Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Movie Review: Junun

Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson.

Junun is perhaps the strangest movie of Paul Thomas Anderson’s career – not because it’s really weird in anyway, but because of how the whole project feels like it’s something Anderson just tossed off in his spare time – which for a perfectionist like Anderson is the strangest thing imaginable. It’s a 54 minute music documentary about Israeli composer Shye Ben Tzur, Radiohead guitarist (and frequent Anderson collaborator) Jonny Greenwood, and a host of Indian musicians gathering at a monastery in India to record an album. Anderson throws us right into the middle of the film in its opening shot – a stunning one, that begins in silence during a call to prayer, and then breaks into song as Anderson’s camera slowly pans around the circle (he’s in the middle) to listen to the song played out in its entirety. This sounds like an Anderson shot – he is a modern master at long tracking shots, but doesn’t feel like one – mostly due to the fact that Anderson is shooting digitally for the first time, giving the movie a different look and feel, and also because the shot itself doesn’t move smoothly – it’s at time jerky in its movements, something that Anderson would normally reshoot. But here, he cannot reshoot, and he can’t just cut it out, because then he wouldn’t be capturing the entirety of the song – and it’s a wonderful one, and he’s not going to let that happen. Anderson does not provide any real context during the course of the movie about who or what is going on – he mainly spends the film inside the makeshift studio, watching the music being performed – only venturing outside – aside from some drone shots – with one of the musicians on an errand to get his instrument tuned. Other than that, Anderson just lets everything play out in front of the camera – as beautiful and mystifying to the audience as it is to him.

The star of the movie really is the music itself. Strangely, although Anderson is there because of Greenwood – who is probably the only musician involved that most people in North America will be familiar with – he certainly doesn’t concentrate on Greenwood at all. He’s mostly seen in the background during the recording sessions, with his hair hanging over his face. In the non-musical sequences, where Anderson speaks to the musicians a little, Greenwood is barely a factor there either – and neither really is Shye Ben Tzur either. Anderson seems more interested in the music itself, and the supporting musicians, than the two supposed stars of the movie.

The music is wonderful – and does something that I often complain music documentaries never do, which is to allow the songs themselves to play out at length. Nothing is more frustrating to me than watching a documentary full of talking heads explaining why someone’s music is so great, and then only getting 15-20 snippets of the songs in question themselves. Anderson doesn’t care for the talking heads, doesn’t really want anyone explaining the music – he just lets its play out, and lets the audience decide its worth.

The whole movie does feel like something Anderson did as a lark – a project that he took on to see if he could. It’s most likely not precisely what he envisioned – apparently he had a lot of fancier equipment that got held up in Indian customs, so he had to shoot with whatever he had with him in carry on. Junun doesn’t change the way you’ll look at Anderson, nor does it redefine the music documentary as we know it. It’s just a really, really enjoyable way to spend 54 minutes – hearing some great music being performed. It’s gotten more attention than it otherwise would have considering Anderson’s name is attached – and that’s a good thing. Because the music deserves to be heard.

Movie Review: The Intern

The Intern
Directed by: Nancy Meyers.
Written by: Nancy Meyers.
Starring: Robert De Niro (Ben), Anne Hathaway (Jules), Rene Russo (Fiona), Anders Holm (Matt), JoJo Kushner (Paige), Andrew Rannells (Cameron), Adam DeVine (Jason), Zack Pearlman (Davis), Jason Orley (Lewis), Christina Scherer (Becky).

