Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Movie Review: Venus in Fur

Venus in Fur
Directed by: Roman Polanski.
Written by: Roman Polanski & David Ives based on the play by Ives and the novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.
Starring: Emmanuelle Seigner (Vanda), Mathieu Amalric (Thomas).

Since his first film, Knife in the Water back in 1962, Roman Polanski has often excelled in putting his characters in a confined space, while at the same time making the films more cinematic than many directors in a similar situation have been able to do. In Knife in the Water, it was three characters on a boat. In Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Tenant (1976), Death and the Maiden (1994) and Carnage (2011) it was an apartment or a house. In his latest film, Venus in Fur, it is a theater – where a playwright and an actress meet with her auditioning for a role in his adaptation of the famed book by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch about the sadomasochistic relationship between an intellectual and a seemingly innocent young woman. It starts off as we expect, and then takes some unexpected turns.

It would be easy – yet probably unwise –to read this movie as a little autobiographical on the part of Polanski. He has, after all, cast his wife of 25 years, Emmanuelle Seigner, as the female lead Vanda, and Mathieu Amalric, who could very easily play Polanski in a biopic as the two superficially resemble each other, as the male lead. But just because that is true, doesn’t mean that the film has much to do with Polanski’s personal life – it is based on a play by David Ives, which was in turn based on a novel from the 1870s – and the casting choices are just as easily explained by the fact that Polanski wanted to work with two great actors – both of whom are perfectly cast.

In the film, Vanda pushes her way into an audition after they were supposed to be done for the day. The only person left in the theater is Thomas, the playwright and first time director, who really doesn’t want to go through another audition, but since he doesn’t believe she’s going to let him go otherwise, he begrudgingly relents, and lets her read for the role – with him taking on the other role. At first she seems like a ditz – a beautiful woman to be sure, but too old for the role, and he just wants out of there. But then the audition starts, and she does the role brilliantly, and he’s drawn to her. But she continues to push his buttons throughout their reading – insulting the play, insulting the book, questioning its authenticity, its sexism, and whether its autobiography for Thomas. Thomas gets increasingly flustered – wanting to know how she can be so good at playing the role, she quite clearly doesn’t understand. But she understands it better than he thinks she does – even better than she does really, and through the reading of the play, and her interactions with Thomas in between the readings, she is essentially doing her own modern, feminist rewrite of the play – as the two fall into versions of the characters they are playing.

More than anything else, Venus in Fur is an acting showcase, and as that it is wonderful. Segnier has the more difficult role, as she is playing different versions of herself throughout, hiding her real motivations throughout. She’s sexy, brash, funny, smart and everything in between. It’s a showcase role for her, and she does it brilliantly. Amalric has the easier role – he’s easier to read throughout – but he makes a great foil for Segnier.

But it’s also a showcase for Polanski – who opens and closes the film with a pair of great tracking shots, the first starting outside the theater that moves seamlessly inside, and the last doing the precise opposite. Throughout the film, Polanski finds interesting ways to suggest the power dynamics between the two characters, and makes the most of the limited space of the theater like no one could.
 
Like his last film, Carnage, Venus in Fur is more of a lark for Polanski than one of his better, deeper films. Both films are hurt a little when they strain for importance, and are far better when they simply allow their actors to go at each other with everything they have. Venus in Fur is a better, more confident film than Carnage however – perhaps because the material is a better fit for Polanski. Venus in Fur may be minor Polanski – but it’s still a hell of good time at the movies.

Criticwire Survey:

Q: In a post at RogerEbert.com, Aaron Aradillas decried the fetishization of 35mm film exhibition, which he argued "creates divisions where there really shouldn’t be." How important is it to you to that movie shot on film be seen the same way, and given that that 35mm screenings are increasingly rare in most parts of the country, is it possible the stance that you haven't "really" seen a movie until you've seen it on celluloid does more harm than good?

I actually worked at one of the first movie theaters in Canada to have a digital projector – and we would literally get people drive for a few hours to see movie projected that way – which I guess made some sense when we were one of the only places capable of projecting Attack of the Clones the way Lucas intended it to be – but no sense at all for most movies – which at the time were still mostly shot on film. From then one, I’ve always been of the opinion that a film should be shown on the format it was made – film for film, digital for digital. Which means the vast, vast majority of modern films should be shown digitally, because that is how the filmmakers made the films, and intended them to be shown. I will make the effort to see films shot on film projected that way – I did with The Master back in 2012 – but the sad truth is that it really isn’t an option most of the time. I may well have to see Inherent Vice digitally projected – and the chances are Quentin Tarantino’s 70MM film set for next year, The Hateful 8 – which also be projected digitally almost everywhere. And the choice between seeing these films projected digitally or not at all isn’t really a choice at all – I’m seeing them. I wonder about the much ballyhooed two day early release of Interstellar on 35MM only – as most theaters in Canada have tickets available for the first week of its run, and so far only four – three IMAX, and one regular – have show times for November 5th. I’m sure there are more theaters capable of showing 35MM films than that (I know the Lightbox for example can show just about anything) – but so far it seems like a rather thin list.

Besides, I really don’t think there are too many purists like Quentin Tarantino out there – those who claim that they would retire if he couldn’t shoot on film, and digital projection is nothing more than TV in public. I think many prefer film to digital but few would go as far as he would. The truth is that the debate between film and digital isn’t really a debate anymore – digital won. While I still believe that films should be shown the way the director’s intended them – either through film or digital projection – but seeing things on film is really more of a luxury than a necessity – something we should treasure and preserve yet isn’t really necessary for the medium to survive.

Movie Review: Witching & Bitching

Witching & Bitching
Directed by: Álex de la Iglesia.
Written by:  Jorge Guerricaechevarría & Álex de la Iglesia.
Starring: Hugo Silva (José), Mario Casas (Antonio), Pepón Nieto (Calvo), Carolina Bang (Eva), Terele Pávez (Maritxu), Jaime Ordóñez (Manuel), Gabriel Ángel Delgado (Sergio), Santiago Segura (Miren), Macarena Gómez (Silvia), Secun de la Rosa (Pacheco), Javier Botet (Luismi).

From the insane, hilarious heist that opens the film, down to its insane, bloody climax Witching & Bitching is crazy genre fun. At nearly two hours the film probably overstays its welcome a little bit – it’s hard to maintain the kind of relentless pace this movie has for that long, and the movie lulls a bit as it moves into its final act. And the film throws pretty much everything it can at the screen to see what will stick, so not all of it quite works. Yet the film is the kind of sustained craziness that we don’t see enough of today. Witching & Bitching is nowhere near a great film – but it is one hell of a ride.

The film opens with a heist of a jewelry store in the middle of Madrid by a group of robbers dressed in the type of costumes you see in Times Square or Las Vegas – a man painted in gold as Jesus, a man painted in green as a toy soldier, and then men dressed as The Invisible Man, Minnie Mouse, and most hilariously SpongeBob Squarepants, wielding a machine gun. Oh, and Jesus brought his 10-year old son along with him – it’s his day, goddamnit, and he’s not missing it for anything. The robbery is successful – but then there is a great car chase as well. Soon, two of the men, along with a cab driver, who ends up joining their gang, along with the young boy are on the way to France. They make the mistake of stopping at the worst possible spot – and end up in the middle of a Coven of Witches – who want to eat them.

Some will likely see Witching & Bitching as misogynistic, and others will see it as feminist – and the truth is probably somewhere in between those extremes. All the men in the movie are clearly sexist – the way they complain about the women in their lives goes beyond regular complaints men have about their wives, and crosses over to the pathological. But the movie recognizes this, and takes great pleasure in giving these men their comeuppance at the hands of the witches – who may all be clichés, but then again so are the men.

The film was Álex de la Iglesia, a filmmaker I have heard about before, but had not seen one of his films before. He isn’t exactly known for his subtlety – and there is nothing subtle about this film, which pretty much goes for broke from the first frame to the last. The film is violent, sexy, funny and just downright crazy. It is exploitation film at its finest – never quite crossing the line to pure camp, but get dangerously close.

When you try to do as much as Iglesia does in this film, not all of it is going to work. That’s understandable. But it’s because he tries so much, and doesn’t hold back, that the film works as well as it does. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Movie Review: 20,000 Days on Earth

20,000 Days on Earth
Directed by: Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard.
Written by: Nick Cave & Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard.
Featuring: Nick Cave, Susie Bick, Warren Ellis, Darian Leader, Ray Winstone, Blixa Bargeld, Kylie Minogue, Arthur Cave, Earl Cave, Thomas Wydler, Martyn Casey, Conway Savage, Jim Sclavunos, Barry Adamson, George Vjestica.

There are some people who you cannot do justice to in a standard issue documentary. Nick Cave is certainly one of those people, so director’s Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard do not attempt to make one in 20,000 Days on Earth. Instead, they collaborate with Cave himself – and allow him in many ways to take the lead, and “write” the documentary, and dictate the directions that the film is going to go. Like an increasing number of documentaries, 20,000 Days on Earth takes on somewhere between fact and fiction – many of the scenes are staged, but that doesn’t make them any less real. I don’t think we ever really get to know the “real” Nick Cave in the film – that appears to be something that Cave is unwilling to share with the filmmakers or his fans. What emerges however is a portrait of the artist that Cave is at work.

To call the film strange would be an understatement. The film has many scenes of Cave driving alone in his car – narrating his life in cryptic, hard-boiled monologue – and then gives way to a conversation as various people “appear” in the car with him – from actor Ray Winstone (who starred in the Cave-scripted film, The Proposition) to collaborator Kylie Minogue to Cave’s wife, Susie. The people give some insight into both Cave, and their own lives – or at times the artistic process itself. There are also scenes of Cave talking to Darian Leader – a psychologist (I think), who gets Cave to talk about his father, or his earliest sexual experiences, or other such subjects much loved by biographers – although Cave’s answers only reveal precisely what he wants to be revealed.

There are also scenes of Cave at work on his latest album – often alongside Warren Ellis, and the other Bad Seeds. These scenes, which show Cave at work, not performing for an audience (which he talks about a lot) are probably the least guarded Cave is in the entire movie. He’s not putting on acting for the camera or an audience – and often he’s in a room by himself, so the band itself isn’t there. This is Cave as unguarded and natural as he is willing to show to the camera – and even then we are left with little more than his cryptic lyrics, which are often haunting, dark, violent and contradictory to get inside who Cave is.

That is a question that the movie cannot answer – and never really attempts to. Cave himself admits he doesn’t always know what his songs are about – they do not become clear to him until years later – and whether or not that’s self-aggrandizement on Cave’s part, it also appears to be true in his case.

It’s always been odd to me that almost all movies – documentary or otherwise – about someone famous usually follow the same basic outline and format. Few filmmakers seem willing (or able) to give their subject the treatment they deserve. Todd Haynes did that in his Bob Dylan movie, I’m Not There, which provided us with many different Bob Dylan’s, and not solved the essential enigma that he is. Gus Van Sant did that in Last Days, about Kurt Cobain (under a different name) which was basically just the portrait of a junkie who has no idea what he’s doing in his haunting final days. And Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard do that in 20,000 Days on Earth. Do I have any more idea of who Nick Cave is after seeing the movie than I did before? Not really. But I think that’s the way Cave wants it.

Movie Review: The Skeleton Twins

The Skeleton Twins
Directed by: Craig Johnson.
Written by: Mark Heyman and Craig Johnson.
Starring: Bill Hader (Milo), Kristen Wiig (Maggie), Luke Wilson (Lance), Ty Burrell (Rich), Boyd Holbrook (Billy), Joanna Gleason (Judy).

If there is a stereotypical “Sundance Movie” – than The Skeleton Twins may well be it. It is a low-key comedy-drama about a dysfunctional family, where the two stars are trying to redefine their image. It is full of quirky characters and situations, but there is an undercurrent of sadness to the movie. In many ways, the typical Sundance film is as formulaic as the Hollywood blockbusters – and in most ways, The Skeleton Twins fits that formula. Yet, what makes The Skeleton Twins better than most typical Sundance movies is that the two central performances – by Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig – are stronger than the screenplay itself. The screenplay seems to want to wrap everything up in a neat little package at the end – but the two central actors do not quite allow that.

The movie is about Milo (Hader) and Maggie (Wiig) – twins who haven’t seen each other in 10 years. Their father killed himself when they were 14, and they were raised from then on by a distant, uncaring mother. Now in their mid-30s, they have both inherited their father’s depression. They only see each other again after Milo attempts suicide by slitting his wrists – and Maggie comes out to take him back to her home to recover – even though the phone call to tell her what happened to Milo interrupted her own suicide attempt. So Milo comes back to his small hometown where Maggie still lives – now married to lovable, lunkhead Lance (Luke Wilson). Maggie is trying to make it work with Lance, but she cannot stop herself from cheating on him with pretty much anyone around – in particular her scuba diving teacher. She’s just as messed up as Milo is – but she’s trying very hard to keep that a secret from everyone. For his part, Milo also has his secrets when he returns to town – sneaking off to see Rich (Ty Burrell) – his former English teacher, who was fired when his “relationship” with a then 15 year old Milo was discovered (although they never made that public). The twins share a deep connection with each – that is perhaps too deep, which is why they have stayed away from each other for so long. But in the end, they need each other.

The movie certainly follows the typical Sundance type formula. The film is quirky, and darkly humorous, but it contains any number of the clichéd scenes – like a sing-along for example, and is also somewhat patronizing towards the “normal”   people it is reputably about. It is not nearly as insightful as director/co-writer Craig Johnson thinks it is.

Yet, the film still somehow works for the most part – and that all comes down to the two lead performances by Hader and Wiig. They dig deeper than the screenplay does, and makes these two characters – who in many ways are little more than a bundle of clichés – into real people. This is the first time I`ve seen Hader play a more dramatic role – but he pretty much nails Milo’s depressive state, and the way he uses his quips to mask his deeper pain. Hader is capable of going over the top – as he showed brilliantly on SNL for years – but here he underplays his character nicely. Wiig, who has been trying to find the right dramatic role for a while now, finally finds it her. She was better than the movie itself in Hateship Loveship earlier this year – but she was a little too passive in that film, pretending being quiet was the same as being subtle. She gets the balance right here – she is a woman who is flailing on the inside, while trying desperately to appear normal. She wants nothing more than to be normal – but that is the one thing she cannot be.

What the movie understands about depression is what most movies get wrong about it – that’s it’s not about sitting around listening to sad songs or eating non-stop and not getting out of bed – but just an overwhelming sadness in your day-to-day life – a low-key sadness, not a showy one. Hader and Wiig are excellent in showing this side of depression.

The movie itself isn’t nearly as good as Hader and Wiig are. It puts these interesting characters, and great performances, into one clichéd scene after the next – and yet the actors save it from being yet another forgettable Sundance film. It isn’t a great film by any means – but it shows that Hader and Wiig can be great. Now they just a screenplay to fully utilize their talents.

Movie Review: Are You Here

Are You Here
Directed by: Matthew Weiner.
Written by: Matthew Weiner.
Starring: Owen Wilson (Steve Dallas), Zach Galifianakis (Ben Baker), Amy Poehler (Terry Coulter), Laura Ramsey (Angela Baker), Paul Schulze (Dave Harken), Alana De La Garza (Victoria Riolobos), Lauren Lapkus (Delia Shepard), Greg Cromer (Kyle Robertson), Edward Herrmann (Dr. Vincent), Peter Bogdanovich (Judge Harlan Plath), Jenna Fischer (Alli), Melissa Rauch (Marie).

