Tuesday, December 31, 2013

American Hustle: A Solid Piece of Cinema

Hello! I have a new review for you today. This time, it's David O. Russell's American Hustle. For those of you who follow this blog with any regularity you'll know that the real reason I saw this film was because of Jennifer Lawrence's supporting role. However, I was pleasantly surprised that the film was an incredible platform for all of the actors in this star-studded cast. 

American Hustle feels like cinema. It is not big explosions or body counts larger than a small midwest town. In fact, it's mostly talking, a lot of talking. While Lawrence was the big draw for me, I was also attracted to Russell's second big screen hit in the past two years and I had to see how using essentially the same cast of characters in a new film would play out. Silver Linings Playbook was a genuinely well crafted film that enjoyed quite a bit of success and I was eager to see what Russell was going to come up with next.

It should be said that I love films from the 1970's. Barbra Streisand, Faye Dunaway, Jane Fonda, and films like Klute, Chinatown and A Woman Under the Influence, are all such incredible expressions of an under appreciated era in American film culture. The 70's are distinct far beyond disco, the dark, gritty crime dramas influenced heavily by the Vietnam war, Civil Rights, Watergate and the Kennedy Assassination are like the Iron Age in American cinema. The gloss of Hollywood had fallen out of favor with audiences that were neck deep in the realness of the world. 

Fast-forward 40 years and it's a challenge for contemporary filmmakers to capture such an enigmatic time in society with any sense of authenticity. There is not only a particular look that needs to be replicated with the environment but there is also a unique attitude in the way people talked, walked and carried themselves. In some respects, American Hustle did a pretty good job capturing the feel of the the time, much of that came from Amy Adams in the role of con-artist Sydney Prosser.

Amy Adams has always been a non-entity on my radar. She has done some very reputable films and has always had a favorable view in the general populous. However, she never has made much of an impression on me. Until now. I was absolutely mesmerized by her performance, she was glowing. And it has nothing to do with her beauty, but her complete dedication to her role. She walked the walk, and talked the talk and when she put her hair in tight, slightly frizzy curls, she looked as if she walked out of a time machine straight out of 1978.

There is a great scene where Sydney and Irving (Christian Bale) have an argument in their hotel room. Sydney has decided that their relationship isn't working and she wants to break it off. She is crushed that despite the love they have for each other, he still feels obligated towards his wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and their son. The break up is complicated because Sydney and Irving are intertwined in a federal bribery/fraud investigation and working as informants to avoid jail time. Sydney tells Irving that despite him breaking her heart, she is going to play her role perfectly (that of a wealthy British investor) and she is going to do everything she can to remind him of what he is losing as well as keep both of them out of jail.

During this conversation her hair is looks like a ginger Marcia Brady and she wears a long silk night gown like Faye Dunaway in Eyes of Laura Mars. The way she moves, her expressions, everything about Adams is great, she embodies the era with the cadence of her voice, and every gesture that she makes. Though it must be stated that with Adam's triumph, there was equal failure. 

I really liked this star studded cast. I think there was a truly great chemistry between the characters and the actors who played them. Though I am teetering of whether or not Bradley Cooper was the right choice for the role of the police investigator, Richie DiMasio. He seemed less dedicated to the authenticity of the role and seemed to get a little caught up in the theatrics. The 70's cop is an easy role to parody and very difficult to get right. His character was meant to supply some of the films comedy but in the end it was a bit of a lost opportunity.

Christian Bale surprised me in this film, and it's not because his performance wasn't satisfactory. In fact, the role of Irving Rosenfeld is somewhat outside of what we have come to expect from the Dark Knight himself. Bale has always been known to take on roles that are larger than life, but this did not keep with that trend, which isn't a bad thing. Irving is what I consider to be a meek character. He is caught between his love for Sydney and his obligation towards Rosalyn, he is a lousy, mid-grade con-artist and willing to sell out his friends to save his own skin. I found that this was a really interesting character for Bale and it was not, at all, what I was expecting.

The supporting cast in this film is pretty outstanding as well. Jennifer Lawrence really captured Irving's wife Rosalyn perfectly, and Rosalyn is a real piece of work. She is a fast talking, chain smoking wino whose level of irresponsibility and smart-assery are off the charts, she also supplies almost all of the comedy in the film. What I loved about her character was her compulsive need to be right, and to be validated in her rightness at all costs. She takes credit for things she had nothing to do with, and while it's played for laughs, one can see that she does it as a way to protect herself in a world and in a relationship where she feels vulnerable.


My favorite scene in the film is when Irving, Dimasio, Sydney and Rosalyn all attend a fancy cocktail party that is crucial to Sydney's and Irving's con to entrap the people's politician Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) in a bribe. Sydney is upset upon seeing Irving and the stunningly gorgeous Rosalyn together, but that doesn't even come close to the incensed look on Roslyn's face upon seeing Sydney staring her down. Rosalyn creates a scene and announces to everyone that Sydney is her husbands 'whore.' She fumes as men buy her drinks to calm her down.

Moments later, Sydney meets Rosalyn in the bathroom and starts telling her that she should leave Irving because she doesn't love him and knows he is sleeping around. Rosalyn launches into the most beautiful monologue in which she tells Sydney that, "sometimes in life all you have is a set of fucked up choices," then she laughs maniacally, kisses Sydney and walks out. It was hands down, the most perfectly executed scene in the entire film. Adams and Lawrence together are electric, and it has nothing to do with the kiss. They play off each other so well that I wish the film had been entirely about the two of them.

The biggest piece of criticism I have for this film is the cinematography. I was so, wildly disappointed. I felt like there was a pretty massive opportunity to do something truly gritty and 70's. They should have used some grainy film stock or bumped up the oranges, browns and grain in post. The film was far, far, far too glossy for my liking and it reminded me with every frame, that this was just an interpretation of the 70's, it didn't actually immerse me in the era. The film had its fleeting moments of cinematic beauty, but it still felt too contemporary. However, the overall production design was pretty flawless, though I think it would have been better served if the cinematography had been held up to a higher standard.