Every shot in every Nancy Meyers movie looks like it’s coming directly from one of those high end design magazines – and that may be truer of The Intern than anything else she has made. The movie is set in trendy, high-end Brooklyn, in either some horribly expensive Brownstones or else a former factory turned into an office space, for an internet startup company staffed mainly by hipsters. It’s almost impossibly perfect looking, which unfortunately extends to the rest of the movie as well, where Robert DeNiro plays not only the most well-adjusted character of his long career – but perhaps the most well-adjusted movie character in history. He plays a 70 year old widower, who spent decades working for a phone book company, who is well off and retired, but bored. He sees a flyer for an internet company called About the Fit, advertising for Senior Interns, applies, and gets the job – assigned to work directly for the founder of the company, Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway). The site sells clothes online, that somehow guarantees that everything will come and fit you precisely (how, the movie wisely never explains, since that’s impossible). The company started just 18 months ago, and is now a runaway success – so much so, that’s it’s growing too fast for Jules to handle, and her investors want her to bring on a more seasoned CEO. Jules doesn’t really want to, but at the same time, she knows she is too busy – and her marriage to Matt (Anders Holm) – who quite his good to be a stay at home dad, and her parenting to her 6-year-old daughter is suffering. Jules thinks the whole idea of a senior intern program is silly, but because DeNiro’s Ben is such a swell guy, she gradually lets her guard down, and lets him into her life and her business.

Almost everything about The Intern has the same, professional, high gloss sheen of those Brownstones and that converted factory. It’s nice to see DeNiro play a character this normal and decent – something he has never really had a chance to do before. He’s an actor who has leant his image be used for far too many dopey comedies and direct-to-DVD action movies or thrillers in recent years. Here, he’s not mugging – but playing a well-adjusted, downright boring guy, who is also perfectly pleasant – so while he’s not overly exciting to spend the entire movie with him, it’s also not painful in the least either. While DeNiro is, for the first time in a long time, not playing off his image, the same cannot be said for Anne Hathaway. It would not surprise me in the least to find out that Meyers wrote the part specifically for Hathaway – because it fits image as a driven woman, who is perhaps trying too hard, perfectly. I’ll never quite understand why some people – both men and women – hate Hathaway so much, she’s always seemed perfectly fine to me – and she is here as well. It’s a kind of stereotypical role of a driven career woman, trying to have it all, and struggling with whether or not that is possible – but Hathaway handles it well. Perhaps the most interesting thing about The Intern is how Meyers handles the martial conflict with Jules and Matt –which does have a resolution, but far from a tidy one – suggesting that things may not be perfect, but they’re going to struggle on for a while longer anyway. That’s not something that Meyers has really done before – and it was somewhat refreshing.

There are other parts in The Intern at all though. Ben’s burgeoning relationship with the office massage therapist, played by Rene Russo, doesn’t really go anywhere, and has a few gags that are strangely uncomfortable. Ben’s relationships with some of the office hipsters, teaching them his old school ways can be pleasant at times, but reaches its nadir during a would-be comic outing to try and retrieve a computer – a gag that takes up a surprising amount of screen time considering it doesn’t really seem to come from anywhere, or go anywhere either.

The Intern is one of those movie that you know will find its way onto cable channels, playing in repeat on Sunday afternoons, that you sometimes find yourself watching because it’s too cold to leave the damn house. For that sort of viewing, perhaps, The Intern will do its job – something to watch only half paying attention, while folding laundry or doing something else. It’s a perfectly pleasant movie. It’s just that the film doesn’t seem to go anywhere, it’s just drifting. The time passes, and then it’s over, without really all that much happening.

