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127 Hours

A Triumph
Sometimes (even oftentimes) in the world of film criticism, the word "triumphant" is thrown around. It's often used to describe a film, perhaps more often a performance. I've certainly used it; it's a term I like to pull out when a film seems to go beyond the call of duty. When it's more than art, entertainment, or a combination of both. When the story, images, and characters pop off the screen and go with you, and the lasting impression left on you means something more than having killed a couple hours in a big, dark room with a bunch of strangers. Now, after watching 127 Hours, I feel I've never used "triumphant" in the correct critical context before.

James Franco's performance is simply astounding. He, as an actor, is triumphant because his character is, and because he delves into what it means to be bringing this incredible story to life on the big screen for mass consumption. This is a tough role - Franco is basically putting on a one-man show, and he does so elegantly. We feel Aron Ralston's pain because Franco feels his pain and shows it in every line of his face, verbalizes it with every sigh, and lets it control him even as he battles to take control back and find a way out of his dire situation.

It's pure, masterful art. Franco is simply flawless. Trapped by the boulder, much of his performance lies in his facial expressions, and he is able to deftly switch from desperation to comedy to a brutal will to survive, all while being barely able to move. I've rarely been so impressed by an actor's work; Franco is wholly deserving of the Oscar.

Danny Boyle's kinetic, energetic direction is a perfect match for Franco's easy-going goofiness, and even when the film becomes grounded in the narrow canyon where Ralston was trapped, Boyle always keeps things interesting. He and co-writer Simon Beaufoy weave flashbacks and hallucinations into Ralston's dilemma to great, heart-breaking effect, and the premonition that drives Ralston to finally dive whole-heartedly into amputating his own arm is breath-taking in its tenderness.

Also impressive is Enrique Chediak and Anthony Dod Mantle's cinematography. Instead of letting the confined space limit their camera techniques, they tackle every possible angle, often bringing the audience uncomfortably close to the action. Shots through the bottom of Ralston's water bottle mark time and heighten the sense of urgency. The addition of home movie-style footage brings Ralston even closer to the audience; when he expresses his delayed gratitude to his family, you'll likely find yourself thinking about the last time you told your parents how much you love them. It's a great device, and is put to best use in one of the film's funniest scenes, when Ralston interviews himself Gollum-style. The combination of the dark humor, varied cinematography, and Franco's impressive facial dexterity pitch the scene perfectly; it's a lighter moment that is nevertheless grounded in the gravity of the situation.

Complementing and combining Chediak and Mantle's beautiful shots is Jon Harris's dynamic editing. The use of split-screen is particularly brilliant, put to use in innovative ways throughout the film: the bookend sequences mark Ralston's departure from and return to society, and the technique in general represents the multiple facets of a seemingly simple tale. Yes, when it comes down to it, 127 Hours is a film about a mountain climber who gets stuck under a boulder and has to cut off his own arm. But it's so much more than that. It's about a man overcoming the physical, emotional, and intellectual strains of an unthinkable situation. It's about responsibility, love, and the will to live. Above all, it's about the triumph of the human spirit, show more clearly and beautifully here than in any other film I can think of.

The Social Network

Timely and Timeless
I've been digesting The Social Network for a few days now, and I'm still not sure I'm ready to offer up my thoughts on it. It's rare for a film to make such an impact on me; true, Toy Story 3 tugged at my heartstrings, while Inception raped my mind, but The Social Network appeals to me on a different level. Perhaps it's because of its relevance to our times, like last year's Up in the Air. Unlike that film, though, The Social Network is especially pertinent to me, because Facebook is such a huge part of my life. It's something that (quite literally) connects us all, much like the shared experience of seeing a movie; this is even more true in this case, as the screening I attended was "sold-out," a free screening for Ohio State students. It's thrilling to think how each of us is a part of the story in some way. We are among the hundreds of millions who made this site the success it is; thus, the controversy. Thus, the film.

