Review

The All-Encompassing, Glorious Force of “Gravity” in Commercial Hollywood

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Gravity
, above all else, is a marvel as a rarity.

A film like this has immense pull as a pre-destined hit; In an age of the dying concept of a “movie star,” it plucks its cast from the handful of box-office draws that remain; it’s complex, yet effects-driven in an era of juvenile cinema which sees mature audiences flocking to cable television for adult-oriented entertainment instead of their local theater. But, most of all, it’s a film that really knows how to be a movie without sacrificing its challenging soul—and that’s often more difficult to find for yourself than a casual trip to the moon.

Gravity unfolds with a small cast and a large scope, pitting astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) against a barrage of misfortunes. Their space shuttle is struck by rogue debris from a nearby satellite (we hear, only briefly, about the Russians shooting down their own satellite for reasons unknown), forcing them to trek the reaches of space for survival. The film could have divulged into gimmicky, spectacular formula and still managed to solidify itself as a hit. With two powerhouse actors in key roles, a glossy high-concept, and an established director of titillating cinema (Alfonso Cuaron, directing his first film since 2006’s similarly-brilliant Children of Men), Gravity could have easily devolved into a quick cash-cow driven by its 3D bells and whistles. Cuaron, however, dares to take a step beyond and challenge his audience, crafting a much more complex tale of human introspection showcasing pensive, powerful moments of a woman reclaiming a sense of self and balancing them with a dazzlingly-effective narrative metaphor.

The beauty of the film lies largely within its coherence; I don’t mean to praise a show-dog merely for making it to the show, but rather to stress the importance of studio productions that maintain basic structure, yet remain challenging enough that they can still be justified as stimulating staples of film culture in a complete, harmonious package with each part having a hand in the last. We get from A to B fairly simply, and Stone’s journey towards survival is, without giving anything away, a reaffirmation and appropriation of the false realities of a society conditioned to accept comfortable closure versus grim reflection. Does Gravity hold a mirror to society, make us uncomfortable in our chairs, and force us to think about the world around us? Absolutely not. Does it envelop us, expose itself, and force its audience to consider the character as complex beyond the binary of her survival or death? Absolutely. It’s a film rooted in style, form, content, and narrative all working meticulously and harmoniously off one another, with effect reverberating throughout the film.

Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (long overdue for an Academy Award, which he’ll surely earn for this) crafts a visual space that encompasses the wide scope of an endless galaxy, yet manages minute details and camerawork that mimics Stone’s physical or emotional state at any given point. The camera is alive, the camera is complimentary, and the camera insists on doing more than merely showing us what’s happening. Lubezki ushers us inside, versus making the spectacle an intangible production of impossible fantasy.

Alas, what we have with Gravity in the character of Ryan Stone is a woman whose presence the script doesn’t seek to justify, though her contemporaries are often victims of just the opposite. She’s flawed, imperfect, and allowed to exist in a world women rarely are afforded in American films; one that isn’t revolved around her gender. It’s one of the film’s crowning achievements within an industry with a serious lack of substantial roles for women; there are little to no strings holding her into position. She isn’t interchangeable, and once we learn the story that built her, the film becomes more than a survival thriller—which Gravity can also work just fine as—and shifts into a collective visual metaphor for her spiritual and emotional rebirth. It’s rare for a commercial film to transcend one of its gimmicks; superhero films rarely shake their adapted identity, horror films swallow themselves whole, and the pretense of 3D or overt special effects often distracts from what ties everything together in the first place; story, character, and narrative, but Gravity exceeds those expectations (do we even have these as expectations for films anymore?) by astronomical bounds.

The "fetus" scene

The “fetus” scene

Gravity is a film that dramatically takes us along for a character’s transformation, never letting us up for air the entire time. It retains its roots as a fairly standard survival procedural, but effortlessly blankets us with the kind of storytelling that, since the 1970s, is simply hard to find in commercial movies.

Ultimately, Gravity is a feat of filmmaking about human feats of the spirit and physicality, at once a reminder of the pure escapist power of cinema, yet not relying on its fantastical construction to do the bulk of its heavy-hitting. It’s a mesmerizing journey into the magic of movies and the pure, unfiltered power of emotion we so often forget in the trainwreck that is the state of a misguided contemporary mainstream Hollywood that still panders to an audience of teenage boys. In its sweeping, momentous urgency of emotion, I recall films like Alien and 2001: A Space Odyssey  when I think of Gravity, not simply because they’re all space-centric masterpieces, but because each shares an inclination for change amidst a sea of indifference. It’s interesting to see a film so similar yet so different take the reins of awards season by storm, and it’ll be even more interesting to see just how large the impact of Gravity will be when we’re still talking about it in 20 years.

