Friday, April 24, 2015

Thoughts on Hulk (2003) and The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Hulk (2003)
Directed by: Ang Lee.
Written by: John Turman and Michael France and James Schamus based on the Marvel comic book character created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
Starring: Eric Bana (Bruce Banner), Jennifer Connelly (Betty Ross), Sam Elliott (Ross), Josh Lucas (Talbot), Nick Nolte (Father), Paul Kersey (Young David Banner), Cara Buono (Edith Banner), Todd Tesen (Young Ross), Kevin Rankin  (Harper), Celia Weston (Mrs. Krensler).

The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Directed by:  Louis Leterrier.
Written by: Zak Penn.
Starring: Edward Norton (Bruce Banner), Liv Tyler (Betty Ross), Tim Roth (Emil Blonsky), William Hurt (General 'Thunderbolt' Ross), Tim Blake Nelson (Samuel Sterns), Ty Burrell (Leonard), Christina Cabot (Major Kathleen Sparr), Peter Mensah (General Joe Greller), Lou Ferrigno (The Incredible Hulk / Security Guard), Paul Soles (Stanley), Débora Nascimento (Martina).

Sometimes I amuse myself by wondering if the Superhero movie landscape would be any different today if Ang Lee’s Hulk was more successfully – either with audiences or critics. The film came out in 2003, when superhero movies were nowhere near as prevalent as they are today. Joel Schumacher had killed Batman, and Christopher Nolan hadn’t resurrected him yet. Superman had been dead for nearly 2 decades. We had no idea what the Marvel Comic Universe was. There was only two superhero franchises – still in their infancy – going at the time. Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000) had been a hit, and the sequel came out the same summer (although later) than Hulk. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) had been the highest grossing film of the year – beating out the second Lord of the Rings movie and Star Wars Episode II, which no one thought it would do. Then, with a lot of fanfare, Hulk was released – and more or less bombed. Yes, it made $132 million at the box office – but Spider-Man had made $400 million. If they had plans to make Hulk into a franchise, they stopped. Watching the film again, for the first time since it came out, it’s easy to see why it didn’t do particularly well with anyone – it quite simply isn’t very good (that’s not to say it’s bad). It’s both a mediocre superhero movie and a mediocre Ang Lee movie – but the thing about it is this – it IS an Ang Lee superhero movie. I’m not sure how many superhero movies since Hulk – aside from Nolan’s Batman films – undeniably feel like the work of their directors, and not like the work of some corporate committee. To be fair, many of those movie are far superior to Ang Lee’s Hulk – but I still dream of a world where even huge blockbusters that cost hundreds of millions of dollars feel at least somewhat personal.

To be far, even if Ang Lee’s Hulk had been successful, at best it would have just delayed the inevitable transfer from personal to corporate vision. When the Marvel Comic Universe on film started, they did hire at least (somewhat) more personal filmmakers – like Jon Favreau (Iron Man, Iron Man 2), Kenneth Branagh (Thor) and Joe Johnston (Captain America: The First Avenger). Even Louis Leterrier, who they hired to reboot The Incredible Hulk, just five years after Lee’s failure, was an action director of some experience – having made the first two Transporter movies as well as the Jet Li vehicle Unleashed. His hiring sent a message though – that this Hulk would be more action oriented than Lee’s morose character study of a man haunted by childhood abuse. This new film would be more smashy-smashy, and less weepy-weepy. It’s a similar message Marvel sends now – replacing directors like Favreau, Branagh and Johnston with TV vets like Alan Coulter (Thor 2: The Dark World) and Anthony & Joe Russo (Captain America: The Winter Solider, the next Captain America and the next two Avengers movies after Ultron), or a relative directing novice like Shane Black (Iron Man 3) or replacing the singular Edgar Wright with the not singular Peyton Reed on the upcoming Ant-Man. Marvel now has a house style, and they do not want singular visions anymore – they want people who will make the movies look and feel like all the others, with a few touches here and there to differentiate between them. I enjoy James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy as much as anyone – but it sure doesn’t feel much like a film from the director of Slither or Super. I look forward to Avengers: Age of Ultron, and think Joss Whedon is incredibly talented – but even he, who is as responsible as any one person is for the direction of the Marvel movies over the past decade, has not been able to add much in the way of strong female characters to the films – which is normally a Whedon trademark. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow may be a great character – and Johansson is consistently excellent in the movies, but she’s always playing second fiddle to at least one male character. Zoe Saldana’s Gamora is a great character, but she’s still behind a dancing Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy.

Anyway, I seem to have gotten off track a little bit here. Back to Ang Lee’s Hulk and its problems. As a film, Hulk really is kind of a mess. There is a lot of heavy (and heavy handed) character driven stuff in the first hour or so in the movie. It introduces us to Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) via his tragic backstory – adopted when he was still a young boy after his parents were supposedly killed in an army base explosion. But we know more than Bruce does in the early going – that his father, a scientist, had been experimenting with something to alter his own DNA, to make him stronger, and that he passed that down to Bruce. Bruce is now a scientist, working with gamma radiation, which he thinks may help people in the future cure all sorts of diseases and make them stronger – but all he has been able to do so far is blow up frogs. Then, in a heroic act, he saves a co-worker by taking a huge dose of gamma radiation himself – something that should kill him, but of course doesn’t. But now, when he gets angry, he’s no longer Bruce Banner – but he transforms into a giant green monster – who many people at the time said looked like the Jolly Green Giant – and they weren’t exactly wrong – the coloring is strongly reminiscent of that Brussel sprout pitchman.

There is, of course, a lot more story than that. There’s Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly), Bruce’s girlfriend and partner in the lab, who is many ways is reprising her Oscar winning role in A Beautiful Mind (2001) – as the woman who has to be depressed, and look morose, as her genius mate cannot control himself. There’s Ross’ father, General Ross (Sam Elliot), who knew Banner’s father on that army base, and both wants to protect his daughter, and figure out what this new Banner is hiding. There is Talbot (Josh Lucas), a corporate stooge, who also works with the army who wants to figure out how to turn what Bruce is doing into a weapon. And then there’s Nick Nolte as Banner’s long lost father who gets out of jail at the most convenient time imaginable, but doesn’t want a heartwarming father-son reunion.