David Fincher follows up his beautiful, haunting Benjamin Button with something completely different. Set in our times, and on our computer screens, the drama of The Social Network isn't confined to a fantastical take on the past. Instead, it's a thrilling look at our present. Fincher directs a cast full of young, fresh faces through performances that show their potential and hint at their future success. He keeps the film moving at a perfect pace, building an appropriate momentum that matches the intense success story that is Facebook.

The structure is gorgeous, too. When the film first cuts to one hearing, then the other (as the film's tagline says, Zuckerberg makes a few enemies), you'll likely feel lost. There's no way to ground yourself in the images you're absorbing; the film just throws you in. This brilliant bit of editing portends the morally questionable path Zuckerberg heads down while also reflecting the very nature of Facebook. Just as you're unsure what exactly is happening in these first glimpses of the legal proceedings, so are Zuckerberg and company unsure of what Facebook is going to become. Numerous times throughout the film, characters admit to "not knowing what it is." It's huge, epic in a way that few things are. It spans the globe while being limited to screens. It's something profoundly modern, but handled with the film- making mastery of cinema's finest auteurs.

Perhaps the highlight of the film is Aaron Sorkin's phenomenal screenplay. The dialogue flies fast and sharp, ably including the techno-babble but tempering it with humor and enough layman's terms to keep the audience in the loop. The inclusion of multiple points of view lends the film a sense of fairness and accuracy. Of course you expect that there's exaggeration for the sake of being more cinematic, dramatic, or entertaining, but the extensive attention paid to each character makes the story easier to believe than other films based on true stories.

Sorkin's words sound perfectly acidic and natural coming out of Jesse Eisenberg. Eisenberg deserves awards attention for his performance as Zuckerberg; this is the role that will hopefully catapult him to the star status he so deserves (and has received in moderation after great turns in Adventureland and Zombieland). Andrew Garfield continues to impress as cofounder Eduardo Saverin; he now has three fantastic turns under his belt for the year, with Never Let Me Go yet to come (in my neck of the woods, at least).

Justin Timberlake's involvement in the film likely gave some film aficionados pause, but he's a natural fit for Napster founder Sean Parker. He exudes confidence, energy, and just the right amount of sleaziness. Also worth noting is Rooney Mara, who has a small role but does big things with it, and will get her chance to shine under Fincher's direction again as Lisbeth Salander in the American take on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

At two hours, The Social Network is a long movie but it never feels like it. The film possesses an elegance of design not unlike that of the website it revolves around. Every aspect of the film is handled just so; from the gorgeous cinematography to the great cast, from the fitting editing to the unforgettable writing. The Social Network is, perhaps, the film of the year. It's timely and timeless, a combination that few films can ever hope to achieve.

The Last Exorcism

An underwhelming effort
Ambiguity is a powerful tool for a writer, filmmaker, or any creative person. But there's a fine line between ambiguity and lazy storytelling. The Last Exorcism, unfortunately, makes use of the latter. The film poses many questions but doesn't feel the need to answer most of them, meaning at the end of the film, the audience isn't so much pondering the themes of religious doubt and the adverse effects of shame so much as wondering what the hell just happened.

The lack of clarity is only made more frustrating by the overly shaky handy-cam cinematography. I normally enjoy this mode of filmmaking, and it was proved to be effective for horror films in last year's phenomenal breakout Paranormal Activity, but Daniel (the cameraman) has a bit too shaky of a hand for the style to work well here. I actually got a headache from some of the later, jumpier scenes.

It's a shame the film meanders to such a laughable conclusion, because it starts with such promise. The first half hour or so is surprisingly funny, effectively parodying the genre (specifically exorcism-based horror films) and presenting a religious slant to the proceedings that makes things interesting initially but ultimately seems cheap and even stupid. Two fine performances from Patrick Fabian and Ashley Bell are wasted as the material goes from subtly self-reflexive to blatantly generic. The horror that unfolds along the way rarely generates any real scares, settling instead for bursts of weirdness, cheap jumps, and ultimately, an unattractive mixture of stupidity and discomfort.