Overall, there is a lot to love about this film. It is not my favorite of the year, but it is worth seeing. They are pitching this film as a comedy but I didn't find it particularly comedic. I think a drama punctuated with some funny situations is a far better characterization. The biggest strength of this film is clearly the cast. The story is ok, I was interested in it, but it's not remarkable in any sense. I think the average person will thoroughly enjoy American Hustle. It's a solid, well executed film.

B : The film gets a solid B thanks to flawless performances by Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence and an interesting performance from Christian Bale. The film is fun, if a little heavy on the dialogue. The cinematography was disappointing for me, but it was slightly softened by great production design, interesting costumes.

Have you seen American Hustle? What did you think? Comment below! 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

From the Archives: A profile on Jean-Pierre Jeunet


Jean-Pierre Jeunet is a modern French film director best known for Amelie, City of Lost Children, and Delicatessen. He has a very distinct style characterized by heavy attention to detail along with whimsically dark cinematic landscapes. He achieves his signature look by not only having a unique vision but by working closely with his hand selected production team. 

In a review of Amelie, one critic wrote, "It takes an extraordinarily talented director to navigate the lines between dark comedy, parody, whimsy and camp without getting bogged down by his own self-conscious artfulness." I think this is a perfect description of the duality of Jeunet’s work. At one moment his films seem light-hearted, funny and childlike, but they also have dark and often disturbing themes. Jeunet is a complicated individual who bases much of his work on past and personal experiences growing up in post war France, which is why his films connect so well with young and young at heart audiences. He is able to translate what we all see in the world and express it on film in a way that is both familiar and startling. 

Jeunet grew up in eastern France and by the age of 17 he was making short super 8 films, while also working at a telephone company. Jeunet was born 1953 and was very young when the French New Wave was at its height. Therefore he has no particular attachment to the style and said, “forget the French New Wave! It was 50 years ago. In the end we are going to lose and forget the New Wave. Because now we have a new generation of directors, and we try to make movies for the audience, not only for ourselves like the New Wave. I don’t like New Wave. Sorry. Maybe Truffaut, and that’s it.” 

Jeunet has spent his career making films that are the polar opposite of influential French directors such as Truffaut and Godard. Whereas these classic directors, widely regarded as two of the greatest filmmakers of all time, focused on the stark reality of things, Jeunet has rejected not necessarily their stories, but rather their style. All three filmmakers, Godard, Truffaut and Jeunet share many uniquely French characteristics such as the emphasis on personal relationships and the role of women in culture and society. 

Jeunet is a one of the most interesting directors working today because he makes films that are commercially successful while incorporating atypical themes regarding social interactions and cultural anxieties. However, not everyone sees Jeunet in the same light. While it would be tough to argue that Jeunet isn't a visionary auteur, his work is often very misunderstood. His surrealist, post-modern style and commercial success is often viewed as Americanized, and France more than almost any other country has had a rich, distinct cinematic history that has prided itself on its uniqueness. Jeunet has bucked some of those traditions which has made him a target for criticism. 

In my opinion, Jeunet has bridged the ocean and has made films that are far reaching across culture. The film City of Lost Children released in 1995 is a great example of Jeunet's ability to create widely accessible films. The film stars Ron Perlman as a street circus performer, Judith Vittet as Miette a young headstrong orphan and Daniel Emilfork as the mad scientist who steals children's dreams. The film explores the relationship humans have with machines, as well as themes surrounding the exploitation and disenfranchisement of children. Yet, the film is not all doom and gloom, in the end it has a very positive message about friendship and the strength of those who who are small. 

The story surround Miette as she works for a street peddler stealing and begging on the streets with a dozen other children. After her little brother, Denree is kidnapped by Krank (Emilfork) the scientist, Miette teams up with One (Pearlman) to try and rescue him. The setting of this film, a shipping yard on the edge of a dark ocean, is perhaps the most interesting of all Jeunet's work. Out in the ocean is Krank's lab where Dunree, an infant, is found attached to a machine that siphons his dreams. It is one of the most intricate, and visually stunning landscapes in all of modern cinema. 

"I like directors with a strong style where you recognize the style after 10 seconds. When you see a film from Tim Burton, you recognize immediately that it’s Tim Burton. It’s the same thing with Terry Gilliam. A long time ago, it was Fellini. I don’t want to compare myself with these great directors. I love to shoot with a short lens and use warm colors. I love to do that." -Jeunet 

Jeunet works in very tightly controlled environments, which is most evident in City of Lost Children. The film uses a large variety of custom made props and set pieces along with an ever-present atmospheric fog that obscures the horizon. Many of the scenes take place inside tightly cluttered spaces. All of these choices combined with the lack of color, sepia tone, and low-key lighting create the incredibly detailed world that is 100% Jeunet.  He never leaves anything to chance which includes his production team who helps him bring his vision to life. 

The most notable of Jeunet's frequent collaborators is Marc Caro, who has been involved in one way or another on many of Jeunet's most influential feature length films including City of Lost Children and Delicatessen. Typically filling the role of either co-director, writer or storyboard artist, Caro was heavily influenced by design and comic books and has had a huge influence on Jeunet’s style.

Jeunet is known for working with the same individuals on multiple films. Audrey Tautou, known mainly for her amazing performance in Amelie, also appeared three years later in his 2004 film, A Very Long Engagement. Dominique Pinon, who plays the identical sons of Krank in City of Lost Children, has appeared in all of Jeunet’s films. Darius Khondji was the cinematographer on Delicatessen, City of Lost Children and Jeunet’s Hollywood picture Alien Resurrection. He is also well known for the wildly popular film, Se7en. If one watches Jeunet's most popular films you will notice that many of the same people were involved in creating each of his box office hits. 

