Sunday, April 28, 2013

Page One: Inside the New York Times (2011)

Director: Andrew Rossi. 92 min. Rated R. Documentary.

Through the internet, every human on the planet now has the ability to "create" news, and newspapers are losing advertising sponsors as their main money source. So here's printed media's dilemma: you either stick to professional investigative journalism and go bankrupt (such as what happened to the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, and most recently, Newsweek) or... you become a tabloid and possibly survive. This documentary shows the daily struggle the New York Times deals with, to the extent of becoming a vehicle for Julian Assange's Wikileaks, just to attract readers. My conclusion: printed media is doomed to extinction.

Mo says:

Tiny Furniture (2010)

Director: Lena Dunham. Cast: Lena Dunham, Laurie Simmons, Grace Dunham, Alex Karpovsky, Jemima Kirke. 98 min. Not Rated. Comedy/Drama.

Written and directed by Dunham during her pre-Girls TV fame days, about a twenty-something girl who graduates from a college in Ohio, with no experience to get a job, and no job to get some experience. So she lives a day at a time in NYC with her (real-life) mother and sister, hoping for something to pop up. This was my first exposure to Dunham's deadpan, in-your-face, dark humor, and I'm not sure if it's for everyone, but I enjoyed it, making me look forward to watching Girls some day. Here are typical examples; you'll get the idea:

Aura: I have no experience. 
Charlotte: It's absolutely fine. On my resume under "skills", I put "has a landline".


Mother: Oh you can sleep in my bed when I'm here, you just can't sleep here when I'm not here.
Aura: So next week when you're visiting colleges, I can't sleep here?
Mother: That is correct.
Aura: What's the difference?
Mother: You need to be invited. I have to invite you to come in.
Aura: Like a vampire.

Mo says:

Thursday, April 25, 2013

To Rome with Love (2012)

Director: Woody Allen. Cast: Woody Allen, Jesse Eisenberg, Penélope Cruz, Judy Davis, Roberto Benigni, Alec Baldwin, Ellen Page, Greta Gerwig. 112 min. Rated R. USA/Italy/Spain. Comedy/Drama.

Allen is such a genius. He writes and directs these light-hearted comedies, but suddenly you realize what deep concepts he's touched upon. Here, through intertwined short stories, he analyzes different aspects of fame and fidelity, and lets you decide which angle you sympathize with, and which logic makes most sense. Like always, lovely actors hurl great dialogue with such rapidity, you can't catch up, and want to watch the movie again as soon as its over. Among them Benigni and Cruz shine the most (doesn't she always?), but it's more the ensemble that keeps you smiling throughout. Keep filming, Woody.

Mo says:

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Killing Them Softly (2012)

Director: Andrew Dominik. Cast: Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Sam Shepard. 97 min. Rated R. Crime/Thriller.

A mini-Scorsese gangster flick. Mobsters hire a hitman to take out a few thugs who robbed one of their card games. I had a hard time getting rid of Brad Pitt's image from Inglourious Basterds; his character here seems like a toned-downed version of his Lt. Aldo Raine ("Gorlomi!") from the former. But this is a rare movie I would recommend to see solely for one ingenious sequence, where a mobster is killed by Pitt, in a car, under the pouring rain, in slow-motion. Just one sequence. It's so ... poetic. You'll see what I mean.

Mo says:

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Red Riding Hood (2011)

Director: Catherine Hardwicke. Cast: Amanda Seyfried, Lukas Haas, Gary Oldman, Virginia Madsen, Julie Christie, Michael Hogan. 100 min. Rated PG-13. USA/Canada. Fantasy/Mystery.

As mentioned here, I enjoy when childhood stories are given an evil adult twist. But not a cheesy evil adult twist, with a "who's the werewolf" whodunit masquerading as a dark fairy tale. I'm not being sarcastic: the best element here is the costume/production design; Amanda Seyfried's red robes against the white snow are the sole pleasing thing to watch. Don't be tricked by Gary Oldman or Julie Christie's presence among the cast; this was directed by Catherine "Twilight" Hardwicke. She just can't get enough of those forest overhead shots.

Mo says:

Lawless (2012)

Director: John Hillcoat. Cast: Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Jessica Chastain, Guy Pearce, Jason Clarke, Mia Wasikowska, Gary Oldman.116 min. Rated R. Crime/Drama.

Had difficulty making a decision on this one. On one hand, Lawless delivers a good number of terrific performances, most prominently from Hardy and Pearce (amazing how Hardy has suddenly exploded into our lives during the past two years), and the brutal violence is captivating - the same feelings I experienced on previous Hillcoat works, The Proposition and The Road. On the other hand, there isn't much of a take-home message, possibly because character development is not strong enough (Wasikowska's role is a complete throwaway), and sympathizing with the heroes takes an effort. I feel bad giving this a So-so.