Despicable Me

Lots to Love
Despicable Me's teasers and trailers seemed to represent a few different movies, and that's reflected by the general segregation of comedy styles that the film begins with. At the film's start, Gru (Steve Carrell) handles the dark comedy, the trio of orphans get the cutesy comedy, and the minions handle the slapstick. As the film progresses, though, these lines begin to blur, building to a strong emotional finale and a satisfyingly complete tale. (This is one of those rare non-Pixar animated films that doesn't seem destined for sequel-dom.)

The tale of rival villains isn't terribly original. Nor is the idea of a villain having his heart melted by adorable children. But the way Despicable Me blends these two ideas is just fantastic. There's humor, action, and heart -- what more could you want from an animated film?

Also notable is the way the star-studded voice cast handles their characters. While there are a ton of big names filling out the roster, most of them use accents which render them familiar but not too much so. It's a different route than many animated films take, and it's refreshing. Julie Andrews and Steve Carrell especially do well at straddling the line between their trademark voices and their characters' accents. The voice that steals the movie, however, is the adorable Elsie Fisher as Agnes. Almost every line gets either a laugh or an "Aw..." (On a related note, I love that the orphan girls are named Edith, Margo, and Agnes. I love old names for young people.)

The plot has enough twists and turns to keep things interesting, and the antics of the minions provide a nice side of fun to the proceedings. Also, their reaching contest during the credits is a fun use of 3-D that had the kids in the theater reaching for the screen.

Last year was a banner year for animation, and this year seems to be following suit. How to Train Your Dragon amazed, Toy Story 3 is one of the best animated films of all time, and Despicable Me impresses. A very pleasant surprise.

Toy Story 3

Another Pixar masterpiece
By now, it's become a cliché to say "Pixar has done it again." But that doesn't make it any less true.

Year after year, Pixar releases movies that leave audience's jaws on the floor. Toy Story 3 is no exception. With 15 years' worth of personal investment in the series, Pixar has crafted their most emotional outing yet. We've grown up with these characters (I was 5 when the first one came out, and as Andy heads off to college, I'm just home from my first year), so there's already a built-in connection. We care what happens to these toys. It's a world we're all familiar with: not just because the films have been around for a decade and a half, but because everyone has had toys and (probably) grown out of them. It's an interesting reflection of our reality, because as we flinch when Andy calls his toys "junk," we know that we've done the same.

I cried. A lot. On the way home, I cried some more. Pixar has done a simply beautiful job of finishing this series. It's always been fun to see the way the toys handle different aspects of life that are stressful for them: birthday parties, Christmas, yard sales. But having their owner grow up and leave them is something totally different. While many of the toys resign to their fate or even embrace the possibility of going to daycare, Woody's unflinching loyalty reminds us of why we love these characters so much in the first place. And these reasons are reiterated to great effect in the final, amazingly written and executed scene.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Toy Story 3 is the way all the different elements are blended so seamlessly. There's heart to spare, hilarious comedy, clever writing, and intense action sequences. In fact, I can't remember the last time I was so stressed out watching a movie. These toys have to run the gauntlet on their adventure, and it makes the "no toy left behind" policy even more affecting.

Genre lines are blurred, as well. The opening is an appropriate western/sci-fi mix that hearkens back to the first film. A large portion of the film takes on the characteristics of a prison break film to thrilling effect. Each generic evolution feels natural, making the movie increasingly complex and thus, the perfection with which it's pulled off that much more impressive.

As with all of Pixar's films, the technical aspects are dazzling. The animation is simply beautiful, especially the texturing that's achieved on some of the softer characters, like Lotso. The 3-D is well-implemented and utterly unintrusive. There are no gimmicks here; Pixar doesn't make things pop out of the screen to justify the heightened ticket prices. The film itself is worth the money, and the 3-D just makes everything look that much crisper and more gorgeous.

