Only Lovers Left Alive Poster

Film Review: Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

Only Lovers Left AliveAmerican indie auteur Jim Jarmusch’s latest film, Only Lovers Left Alive, is so ironic and refreshing. Despite the topic of vampires being done to death, Jarmusch revitalizes the genre and delivers a psychedelic experience. You’d think that a filmmaker like Jarmusch, whose anti mainstream, wouldn’t dare go near a vampire romance. Instead, Jarmusch presents all the age old vampire clichés with wit, and light-hearted cynicism. In the words of William Shakespeare, or in this case Christopher Marlowe, “I bite my thumb at thee.” Blood popsicles and “Soul Dracula” serve as a satirical deviation from the more serious subject matter.

The film revolves around the melancholic romance between Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton). Their love has endured several centuries, which is probably more farfetched than the idea of vampires roaming the earth. In today’s western world of infatuation and divorce, true love seems to only exist in fairy tales. Adam and Eve reunite in the decrepit city of Detroit. Adam is a reclusive musician who writes music for the sole purpose of expressing his inner thoughts and emotions.  In a true state of artistry, Adam does not pander for fortune and fame. Although this choice seems to be self-defeating since he’s grown a hipster following due to his mystery and seclusion.

Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston star in Only Lover Left Alive

Adam has lost all faith in humanity and refers to humans as “zombies”. The only “zombie” he can tolerate is Ian. Whenever Adam needs an antique guitar or some vintage vinyl records he calls on his “zombie” mate. The idea of “zombies” may be Jarmusch’s allusion to the decline of humanity. Blood poisoning and the scarcity of good blood makes reference to an increasingly intoxicated society. One can only speculate that environmental contamination or genetically modified organisms are the culprits.

Aside from some vague references to water wars and blood poisoning, Only Lovers Left Alive is “ars gratia artis”. Or art for art’s sake. Too bad MGM wasn’t affiliated with this film. I guess that studio doesn’t actually stand by its motto. It’s hard to imagine that major motion picture studios have any interest in art anymore. That’s why filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch and independent cinema are so essential.

Another integral part of the film is music. I still remember watching Dead Man and being completely mesmerized by Neil Young’s score. The sound of his guitar haunted me for several days. My reaction was similar to Adam witnessing the sensual live performance of Lebanese singer Yasmine Hamdam. He said,

“She’s too good to be famous.”

It’s interesting because I had a conversation about “Top 40” music with a friend recently. We both agreed that “Top 40” music isn’t music. I suppose good music doesn’t actually correlate with fame. In any case, the film’s score is a perfect vehicle to transport you into this other worldly experience. Only Lovers Left Alive and its filmmaker, Jim Jarmusch, are too good to be mainstream.

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Poster of the Darjeeling Limited

Film Review: The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

Stylized poster of The Darjeeling Limited

Dedicated to my mate from Oz, Jeff Khan

Recently, my friend Jeff had asked me about my thoughts on Wes Anderson’s, The Darjeeling Limited. I didn’t have an answer at the time because I haven’t seen it yet. I was a bit embarrassed since I consider myself a fan of Mr. Anderson’s work. So, I told Jeff that I’ll watch it over the weekend and write a review about it.

If you’ve watched some of Anderson’s films before, you’re probably well aware of the fact that he likes to work with certain actors. Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and newcomer Adrien Brody star in the film. And yes, Bill Murray makes a cameo as well. In fact, the opening sequence features Mr. Murray speeding through the streets of India in the back of a taxi. Clearly he’s in a hurry. So much so that he forgets to pay his fare. He’s late for his train, which is named the Darjeeling Limited. This is where we’re also introduced to Peter Whitman (Adrien Brody). Peter’s late too but, he’s quick enough to catch up with the train. We can’t say the same for poor old Bill.

And so, Peter makes his way through the train. On his way he passes the commuter, and economy portions of the train before he arrives in the upper class section. In one of the compartments, he finds his two brothers Jack (Jason Schwartzman) and Francis (Owen Wilson). Francis has organized a reunion with his brothers after nearly being killed in a motorcycle ‘accident’. Given his father’s recent passing, one can suspect that this was no accident. Nevertheless, he’s convinced his brothers to come along with him on a spiritual journey across India.