Movie Review: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Directed by: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon.
Written by: Jesse Andrews by on his novel.
Starring: Thomas Mann (Greg), RJ Cyler (Earl), Olivia Cooke (Rachel), Nick Offerman (Greg's Dad), Connie Britton (Greg's Mom), Molly Shannon (Denise), Jon Bernthal (Mr. McCarthy), Katherine Hughes (Madison).
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a movie that contains just about every cliché in the book about movie teenagers in general, and movies about teenagers with cancer in specific, that knows each that it contains every cliché in the book, and actually tells the audience this fact, right before it indulges in those clichés anyway. This is the movie’s way of winking at the audience, of holding itself above a movie like The Fault in Our Stars, which unapologetically indulges in those same clichés. If you’re going to do that however, I think it’s probably mandatory that you actually do upend those clichés in some way, instead of just laughing at them, and then indulging them anyway – and that is something that Me and Earl and the Dying Girl never does. It’s just as hokey as The Fault in Our Stars is – while it laughs at just how hokey those movies are. There is a lot of energy in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and some clever moments, but I could never really get over the movie looking down at movies, and their audiences, while at the same time being precisely the same damn thing.
The film stars Thomas Mann as Greg, a high school senior who has glided through like and school practically untouched. He loves old movies, and he and his “co-worker” Earl (RJ Cyler), who for some self-involved reason Greg refuses to call his best friend, even though that is precisely what he is, do silly remakes of their favorites – spoofs that takes the classics of world cinema, and turn them into something goofy. The snippets of these movies that we see are actually quite amusing – perhaps they are the best thing in the movie itself – but sadly, they are not the focus. The focus is Greg’s friendship with Rachel (Olivia Cook) – a fellow student that Greg doesn’t really know, but has just been diagnosed with cancer. Greg’s mother (Connie Britton) orders him to hang out with her, and so he dutifully does – she not wanting his pity friendship, and feeling even worse when he is honest with her about why he’s there – but she consents anyway. Of course, the two do become actual friends.
The intentions of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl are, I believe, honorable. It is a film about just how self-involved teenagers are, and about the process that we all go through when we finally start to realize that there is a world outside of our teenage selves and we start to do things not for our own benefit, but for the benefit of others. Greg is the main character of the movie, and also its narrator, so I suppose we can forgive him for being perhaps the most self-involved teenager in cinema history, and not really seeing even those closest to him clearly at all. But that doesn’t forgive the movie for making Greg the center of every other characters world as well – with only a hint or two of what their lives actually are. Earl is as clichéd a character as they come – he’s black, apparently lives in the scary part of town, speaks in an offensively stereotyped way that no one else in the movie does, and seems to exist only so that late in the movie, when Greg needs it, he can provide him the insight that Greg lacks. So yes, once again, we have a black character whose entire role seems to be to help a white character achieve some personal mission. Rachel isn’t all that much better – hell, she’s dying of cancer, and yet her entire role seems to be about nurturing Greg and his artistic ambitions as well – indulging him literally right to end. Its one thing for a teenager to think he’s the center of the universe – the problem is, so does the movie.
All this probably sounds like I hated Me and Earl and the Dying Girl – but I really didn’t. I did feel annoyed by it at times, but the film is energetic, sometimes quite funny, and has a few moments that actually do feel real, despite the films best efforts to undercut those moments with its ironic detachment. Newcomer Olivia Cooke is a star in the making – she makes Rachel much more genuine that she really has any right to be. Mann is actually quite funny as well – and does a killer Werner Herzog impression.
Yet Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is also kind of the ultimate Sundance movie – it doesn’t shock me that the film was a hit at the festival, where it won the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize. It’s the kind of movie that always does well at festivals like Sundance, and then when it comes out never quite connects with audiences (the film was supposed to be the indie hit of the summer – that didn’t happen). The film is as cliché driven as anything that comes out of Hollywood. That isn’t necessarily a problem – sometimes clichés are clichés because they work. But when it mocks those clichés, and then blatantly gives into them that’s problem.

The Films of Oliver Stone: The Doors (1991)

The Doors (1991)
Directed by: Oliver Stone.
Written by: J. Randal Johnson and Oliver Stone.
Starring: Val Kilmer (Jim Morrison), Meg Ryan (Pamela Courson), Kyle MacLachlan (Ray Manzarek), Frank Whaley (Robby Krieger), Kevin Dillon (John Densmore), Kathleen Quinlan (Patricia Kennealy), Michael Wincott (Paul Rothchild), Michael Madsen (Tom Baker), Josh Evans (Bill Siddons), Dennis Burkley (Dog), Billy Idol (Cat).