The voice cast is phenomenal as always. Tom Hanks and Tim Allen are still the perfect leading pair, and all their support is hilarious. The new additions to the cast are fantastic, as well. Michael Keaton as Ken gets a lot of the films biggest laughs. He captures just the right blend of sinister and clueless, with a healthy dollop of vanity to coat it all. Other new highlights include the wonderful Kristen Schaal and Timothy Dalton in small supporting parts.

The series also continues its tradition of great villains in the vein of Sid (who makes a subtle cameo as a garbage man) and the Prospector. This time, we get a terrifying pair in the form of the cute and cuddly Lotso and the horrific, droopy-eyed Big Baby, who recalls the claw- bodied doll head from the first film. The pair make an interesting team and are given a backstory that makes them more sympathetic than most film villains. Their flashback is reminiscent of Jessie's in the second film (although there's no heart-breaking song accompanying it).

Randy Newman is back in the music department and delivers an appropriately flexible and exciting score. He also provides a great new song to the Toy Story canon: "We Belong Together" (can you think of a better title?), which plays over the credits as fun extra scenes help relieve the emotional load.

Simply put, Toy Story goes above and infinitely beyond my highest hopes and expectations. It tugs at the heartstrings in a genuine way. In typical Pixar fashion, there's no emotional trickery being pulled here. Pixar's focus has always been on story, and with their latest masterpiece, they've brought their first story to a beautiful, fitting close. I couldn't be happier.

The Lovely Bones

Not so lovely
The Lovely Bones is one of those books that just doesn't work as a movie. Voice-over is a tough tool to use well in a film (as Adaptation taught all of us), and when the work being adapted is so focused on a subjective narrator, it's hard to translate to the big screen. Where a book works with words, a movie should be able to use (mostly) images. In The Lovely Bones, Susie Salmon is an almost obnoxiously intrusive narrator, never allowing the characters she's describing to become rounded or anything more than objects she's observing. It's frustrating and drains the film of the assumedly inherent emotional weight, because we, as viewers, never get the chance to get to know the characters in a meaningful way.

The exception is, as you may expect, Susie, but even with her, we barely scratch the surface, as she spends most of her time wandering wide-eyed through pretty, but plastic-y scenery and watching scenes from Earth. Saoirse Ronan, so talented in Atonement, gives another strong performance, especially considering the often-clunky dialogue she's given. Though she's removed from the main events of the movie, she still serves as the emotional core, and Ronan handles the range well, even if it is limited by Susie's actual presence in the story.

The supporting cast is pretty tame. Susan Sarandon and Rachel Weisz, both immensely talented actresses, are reduced to one-dimensional versions of Alice Sebold's better-written characters. But luckily, Stanley Tucci is given (just) enough screen time to perfectly capture the creepiness of George Harvey. Between this role and that of Julia Child's husband in Julie & Julia, Stanley Tucci had a truly tremendous year, and all his accolades are well-deserved. His scenes with Ronan, in particular, are haunting and tense.

The actual story, however, is severely butchered from the book, which in some cases is a good thing, but overall, everything is left too lean to have any resonance. Ruth and Ray are barely featured, Buckley only has a few scenes, and the absence of Mrs. Salmon's affair with Len leaves him as a character who has almost no purpose, beyond providing a foil for Mr. Salmon's obsessiveness (this is a good time to note that Mark Wahlberg is, thankfully, much better here than in The Happening).

Instead of spending time on character development, Peter Jackson instead focuses on creating a dreamy "in-between" for Susie to frolic in. If you've seen the previews, you've seen all of the dreamscapes, and while they are creative and sometimes cleverly mirror the action unfolding on Earth, the special effects leave much to be desired. Some of the scenes look like they're taken from Super Mario Galaxy, while others look like they're made of plastic. Most of the interesting visuals are crammed into a single montage of Susie playing with her annoying friend Holly, while the others throughout the film all focus on the gazebo/lighthouse motif. It's tiring and repetitive.