Three brothers on the train.

Jack, Francis, and Peter on their spiritual journey across India.

Throughout the film we’re exposed to Anderson’s attention to detail, expertly direction, and picturesque cinematography. Film students should study Anderson’s work. He uses a variety of camera techniques to support his meticulously crafted mise-en-scene. I doubt that Anderson ever utters the words, “we’ll fix it in post.” I love when a filmmaker pays attention to the details.

In their compartment, Jack walks around with his Hotel Chevalier robe. Hotel Chevalier is a short film written and directed by Wes Anderson. It serves as the prologue to The Darjeeling Limited. It also explains Natalie Portman’s cameo appearance in the latter stages of the film. Moreover, when Jack is seen checking his ex-girlfriends messages, the letters S.T.D appear in the sign above him. I wonder if this was coincidental or on purpose. Nevertheless, the film is clearly well composed and skillfully executed.

In addition to its stunning aesthetic, the film’s story contains some substance as well. The three feathers clearly resemble some spiritual significance. When Francis asks his brothers to perform the ritual with him, they all execute it differently.

Peter is clearly struggling with his past and he’s uncertain about the future. He wears his father’s prescription sunglasses despite them causing him headaches. His wife is pregnant yet, he’s not genuinely happy. How can he take on this responsibility and move on with his life if he’s still reluctant to let go of the past? During the ceremony, Peter keeps his feather which symbolizes his reluctance to let go.

Francis, on the other hand, does the ritual properly. He buries the feather under the rock which shows his willingness to put the past behind him. Moreover, Jack lets his feather get taken away by the wind. He wants to move on with his life but, he’s still in turmoil. He’s upset and struggling with himself. The train stewardess (Amara Karan) asks Jack, “What’s wrong with you?” He simply replies, “Let me think about that. I’ll tell you the next time I see you.” Evidently, Jack is still trying to find himself. He writes short stories as a way of communicating his inner thoughts. All of his characters are “fictional” yet, everyone knows that he’s writing about himself.

In the end, all of the brothers drop their luggage to hop onto the train. They’ve all come to terms with their lives. Overall, The Darjeeling Limited is probably not one of Anderson’s best films. However, it’s still a whole lot better than a lot of films out there today. That says a lot about Wes Anderson; he’s one of the best filmmakers around.

Margin Call (2011) Poster

Film Review Margin Call (2011)

Margin Call (2011) PosterIt’s been a few years since the height of the global recession. The sub-prime crisis and the housing bubble gave way to the single largest one-day point drop in U.S. stock market history. Many economists consider 2008 as the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Lehman Brothers would file for bankruptcy, the largest bankruptcy filing in U.S. history; over $600 billion in assets. The U.S. government would enact the Emergency Economy Stabilization Act of 2008 to bailout the U.S. financial system. The ripples of these events would be felt all across the globe.

Margin Call is a film that depicts the final day at an unnamed Wall Street financial firm. Inspired by a true story, the events that took place would send financial firms into panic mode. The film explores capitalism, fraud, and greed. In my opinion, it also depicts the instinctive need for self-preservation. People act in their own self-interest.

It all begins with a massive layoff. 80% of the firm is let go, including senior risk analyst Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci). While being escorted out of the building by security, Dale hands a zip disk to Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto). His final words to Sullivan are, “be careful”.

Sullivan is an extremely intelligent and ambitious character. Instead of heading to a bar after work with his colleagues, he decides to work late. With the light of a screen illuminating his face, Sullivan comes to a stark realization. He has completed Dale’s model, and he’s discovered the volatility of the firm’s portfolio. The firm’s MBS’s (mortgage backed securities) will soon exceed historical volatility levels, and the projected losses are greater than the equity value of the firm. The house of cards is on the verge of failure.

CEO John Tuld

Jeremy Irons as CEO John Tuld in the 2011 film, Margin Call.