Jeunet really stands tall among French filmmakers because of his signature style that transcends borders but he stands in great company. Christopher Gans 2001 film Brotherhood of the Wolf did very well in France and even enjoyed great commercial success here in the U.S becoming the second highest grossing French language film in the United States in over 20 years. Claude Sautet directed what many consider to be a modern French masterpiece, A Heart in Winter, which, despite its critical acclaim, did not fare so well at the box office.  Other notable French directors working today include Mathieu Kassovitz, known for his 1995 film Hatet, and one of my favorites, Luc Besson best known for directing cult classic The Fifth Element

Many French filmmakers have found success working on Hollywood action pictures. Kassovitz also directed the 2008 sci-fi action picture Babylon A.D, and he is not alone. Louis Leterrier is another French director who directed Hollywood action pictures including Transporter 2 (2005) and The Incredible Hulk (2008). Even Jeunet directed a Hollywood picture in the studios of Los Angeles, but what sets him apart from all other contemporary French directors is that Jeunet has a voice and a vision that can never be mistaken whether he is working on his own script or a script for a big budget movie. 

Despite America’s lack of interest in foreign films, Jeunet has managed to bring attention to modern French cinema with Amelie and City of Lost Children becoming a favorite for art houses, film buffs and even finding an audience among average Americans.  He is the dominant director of his generation and stands in stark contrast to many of the French directors that came before him and far outshines his contemporaries.  Jeunet’s films include, Delicatessen (1991), The City of Lost Children (1995), Alien Resurrection (1997), Amelie (2001), A Very Long Engagement (2004) and Micmacs (2009). 

Have you seen any of Jeunet's work? What do you think of him? Which of his films is your favorite?

Monday, December 9, 2013

From the Archives: A Philosophical Look at I AM CUBA.

Russia, 1964

I am Cuba is a Russian propaganda film about the revolt against the leader Fulgencio Batista while incorporating some aspects of Fidel Castro’s rise to power. It also happens to be one of my favorite films of all time.  The film is separated into four vignettes that follow different characters from different sections of society. There is the prostitute, the farmer, the student, and the father turned revolutionary. The film shows how peasants suffer and how they rise up against the bourgeoisie, high-class powers in control. When looking at this film from a philosophical point of view it is important not to look at everything literally. This film covers topics like social political philosophy, value theory and ethics through stories that feel very real. I am Cuba is, truly, a masterpiece of cinematography and also says something about philosophical ideas as well.

As a film, I am Cuba is incredibly beautiful. The filmmakers used many techniques which were revolutionary at the time, such as a camera lens that doesn't show water drops and long tracking shots down the side of buildings. These techniques act as accessories to the story rather than overpowering it which can often be the case with such dynamic images.

In terms of technique this film is way ahead of its time the framing, mise-en-scene and the quality of the film stock make the entire film feel like one continuous photograph. During key moments in the story, the film utilizes black and white infrared film, which gives the green landscape a noticeably soft glow unmatched by any film I have ever seen.

One important thing I have taken away from applying philosophical ideas to this film, is that, philosophy is all around if one takes the time to look for it. This film has a very powerful message about society and about the overall human condition. This film shows that all people, all over the world, want the same things. They want the right and ability to work a decent job, they want to have control over their own lives and not feel oppressed by the government. The value theory applies to almost every aspect of this film.

There is one particular scene that I believe, perfectly illustrates this idea. During the film, the student, Enrique is sent on a mission to kill the chief of police. The officer is a part of the Batista’s government, which Enrique and his friends are fighting against. They see the officer as responsible for the death of many other friends and revolutionaries. However, when the time comes, Enrique is unable to take the shot because the man is with his children. I think this says something important about value theory. Why is Enrique unable to kill this evil man when his children are around him? I think it is because, either consciously or unconsciously, people see children as innocent bystanders and Enrique, like most people, does not want to be the person who makes children suffer. So, this evil man is allowed to live on because of the way people value the innocence of children. In the end the Chief kills Enrique without ever knowing that Enrique spared his life for the sake of his children.

I am Cuba is a film about governmental revolution so social and political philosophical ideas are easily applied. But, this film was made in 1964 and the story takes places a few years before Fidel Castro and the revolutionaries over-throw the Batista regime. We can see through history how the Castro regime became, in many ways, just as bad as Batista’s in the view of the United States. Yet, in this film, Fidel Castro is the hero who has come to save the peasants, prostitutes and the disenfranchised. Even as an individual who has witnessed some of Cuba's struggles, I still feel triumphant at the end of this film because Fidel and the revolutionaries continue on their mission with passion and the belief that what they are doing is right.

Revolution is basically what political philosophy is all about. Political philosophy asks, what do we have government? Why do we have laws and how do we categorize and value those laws? Who gets to make the laws? This film shows what it is like when people start asking these questions of their own government. A question I find more interesting is why do governments so often become corrupt and put aside the needs of their people? What is it about power that blinds even those with the best intentions? 

What I like about this film is that it does not view the prostitute, the farmer or the peasants as lowly people. Instead it shows how tyranny and greed can destroy a large portion of society and force individuals to assume a life they never wanted. For Maria, or Betty, the prostitute who never smiles, her job is the only way she is able to survive. When we first see her, she wears a crucifix and a white scarf over her head. She is dressed very modestly and is very shy and reserved. Yet later, we see her other life in the bars of Havana where she dances and wears revealing clothing. Maria is quite young and in love with a boy that works as a fruit vendor on the streets. He wants to marry her, but she is too ashamed of what she does for a living that she doesn’t even allow him to kiss her. I think this brings up and interesting point about morals and values. Betty is very pious and moral, yet she is forced to set that part of herself aside. She is an example of how people often have to set aside what is right in order to survive.