Alice Sebold's novel walked a fine line between murder story, family drama, and odd fantasy, never swaying too far into the sentimental or weird, but Peter Jackson has made a film that swings back and forth into both realms, sometimes going right for the heart (and missing, mind you), and other times presenting images that don't make much sense at all, even within the film's conceit. It's a disappointing adaptation, but there are bright spots, if you can stomach all the muck surrounding them.


The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Magical but flawed
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus places style far ahead of substance, and the film obviously suffers because of it, but when the style is this stylish, and when you have such a talented cast, the film still remains worth seeing. The worlds inside Terry Gilliam's mind are truly awe-inspiring. Even within the real world, there are lots of exciting details and colorful costumes. But when the characters head through the mirror into a world shaped by their imaginations, the movie becomes almost unbearably beautiful. The visual effects tend toward cartoony and exaggerated, appropriate considering their context, and the resulting scenery is jaw-dropping.

Unfortunately, the focus on creating these stunning fantasy worlds leads to a lack of narrative strength. There is an underlying plot (a few, actually), but the threads are all terribly tangled and cut up, leading to a sense of babbling incoherence. The pacing isn't consistent enough; when Heath Ledger's character shows up, the film falls into a vat of narrative molasses, and it takes a while for the pace to pick back up. Too much time in the real world, when we know what's waiting on the other side, is hard to tolerate.

The performances are consistently good. Christopher Plummer is especially impressive as the titular doctor; the torment of what he's done, the guilt and loss of hope, show in every line of his face and in the blankness of his gaze. Heath Ledger is spirited in his last role, but what makes the part more interesting are the interpretations by other actors. Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell all make appearances within the dreamworlds, and the results are fascinating and eerie. They all look quite alike and play the character spot-on while still retaining their unique identities as actors. It's a fun viewing experience, to be sure.

Despite the narrative woes, the great cast, rampant imagination, and beautiful art direction make Doctor Parnassus worth seeing, especially on the big screen. I have to imagine the wonders would lose some of their power on a TV.



Flawed but beautiful
Before I start, my rating of 50% isn't a denouncement of this movie's quality. In truth, I'm completely torn about this movie. It was gorgeous in many ways, and the meaning bubbling beneath the surface is intriguing, but at the same time, it's absolutely horrific and disturbing. I wouldn't recommend this movie to anyone, simply because it's impossible to enjoy this movie. Respect it, certainly. Admire it, perhaps. But I can't imagine anyone wanting to see this movie more than once.

My main problem with this film is the lack of context it provides. The plot is paper-thin, so laying on awkward animal/astrological symbolism feels almost pretentious (it's a tough call). The movie, instead of focusing on a coherent story, delves deeper into the psychological, specifically the way male and female minds understand and relate to each other. The movie seems anti-feminist, perhaps because of the way it discusses the natural evilness of mankind, and, more specifically, womankind. This is surely demonstrated in Charlotte Gainsbourg's character, and when considered on a wider scale, all evil people come from a woman, right?

Without much of a plot, and with little foundation for the characters before Her descent into grieving madness begins, it's hard to care much about the characters. That's not to say the performances aren't impressive, because they are. Both Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe handle both the grisly and the ridiculous ("CHAOS REIGNS!") very ably. Were it not for the film's incredibly controversial, hard-to-digest nature, Oscar nominations wouldn't be completely out of the question. As it is, the performances stand as one of the aspects that even turned- off audiences can admire (and audiences will definitely be turned off by this movie: three of the six people in my theater left before the film's end).

The other inarguable positive element of Antichrist is the beautiful, almost poetic cinematography. There's a great mixture of long, high-angle shots and more frenzied, hand-held close-ups as the violence intensifies. The extensive use of slow-motion (and the general slow pace of the movie) adds to the dreamy aspect of the film, and the jarring editing leads to a heightened sense of disconnect from what's happening on screen. It reflects both Her fractured psychology and the disjointed narrative itself.