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6 Films to See Before Oscar Season Takes Over Your Life

Matthew Goode eradicates Jacki Weaver in "Stoker"

Matthew Goode eradicates Jacki Weaver in “Stoker”


–A sampling of 2013 greats that won’t get any attention from The Academy, but deserve yours–

Food options consist of fluctuating ratios of beef to chicken ramen? Losing an entire night’s sleep so you can get your last-minute Oscar article posted a mere hour prior to the official nominations? Ass perfectly contoured to the shape of your local theater’s lumpy seat cushion after two straight days of three-film marathons?

Oscar season. Film buffs know it well.

It’s a time which brings out the best in world cinema and the worst in the bloggers and journalists who cover (reviewing, disputing, tracking) its multiple-month course.

From early festival circuit buzz all the way to Thanksgiving Day releases, critic awards, and guild nominations, awards season barely affords its followers time to breathe let alone take in a film that isn’t one of the respective year’s crop of contenders riding the road towards a golden statue.

It’s easy for early-release films (studio and indie crops dumped off from January through August) to gain recognition from the year’s end circle of critics, guilds, and major awards ceremonies like the Oscars and Golden Globes. 2013 is already shaping up to be one of the most crowded years in recent memory; there are power plays from the Coen brothers, Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Martin Scorsese, and Woody Allen–to name a few–to get lost in by the time the final quarter of 2013 comes to a close. But, the year has given us master efforts from a vast array of filmmaker perspectives. So, before you lose sight of everything as you scour the internet for information on when Fruitvale Station will expand past limited release in a few weeks, check out these six films which won’t get any recognition from the Academy but deserve yours.

(in no particular order)

Stoker
Where to see it: On DVD and Blu-Ray now.

Matthew Goode

Matthew Goode

Stoker unites an unlikely gang of collaborators–Korean auteur Park Chan-wook, actor-turned-screenwriter Wentworth Miller (of Prison Break fame), and veteran actress Nicole Kidman–for a beautifully macabre anti-fairytale. Chan-wook’s first full-length English feature tells the story of a young woman, India (Mia Wasikowska), who must stand by as her emotionally-unstable mother (Kidman) ignites a sexual relationship with her late father’s brother (Matthew Goode).

The film wafts through intensely-disturbing material (which crescendos as India matures to match her uncle’s increasingly-hostile behavior) with the whispery presence of a spider on the wall, with Chan-wook’s observational perspective framed beautifully by Chung Chung-hoon’s cinematography, reminding us that all’s well that ends with a few splatters of blood.

Instead of succumbing to his obvious affections for Hitchcock’s work, Chan-wook instead stamps a signature tenderness where Hitchcock would have flexed muscles as an artist of suspense. For all the cringe-inducing moments in Stoker, it is a refreshingly warm film about adulthood and paying respect to one’s lineage–even if the subjects are, for the most part, a little cold to the touch.

Frances Ha
Where to see it: In theaters now.

Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig in "Frances Ha"

Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig in “Frances Ha”

Frances Ha shares the opposite side of a coin flipped by Bridesmaids just over two years ago. Where the latter film is a raunchy, straightforward, comedy-over-depth attempt to examine distinctly feminine issues, Frances Ha instead chooses a more subtle perspective on similar topics.

Seemingly coated in a fizzy aesthetic throwing us back to an era of Godard and Varda, the film slowly unravels itself as a complex exploration of the roles women (at least in an age where friends grow older, the jobs grow bleaker, and the social mentality has everyone feeling like they’re in high school again) seek to play in each other’s lives.

Frances is a 27-year old aspiring dancer unfortunately blessed with alternate talents for wishy-washy indecisiveness, seeking fun over function, and convincing herself that she can dance (though her pliés could pass for the mere pained squatting of someone half-qualified). Her best friend, Sophie, seems to be moving in the other direction–fast; A career, a fiance, and a shifting attitude on the topics of life, men, and living in a city that isn’t New York (gasp!) all become viable options for Frances’ one-time companion in the art of being a broke twenty-something in an overstimulating urban environment.

Frances’ inability to grow up and deal with her impending bout with loneliness and separation from a stable platonic relationship is both painful to watch and irresistibly enthralling.

The script, co-written by Gerwig and Baumbauch, seems less a track leading to closure as it does a base for which the characters to reinvent their fortunes in the moment, their lofty aspirations and bloated egos running on delusion-fueled ambition like an impatient raindrop seeking a far-off river.

The film’s narrative unravels in an almost aimless fashion, mirroring Frances’ journey to accidentally coming into her own, never condemning her for being too lazy nor giving her unrealistic avenues that satisfy her juvenile desires. There’s no harm in acting like a kid, and Frances Ha celebrates the youthful glimmer of the free-spirit many of our eyes have long since lost, while at the same time reaffirming the need for a good kick in the ass here and there. It’s a rarity in that it’s endearing and entertaining without feeling forced, and for that it’s one of the best films of the year.

