Monday, November 29, 2010

Away We Go

Just six months after introducing us to one of the most unlikable and miserable movie couples viewers had ever seen in "Revolutionary Road", director Sam Mendes takes us on a little detour from his usual style/genre and allows us to meet one of the most likable on-screen pairings in recent years with "Away We Go".

TV's John Krasinski is the amiable goof-ball and insurance-futures' salesman Burt and SNL alum Maya Rudolph (in a quietly revelatory performance built on her gift of perfectly timed facial expressions) is his long-time girlfriend Verona who does illustrations for medical textbooks. Suddenly they find themselves pregnant and searching for a real home in this semi-autobiographical tale from scribes Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida. The pair, untethered to their current situations, decide to travel all over North America visiting family and friends so that they might find that perfect spot to lay down roots. Fans of Eggers' books should be pleased that the screenplay is imbued with his popular brand of sharp humor mixed with diluted sentimentality. The tale of these two thirty-somethings trying to do the right thing not only for themselves but for their daughter-to-be is filled with humor and warmth that allows us to relate to both the chaos around the characters and their desire to shield their baby from it.

Under Mendes surprisingly laid-back director's hand, the material and the performances rise above the clichés of the "she's having a baby!" sub-genre of dramedies while successfully interweaving elements of "discovering yourself on a road trip" indie flicks. Episodic and sometimes meandering in nature, the film's acts range from laugh-out-loud hilarious (including a scene-stealing Allison Janney making a bid for worst mother of the year in grand comedic style) to laughably absurd (witness Maggie Gyllenhaal as a self-righteous alterna-mom with an unfounded hatred towards strollers) to unexpectedly poignant (in an unexpected side-trip to Miami to help Burt's brother through a crisis). You won't find any screamingly awful delivery room scenes here, and while there is some semi-crude sexual humor, it's reality-based instead of raunchy and never overshadows the film's heart.

As with any Mendes' production, the cinematography (this time from Ellen Kuras) is artistically sound and serves as the perfect place for Mendes to paint his details. When the director uses a steady tracking shot moving through the passengers on a plane in mid-flight to focus in on the sun's hazy golden light coming through the windows highlighting the faces of our two stars sitting side-by-side, you can see Burt and Verona unified in a yearning pensive loneliness that makes you instantly root for their success. The promise of that scene is wonderfully fulfilled in the closing act (the details of which I will not divulge) which is probably the most hopeful denouement -- beautifully understated and with minimal dialogue -- you will ever find in a Mendes' film. As with anything in life, even in the most hopeful of atmospheres there is still some uncertainty, but if we're lucky, we'll see the talented Maya Rudolph in more lead roles and Sam Mendes will take time for more pleasant detours such as this.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Elite Squad

Kinetically filmed, "Tropa de Elite" reaches the dizzying heights of Fernando Meirelles' "Cidade de Deus", as not so much as a photocopy but more as a cinematic twin brother. Film focuses on the brutal, abet necessary foundations of Tropa de Elite, a one hundred strong company of men who swings into action when normal police gets held up themselves. Intense amount of corruption and violence is present here, however brilliantly fleshed out characters lifts the film from being trite after the 1000th gunshot.

The film being presented in two parts, we are indulged into an extended prologue to get acquainted with the protagonists: Captain Nascimento, feeling the stress as a 0-1, is on the lookout for a substitute between André Matias, a law student cum policeman struggling with his own identity and Neto, the ideal candidate as his replacement who's violent and relentless to a fault. Accompanied by a sometimes distracting voice over, the audience is given proper time to find themselves immersed in the narrative and characters. Even if the film's screenplay explodes every second of its almost 2-hour running time, personality development is not left on the back seat, to much relief.

Andre Ramiro's performance as André Matias is pitch perfect. Practically the film's moral backbone, he elucidates the distinction between pretending to know and knowing. The best scenes in the picture not involves scenes of brazen violent explosions but his rationalizing and character driven moments. The film uses his character to deter the judgmental audience from pretending to know but reminds them they know nothing.

Padilha is in control of the film until its very last shot; able to summon his own elite squad of cinematographers and sound technicians. The production values are top notch indeed, as the cinema also explodes with every bang and boom. Filmed in cinema verite, it gathers up inspiration from previous war-themed films – from the tones and hues of the mentioned "Cidade de Deus" to Alfonso Cuaron's blood splatter on the screen technique from "Children of Men". With the sound and images pushing the audience to its nauseating edge, full immersion is delivered without breaking a sweat.

Comparison to "Cidade de Deus" should be complementary, as "Elite" tackles the impotent depiction of policemen by the former. In fact, it acts as its contemporary, acting as if it exists on the same universe. It demands merit in its own right though, as the film is well staged like its depiction of training the elite, making it an involving exercise, not seen since Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket".

Immersive, hypnotic and engaging, "Tropa de Elite" guarantees Padilha to be noticed on a more mainstream circuit. Previously delivering "Onibus 174", also tackling the same themes of nurture and consequence as a catalyst to violence, he is able to comment on sensitive themes without being too preachy and also able to wrap it in a well produced package. Film is definitely an above average fare and is essential to be experienced on the big screen, just for its sound design alone.


After the third world war had ended, the survivors realised that mankind would not be able to survive much longer if it didn't tackle the thing that makes them fight - emotion. To tackle the drive to hurt and hate, the Government issues drugs to sedate the populace from the highs or lows of feeling. Meanwhile the police round up those who still feel and destroy art, books and anything that would stir feeling. The heads of these police are the elite Clerics. John Preston has always been a Cleric, but the failure of his partner and an encounter with a feeler start him thinking and feeling.

With sighs of `matrix clone' and `cashing in', I, like many viewers overlooked this film in favour of other things that may have come across as more original. However, in the mood for a bit of slick action, I rented this film and was pleasantly surprised by it. The plot may not be original - but what is these days? The film has shades of 1984 and Brave New World about it and it uses these ideas reasonably well. The concept does fall down a little bit with too much thought but on the surface it works well enough to suffice for a sci-fi action movie - the running time doesn't allow for much more than superficial thought here, although there is enough in this future to be thought provoking.

The action is good considering the low budget involved here. Yes, it's all very much thanks to the influence of the Matrix but at least it is quite stylish and exciting in it's own right rather than just being a lazy copy. The action scenes are well spread out over the film and they have good pace despite being very much style over substance. The explanation for all the acrobatics and semi-invincibility here is not as good as the explanation/justification for the same in Matrix, but again it is acceptable for this level of film. If anything, the plot goes too fast and too far - it is difficult to accept that things happen so fast, but generally it works.

The cast is a strange mix but works. The thing that surprised me was the sheer number of British actors in the cast. Bale is good in the lead role despite his American accent, he is pretty cool and manages to do the emotional change required despite the rush enforced on him by the film. Diggs is disappointing - his character doesn't get enough screentime and he doesn't fulfil the role of rival to Bale, he is a good looking guy but that isn't enough here. The support cast features Bean, Pertwee, Connelly, Fincher and McFadyen but really it is totally Bale's movie and he does pretty well to make it together.

Overall this is not a great film but it is an enjoyable action sci-fi that manages to produce an interesting, if unoriginal plot and some slick and fun action that is no less slick or fun for being a low rent version of The Matrix's effects. Well worth a Friday night look!