Maria is also a great example how people question their identity. She speaks very little throughout the film and does not speak English, so all of her emotions are played out through gesture and facial expression. She does not give up her feelings willingly, but from my perspective, she questions who she is the entire time and wrestles with her faith and what she is forced to do. But, who is she? Is she the prostitute or the young, pious woman? The audience is able to understand the complexity of Maria’s situation, and we witness her struggle with an unanswerable question.

This film leaves a lot up to interpretation. There is very little dialogue, but an abundance of camera movement and music. In order to understand the philosophical questions, one must be willing to actively participate in the story. The narrator, throughout the entire film, speaks to the audience and asks them to look and pay attention because there are many subtle nuances in this film that are easily missed. 

The greatest strength of this film is the fact that is  about the people and the human condition. At no point does the film glorify the rich and at no point does it vilify the poor. This shows that an individuals philosophy can change depending on where they are on the socio-economic scale. These filmmakers passed judgment that the poor are ethical because they do what they need to do, they work hard and they don’t complain. Yet the rich are unethical because they are insensitive to the plight of those in poverty, they have no respect for property or ownership and they do not feel guilty when killing those who threaten the status quo.

This is what makes this film controversial. When I am Cuba was released in 1964, it was not well received. Many thought that it showed a stereotype of Cubans, and the lives of the ordinary people. Despite the controversy this film did not get wide spread distribution because it was produced by a communist film studio, it is likely that very few lower income people in Cuba would have seen or heard of this film.  However, in recent years, people have begun to discuss this film through an academic lens, especially the way in which American characters portrayed and how they were perceived in mid 60's Cuba. (How American.)

When I listen to the American characters speak, it makes me cringe because they refer to everything as their property including people. It is surprising to think that in 1964, no one challenged the portrayal of Americans in a film that would have been considered highly political. I have done a lot of reading on this film and I have never once seen or heard anything to suggest that Americans were unhappy with the way they, and upper class individuals in general, were portrayed.

I am Cuba is a difficult film to look at philosophically because it wasn't necessarily designed to take on such lofty topics. While it does bring up some interesting ideas about society, government, individual freedom, and ethics, on the surface, it was not necessarily created to provoke those kinds of thoughts. The film was created to show the weak rising up against the strong and why revolution is important. Yet, philosophical ideas are prevalent throughout the film, which I would have never thought to look for. Philosophy doesn’t always have to be complicated, I am Cuba shows how philosophy can play a role in in the most unexpected place.

I think there is a lot more to be said about this film and I intend to discuss the film on a more aesthetic level soon! Have you seen Soy Cuba? What did you think? Do you think there are philosophical ideas that I didn't touch on? Comment Below!

A++ : One of the greatest films ever made. See it now.  

From the Archives: A Profile on Ann Hui

(Ann Hui)

Ann Hui is one of those directors who refuses to be typecast. Her films spread many genres and she has been one of the most influential directors in Hong Kong for over two decades. Being one of the forerunners of the Hong Kong New Wave in the 1970’s, Hui gained recognition for not only being a visionary, but also for gaining respect in an industry dominated by men. One can discuss Hui’s films in terms of popularity and box office returns, however, as a director she focuses her efforts on political and social issues while also incorporating her own story on different layers of intimacy. With this in mind, it is more appropriate to discuss her films terms of Hong Kong history and her personal journey.

Being one of very few women directors in Hong Kong, it would have been easy for Hui to align herself with feminism and make quintessential ‘women’s pictures;’ however, she takes a different approach. She blends many different subjects and genres unlike any director I have ever seen. Although many of her stories center on the domestic woman, they are not solely women’s pictures. Her films incorporate social realist qualities and the universal human condition though image and story. Love in a Fallen City, made in 1984, is a great example of Hui’s concentration on these subjects. The film follows a divorced mainland woman who travels to Hong Kong to distance herself from her family and to find a husband. She is introduced to a wealthy westernized man just before the beginning of WWII. Starry is the Night shares many of the same qualities as Love in a Fallen City. The film also follows a woman through love and loss of love. Both films follow woman, and their struggles are ones that transcends borders. 

Internal and social conflicts, like in Love in a Fallen City, are often blended together. The story of the two lovers is set against the beginning of the Sino-Japanese war. One can tell, especially in the three films I have chosen that Hui incorporates a documentary feel to her personal, intiment stories. This is also apparent in one of the films I did watch, Starry is the Night in 1988. The story drifts between students in a university and those students later as adults. Hui’s social consciousness is apparent, although more subtly in Starry is the Night than in Love in a Fallen City. In Starry is the Night, there are moments when the protagonist is on the street and there are protesters with signs calling for democracy. Love in a Fallen City on the other hand, makes the social conflict an important element in the main characters journey. Starry is the Night simply has characters going about their daily business with the social elements being more of a backdrop. 

The most important similarity to mention about these three films is the theme of past and present. Each approaches the subject in a similar way and, in the case of Starry is the Night and July Rhapsody, almost the exact same way. Love in a Fallen City is different in subtle but important ways. Where as in Starry is the Night and July Rhapsody, an old flame reappears in the lives of the protagonists, Love in a Fallen City has two different people representing two different ways of life. 
Love in a Fallen City has Chow Yun Fat’s character as a wealthy, westernized man. He speaks fluent English and is in business with the British. However, our female protagonist, played by Cora Miao, is from Shanghai and was brought up traditionally as a representation this important element of all Chinese culture. In my opinion Hui was attempting to find balance between the western world and traditional values through the uniting of these two characters. However, at the end of the film I got the impression that the woman had become much more western yet her lover did not become more traditional. There was a scene near the end of the film showing the couple cleaning their demolished house. He has taken on a more domestic characteristic in the end, which could be seen as his return to tradition. I interpreted it as the two rebuilding their lives together.

Miao’s characters evolution from a mainlander to a Hong Kong citizen can also be illustrated through her costume. In the very beginning, she was wearing a type of uniform that was worn by her entire family. The silhouette was very simple and the print was very washed out and plain. However, by the end it is difficult to distinguish her clothing from the other modern women around her. Chow Yung Fat’s character makes a reference to the difference between her traditional clothing versus her modern clothing. He says her prefers her traditional clothes. 