Spring Breakers
Where to see it: On DVD and Blu-Ray now.

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Harmony Korine, an auteur in his own right, is known for anti-commercial films in line with provoking a visceral response versus pandering to a general audience. His latest film might be his first to appeal to the masses (its domestic box office tally stands at just below $14 million); thankfully his alternative approach to critiquing mainstream culture through cinema remains intact.

Korine unites Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens in a film their core fanbase can’t legally watch by themselves for another five years; the R-rated spring break antics of four college friends is the focus of Spring Breakers, which at once comments on the accessibility and (sometimes voluntary) objectification of women’s sexuality yet also highlights the fragile, crumbling outlook on the once-promising vision of the American Dream.

The deliberateness with which Korine crafts his critique–from the casting of squeaky-clean Disney stars to a montage involving guns, destruction, and Britney Spears music–resonates with a symbolic urgency and coherent vision absent in his earlier work. A statement is being made, and it’s clear. Korine wastes no time showing us just how the demise of American culture will leave a heap of nothing but beer cans, broken dreams, and the Millennials’ unquenchable thirst for fun over work.

The Bling Ring
Where to see it: In theaters now.

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The latest from writer/director Sofia Coppola sees a dramatic departure from her early work. Whereas Lost in Translation, MarieAntoinette, and The Virgin Suicides each delve into issues of feminine angst, The Bling Ring isn’t a gendered perspective as much as it is an era-specific exploration of contemporary collective social mentality and the cycle of the lust for fame.

Fictionalizing the events of the notorious “Bling Ring” (a group of California teens who burglarized celebrities from Rachel Bilson and Orlando Bloom to Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton) Coppola’s film elevates itself far beyond the average comedy-caper by delving into issues like the responsibility of a culture to its criminals, the ownership of fame, and the accessibility of attention in an age of what seems to be a collective narcissistic push for a dream life attained without work.

The allure of fame is no longer an untouchable dream regarded with respect; in Coppola’s film, the rich are powerful and worshiped, yet far more accessible to anyone with a laptop and Google maps. Today’s celebrities are icons of mere excess, not icons of talent, and thus their star quality is diminished to the point of seeming inhuman. The boundaries between fame, normalcy/reality, and dream are blurred, and Coppola understands that in today’s culture–with quick-fix gratification outlets like Facebook and gossip blogs–a false sense of self-worth is easily attained through the ease with which one can ignore a border, scale a fence, drop to the other side, and literally run a fantasy through their fingers.

The Place Beyond the Pines
Where to see it: On DVD and Blu-Ray August 6, 2013

Eva Mendes and Ryan Gosling in "The Place Beyond The Pines"

Eva Mendes and Ryan Gosling in “The Place Beyond The Pines”

A morosely captivating film about the lineage of males and the headstrong persistence of a father’s influence (direct or secondhand) over his son, The Place Beyond the Pines sees writer-director Derek Cianfrance (2010’s brilliant Blue Valentine) once again wielding a blade of emotional impact as delicately as a prodigal musician strokes the string of an instrument.

Featuring some of the finest work from each of its cast members (Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, and Ryan Gosling in particular), the film is almost overcome by the emotions fueling it (a few second-act missteps and weighty, cliched attempts to inject doses of mirth fall flat), but its conclusion hurts as much as it inspires, making the film enjoyable for its insistence to corner the market on teardrops.

Mud
Where to see it: Still in theaters, but losing screens each week. On DVD August 6, 2013.

Matthew McConaughey in "Mud"

Matthew McConaughey in “Mud”

It might be cheating a bit to include Mud on this list thanks to Matthew McConaughey’s supporting performance (which already has awards buzz), but the film has enough arty flair to satisfy your indie-tooth while tiding you over for the performances of his competition later in the year.

Mud hits its dramatic chords a bit too carefully (a prominently symbolic film) to resonate as a complete package and its conclusion contains too many groan-inducing moments of saccharine closure, but the performances (Reese Witherspoon surprises in a minor role as well) are enough to warrant a few hours of your time.

“The Hobbit”: Unexpected Journeys & Blindsiding Gimmicks

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It’s hard to think of a series in any medium renowned with more critical, audience, and scholarly devotion than J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. What began as a series of novels has grown into an enormous worldwide phenomenon spanning video games, comics, toys, and of course, films. But, while all signs point to the contrary, Ian McKellan, star of Peter Jackson’s highly acclaimed cinematic adaptations, recently became angry with a reporter at a press junket for the series prequel, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, for labeling it a “franchise.”

“This is not ‘X-Men,’” he growled.

The “franchise” descriptor carries heavy connotations of factory-like production with cheap values, cheaper gimmicks, and a knack for cunning repeat dips into the pockets of faithful audiences en masse.