If you’re going to make a film about Jim Morrison, than Oliver Stone’s The Doors is probably as good as it’s going to get. Val Kilmer is remarkable in the lead role, channeling Morrison in a way that makes it impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. The concert scenes are energetic, and brilliantly staged by Stone, and capture what it was about The Doors music that made it so special. The film captures, better than perhaps any other film, what it’s like to live in a constant drug induced haze – and former the sober viewer, precisely what it’s like to be the only sober person in the room (any one who has ever been a designated driver knows that feeling). It is this part that makes The Doors, while an accurate presentation of the personalities and era it portrays, also a rather trying experience to actually sit through (and certainly more so for me now, than me as a teenager, who was more prone to thinking some of the stuff in the movie as being deep, rather than the undeniably pretentious ramblings of a man, who while maybe a genius, was also stoned all the time, and thought himself a genius). At two hours and twenty minutes, The Doors pushes the limits of just how much an audience member can take, especially as the movie goes along and becomes repetitive – with scene after scene of Morrison high and rambling, crashing and burning, and alienating everyone around him. This may well be what it was like to be around Morrison – to the movie’s credits, almost every other character in the movie gets sick of Morrison at one point or another. The problem is, so does the audience.

The movie opens, as all musical biopics are by law required to, with a scene of a young Jim Morrison having a childhood experience that will haunt the rest of his life. In this case, it’s a family car trip in the late 1940s, where the family has to slow down as it drives through an accident scene, complete with bloody victims – including what looks like some elderly Indian chiefs. Stone will flash back to these faces throughout the movie – and in one hallucinogenic concert scene, show Morrison’s on stage moves superimposed over and alongside Indian dances. If Stone ever mentions Morrison’s supposed Cherokee partial lineage specifically, I missed it, but the connection is made throughout.

The movie than flashes to Morrison as a UCLA film student in 1965 – showing his latest, black and white opus (which looks, of course, exactly like the type of film you would expect a drugged out, pretentious college kid to make) before he quits, and forms a band with a fellow student Ray Manzarek (Kyle MacLachlan), alongside two others – John Densmore (Kevin Dillon) and Robby Krieger (Frank Whaley) – where they came from, it never really says. It’s 1965, and The Doors will take off very quickly, and then crash and burn almost as quickly – being passe by the time Morrison would die in 1971. But what a six years it was.

It’s easy to forget just how good an actor Val Kilmer can be in the right role – and if it weren’t for his brilliant turn in Tombstone (1993) – the best screen version of Doc Holliday ever – his performance in The Doors would be his best ever. This isn’t an easy role, as Kilmer has to play various degrees of stoned or drunk (or probably both) in virtually every scene, and wrap his mouth around some strange dialogue – ranting, crazy stuff that is a mixture of the pretentious, ridiculous and genuinely insightful (watching the film made me realize that Kilmer HAS to be in season 3 of True Detective – what Season 2 is missing in an actor, like McConaughey, who can handle the crazy shit Nic Pizzolatto writes, and not have it come across as completely stupid – Kilmer could do it). I don’t use the use the pretentious lightly – in fact, I generally hate the world, and feel it is used far too often in describing movies and other art – but I think in the case of The Doors (the band) and Morrison it fits. Morrison’s poetic lyrics can be genuinely beautiful and insightful – but there’s a whole lot of strange, ridiculous crap in there as well, straining for importance. You have to be in the right frame of mind (preferably altered in some way), to really get into The Doors – and while I haven’t listened to them really in years, I still do like the music. The movie shows us why, in long concert scenes – that often include long rants and tirades by Morrison, as he threatens to once again go too far, as the rest of the band keeps the beat, and looks at each other nervously. The concert scenes are the best in the movie – and are really among the best of their kind in musical biopics. They perfectly encapsulate Morrison’s stage presence, and The Doors music itself, in all its strange glory.

Offstage however, is where The Doors stumbles along the way. The most important relationship in the movie is between Morrison and Pamela Courson (Meg Ryan) – a woman he meets before he was famous, and sticks with him until the end, before succumbing to drugs herself in the years after Morrison’s death. The casting of Ryan, then America’s sweetheart, as the drugged out hippie chick girlfriend of Jim Morrison could be described as stunt casting on the part of Stone – although I think Ryan could have been fine had the movie given her something meaningful to do – but it really doesn’t. Ryan exists, as all spouses in musical biopics do, so that she can get angry and hurt when Morrison cheats on her, try and talk him into slowing down on the drugs, and finally accepting that the price of being around such a genius is to put up with his crap. It’s a nothing role, really, and so is every other role in the movie that isn’t Kilmer’s. Most of them simply drift in and out of the background in Morrison’s life – who is too stoned to notice when they’re not around, because, hell, there’s always more people around to get stoned with.