Sullivan immediately calls his co-worker Seth Bergman (Penn Badgley). He tells him to bring their supervisor, Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), back to the office immediately. Soon enough, everyone is sitting around the boardroom table in the late hours of the night. Arriving by helicopter, CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) asks for a plain and simple summary of the situation. “It wasn’t brains that brought me here; I assure you that.”

It seems as though the higher up on the corporate ladder, the less you know. Similarly, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) demonstrates his ignorance when first presented with the model. He’s unable to follow it, instead he asks Emerson to give it to him straight. No jargon or technical terms, just plain English.  Moreover, when Jared and Sarah are battling it out, trying to place the blame on one another, Jared asks Sam to listen in. Sam replies, “I don’t want to hear this. How do you think I’ve stuck around this place so long?” Remaining oblivious, and putting your head under the sand seems the best way to go. Perhaps that’s the kind of attitude that created this entire mess.

John Tuld provides the perfect analogy for the situation Wall Street firms were in.

“So, what you’re telling me, is that the music is about to stop, and we’re going to be left holding the biggest bag of odorous excrement ever assembled in the history of capitalism.”

In the interest of self-preservation, the brokers at the firm are told to sell 93% of their MBS asset classes. Sell at all costs, regardless of the consequences. “We are selling to willing buyers at the current fair market price. So that we may survive.”

Greed is the fuel that lights this fire. Emerson poignantly asserts that greed and self-interest are the culprits of this entire debacle. The people on Wall Street are not the only ones to blame.

 “The only reason that they all get to continue living like kings is cause we got our fingers on the scales in their favor. I take my hand off and then the whole world gets really fuckin’ fair really fuckin’ quickly and nobody actually wants that.”

Margin Call is the best film about the financial crisis that I’ve seen to date. Being a B-school grad myself, I was able to appreciate the film’s subject matter. The film succeeds in a number of ways other films have failed. Most notably, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. Margin Call is grounded in realism, and this may be off-putting for some. But, it’s time for people to take their heads from out of the sand. Let’s hope that something like this doesn’t happen again. The troughs of the economic life cycle shouldn’t be so severe. Proactive measures should happen before we’re left with a, “big odorous bag of excrement.”

The Invisible Woman Poster

Film Review: The Invisible Woman (2013)

The Invisible Woman PosterThe Victorian era is never short of refined sensibilities, romanticism, and scandal? Yes, it would appear that one of the most celebrated authors of the era, Charles Dickens, was involved in an affair. An account of the affair is detailed in Claire Tomalin’s book, The Invisible Woman. According to the book, Dickens spent the latter years of his life with Mistress Nelly Ternan.

The film is directed by Ralph Fiennes; his second attempt at the helm. Fiennes also plays the role of Dickens alongside Felicity Jones as Nelly Ternan. The story begins with Ternan on the shores reminiscing, reflecting, and clearly unsettled. She’s on her way to rehearse a school production of The Frozen Deep. This is where it all began.

The story unfolds in a series of flashbacks. Told from Ternan’s perspective, we see a young aspiring actress working on the production of The Frozen Deep. Dickens, heavily invested in his co-written play, is immediately drawn to this young actress. With the co-operation of her mother, Dickens becomes involved with the young Ternan. According to her mother (Kristen Scott Thomas), it is the sensible thing to do; as long as her reputation remains intact.

Her mother’s actions are quite reflective of the role women played during this period. It was unthinkable that a woman support herself. Rather, a woman should find a husband to provide for her. Femininity meant being docile and knowing one’s place. At moments, the film eludes to these underlying themes. Dickens divorces his wife Catherine (Joanna Scanlan) and seizes his “freedom” from marriage. However, this is a liberty reserved only for men.

In light of her reputation, and perhaps for Mr. Dickens’ as well, they keep their relationship a secret. At first, Nelly is ashamed of her actions. She’s left speechless when she’s confronted by Catherine. Dickens brazenly asks his wife to deliver a gift to his mistress. Later, Nelly makes the acquaintance of Mr. Collins’ mistress. Nelly questions the integrity of their relationship. Are they truly in love? Or is she just his mistress?