McKellan’s frustrations are not unfounded. Has Lord of the Rings ever shared the same receptive space as industry heavy-hitters like Spider Man or Twilight? Peter Jackson’s tender handcrafted a series of arresting whimsy coupled with powerful parabolic implications. What made Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film series stand out from a franchise-obsessed film industry are everything that make The Hobbit look like only a smear of ash cast from a raging fire.

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The Hobbit is a prelude to the highly-decorated Lord of the Rings series, chronicling the exploits of Bilbo Baggins, a band of dwarves, and Gandalf the wizard as they seek to reclaim treasure stolen by a dragon, Smaug. Recognizable characters from the series are all here, albeit with presence motivated only by nostalgic longing for familiarity versus any sort of narrative necessity, but since the film is part one of three (as a matter of fact, actors billed in the film’s credits, such as Evangeline Lily and Benedict Cumberbatch, do not even appear in this installment), that still remains to be entirely seen.

The Hobbit takes the simple premise of its source material and stretches it into a nearly three-hour epic of spectacular vignettes, causal relation often thrown to the wind as the film seems keen on molding juicy come-to-life visuals for fans of the literature versus forging a cinematically individual path of its own. For this, The Hobbit works on its most artificial levels, suffering as whole in the process. The imagery is crisp, the production design lush, and the quality of projection some of the finest you’ll see on cinema screens this year. The problem, however, is that these elements work against the film’s credibility as true fantasy, the kind which exists as an ethereal essence versus a noticeably crafted product. The Hobbit’s spectacular qualities (particularly the 3D visuals, as well as the high projection rate at nearly 48 frames per second) nearly always outshine its narrative roots, in short; in fact it is brevity of editing and effective pacing that seem to escape the scope of Jackson’s focus, something that didn’t plague his initial Lord of the Rings trilogy.

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

Even fantasy requires an anchoring thread of realism, which is present in The Hobbit but altogether stifled by artificiality that emphasizes the presence of the camera and, ultimately, the confines of the audience’s spectatorship. The beauty of the story at heart is hard to grasp when the audience is beaten over the head with 3D gimmicks and film speed that makes even the simplest of movements far too crisp and constructed not to devote attention to. The future of cinema is leaning towards an even greater 3D revolution, and the Lord of the Rings series is one far too rooted in the history of other mediums to be hampered by the cheapest of visual trickery.

Perhaps the film itself is mediocre, or maybe the lense through which we view it is tainted by a film industry overgrown with spectacle over substance, rendering The Hobbit‘s presence trivial and unrefreshing. It then becomes Peter Jackson’s mistake, then, to allow such a visionary franchise succumb to the pitfalls of convention that his Lord of the Rings series rose above over a decade ago.

There’s a scene towards the end of the film which sees a standoff between two characters. One (larger, more intimidating than his challenger) taunts his opponent, mockingly asking him what he’s going to do to stop the blunt force of the impending attack. After an unexpectedly quick slash to the face and stomach from his measly opponent, the large foe humorously quips “well, that’ll do it” before falling to his death. At once, the exchange is funny, and on another, completely out of character for the scene, the film, and the tone of the entire series. It’s hard to imagine J.R.R. Tolkien writing such a shallow calling out to the audience’s conscious, but I guess novels are often described with such qualities that “jump off the page.” It’s an unsurprising shame when, taken too literally with technical bells, whistles, and 3D effects, the same sentiment can’t be trusted to make average cinema truly great.

Leos Carax brings “Holy Motors” to Pittsburgh

Kylie Minogue and Denis Lavant in Leos Carax’s “Holy Motors.”

The Three Rivers Film Festival continued this week with a screening of Leos Carax’s “Holy Motors,” an eternally perplexing film whose presence at this year’s festival is a testament to Pittsburgh’s standing as an up-and-coming hub for the arts.

The print was introduced as one of the only copies in the country, with a 35mm print having not reached U.S. shores as of Wednesday’s screening at the Harris Theater, downtown.

In line with previous screenings at the festival, however, the night didn’t go without its share of technical hijinks. Halfway through the film, buffering issues plagued Carax’s gorgeous film, forcing flustered employees to nervously inform a jeering audience that they may not be able to see the conclusion to “Motors.” Telling an auditorium full of pretentious film buffs they can’t see the end of a film like this is like telling a mother she can’t keep the precious results of the last twelve hours she spent in labor. Some were calm, some were up in arms. But, alas, the wonderful staff at the Harris Theater made sure those who chose to stay for the thirty or so minutes it took to fix the print went home happy.

