Mr. Turner (2014): By Jesse Pasternack

 

     I have regrettably not seen many of Mike Leigh’s films, but this has not prevented me from enjoying “Mr. Turner.” It is the second biopic he has made and the second one about a 19th century figure, after the Gilbert & Sullivan film “Topsy-Turvy.” That film was bursting to the seams with humor and visual excess. This film is more subdued but just as beautiful, and more focused.

     “Mr. Turner” is the story of the great painter J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall) in the last 25 years of his life. It is a long film at 150 minutes, but its leisurely pace works in its favor. It allows the film to pay tribute to the vividness and sprawling nature of human life.

     Spall is magnetic as Turner. He grunts and snorts through scenes like a highly intelligent boar. Spall modulates himself perfectly in scenes where he is being sincere or saying goodbye to someone important in his life. It is also the film’s greatest paradox that this singular individual is most entertaining when he is interacting with other people.

     There’s his loving relationship with his father (Paul Jesson), who serves as his assistant. There are his friendships with his fellow painters and a female scientist (Lesley Manville) who influences his ideas about color. There’s also his occasionally sexual relationship with his housekeeper (Dorothy Atkinson) and his final romantic relationship with the owner of a boarding house (Marion Bailey, who is Mike Leigh’s partner). In addition, there’s his passive-aggressive relationship with an art critic (Joshua McGuire) who’s so hilariously pompous that he belongs in a P.G. Wodehouse novel. All of these people orbit around Turner like planets around a sun, and they add to the film’s portrait of the man.

     The cinematography was justly nominated for an Oscar. The film makes good use of details, from lovingly shot paintings to the pig’s head that Turner eats for breakfast one day. The dialogue is excellent. Turner’s formal manner of speech is a delight to hear, especially when it is used to insult people.

     This is a finely made film. The production values are high, and it gradually becomes a pleasure just to see Turner live. Mike Leigh has made a wonderful film about life and art that will be admired for years to come.

Blade Runner: The Final Cut (2007) - By Jesse Pasternack

     The IU Cinema recently showed all three versions of the science fiction classic “Blade Runner.” In one day it showed the 1982 original version that was cut by the studio, the partially restored 1992 director’s cut, and the “final cut,” the only one over which director Ridley Scott had complete editorial control. I only saw the “final cut”, and it blew me away. “Blade Runner: The Final Cut” is a masterpiece of mood and vision, and it presents one of the most lived in worlds I have ever seen on a screen.

     Though he is not immediately introduced, the ostensible hero of this film is Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford). He’s an ex “blade runner,” a special type of policeman who hunts down and kills rogue replicants. Replicants, in this neo-noir science fiction universe, are incredibly lifelike androids that are stronger than humans and just as smart. To prevent them from rising up against humanity, they are given a four-year lifespan. Though he left the force for reasons never explained in the film, Deckard is roped into tracking down and “retiring” four rogue replicants seeking longer lifespans. As he goes about his task, he slowly starts to fall in love with Rachael (Sean Young), a replicant whose implanted memories make her think she’s human.

     Though it’s 117 minutes, I never felt that this film was overlong. Indeed, as the final fight between Deckard and replicant leader Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) began I was surprised at how much had happened. This is accomplished by the film’s gripping story as well as its dreamlike atmosphere. This atmosphere is helped by Vangelis’s score, which disorients the viewer as he/she tries to make sense of this world and the motives of its characters. Deckard in particular is hard to get a hold of, as we never truly learn his backstory. He’s a mysterious character, but it’s touching to see how his relationship with Rachael slowly starts to awaken his humanity.

     It’s humanity that helps makes the film’s antagonist, Roy Batty, such a great character. In his manner and actions Batty is a villain, and some of the  film’s creepiest music serves as his theme. But the desire motivating his actions is simply to live longer and to extend the lives of his loved ones. His last monologue, as he reflects on his life and accepts death, is one of the most moving I’ve seen in a film. The fact that it’s spoken by an android makes it all the more cool.

     Especially when I thought of all the films that have been butchered by studios that can’t be reconstructed, I loved “Blade Runner: The Final Cut.” It brought to life one of the most stunning worlds I’d ever seen, populated it with characters that still remain fascinating, and explored ideas of morality and what it means to be human. It’s one of those films that you need to give a second viewing.

Joyeux Noël (2005): By Jesse Pasternack

            Most war movies focus on the slaughter. They focus on the tragedy of war and the waste of human life. This is a defining feature of war, if not the feature, but at the same time it can grow tiring to see the dehumanization of war in film after film. “Joyeux Noël” manages to both show the horror of war as well as the efforts of soldiers to keep their humanity. It does so with elegance and beautiful visuals, as well as a splendid cast.

