Friday, August 8, 2014

FRANCES HA

Greta Gerwig, Adam Driver,
Mickey Sumner, Michael Esper



Frances (Greta Gerwig) is in a league of her own. She works at a dance studio but is not really a dancer. Merely one of the many alternates to the lead. Yet most of the time, she never gets her chance to take over the lead dancer. 

She lives in New York with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) and she describes their friendship as two girls who are basically the same but have different hair. Soon enough, Sophie moves out of their shared apartment to live in with her boyfriend which basically leaves Frances, homeless. Until she finds an apartment which she shares with two guys but is mostly too broke to pay the full rent. And perhaps to add on to the mysticism of Frances, director Noah Baumbach presents her story in black and white mode. 

But the truth is there is nothing mysterious or mystical about Frances. She is pretty ordinary yet it is admirable how she just never quits whenever the tough gets going. In her case, the situation is mostly tough going yet she just carries on in her insouciance ways. Other lesser beings in her shoes would certainly have quit or who knows gone into some deep depression but not Frances. 

In between her 'dance' gigs, she goes home to visit her parents and relatives in some suburban town. Once there, it seems that she is just one of the guys and fits perfectly well in her surroundings. She meets up with friends and relatives, goes to Church. Everything is just so ordinary. Even her parents are laid back. They don't hound her with questions about her job or her life in New York. She is there just for a visit and after a few days, she returns to her non-life in the Big Apple.

At another instance, at the drop of a hat, she decides to go to Paris just for ONE weekend. Never mind that she just got downsized in her job at the dance studio. Never mind that she has no itinerary. She just hops on a plane, charges it to a credit card which was sent in the mail by some telemarketer. But luckily she was able to stay at the Parisian flat of a friend of friend she just met who offered their place. She is mostly jet lagged, can't seem to get hold of a former classmate who lives in Paris and mostly just roams the streets of Paris without doing any touristy stuff. After all, she was just there for 2 days because she had a meeting on Monday at the dance studio.  Only TWO days in Paris??? Gosh who does that??? 

I guess in some ways, it is interesting to see how the present generation adapt to life. While, most of them are ambitious and very driven, Frances is the complete opposite. But in the end what really matters is that she is not a quitter because as the end credits roll by, you can't help but smile as things are finally picking up for dear old Frances. That somehow. one doesn't really have to worry for her well being as she is quite capable of coping with life and everything it entails. 

Good solid acting from Greta Gerwig in her typical subdued, subtle style. Most of the time, she looks like she doesn't know what she is doing but it is quite suitable for her role as Frances.  By the way, Frances Ha is the abbreviated form of her full name.  It didn't fit in the mail box of her new apartment so she merely shortened it to Frances Ha. An attitude which perfectly describes her personality!

Saturday, July 26, 2014

IL CAPITALE UMANO
(HUMAN CAPITAL)

MovieMov 4: Italian Cinema Now
Cinema 2, Shang Cineplex




A compelling drama set in contemporary Italy which opens with a night scene of a lone bicyclist being swiped off a road. He is in a coma. We are only shown a SUV but not who was driving and caused the unfortunate accident.

3 chapters follow, each telling different parts of the story before and after the accident from the viewpoint of 3 vital characters. Each chapter offers new information that deepens our understanding of the main characters and how they reacted over the accident. Meanwhile, the victim of the accident remains in the background of these 3 stories.

The first chapter follows Dino whose daughter Serena is dating the son of a rich venture capitalist. Dino owns a small real estate company but then finds himself investing way too much in the 'dubious' often flaky business of the venture capitalist. Basically a social climber, Dino soon finds himself in debt as his initial investment tanks.

The second chapter presents Celia, the lonely trophy wife of the venture capitalist. A former stage actress who has lost her self worth after years of pleasing her imperial husband and looking after their bratty rich son. Valeria Bruni Tedeschi gives a brilliant performance putting a lot of heart into her role.

The final chapter is shown through the eyes of Serena, Dino's daughter. Most revealing of all the chapters, we discover a young sensitive and sensible strong willed girl who is secretly dealing with a far more serious problem. This part of the story weaves together the truth of who drove the SUV and what was her role in covering up the cause of the accident.

All the characters are multi-dimensional as their overlapping stories unfolds with time shifting narrative. Both a contrast as well as a comparison of related tales that shows how people can get so caught up in their own private dramas. They tend to overlook or misinterpret the people around them - especially those who have less power or less clout, whether because of their gender, their class or their age or some combination of the three.

