IRIS ~ Cirque du Soleil’s Exhilarating Look Through the Eye of the Camera

My beloved father recently came to visit me in L.A.¬† Prior to his trip, as I’d been wanting to see it, I asked if he’d have any interest in seeing IRIS, the Cirque du Soleil show currrently running here, to which he gamely replied “Let’s go to the circus!” ūüôā And so we did!

IRIS, (a reference to the human eye and a metaphor for the camera’s lens) is Cirque du Soleil’s homage to film ~ a “Journey Through the World of Cinema”.¬† It is an audio-visual feast for the senses, fittingly being performed in the heart of Hollywood at the Dolby (formerly Kodak) Theater, the current home to the Academy Awards, just a stone’s throw from Grauman’s Chinese Theater and the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame.¬† It is a beautiful theater in and of itself, and it is extra special to be IN the space where the Oscars are held.¬† It’s great fun to browse the larger-than-life black and white photos from Oscars past that adorn the walls outside the theater entrances…and it’s easy to imagine the buzz of excitement there when the halls are swarming with the film industry elite every February.

The rest of the year (and for the next 10 years to come!), it is home to the magical, mesmerizing ~ and magnificent ~ IRIS.¬† For anyone who has seen a Cirque du Soleil show, you know that Cirque takes “the circus” to a whole new level.¬† I’ve seen two other Cirque shows, including “O” in Las Vegas, (which is water-themed and also quite amazing), but this was my favorite yet.¬† While I acknowledge, film lover that I am, that the theme of this particular show may have had something to do with that, I’m confident one needn’t be a cinephile to fully enjoy and appreciate it!

It is a combination of many elements that serve to make IRIS the uniquely spellbinding spectacle it is.¬† Chief among them are the mind-boggling performers.¬† The level of strength, control and skill they exhibit is astonishing, whether they are working in conjunction with one another to build sculptural human towers with their incomprehensibly strong bodies, gliding through the air on swings or wires high above the audience, contorting their shockingly lithe bodies in ways you never dreamed possible (they may indeed be super-human ~ that, or their spines are made of rubber), or balancing the entire weight of their body on a 3″x5″ rectangle atop a post several feet off the ground.¬† It very often defies belief at the same time that it takes your breath away.¬† They make it look so effortlessly graceful, so deceptively easy (but we know better).¬† The acrobatics never fail to stun, stupefy and scintillate.¬† For the majority of the show, both my and my father’s eyes were wide with amazement, our jaws dropped in awe.¬† There are numerous sequences I could watch over and over.¬† Standouts include a set of trapeze-artist twins flying and swinging gracefully through the air above us, the Snake Women (see photo above ~ living versions of Gumby, if you recall his ability to bend into any imaginable shape), and perhaps my favorite of all, the Film Noir/ Rooftops segment that incorporates trampolines into a set of L.A. skyline rooftops that is some of the most captivating, innovative and energetic choreography I’ve ever seen. Continue reading

Hunger Pains

Hunger is not a film to be enjoyed, but to be appreciated…for its artistic merit and for its unflinching portrayal of a period in relatively recent history.¬† It is primarily the story of Bobby Sands (played by Michael Fassbender), one of the Irish Republican Army members imprisoned in the late 1970’s in Northern Ireland for “political terrorism” (a divisive and debated term in and of itself ~ Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher claimed there was no such thing as political terrorism, only criminal terrorism).¬† In 1981, Sands led a hunger strike in protest of the British Government’s refusal (under Thatcher’s rule) to grant the IRA prisoners political status as well as of its failure to acknowledge the prisoners’ requests for more humane prison conditions.

Director & Co-Writer Steve McQueen

Hunger is British visual artist Steve McQueen’s (not to be confused with the actor Steve McQueen)¬†directorial debut.¬† (McQueen teamed again with Fassbender for last year’s Shame.)¬† He does a strikingly effective job of portraying the inhumane and brutal conditions that existed within the infamous Maze prison in Belfast, as well the ways in which both the prisoners and those working within the prison were effected by the politically-sparked unrest.¬† It is harrowing to watch…yet, at the same time, McQueen has his supremely artistic eye on exhibit in every single frame of the film.¬† It is a wonder to behold…you could quite honestly hit the pause button at any moment in the entire movie and see a work of art.¬† That he is able to make feces smeared on prison cell walls look like a painting is a revelation.

Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands

McQueen is masterful at putting you THERE, through a sort of naturalistic audio-visual language.¬† He uses virtually NO soundtrack in the film, other than the organic sounds within a scene.¬† The long silences speak volumes (you¬†feel the time ticking away in those lonely, cold prison cells); they also serve to create a marked contrast for the uncontrolled noise that erupts at other times, making it that much more jarring and unnerving when it does (such as the rhythmic thumping of the batons the prison officers use to beat the prisoners). There are many long, static shots in which we are simply observers of whatever “happens to happen” within the frame, which truly does seem to mimic being there.¬† You can almost feel the chill and smell the stench of urine, feces and rotting food (which made me incredibly grateful I wasn’t there). Continue reading

Breaking Bad, Season 2 ~ Darker Days

If you read my Breaking Bad Season 1 review, you know how much I loved it.¬† In its second season, the AMC series’ episodes increase from 7 to 13 (the 2007-2008 Writer’s strike cut the first season short), meaning twice as many episodes for us fans to enjoy, which is a very good thing.¬† It also means twice as many episodes to produce, which makes it twice as challenging to come up with consistently spectacular episodes.¬† However, given that task, an especially tall order after such a phenomenal first season, creator and head writer Vince Gilligan and Company do a pretty damn impressive job of keeping the momentum and excellence of Season 1 going strong.

Now while I was still very much engrossed in the show over Season 2, without giving too much away (in case there is anyone else out there as behind as I am in this series), from the very start of the season, I had a much harder time maintaining the empathy I felt for Walt in Season 1.¬† His web of lies is so pervasive, it becomes almost tedious.¬† Even Jesse, in perfect Jesse form, says to him at one point “Yo, lie much?”¬† Furthermore, some of Walt’s choices become increasingly difficult to understand and therefore (morally) support.¬† I realize that as Walt gets ever more embroiled in his new “life of crime”, it is inevitable that the stakes grow and the deceits must increase in kind.¬† However, the argument that Walt is doing it all for the good of his family begins to lose steam when it is his very family who starts to suffer the consequences of his dishonesty and erratic behavior.¬† His home life seems to be crumbling around him, yet he carries on, either unaware of its deterioration (most notably his increasingly strained marriage) or so intoxicated by his newly-acquired “power” and earning acumen that he becomes blind to it.¬† Walt’s actions and behaviors start to spiral out of control to the point of seeming disrepair.¬† That said, while some of the changes in Walt’s character are disheartening (especially when the vicious, evil side of him begins to rear its ugly and frightening head), I also fully acknowledge that it is all in deference to the role of Walter White, who has to be one of the most complex, multi-layered characters in the history of television…and which Bryan Cranston continues to bat out of the park (as evidenced by his second consecutive Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama).

In contrast, Jesse (Walt’s “partner in crime”) becomes ever more appealing and sympathetic.¬† Aaron Paul seems to be the superstar of Season 2 ~ and is certainly given loads of fabulously rich material with which to shine, spanning from his usual comedic moments (numerous doozies of which exist in Season 2) to some incredibly meaty, emotionally intense storylines that are wrenching and raw and truly display the full range of his enormous talent.¬† (Incidentally, Paul received his first Emmy nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama for his work here.)¬† Season 2 becomes as much Jesse’s story as it is Walt’s.¬† And the ever-shifting dynamics of their relationship make for some of the funniest AND most moving scenes of the season.¬† As wildly different as their characters are from one another, they begin to develop a genuine and caring bond with one another.¬† In fact, I found myself far more interested and invested in the father-son-like relationship that begins to form between them than I was in the relationship between Walt and his biological son.¬† It’s fascinating to watch Walt and Jesse’s interactions and what each brings out in the other.¬† I continue to love the scenes between them more than any others.¬† One of my favorite episodes of the season, “4 Days Out”, is almost entirely comprised of Walt & Jesse alone together.¬† It is exceptional both in its comedic and its dramatic elements. ¬†Furthermore, the timing of the episode is perfect, in that just as I was struggling ever more with Walt’s choices and beginning to question whether the series was going too far, the show redeems itself by addressing precisely what I’d been thinking and feeling though Walt (finally) expressing regrets (“I deserve this…I had it coming”), even acknowledging that he can no longer keep up with his own lies.¬† In turn, Jesse reminds him that everything he’s done, he’s done for his family.¬† It is an amazing – and necessary – episode with a stunningly effective ending that packs a powerful (and literal) punch. Continue reading

The Avengers Did Indeed Punish…Me!