            “Joyeux Noël” is the story of Scottish, French, and German troops in the first year of World War I. Despite the brutality of the fighting, some troops still believe that the war will be short, and that they can maybe even go home for Christmas. On Christmas Eve, a German tenor and his visiting wife sing to his fellow soldiers. After the Scottish troops join in with some bagpipe playing and the French soldiers applaud the tenor’s voice, the officers meet to declare a cease-fire. They then exchange yuletide greetings, as well as food and champagne. There is even a remarkable scene where a German lieutenant tells the French and Scottish soldiers that they are going to be bombed soon, and they go over to the German trenches to be saved. But this idyll cannot last.  

            Watching this movie at the IU Cinema brought home just how beautiful its visual style is. The lighting is warm and cozy when juxtaposed against the cold winter nights, emphasizing how human beings can band together to make the longest nights the brightest. The uniforms are also colorful and period accurate. Indeed, the whole film has a kind of old time glamour that works in its favor.

            The performances are also excellent. Daniel Brühl plays the Jewish and humane Lieutenant Horstmayer very well, and his lines about how he will always remember this Christmas even though he does not celebrate it are very moving. Diane Kruger (who, like Brühl, was also in the entirely different war film “Inglourious Basterds”) shines as the wife of the German tenor. Ian Richardson (the star of the British “House Of Cards”) also has a good cameo as a malevolent bishop whose hate-filled sermon to new recruits drives home the fact that another truce like this will be increasingly unlikely. Guillaume Cane also gives an excellent performance as a French lieutenant desperate to know about his newborn child, who is trapped with his wife just outside of his trench.

            When it was first released, “Joyeux Noël” was criticized by some for sentimentality. I can see why some would make that claim, but if you take a closer look at the film that criticism appears weaker. For example, the story of a young Scotsman driven nearly insane by the death of his brother does not get an ending that is either easy or happy. Only one battle is shown, but it is violent enough to show the desire for a respite from such carnage. There is constantly the sense that this peaceful understanding between soldiers of a similar rank cannot last. This is particularly evident when the truce on Christmas Eve is broken up by the sounds of artillery fire on other battlefields. Granted, the scene where they get invited into the German trenches is a bit far-fetched, and the film lacks the irony and profundity of a film like “Grand Illusion.” Still, a scene where a general mentions arresting a cat shows the Strangelovian humor and paranoia of the high command very well. There is also an incredibly moving scene where a group of soldiers, being sent to almost certain death on a new front, start humming a tune they learned from the other side. They may lose their lives, but they’ll keep their spirits.    

“Goodbye To Language 3D”: By Jesse Pasternack

     I’ve never much cared for Jean-Luc Godard. I had the beginnings of a headache when I started to watch “Breathless” for the first time, and the jump cuts made it worst. I’ve always wanted to see his other 60s films, made before his descent into radicalism, but I’ve never gotten around to them. His name carries a lot of weight though, which is partially why this film has received so much attention. All the same, “Goodbye To Language 3D” is a talkative, incoherent mess.

     “Goodbye To Language 3D” is a combination of both narrative and experimental cinema. Its thin story is about a married woman having an affair with a single man, and they speak Godard’s once cool but now pretentious and overly talky language. The dialogue was also kind of interesting, but whoever subtitled this movie neglected to put in subtitles for some necessary sections. “Goodbye To Language 3D” however, shows more conventions of an experimental movie in its breaking of form through montage and assorted rule ignoring, such as a head scratching interlude involving actors in full costume playing Lord Byron, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, and her husband. There’s no need for that brief sequence, other than that it connects briefly to some lines about “Frankenstein.” There are also many different shots of many random things, including a dog that will come to be owned by the main couple. There are some interesting 3D shots that warp the appearance of reality. I liked them and thought they made the world look enjoyably topsy-turvy, but I can understand why they would give headaches to some.

     The actors in this movie, such as Héloise Godet and Kamel Abdeli, perform admirably with the material they are given. I can’t really recall the resolution to their story, though, as Godard cuts away to so many other things. This movie lacks both the experimental singularity of Brakhage’s “Mothlight” and the narrative drive of “Life Of Pi 3D.” You have to work to find the meaning in it, but when you arrive at an answer there’s nothing particularly satisfying about it. That dog is pretty cute, though.

“Life Of Pi - 3D”: By Jesse Pasternack

     I first saw “Life Of Pi” in 2D on HBO GO. I thought it was an excellent movie, but I had to see it at the IU Cinema in 3D to truly realize its excellence. Seeing it on the big screen only increased the sense of wonder that director Ang Lee evokes in this movie, particularly in the early scenes. The sequences in the lifeboat are also a vivid tribute to human ingenuity and the struggle to survive.