The theme of past and present is best illustrated by comparing Starry is the Night and July Rhapsody. Both films follow people who’s past loves have reappeared into their lives creating chaos in their personal lives. Starry is the Night follows a woman though the evolution of her different romances. The film uses flashback in unique ways to transfer back and forth between the past and present. Part of the film concentrates on the love affair she had with a professor while in college and the other part of the film concentrates on her present love affair with a young man who happens to be the son of her ex-lover. “The present becomes the means for the protagonist to relive the past” (Lo Wai 1999). There is a pivotal scene when the son meets his drunken father and the woman in a hotel room and they fight. This can be seen as Hong Kong’s conflict with their history and their future. 

This similar storyline is followed in July Rhapsody, in this film we follow a teacher and his family as they deal with the reappearance of the wife’s ex-lover. He feels alienated, almost betrayed, by his wife’s desire to care for the man who abandoned her. He begins a relationship with one of his free spirited students to counteract these feelings. The relationship between the teacher and student is an important, dynamic element in both films. The young girl can be seen as a representation of the future, not only because of her age, but her multi-cultural nature and her willingness to experience life to the fullest. She is not bound by tradition in the way the male protagonist is. There is a scene when he tries to explain what he wants out of life and he emphasizes wanting to be the best father, the best husband and the best teacher. While this makes him virtuous, he hasn’t experienced the world in the way she has. His desire for an ideal life is so strong that he never learned to let go. The young student opens, in some ways, a Pandora’s box into her teacher’s personal life and by the end of the film he and his wife discuss a separation. 

It is almost impossible to discuss a single element in Hui’s films because each element feeds into another. She achieves this through several different cinematic techniques. Firstly, Hui uses flashback so seamlessly in her films that if one doesn't pay attention it is easy to miss. The convention in the west when entering the subconscious is to use some type of visual or audio cue to signal the departure from reality. However, Hui uses no cues at all, she simply cuts from one consciousness to another. She relies on the audience’s ability to follow the story, which is difficult at times. 

Hui also uses voiceover to achieve the same effect. Voiceover is used in her films to give the audience some insight to the internal conflict of the characters. In these three films, she uses this technique at the end as a way of closure. However, closure isn't what she gives us, all three stories end rather ambiguously. This is because she also uses voice over to show the viewer that the stories of these people continue on after the end of the film. 

One important story element incorporated into all three films is the theme of coincidence. This is where Hui gets the drama for her pieces. None of the three stories could happen if it wasn’t for rather unlikely coincidence. For example, in Starry is the Night, is seems a little far-fetched that an older professional woman would fall for a sixteen year old kid that just happened to be the son of her ex-lover. However, these chance encounters, are not over played. This is true with all three films. When watching the film the audience will accept the coincidence because she uses it to great effect. 

Hui’s uses of color and camera movement are also worth discussing because she doesn’t make creative choices arbitrarily. One running theme I saw thoughout all three films was the use of low camera angels and extreme low angels. Very rarely are we looking down on the characters and the characters seem to be looking up at each other during important moments in the characters journey. The only exception is the beginning of Love in a Fallen City. The male protagonist mentions several times how good the female protagonist is at ‘looking down’. I found this element of Hui’s film particularly interesting because Yasujiro Ozu is another director who uses low camera angles as a way of showing that everyone is flawed and no one should be looked down upon. 

Hui’s use of color within the setting is also very interesting. All three of these films had a cool color tint to them. She uses blue, green and purple as a way of showing the alienation of the individuals as they reluctantly taken on a journey. (Lo Wai, 1999) The only time when warm colors are used is during the flashback sequences of July Rhapsody to represent a happier time of the teachers life. All three films also take place in cramped spaces to show the trapped feeling the characters feel in their present situation. She also uses color as a way of separating the human world from nature. In July Rhapsody she uses the color red as a way of representing not only the girls free spirit, but also the separation the man has from the natural world. 

One theme that has helped define Ann Hui is her metaphor of the child without a mother. In the beginning of Love in a Fallen city there is a scene showing a child on the street crying for her mother, a moment later however we cut back to the female protagonist who is seeking, but not receiving, any comfort from her mother. The protagonist says that she can no longer live at home and she travels to Hong Kong only to find out that she is out of place there too. This can be seen as Hong Kong existing with out the motherland. Lo Wai asks, “ Can we say that a mother’s importance to a child is comparable to that of a country to its people?” (1999) To answer his question, I believe that a country is essential to any culture. It creates a sense of community and a sense of history that those who are displaced can’t experience. This is not necessarily as large of a conflict in America because we are, for the most part, a large landmass with one government. I think many Americans would find it difficult to understand Hong Kong’s complex with the mainland. The relationship between Hong Kong and China is a running theme not only in Hui’s films but in many other filmmakers as well. 

Love in a Fallen City has the most to offer in terms of the mother complex. The female protagonist feels alienated from the other women in her family, including her mother because of her divorce. Her family is very large and her parents feel burdened by the added responsibility she brings. With so many children’s, her parents literally treat their daughters like cattle in an attempt to marry them all off as fast as possible. The female protagonist’s divorce coupled with the lack of sympathy from her family causes her to lose that connection with mother and with home. 

A lot of this can be equated with the personal life of Hui herself, which makes them all the more powerful. Being of mixed race, Japanese and Chinese, it is understandable why she brings the theme of the motherland into not just this film, but the majority of her films as well. Hui is also very multicultural and this is an important element in all her films. She was born on the mainland, educated in London and she has worked in both Hong Kong and China. This has given her a broad range of experiences to draw upon. She doesn’t simply make Hong Kong films for people in Hong Kong, she makes her films for the people of the world and her themes are relatable everywhere.

