When reviewing Midnight in Paris, I noticed many have lump it in with some of Wood Allen’s more recent successes, such as Match Point and Vicky Christina Barcelona. Fine as those films are, I don’t think it’s fair that Midnight in Paris is being discussed alongside them. Midnight in Paris is a much better film and deserves to be discussed on its own.
Woody Allen’s latest is a wonderful love letter to Paris. The lovely opening montage captures the intoxicating allure of the city of love. Allen shows us Paris by day, where it’s all cafes and beautiful people smoking, Paris by night where it becomes a carnival of light and of course, Paris in the rain. As the montage fades to black and the opening credits appear, we hear Gil (Owen Wilson) gushing over Monet and the Parisian streets while his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) tries to get him to snap out of fantasy. Gil longs to move to Paris and become a novelist but Inez would rather he stop dreaming and continue to be a hack screenwriter in Hollywood. Throughout his career, Allen has always been interested in the notion of irony and here he plays with it again by having his couple slowly fall out of love in a city that’s synonymous with romance. Not only do they disagree on Paris, Gil and Inez can’t seem to agree on Paul (Michael Sheen), a friend of Inez who happens to be an expert in art, wine and dancing. Inez becomes more and more enthral by Paul’s tendency to pontificate on Rodin and Picasso while Gil finds it insufferable. On one faithful evening while Inez is out dancing with Paul, Gil wonders the Parisian streets alone when at the stroke of midnight a mysterious old-fashion taxi pulls in front of him and transport him back to the 1920s.
The array of famous or would be famous people that Gil encounters while in 1920s gives the film a light touch of fantasy that recalls Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo. We get to see the infamous Fitzgeralds (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill) throw wild parties and a moody Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) getting drunk with a young Luis Buñuel (Adrien de Van), and those are only some of the famous characters that show up. With so many large personalities onscreen, Woody keeps the film moving along by keeping each character’s appearance brief. Most of time, they aren’t even full fledge characters but personas of famous artists, writers and filmmakers that we have come to know through history. With so many actors threatening to still the show, Owen Wilson manages to hold his own and not fall into the trap of mimicking Woody Allen. He infuses each line with his familiar cadence but still manages to evoke Woody Allen at the same time. As Adriana, mistress and muse to Picasso, Marion Cotillard is nothing short of breathtaking. She’s gives her manic pixie dream girl character a refreshing spin by infusing her with pathos and humour that transcends the stereotypical mould. If there’s one flaw in the script it’s with how Inez is written. As good as Rachel McAdams is as an actress, she’s not able to have her character come across as anything more than the atypical bitch.
It’s also worth mentioning that Midnight in Paris is the first Woody Allen film to actually look like a Woody Allen film in a long time. Cinematographers Johanne Debas and Darius Khondji not only successfully capture the decadent beauty of Paris, they also manage to fill each frame with the warm autumn glow that has been sorely missing from Allen’s recent films.
Woody Allen’s latest is a charming little film that’s filled with delightful moments that manages to be engaging and funny. It feels timeless in the same way many of Allen’s best films feel timeless. It’s comforting to know that the old Woody Allen hasn’t completely disappeared; he just likes to drop in and visit from time to time.
When it comes to the films of Terrence Malick, there seems to be two distinct schools of thought. The arthouse crowd often use words such as “lyrical” and “majestic” to describe his films; while his detractors on the other hand like to use words such as “pretentious” and “boring”. With his latest opus Tree of Life, Malick has made a film that supports both sides of the argument.
Tree of Life is the sprawling story of the origin of the universe examined through a family in 1950s America. Brad Pitt stars as a father determined to teach his sons about the harshness of life. He toughens them up by berating them at the dinner table and warns them that “in life, you can never be too good.” He’s especially hard on his oldest son Jack (Hunter McCracken), going as far as encouraging him to hit him while giving him life lessons. As a perfect contrast to Brad Pitt’s aggressive patriarch is Jessica Chastain’s wife/mother. She’s compassion personified; trying to influence her sons’ lives with affection and grace.
Malick strings together various moments of the family while cutting forward occasionally to the future to show us a grownup Jack (Sean Penn) trying to come to terms with how his family has come to shape his life. Monologues that come across as being pleads to the omnipotent force that’s governs each person’s life drift in and out during the course of the film, creating an ephemeral sense of reality. But not being content on just examining life on a micro level, Malick temporary abandons the family and takes the viewer on an odyssey through the beginning time; complete with images of volcanic eruptions and dinosaurs roaming.
