Saturday, January 24, 2015

Blue is the Warmest Color (2013) ****

I'd like to be all cool, and introduce this film as a French coming-of-age tale about romance, love, and heartbreak, but let's be real. If you've heard anything at all about “Blue is the Warmest Color,” it's that it has graphic, lesbian sex scenes. Boy, does it! In that regard, this film is as-advertised. It is also, however, a coming-of-age tale about romance, love, and heartbreak, and a really good one, at that. It would be a shame if this film were written off as soft-porn, because it is a quietly thought-provoking film about a young woman.

Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) is a high-school student who doesn't know who she is yet. Her friends are all sexually active with boys, and they encourage Adele to do the same. She tries, but she doesn't seem to be able to make a real physical or emotional connection with anyone. Then one day on the street she is captivated by a girl with blue hair. Adele starts to wonder if she is into girls, then, during a night out with a gay, male friend, she wanders into a lesbian bar. The blue-haired girl, Emma(Lea Seydoux), is there, and the two strike up a friendship that turns into a passionate affair.

One of the most interesting things about this film is how it chooses to explore class differences. Most movies that deal with class do so with broad strokes. The working-class people will be clearly blue-collar and crass, or the upper-crust will be snooty and rich. “Blue is the Warmest Color” shows how there are many more gradations of class than just upper, middle, and lower. Emma's family is slightly upper-middle-class. Her parents work in the humanities, and they encourage their daughter's career as a painter. They are also aware and accepting of the girls' lesbian relationship. Adele's parents are more slightly lower-middle-class. They want her to do well in school, but mainly so she can get some kind of steady work, and there is no assumption that she will go to college. For Adele's parents, the girls hide their relationship, making up a boyfriend for Emma who has a practical, steady job, which gains hearty approval from Adele's parents. These class differences are largely illustrated around the families' dinner tables, where Emma's parents like to try different wines and experiment with foods like fresh oysters, while Adele's family mostly serves basic fare like spaghetti. The family homes are pretty similar in terms of opulence, but there is a clear difference in attitudes and expectations, a difference we have all likely noticed among our own friends and acquaintances.

After the initial bloom of love and lust starts to quiet down for the girls, these class differences start to color their relationship as well. Emma's life is full of artsy, educated, well-traveled friends, and it starts to bother her that Adele's only ambition is to be a kindergarten teacher. In this, I think Emma sells Adele short. Adele is a quiet girl from a somewhat limited background, but she has a lot going on under the surface. She is ignorant about art, but never dismissive of it. She is open to new experiences, as is shown when she finally tries, and enjoys, seafood, not to mention her openness to a same-sex relationship.

Now, about those sex scenes. They are as graphic as people say, clearly earning the NC-17 rating. This is not a movie to watch with your parents! Fortunately, this isn't one of those movies where the director tries to make the sex look really artsy and ugly. The scenes are beautiful, and downright hot. The question that has been brought up in numerous reviews and interviews is whether these scenes are necessary to the story or are simply exploitative. My response would be to look at other films with similarly intense content. Did “Saving Private Ryan,” for example, need to have such long, graphically violent battle scenes? In the case of “Blue is the Warmest Color,” a major point of the film is that sex and romantic love are inseparable, especially when you are young. When you long to be with someone you love, you don't just feel it in your heart.

4 stars out of 5

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Boyhood (2014) ****

This is the movie you've heard about. The one that took twelve years to film, as Richard Linklater followed his protagonist from age 6 to 18, filming a few scenes each year. The result is a beautiful film experience that feels incredibly real and intimate.

It's also a different kind of film experience that, with a 166 minute run-time, would be a drag if it weren't so perfectly executed. The story is fictional, but it lacks a true narrative arc. This is a coming-of-age tale about how most of us come of age: not through some dramatic event, but just through time and experience. The protagonist, Mason (Ellar Coltrane) starts the film as a 6-year-old living with his sister Samantha (Lorelai Linklater) and his struggling, single mom (Patricia Arquette.) The kids' dad, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), is off living his dreams in Alaska, but drops by for the occasional visit. From this setup, we watch as the kids grow up, going through all the trials that normal kids go through. We watch as Olivia gets a degree and becomes a college professor, while going through a couple of husbands. We watch as Mason Sr. transforms over the years from an immature flake to an involved, reliable father.

Most of the buzz around this film has focused on Coltrane's Mason; after all, the title is “Boyhood.” I think it's important to point out, however, that Linklater also follows Samantha, Olivia, and Mason Sr. over the same twelve years. They are all fully-formed characters who have their own journeys.