I have to give Stone and Kilmer credit for The Doors – this is probably the best version of the Jim Morrison story you could possibly tell, and the most accurate. Morrison spent his short life mostly stoned out of his mind, and that wreaked havoc on his body and his mind. He grows fatter as the movie goes along, and impotent, and once he reaches the top, there is nowhere left for him to go but down – which he goes, very slowly, in the film. Morrison undeniably made some great music in his life – as pretentious as some of it may be, there is hardly a song in the movie I don’t know, and at least partially love. He was also emblematic of the time and place he came from. But he just isn’t that interesting a person to be around – especially not for well over two hours. That Kilmer delivers such a great performance is a testament to his skill. That Stone makes the film as good as it is, is a testament to his. The film is, for Stone, an interesting transitional film – you can see signs of the visual experiments he would perfect in JFK, Natural Born Killers and Nixon – with more hallucinogenic  imagery, the mixing of styles, and, and free association editing that made those films masterpieces, are here in The Doors as well. But it’s also a trying experience, because while Morrison may have been a genius, he was also an asshole – and not even that interesting of an asshole. There’s only so many times you can watch him get stoned and make an ass of himself, before you just wish for misery to end.

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Films of Oliver Stone: Born on the Fourth of July

Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
Directed by: Oliver Stone.
Written by:  Oliver Stone & Ron Kovic based on the book by Ron Kovic.
Starring: Tom Cruise (Ron Kovic), Willem Dafoe (Charlie), Raymond J. Barry (Mr. Kovic), Caroline Kava (Mrs. Kovic), Tom Berenger (Recruiting Gunnery Sgt. Hayes), Frank Whaley (Timmy), Jerry Levine (Steve Boyer), Kyra Sedgwick (Donna).

The opening scenes of Born on the Fourth of July is pure Americana – like something more out of a Frank Capra, or perhaps a Steven Spielberg movie (the very John Williams-y John Williams score helps) that something out a film directed by Oliver Stone (my wife, who hadn’t seen the film before, compared the scenes to Forrest Gump – and she’s not wrong either). For a good 15 minutes, Stone gives the audience an idealized America – seen not as they really were, but through nostalgic, rose colored glasses like so many other movies do. It stars Tom Cruise, who was the perfect embodiment of an American “Golden Boy” back in 1989 (he was 26, and in those scenes is playing a high school student – and it works somehow). The opening is all BBQs, parades and firecrackers (which is the only moment Stone shows a crack in the façade, as a few veterans in wheelchairs flinch as the firecrackers pop off), wrestling matches, and a school dance, which Cruise ends up running to in the rain so he can dance with his best gal, Donna. Cruise plays Ron Kovic – who believes strongly in the American dream, and will do anything to protect it. After these impossibly perfect opening scenes, Stone cuts immediately to Kovic in the midst of the Vietnam War – a confusing, chaotic battle, that has American soldiers massacring civilians (by accident, at least), and leaving babies to die, and ends with Kovic killing a shadowy figure who comes up over a hill, who ends up being one of his own men. When the battle is over, Kovic tries to tell his commanding officers what happened – and they don’t care. They don’t want to be down another man. They next battle ends even worse for Kovic – with him getting shot, and ending up paralyzed from the waist down. The America he left thinking was a paradise, turns into a nightmare when he returns.