The narrative is broken into three chapters with a prologue and epilogue. The prologue is unspeakably beautiful, a black-and-white juxtaposition of love (more accurately, lust) and death, accompanied by a gorgeous operatic number. The same artistic simplicity is applied to the more enigmatic epilogue. But the three chapters which make up the bulk of the movie are tacked onto states of coping with loss, and, by extension, animals represented in a fateful constellation. It's ridiculous and exciting by turns, but ultimately, the symbolism is muted by the incredible graphic-ness of what happens.

If you're at all familiar with this film, you know that there is genital mutilation in this film, and that it is shown, completely. Even knowing this going in, I was shocked and disturbed by the extent of what was shown, although honestly, it was probably the tamest it could've been, which in itself is disturbing. I felt like puking, or fainting, or leaving (as another man did right before the fateful scene, shouting "Oh, come on!"; the other two were long gone by that point), but, like the clichéd car wreck, I couldn't look away.

This is where the question of art comes into play. Can I really judge a movie that clearly is using the violence not for the simple shock factor, but for a higher (yet murky) artistic purpose, for going to such grotesque lengths? An artist should have free reign to employ whatever techniques he or she wants to maintain the integrity of his or her original vision, yes? This isn't Saw or Hostel, where the gore is the reason the movie exists. Here, the violence underlies the danger of loneliness, of fear, of nature itself.

Where does this leave me? Confused. Not only about the movie, but about if I'm glad I saw the movie. It was a singular film-going experience: no question there. But was I enlightened in any way? Even if I wasn't (and I suspect I'll have to peruse more message boards before I can come to a solid conclusion on that point), I was, at the very least, challenged, which is more than I can say about most trips to the theater.



Style over substance
Nine is a hard film to review, because it defines its problems without solving any. Guido Contini (an excellent Daniel Day-Lewis) is a director who lacks direction, a writer with nothing to say, an artist whose muses have stopped inspiring him. When he reaches that point, what can he do? Instead of taking time off or waiting for a new idea, Guido dives headfirst into a project with no sense of what to do. He's a man defined by the women in his life, and as he searches for the soul of his project, he goes from one to another. That's as far as the plot goes, which would be fine if the characters had depth, but unfortunately, few of them do.

Just like Guido, the film is defined by the women who pop up along the way. Each of the women (such as Guido's wife, mistress, mother, costume designer, and childhood beach stripper) has a big, flashy song-and-dance number in the vein of Chicago's fantasy musical sequences, not surprising as Rob Marshall helmed both films. The numbers themselves are beautifully designed, shot, and edited, but the music largely falls flat. Fergie (yes, Fergie) and Kate Hudson get the best songs, though Day-Lewis and Marion Cotillard also impress with their material. Judi Dench delivers a strong performance, while Sophia Loren and Nicole Kidman fail to leave any sort of lasting impression. Penelope Cruz gives a typical performance, not at all deserving of the awards attention she has been receiving.

It's hard to swallow that the frustration that's inherent to Guido's character is a central focus of the film, because it often makes it painful to watch. It's not fun to watch a film director mope around and not make any decisions, but it does allow the viewer to understand the situation more. Focusing on the difficulty of creating something meaningful and honest and beautiful certainly resonates, but because Guido has no inkling of where his film is going, there isn't even a chance to really get behind him. The only parts of the impending production intact are the set and costumes, but the story is nonexistent. It's an unfortunate irony.

Still, despite its narrative inadequacies, Nine impresses on a visual level. The costumes are gorgeous and numerous, the main set is epic but believable and lends itself well to the various musical numbers. The technical construction is impressive, particularly during the songs, which often contain a montage of reality and fantasy, past and present, and black- and-white and color, adding more depth and a more dynamic feel to the repetitive musical motifs.

Nine is definitely an instance of style over substance, which isn't necessarily surprising in the musical genre. It's just unfortunate that such a vast pool of talented actors didn't get better material to work with. There are moments that are unspeakably beautiful (the opening scene is one of the best of the year), but for every moment like that, there are two that fail to impress. I want to love it, but I can't.