Nelly Turnan with Charles Dickens

Catherine warns Nelly that Mr. Dickens loves his work and its admirers above all else. Perhaps Nelly is another conquest for Mr. Dickens. A challenge of sorts. Maybe he is trying to control and possess her. The first instinctive ending to Great Expectations saw Pip realizing that, “he will never have her.” I wonder if this reflects Dickens’ attitude towards Nelly.

In the most telling of all the scenes, Nelly explains that Mr. Dickens ends the book in shadows, “I saw the shadow of no parting from her.” Nelly has been living her life in shadows. She is the invisible woman. She is Charles Dickens’ greatest secret. Nelly is clearly tormented by the nature of their relationship. She can never admit nor acknowledge it ever existed.

Although the film possesses some riveting and telling scenes, it lacks passion. The film focuses on subtleties rather than emotional flare, and its slow pace demands a viewer’s patience.

“I loved her against reason, against promise, against peace, against hope, against happiness, against all discouragement that could be. “ – Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

The man who wrote these words was absent from the film. The circumstances surrounding their relationship required greater stakes. I felt that the Invisible Woman was missing something. The portrayal of this secret relationship required more emotional depth and passion. Unlike the work of Charles Dickens, this film will not be a timeless classic.

Noah (2014)

Film Review: Noah (2014)

Noah (2014) It’s hard to believe that after four years, Aronofsky would follow up his critically acclaimed Black Swan with Noah. Aronofsky’s deep seeded indie roots make him an unlikely choice to helm a multi-million dollar studio picture. The indie auteur sparked a lot of controversy during the production of the biblical tale.

In specific, the creative liberties expressed in the film were unsettling for the suits at Paramount. Apparently after some test screenings, audience members weren’t too fond of Aronofsky’s interpretation. Nothing could make me more anxious and excited to see the film than hearing about this.

I thought, “Finally someone is taking a stand for art and expression instead of “selling out” for more box office dollars.” However, after seeing the film, it seems as though these stories were blown out of proportion. Growing up in a city run by Rob Ford, I’m no stranger to controversy; Noah is a choir boy in comparison. However, the publicity it garnered probably helped Noah score a strong opening weekend at the box office.

Lars Von Trier should make a biblical film. That would really shake things up. I think religious fundamentalists would have an aneurysm. Only then would we see real controversy.

However, despite its shortcomings, Noah is a bold and original take on a very familiar, archaic story. Russell Crowe delivers a solid nuanced performance of Noah. I enjoyed seeing Noah balance on the brink of insanity. “God” never actually speaks to Noah. Noah see’s visions of the flood and interprets these visions as a message from the “Creator”. Another subtlety that sends a strong message. This biblical film never utters the word “God”. Instead they refer to this omniscient presence as the “Creator”.

Russell Crowe as Noah

In modern times, we would probably diagnose Noah as being maniacal or insane. He even goes so far as wanting to kill his grandchild in order to fulfill the “Creator’s” will. Although, the “Creator” never explicitly commands him to do so. If anything, Aronofsky presents Noah as a flawed individual. He is not the prophetic, righteous person we have come to know. Perhaps Aronofsky provides us with the Judaic interpretation of Noah.

Many rabbis have implied that Noah’s perfection is relative. Given his generation of wicked and sinful people, in comparison Noah is righteous. Unlike Abraham, Noah did not pray on behalf of those about to be destroyed. Noah is a man who possesses both good and bad. He mentions this when he explains to his wife that humans must cease to exist. He points out that they would commit wrongful acts in order to save their children; even commit murder. Noah himself leaves Na’el (Madison Davenport) to rescue his son Ham (Logan Lerman). An indirect form of murder since he did not attempt to free the girl; instead leaving her at the mercy of the oncoming onslaught.