By the way, the human capital is a legal term that refers to the amount that a responsible party pays the family of the victim. A lengthy formula that takes into account the salary the deceased would have earned if he continued working less the expenses that the family incurs without the said 'salary'.  A rather complicated process but the main thing is that the family of the victim is well compensated for their loss.

The film is a cleverly told tale that ends with enough ambiguity for the characters that we the audience are left to form our own conclusions.

Friday, July 25, 2014

LA GRANDE BELLEZZA
(THE GREAT BEAUTY)

MovieMov 4: Italian Cinema Now
Cinema 2, Shang Cineplex


This 2013 Oscar award winner for Best Foreign Language film takes off upon the 65th birthday of Jep Gambardella. He is an aging journalist/socialite who is still coasting on a novel he wrote over 40 years ago. He parties all night in the presence of pretty odd characters who are all just as superficial as Jep.

But he is also at his wits end over his hedonistic lifestyle and says out loud in a voice over to nobody in particular "The most important thing I discovered a few days after turning 65 is that I can't waste any more time doing things I don't want to do."

Yet his life of endless partying and his meaningless relationships with the people in his life continues on a daily basis. He is quite a proud person mindful of his immortality yet at the same time he knows he needs to alter and change his life for the better. Despite his fanciful life of leisure, he is always in search for 'the great beauty' which may come in the form of an inspiration for his second novel or also in the guise of a great love affair which unfortunately has eluded him for so long.  

Director Paolo Sorrentino who co-wrote the script regales us with a very artistically and technically beautiful film. Showing us stunningly angled shots of ruins and iconic landmarks from ancient Rome to the modern decadence that exist behind the closed doors of the gated mansions where most of the characters live. It is a perfect blend of layers after layers of eye opening images - a visual tapestry and certainly of 'great beauty'.

But deep within all the layers is Jep Gambardella who is quite a complex character. Actor Toni Servillo is excellently cast as Jep. His facial expressions, his gait and his debonair demeanour is spot on.

Although Jep may live a frivolous existence and does his best to show off as enjoying it, he reveals in voice-overs a deeper awareness of his flaws and those of his society friends. While others treat him as a celebrated literary author because of his single novel (like some one hit wonder singer), he also knows he is not working on a second book and he feels he has nothing more to say that can truly make an impact.

Running at almost 3 hours, the film isn't just about a world of hedonism and whathaveyous. It has quite a reflective tone as Jep can personify anyone in this world. Anyone who is at the crossroads of one's life. Who is trying to find answers to pondering questions. Answers which some may not want to hear or choose to simply ignore as we are too busy living the life we think we are suppose to live. Even though at the back of our minds, we all know life could be much better if only we were brave enough to take the first step towards a better future. 

As for Jep, you would have to stick till the end to find out if he did find his great beauty.

Despite the odd bunch of characters, the sometimes bizarre and absurd side plots thrown at you from all sides, the film is in itself a work of exceptional beauty (for lack of a better word) and that alone is worth all the contemplative mood swings one experiences while watching "La Grande Bellezza". 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

ALLACCIATE LE CINTURE
(FASTEN YOUR SEATBELTS)

MovieMov 4: Italian Cinema Now
Cinema 2, Shang Cineplex


A film about a couple whose opposite personalities at first vehemently clash against each other; yet find their attraction for each other is too powerful to resist. The first 20 minutes or so of the movie establishes the background as well as the milieu for Elena and Antonio to meet each other. From the get go, something about Antonio's brutally frank demeanour repels Elena who works at an open air bar/cafe.  Although they are both involved with other partners, something draws them closer to each other.  You might call it lust or blind obsession but it happens.

Then the plot jumps to 13 years later when Elena and Antonio are now married with two kids. Antonio hasn't changed he is still carefree and laid back while Elena is still the hard working and clearly a woman with many ambitions for herself, for her business as well as for her family. Naturally, you would say that despite their individual shortcomings and their contrasting personalities, they have a fairly successful marriage. Never mind that Elena is fully aware of Antonio's philandering ways.

Until they are thrown a curve ball by way of a health crisis. During her routine check up, Elena discovers she has breast cancer. Even though the film's title translates to "Fasten your Seatbelts" the ride is not as rough as one would expect. The second part primarily deals with Elena's time in the hospital as she undergoes chemotherapy for her cancer. With the full support of her family (Antonio, her mom, her aunt) and her friends (her best friend the gay Fabio) she is able to handle the chemo sessions even as she takes on a solemnly reflective mood. Quite understandably so as anyone battling a serious illness would be quite pensive about one's future.