One subtle multi-cultural element Hui adds to July Rhapsody is the bi-lingual ability of the girl. The two main characters discuss her ability to speak Japanese. And throughout her day-to-day activities she uses several English phrases. This could be showing that the Chinese are not as isolated as they once were. The young suffer less from the motherland complex; they are able to embrace the future much easier than those who emigrated. 

The future is another element that plays out very subtly in Hui’s films. She does not attempt to create a fictionalized future. She keeps her stories rooted in reality. This is illustrated best by the end of July Rhapsody and Love in a Fallen City. In July Rhapsody, at the end of the film we see a boat floating off into the unknown while a voice over poetically talks about the Yangtze River. At the end of Love in a Fallen City there is no particular image that represents an unknown future but she leaves the ending so ambiguous that we know the future of this couple is uncertain. Even the end of Starry is the Night is completely ambiguous with both characters entering a new phase of life.

Her unwillingness to create a future can be parallel with her political agenda on some level. Many of her films, including Starry is the Night and Love in a Fallen City, have political and social agendas. However, Hui attempts to be objective about the situation and doesn’t paint either side as good or evil. Near the end of Love in a Fallen City, we see a short battle scene between the British and the Japanese, we don’t see any of the Japanese soldiers and the British soldiers seem to approach the battle formulaically. While the British refer the Japanese as ‘Japs,’ there doesn’t seem to be any obvious contempt for them as a people. 

One could interpret this as Hui’s being unwilling to speak badly about a significant portion of her heritage, but I see it more as Hui’s unwillingness to judge who is right and wrong in war. Patricia Brett Erens says, “ One of the strengths of Hui’s work is her refusal to become a propagandist. She has been very vocal about her unwillingness to take sides on political issues.” She goes on to explain that Hui’s is not interested in perpetuating any social system and she prefers to highlight the pros and cons of all governments. (Erens, 2000)

Starry is the Night highlights the social problems and changes facing Hong Kong. It is important to know that not all changes to Hong Kong were negative. There were many different elements that shaped this region into one of the most modern cities in the world. One of the most profound changes was the change in the way people viewed themselves. Traditionally, the Chinese did not recognize the ego; there was a rigidly constructed social structure that placed the self at the bottom. China had always been about the collective mentality. But with the British colonization, people began to adopt a western way of seeing the self. People began to take control of their own destinies and became more motivated by their own personal desires. This can be seen in both July Rhapsody and Starry is the Night

In July Rhapsody the young girl is a representation of the western way of viewing the self. There are two specific incidents that illustrate this point. Firstly, when the teacher approaches her and tells her that he knows about her feelings, she asks him to respect her freedom. This situation simply wouldn’t happen in traditional china. For a young girl to actively flirt, essentially giving herself to a married man who also happens to be her teaching and superior would have never been tolerated. The fact that the male character feels that he needs to respect her freedom is also a difference between modern Hong Kong society and traditional mainland society. The second example from this film comes at the end. While sitting on a train, the teacher and the student talk about what they hope to achieve in the future. During her discussion she says that she always gets what she wants. This shows that the youth of Hong Kong think more along the lines of westerners rather than their ancestors.

Starry is the Night also has a scene, which highlights the progression of Hong Kong in to the future. The female protagonist has decided to throw away her career in order to pursue her dreams of romance. When her associates attempt to change her mind they ask her not to be selfish. She responds with, “Hong Kong has its present achievements because everyone is selfish enough.” The idea of selfishness and abandoning ones responsibilities to follow ones dreams is, in some ways, a western creation, but and universal problem that is faced even by people who do not recognize the ego. 

Ann Hui’s work is basically social-realism. But she incorporates poetic and lyrical elements that give many of her films a dream like quality. This is also emphasized by her editing techniques which blend time and space to create a 360-degree view of a characters world. These three films represent a wide range of Hui’s work along with the expansion of her style. 

Love in a Fallen City is her earliest work of the group and by just looking at the surface of this film juxtaposed against the other two, it is obvious that this film is the most political. It goes as far to show actual wartime conflict and destruction. Starry is the Night is also political but on a much more subconscious level. The characters are aware of the conflicts and protests happening in the late 1980’s but the conflicts don’t affect the lives of the characters directly. July Rhapsody on the other hand is completely apolitical in my opinion. There were no references to any broad social concern and the story is completely absorbed into the characters. 

Another political idea that isn’t mentioned but is apparent in Hui’s work is the idea of “One country, Two systems” idea perpetuated by the Chinese government to ease the tension in the pre-handover era. This is illustrated by Love in a Fallen City and July Rhapsody, through both films two main characters. One represents one system and the other, another system, yet both are Chinese.

Love in a Fallen City is the better example because the female protagonist embodies China not just though expository language, but though gesture, movement and expression. One of my favorite moments of the film is when she is standing in a mirror at home dancing a traditional dance in a mirror. This could be seen as China reflecting on its own beauty and customs. Also, while the other women in the film are running around and being vivacious, she sits quietly observing, unsure what to think about it. The other women, especially the female antagonist, find her to be dull but similarly, they do not know what to think of her. This can be compared to the struggle between Hong Kong and China before the take over. Neither region knows what to think of the other.

Despite the subject matter, each story is about a journey. “ In Ann Hui’s films, the person in the middle of the journey does not want to begin the journey in the first place; in other worlds, the journey is involuntary.” (Lo Wai 1999). This is shown in Love in a Fallen City very successfully. The female protagonist does not want to leave home until she comes to understand the resentment her family feels towards her. When a wealthy woman offers to take her to Hong Kong, she sees it as her only option. Lo Wai goes on to say “Circumstance require one to leave the community and the motherland; yet, the person, like seaweed, cannot put down roots in the new place.” When she reaches Hong Kong she feels completely out of place and isolated. It isn’t until she returns to Shanghai, in a home of her own, is she able to find comfort. 