The film itself eludes description—or “fair” criticism for just that matter. It is a film perfect in its artistic execution, catharsis in its purest form. It feels unfiltered, unburdened by a studio’s overarching creative control, but not lacking a thematic direction. It tells the story of a man, “Mr. Oscar,” given the task of completing various fantastical “appointments” throughout Paris which include masking his own identity to become someone—or something—else within various staged vignettes. Each of the scenarios sees Mr. Oscar applying makeup, full body suits, wigs, weapons, even “dying” a few times, all for the sake of crafting pure spectacle for an audience—not any specific one, simply the “idea” of “the audience” that lies at the core of any performance, filmic or non. “Holy Motors” is laden with elements Film Studies classrooms spend entire semesters reviewing; intertextuality, self-reflexivity, and conflicts between diegetic/non-diegetic aspects all come into play. “Holy Motors” is a film major’s wet dream, an act of defiance against contemporary cinema’s willingness to gloss over the dark (juicy) bits of reality that places the audiences in a position to respond versus passively “receive” at all times.

Edith Scob dons her “Eyes Without a Face” costuming in “Holy Motors”

It’s frustrating, confusing, intense, elaborate, something, nothing, and everything Leos Carax wants it to be all at once. Even in its most irritating portions of reluctance to let “the audience” in, “Holy Motors” is a film which can’t be faulted. After all, dreams can’t be wrong, can they? As a midnight excursion your brain may endure, the film is in a constant state of evolution, deconstruction, and re-imagination; destroying ideologies and scenarios pre-established only moments prior. There are countless references to films–classic and modern–that make “Holy Motors” a veritable treasure trove of cinematic and pop cultural history. Edith Scob reprises her role from “The Eyes Without a Face,” Kylie Minogue plays someone who is not Kylie Minogue in a film where Kylie Minogue music plays at a party, characters from other Carax films (“Tokyo!” in particular) make appearances as if they’ve never had a camera on them before. Scrapbooking for scrapbooking’s sake, I suppose. But not without purpose; this is a film which questions identity, performance, consciousness, and reality. Things taken for granted whilst commuting to work or seeing a concert, but pondered with precision and caution in dreams and cinema, the most pure forms of expression, which collide with dazzling results in “Holy Motors.”

When the print of the film lagged and skipped around thanks to the aforementioned buffering issues, one audience member (proud of himself for having such a brilliant thought) proclaimed (loud enough so the whole audience could hear) “I think the jump-cuts are intentional. This is brilliant.” While fancying himself a modern day Godard, he was shot down not only by the staff’s “fixing” of the “jump cuts,” but also by the one constant thematical message which runs throughout “Holy Motors”. The audience is a cog in a giant machine, victim (and, at times, willing participant) of the cinema’s ultimate power over any who relinquish their conscious state and hand it over to the all-powerful medium of film. He was wrong, but I’m sure Carax would appreciate his earnestness.

“Rust and Bone” Kicks off Three Rivers Film Festival with a Roar

High profile productions aren’t just made in the Steel City these days; they’re also headlining Pittsburgh’s very own Three Rivers Film Festival, which made its 31st debut tonight with screenings of some of this Oscar season’s buzziest titles. But, that doesn’t stop a little brokedown Pittsburgh “flair” from seeping into the mix. It’s hard to imagine a  projector merely “slipping” off its axis mid-screening, or a festival showrunner announcing the dispensing of sandwiches and cheap wine after the show (simply because “well, uh, because it’s opening night,” he so eloquently concluded) at Telluride, Toronto, or Sundance. But alas, these things happen. You must constantly remind yourself (the cutesy mishaps might do that for you) that this is merely Pittsburgh charm at its finest.

As a city sprawling in artistic evolution, there’s undoubtedly a comfortable amount of room for the film industry to nestle itself firmly in Pittsburgh’s bosom. The Dark Knight Rises and Adventureland are a mere sampling of the big-name studio productions filmed here over the course of the past two years. Pittsburgh is making a name for itself as a Hollywood of the East Coast, and its priority film festival should reflect that.

Around 7:00 PM, small crowds of people dotted the sidewalks of Liberty Avenue as the historic Harris Theater prepped Rust and Bone for its Pittsburgh debut. After screening in competition at Cannes earlier this year, Bone leads an impressive trifecta of Oscar bait goodness headlining Pittsburgh’s two-week long festival. Joining the film on opening night were Silver Linings Playbook and Beware of Mr. Baker, playing at the Regent Square Theater and the Melwood Screening Room, respectively.

The night intensified as Rust and Bone screened, however, with audience members responding audibly (gentle sobbing, jeers of disgust) to the French-Belgian co-production starring Marion Cotillard in a role that surely makes her a worthy contender in this year’s already crowded Best Actress Oscar race. The performance is a thing of fantasy, a fantastical fruit plucked from the highest branch of cinematic perfection.