     Based on the best-selling novel by Yann Martel, “Life Of Pi - 3D” is the story of Pi Patel (Gautam Belur, Ayush Tandon Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan) from childhood to adulthood. Forced to leave the India where he grew up, Pi and his family set sail for Canada along with the animals of their zoo. Their ship sinks, however, and Pi is stranded on a lifeboat with a handful of supplies, a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan, and a tiger named Richard Parker. Soon, it is just Pi and Richard Parker left alone on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean. This incredible narrative of survival is also a frame story, as the adult Pi tells his story to a young author (Rafe Spall).

     As I’ve mentioned before, one of the greatest things about “Life Of Pi - 3D” is the way it evokes wonder in the viewer. The sequences in India have a charm and vibrant color of their own, and Lee films an Indian religious ceremony particularly well. There is also a lot of fantastical imagery in the scenes at sea; images that practically make your mouth open wide in astonishment. Most of the animals in the boat, too, were created with high tech CGI that sets a new standard for visual effects. The fact that these effects move forward a unique story about faith and survival, instead of adding action to a reboot of a franchise, simply makes them more notable.

     This is a fantastical story, full of wonder, yet one of the most seemingly fantastical visual choices is actually one of naturalism. The 3D in this movie is used to further immerse the viewer into this world, which increases interest in how this story will resolve itself. The 3D also enables some delightful moments, as when a hummingbird in the zoo seems to come right up to the viewer’s face.

     The performances in this film are also quite good. All of the actors playing Pi do a good job, but it is Suraj Sharma as the teenage Pi who particularly stands out. He has to show how the loss of his family affected him, and he also has to portray the will to survive that sustains his character. He is always engaging, and he perfectly speaks a monologue at the end of the film that throws a little doubt on what happened before. Irrfan Khan is also very good as the adult Pi, particularly in a monologue where he talks about how much Richard Parker meant to him. Even though this is a film where the images have the potential to overshadow the performances, the actors rise to the occasion and make their characters vivid, believable people. Ang Lee also has a cameo as a crewmember in a shot before the Patels encounter a surly chef (Gérard Depardieu).

     Incidentally, there was another Ang Lee movie that played at the cinema this semester. It was called “The Ice Storm,” and it is very different from “Life Of Pi - 3D.” “The Ice Storm” is as American as apple pie; “Life Of Pi - 3D” has a decidedly international flavor. “The Ice Storm” is a drama about the forces that threaten to tear apart an American family; “Life Of Pi - 3D” is a family movie that, despite its darkness, is ultimately a tribute to life. The only things that the films share are astounding visual beauty and the ability to prevent the viewer from looking away at the screen. Ang Lee is a very versatile director, and the fact that he can make so different yet equally great films is proof enough of his mastery. 

“her” Review: By Jesse Pasternack

             Spike Jonze’s “her” is funny, quirky, and unlike most movies I have seen. It is a film of unbridled empathy, warmth, and emotion. The fact that it contains such warmth and empathy while telling the story of a man in love with his talking operating system is a minor miracle of cinematic storytelling.

             The film’s main character is a man named Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix). He is in the midst of a divorce, and though he writes beautiful letters for people that help them communicate their emotions to others, he has very few people to whom he can communicate his own emotions. This changes when he buys a new computer with an artificially intelligent operating system named Samantha (Scarlett Johansson, in a vocal only performance).  Twombly bonds with the effervescent Samantha, and he begins to connect with her. Gradually, they become a romantic couple.

            A man in love with a computer is an object of derision, as seen on the two-part season finale of “Community’s” 5thseason. But “her” is not about arguing for sexual relations between humans and machines. Instead, it uses that as a springboard to talk about relationships and the magic of connecting with people. It’s a familiar story, but the science fiction style premise elevates this story and makes it stand out more. It presents the arguments against Twombly’s relationship with Samantha – namely that she is a computer – but it doesn’t linger on them in an unseemly way. The film actually devotes time to what would want to make these two come together, and why they would draw such joy from this relationship.

            Jonze’s Oscar-winning screenplay explores issues of relationships and how to connect with a quixotic mixture of humor, melancholy, and empathy. It is also brought to heartfelt life by his actors. Joaquin Phoenix portrays Twombly, and his performance is one of the most human that I have seen an actor give. It’s honest, it’s empathetic, and he makes you care deeply for Twombly while not being afraid to show his flaws. Amy Adams plays his best friend, and she too gives a heartfelt performance filled with the best type of emotion. Rooney Mara also performs well as Twombly’s ex-wife, and it is she who presents the best arguments against Twombly in a lunch scene where they sign their divorce papers. (Side note: this is the second scene where she sits down with the lead male character of a film and tells him off. The first scene was in “The Social Network.” The lily white Mara has been cast as Tiger Lily in the new Peter Pan movie, and I hope she gets to yell at Peter Pan over a dinner the lost boys made up with their minds.)