Even extremely talented people can sometimes take a big swing and a miss on a project. What is most surprising about Matthew Weiner’s Are You Here – the feature directing debut by the creator of Mad Men is that it doesn’t even feel like the work of the same man. It feels like a very lazy comedy that could have been churned out by practically any hack in Hollywood – at least until the ending that tries for profundity and comes up way short. The hallmark of Mad Men has been well drawn characters – both male and female – and none of the characters in Are You Here are well drawn in the least – and the female characters are downright insulting. In short, nothing works in Are You Here – and what’s worse, is that I don’t see how anyone could have thought different.

The film stars Owen Wilson as Steve Dallas – a TV weatherman somewhere in small-town USA. He is a shallow, womanizing, pothead whose (only) friend is Ben (Zach Galifianakis) – and even bigger stoner, who lives on Steve's couch, works on his book – which all evidence suggests is basically a bunch of insane, paranoid ramblings about the government and society. When Ben hears his father has died – he and Steve take a (short) road trip to their hometown, which neither has been to in years. There they meet up with Ben’s uptight sister, Terry (Amy Poehler) and their hippie stepmother, Angela (Laura Ramsey) – who appears to be younger than either of the siblings. Much to Terry’s chagrin – since she was running all the family businesses – their father has left almost his entire estate to Ben – who plans on using it to reshape society in his earth first vision. Angela gets nothing – but she says that was her wish all along.

If there is one interesting thing in Are You Here, it is the depiction of Ben – who at first seems like yet another cinematic man child – who we are all supposed to find lovable in their immaturity. But that isn’t the way the movie – eventually – sees Ben. Ben isn’t just another irresponsible, stoner man child in the Adam Sandler or Judd Apatow mode – but a man who is clearly inflicted with some kind of mental illness – who struggles with whether or not to get help, and who by the end may not be in a much better place than he was at the beginning.

This is the most interesting thing about the movie – and even that seems more like a half formed idea, than fully thought through – and spends most of the time in the background of the movie anyway. Most of the movie is about Wilsons Steve – who is much more of the shallow, man child that American comedies still to love so much. He’s an asshole at the beginning of the film – and makes some very small steps throughout the movie to be less of one. Much of the movie is about his burgeoning relationship with Angela – which is odd because she starts out hating him, and when she starts to fall for him he is still the same, superficial asshole he was at the beginning. Poor Laura Ramsey is given an impossible role to play here – the movie basically sees her as a reward for the male characters in the film, all of whom sleep with her at various points. Worse still, that seems to be to be how Angela sees herself – and the film doesn’t give her any intelligence or insight into her behavior. She is probably the worst example of the perfect woman that an immature man needs to grow up I have seen in a movie.

Still, her role may be preferable to the one the immensely talented Amy Poehler is saddled with. She is basically a heartless, nagging shrew throughout the movie – a one dimensional, miserable woman, whose misery seems to stem from her inability to have children (although that plot thread is dropped fairly early in the movie – as is her character, who disappears for long stretches in the film).
 
It is possible that Weiner is trying to make a statement about the shallowness of modern culture – but if that is his goal, the end result is more muddled than smart or incisive. The final moments in the film are probably the best – these are the only ones in the film that I truly thought were the work of a talented writer-director. But even they work only in isolation from the rest of the film. Mad Men is a great TV show – and Weiner deserves a lot of credit for just how good that show is. But Are You Here shows that unless he’s going to grow by leaps and bounds, he should stick with television. Are You Here is one of the worst films of the year.