The film itself is a masterful emotional powerhouse, telling the story of two people entwined in a delightfully tragic dance of magnetic attraction. Stephanie (Cotillard) is a killer whale trainer treading water amid a stagnant love life; Ali is a twenty-something drifter running away from a murky past filled with one-night stands, an ex-wife, and the liveliest souvenir to show for it all; a sprightly five-year old son. Together, the pair feed off what they lack but are able to find within each other; Stephanie’s inherent ability to harness and control what’s “larger” than her and Ali’s ruthless path to self-gratification don’t meet with fireworks, but rather a slow melding together—sometimes messy and dripping with unsightly bits—of a beautiful relationship that’s as imperfect and alluring as the people who comprise it. It’s hard to call Rust and Bone an optimistic film, seeing as its protagonists suffer far more than they prosper, but it is a celebration nonetheless. Rust and Bone finds beauty in pain, delicately savoring the jagged edges of experience learned from life-altering tragedies instead of offering quick-fix, unrealistic solutions to unexpected hurdles.

Opening night sets the tone for the days (in this case, weeks) to come, and the Three Rivers Film Festival will screen pictures such as Holy Motors, Compliance, and a score of this year’s competitors for the Foreign Language Oscar; a dazzling high note hopefully crescendoing to a roar by the festival’s end. Although it’s hard not to chuckle at the inclusion of a low-brow “Pittsburgh Dad”-based production playing the same field as Oscar frontrunners. That’s Pittsburgh for you.

While filmmakers Q&A’s, receptions, and other standard film festival razzle-dazzle are expected, something tells me Pittsburghers will be pleased simply with a comfy chair, a working projector, and a film of any kind playing overhead.

More updates as the festival goes on.

Argo: A Mixed Bag of Conflicted Ideals and Smooth Action

Americans love watching other Americans win; whether it be at the Olympics, cheering on a pissed off housewife as she berates a retail worker for an extra 20% off, or in a power struggle of Western values against Middle Eastern opposition. Countless international conflicts, thirty-three years, a fake film, and six would-be-hostage escapees later we have Argo, an ambitious (if problematic) two hour wank to a “winning” America from director-star Ben Affleck. If you find yourself complaining about the “spoiler” just revealed, chances are you grew up with a “Jem” lunchbox and/or didn’t pay attention in history class; you’re not Argo’s target age demographic, and shame on you for being a waste of space (and tax dollars) in mid-80s elementary school.

Turmoil amidst foreign affairs in the Middle East lingered as the Vietnam War ended, the purple haze of the hippie generation wafting away, the legacy of the 1970s lingering as the dust settled; The stage for Argo is set amidst an era which ushered in a uniquely aggressive American perspective on foreign affairs and the United States’ role in international crises, one that’s hardly containable within a white picket fence crafted with optimism and a neighborly “hello.”

This post-“American Dream” America serves as only a pseudo centerpiece for the glorious buffet of cultural critique Affleck initially serves up. The bulk of the film is a systematic retelling of the “Canadian Caper” rescue mission of 1979, the remaining course a condemnation of America’s world presence as a vigilant virus of socio-cultural-politcal domination. Burka-clad women snacking on KFC, inept Government employees, and a nation easily distracted by the celluloid escape/fandom fantasy of Hollywood come to mind as pieces of the diverse American identity Argo seems to hate.

Affleck spends plenty of time attempting to convince us that America—Hollywood in particular—is filled with capitalistic, power-tripping pigs, but by the same token the artifice of the film industry is credited as the saving grace of the six American lives stranded in Tehran after a Revolutionary mob storms the U.S. Embassy, the Canadian Ambassador agreeing to shelter them in secrecy. C.I.A. specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck) enlists the help of movie industry power players John Chambers (John Goodman) and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to craft an elaborate plot to “fake” the production of a film (press kits, magazine articles, table reading and all) which will scout locations in Tehran, allowing the six potential rescuees to pose as members of the crew for their secret extraction. Still, capitalist Hollywood/blood suckling America rears its ugly head; “If I’m going to make a fake film, I’m going to make a fake hit,” Chambers asserts.

Much of the action revolving around the rescue itself is exciting, if rather formulaic. There’s no doubt Affleck is a skilled filmmaker. His ability to harvest thick wads of newfound suspense from historical molds with well-known, pre-established outcomes is a testament to his precision and tact as a director. But, after the smoke clears, I’m left clawing for traction, searching for an auteuristic mark amidst the sheen of suspense for suspense’s sake. It makes for a fun ride but a muddled message—especially when the outcome is already rooted in the history of reality.

Affleck breaks the “Tell me something I can’t look up on Google” rule with Argo, but ultimately the biggest problems I have with the film are its wishy-washy, conflicted values. On one hand scenes of increasingly hostile, violent tension between the United States and Iran pepper the film with a sense of impending doom. On the other, it’s a film hell-bent on assuring us that as long as you live in America, everything is going to be OK. The sentiment is inspiring, but simply doesn’t bode well–especially with the climate of contemporary foreign affairs. Scenes of Iranian officials declaring revenge upon all parties (including Canada) for their involvement in the rescue are sprinkled throughout the closing moments of Argo, bringing the reality of worldwide conflict crashing through the dream veneer the celebratory comfort the success of the mission provides. For a moment you find yourself thinking that this is a film that finally gets it; a film which touts happiness as the fleeting, momentary emotion that it is. The world is not perfect, and Hollywood processes real-world conflict into spectacular fodder for a willing audience. In the ideal world of Argo Mendez returns to his home, embraces his wife, reunites with his son, and all is right after a wave of Uncle Sam’s magic wand. The biting reality Affleck dangles over our heads for the majority of the film, however, proves problematic as it begs to reroute that sappy conclusion at all costs.

Argo is a ultimately a prelude to contemporary American sentiment, to the War on Terror, and to every ignorant New Yorker who smashed the windows of Persian-owned restaurants after 9/11. It’s a film that fully acknowledges that the world isn’t full of rainbows and sunshine—never has been, never will be. It’s a stark reality mainstream film tends to generalize far beyond the scope of any real-world implications. Glimpses of such critique are present in Argo, but the overarching, influential hand of Hollywood control destroys any effects it might have had thanks to a hokey ending and melodramatic tricks. Argo ultimately falls victim to too many fantastical “fixes” that force the film out of touch with the reality it so desperately seeks to correct. Argo might end with a macho movie icon embracing a hot blonde while the American flag flies conspicuously in the front yard of their suburban home, but reinforcing the traditional pageantry of idealized American values means nothing in the face of those pissed off Iranians whom actually informed the world that “Canada will pay.”

Why Carly Rae Jepsen Will Work

Sweet voice. Dimpled smile. Tiny frame sporting clothes stripped right off the freshest rack at the hippest Justice in the world. The girl in question looks no more than seventeen years old. An average, suburban-bred cutie pie indiscernible from the hordes of others who sing along to the multi-platinum single she released earlier this year when it makes its rotations on the local eight at eight.

The reality is that this “girl” is Carly Rae Jepsen, nearly thirty and poised to ascend the ranks of worldwide pop royalty with the release of her new album, “Kiss,” today.

Of course any pop artist would kill to have a track like “Call Me Maybe” in their repertoire; the single reached #1 in major markets around the globe within the first few months of its release. Jepsen joined the ranks of Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, and Katy Perry as one of the biggest successes for contemporary pop in the past year. The question on everybody’s mind, however, soon turned to how exactly Jepsen would turn a massive single hit into an extended career as a pop superstar.

“Kiss” is armed with an artillery of songs that sound like a raging battle of young love, where lollipops take the place of swords and Hershey Kisses burst out of candy-cane shaped cannons. It’s sweet, catchy, and represents a much-needed escape from the pretentious, watered-down theatrics of some of today’s biggest pop acts. The one thing that separates Jepsen from the aforementioned poster children for contemporary pop music is her image. She doesn’t really “fit in” with any of the industry’s other leading ladies. The dichotomy between the “old” and “new” has never been more apparent as it is today. We still have tried-and-true traditional icons from past decades like Britney Spears, P!nk, and Christina Aguilera still impacting international charts; then you have the “newcomers” (as Xtina so lovingly refers to them) in the vein of Gaga, Minaj, and Rihanna making a colorful (albeit an arguably superficial) splash with their outlandish costumed antics both onstage and off. Jepsen lacks the maturity which anchors the former group firmly into our iPods (she’s 26), nor the “freshness” the latter possessed when their “originality” first impacted the industry (um, she’s 26).  In essence, Jepsen is the first “traditional” pop star we’ve seen sift through the bullshit, feathers, and pseudo-subgenres to the top of the mainstream charts in years.

Of course she’s done it all without bleeding to death on stage or kissing Madonna, but that’s not to say Jepsen hasn’t had any “help” along the way. Her career, persona, and musical output at this point strikes me as such an interesting dichotomy between forced and genuine that it’s hard to discern whether or not she’s actually a “pop star” or she’s simply hit the industry jackpot at a time consumers crave simplicity and no-strings-attached innocence over anything else.

Take, for example, Jepsen’s alternate medium equivalent, Bella Swan of the Twilight novel and film series. The girl is a vapid, lifeless character who resonates with young readers (particularly girls) largely due to her “non-existing” existence. She has no personality, wholeheartedly emotionless, and is played by perhaps the most boring, stony-faced actress of our generation, Kristen Stewart. At the risk of sounding like a generalizing asshole, it’s hard not to think the female fanbase of a series like Twilight is simply indulging in a cut-and-paste series of events where they’re subconsciously interchangeable with a lifeless protagonist and her experiences. After all, Bella is paired with a hunky guy she’s “forbidden” to “have” (uh oh, cue rebellious teen girl phase), ultimately portrayed by arguably the most intense-looking, attractive young man in contemporary Hollywood, Robert Pattinson, who really looks at them when he’s framed, close-up, on the silver screen in front of them (really, now, how many shots can you have of one actor looking into the camera in a single film?).