At the risk of alienating all you Marvel Comics/Superhero fans out there, I have to be honest, The Avengers just didn’t do it for me.¬† As the highest-grossing movie of all time (surpassing the $1 billion mark world-wide in a mere three weeks), I figured there had to be a little something in it for everyone for it to be so hugely popular.¬† But if that’s the case, then I guess I’m not everyone.¬† No, Superhero flicks are not generally my genre of choice, but I have on occasion enjoyed them (The Dark Knight, Iron Man 1, the original Superman, to name a few).¬† So with all of the hullabaloo surrounding this box-office blockbuster, I really expected to be wowed.

On the contrary, I was actually bored.¬† I was uninterested.¬† I didn’t really care about anyone or anything.¬† The stakes weren’t great enough ~ or at least not intriguing enough ~ for me to even really be invested in who “won” or who didn’t.¬† I found it trite.¬† And loud.¬† And silly…unfortunately, not in an enjoyable, entertaining way, even when it was tongue-in-cheek silly.¬† Nor was it nearly as funny as I expected it to be, especially in the hands of the ordinarily witty Joss Whedon, whom I genuinely like and respect.¬† As the director and co-screenwriter, he’s one of the reasons I wanted to see this movie.¬† Sure, there were a few chuckles, but not nearly as many as I’d hoped for in the hands of Whedon.¬† Mostly, I just wanted it to be over.¬† (And for the guy incessantly fiddling with his loud candy wrapper to be taken out by one of the Avengers ~ now that I could have gotten behind.)

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Jane Eyre Casts A Spell

And…the temperature of my Fassbender Fever continues to rise.¬† In the most recent adaptation of Charlotte Bront√ę’s classic novel, director Cary Fukunaga is blessed to have the ever-impressive Michael Fassbender playing the charismatic ~ and enigmatic ~ Mr. Rochester alongside the equally talented Mia Wasikowska (The Kids Are All Right) as the title character.¬† Both actors are more than up to the task of portraying these classic literary characters in this bewitching rendering of the gothic mystery/romance.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit (not without a modicum of shame), that I have never read Jane Eyre, nor do I recall seeing any of the umpteen film or television adaptations that have been produced of it over the years.¬† So this was my very first introduction to the well-known work…which I’ll admit probably helped rather than hurt my experience of it.¬† Granted, making the acquaintance of Mr. Rochester in the form of the magnetic Michael Fassbender did nothing to harm it, either.¬† But again, just as in my review of Fish Tank, I sincerely believe I am capable of distinguishing between my love for Fassbender and the true quality of a film ~ and this is a beautifully done picture in every sense.

I was swept away by the film, nearly forgetting I was watching performances, a particularly impressive feat when it comes to period pieces, when one must adjust to the more formal language of the time.¬† The majestic English landscapes (both lush and barren) gorgeously evoke the sweeping emotions of the narrative, especially those of the wonderfully rich character of Jane.¬† Save for the flashbacks of her as a child, Wasikowska is in virtually every scene of the film.¬† She is superb as the restrained Jane, more often than not conveying her thoughts and feelings through the most subtle of facial expressions and body language.¬† Jane is a remarkably strong, honorable and admirably self-respecting young woman ~ it is impossible not to root for her or to feel her pain, joys and sorrows.¬† It’s not often in a period piece one has the opportunity to see such an independent female character, one who is left to fend for herself from a young age…all of which underscores the desire to see her find true happiness.

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Jeff, Who Lives At Home ~ Not As Much Fun As Cyrus, Who Also Lives At Home

Written & Directed by Mark & Jay Duplass

Cast: Jason Segel, Ed Helms, Susan Sarandon, Judy Greer, Rae Dawn Chong

Jason Segel is Jeff, a 30-year-old stoner who lives at home with his mother (played by Susan Sarandon).¬† Obsessed with signs (both in the literal sense and, amusingly, in reference to M. Night Shyamalan‘s film of the same name), he is searching, rather aimlessly, for his “purpose”.¬† Segel is entirely winning despite the somewhat stereotypical character set-up.¬† Jeff is a gentle giant with a heart of gold, well-meaning even in his haphazard missteps (at which everyone in his family pokes fun).¬† Segel is perfect in this role and shows greater range than I’ve ever seen in him, beautifully and convincingly straddling the line between hapless lug and sincere loving soul, between comedy and drama.¬† It is really he who holds this film together and had me invested in any way.