Ang Lee may seem today like a somewhat surprising choice to direct a big budget action movie – but it made some sense back in 2003. His last film was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), a brilliant action epic, and although its breathtaking effects were mainly practical and wire work, it seemed like it was a good idea at the time to allow him to direct action. But this is also the director of films like The Ice Storm (1997), a morose (yet brilliant), family drama, and that Lee shows up in the early scenes of Hulk. Eric Bana makes the choice to try and make Banner into a repressed character suffering the effects of his traumatic childhood – but basically, he just comes across as bored. The movie drags in the first hour with all this weight. The second hour is a mess of one action sequence after another, and Banner transforms and fights off the army – the angrier he gets, the bigger he grows – and eventually having to confront his father, who has transformed into something greater as well.

I have to give Lee credit for trying something new here. It’s becomes fairly standard issue for comic books movies to try to be very, very serious now – but it wasn’t back in 2003. Lee wanted to make a movie about a man who turns into a giant monster every time he gets angry, but take it seriously. That may sound strange – but it’s basically what Nolan did with a trilogy of movies about a billionaire who dresses up like a bat to fight a man with a burlap sack mask, a guy in clown makeup, and a muscle bound man with a strange breathing apparatus. It worked for Nolan – it didn’t really for Lee. But dammit, he tried. He also tried some interesting things visually – experimenting by splitting the screen, and having boxes, so at times the screen looked like a comic book. Again, I’m not sure it totally worked (in fact, I know it didn’t) – but it was an interesting idea.

What ultimately undoes Hulk is that the film takes itself too seriously for a movie where the special effects are not good enough to take seriously. This Hulk never feels real – never looks real, has an offputtingly bright shade of green. The action scenes are confused and overlong. And Eric Bana doesn’t have Christian Bale’s charisma to make a sulking man into anything other than a bore. Hulk is a flawed movie to be sure – but it was an ambitious one. It failed – but it was trying for something.

In contrast, the 2008 film The Incredible Hulk, directed by Louis Letterier, and starring Edward Norton as Bruce Banner, has far less ambition, but it is far more successful working on its own terms. Thankfully, the film doesn’t try to truly reboot the franchise – the film disposes of the origin story during some flashes over the opening credits - and it’s not the same as the one in Ang Lee’s Hulk – although Banner starts this movie where Bana’s Lee ended, in South America. Banner is living anonymously – working at a soft drink bottling plant, and trying to discover a cure for his affliction. He is also learning ways to control his anger, so he doesn’t just Hulk out every time he gets angry. Of course, General Ross (William Hurt) discovers where he is, and sends a team – led by Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) after him, and of course, Banner escapes and comes back to America. He re-teams with his old flame Betty (Liv Tyler), and tracks down a scientist he thinks may be able to help him (Tim Blake Nelson) – all the while on the run from General Ross and Blonsky.

There is much less plot in this version of the Hulk than in Lee’s – and no real unnecessary characters. Everyone in the movie basically has one function, with no real complexity to them, and the film is basically one big chase, with a few stops along the way for a Norton to Hulk out and smash a bunch of things – leading, of course, to a big showdown with Blonsky – now a gigantic creature himself – on the streets of Harlem.

Marvel learned a thing or two from their experience with Lee and his Hulk. People do not want nor need a complex backstory. They just want a lot of things to be smashed- and the movie delivers on that. Actually, watching the film now, 7 years after it was made, is how low stakes the film feels when compared to the rest of the Marvel films. Blonsky may turn into a monster – but the fate of the world is never at stake – just the fate of one street in Harlem. The film has almost no ambition – even by the standards comic book movies. But what it sets out to do, it mainly does. They did a smart thing and made this Hulk a darker green than Lee’s – no Jolly Green Giant this time. They also have little backstory, little character development and never takes itself very seriously. It’s a straight ahead movie.

It was used simply as a way to re-introduce the character to audiences before The Avengers. Of course, the movie didn’t really make any more money than Lee’s Hulk, and Marvel didn’t get along with Norton, so they once again had to recast the role for upcoming movies (with Mark Ruffalo). There have been rumors of a standalone Hulk movie with Ruffalo – who audiences seem to like more than Bana or Norton – but then again, he doesn’t really have much to do in The Avengers. Everyone remembers the lines “I’m angry all the time” (which, to me, simply raises more questions, not answers any) and of course “Puny God” – which is my favorite moment in the film – but he barely has a character to play in the film.

So what film is better? The ambitious film that fails to live up to its ambitions, or the non-ambitious film that delivers exactly what it sets out to do? I’ll let you decide that. I hadn’t revisited either film since they came out – and probably won’t revisit them again anytime soon. Neither is a great film, neither is a disaster either.

I do know which film I wish had been successful – Ang Lee’s. Had Lee made a successful film, perhaps superhero movies today would be different – and for the better. Probably not. Sooner or later, when hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent, the people putting up that money are going to want a lot of say. But it’s nice to think what could have been.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Movie Review: Unfriended

Unfriended
Directed by: Leo Gabriadze.
Written by: Nelson Greaves.
Starring: Shelley Hennig (Blaire), Moses Jacob Storm (Mitch Roussel), Will Peltz (Adam Sewell), Renee Olstead (Jess Felton), Jacob Wysocki (Ken Smith), Courtney Halverson (Val Rommel), Heather Sossaman (Laura Barns).

The plot of Unfriended is about as clichéd as teen horror movies can be. A group of friends are harassed and killed off, one by one, by either the ghost of their friend or someone pretending to be them exactly one year after that friend committed suicide, because of cyberbullying that each of these six idiot teenagers played a role in. It is in no way a new plot – but then what’s novel about Unfriended isn’t the plot or the characters – but the ingenious way the movie was made. The entirety of the film takes place on a single laptop – as the main character, Blaire (Shelley Hennig) jumps from one website, app or program to another – Facebook, YouTube, iTunes, iChat, Chatroulette and mostly Skype. A flirtatious two way call between Blaire and her boyfriend, Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm) is interrupted when their four friends join – and most scary of all, some unknown seventh party – with just the blank, generic icon as a picture. This person doesn’t show themselves and doesn’t say anything – not out loud anyway – and it is impossible to get rid of them. Whoever this person is, they know all the group`s secrets, and wants to expose them to the rest of the group, and everyone else online, before eliminating them.