Movie Review: Million Dollar Arm

Million Dollar Arm
Directed by: Craig Gillespie.
Written by: Thomas McCarthy.
Starring: Jon Hamm (JB), Pitobash (Amit), Suraj Sharma (Rinku), Madhur Mittal (Dinesh), Aasif Mandvi (Aash), Darshan Jariwala (Vivek), Lake Bell (Brenda), Alan Arkin (Ray), Bill Paxton (Tom House), Gregory Alan Williams (Doug), Allyn Rachel (Theresa), Tzi Ma (Chang), Rey Maualuga (Popo), Bar Paly (Lisette).

Normally, I am a sucker for a good inspirational sports movie – and for the most part, Disney makes these better than just about anyone. Put on Remember the Titans (2000), The Rookie (2002) Miracle (2004) or Invincible or Glory Road (both 2006) and I usually fall under their spell all over again – and I will have a good time, and probably end up crying at some point. I may not feel very good about that later – none of them are particularly great movies, but they are effective at being precisely what they want to be – male oriented tear jerkers. So, I was looking forward to Million Dollar Arm – which looked to be another one in Disney’s lineup. Unfortunately, it kind of seems like everyone is just going through the motions in this one – and when you couple it with the fact the real story isn’t exactly the most inspiring one in the world (the movie doesn’t lie per se – but it does stop before the end of the story) and overall I wasn’t overly thrilled with the film.

The film stars Jon Hamm as JB Bernstein – a once successful sports agent, who decided to strike out on his own a few years before, and had things go poorly ever since. He is basically on the edge of his company going under – when he sees a cricket match on TV and gets an idea. The pitchers in cricket throw the ball really hard, right? So what if they turn them into baseball players? India has some of the best cricket players in the world, and they don’t watch baseball – but give them a couple of stars, and you baseball has a billion new fans overnight (or so the theory goes anyway). As he’s watching the cricket match on TV, he’s switching back and forth between it and an episode of Britain’s Got Talent – and he has an even better idea. Do the whole thing as a game show in India. It’s surprisingly easy for JB to get the money together to do this, and to find a scout (Alan Arkin) who can help JB ensure they get good players, and a coach (Bill Paxton) who is willing to work with the winners when they come to America. JB`s backer has one stipulation – the winners have to be ready for a tryout for pro-scouts in one year.

The film was directed by Craig Gillespie and written by Tom McCarthy – both of whom are capable of much better, and are most likely just doing this for the paycheck. McCarthy in particular is quite talented (no matter what critics say about his latest, The Cobbler, out of TIFF – nothing can change the fact his previous three films, The Station Agent, The Visitor and Win Win are all excellent (that last one in particular is a smart sports film, which shows he could do this better if he really wanted to). One of the major problems with Million Dollar Arm is that the whole movie seems rushed – as if we have to rush from one moment to the next, so that the movie can try and be all things to all people – in addition to an inspirational sports movie, the film also wants to be a fish out of water comedy, a romantic comedy (courteous of Hamm's tenant, played by Lake Bell), and a few other things as well. The film never really settles down to allow any of the different plot threads to settle though. Just when the movie is settling into a story of an almost Don Draper-type sales person (probably why they cast Hamm), albeit a much kinder, gentler one – the film switches gears to be a comedy about Americans not understanding India, and then just as that is settling down again, it flips and becomes just the reverse – and the previously nice JB becomes an asshole, just so he can become a nice guy at the end and be redeemed. Through it all, the actual story of the two pitchers from India – played by Suraj Sharma, from Life of Pi, and Madhur Mittal, as well as their translator (Pitobash) seems almost like an afterthought much of the time. And in case you haven’t been paying attention to baseball over the past few years, they are not exactly tearing up the major league right now – although the movie ends, conveniently, on a high note for the pair.

The film never really works – it never really figures out what the real story here is – which isn’t about a sports agent who learns to be less of an asshole, but that of two poor kids from India who had never played baseball before who became pretty good over the course of a single year. Yet the Indian characters are never really well defined – the screenplay does little to differentiate between them. They are simply a way to tell the story of the films hero – a rich, white sports agent. The film in a corporate product, about a corporate product which tries very hard to be inspiring, but left me cold.