Born on the Fourth of July in Stone’s Vietnam trilogy, following Platoon (1986) – and whole this film is not a direct sequel to that one, it doesn’t take much to connect the two of them. Both are about true believers who sign up for the war in Vietnam – Platoon’s Chris Taylor becomes disillusioned during his time in Vietnam – after spending months in the jungle, and seeing what happens. Kovic becomes disillusioned as well – but not until he returns home. When Kovic comes home – after a painful stint in an army hospital trying to do rehab – he spouts the same stuff he was saying before the war. “America, love it or leave” he says over and over again – but the words sound uglier, harsher now than the innocence of the earlier scenes. Kovic is coming home from a war that has scarred him emotionally forever, and left him paralyzed – his rote recitation of the same lines are his feeble attempt to get himself to believe it – that he went over there and made a noble sacrifice, for a worthy cause. But he doesn’t believe it, which is why when he returns he spirals downward – into drugs and alcoholism – the nadir of which is a trip to Mexico, that he spends drinking and whoring with other wounded vets like Charlie (Willem Dafoe) – a trip that almost costs him his life. He is a wheelchair, and a lot of people will do a lot of things for you when you’re in one. But if you’re a drunken asshole, people will only bend over for you so much.

Born on the Fourth of July is not a movie without flaws – which come through more for me on this repeated viewing, than when I had seen the film last (probably as a teenager). Cruise delivers a terrific performance to be sure – had he won the Oscar he had been nominated for, I would have no problem with that (and I actually prefer his performance to Daniel Day-Lewis’ winning turn in My Left Foot). Cruise is a particularly gifted physical actor – and he embraces the physical challenges of the role, that confines him to a wheelchair for much of the running time, with admirable skill. As he drags himself around – at first in a vain feat of self-delusional, thinking that maybe he will recover, and later in (and out of) the wheelchair it, you feel it in a way that is actually quite rare in movies like this. You feel him struggling, physically, throughout. Cruise’s embrace of those challenges are what make him such an effective action star, but he uses it here in a different, more difficult way. Cruise is also great at a lot of the more subtle moments in the film – flinching at firecrackers in a parade for example, which recalls the one break in the opening American Paradise scenes. Cruise is slightly less effective however when Stone and Kovic’s screenplay give him some of his more on the nose speeches. Stone has never had a reputation for being subtle – but his best films actually do have a lot of subtlety in them – and Born on the Fourth of July is no exception. But there are moments – when he’s making speeches – where Cruise struggles, although I think that’s the screenplay more than him. Also more of an issue of writing than performance is the finale, which seems to come on much too quickly. It’s almost as if there is a scene or two missing between Kovic’s Mexican period, and his return to the States and conversion to anti-war protestor, which seems too abrupt. In addition, despite the excellent supporting cast – many of whom leaving a last impression in just a few scenes – Dafoe as Charlie, Tom Berenger as a Marine recruiter, a young Lili Taylor, who I think only has one line as the wife of the man Kovic killed in Vietnam – the film jettisons the supporting characters rather quickly – not even bringing back his mother and father (Raymond J. Barrie and Caroline Kava) in those final scenes for any sort of resolution. For better or for worse, Born on the Fourth of July remains fixated on Kovic throughout.

But these are mainly minor concerns, for what really is a powerful movie in the traditional of masterpieces like William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) or Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (1978) – which was also took Kovic as its impression, although changed a lot. In Platoon, Stone made what likely remains the definitive, grunt’s eye view of the Vietnam War – not the best movie the war inspired, but that most likely most accurately reflects what it was like for most American soldiers in the war. In Born on the Fourth of July, he has made a portrait of the struggle of what came after – about reconciling the person you were before the war, to the person you are once it’s over – the anger that was felt for being used, and sacrificing without knowing the reason, while still having a deep love of your country. Stone won his best Best Director Oscar for the film (although, like Ang Lee winning for Life of Pi, it was pretty much by default, as the director of the Best Picture winner, in this case Bruce Beresford for Driving Miss Daisy, wasn’t nominated – so it was pretty much Stone, Peter Weir for Dead Poets Society or Jim Sheridan for My Left Foot in the running). The film doesn’t quite reach the heights of Platoon – but it comes close.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Movie Review: Victoria

Directed by: Sebastian Schipper.
Written by: Olivia Neergaard-Holm & Sebastian Schipper & Eike Frederik Schulz.
Starring: Laia Costa (Victoria), Frederick Lau (Sonne), Franz Rogowski (Boxer), Burak Yigit (Blinker), Max Mauff (Fuß).