For far beyond the daily grind of her thriving business, the constant worry about her husband's infidelity issues - the film basically shows us that the bond between Elena and Antonio remain intact throughout their marriage. That a difference in personalities and in their outlook in life and about life isn't a deterrent in making the marriage work. 

In an unlikely twist towards the end, the director uses a trick to take us back to the beach where it all began. A juxtaposed scene of Elena and Antonio on a bike (13 years ago) and them together in a SUV after he fetches her from the hospital.  I'm not sure this trick worked in the natural flow of the story of Elena and Antonio and neither do I know for sure just what Ferzan Ozpetek (Turkish director who now lives in Italy and has penned many Italian films) wanted to achieve in inserting this flash to the past sequence. 

All I can say and know is that Elena and Antonio's love will surely endure and last a long time and I guess in a love story and life in general ... that is all that truly matters!

Monday, July 14, 2014

NON-STOP

Liam Nesson, Julianne Moore,
Michelle Dockery,  Scoot McNairy

"The Hijacking was just the Beginning"


They say that "Non-Stop" is "Taken" on a plane. Given that it stars Liam Nesson whose career was 'revived' after he was cast in the above mentioned film and it propelled his new career path as an action star. Not that he needed any reviving since Liam Neeson has always been a talented and quite steady character actor. But I like his new action star persona and it suits him well.

In this film, he is Bill Marks, an Air Marshall who is taken to task on a flight from London to New York. Someone has hacked his 'secure network' pager and sends him threatening messages that warn one passenger will be killed within 20 minutes if his demands are not met. The person sending the texts is also quite familiar with Marks personal background and also appears to be on the plane since he mentions things that Marks is doing.

Soon enough, it turns into a whodunit suspense mystery as we try to guess who among the passengers is the 'mastermind' of this sick plot. The tables are also turned when Marks begins to realize that whoever is texting him evidently wants people on the plane to think that Marks is somehow also involved in the plot.

Since the whole film has only one setting - the transatlantic flight - it is easier to navigate through the story. The director also has a way of tricking the audience into thinking that certain characters are suspicious by dropping clues that eventually lead nowhere. It is a good ploy to keep the audience guessing and tuned to the ongoing hijacking but it also makes you lose the bigger picture. Eventually when the real culprit(s) are revealed and their motives are exposed, it does not really make any fair sense because it got too murky in all the action sequences and the plot twists that are thrown at you. 

Thankfully, the mere presence of Liam Nesson can do wonders and he is the true and only reason this averagely predictable film is worth watching. His advancing age does not hinder him. On the contrary it has only cemented his action star cinematic strength. It does not suggest a dwindling of power but rather an experienced weariness that makes his determination all the more dynamic.

Friday, July 11, 2014

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON

EIGA SAI 2014
Japanese Film Festival
Cinema 2, Shang Cineplex


Little Keita is six years old when his parents find out he is not their biological son. The hospital where he was born made a mistake when the nurse switched babies. It turns out his real family lives in the countryside and they are not as well off as his 'current' family.

This is the premise of this solemn family drama that unfolds flawlessly on screen. The emotions and feelings of all concerned parties are valid and realistically essayed by the ensemble cast. Although it involves a total nightmare situation for the kids who were switched at birth, it seems though they are still quite young to truly comprehend the real situation. It is mostly their distraught parents who bear the grim truth as any parent who are faced with such a likelihood would naturally experience a whole gamut of emotions. Pain, anger, learning to let go even though you have loved the child as your own for 6 long years.

Yet the revelation of the switch also helps clarify some buried questions that have nagged them. Why doesn't their child look like them? How come the mother didn't know from the get go that the baby wasn't her own flesh and blood? How come Keita is not as ambitious or strong willed as his father?  Their inner frustrations are brought to the forefront as the story progresses.

It was disturbingly painful to watch this film. As we are shown the vast difference between the two families, their parenting styles and the contrasting personalities of the kids, we find ourselves taking sides in this complicated conflict. But the manner in how the conflict is manifested through the characters different reactions adds to the poignancy factor of this heartbreaking film.

I also like how the director presented the contrast between both families. How despite being 'poor' and living in the countryside, the shop owner is a very hands on father to his children. His words of wisdom on parenting hit a raw nerve with the rich and ambitious architect who is clearly motivated by his career to the point that he hardly spends any quality time with his growing son. Admittedly, the characterizations of the upper class as being cold and the lower class as warm and loving is a bit of a cliche.

Yet the film never feels gimmicky as director Hirokazu Koreeda uses the situation to examine both the nature and the nurture while dealing with ties that simply cannot be broken and he reflects on the true essence of being a family.
 

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