You could dismiss Unfriended as a gimmick if you wanted it. It isn’t quite the first film to use this type of setup and execution (I didn’t see Open Windows or The Den, which apparently did something similar, but I did see Joe Swanberg’s segment in VHS, which also took place on Skype, although I spent most of that`s shorts running time confused as to how a Skype chat ended up on VHS) – but in its complete commitment to its premise, Unfriended finds interesting new takes on very old ways of scaring the audience of a horror movie. Director Leo Gabriadze has Blaire multitasking – going from one window to another, flipping between all the different programs, and doling out more information to the audience, than Blaire chooses to share with any of her friends. It is also a good way to avoid too much exposition – as old YouTube videos or Facebook pages, conveniently doled out over the runtime of the movie, give us all the backstory we need. Through his creative use of the flaws in programs like Skype – the momentary lost connections or moments when the screen is buffering, or becomes pixelated as it refreshes, Gabriadze is able to ramp up the tension. In many respects the scares in the movie are the same that have been working on audiences for decades – dim lighting and limited perspective combined with the effective tropes of the found footage genre – rapid camera movement as someone who is holding the camera drops it, and we end up staring at a wall, unsure of what happened. It`s in using these old tropes in new ways that makes Unfriended such an entertaining movie to watch.

It also helps that the film moves so quickly. The film barely runs 80 minutes, and it doesn’t waste a lot of them. After the setup is established, the movie pretty much puts the pedal to the metal, and runs quickly through a deadly game of “Never Have I Ever” which exposes each of the characters minor and major betrayals of their friends. These six kids enter the movie as blank slates – but we start rooting for them, if only because how do you root for a killer. But gradually they expose themselves for who they really are – self-involved, little sociopaths – or in other words, normal teenagers. The movie doesn’t really have much to say about its nominal subject – Cyberbullying, other than that its wrong and you shouldn’t do it. But the film does have a little bit more to say about teenagers, and living life online, where everyone shares everything and yet nothing, and nobody takes anything they say or do online seriously. Blaire pleads with whoever is harassing them in increasingly frantic Facebook posts telling them that "We`re good people"- but the other side seems unconvinced of this fact, and most in the audience will probably agree with that. But while they aren’t good people, they are normal – which is probably the scariest thing about Unfriended.

Yes, Unfriended is a gimmick movie – and no, it’s not an overly original horror movie in terms of story or characters. It also isn’t all that scary to be honest – once the premise is established, we know what’s going to happen, and it happens pretty much as you expect it to. But it’s still an original movie – a new way of making a film, and one of the other films in all the years since The Blair Witch Project that found new ways to tell a found footage story (Paranormal Activity is another). The film also moves with lightning speed, and had me entertained from beginning to end. In short, I had a blast with Unfriended – which is really all you can ask of movie like this.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Movie Review: Clouds of Sils Maria

Clouds of Sils Maria
Directed by: Olivier Assayas.
Written by: Olivier Assayas.
Starring: Juliette Binoche (Maria Enders), Kristen Stewart (Valentine), Chloë Grace Moretz (Jo-Ann Ellis), Lars Eidinger (Klaus Diesterweg), Johnny Flynn (Christopher Giles), Angela Winkler (Rosa Melchior), Hanns Zischler (Henryk Wald), Brady Corbet (Piers Roaldson).

Art imitates life, and life imitates art, in an endless loop in Olivier Assayas’ newest films, Clouds of Sils Maria, a great “backstage drama” that really isn’t a backstage drama at all. The story is about Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) a famous actress, who got her big break at the age of 18, playing a younger woman who destroys the older woman she works for, and is having an affair with. The play, and then the film based on the play, was written by Wilhelm Melchior, a revered playwright and filmmaker, whose work sounds much like the work of Ingmar Bergman – a major influence on Assayas in general, and in particular here. Melchoir is a bit reclusive, so Maria is on the way to Zurich to accept a prize on his behalf – when she gets the news that he has died. She has no time to be devastated however – as she has demands from all sides when she arrives at the festival. Soon, she finds herself agreeing to be in a revival of the play that made her famous – but this time, not playing the glamourous, sexually powerful younger woman – a role that she identifies with – but rather the weaker, pathetic older woman who gets destroyed, a role she doesn’t. The younger woman will be played by Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Mortez), a young, scandal plagued starlet of some ridiculous looking blockbuster, looking for a little artistic credibility.

But let’s backup for a second here – because I realize now that I did not mention that the film opens not with Maria or Jo-Ann, but rather with Valentine (Kristen Stewart – the star of a ridiculous blockbusters, looking for a little artistic credibility), as Maria’s personal assistant. She’s on a train with Maria, juggling two different cellphones, setting up interviews, keeping everything organized, and trying to protect Maria from everyone who wants a piece of her. The first act of the movie is all action at that festival – and takes place over the course of a day. Maria has to deal with her grief, photo-shoots, an old co-star she hates (Hanns Zischler), and the younger director who wants to stage the new version of that classic play (Lars Eidinger). The second act settles down – as Maria and Valentine retreat into the mountains, to the house of Melchoir, so that Maria can re-learn the play that made her a star, just from the perspective of the other role. The two women run lines together – with Valentine, of course, playing the part of the personal assistant, while being the personal assistant, as well as debate the play, art in general, their lives, and how art and life interact with each other. We barely see Jo-Ann Ellis at all – except in some drunken YouTube clips, and an out of context scene in a big budget sci-fi movie that looks ridiculous. She will enter the movie, in a real way, late in the film – and give Assayas his third complex female character in the film.