The two younger actors are not, at this point, professionals. Lorelai is Richard Linklater's daughter, and her participation in the film was, at times, reluctant. She is reportedly not pursuing an acting career, but she does a creditable job in the film. Coltrane is also perfectly serviceable, if not particularly compelling. He was a decent, little child actor. In his later scenes as a teen, he plays Mason in a mostly understated fashion. It's unclear whether that was an acting/directing choice, or a reflection of limited range. It isn't what I would call a star-making performance, but it serves the movie well. Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, on the other hand, knock it out of the park. Arquette is particularly good, and has already won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress. She gives us an Olivia who feels very real, reasonably devoted to her children, but also realistically invested in her own journey.

Even though it's fiction, “Boyhood” reminds me of the non-fiction “Up series,” which for decades has followed several English people from age seven with installments every seven years, the latest of which is “56 Up.” As with “Boyhood,” the series makes no attempt to fit its subjects' lives into a narrative; it simply follows their lives unblinkingly. There's something magical about that. As the French proverb says, “To understand all is to forgive all.”

4 stars out of 5

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Doctor Zhivago (1965) *****

What can possibly be said about “Doctor Zhivago” that hasn't been said already? The film is an absolute classic, one of the best ever. I suppose the first thing that must be said is that if you haven't seen it, you must watch it soon. Then you need to be on the lookout for an opportunity to see it on the big screen. I was able to re-watch it this way recently, and it really does take a big screen to do justice to the sweeping cinematography.

“Doctor Zhivago” explores the plight of a handful of characters caught up in the throes of the Russian Revolution. Dr. Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif) is a promising, young physician in Moscow. He is apolitical, but like many Russians he feels sympathy for the demonstrating Bolsheviks, who seem to be brutally suppressed by the Czar's soldiers. Yuri marries his childhood friend and adopted sister Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin), and is poised to have a quiet, rewarding life. Meanwhile, the 17-year-old Lara (Julie Christie) is seduced and abused by the wealthy, influential Komarovsky (Rod Steiger). The sullied girl runs off and marries Pasha (Tom Courtenay,) a serious, young Communist.

WWI enters all their lives and sets the stage for the Russian Revolution. With the nation convulsing, Yuri and Lara are torn from their families and thrust together to serve in a field hospital. They fall in love, but when the fighting settles down, both attempt to return to their previous lives. As the country goes through spasm after spasm of civil war, however, they are constantly uprooted, and their destinies proven to be interwoven.

For a movie that is over three hours long, “Dr. Zhivago” goes by surprisingly quickly. Every scene is so beautifully wrought and rings so true. The film is largely celebrated for it's astounding winter landscapes, which are rendered so well on the big screen. I find the story, characters, and acting equally good, however. I was particularly impressed with the clear-eyed way the story depicts the Revolution. First the brutality of the Czar is shown, along with the wastefulness of WWI. Then, after the Communists have taken over, the politics get uglier and uglier. One Party member, when it is pointed out what a good man Yuri Zhivago is, says “God rot all good men.” Under the Revolution, all men are to be equal, with no room for one man who is more compassionate or dedicated than others. Tonya's family home in Moscow is taken over by the Party, turned into a communal living facility. The other families who move in resent the owners as former Bourgeoisie, and relish any opportunity to lay them low. Yuri's poetry, which is completely apolitical, is nonetheless banned by the Party for being personal and Bourgeois. As Pasha puts it, “The personal life is dead in Russia.” Yuri and his family, and Lara as well, scuffle back and forth across Russia, looking vainly for a place where they can simply live and be left alone. As they do, we are treated to expansive views of a bitter winter landscape that serves as a metaphor for the winter of the human soul.

5 stars out of 5

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Trip to Italy (2014) ***1/2

Those who know and love the work of British actors Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan have probably seen this sequel to 2010's “The Trip” already. Everyone else has probably never heard of either film, and might not like them. These movies represent a different brand of humor, which some may find awkward or boring. For those of us, however, who cultishly devour the silliness of “Monty Python,” “The Office” (British version), and “Gavin and Stacey,” struggling to understand the actors through their various British accents, these movies are a delight.