At times however, it’s evident that Aronofsky attempts to put too much context within the film. Near the end, Aronofsky cleverly alludes to Noah’s drunkenness. In Jewish tradition, Satan is blamed for bestowing the vine with intoxicating properties. Noah drinks excessively, becomes intoxicated, and passes out. Ham then sees the flesh of his father’s naked body. Shem and Japheth, on the other hand, avert their eyes while they cover up Noah. This shameful act gives rise to the Curse of Ham. However, in Aronofsky’s version, Noah does not say a word. Rather, he weeps for his son. In the Book of Genesis, after Ham commits the sin, Noah curses Ham’s son Canaan. Perhaps for the sake of time, the story was condensed a little.

Another worthy interpretation was done with the fallen angels. Instead of taking the depiction of angels from icons (men with wings), in Noah  we see rock like creatures. I suppose this is one element where one could interpret the insertion of environmentalism. The rock like creatures represent the earth and so, the earth takes sides against man. However, the CG creatures were not visually appealing. They looked awkward and mechanical. In fact, they looked like Transformers in disguise.

In summary, there are many elements auspicious elements to the film. Aronofsky has moved in the right direction with his biblical interpretation. Nonetheless, he has the talent to do so much more and I expected him to do just that. In the end, I was a bit disappointed with the end result. Noah did not live up to my expectations.

The Immigrant Poster

Film Review: The Immigrant (2013)

The Immigrant PosterThe Immigrant is an American drama directed by James Gray. The story begins with a polish immigrant named Ewa (Marion Cotillard) who arrives at Ellis Island with her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan). They have escaped the war in Europe, and now they seek a new life in America. While waiting in line, Magda begins to cough. Her cough attracts the attention of the guards, and they take Magda away to be examined. Magda is suspected to have lung disease.

After being separated from her sister, Ewa proceeds through customs. According to her questionable morals, lack of money, and marital status, she does not qualify for residency. Instead she is to be deported back to Poland. Before she steps foot on the ship, she catches the attention of a man named Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix). She pleads for Bruno’s help and he eventually does just that. He uses his connections with the guards to secure Ewa’s passage into the U.S. With nowhere else to go, she follows this kind stranger into the city. And so it begins, the start of a new life in America. However, as we may all know very well by now, when something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. This case is no exception.

The Immigrant features some very strong performances from both Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix. The French actress learned to speak polish for this role and her accent isn’t too shabby.  That does make me wonder though, if she can learn a proper polish accent, why can’t she lose her French accent when she does English speaking roles? Nonetheless, her portrayal of a warm hearted polish immigrant is impressive. On the other hand, Joaquin Phoenix’s character Bruno is the more intriguing of the two.

Bruno is an opportunist. Although it was not mentioned in the film, I believe he experienced a difficult childhood. Bruno’s family also immigrated to America. His childhood is revealed by his cousin and adversary Orlando (Jeremy Renner).

Orlando may be the only pitfall in this film. His lack of character depth is evident in the more critical moments of the film. Orlando is presented as the knight in shining armour but, we don’t know all that much about him. The two other characters in the love triangle are far more developed. So, when the stakes are high, Orlando fails to match the intensity of the circumstances. On the other hand, we know enough about Bruno to make further inquiries into his motives.

I speculate that Bruno’s Jewish background probably exposed him to a lot of anti-Semitism. An example of this would be when the police refer to him as a kike. Bruno at one point tells Ewa that, “we’ve all been desperate.” Although his intentions at that point in the film may have been to manipulate her; his choice of words reveal parts of his character. Bruno’s upbringing has taught him to do whatever it takes to survive. I believe he is a victim of circumstance. On the surface, he is fervent and tough. But on the inside, he suffers in silence.

Joaquin Phoenix as Bruno

Bruno is drawn to Ewa’s purity. He even says to the young ‘unmanly’ boy, “She is pure.”  Although Bruno engaged in so many wrongful acts, you can’t help but feel a sense of pity towards the man. It’s crushing to hear that the one you love hates you. Every man can ‘have’ Ewa except Bruno. At some point, he must’ve imagined Ewa with another man. For many, that jealousy can drive a person into madness.