Absolutely stunning
8½ is deservedly considered to be one of film's greatest masterpieces. It is such a perfectly- crafted film. The writing is divine, balancing the despair and confusion of trying to understand oneself with glimpses of truly satisfying comedy. Each scene is well-balanced, providing both meaningful insight and a sense of being lost, as Guido tries to balance his past, present, and supposed future. Unlike the recent musical retelling, 8½ features characters with actual depth. Guido isn't just a senseless wanderer trying to make sense of his life, searching for justification for his lifestyle, or making a picture simply because the studio wants him to. He has a message he wants to send, and in the course of relaying that message, he hopes to find some peace of mind. Guido here is a much more compelling character, because he is trying to do something, not passively watching the film taking shape and shrugging his shoulders.

The women in the film also serve as more than objects used to define the director. Their relationships with Guido are more authentic, and it's clear how each one has influenced him. He's a man who loves women without really being able to love them, so instead of respectfully drawing inspiration from each woman, he instead tries to drain them of any compelling or exciting qualities. They aren't muses to be admired and translated; they're oranges to squeeze which will hopefully yield a meaningful juice.

The collision of fantasy and reality results in the film's dreamy feeling, supported by the stylistic system. Every shot is beautifully executed, whether it's capturing something odd, like a body floating high above the beach, or something more grounded in reality, such as a dinner. The consistency of Fellini's shot, editing, etc. results in a seamless integration of the real and unreal, often making scenes open to interpretation. It's thrilling film-making, to be sure, especially when the film delves completely into Guido's fantasy world, where all the women he has admired move in together to pamper him.

Ultimately, what makes 8½ an amazing film is the focus on honesty. Guido himself is a dishonest man, but the film allows the viewer to see him for who he really is, and how he tries to be better through his art. He can't bring himself to confront his wife, Luisa, about their troubled marriage, so instead he writes a scene of the conversation they need to have. Film provides an escape for the viewer, but it's fascinating to see it from the other side: as a way for a director to vicariously live alternate versions of his life. Within the film-to-be, Guido can expose himself fully without the risk of being judged. It's a confession that will not, in the end, be taken seriously. Except by Luisa and the other women who see themselves in the characters, of course.

It's Luisa's reaction to the screen tests that motivates Guido to try to be better. As a director, he has run out of things to say, because he has gotten to the point where his art and his real life collide. He has always lived in a world blurred between fantasy and reality, but now his art is too real to escape into. Guido comes to realize that he can't say anything more in his films until he says what must be said in his own relationships. Art is an expression, but it can never be as sincere as an actual act. The fact that seeing a man come to understand this truth is both moving and oddly cathartic. 8½ is a masterpiece in the truest sense of the word.


Valentino: The Last Emperor

An insightful and entertaining documentary!
I love when people are really, deeply passionate about something. While I'm not a big fan of sports, I love to listen to my friends give the details of their latest game or match; even though the actual event isn't particularly interesting to me, the fact that it means so much to someone (especially someone close to me) makes it far more interesting. Valentino: The Last Emperor shows a man who is passionate about fashion; he never thought of being a firefighter or anything else. Even in the midst of financial shuffling and lavish celebrations, Valentino never loses sight of why he does what he does: he wants to make beautiful clothes for beautiful women.

And his passion is contagious. After a show, he is greeted by fans who are in tears at the sheer genius of what they see on the runway. It's impossible not to be as impressed as they are; while the fashion, in this film, takes a backseat to the man himself, it is still breath- taking. Just as Ratatouille allows you to brush with what it means to love food on a deeper lover, so this film allows a glimpse into what it means to really love fashion.

Of course, fashion isn't the only thing on display here; Valentino himself is a fascinating subject for a documentary. On one hand, he's a genius. On the other, he's a diva (though it really isn't that surprising that those two go hand-in-hand). The little moments this film shows--the glimpses of Valentino's everyday life--provide a sense of a life that seems like it's from another planet. A model getting her hair done reads about Einstein. Five pugs line up on the seats of a private jet. Valentino tells his partner and lover Giancarlo Giametti that the design for a stage isn't right, mere hours before the show must go on.