It would be easy to dismiss Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria as a gimmick movie – which has always struck me as a rather lazy complaint, but has been applied to movies like Memento or Boyhood, and could be to this film as well. Victoria is a 134 minute movie, shot entirely in one take – and not like a film like Birdman, which is an edited film that is made to look like it was done in one film, Victoria really is one shot for 134 minutes. You can choose to see this as a stunt if you want to – you wouldn’t even really be wrong in doing so. But the decision to make this movie entirely in one shot works brilliantly for the film – it gives the film a propulsive energy, places us directly beside the main character for the entire running time, as she – and those around her – fall deeper and deeper into their bad decisions. The story of the movie is nothing new – it’s good, and well handled, but you know where it’s going before the characters do. Yet the style of the film elevates the whole film – and makes it one of the most entertaining films of the year.

The film opens with a shot of Victoria (Laia Costa) dancing, alone, in a Berlin nightclub. Eventually we will learn that she is from Spain, has been in Berlin only a few months, and has virtually no friends. All of this explains why, as she leaves the club, and meets four drunken, young German men, she is a little friendlier than perhaps it is wise to be when you’re a woman by yourself in the middle of the night. But then men –especially Sonne (Frederick Lau) seem so nice and friendly – he flirts with her, and she flirts back. His friends, the bald Boxer (Franz Rogowski), the rambuckous Blinker (Burak Yigiy) and the birthday boy Fus (Max Mauff), who is pretty much ready to collapse at any minute, are friendly too. The quintet leave the club, and wander around the streets, talking laughing, getting a few beers, and heading up to the roof of an apartment building;. By this point it’s getting really late – too late in fact for Victoria to head home and sleep before she has to be back and open the café she works in at 7 am. Sonne takes her over to the café, and they laugh and flirt some more – they agree to meet again. It’s at this point – roughly half way through – that the movie takes a turn. The men need help with something they are very vague about – and they need it right now. Victoria makes the mistake of agreeing to help them – and it’s the first of many, many mistakes they will make in the last half of the film.

Personally, I prefer the second half of the film to the first. The first half is a kind of dreamy, drunken Before Sunset, with two young people (and some well-meaning friends) getting to know each other, laughing, flirting and having a good time. The conversation isn’t as deep as Before Midnight to be sure, but then most drunken 20-somethings meeting for the first time wouldn’t be. The first half of the film is intoxicating, and grips you from that first scene where Victoria is carefree, dancing, and pulling her hair back. It’s lightweight entertainment, done with precision and skill – and a great performance by Laia Costa, who grounds the whole thing.

The second half of the movie is a crime thriller – and director Sebastian Schipper really ratchets up the pace and moves at breakneck speed through a heist and its bloody aftermath. Again, this part of the film is exciting and tense, and the constantly moving camera only heightens this feeling even more. I did get slightly annoyed during this part – only slightly though – since the criminals are a little too dumb to be believe, even for dumb, inexperienced criminals – as they do practically everything wrong. To be fair to the movie, it knows this, which is why everything goes to shit pretty much immediately.

So yes, you could complain that Victoria is a gimmick movie if you want to. But it’s an ineffective gimmick – and director Sebastian Schipper finds a perfect story to tell in this manner, and the cinematography by Sturla Brandth Grøvlen is every bit as good as the Oscar winning work by Emmanuel Lubezki in Birdman. Victoria is exciting filmmaking. I hope Schipper does something different next time – just to prove he can – and that Costa gets more work, because she is fantastic in this – keeping the whole film grounded even as it gets more outlandish. But for know, they’ve crafted a highly entertaining film – and something not quite like anything else.

