s New York hoping to start a better life for herself is as old fashioned as it gets, and that’s not a bad thing. In fact, I would have appreciated if it had been even more old fashioned in its visual presentation. The sets, costumes, the colors, event he dialogue suggests classic Hollywood Romance, which is far more effective and idiosyncratic than the hand-held camera that attempts to bring certain “modernity” to a movie that does not need it.

Brooklyn comes in a familiar package, but it doesn’t mean the gift is less valuable. There are two fantastic things about the movie: First, Ronan herself. She’s the perfect heroine for this movie, and proves captivating as a performer who has gained full control of her physicality, and who can do wonders with her unique face and big blue eyes. The other, is the little bits of truthfulness captured in the movie’s treatment of a person whose love and life is divided between two different countries (each representing a different life). Be warned that is is an earnest movie that does not shy away from its emotions. If you let it work on you, you will be moved.

Thursday,  Oct. 8

Junun (directed by Paul Thomas Anderson)
I’m currently taking a class on the political and ethnographic ramifications of documentary filmmaking, so my mind couldn’t help but wander into the possible Eurocentricism of a movie in which Radiohead guitar player Jonny Greenwood went to India to record an album and the Orientalism that may or may not be present in the movie’s depiction of the country. But when you get right down to it, this is just an unassuming 54 minute making of video that just so happens to be directed by one of the most prestigious film directors in the world.

Greenwood has worked as composer in Anderson’s last three films, so he invited the director to record the recording process for is latest musical project. The music that resulted out of these recording sessions (composed by Shye Ben Tzur) is actually pretty great, so it was fun enough to just watch these talented men and women perform for an hour. Other than that, however, I don’t think there’s anything particularly special or innovative about the project. It looks surprisingly similar to what I would have produced had I been the one to go record my friends’ recording sessions (and had I have Anderson’s resources). I guess it’s nice to see that a genius like Paul Thomas Anderson isn’t that different from us after all.

Saturday, Oct. 10

Miles Ahead (directed by Don Cheadle)
The festival’s closing film is the directorial debut of actor Don Cheadle, who also stars as legendary trumpeter Miles Davis. The press materials suggested this movie would focus on the enigmatic period between 1975-1980, when Davis didn’t release a single record. This turns out to be be only partially true. We do begin with a depressed, drugged-out Davis who can’t get himself to release his latest recordings despite his label’s pressure to fabricate a “comeback” narrative for the musician, but that’s only half of the movie. The other half takes us back to Davis’s tumultuous and ultimately doomed marriage to dancer Frances Taylor (Emayatzi Corineadi).

The movie Miles Ahead reminded me the most was Saving Mr. Banks, which also had two story-lines. The “making-of-Mary-Poppins” narrative, in which Walt Disney and author P.L. Travers had to deal with each other’s egos; and the hokey flashbacks to Travers’s childhood in Australia. Similarly, the 1979 part of Miles Ahead, turns out to be a sort of buddy-action movie, in which Miles has to deal with a nosy reporter (Ewan McGregor) and the disappearance of one of his valuable new tapes. The flashback narrative, however, is a boring and familiar musical biopic of the kind we’ve seen a thousand times before.

Cheadle does cleverly interlace the two narratives in the movie’s climactic moments, and he indulges in some exciting -if a little corny- visual and narrative tricks that keep the movie going at a good pace, but I’m afraid Miles Ahead is only half of a good movie.