How many times have you seen a “Will you be my Edward Cullen?” Facebook posting, message board comment, poster, sticker, binder, trapper keeper (still using those, right?), or any other form of studio propaganda convincing girls this is the type of man they want—the type of man they need—and is ultimately a fictional creation whose only contributing a blank slate for which girls to project their desires unto with (no return) in a one-sided “relationship” rooted in fantasy. The only way they can “have” him is by, well, buying more Twilight bullshit.

Jepsen’s music, as gleaned from a quick listen to “Kiss,” calls upon listeners to fill the same set of shoes. The lyrics are almost unbearably saccharine, too sweet to be taken entirely seriously as a 27-year old woman’s deepest confessions, yet tinged with just enough suggestive flirtation to make her fit in with the contemporary Top 40 crowd. Her appearance begs us to disregard her body as a canvas (something Gaga or Ke$ha cringe at) and as a mere playful vessel just being cute and “doing what girls do” as she dances onstage with all the coy innocence of a high schooler at their first boy/girl party. She’s relatable for lacking a concrete personality. Her songs don’t require much thought to really enjoy, and she’s singing them without the theatrical flair that make her industry counterparts so readily accessible at awards shows and on magazine covers. They come with previously established standards of eccentricity, Jepsen merely comes with a song and a smile—there is a superstar, and then there is a famous girl. Gaga is revered as a performer, as a star, as someone associated with the outlandish, a clear border between her and the “normality” of the consumer. Jepsen, however, is simply “a girl with some cute outfits and catchy pop songs.” How does that manage to burst through the corsets, pink wigs, and glow-in-the-dark capes?

I’ll tell you how; with the help of a male pop star. Jepsen’s rise to fame came as a contestant on “Canadian Idol,” where she placed third. Her superstardom, however, didn’t come until after she exchanged tweets with Justin Bieber, who then signed her to his record label. Bieber’s commanding force of millions of young girls swayed the tides in Jepsen’s favor. She didn’t necessarily “do” anything besides bask in the spotlight Bieber fixed on her. Clearly we’re past the social mindset that men “need” women and the other way around, but it’s hard not to think that Jepsen would never have succeeded if it weren’t for the sexually-crazed girls blindly following wherever Bieber’s dic—erm, point of interest—directed them. In interviews, magazine articles, and even on “Kiss” where she sings a duet with him, she’s consistently associated with the teen heartthrob. A point of reference for teen girls, a simple façade, but the receptor of Bieber’s attention, something these fans so desperately seek.

Even the likes of Adele and Taylor Swift have their identities carved out for them, whether by genuine artistry or by studio analysts. Adele is brooding, not physically atypical for a “pop star,” and has a voice that elevates her beyond the Katys and the Rihannas; Taylor Swift dabbled in a genre that’s all about consistency and wholesomeness far before she dipped her hands into the well of pop. She got her start crooning about idolizing a country icon, Tim McGraw, as many women have, and has ridden the waves ever since. What Swift does, however, is pen her own tracks in the vein of authenticity. She publicizes breakups and turns trivial moments like Kanye West stealing her microphone at the VMAs into a song that wouldn’t sound entirely out of place if sung to someone who raped her. Carly Rae isn’t really doing any of this on her own. She kind of wants you to “know” her, but kind of really wants to have her song played in a club, too.

But, what’s fueling this desire to return to pop’s roots as a traditional outlet for “normal” people turned superstars? Have we finally tired of putting effort into caring about Gaga’s meat dresses, about the vomit in Ke$ha’s hair? The truth is that people like Gaga and Ke$ha are genuine artists. They pen their own tracks, compose their own music, and even write for other artists. They’ve established themselves as a business with an edgy shell that happens to involve a little glitter and grease. But has the public given up on recognizing their artistry in favor of the glitzy bits? Carly Rae represents the opposite in a time where it’s convenient to simply say “fuck this mardi gras bullshit, I just want a pop star I want to fuck.”

I hope none of this sounds like a sexist rant, because industries like the music business have always banked on gendered appeal whether you want to acknowledge it or not. Whether Carly Rae Jepsen’s success will ride on the genuinely catchy tunes that provide the bulk for her “traditional” pop album, “Kiss,” or her ability to “happen” at a time when simplicity and innocence provide a convenient escape from the cluttered state of the world is still yet to be seen.