The idea of displacement and replacement are also important to this theme. In many of my readings I came across the word ‘Diaspora,’ many times. This word refers to Jews being scattered around the Middle East after they left Babylon. Lo Wai translates this word into “san ju, which means scatter inhabitation or more poetically haiwai fuyou which means floating abroad.” Although none of the stories take place abroad this idea can be seen if one looks deeper into each character's situation. Although these characters are not abroad, the idea can be inverted and can be used to discuss the characters own feelings of floating without a destination.

To really have an understanding of Hui’s style I would have to experience more of her films. She incorporates so many different elements into her films that it is impossible to speak of them all. There are, of course, particular themes she is fond of such as the complex between mother and child, political and social dynamics and the journey. Her style changes over time, her earlier films were more socially concerned and the stories and settings were grittier. However, her newer films are more melodramatic and sentimental (Erens, 2000). Both styles, in my opinion, suit her. 

Ann Hui has had and enormous impact on filmmaking not only in Hong Kong but also all over the world. She coalesces many different genres, themes and characteristics. Some say that Hui is a pessimist, however, I do not see this. The ends of these films are filled with hope for a better future despite the ambiguity. She is a humanist. She doesn’t judge who is good and who is evil or who is right and who is wrong. She has an unmatched ability to objectively look at the human condition and make it accessible to anyone willing to spend time with her films. 

(This is a term paper I wrote a few years back while still in college. I have to give props to my professor Joelle Collier who really instilled in me a love of Hong Kong cinema)

What do you think of Ann Hui? Comment below!

Friday, November 29, 2013

Hunger Games: Catching Fire - Shit Just Got Real...

Directed By: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland

Strap in ladies and gentlemen. 
I have written about The Hunger Games a few times in the past, if you want to catch up on what I've already said, check out The Hunger Games: Girls Rule and Hunger Games Trailer.

If you read this blog with any regularity you'll know that I am a huge Hunger Games fan and was extremely excited for the release of this film. So excited in fact, even my job couldn't supersede my desire to see this film and I left a pretty fancy event a bit early in order to make it to the theater.

The excitement and buzz in the theater was palpable and my eagerness was mirrored back in the faces and jittering of those around me. My friends and I talked about how great it feels to have something to help fill the vacuum left by the end of Harry Potter. While the Hunger Games is certainly no Harry Potter, this franchise film has a ton of power behind it and gives us a reason to go to the theater on a weekday.

There will obviously be those who say that the Hunger Games is pulpy young adult fiction without much substance, but I am not so quick to dismiss it. Currently, young adult books and the movies they spawn are huge. They are reaching audiences of all ages and resonating with people from many diverse demographics. I have discussed my dislike of the books in past reviews, so I am not going to compare the two at length. But the movies are strong and stand quite well on their own. It is not worth reading the books before you see the movie. This story plays much better on screen than it does in print.

Right out of the gate, Catching Fire has a bit of a different metabolism and a different tone than the first film. There is a marked sense of change which can only be the result of Gary Ross being replaced by Francis Lawrence in the directors chair. Besides capturing the theme more successfully than the first film, Catching Fire was far more cinematic in its execution, and more believable as a not too distant future universe.

Austrian director Francis Lawrence (no relation to star Jennifer Lawrence), is far less experienced than Gary Ross (The Hunger Games, Pleasantville), and 15 years his junior. But Lawrence comes from a different, more pop-culture perspective with films such as, Water for Elephants, Constantine, I am Legend as well as a decent collection of music videos for artists like Green Day, Britney Spears and OK Go. His sensibility works well with grandeur of this franchise whereas Gary Ross's more classical techniques were lost on a younger generation of viewers.

Catching Fire opens on the shore of an icy lake with Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) crouched in silhouette against the silvery-blue forest landscape, her bow and arrows draped across her back. It was quite memorable, it's one of my favorite frames in the entire film. Katniss is unique in the current high grossing film climate, a female heroine is rare gem in a sea of male leading roles, though I see the trend changing. Opening with Katniss in such a powerful and stoic position really set the pace for this film.

It is easy to get drawn into the story whether or not you're a hardcore fan. We get a much closer look at District 12 and the nation of Panem which sets the stage for the rest of the series. In the beginning of the film Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) travel throughout the other 11 districts on a post-games 'Victory Tour.' Upon arriving in District 11, the nation of Panem, beyond Katniss's home district of 12, begins to come into focus. We see that widespread poverty, and militaristic security isn't limited to 12 and the inequality between the Capital and everywhere else is put in stark contrast.

This is perhaps one of the greatest strength of this film. Previously, we didn't get a chance to see the system that created the districts, the circumstances that lead to the inception of the Hunger Games or the political overtones entrenched in the theme of the story. However, much of that comes through in the first several scenes of Catching Fire. The source of these story elements come mostly from the dialogue scenes between President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Philip Seymour Hoffman is arguably the most significant addition to the cast. As head game maker he is vast in his talent, but he plays his character with great subtlety. While he has few scenes, with only a handful of lines, he leaves an impression. His scenes with Donald Sutherland are like watching two wise sages casually talk over glass of fine scotch. There is a calm, thoughtfulness that comes through in their scenes that balances the hysteria seen throughout the rest of the film.

I don't want to spoil too much because I am sure some of you who are reading this are waffling on whether or not it's worth the time and money to see this film. While this might not be the best movie of the year, and suffers from strange pacing and a less than inspiring Hollywood venire, it still has plenty of redeeming qualities. The biggest draw is clearly the cast. The long list of top actors and actresses from different eras is incredible and gives a significant amount of credibility to the film over all.

We are all very familiar with the leading lady Jennifer Lawrence as she is currently America's sweetheart, and my favorite person. The Kentucky born star won her first Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook last year and has been on a very unique trajectory for an actress of her age. She is not only capable of carrying a massive franchise on her back with grace and a sense of humor, she is also a truly great actress with no fear.