Throughout the film, we are reminded that every soul can be saved. This applies directly to Ewa as she confesses and repents for her sins. Also, more indirectly, Bruno redeems himself in one of the film’s final and most powerful scenes. Bruno helps reunite Ewa with her sister and takes full responsibility for his actions. He commits a selfless act to save Ewa. For this, Ewa thanks him. Yet, Bruno cannot accept her gratitude. After all the things he’s done, how can she thank him? All of the unfortunate events Ewa experienced in America have been either a direct or indirect result of Bruno’s actions. “If you could lick my heart, you’d taste nothing but poison. You think there’s goodness in everybody but there isn’t.”

Bruno’s final remarks are filled with irony. Even though he proclaims himself as a vile and heartless man, he too has some good in him. People who are truly evil and heartless never realize their true nature. They cannot admit to the consequences of their actions.

The Immigrant is a tale of woe and sorrow. It shows the great misfortunes people suffered coming to America. It reveals the great length’s people went through to make it in the U.S. “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.” I still think that holds true even today.

What’s more is that it shows us that in the depths of darkness, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. It shows us that we must never lose hope.

 

Snowpiercer Cover

Film Review: The Snowpiercer (2013)

Snowpiercer Cover

The Snowpiercer is a film by Korean director Joon-ho Bong . The film depicts a dystopian future where humans have developed a new method of dealing with global warming. A chemical agent is released into the atmosphere however, something goes terribly wrong. The earth is sent into another ice age and life as we know it seizes to exist; except for a train that travels around the globe via a perpetual-motion engine.

The train has become the world, and the people are its inhabitants. Just like our world today, a system has been put in place to maintain order. The elites inhabit the front of the train, and the poor live in the tail. The people in the back of the train are treated like prisoners. Guards periodically come to provide protein blocks or “food”, they keep a body count, and sometimes they take children away from their families. The people do not have any say in the matter. People can only take so much, and inevitably some of the inhabitants decide to form a rebellion. Curtis (Chris Evans) plays the role of the reluctant leader.

On the surface, The Snowpiercer is another dystopian tale that seems similar to the likes of The Hunger Games or Divergent. The premise of these films are very much the same. However, there is more than meets the eye when it comes to The Snowpiercer.

Chris Evan Snowpiercer

Many political and philosophical principles are interwoven in the plot. Malthus’ principle of population is evidenced by the strict control of the food supply. The population of the train is also kept at a ‘sustainable’ level. This entails the execution of lower class train passengers when the body count goes too high.

Another theme is that of a preordained destiny. One of the films antagonists named Mason, played wonderfully by Tilda Swinton exclaims, “Know your place, keep your place!” She further explains that the tail-enders are like the feet, and those at the front are the head. It’s preposterous to put your shoe on top of your head isn’t it? It doesn’t belong there. Well, it’s a very convenient explanation for people who have everything to tell those who have nothing. This fallacious argument can only last so long. Eventually people realize that we’re all made equal. We’re all entitled to the same opportunities.

Revolution is the answer to authoritarian rule. Curtis leads his rebellion against Wilford’s (Ed Harris) tyranny. However, this is a critical point where The Snowpiercer distinguishes itself. The film begs the question, “and then what?” After the tyrant has been eliminated, what’s next? Is that the answer to the problem? Reflecting on recent world events, the solution isn’t as clear cut.  For instance, the Egyptians removed Mubarak in 2011 but, the country is far from achieving its desired state. Things in the real world are more complicated. Most films will go so far as defeating the bad guy, and then everyone lives happily ever after. The Snowpiercer treats its audience with more respect than that. The audience has the ability to think for itself.

The first English language film by Joon-ho Bong is a visceral, and thought provoking film. Yes, some of you may be thinking that some of the events in the film are absurd. I agree, it does seem very improbable that the survival of humanity would ever surmount to a locomotive.  Also, it’s illogical to think that humans would release a compound into the air without rigorous testing. On the other hand, humans have tried to play god before. Case in point, genetically modified organisms.

I suppose not everything in a film has to make sense, or has to be explained. If it doesn’t further the plot or develop a character, it doesn’t have to be included. I’m willing to forego some of these weak points and I’m willing to recognize some of the more significant themes.  The Snowpiercer is a dystopian film you should actually go see.