There are, of course, many ways that real life influences Clouds of Sils Maria, and how the real life in the movie influences Maloja Snake, the play within the movie. It should be pointed out that basically the title of the movie and the title of the play within the movie mean the same thing – the Maloja Snake is a cloud formation at Melchoir’s remote house, which of course is in Sils Maria. Binoche is playing an actress, who superficially resembles herself – right down to the type of roles that made her famous, and the type of roles she is doing now. Stewart, who since Twilight ended, has tried to prove to idiots that she can really act (as if there was ample proof of that already in films like Panic Room, Undertow, Into the Wild, Adventureland and yes the Twilight movies where she made a horrible, nearly unplayable role far more interesting than it was in the books, even if she couldn’t single handedly save the franchise). Here Valentine is outwardly the same type of Kristen Stewart performance that her haters jump on – she is full of nervous ticks, she won’t stop touching her hair, etc. – except that this time she is given a role with something more to play. The film even gives her a rather passionate speech in defense of the type of movies that made Stewart famous in the first place – basically saying that all art, both high and low, is built on clichés and archetypes, so what makes one greater than the other? The two play off each other, and the actress deliver radically different types of performances – with Binoche going bigger and more external, and Stewart going more internal. In its way, it reminded me of the scenes between Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix in The Master – which also highlighted two radically different acting styles that messed beautifully. Mortez shows up late in the movie – and does a great job with Jo-Ann Ellis, who unlike the other two characters has less self-awareness, but that’s necessary for the film’s final moments with Maria.

The film is about art, and how it’s different for everyone, and different depending on who you’re working with. Whatever Melchoir meant with his play when he wrote it – which was a solitary activity – it becomes something different in the hands of different directors and actors. Even with the same actor, like Maria, in the same play, albeit in different, it becomes a different play – based on everything she brings to it. There is a lot of debate about the meaning of the play – and no one sees it in the same way, as they all approach it from their own vantage point, which informs their reading of the play. Maria is challenged by this, as she always saw the play, and by extension, herself, in one way – and is being forced to see things now in another.

I mentioned Ingmar Bergman earlier in the review, and it’s an apt comparison. You could see this as a Bergman film from the 1960s or 1970s, and the film is very much in the “European Art House” vein – especially a late movie twist that Assayas never bothers to explain, because he really doesn’t need to – he’s simply done with one part of the movie, so he ends it. Clouds of Sils Maria is about the never ending loop – of art imitating life and back again, a cycle that never stops. It is also the best film I have seen so far in 2015 – an endless fascinating, enjoyable movie that I cannot wait to delve into again.

Movie Review: While We're Young

While We’re Young
Directed by: Noah Baumbach.
Written by: Noah Baumbach.
Starring: Ben Stiller (Josh), Naomi Watts (Cornelia), Adam Driver (Jamie), Amanda Seyfried (Darby), Charles Grodin (Leslie Breitbart), Maria Dizzia (Marina), Adam Horovitz (Fletcher), Brady Corbet (Kent), Matthew Maher (Tim), Peter Yarrow (Ira Mandelstam), Dree Hemingway (Tipper), Ryan Serhant (Hedge Fund Dave), Peter Bogdanovich (Speaker).
 
The films of Noah Baumbach have always been very hard on its characters – sometimes, perhaps, a little too hard, especially since Baumbach is making comedies. His characters are flawed, and unlike many American Indie films, Baumbach’s films don’t let their characters off the hook – they are a collection of narcissistic, self-involved, navel gazing, pathetic jerks in many ways, but they are ones that Baumbach at least seems to understand, and even like – perhaps because many of his films have roots in autobiography (likely including this one as well). At his best – like The Squid and the Whale (2005) – Baumbach makes a film that is both insightful, funny and painful. It’s a tricky tone, one he doesn’t always pull off for the entire movie – and While We’re Young is a perfect example of that. The first hour is classic Baumbach –a little lighter and breezier than most of his stuff, but still filled with the same insight. The final 30 minutes or so takes a darker, more cynical twist, which perhaps would have worked better had Baumbach changed the tone of the movie a little bit to match its new found cynicism, instead of trying to keep things bobbing along with the same comic spirit. There is still a lot to love about While We’re Young, but if Baumbach had stuck the landing better, he may have made one of the year’s best, instead of just a really good comedy.
 
Josh and Cornelia (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) are a childless, married couple in their mid-40s, who are somewhat drifting. All their friends have kids, and have drifted away from them into the “cult of parenting”. Josh is a documentary filmmaker, who has been working on the same film “about power in America” for nearly a decade, most of it centered on an intellectual that Josh admits is kind of boring. Cornelia works for her father, Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin) – a famous documentarian in the Frederick Wiseman/Maysles Brother vein – and even though Josh and Leslie should get along, they basically hate each other. Josh and Cornelia are basically in a rut – that is until they meet Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried). In their mid-20s, but married, Jamie is a documentary filmmaker himself – and professes to love Josh’s work (he made to buy a VHS copy of it from eBay, but whatever). He runs her own artisanal ice cream business – and, of course, they live in Brooklyn. Jamie and Darby re-energize Josh and Cornelia, in scenes that scenes that are both comic, and more than a little sad. Josh and Cornelia don’t realize just how pathetic they can look, trying too hard to recapture their youth that has slipped away. But Baumbach doesn’t mock these two characters – at least not entirely. He makes it clear just why these two may want to go back and start again in their mid-20s, in revelations that are sad, without being overly manipulative.
 
The movie gets its plot from a documentary project Jamie is working on. He has finally given in and got himself a Facebook page, and his plan is to make a documentary about him going to interact with the first person who he no longer knows in real life who wants to be his Facebook friend. It sounds like a lark – but as the project takes shape, it becomes something deeper and perhaps even great. But to Josh, it all sounds perhaps a little too good to be true.
 
Stiller and Watts are great in the movie. It would have been easy to make fun of their characters for wanting to go back in time to their 20s, but Stiller and Watts don’t do that. The play the movie straight, which at times may have been a challenge, as Baumbach sometimes strays a little too far into obvious comic set pieces (like a retreat, led by a shaman, that turns into a vomitorium). They make these two into real people, who simply want to escape from themselves for a little while – and in Jamie and Darby, they see versions of their younger selves – something the younger couple make easier by being “into” all things retro – like VHS tapes and board games, and everything else from Josh and Cornelia’s youth. Seyfried and especially Driver are very good as the younger couple as well. Driver has shown time and again how charming and comedic he can be, without looking like he’s trying at all, and he does so again here. This time, though, that charm is masking a shallowness – and even a cruelty that neither Josh nor the audience see coming (it’s the cause of the last act twist, that never quite feels real). The younger couple isn’t as well defined as the Josh and Cornelia however – they live in the older couple’s idealized view until reality comes crashing down – and to a certain extent, Baumbach is guilty is being a cranky old man yelling at the entire younger generation (to give Baumbach credit, he does acknowledge this in the movie itself) but it mainly works.
 