One must applaud Malick for taking on something so ambitious in scope and insisting on presenting it in his own idiosyncratic way. Going in, I was more intrigued about the esoteric parts involving the creation of the universe over the melodrama. As it turns out though, the parts that works best in the film are the quiet scenes involving the family. They’re engaging to watch because of how vividly they capture the joys and pains of being a family. Less successful are the grand scenes of meteor showers, the spawning of single-cell organisms and those damn dinosaurs. While they are fun to watch, they don’t really offer anything to the narrative and are more distracting than profound.
The actors in this film need to be singled out for helping Malick with the heavy lifting. Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain are marvellous as parents doing the best they can to bring-up their kids. The dynamic between the three brothers are easiest the lynchpin that holds the narrative together. As the eldest son Jack, Hunter McCracken is superb at conveying the bewilderment of adolescence. The most prestigious actor out of the bunch is probably Sean Penn and he’s surprisingly given very little to do. He sleepwalks his way through the entire film, never coming across as a fully developed character.
I’m going to take the easy way out of the Terrence Malick debate and say both camps are right. Tree of Life is beautiful to look at, unfolds in a hypnotic pace, but stumbles with its overarching themes and once again proves that Malick is still incapable of telling a precise story.
I’ve been a fan of Justin Vernon ever since I heard Bon Iver’s To Emma Forever Ago way back in 2008. I found that the fragility of Vernon’s falsetto combined with the shaky locked in a cabin production gave the songs a warm intimacy that set it apart from all the other indie stuff that was out there.
Now, three years later, Vernon is back with a second release eponymously titled Bon Iver and needless to say, expectations are high. On an initial listen, the new songs sound fuller but more obtuse. The melodies seem to be there but buried beneath layers and layers of instrumentation and noise. Vernon’s trademark voice is once again front and center, the only difference this time is that it’s much more distorted and covered in reverb.
With a few more spins though, the songs start to creep up on you and the nuisances start to become more apparent. The various sound motifs start to become more apparent and the instrumentation begin to take on a more celestial feel.
Bon Iver is a beautifully constructed headphone album that may initially come across as distant and alienating but the more you listen to it the more the songs stand out. It may not be what fans of the first album were expecting, but Vernon and co have crafted an album that’s every bit as melancholic and melodic as its predecessor.
Matthew Vaughn’s latest addition to the X-men franchise is a highly entertaining look at Professor X and Magneto and how they came to be. Set in 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis the prequel wastes no time in setting up the stakes. Vaughn juxtaposes the young Erik Lensherr’s dark past in a German concentration camp with a flashback of the young Charles Xavier inviting Raven (Mystique) to stay with his family. Right from the start, the movie shows us Erik and Charles are diametrically opposed in everyway. One’s life is shrouded in horror while the other is sheltered by privilege. One’s mutant ability stems from fear and anger while the other comes from a place of curiosity and acceptance. What’s compelling about the movie is watching these two opposing forces forge a friendship and then watching it deteriorate slowly. As the idealistic Charles Xavier, James McAvoy finds the right balance between charisma and naivety. Michael Fassbinder on the other hand does a masterful job of playing off of McAvoy’s charm by infusing his Magneto with a quiet rage that could erupt in any moment.
Both leads are excellent and do the bulk of the heavy lifting but when they’re not onscreen the movie struggles to sustain momentum. Vaughn and his screenwriters jam way too many characters into the story without fully developing their stories. As a result, good actors such as Oliver Platt, Rose Bryne and Jennifer Lawrence are wasted in roles that don’t add up to much. The always good Kevin Bacon does a commendable job as the vile Sebastian Shaw but even he isn’t given much to chew on.
Finally what most fans of the franchise will appreciate is how the numerous cameos are handled here. Familiar faces appear throughout movie and for once it’s not a distraction. They’re brief, fun and manage to pay homage to Bryan Singer’s two movies.
As far as summer blockbusters go, you can do a whole lot worse than X-Men: First Class. Does anybody remember X-Men: The Last Stand? Just be grateful it’s Matthew Vaughn at the helm and not Brett Ratner.