Mo says:

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Rust and Bone (De rouille et d'os) (2012)

Director: Jacques Audiard. Cast: Marion Cotillard, Matthias Schoenaerts, Armand Verdure. 120 min. Rated R. France/Belgium. Drama.

Another foreign treasure, lost in the crowd of great 2012 movies. A whale-trainer loses both legs in a freak accident, and forms a relationship with a low-life drifter. This setting clears the relationship of any sort of romanticism, giving it a down-to-earth, realistic, even animalistic nature, which is fortified by the film's depressing orange/yellow cinematography. But when two people interact, can it be summarized to such hardcore realism? After all, physical disability is not about a fractured body - it's about a fractured spirit. Mend the fracture, and observe the miracles. Watch this with a group; it's a guaranteed discussion-breeder.

PS #1: And check out the DVD's 2-minute special feature on how they made Cotillard's amputated legs look so real.

PS #2: I can't resist. Ebert did such a great job.

Mo says:

The Campaign (2012)

Director: Jay Roach. Cast: Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, Jason Sudeikis, Dylan McDermott, John Lithgow, Dan Aykroyd, Brian Cox, John Goodman. 85 min. Rated R. Comedy.

Hilarious rivalry between two clueless political candidates, so closely following what we see every day on TV (which makes the satire so lovingly poignant). Jay Roach of Austin Powers and Meet the Parents fame climaxes his style of crude jokes and creative word games, and there couldn't have been anyone better than Ferrell and Galifianakis to deliver them. This movie has some gut-splitting funny moments - and you're hearing all this from someone who isn't much of a comedy genre guy.

Mo says:

Dark Shadows (2012)

Director: Tim Burton. Cast: Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Eva Green, Helena Bonham Carter, Jackie Earle Haley, Chloë Grace Moretz, Christopher Lee, Alice Cooper. 11 min. Rated PG-13. Comedy/Fantasy.

Can't believe it. After Alice and Frankenweenie, this is the third time in a row I'm giving Tim Burton a low score. In Edward Scissorhands, Burton went for a modern Frankenstein tale, and here, he goes for the Dracula story. The comedy setting, the castle, the angry mob, and of course, the (enjoyable) main actor, are all right out of Edward. There's nothing innately wrong with the movie, but I would've been content with Burton just sitting in the producer's chair. Aren't great directors expected to expand their horizons? Has Burton run out of ideas? Isn't repeating yourself considered... cheap?

PS: This may sound weird, but I'm worried the same may some day happen to Tarantino. Hope that day never comes.

Mo says:

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Roger ... and Me

My 27 year relation with Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert passed away today; a larger than life literary figure who instructed me how to enjoy art, ever since I came to understand art as an entity.

My story goes back to the mid-80s. Like hoards of his fans, I became familiar with him watching his movie review show with Gene Siskel, "At the Movies". Back then, I was just in my early teens in Southern California, and didn't have much of a concept of reviewing movies, let alone enjoying the fight to praise or condemn them through "Thumbs Up" or "Thumbs Down". It was fun to watch Siskel and Ebert of two rival Chicago newspapers, seated at the theater balcony, jabbing criticisms at each other, trying to prove their tastes. One Ebert quote I remember from those days (in the case of Return to Oz): "Never remake classics!"

We returned to Iran during that time, and movies, good movies, were hard to come by. So I lost touch with Ebert (and great film criticism) for more than 10 years. Then in the mid 90s, a software called "Cinemania", which was a CD compilation of hundreds of movie reviews by Leonard Maltin, Roger Ebert, and Pauline Kael, was published. In 1998, Tehran universities became some of the first places in the country to offer home internet access, and every Friday, I would devour Ebert's most recent reviews from his website. He was back in my life.

Since that year, I've been checking his writings on his website, at least two to three times a week, every week, for the past 15 years, and his Facebook page at least every 2-3 days, for the past couple of years. I know this was a unilateral relationship, but have you checked on your Mom, your Dad, your brother or sister, twice a week, for 15 years - even if it's unilateral?

The skill and beauty of Ebert's writings, even when I entirely disagreed with his views, was unsurpassed by others. The significant difference I found in his writings, was that he spoke from the heart - extremely subjective. When he spoke of art, he wrote the reasons why he enjoyed it, not why others thought it was important. He never faked the facade of a pseudo-intellectual. I (like many others) wondered why he gave Star Wars - Episode 1: The Phantom Menace three and a half stars, or hated Gladiator. But that was his style: he just wrote what he felt. He never fell into the trap many movie or art critics fall into.

"People sometimes ask me what a certain image in a movie "symbolized." The answer is: "For you? Nothing, or you wouldn't be asking the question." "

Purely subjective. If you couldn't connect with a movie, that movie was not for you, and vice-versa. And don't let anybody persuade you otherwise.