The last act is an opportunity missed in many ways. After a movie spent not quite realizing why Josh and his father in law hate each other, the movie gives a reason, without exploring it in any way, which is a shame given that it doesn’t give Charles Grodin enough to do (and if Grodin wants to browbeat Stiller on screen, than the fact that Stiller starred in the awful The Heartbreak Kid remake, the original of which was Grodin’s finest hour, then so be it). It also goes perhaps a little hard on Jamie – given then information we see anyway. Had Baumbach decided to really dig into these multi-generational divides, he may have had something great. Instead, he goes for a couple of cheap laughs – like Stiller on rollerblades.
 
Still, While We’re Young works remarkably well for most its runtime. There is a darkness to this film that for much of its runtime is masked by the comedic tone, but it subtly merciless the more you think about it. The film, like last year’s Listen Up Philip by Alex Ross Perry, is very much in the old school, Woody Allen vein – while at the same time being more self-aware than Allen’s films, more critical and less forgiving than Allen normally is. The more I think about While We’re Young, the harsher its critique really is. That Baumbach is able to do that, while making what is essentially a light and breezy movie is an accomplishment. Had he stuck the landing, it would have been even better – but most directors can’t even get this far.

Movie Review: True Story

True Story
Directed by: Rupert Goold.
Written by: Rupert Goold & David Kajganich based on the memoir by Michael Finkel.
Starring: James Franco (Christian Longo), Jonah Hill (Michael Finkel), Felicity Jones (Jill), Maria Dizzia (Mary Jane Longo), Robert John Burke (Greg Ganley), Robert Stanton (Jeffrey Gregg), Ethan Suplee (Pat).

When True Story begins, Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill) is a young, on the rise journalist working for the New York Times. He has had several cover stories for the Times’ Magazine, including his most recent one about a child slave in Africa. But it doesn’t take long after publication for the truth about the story to get out – Finkel amalgamated the story of multiple boys into the story of one. That’s a big no-no, and Finkel soon finds himself fired, and unable to get a new job. He retreats to Wisconsin, where his wife Jill (Felicity Jones) lives to lick his wounds, and try and figure out what to do next. That doesn’t take too long, because Finkel is contacted by another reporter looking for a comment on Christian Longo (James Franco). Finkel has no idea who Longo is – but he soon finds out. Longo has been arrested and charged with murdering his wife and three children. He was arrested in Mexico, where he fled after the murders, and during his time there he told everyone he was “Michael Finkel, of the New York Times”. Finkel contacts Longo hoping the accused multiple murderer will talk to him – which he readily agrees to do. Longo flatters Finkel by telling him he’s a longtime fan and that he’s “read everything you’ve ever written” – and quickly agrees to give Finkel exclusive access to him on two conditions – the first being he doesn’t publish anything until after the trial, and the second being that Finkel teaches him how to write. Finkel agrees to both.

The heart of the movie is made up of these jailhouse meetings between Finkel and Longo. Longo is evasive about what “really happened”, although he assures Finkel that the “true story” has not come out yet. He does feed Finkel a lot of information about his own past, and what led up to the murders. Finkel even starts to like Longo – and think that perhaps he really is innocent. No one else in the movie believes that – and I doubt anyone in the audience watching the film feels that way either. Finkel, who knows a thing or two about liars, apparently cannot spot one when he’s sitting directly in front of him.

The movie is, of course, actually based on a true story – although ironically one that has made the type of changes to it on its way to the screen that got Finkel fired from the New York Times. Of course though, this is a movie, and not a news story, so that sort of thing is allowed. Franco and Hill are, for the most part, quite impressive in their roles – both playing perhaps the most subdued characters of their careers. Franco always seems to be putting on a show in most of his roles – sometimes brilliantly, like in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, and sometimes not so much. Here, he doesn’t so much deliver a subtle performance as Longo, but rather a flat one – a performance that seems to have been drained of all emotion, with little going on behind those brown eyes. It’s a creepily effective strategy for Franco, as it makes it all but impossible to get a real read on Longo. Hill is more subdued as well – but he plays Finkel as a man who seems to have a talent for self-delusion – thinking his lies on the New York Times story doesn’t matter, fooling himself into believing Longo because he wants, etc. His Finkel is always thinking – but always seems to be behind, at least up until the end. The rest of the cast is given nothing to do – including the immensely talented Jones, who gets to spend most of her screen time looking at Finkel with a look of concern, as all movie wives seem to do – but at least gets one good scene, where she gives Longo the kind of dressing down he deserves (but probably didn’t happen).

There are a few problems with True Story that ultimately sink the movie however. Debut director Rupert Goold has clearly watched Bennett Miller’s Capote (and perhaps Foxcatcher) a few times, and he tries to capture the same coldness that Miller so brilliantly captured in those true crime movies. In Goold’s hands however, it’s not creepy coldness but boring sameness that he mainly captures. The movie is basically 90 minutes of Finkel figuring out what audiences will have pieced together in the first few minutes of the film. The one flaw I had with Capote, which is otherwise a great movie, with one of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s best performances, is that I thought the film was far too hard on Truman Capote himself. The film is harder on Capote than it was on either Perry Smith or Dick Hickock, who killed an entire family over $40 after all – even though, while you can accuse Capote of exploiting the murderers, he also wrote a masterpiece that gave them both back their humanity in the eyes of the reader. True Story, on the other hand, probably lets Finkel off the hook a little too easily. He really doesn’t seem like he’s very good at his job, does it? The movie also doesn’t seem too interested in any of the proceedings around Longo – which would be forgivable, considering how many courtroom scenes we’ve seen in the movies over the years, except for the fact the movie keeps introducing us to characters, who seem important for a scene, and then abandons them. The investigator who tries really hard to get Finkel to co-operate with them, and makes him feel like shit for not doing so, who then completely dismisses Finkel in their next scene. The two women in the courtroom that the camera keeps cutting to, who say mean things to Finkel, but whose presence is never explained (presumably they are family members, but if who exactly they were was explained, I missed it).

And then there is postscript that comes up after the action of the movie is over. Like other recent movies, like The Imitation Game and American Sniper, the postscript tells us things that I wish the movie would have shown us – the biggest one in this case is that Finkel and Longo still talk to each other – the first Sunday of every month. That’s not the impression that the movie gives you when it’s over – but suggests a different, perhaps better more complex story that could have been made out of this “true story”.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Thoughts on the Cannes Film Festival Lineup

The Cannes Film Festival announced their lineup today, including 17 films in their “Official Competition”. They may well add a title or three before the festival next month – it’s usually right around 20 films – but for now let’s look at the films we’ll all be talking about for the next year. Last year’s competition included Oscar nominated films like Two Days One Night, Mr. Turner, Foxcatcher and three of the foreign language film nominees – Leviathan, Wild Tales and Timbuktu. It also included films that were endlessly talked about and made many year-end lists like Mommy, Maps to the Stars, Winter Sleep (the Palme D’Or Winner), The Homesman and Goodbye to Language 3-D. And it’s the gift that keeps on giving as some of the films are still rolling out in North American theaters – like Clouds of Sils Maria, which I cannot wait to see tomorrow. Of course, they all cannot be winners – last year also included the latest disappointment from Atom Egoyan – The Captive – and The Search, Michel Hazanavicius follow-up to The Artist, which is now on iTunes Canada – even though it still hasn’t been released in theaters (and likely won’t be). And that doesn’t even count all of the films.

So for now, let’s have a look at the 17 films in completion, and then I will do my ridiculously early picks on what the Coen Brothers led jury will give awards to. Last year, I guessed 8 winners (they really only give out 7 – but I had them giving Godard a special prize, which they kind of did, tying him with Dolan for Jury Prize) and four of those films actually did win prizes – but none in the category I predicted.

Dheepan (Jacques Audiard)- French filmmaker Audiard has become a staple of Cannes – winning the Grand Jury Prize for his best film A Prophet back in 2009, and having another hit there with 2012’s Rust & Bone (which didn’t win anything). He is back with his latest film – about a Tamil Warrior who flees to France – and ends up a caretaker. Other that than, I don’t know much – and the two cast members listed on IMDB weren’t immediately familiar to me (although one did play Jean Renoir in Renoir – a film I didn’t like). Still, anything by Audiard is to be hotly anticipated – especially in Cannes.

A Simple Man (Stephane Brize) – I don’t know this filmmaker, who only has 8 directing credits on IMDB (including this, and two shorts), and the site also has no real information on this film either. It does have its star listed as Vincent Lindon – who we should all remember from Claire Denis’ Bastards. With films like this, we could have a huge breakout, or else a film no one mentions. Cannes likes to have quite a few French filmmakers in the lineup, and Brize may be there just to fill out the requirements, or perhaps he’s made a masterpiece. We won’t know until it plays.

Marguerite and Julien (Valerie Donzelli) – The third French film in a row, and one of only two films directed by women in the official selection. Actress turned director Donzelli is probably best known for her Declaration of War (2011), which played Cannes, but not in the official lineup. She’s been bumped up this time – reportedly doing a film that Truffaut once tried to make back in the early 1970s. I don’t know Donzelli, having not seen her previous work, so I have no idea what to expect.

The Tale of Tales (Matteo Garrone) – Italian filmmaker Garrone has become a Cannes favorite – his last two films, Gommorah (2008) and Reality (2012) won the Grand Jury Prize there (essentially second place). This time, he is making his English language debut – always tricky for Foreign Filmmakers (just ask Paolo Sorrentino, also in competition this year, how Cannes greeted his Sean Penn starring This Must Be the Place a few years ago). This is a “fantasy, history” film with Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassell, Toby Jones, John C. Reilly, Shirley Henderson and Stacy Martin. Garrone is an interesting filmmaker, so this film is anticipated, but it always worries me when foreign directors work in English – it sometimes works, but often doesn’t.

Carol (Todd Haynes) – This is probably my most anticipated film in the Cannes lineup. Haynes, who hasn’t made a movie since 2007’s I’m Not There (not counting his very good HBO Miniseries Mildred Pierce), returns with Cate Blanchatt in an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith? Throw in a cast including Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler and Sarah Paulson – and a 1950s setting (like Far From Heaven, Haynes’ most loved film, even if I prefer I’m Not There) and this becomes one of the must sees of the year for me. Oddly, Haynes has only been in the official Cannes lineup once – for Velvet Goldmine back in 1998- but if he delivers, this could come out of Cannes as a sure-fire winner.

The Assassin (Hou Hsiao Hsien) – Chinese filmmaker Hou is no stranger to Cannes – The Assassin marks his seventh feature to be in the Official lineup (two have won prizes, a Jury Prize and a Technical Grand Prize, which they don’t much give out anymore). It’s also his first feature since 2007’s highly acclaimed Flight of the Red Balloon, and with a budget of $15 million, his most expensive to date. Hou directing an action film, with a title like The Assassin, seems odd to say the least (his films are usually quiet, moving dramas) – but he is a major figure in world cinema, so anything he does is anticipated – this one even more because of the long wait between films, and the seeming departure from what he’s done previously.

Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhang-Ke) – Like his countrymen Hou, Jia Zhang-ke is no stranger to Cannes, as this will be his fourth film in the Official Competition – his latest being A Touch of Sin back in 2013, which won the screenplay prize. He is also a personal favorite of mine, so anything he does, I cannot wait for. This is said to be his most ambitious effort to date – a decades spanning romance, which starts in the past, and ends in the future. Other than that – and the fact that it will star his wife/muse Tao Zhao – I don’t know much. But it will be one of the most talked about films of Cannes to be sure.

Our Little Sister (Hirokazu Kore-Eda) – Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda makes his fourth trip to the official Competition – his 2004 film Nobody Knows won a Best Actor prize here for its young star, and his 2013 film, Like Father Like Son, won a Jury Prize. According to IMDB, it is the story of three sisters who live with the grandmother, and the arrival of their younger, half-sister – so it sounds like another quiet, moving family drama from a modern master at them. The question with Kore-Eda is whether he’s so consistently good that he never quite gets the credit he deserves.

Macbeth (Justin Kurzel) – Australian filmmaker Justin Kurzel, who excellent Snowtown is still disturbing me a few years after seeing it, gets promoted to the Official Lineup with his long anticipated screen version of Macbeth with Michael Fassbender in the title role, and Marion Cotillard as his wife. The interesting question here is Cotillard – who now marks her fourth straight trip to Cannes – following Rust & Bone, The Immigrant and Two Days One Night – and while she always seems to be in the conversation for an Actress win here, she never does it. Is the fourth time the charm?

The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos) – If you saw Greek filmmaker Lanthimos’ breakthrough film, Dogtooth, then you likely have never forgotten it. His follow-up, Alps, wasn’t as good, but it was, well, it was something. His latest is his English language debut starring Colin Farrell, Lea Seydoux, Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly and Olivia Colman, and is about a “dystopian future where people need to find a mate in 45 days, or else they are turned into animals and released into the wild”. Makes sense. This could end up being a masterpiece or a catastrophe, but there is almost no way it isn’t the most talked about film at the festival.

Mon Roi (Maiwenn) – Another French film, and the second directed by a woman. Maiwenn was first at Cannes in 2011 with Polisse – which surprising won the Jury Prize, despite not being very good (sorry, but it’s true). Her latest stars Vincent Cassell and Louis Garrell – but the plot isn’t on IMDB, so I have no clue – but with those two, it should at least be well acted.

Mia Madre (Nanni Moretti) – The first of two former Palme D’Or winners in the competition, Nanni Moretti is back once again. It’s his sixth film in Competition, and he won the Palme for The Son’s Room back in 2001, and also won a director prize for Caro Diaro back in 1994. Moretti’s best days as a filmmaker seem to be behind him – even if I found We Have a Pope to be a delightful comedy – but in Cannes, once you’re family, you’re family, and you’ll always be invited back no matter how far you fall (hi Egoyan!). Oddly, the film got released in Italy today – but I still don’t know much about it (stupid reviews being in Italian in all).

Son of Saul (Laszlo Nemes) – This is Hungarian director Nemes’ debut feature – therefore it’s a little odd that it’s in the official competition, and not Un Certain Regard. Perhaps that means the festival really believes it’s great. According to the IMDB plot description “In the horror of 1944 Auschwitz, a prisoner forced to burn the corpses of his own people finds moral survival upon trying to salvage from the flames the body of a boy he takes for his son” it sounds horribly depressing.

Youth (Paolo Sorrentino) – Sorrentino’s sixth trip to the official competition, and his follow-up to his Oscar winning The Great Beauty. Bravely, Sorrentino is venturing back to the English language after This Must Be the Place bombed for him here. The film stars Harvey Keitel and Michael Caine, as old friends, on vacation in the Alps – and the plot description makes it sounds like something thriller-ish may happen (someone wants to hear Caine, as a retired conductor, conduct again – at all costs. The film also stars Rachel Weisz, Jane Fonda and Paul Dano, which is the type of cast you can get once you win an Oscar.

Louder Than Bombs (Joachim Trier) – Yet again, we have an acclaimed foreign director making his English language debut – this time, Norwegian Trier, who made Reprise and Oslo August 31, is making a drama with Jessie Eisenberg, Amy Ryan, Isabelle Huppert, David Straighthairn, Gabriel Bryne and Rachel Brosnahan. Trier is talented, so this is very intriguing.

The Sea of Trees (Gus Van Sant) – The second film from a former Palme winner, this is Van Sant’s fourth film in competition, following his Palme for Elephant, and a Technical Prize for Last Days, and a Special 60th Anniversary prize for Paranoid Park. The film stars Matthew McConaughey as a suicidal man lost in the forest near Mount Fuji, and his friendship with a Japanese man (Ken Watanabe) he meets, as the two search for a way out. It also stars Naomi Watts somehow. This kind of sounds like Gerry, right? Probably not, but who knows. Anyway, anything by Van Sant is a must see.

Sicario (Denis Villeneuve) – In recent year, we always seem to have one Canadian director in completion – and this year, it Villeneuve making his Cannes debut (okay, it’s an American film, but he’s Canadian!). The film stars Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro and Jon Bernthal, about a FBI agent, joining a CIA operation, to takedown a Mexican cartel leader. Sounds more mainstream thriller than Cannes film, and there’s always a chance it’s just there to bring out some star power (this year is lacking in that), but I’ll choose to believe it’s going to be better than last year’s thriller from a Canadian director (hi Egoyan!) – Especially since Villeneuve keeps doing interesting films like Incendies, Prisoners and Enemy. The interesting thing here is that the film is shot by Roger Deakins – the frequent cinematographer for Jury Presidents the Coens.

Palme D’Or: Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhang-Ke)
Grand Prize of the Jury: Dheepan – Jacques Audiard
Jury Prize: Our Little Sister – Hirokazu Kore-Eda
Best Director: The Assassin – Hou Hsiao Hsien
Best Actor: Michael Caine/Harvey Keitel, Youth
Best Actress: Cate Blanchatt, Carol
Best Screenplay: Louder Than Bombs
Special Award:  Roger Deakins, Sicario (Cinematography).

Why I Am Picking These: The Cannes Prizes are much like the Oscars in some ways – they often make you pay your dues before you win the big prize. I would six of the seven directors of films I have listed here have done that – none of them have won a Palme, but they’ve all been in the running before (the lone exception is Trier for Louder Than Bombs – the screenplay prize, which they often give to newcomers).

Why Jia over Audiard, Kore-Eda, Hou, Sorrentino and Haynes then? His film sounds the most ambitious, and he’s a director on the upswing at Cannes – finally winning a prize for A Touch of Sin in 2013. He’s due. Sure, you can say the same thing about Audiard, which is why I have him in the Grand Jury slot – he’s perhaps even more overdue. You could argue that about Kore-Eda, but as I mentioned, he’s always good, but always similar – will Our Little Sister really be special enough to get him the Palme? The Assassin is an action film, so even if Hou is more overdue than the rest, I have a tough time seeing him win the Palme.

That leaves Haynes, and giving Blanchatt the Best Actress prize seems like the way to go. He isn’t a Cannes regular, so there is no pressing need to give him a Palme. Blanchatt’s biggest competition may well be Cotillard, once again, trying to win here.

For Actor, I choose the Caine/Keitel duo – the jury often gives acting prizes to co-leads (like Distant, Beyond the Hills, The Eighth Day, The Dreamlife of Angels or the year they gave Best Actor to the entire cast of Days of Glory and the Best Actress to the entire cast of Volver). Caine and Keitel are legends, and have never won at Cannes, and are in a film by a highly regarded regular. The biggest competition may be another duo – McConaughey and Watanabe for the Van Sant.

Finally, can the Coens resist giving their important collaborator Deakins a special award? Perhaps a lifetime achievement award? Lord knows, the Oscar don’t seem to be giving him an Oscar anytime soon.

Of course, I know I’m wrong, on almost all of these. But it’s fun to speculate.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Classic Movie Review: The Long Goodbye

The Long Goodbye (1973)
Directed by: Robert Altman.
Written by: Leigh Brackett based on the novel by Raymond Chandler.
Starring: Elliott Gould (Philip Marlowe), Nina van Pallandt (Eileen Wade), Sterling Hayden (Roger Wade), Mark Rydell (Marty Augustine), Henry Gibson (Dr. Verringer), David Arkin (Harry), Jim Bouton (Terry Lennox), Warren Berlinger (Morgan), Jo Ann Brody (Jo Ann Eggenweiler), Stephen Coit (Detective Farmer), Jack Knight (Mabel), Pepe Callahan (Pepe).

The plots of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels are always nearly impossible to follow. There is a famous story about Howard Hawks asking Chandler about who committed a murder in The Big Sleep when Hawks was directing the big screen version of the novel, and Chandler had to admit he didn’t know(or more accurately, he thought he knew, but when it was pointed out to him that his murderer would have already been dead at that point, he had to admit he didn’t know). The plot of The Long Goodbye is perhaps even more complicated than that of The Big Sleep – but I think, in Chandler’s novel anyway – it all adds up. At least it does when you’re reading it. Roger Ebert said of Chandler’s novels that his plots “would matter more if he were a lesser writer” – and that’s true. The plots are all so complex, and yet I don’t much think Chandler really cared about them that much. He was painting large canvases of corruption, greed, murder and sex, and he needed his complicated plots in order to get his Marlowe into contact with the rest of the characters. When Robert Altman made The Long Goodbye in 1973, he jettisoned much of the plot Chandler’s novel – and yet he has somehow made a movie that may be even more difficult to follow than Chandler’s novel. No matter. Writing about the film in 1973, Ebert wrote it tries to be “all genre and no story” – and again I think that’s true. If the plot didn’t really matter to Chandler, it mattered even less to Altman. He was making a film 20 years after Chandler’s novel was written, and is basically making a point about the obsolence of this type of story and genre. He describes Elliot Gould’s character as “Rip Van Marlowe” – in that he fell asleep in 1953 and woke up 20 years later, as a man out of time with everyone around him. Chandler’s Marlowe always figured everything out in the end. Altman’s Marlowe seems lost for much of the movie – wandering around in a world and a story, interacting with characrters that don’t make any sense to him. Out of all the adaptations of Chandler’s Marlowe novels – this one is the best.

The film opens with a great sequence – that isn’t found in the Chandler novel – of Philip Marlowe waking up. It’s the middle of the night, and his cat is bugging him. He wants to be fed – but he’s very particular about the food he wants. Marlowe tries to fool the cat, but to no avail. He heads out to the all night store, and they don’t have the food either. He comes across his neighbors – which seems like a hippie commune of spaced out young people, and he doesn’t bat an eye. His friend Terry (Jim Boulton) comes over and tells Marlowe he needs a ride to Mexico. He gives it to him and when he returns the cops are there. They want to know where Terry is – he is the only suspect in a murder.

The plot, such as it is, will get complicated, as Marlowe becomes involved with the Wades – Roger (Sterling Hayden) is a famous novelist, who is constantly drunk, and in need of drying out. His wife Eileen (Nina van Pallandt) wants Marlowe to find him – as he’s gone missing again. This, along with Terry’s case, will get Marlowe involved with a shady doctor (Henry Gibson) and a gangster (director Mark Rydell) – and other characters in a plot Marlowe – and the audience – barely understands.

Altman is playing with the conventions of film noir in the film. The Chandler novels center on Marlowe, who is a character who isn’t saintly, but definitely has a code which he lives by, and he’s never willing to compromise that code no matter what else happens. He is a man plan of principle in a world that doesn’t have any. Gould’s Marlowe is somewhat different – he’s certainly more naïve, and never quite understands that no one else in the movie has any set of principles they aren’t willing to compromise. In most Marlowe books, he is a character who has to figure out the truth that everyone is so steadfastly trying to conceal. In The Long Goodbye everyone seems to understand what is going on except for Marlowe. He doesn’t seem like a very good detective. He is a character who no longer fits in with the rest of the story.

This is a great performance by Gould – who did his best work with Altman in the 1970s in films like this, California Split and MASH. His Marlowe isn’t Chandler’s Marlowe – for that see Bogart in The Big Sleep (1946) or Mitchum in Farewell My Lovely (1975), who are more in line with the character Chandler wrote. His Marlowe is more in line with detectives like Harry Caul in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) or Harry Moseby in Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975). He’s a man out of time, and trying to keep up – and he never quite can do it – until the very end, where he does something shocking – and something Chandler’s Marlowe would have never done.

Altman liked to play with genre throughout his career – never taking it too seriously, and always making it his own. There is some of his famed “overlapping” dialogue in the film which make it unmistakably his. There is also great cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond, and only one song in the whole movie – endless variations of the title tune. It’s a film for lovers of noir who want to see a clever twist on the genre. It’s a film for Altman lovers, who love his trademark style. It’s a film very much of its time and place – the cynical post-Watergate era in America – but now still seems relevant. It’s one of my favorite movies – and its gets better each time I see it.