I was satisfied with Lawrence's performance, but it's far from her best work. Most of that comes down to the writing. I feel as if the writers were working to instill some humanity into Katniss's rather stoic personality and ended up making her look overly weepy. I hope to see the writers resist that urge moving forward as we can expect two more Hunger Games films.

One of my favorite scenes is when Katniss and Peeta arrive in Rue and Thresh's district, District 11. We see the families of both fallen tributes standing above the crowd in tears as Peeta expresses his heartfelt thanks to Rue and Thresh for their bravery and kindness. However, it is when Katniss steps up to the microphone and talks about her 'friend' Rue, and the unfairness of her death that may reduce fans to quiet sobs. Rue's face and name are used as motifs throughout Catching Fire as a symbol of deep, systemic injustice.

We also get great performances from Josh Hutcherson, who is perfect for the role of Peeta, Sam Claflin who plays Finnick Odair, and Lynn Cohen who plays Mags. I won't spoil too much about Mags because her scenes were some of my favorites and she really gives this movie the character depth it needed. Mags is mute and elderly but she volunteers herself for the Hunger Games in place of a young woman who was driven crazy. Mags is sweet and kind, and bravely saves Finnick, Peeta and Katniss in the arena and just like with Rue's death, it was such an unfair way to go.

However, the most exciting addition to the cast for me is Jena Malone, who despite tons of talent and an impressive indie resume, hasn't been involved in major studio films for the past few years. Some of her most notable films include the cult classics Saved!, Sucker Punch, Into the Wild, and Donnie Darko. Each of these films have a special place in my heart. Malone is rather underrated in my opinion and I think her role in Catching Fire is perfect.

Malone plays Johanna Mason, a previous winner of the Hunger Games who secretly teams up with other tributes to take on the Capital. Johanna is a badass, perhaps even more badass than Katniss. She is cut throat yet seductive. She is a blood thirsty killer, but compassionate. She is also angry, but uses her anger to propll herself and those around her forward. Malone is so much fun to watch and I was glad that she was used to the extent that she was. She was the unconventional choice and it paid off.

Even though I am a fan, that doesn't keep me from noticing the glaring flaws in this film. The most obvious is the writing. Although the film followed the books almost to the letter, there was very little interpretation on the part of the director which gives the film a humdrum by the book formula that isn't as much fun to watch.  The dialogue was also sloppy, unbalanced and far from effortless. The actors seemed like their mouths were full or words that weren't necessary to move the story forward. There are many scenes, especially early in the film involving Gale and Katniss that I felt the film could have done without in favor of more character development, especially for Peeta and Heavensbee.

The cinematography is unremarkable with its overly glossy Hollywood veneer. I was disappointed but not surprised, though it still took a bit of soul out of the film. There was a lost opportunity to do something unexpected, gritty, and dark especially within the arena. However the entire film was one dimensional and didn't seem to culminate into anything substantial. The film felt too perfect, too steril. The imagery lacked depth, landscapes disappeared into nothing, the technology lacked intricacy, and the people looked and moved like plastic dolls. The futuristic interpretation was a bit of an uninspired Bauhaus that lacked visual detail.

The film was focused too heavily on the overly bloated script and runs about two and a half hours. That isn't unusual for a film of this magnitude, but I didn't feel like it was necessary. They could have told the same story in two hours and cut out several scenes of dialogue if they had instead focused on the type of detail that allows audiences to draw inferences.

Overall, the film is great if you're a fan. Even if you're not a fan you'll probably enjoy at least some aspects of the film. The actors performances are good, and fun to watch. The cinematography isn't terrible and there are a few beautifully crafted scenes. But the film does feel a little bit like the middle child. Francis Lawrence is slated to finish out the rest of the franchise as director, so it feels like he paid less attention to Catching Fire and is hoping to make some real impressions with Mockingjay Part 1 & 2. I hope that's the case.

B- : Great for fans, fun to watch, good acting, but the writing is bloated, cinematography is stale, the film lacked depth.

What did you think of the second installment of the Hunger Games series? Comment Below!

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Fashion Heat: 2013

As I have matured and earned more disposable income, I have grown a fairly modest interest in fashion. Beyond designing and hand-making most of the costumes for my films throughout my life, I have attended a few fashion shows over the years, and have photographed models both in the studio and on the runway. 

I am not much of a seamstress or consumer of high priced fashion items, but I do enjoy the craft on an esthetic level and appreciate talent when I see it. I recently went to a show here in Santa Fe that I think could be a catalyst for bringing Native fashion to the forefront for people interested in fashion, not trend.  

This years Santa Fe Independent Film Festivals Fashion Heat: Native Fashion 2013 was a really amazing show. With Mercedes Benz fashion about 6 weeks behind us, I'd understand if people are in a bit of a fashion coma. But the designers who presented their work in this show are unlike anything you will ever see under the white tents of NYFW. 

The show was essentially a platform for Project Runway's season 11 runner up Patricia Michaels, but also highlighted talented artist/designers Rose Simpson, Wendy Red Star, Naomi Bebo, Lloyd Kiva New, and Kay Bennett. Most of you will have no idea who these people are, and that's ok. But these designers exemplify the fact that there is innovative, truly original work being done in unexpected places. These are people worth getting to know. 

The clear difference I see with Native fashion that separates it so distinctly from more popular forms of design is the infusion of culture, tradition, art and style. You could never accuse a single one of these designers of being one-dimensional, nor could you say you've seen work like this before.

(Wendy Red Star)

(Wendy Red Star)

(Rose Simpson)

(Rose Simpson)

(Wendy Red Star)

(Wendy Red Star)

(Patricia Michaels)

Above are my images of the fashion show. Being a guest I didn't bring my working camera. However, the cell phone pictures from my Galaxy S3 aren't terrible. So far, the official images have not been published anywhere I can find. Hopefully we'll see some soon.