Movie Review: The Forbidden Room

The Forbidden Room
Directed by: Guy Maddin & Evan Johnson.
Written by: Guy Maddin & Evan Johnson & Robert Kotyk and John Ashbery and Kim Morgan.
Starring: Roy Dupuis (Cesare), Clara Furey (Margot), Louis Negin (Marv / Smithy / Mars / Organizer / Mr. Lanyon), Udo Kier (Count Yugh / The Butler / The Dead Father / Guard / Pharmacist), Gregory Hlady (Jarvis / Dr. Deane / A Husband), Mathieu Amalric (Thadeusz M___ / Ostler), Noel Burton (Wolf / Pilot / The Captain), Geraldine Chaplin (The Master Passion / Nursemaid / Aunt Chance), Paul Ahmarani (Dr. Deng / Speedy), Caroline Dhavernas (Gong), Slimane Dazi (Baron Pappenheim), Maria de Medeiros (The Blind Mother / Clotilde), Charlotte Rampling (The Ostler's Mother), Karine Vanasse (Florence Labadie), Kim Morgan (Kim), Marie Brassard (Mysterious Necklace Woman).  

One viewing is probably not enough to fully appreciate – or hell, even fully understand, the latest film by Guy Maddin (co-directed by Evan Johnson) – The Forbidden Room. My initial reaction was that it wasn’t among Maddin’s very best films – preferring films like My Winnipeg or The Saddest Music in the World or The Heart of the World (one of the greatest 6 minute films ever made). But the more time passes, and the more I return to The Forbidden Room in my thoughts, the more I think that perhaps it does belong there. It certainly is the most Guy Maddin film that Guy Maddin has ever made – a crazy, visually spectacular journey into cinema’s lost past. To describe the plot of The Forbidden Room would be fool’s errand there’s just way too much of it – and to be honest, it all gets a little confusing at times. What Maddin and Johnson decided to do is research old, lost films and then “remake” them. Sometimes this is based on old reviews, sometimes little more than a poster or a tagline, that Maddin and Johnson spin off into some crazy narrative that lasts just a few minutes. But The Forbidden Room isn’t just a series of short films string together – that would be too simple. The narratives spin off into each other, with such a complicated nesting doll structure. Put it this way, if the nesting doll structure of The Grand Budapest Hotel had 4 different dolls – The Forbidden Room has many multiples of that dozen. Now you’re probably starting to see why I think I need to see the film again – at least once – to wholly appreciate it.

Maddin has assembled a huge, international cast of stars to be in the film. The first face we see is by veteran actor Louis Negin, who is hosting an instructional video on how to take a bath (can you believe that many people now take them every other day – some even every day). Negin will return in multiple roles throughout the film, as will many other members of the cast – just to make everything that much more confusing. What Maddin and Johnson essentially have done here is create a rabbit hole of narrative in which we continue to drop – so the water in the bathtub becomes an ocean, and there is a submarine in there, that cannot surface because it’s would explode if it did, but they’re running out of air, even when they factor in the air pockets from all the pancakes they eat (don’t ask), and their captain is missing, so they go looking for him, and instead find a lumberjack, and when they ask how he got there, he tells them a story about he and a group of his fellow lumberjacks trying to save the woman they all love, and how he had to pass a series of manly tests, but the woman also dreams of being an amnesiac and a singer, who will eventually sing a song about a character played by Udo Kier, who is obsessed with derrieres, and on and on and on and on.

The Forbidden Room is, in short, a pretty crazy film. It’s a film that I think you could probably see dozens of times, and still be surprised by what happens next, because there is so little rhyme or reason to it all. And also, because Maddin and Johnson have created such an immersive film – an impressive technical achievement, where they pretty much throw every technique – both old and new – at the screen to get every shot to look wholly unique and different.

Watching The Forbidden Room is, admittedly, a rather exhausting experience. It’s a film that’s impossible to keep up with, and yet one you want to dive back into when it’s all over. I’m still not convinced that it’s among Maddin’s truly great films – not like My Winnipeg, which had lots of digressions, much like this film, but one that Maddin seemed to have complete control over. This one spins wildly away from even Maddin. Which, of course, it’s one of its many, many charms. The Forbidden Room is far from perfect – but if it was perfect, it wouldn’t be half the film it now is.