            Scarlett Johansson got a lot of attention for her performance as Samantha, which is given entirely through her voice. Voice actors for cartoons have been doing work like this for years, but with less dramatic material. While it might have been interesting to see a female voice actor tackle the role, Johansson really nails the character. She plays her as being open to life in a way that few people are, and she also manages to communicate Samantha's insecurities well to the audience. It’s a very good performance, and it adds immeasurably to the film.

            While the film is excellent, it is not perfect. It drags on a bit, especially in the second half. It has sections that can be uninteresting or not add much more than we already know. All the same, when I saw this movie for the first time in December of last year, I was moved. It presented the melancholic yet witty tale of a kind man who cannot bear the idea of a relationship’s joyful initial beginnings and connections ending, and has to keep chasing them in new relationships. I recognized the film’s flaws, but the sum of its parts more than made up for them. Watching this movie, I was reminded of something television auteur Norman Lear likes to say. He says that there are two types of people in this world, the drys and the wets. Drys are brittle, almost unemotional, and they do not hug well. Wets are passionate, warm, and hug well.  If movies were divided into those categories, “her” would clearly be in the wet pile. 

“Life Itself” Review: By Jesse Pasternack

     Like most people who write film criticism after 1967, or for that matter most people who love film, I love Roger Ebert. His writing on film was funny, lyrical, and intelligent, and I discovered some of my favorite films by reading his Great Movies column. “Life Itself,” a documentary about Roger directed by Steve James, will appeal to both Ebert fans like myself as well as those who do not know much about the great critic.

     Roger Ebert, in addition to his print criticism, was one of the great popularizers of the profession through his TV shows with fellow critic Gene Siskel. The film covers the entirety of his life, from his childhood in Urbana, Illinois to his last year, which Steve James films in cinema verite style. In between there are many interviews with fellow critics, friends, his devoted wife Chaz, and filmmakers whose careers he helped launch. While Steve James was a filmmaker he championed, he does not include footage of “Hoop Dreams.” Still, the fact that one of the filmmakers whom Roger helped launch made this amazing tribute to him feels like something is being brought full circle.   

     One of the things that I liked about the memoir on which this film is based, also titled “Life Itself,” is the perspective it provides. Roger wrote the book after treatments for cancer had robbed him of his ability to eat, drink, or speak. While the book is about his past, the perspective is that of a man looking back on his life as he tries to make sense of his new condition. The film captures that perspective perfectly, both by having Stephen Stanton read portions of the book version of “Life Itself” and by frequently showing Roger in rehab. Those scenes, in which he undergoes suction and struggles to relearn how to walk, are hard to watch but stay true to Roger’s wish to remain open about his health.

     An interesting technique that “Life Itself” uses is that it has Stephen Stanton read, in his Roger Ebert voice, excerpts of Roger’s reviews over clips of the actual movies. It isn’t a large part of the film, but it does inform how Roger connected with movies and responded to them in print. The film also makes great use of archival footage, particularly in hilarious outtakes of “Siskel & Ebert At The Movies” that show both hosts arguing like children. It is also to this film’s credit that it doesn’t shy away from Roger’s flaws, often articulated by close friends and fellow critics such as Richard Corliss and Jonathan Rosenbaum.

     The British critic Derek Malcolm once said that a movie was great if you couldn’t bear the thought of never seeing it again. This test was also part of how Roger picked the movies for his Great Movies collection. Judged from that standard alone, “Life Itself” is a great movie.

God Help The Girl Review: By Jesse Pasternack

            If you don’t like realism, then you’ll love “God Help The Girl.” Despite the fact that it deals with issues such as mental health and the prisons people invent out of their passions, it manages to remain true to the optimistic spirit of musicals such as “Singin’ In The Rain.” Writer-director and Belle and Sebastian front man Stuart Murdoch furthers this feel through a series of bright, poppy musical numbers that play like new wave fantasies.

            The movie concerns a young woman named Eve (Emily Browning) who is recovering from anorexia in a psychiatric hospital. She loves pop music and starts to write personal song lyrics, and on one of her escapes she meets James (Olly Alexander), a nerdish man with a fierce love of music and a desire to make an album. He falls for Eve, naturally, and they form a pop band with James’s guitar student Cassie (Hannah Murray) called God Help The Girl. Various complications ensue, as the film heads to a bittersweet ending that is as hopeful as it is sad.

            This movie has an endearing type of sweetness. The two main characters have their troubles – Eve her dysfunction and anorexia, James his lack of social skills and tendency to let his love of music get in his way – but they are treated with a type of understanding and empathy that makes you identify with them. Murdoch also mixes this sweetness with a quirky sense of humor – band mates taking their glasses off at the same time to fight, Cassie throwing down a rope like Rapunzel to let her friends into her house – that makes it even more distinctive. The visual style works well with this sweetness, turning the city of Glasgow into a beacon of brightness and gloriously cluttered record stores. The visual style complements the soundtrack to create a movie that is the equivalent of a delicious old desert made new by a clever young cook.