Yet, even with the tantrums and mood swings (at times, Valentino yells at the cameraman, providing a strange sense of reality TV), you get the sense that Valentino really hasn't been affected by the power and money he's accumulated over the years. He simply wants to make sure that his work is presented in the best way possible. And what work it is. At the celebration of Valentino's 45 year career, his dresses line the walls, sit atop columns, and rest within glass cubes. Each piece represents a time so perfectly, because no designer is as important or relevant as Valentino.

As much as the film celebrates his past, Valentino's future is also discussed to a great degree. The question is asked: who can follow in Valentino's footsteps, when he inevitably retires? The answer is obvious: nobody can. There's only one Valentino, the Last Emperor of fashion.

(500) Days of Summer

Happiness in watchable form
(500) Days of Summer is the best movie I've seen all year. It's the best movie I've seen since WALL-E. It just might be my favorite movie of all time. Movies this original, smart, and funny are so few and far between, it's easy to forget they even exist. When they do come along, it's worth celebrating. Which my theater did; the enthusiasm was comparable to that at the Dark Knight midnight showing. There was so much laughter, so many exclamations, and plenty of sighs. As for me, as I headed to my car after the show, I imagined how all the passing drivers must think I'm a strange duck, I had such a goofy smile plastered to my face. I couldn't help it: if happiness itself could be taken and made into a movie, (500) Days of Summer would be the result.

I'll start with the screenplay. The nonlinear narrative structure allows for suspense (even when there seemingly shouldn't be) and plenty of laughs thanks to clever juxtapositioning of similar scenes happening at opposite ends of the relationship. The on screen counter, introductory paragraph, and final line all are fine examples of the offbeat but accessible wit which defines the film. The use of music is also fantastic; screenwriters sometimes are afraid to write specific songs into their screenplays for fear of seeming like they're trying to direct the movie, but every musical choice here is pitch-perfect (thus, my recent Amazon order for the soundtrack and newfound appreciation of Hall and Oates).

I also really appreciated the unique visuals, whether it involves animated elements, split-screen, or black and white. The latter is used when the film breaks styles, becoming an artsy European film or a documentary, and it adds even more to the film's charm. I love when a movie can use interesting visuals to complement a solid foundation (such as Eternal Sunshine or The Fountain), and that's definitely the case here.

Of course, a wonderful screenplay and cool visual tricks wouldn't do much for a romance if the leads weren't up to the task. Both Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel are extremely likable and funny in their roles. Their chemistry is subtle and believable, and they really deliver an exciting arc. I definitely found myself rooting for the relationship, even with the promise of it not working out.

The thing that really cemented this film into a spot on my favorites list was the dance scene. I don't want to go into detail for fear of spoiling it, but the snippets in the trailer don't even begin to show the pure joy I received from watching that hilarity unfold. So brilliant.

Basically, don't miss this movie. I drove an hour and a half to see it, and am seriously considering making the drive again. If there was ever a movie worth going out of your way to see, this is it.

My Little Pony: The Princess Promenade

A staggering masterpiece...
In my eighteen years on this earth, I have been able to see many movies, some of them great, some of them terrible. Only one of them, however, has been able to move me to tears of exultation and utter, boundless joy. That movie, my friends, is My Little Pony: The Princess Promenade. The My Little Pony series has always been known for its cutting-edge approach to film-making as it tackles tough issues and offers a refreshing commentary on surprisingly deep subject matter. Princess Promenade goes even further than its wonderful predecessors. This movie is the second coming of Christ. It is an orgasm for the senses. It is the word "perfect," transformed into an animated, watchable form. It is love itself. It is like an evolved form of oxygen that is so much fresher than a typical breath of fresh air. If you don't see this movie, you have never experienced life or seen color or felt a single genuine, worthwhile emotion. Life begins and ends with my pony friends at the peerless Princess Promenade.

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