In the meantime, Gene Siskel died of brain cancer, I came to the US, started a medical residency in New York, and continued my training in Ohio. Ebert had a "Movie Answer Man" column on his website, where he answered all sorts of fan questions about movies. I felt something wasn't right in his review of Pixar's The Incredibles. I wrote to him, and he responded:

Q: In your review on "The Incredibles," you mentioned that the character Edna Mode was inspired by Q from the Bond movies. I'm pretty sure she was more based on the facial features and occupation of Edith Head, the Oscar-winning costume designer.

Mohsen Ghofrani, North Canton, Ohio

A: J. Oyen of San Mateo, Calif., adds: "Edna's uncanny resemblance to Hitchcock's favorite costume designer and the fact that Edna is a world famous clothes designer in the movie seems to support the Edith Head connection."

I am persuaded Edith Head is the inspiration for the character, but that her role has been enriched by Q behavior.

Imagine the humility of Mr. Movie Encyclopedia. A critic who was writing movie reviews before I was even born.

A few days later, John Zimmerman, a dear friend and co-resident from my days in New York, emailed me the above link, asking: "Is this you?"

Knowing my love for movies, John encouraged me to start a movie review blog. He helped me design "Mo-Blog", and devise (to my knowledge) a first-ever movie rating system for it.

Case in point: the initial reasons this blog came to be, was a two-line response by Roger Ebert, and the help of a friend. That's how people change other people's lives. Little by little.

Years passed. Life caught up with me, and I had to stop blogging after a 20-month stint. Then I restarted again 3 years ago, and recently changed the name to "The Mo-View". And through the years I've been asking myself: What if Ebert hadn't responded to my criticism?

What if?

Ebert used to have a fun activity on his Facebook page. He would post an actor or director or producer's picture he had taken himself at some film festival, and ask his followers to guess who that person was. Often it would be a race between people to see who could guess correctly first. Two years ago, he posted the following picture:

I posted my guess among others:

Sundance 2000
(Photo by Roger Ebert)

Unlike ·  · Share · January 28, 2011

I know - nothing much. Nothing to add, nothing to learn. But you have to admit: it was cool. That such a great figure in movie criticism history just said: "Mohsen: Yes." It was cool.

He was accessible. He was available.

In 2011, Ebert published his long-awaited autobiography, "Life Itself". After its publication, he advertised that if we bought the hard copy book online from a certain bookstore in Chicago, he would sign the book and dedicate it in his own handwriting to whomever we choose, in whatever words we choose. Obviously, I bought the book (something I rarely do, because I had already listened to the audio book), and obviously I wanted it to be dedicated to myself, with a self-appraising sentence I wrote to make me feel good.

When I received the book in the mail, I hurriedly went to the first page to see Ebert's autograph. To my surprise, a little card fell out:

"For Mohsen, Roger Ebert, 11.10.11"

What? That's it?!

But the following letter was also neatly folded inside:

At the time, I was a little disappointed. The reason I bought the book, was because I wanted it to be signed by Ebert, in my name.

But now that I look back, I guess that was selfish of me. I'm glad I have Ebert's autograph - even if it's on a little card.

For many years, I had a dream, that one day I would write a screenplay, it would become a movie, and Roger Ebert would review it on his website. It honestly didn't matter if he praised it or trashed it; because even when he trashed a movie, it was great fun (here's a good example).

Anyway, I guess I just dreamed a dream.


It's not what a movie is about, it's how it is about it.

This, in my opinion, was Ebert's greatest lesson. Ever since I read it, I've used it as an artistic compass. I never get deluded into what moral or immoral message a movie might be selling. Because that's another trap most viewers or art-lovers are utterly unable to avoid.

There was once a time when people learned from the works of Dickens, Twain, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Those days are far and gone by. I grew up with the writings and characters of literary and artistic figures such as George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Mario Puzo, Stephen King, and Roger Ebert. I think about them, and how their creations have molded who I am.

So today, another one of those giants passed on. Today, my life changed. As opposed to the past fifteen years, from now on every time I watch a movie (which by now you know is around 3-4 times a week), I will not be checking Ebert's blog and learning from him. I hope you appreciate, that is a significant change in lifestyle.

And the troubling part is, there's nobody out there as good as he was. When it comes to learning about movies, I don't know where to go from here.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Bourne Legacy (2012)

Director: Tony Gilroy. Cast: Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, Edward Norton, Scott Glenn, Albert Finney, David Strathairn, Joan Allen. 135 min. Rated PG-13. Action/Thriller.

With all its achievements, never been a big Bourne series fan. The usual formula for each episode is, the hero can't remember who he is, or we can't remember who he is, or he can't remember who we are - until finally, through a series of fast-edited action/chase sequences, somebody remembers who somebody is. This time, the hero isn't even Jason Bourne, but because of the previously set franchise rules, I wasn't sure about that till the very end. If you can ignore that confusion, Bourne writer and Michael Clayton director Tony Gilroy has crafted an entertaining action thriller.

Mo says: