It takes a certain type of moviegoer to fully appreciate the peculiar intrigue that a Woody Allen film evokes. Not everyone finds his style and social commentary appealing. But for his latest romantic comedy “Midnight In Paris,” I can confidently say most anyone can find some pleasure in this uplifting story and leave the theater with a renewed sense of satisfaction seldom found in the frenetic flicks of today’s digitally altered cinema.

Set in the picturesque streets of Paris, Allen’s film unfolds leisurely among the quintessential symbols of the City of Love: Monet’s lily pads, the Luxembourg Gardens, the warm glow of the street lamps glistening over the Seine River that snakes past the Eiffel Tower illuminating the city’s famous skyline.

The protagonist, Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) a successful screenwriter, is visiting Paris with his fiancée and her parents. Needing a break from the glitz and grind of Hollywood, Gil aspires to publish his first novel but is distracted and not confident that critics will appreciate it for what it is.

Turned off by the overwhelming presence of his future in-laws, and the “pseudo-intellectual” snootiness of his “friends,” Gil seeks solace by walking the streets of Paris at night in hopes of being inspired by the city’s mystic lore.

One night after too much wine, Gill gets lost in the streets as the clock strikes midnight, only to realize that he has been transported to a different time and place in vintage Paris. Smothered in the smoke-filled speakeasies Gil finds himself rubbing elbows with the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, and an inebriated Ernest Hemingway. Awe inspired by his literary heroes, Gil becomes profoundly influenced by the decadence and debauchery of the 1920s, only to return to present day in the morning. Soon after, Gil ventures out alone every night to fraternize with the prolific writers, artists, and thinkers that shaped the early 20th Century in hopes of getting feedback for his novel. Split between his troubled relationship with his modern day fiancée, and his lust for a striking beauty of Parisian haute couture, Gil must confront the illusion that a different life would be better than the one he leads.

In “Midnight in Paris” Allen strikes a happy medium that plays on the realist vs. romantic mindset, which tends to reject the stark cynicism of the former and embrace the playful imagination of the latter. Another theme the film hones in on is the nostalgic longing for the past, and how everything in the present never seems as rich or satisfying as it was in the good ole days.

Those familiar with Allen’s films can usually pick up on his keen personality and distinct voice that seeps through the dialogue. It is evident in “Midnight In Paris” and well delivered by Owen Wilson whose curious inflection and similar tone establishes sympathy for the protagonist early on.

Woody Allen films have a tendency to immerse the audience in philosophical intellectualism that at times come off as a bit whiny or too heavy for the average moviegoer. In “Midnight In Paris” this light comedy fused with a budding romance provides a pleasant blend of charm and wit accompanied with plenty of winks and nods to the prominent arts and literature of the past. It is neither campy like “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” nor is it as psychologically provocative as “Annie Hall.”

Allen stays true to his art by delivering a content rich, beautifully shot comedic joy that seeks to entertain us with a lighthearted romance. Replete with glib social commentary, and his trademark inquisitive style, Allen proves he can still gracefully deliver a passionate and charming story, and like French wine, only gets sweeter and richer with age.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Food Inc.” is not one of those gross out movies, showering us with blood and guts from inside the slaughterhouse. This film is much more enlightening than that. It unveils the way that we as Americans have become oblivious to the radical transformation of our food industry.

“Food Inc.” articulates an insightful argument of how the industrial food system in America, bolstered by big business, has inverted the food pyramid to favor heavily subsidized fatty foods.

Director Robert Kenner delivers a compelling narrative of technological advancements that make agricultural production highly efficient, but compromises our health, and often results in deadly E. coli outbreaks from minimal government oversight. The film is an array of themes ranging from damaging environmental impacts, exploitation of production line workers, and powerful corporations filing lawsuits against family farms.

Based on the books Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the movie draws from investigative journalists’ seemingly innocent question: “Why does a head of lettuce cost more than a fast food burger?” The answer leads us back to the same source: jammed industrial feedlots, where battered cows are force fed corn, (the most ubiquitous cash crop), and chickens fattened up on antibiotics, wade in their feces in the dark.

In its essence, “Food Inc” is an activist film that is poignant at times but unsettling. Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” transformed the meat packing industry at the turn of the century.  “Food Inc.” is as equally alarming but uplifting, offering us a message of hope: The way we eat is ultimately our choice. Also “Food Inc.” could be monumental too. It is capable of changing the way our culture consumes food. If you are interested in discovering what the food industry does not want you to find out, go and see this film.

(Note: “Food Inc.” appeals to a broad audience. Whether you’re a carnivore drooling on the end of Slim Jim, or a radical vegan, leading the crusade for tofu turkeys, it makes no difference!)

The shock was twofold. I would have never thought about the ballet like this! But for “Black Swan,” I was truly engrossed being plunged into the harrowing depths of this highly stylized suspense film, which left me simultaneously in awe and disturbed.

The story of Swan Lake, as the director puts it, has been “done to death,” but this version is as chilling and real as it gets. Directed by indie-film extraordinaire Darren Aronofsky, whose former Oscar nominated work helped revive Mickey Rourke’s banged up career in the 2008 film “The Wrestler,” brings us a similar story of a performer who is pushed to the edge of self destruction.

Natalie Portman stars as Nina Sayers, a dedicated ballerina in her mid-20s who is driven to be a perfectionist. Nina exhibits all the qualities of a pure and diffident youth whose life is as precious and fragile as her ballerina music box that twinkles her to sleep in her  room furbished with flowers and teddy bears.