In 2010's "The Trip," Brydon and Coogan traveled around the English countryside, sampling the foods of several high-end restaurants for a magazine article, playing exaggerated versions of themselves. In 2014 they reunited for a similar wine and food tour of Italy. Last time out, Coogan was working his way through a relationship with a model, while Brydon stood as the example of wedded bliss. This time around, it is Brydon who is finding things slightly rocky on the home front, while Coogan has actually achieved a certain level of peace with his broken family and with his general approach to life.

The food looks better this time around, as does the fabulous Italian countryside, with terraced hillsides, mountains, and the beautiful Mediterranean. Otherwise, “The Trip to Italy” is very similar to “The Trip.” Both films started out life as British mini-series, later stitched together into films. Once again, the actors split their attention between the trip, their careers, and their complicated personal lives, with plenty of time at meals and in the car to rib each other and do endless impersonations.

Enjoying these films requires a recalibration of one's stimulus meter. There are no car chases, no shootouts, and while these two actors are very funny, the jokes don't come at you like they do in a Chris Tucker movie. The movies are paced very much like real life, if real life were spent with two very witty, insecure British comedians. The action largely consists of conversations across tables and in the car between these two long-time friends/rivals. Sometimes the plot exists between the lines, in what doesn't have to be said between these two.

If, after reading all this, you still think you might enjoy “The Trip to Italy,” then you are in for a treat. It's a vicarious feast of food, wine, and friendship. I suggest you watch the original “The Trip” first, if possible. We are lucky to be able to travel with these guys, eating, drinking, and listening to their Michael Caine impressions.

3.5 stars out of 5

Saturday, January 03, 2015

The Interview (2014) **

The problem with all the hype surrounding this film is that you may come into it thinking it is more than it is. This is the Seth Rogen/James Franco movie that depicts an assassination attempt on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. It angered the North Koreans, obviously, and they supposedly sponsored a cyber-attack on Sony Pictures in response, as well as threatening terrorist attacks on cinemas, which prevented a wide release of the film. President Obama himself chided Sony for pulling the film's Christmas Day release, pointing out that we can't allow outside dictators to censor what art can be shown in the United States. The film was given a small release, which filled art-house cinemas to capacity, and it is now available online on-demand, which is how I saw it.

As I said, all of this brouhaha suggests that the film is some kind of important, political satire, which it certainly is not. It's a low comedy full of dick and poop jokes. James Franco plays Dave Skylark, a talk-show host, and Seth Rogen is Aaron, his producer. Skylark's show is a fluffy, entertainment show, and Aaron longs to do more serious journalism. He gets his chance when they discover that Kim Jong-un is a fan of the Skylark show and would be willing to do an interview. Aaron is skeptical of the interview, which is to be under strictly controlled conditions and mainly serve as a propaganda piece for Kim, but Skylark is eager to do anything that will boost his profile. Then the CIA drops by, asking the boys to turn their opportunity to meet the reclusive dictator into an assassination mission.

Besides pissing off the North Koreans, there's really no reason to watch “The Interview.” There are moments of laughter, but unfortunately the movie peaks in the first five minutes, when rapper Eminem (as himself) gives Skylark a scathingly credible critique of his own rap career, as well as a surprise confession. After that, it's dick jokes all the way. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that as long as you can enjoy the movie on its level. It seems sad, though, that this far into their careers, Franco and Rogen would be making something this weightless. I first came to know and love these actors on the TV show “Freaks and Geeks” back in the 90's, and it seems they were doing better comedic and dramatic work then than they are now. I know Seth Rogen is capable of better. He was hilarious in “Superbad” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” and he showed a lot of heart in “Knocked Up.” Since then, though, he starred in the crap-tastic “Zack and Miri Make a Porno.” Franco has done a good bit of serious work that I haven't seen, like “127 Hours.” Every time I see him these days, though, he seems to be sneering at some inside joke about the absurdity of his status as a famous person. And it is absurd for him to be famous if the best he can do is “The Interview.” The solution for these two actors is to go back to working with writer/director/producer Judd Apatow, with whom they have done all their best work.

Having said all that, I'm still recommending that you watch “The Interview,” or at least just pay to rent it online. (Try Amazon or Hulu.) You don't have to actually watch it. I think it's important for this film to make money, so that studio executives in the future will know that it's okay to make a film that might anger some world leader. To let an offended party like Kim Jong-un destroy a film is to grant him the Heckler's Veto. If Kim's action stands, then in the future, film executives and artists in general will self-censor in order to avoid incurring the wrath of various individuals and groups. That will be the death of Art, which is one necessary step on the road to tyranny.

2 stars out of 5