Ed Helms, on the other hand, plays his narcissistic moron of an older brother, Pat, who is continually judging Jeff even when his own life is in actuality no less (if not more so) in disrepair ~¬† his marriage (to the¬†always fabulous Judy Greer) disintegrating, with good reason (who could blame her?!), making ridiculous choices (like purchasing a brand new Porsche on a clearly meager salary), and holding “business meetings” at Hooters.¬† Not that Helms doesn’t have some humorous scenes (I do think he is a gifted comedian), but it really is tough to like or sympathize with him in any way since most everything he says and does here is idiotic.¬†¬† Continue reading

Stellar Soundtrack: The Hunger Games – Songs from District 12 and Beyond

Soundtracks have always been one of my favorite ways to capture and retain the mood and memory of a film, as well as to discover new (and old) music.¬† They are akin to a professional “mix tape”.¬† And, oh, how I love “mixes”…of course I long ago graduated from mix tapes to mix-CD’s, but I’ve enjoyed countless hours spent compiling assortments of music over the years, in part inspired by my love for soundtracks.¬† Maybe one of these days, I’ll put together a list of some of my all-time favorite soundtrack albums…I’d love to hear yours, too, so please feel free to share!

T-Bone Burnett

One of the proven “Kings” of film soundtrack production is Grammy¬†and Academy Award winning producer/songwriter T-Bone Burnett.¬† Here, he has done it once again, gathering a unique mix of musicians, both mainstream and lesser known, all of whom do an exceptional job of capturing the themes and mood of the book (and film) through their songs.¬† I first listened to this album after reading the book, before seeing the movie, and truly felt like I was reliving the book through the songs ~ via both sound AND lyrics.¬† In some cases lyrics are taken directly from the pages of the book ~ and they translate in every instance.¬† Each track has a place here.¬† Burnett chose his artists wisely…and they certainly delivered.

Very few of the songs on this soundtrack are actually featured in the film.¬† It is more a compilation of songs “inspired” by The Hunger Games.¬† There are definitely strains of both Oh Brother Where Art Thou and Cold Mountain in the album’s frequently folksy, Appalachian style, which I wouldn’t necessarily have imagined for this film.¬† But it works.¬† Very well indeed.¬† And there are plenty of non-folksy tracks to satisfy all tastes. Continue reading

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011, US Version) ~ Fire & Ice

Director: David Fincher

Cast: Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard

I LOVED this movie!!¬† Having not read Stieg Larsson‘s book, nor yet seen the Swedish adaptation of the movie, I was in virgin territory here…and found it entirely engrossing and entertaining from beginning to end.¬† I was concerned that at 2 hours, 38 minutes it would feel too long, but it didn’t.¬† At ALL.¬† The pacing is perfect, building with a steady intensity (and ferocity) to a point where the suspense and tension become almost unbearable, in only the best sense of the word.

I was expecting to be startled out of my skin at every moment in the lead-up to the climax.¬† I’m not even sure I “connected all the dots” (there are a lot of players and details of which to keep track and I lacked the background knowledge that reading the book surely would have provided me), but I understood enough to thoroughly appreciate the ride as well as the conclusion.

The film is gorgeously shot and framed ~ clean, sleek, sharp and crisp ~ just like the chilly, icy Swedish landscapes in which it takes place.¬† And yet there is heat generated throughout by the consistently talented Daniel Craig, playing the smart and (at least here) sexy journalist Mikael Blomkvist.¬† Craig’s clear blue eyes are as striking as ever and his body is in top form ~ he looks as though he should be modeling every article of clothing he dons (whether a sweater and scarf, flannel pajamas or even bikini briefs) in a magazine.¬† So there’s the guilty pleasure of that eye candy on top of the across-the-board great acting and intriguing story…

Rooney Mara is utterly magnetic as Lisbeth Salander, the razor sharp detective/computer hacker Blomkvist employs to assist him in solving the murder mystery he has been assigned.¬† I couldn’t take my eyes off her anytime she was on screen ~ and whether or not I was supposed to, I sympathized with her from the outset and increasingly so throughout.¬† (She wordlessly broke my heart at the film’s end.)¬† She is mysterious, alluring, fiercely contained, a somewhat androgynous bi-sexual ~ a fascinating, and multi-layered character.¬† Mara completely and convincingly transforms herself INTO the role ~ she becomes Lisbeth.¬† I have great respect for her performance here ~ as contained as it is, much about her character is revealed.

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