The movie co-stars Mila Kunis who plays, Lily, a rival understudy whose motives may be a bit more menacing than her first impression, and Nina’s intrusive mother, performed by Barbara Hershey portraying a former dancer who was forced to give up the leotards when she became pregnant, and now lives her life through Nina’s successes, compensating for her own professional shortcomings.

Nina’s determination lands her the dual role of the Swan Queen in the modern rendition of Swan Lake, the classic Russian tragedy of a young girl who turns into a swan and falls in love with a prince, but whose heart is broken when she finds out that her evil twin sister, the black swan, seduces the prince.

Nina’s conceited ballet director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) is not convinced that she has what it takes to play the black swan. He encourages her to “let go of herself” and to explore her promiscuity. Confronted by jealousy from the ensemble, and sexual advances by the sleazy director, the pain and pressure is too much, and hurls Nina down a path of twisted hallucinations and sadistic self-infliction.

“Black Swan” exposes the pain and glory of a professional ballerina in the way that “Apocalypse Now” depicts the horrors of Vietnam. By the end of it, you’re not sure if you should applaud, or stay frozen to the edge of your seat.

The film employs a constant dualism: visually, the color contrasts of black vs. white, used to denote innocence clashing with impurity, and by the transformation of Nina succumbing to her dark side. The director enhances the suspense by choosing to film most of the movie in close-ups, or from behind the protagonist’s head. Through her eyes, we get to experience the frightening angst and delirious visualizations as Nina. Keep in mind that there are enough pirouettes, whirling spirals, and camera gyrations in this movie to make a spaceman toss his freeze-dried cookies. The latter coupled with ear splitting sound effects and dark imagery makes for a thrill ride that rivals most theme parks.

“Black Swan” is captivating, but it is not for everyone. The movie reflects the cutthroat competitive nature of American culture and the obsession of achieving perfection. It comes as a subtle surprise that the exposure of savage sexuality and the loss of one’s innocence is brought to us done up in dainty lace and pointe shoes. Black Swan is emotionally stirring, eerily suspenseful, and a visceral rollercoaster, but I do not recommend it for the faint of heart.

I am one who never can quite enjoy a remake of a movie as much as the original. However, when it comes to remaking a classic film based on Charles Portis’ western novel, no one is quite as suited for the task as filmmakers Ethan and Joel Coen.

Many probably remember watching the original movie starring none other than western film icon John Wayne, (for which the author had in mind when he penned the novel in 1968). The original film debuted one-year later and landed Wayne the Best Actor at the Academy Awards. This year, the 2010 remake of “True Grit” has been generating much buzz for several Oscar nominations. But one simply does not need the Academy head nod to see why “True Grit” is such a cinematic pleasure.

“True Grit” is not just about good vs. evil, but also a story of endearment and trust. It is a tale of a young Arkansas girl Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) who is seeking to avenge her father’s death by hiring the tough US marshal, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), to hunt down her father’s killer, a haggard scoundrel by the name of Tom Cheney (Josh Brolin).

Much to Rooster’s reluctance, Mattie insists on going along with him on a savage journey while     accompanied by a stalwart Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who is also chasing down Cheney who is wanted in several counties. The trio encounters many dangerous muddles and quandaries out in the wild, and each have their endurance and determination tested along the way.

What makes the Coen brothers’ remake so enthralling is the acting, and how well adapted the writing is from the novel. Much of the same clever, quirky dialogue comes right from the text, but is delivered in a way that does not become a cheap imitation of the original film. The precocious 14-year-old Mattie Ross maintains her oratorical prowess with her quick tongue and keen wit that lends itself to the humorous banter that is constant throughout the film.

It must also be said that Jeff Bridges steals the show. Prior to watching the remake of “True Grit,” I was skeptical of any actor who would try to fill The Duke’s boots. But Jeff Bridges yet again proves his valor by creating a fresh persona of Rooster Cogburn: a stoic man who is rough around the edges, who slurs his words when he “pulls a cork” but at last, is a father figure at heart.

One aspect of the 1969 original that I found to be superior to the remake was the choice of film locations. Director Henry Hathaway so meticulously searched for majestic landscapes for backdrops that resulted in mesmerizing scenes filmed in the Colorado Rockies.  The 2010 version lacked the grandeur of the mountains, but made up for it by incorporating contemporary cinematographic techniques that immerse the audience into the musty, smoke filled courthouse, or provide a vicarious view from a tree, amidst the snow laden wilderness.

The Coen brothers continue to exercise their talents as muralists by paying tribute to the movie genres of the past. Together, the directing duo create a beautiful painting of the old west with aesthetic cinematography, crisp dialogue, and an arsenal of dedicated actors that accentuates the mastery of their filmmaking. If you are looking for a nostalgic glance at the western classic, then “True Grit” is as charming as it is gritty.

Hello world!

Posted: February 1, 2011 in Uncategorized

Greetings everyone! And welcome to my blog. At first it will serve as my library of growing film reviews, and at some point I will extend this to be more oriented with social commentary and political rhetoric. Have no worries, my political rhetoric will contain no vitriol, bombast, shallow irreverence, mud slinging, tom foolery, or hoodwinks. (Damn, do I hate those hoodwinks.) Anyway, make yourself at home, and feel free to suggest upcoming films for me to cover. Just one condition, I will not cover any movies with Vin Diesel, and please don’t touch the Victorian curtains, they belonged to my Syrian Sittu. Enjoy!